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Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889

Characteristic Entries in His Diary

By John Adams (1735–1826)

[Born in Braintree, Mass., 1735. Died at Quincy, Mass., 1826. The Works of John Adams. Edited by his Grandson, Charles Francis Adams. 1856.]


GOOD-SENSE will make us remember that others have as good a right to think for themselves, and to speak their own opinions, as we have; that another man’s making a silly speech does not warrant my ill-nature and pride in grasping the opportunity to ridicule him and show my wit; a puffy, vain, conceited conversation never fails to bring a man into contempt, although his natural endowments be ever so great, and his application and industry ever so intense; no accomplishments, no virtues, are a sufficient atonement for vanity and a haughty overbearing temper in conversation; and such is the humor of the world, the greater a man’s parts, and the nobler his virtues in other respects, the more derision and ridicule does this one vice and folly throw him into. Good-sense is generally attended with a very lively sense and delight in applause; the love of fame in such men is generally much stronger than in other people, and this passion, it must be confessed, is apt to betray men into impertinent exertions of their talents, sometimes into censorious remarks upon others, often into little meannesses to sound the opinions of others, and, oftenest of all, into a childish affectation of wit and gayety. I must own myself to have been, to a very heinous degree, guilty in this respect; when in company with persons much superior to myself in years and place, I have talked to show my learning; I have been too bold with great men, which boldness will, no doubt, be called self-conceit; I have made ill-natured remarks upon the intellectuals, manners, practice, etc., of other people; I have foolishly aimed at wit and spirit, at making a shining figure in gay company; but, instead of shining brighter, I only clouded the few rays that before rendered me visible. Such has been my unhappy fate. I now resolve, for the future, never to say an ill-natured thing concerning ministers or the ministerial profession; never to say an envious thing concerning governors, judges, ministers, clerks, sheriffs, lawyers, or any other honorable or lucrative offices or officers; never to affect wit upon laced waistcoats, or large estates, or their possessors; never to show my own importance or superiority by remarking the foibles, vices, or inferiority of others. But I now resolve, as far as lies in me, to take notice chiefly of the amiable qualities of other people; to put the most favorable construction upon the weaknesses, bigotry, and errors of others, etc.; and to labor more for an inoffensive and amiable, than for a shining and invidious character….


Pretensions to wisdom and virtue, superior to all the world, will not be supported by words only. If I tell a man I am wiser and better than he or any other man, he will either despise, or hate, or pity me, perhaps all three. I have not conversed enough with the world to behave rightly. I talk to Paine about Greek; that makes him laugh. I talk to Samuel Quincy about resolution, and being a great man, and study, and improving time; which makes him laugh. I talk to Ned about the folly of affecting to be a heretic; which makes him mad. I talk to Hannah and Esther about the folly of love; about despising it; about being above it; pretend to be insensible of tender passions; which makes them laugh. I talk to Mr. Wibird about the decline of learning; tell him I know no young fellow, who promises to make a figure; cast sneers on Dr. Marsh, for not knowing the value of old Greek and Roman authors; ask when will a genius rise that will shave his beard, or let it grow rather, and sink himself in a cell in order to make a figure? I talked to Parson Smith, about despising gay dress, grand buildings and estates, fame, etc., and being contented with what will satisfy the real wants of nature.

All this is affectation and ostentation. It is affectation of learning, and virtue, and wisdom, which I have not; and it is a weak fondness to show all that I have, and to be thought to have more than I have. Besides this, I have insensibly fallen into a habit of affecting wit and humor; of shrugging my shoulders and moving and distorting the muscles of my face; my motions are stiff and uneasy, ungraceful; and my attention is unsteady and irregular. These are reflections on myself, that I make; they are faults, defects, fopperies, and follies, and disadvantages. Can I mend these faults and supply these defects?

O—— makes observations on actions, characters, events in Pope’s Homer, Milton, Pope’s Poems, any plays, romances, etc., that she reads; and asks questions about them in company—“What do you think of Helen? what do you think of Hector, etc.? what character do you like best? did you wish the plot had not been discovered in Venice Preserved?” These are questions that prove a thinking mind. E—— asks none such.

Thus, in a wild campaign, a dissipating party of pleasure, observations and improvements may be made; some foppery, and folly, and vice, may be discerned in one’s self, and motives and methods may be collected to subdue it; some virtue or agreeable quality may be observed in one’s self, and improved and cherished; or in another, and transplanted into one’s self.

Though O—— knows and can practise the art of pleasing, yet she fails sometimes; she lets us see a face of ridicule and spying sometimes, inadvertently, though she looks familiarly and pleasantly for the most part. She is apparently frank, but really reserved; seemingly pleased and almost charmed, when she is really laughing with contempt; her face and heart have no correspondence.

Hannah checks Parson Wibird with irony. “It was very saucy to disturb you, very saucy, I’m sure,” etc.

I am very thankful for these checks. Good treatment makes me think I am admired, beloved, and my own vanity will be indulged in me; so I dismiss my guard, and grow weak, silly, vain, conceited, ostentatious. But a check, a frown, a sneer, a sarcasm, rouses my spirits, makes me more careful and considerate. It may, in short, be made a question, whether good treatment or bad is the best for me; that is, whether smiles, kind words, respectful actions, do not betray me into weaknesses and littlenesses that frowns, satirical speeches, and contemptuous behavior, make me avoid.

Popularity, next to virtue and wisdom, ought to be aimed at; for it is the dictate of wisdom, and is necessary to the practice of virtue in most….


Reputation ought to be the perpetual subject of my thoughts, and aim of my behavior. How shall I gain a reputation? how shall I spread an opinion of myself as a lawyer of distinguished genius, learning, and virtue? Shall I make frequent visits in the neighborhood, and converse familiarly with men, women, and children, in their own style, on the common tittle-tattle of the town and the ordinary concerns of a family, and so take every fair opportunity of showing my knowledge in the law? But this will require much thought and time, and a very particular knowledge of the province law and common matters, of which I know much less than I do of the Roman law. Shall I endeavor to renew my acquaintance with those young gentlemen in Boston who were at college with me, and to extend my acquaintance among merchants, shopkeepers, tradesmen, etc., and mingle with the crowd upon Change, and traipse the town-house floor with one and another, in order to get a character in town? But this, too, will be a lingering method and will require more art, and address, and patience, too, than I am master of. Shall I, by making remarks and proposing questions to the lawyers at the bar, endeavor to get a great character for understanding and learning with them? But this is slow and tedious, and will be ineffectual; for envy, jealousy, and self-interest, will not suffer them to give a young fellow a free, generous character, especially me. Neither of these projects will bear examination, will avail. Shall I look out for a cause to speak to, and exert all the soul and all the body I own, to cut a flash, strike amazement, to catch the vulgar; in short, shall I walk a lingering, heavy pace, or shall I take one bold determined leap into the midst of fame, cash, and business? That is the question;—a bold push, a resolute attempt, a determined enterprise, or a slow, silent, imperceptible creeping; shall I creep or fly?

I feel vexed, fretted, chafed; the thought of no business mortifies, stings me. But let me banish these fears; let me assume a fortitude, a greatness of mind.

In such a slow, gradual ascent to fame and fortune and business, the pleasure that they give will be imperceptible; but by a bold, sudden rise, I shall feel all the joys of each at once. Have I genius and resolution and health enough for such an achievement?…


Spent this week at Ipswich, in the usual labors and drudgery of attendance upon court. Boarded at Treadwell’s; have had no time to write. Landlord and landlady are some of the grandest people alive; landlady is the great-granddaughter of Governor Endicott, and has all the great notions of high family that you find in Winslows, Hutchinsons, Quincys, Saltonstalls, Chandlers, Leonards, Otises, and as you might find with more propriety in the Winthrops. Yet she is cautious and modest about discovering it. She is a new light; continually canting and whining in a religious strain. The Governor was uncommonly strict and devout, eminently so in his day; and his great, great-granddaughter hopes to keep up the honor of the family in hers, and distinguish herself among her contemporaries as much. “Terrible things sin causes,” sighs and groans, “the pangs of the new birth. The death of Christ shows above all things the heinous nature of sin! How awfully Mr. Kent talks about death! how lightly and carelessly! I am sure a man of his years, who can talk so about death, must be brought to feel the pangs of the new birth here, or made to repent of it forever. How dreadful it seems to me to hear him. I that am so afraid of death, and so concerned lest I an’t fit and prepared for it! What a dreadful thing it was that Mr. Gridley died so!—too great, too big, too proud to learn anything; would not let any minister pray with him; said he knew more than they could tell him; asked the news, and said he was going where he should hear no news,” etc.

Thus far landlady. As to landlord, he is as happy, and as big, as proud, as conceited as any nobleman in England; always calm and good-natured and lazy; but the contemplation of his farm and his sons and his house and pasture and cows, his sound judgment, as he thinks, and his great holiness, as well as that of his wife, keep him as erect in his thoughts as a noble or a prince. Indeed, the more I consider of mankind, the more I see that every man seriously and in his conscience believes himself the wisest, brightest, best, happiest, etc., of all mankind….


Accordingly, when Congress had assembled, I rose in my place, and in as short a speech as the subject would admit, represented the state of the Colonies, the uncertainty in the minds of the people, their great expectation and anxiety, the distresses of the army, the danger of its dissolution, the difficulty of collecting another, and the probability that the British army would take advantage of our delays, march out of Boston, and spread desolation as far as they could go. I concluded with a motion, in form, that Congress would adopt the army at Cambridge, and appoint a General; that though this was not the proper time to nominate a General, yet, as I had reason to believe this was a point of the greatest difficulty, I had no hesitation to declare that I had but one gentleman in my mind for that important command, and that was a gentleman from Virginia who was among us and very well known to all of us, a gentleman whose skill and experience as an officer, whose independent fortune, great talents, and excellent universal character, would command the approbation of all America, and unite the cordial exertions of all the Colonies better than any other person in the Union. Mr. Washington, who happened to sit near the door, as soon as he heard me allude to him, from his usual modesty, darted into the library-room. Mr. Hancock,—who was our President, which gave me an opportunity to observe his countenance while I was speaking on the state of the Colonies, the army at Cambridge, and the enemy,—heard me with visible pleasure; but when I came to describe Washington for the commander, I never remarked a more sudden and striking change of countenance. Mortification and resentment were expressed as forcibly as his face could exhibit them. Mr. Samuel Adams seconded the motion, and that did not soften the President’s physiognomy at all. The subject came under debate, and several gentlemen declared themselves against the appointment of Mr. Washington, not on account of any personal objection against him, but because the army were all from New England, had a General of their own, appeared to be satisfied with him, and had proved themselves able to imprison the British army in Boston, which was all they expected or desired at that time. Mr. Pendleton, of Virginia, Mr. Sherman, of Connecticut, were very explicit in declaring this opinion; Mr. Cushing and several others more faintly expressed their opposition, and their fears of discontents in the army and in New England. Mr. Paine expressed a great opinion of General Ward and a strong friendship for him, having been his classmate at college, or at least his contemporary; but gave no opinion upon the question. The subject was postponed to a future day. In the mean time, pains were taken out-of-doors to obtain a unanimity, and the voices were generally so clearly in favor of Washington, that the dissentient members were persuaded to withdraw their opposition, and Mr. Washington was nominated, I believe by Mr. Thomas Johnson of Maryland, unanimously elected, and the army adopted….


One evening when we were approaching the French coast, I was sitting in the cabin, when Captain Mcintosh, our prisoner, came down to me, and addressed me with great solemnity. “Mr. Adams, this ship will be captured by my countrymen in less than half an hour. Two large British men-of-war are bearing directly down upon us, and are just by. You will hear from them, I warrant you, in six minutes. Let me take the liberty to say to you that I feel for you more than for any one else. I have always liked you since I came on board, and have always ascribed to you, chiefly, the good treatment I have received, as well as my people; and you may depend upon it, all the good service I can render you with my countrymen, shall be done with pleasure.”

I saw by his countenance, gestures, air, language, and everything, that he believed what he said; that he most heartily rejoiced in his own prospect of deliverance, and that he heartily pitied me. I smiled, however, at his offers of kind offices to me, knowing full well, that his prayers and tears would be as unavailing as my own, if he should be generous and I weak enough to employ them with British officers, ministers, judges, or king, in the then circumstances of things and temper of the Britons. I made him a bow, expressive of my sense of his politeness, but said nothing. Determined to see my danger, before I would be intimidated at it, I took my hat, and marched up to the quarter-deck. I had before heard an uncommon trampling upon deck, and perceived signs of some alarm and confusion, but when upon deck I saw the two ships indeed. They both appeared larger than our frigate, and were already within musket-shot of us. The air was clear, and the moon very bright. We could see everything, even the men on board. We all expected every moment to be hailed, and, possibly, saluted with a broadside. But the two ships passed by us, without speaking a word, and I stood upon deck till they had got so far off as to remove all apprehensions of danger from them. Whether they were two American frigates, which had been about that time in France, we never knew. We had no inclination to inquire about their business or destination, and were very happy that they discovered so little curiosity about ours….


Franklin told us one of his characteristic stories. “A Spanish writer of certain visions of Hell, relates that a certain devil, who was civil and well-bred, showed him all the apartments in the place, among others, that of deceased kings. The Spaniard was much pleased at so illustrious a sight, and after viewing them for some time, said he should be glad to see the rest of them. ‘The rest?’ said the demon. ‘Here are all the kings that ever reigned upon earth, from the creation of it to this day. What the devil would the man have?’ This was not so charitable as Dr. Watts, who, in his View of Heaven, says, ‘Here and there I see a king.’” This seems to imply that kings are as good as other men, since it is but here and there that we see a king upon earth.

The truth is, that neither then, nor at any former time, since I had attained any maturity in age, reading, and reflection, had I imbibed any general prejudice against, or in favor of kings. It appeared to me then, as it has done ever since, that there is a state of society in which a republican government is the best, and, in America, the only one which ought to be adopted or thought of, because the morals of the people, and circumstances of the country, not only can bear it, but require it. But, in several of the great nations of Europe, kings appeared to me to be as necessary as any government at all. Nor had I ever seen any reason to believe that kings were, in general, worse than other men….


Went to Versailles, in company with Mr. Lee, Mr. Izard and his lady, Mr. Lloyd and his lady, and Mr. François. Saw the grand procession of the Knights du Saint-Esprit, or du cordon bleu. At nine o’clock at night, went to the grand convert, and saw the king, queen, and royal family, at supper; had a fine seat and situation close by the royal family, and had a distinct, and full view, of the royal pair.

Our objects were to see the ceremonies of the knights, and, in the evening, the public supper of the royal family. The kneelings, the bows, and the courtesies of the knights, the dresses and decorations, the king seated on his throne, his investiture of a new created knight with the badges and ornaments of the order, and his majesty’s profound and reverential bow before the altar as he retired, were novelties and curiosities to me, but surprised me much less than the patience and perseverance with which they all kneeled, for two hours together, upon the hard marble of which the floor of the chapel was made. The distinction of the blue ribbon was very dearly purchased at the price of enduring this painful operation four times in a year. The Count de Vergennes confessed to me that he was almost dead with the pain of it. And the only insinuation I ever heard, that the King was in any degree touched by the philosophy of the age, was, that he never discovered so much impatience, under any of the occurrences of his life, as in going through those tedious ceremonies of religion, to which so many hours of his life were condemned by the Catholic Church.

The queen was attended by her ladies to the gallery opposite to the altar, placed in the centre of the seat, and there left alone by the other ladies, who all retired. She was an object too sublime and beautiful for my dull pen to describe. I leave this enterprise to Mr. Burke. But, in his description, there is more of the orator than of the philosopher. Her dress was everything that art and wealth could make it. One of the maids of honor told me she had diamonds upon her person to the value of eighteen millions of livres; and I always thought her majesty much beholden to her dress. Mr. Burke saw her probably but once. I have seen her fifty times perhaps, and in all the varieties of her dresses. She had a fine complexion, indicating perfect health, and was a handsome woman in her face and figure. But I have seen beauties much superior, both in countenance and form, in France, England, and America.

After the ceremonies of this institution are over, there is a collection for the poor; and that this closing scene may be as elegant as any of the former, a young lady of some of the first families in France is appointed to present the box to the knights. Her dress must be as rich and elegant, in proportion, as the queen’s, and her air, motions, and courtesies, must have as much dignity and grace as those of the knights. It was a curious entertainment to observe the easy air, the graceful bow, and the conscious dignity of the knight, in presenting his contribution; and the corresponding ease, grace, and dignity of the lady, in receiving it, were not less charming. Every muscle, nerve, and fibre, of both, seemed perfectly disciplined to perform its functions. The elevation of the arm, the bend of the elbow, and every finger in the hand of the knight, in putting his louis d’ors into the box, appeared to be perfectly studied, because it was perfectly natural. How much devotion there was in all this I know not, but it was a consummate school to teach the rising generation the perfection of the French air, and external politeness and good-breeding. I have seen nothing to be compared to it in any other country….

At nine o’clock we went and saw the king, queen, and royal family, at the grand couvert. Whether M. François, a gentleman who undertook upon this occasion to conduct us, had contrived a plot to gratify the curiosity of the spectators, or whether the royal family had a fancy to see the raw American at their leisure, or whether they were willing to gratify him with a convenient seat, in which he might see all the royal family, and all the splendors of the place, I know not; but the scheme could not have been carried into execution, certainly, without the orders of the king. I was selected, and summoned indeed, from all my company, and ordered to a seat close beside the royal family. The seats on both sides of the hall, arranged like the seats in a theatre, were all full of ladies of the first rank and fashion in the kingdom, and there was no room or place for me but in the midst of them. It was not easy to make room for one more person. However, room was made, and I was situated between two ladies, with rows and ranks of ladies above and below me, and on the right hand and on the left, and ladies only. My dress was a decent French dress, becoming the station I held, but not to be compared with the gold, and diamonds, and embroidery, about me. I could neither speak, nor understand the language in a manner to support a conversation, but I had soon the satisfaction to find it was a silent meeting, and that nobody spoke a word, but the royal family, to each other, and they said very little. The eyes of all the assembly were turned upon me, and I felt sufficiently humble and mortified, for I was not a proper object for the criticisms of such a company. I found myself gazed at, as we in America used to gaze at the sachems who came to make speeches to us in Congress, but I thought it very hard if I could not command as much power of face as one of the chiefs of the Six Nations, and, therefore, determined that I would assume a cheerful countenance, enjoy the scene around me, and observe it as coolly as an astronomer contemplates the stars. Inscriptions of Fructus Belli were seen on the ceiling and all about the walls of the room, among paintings of the trophies of war, probably done by the order of Louis XIV. who confessed, in his dying hour, as his successor and exemplar Napoleon will probably do, that he had been too fond of war. The king was the royal carver for himself and all his family. His majesty ate like a king, and made a royal supper of solid beef, and other things in proportion. The queen took a large spoonful of soup, and displayed her fine person and graceful manners, in alternately looking at the company in various parts of the hall, and ordering several kinds of seasoning to be brought to her, by which she fitted her supper to her taste. When this was accomplished, her majesty exhibited to the admiring spectators, the magnificent spectacle of a great queen swallowing her royal supper in a single spoonful all at once. This was all performed like perfect clock-work; not a feature of her face, nor a motion of any part of her person, especially her arm and her hand, could be criticised as out of order. A little, and but a little, conversation seemed to pass among the royal personages of both sexes, but in so low a voice, that nothing could be understood by any of the audience.

The officers about the king’s person brought him many letters and papers, from time to time, while he was at table. He looked at these. Some of them he read, or seemed to read, and returned them to the same officers who brought them, or some others.

These ceremonies and shows may be condemned by philosophy, and ridiculed by comedy, with great reason. Yet the common-sense of mankind has never adopted the rigid decrees of the former, nor ever sincerely laughed with the latter. Nor has the religion of nations, in any age, approved of the dogmas or the satires. On the contrary, it has always overborne them all, and carried its inventions of such exhibitions to a degree of sublimity and pathos, which has frequently transported the greatest infidels out of themselves. Something of the kind every government and every religion has, and must have; and the business and duty of law-givers and philosophers is to endeavor to prevent them from being carried too far.