CHAPTER 15 | Document 30

John Adams to Elbridge Gerry

25 Apr. 1785Gerry Life 1:427--31

What is to be done with the Cincinnati? Is that order of chivalry, that inroad upon our first principle, equality, to be connived at? It is the deepest piece of cunning yet attempted. It is sowing the seeds of all that European courts wish to grow up among us, viz. of vanity, ambition, corruption, discord and sedition. Are we so dim-sighted as not to see, that the taking away the hereditary descent of it will not prevent its baneful influence? Who will think of preventing the son from wearing a ribbon and a bit of gold that his father wore? Mankind love to see one child at least of every beloved and respected father possessed of his estate, his office, &c. after his decease. Besides, when once the people begin to think these marks rewards, these marks are soon considered as the only proofs of merit. Such marks should not be adopted in any country where there is virtue, love of country, love of labour. When virtue is lost ambition succeeds. Then indeed ribbons and garters become necessary, but never till then. Then indeed these should be public rewards conferred by the state, the civil sovereign, not private men or bodies. I have been asked, why I have not written against it? Can it be necessary for me to write upon such a thing? I wrote twenty years ago some papers which have been called an essay on the feudal law, in which my sentiments and the sentiments of our ancestors are sufficiently expressed concerning all such distinctions and all orders of chivalry and nobility. But, sir, while reputations are so indiscreetly puffed, while thanks and statues are so childishly awarded, and the greatest real services are so coldly received, I had almost said censured, we are in the high road to have no virtues left, and nothing but ambition to reward. Ribbons are not the only reward of ambition. Wealth and power must keep them company. My countrymen give reputations to individuals that are real tyrannies. No man dare resist or oppose them. No wonder then that such reputations introduce chivalry, &c. without opposition, though without authority. The cry of gratitude, gratitude, is animal magnetism; it bewitches all mankind, and has established every tyranny, imposture and usurpation that ever existed upon earth; so true are those words of Machiavel, "Not ingratitude, but too much love, is the constant fault of the people." This is a subject that requires a volume; and you see I am in haste. I could not have believed, if I had not seen it, that our officers could have adopted such a scheme, or the people, the legislatures or congress have submitted to it one moment. I don't wonder at a marquis de la Fayette or a baron Steuben: they were born and bred to such decorations and the taste for them. From the moment that captain Jones had his cross of merit bestowed by the king and consented to by congress, I suspected that some such project was in contemplation. Awful, my friend, is the task of the intelligent advocate for liberty. The military spirit, the ecclesiastical spirit, the commercial spirit, and innumerable other evil spirits are eternally devising mischief to his cause and disturbing his repose. It is a constant warfare from the cradle to the grave without comfort, thanks, or rewards, and is always overcome at last.

Is not this institution against our confederation? Is it not against the declarations of rights in several of the states? Is it not an act of sovereignty disposing and creating of public rewards presumptuously enterprized by private gentlemen? Is the assembly a lawful assembly? Is it not cruel to call this a club for private friendship, or a society for charity for officers' widows and children? Would even such a society be lawful without the permission of the legislature? Is it not substituting honour for virtue in the infancy of a republic? Must it not introduce and perpetuate contests and dissentions, pernicious in all governments but especially in ours? Is it not an effectual subversion of our equality? Inequalities of riches cannot be avoided as long as nature gives inequality of understanding and activity. And these inequalities are not unuseful. But artificial inequalities of decorations, birth and title not accompanying public truth, are those very inequalities which have exterminated virtue and liberty, and substituted ambition and slavery in all ages and countries. I don't wonder that the word, republican, is odious and unpopular throughout the world. I don't wonder that so few, even of the great writers, have admired this form of government. Plato himself, I am fully persuaded from his writings, was not a republican. It is the best of governments while the people are republicans, i. e. virtuous, simple and of independent spirit. But when the people are avaricious, ambitious and vain, instead of being virtuous, poor and proud, it is not. A republican is an equivocal title; a Dutchman, a Genoese, a Venetian, a Swiss, a Genevan and an Englishman are all called republicans. Among all these shades you will scarcely find the true colour. Our countrymen may be the nearest; but there is so much wealth among them and such an universal rage of avarice, that I often fear they will only make their real republicans miserable for a few years, and then become like the rest of the world. If this appears to be their determination, it is not worth the while of you and me to die martyrs to singular notions. You are young and may turn fine gentleman yet. I am too old, and therefore will retire to Pen's Hill,

The world forgetting, by the world forgot.

The Founders' Constitution
Volume 1, Chapter 15, Document 30
The University of Chicago Press

Austin, James T. The Life of Elbridge Gerry. With Contemporary Letters. 2 vols. Boston, 1828--29.

Easy to print version.