John Quincy Adams, Translator and Anti-Jacobin (Another Presidents’ Day Special)

Were there, in fact, a holiday called “Presidents’ Day” (for a discussion of why there isn’t, see my previous post) the existence of John Quincy Adams, sixth President of the United States, would be enough to justify it. Like his father before him, he held the Presidency for only four years (one might have hoped that this would be enough to persuade future sons of Presidents, especially those bearing the first name of their fathers, to consider other careers). But, again like his father before him, his time in the Presidency was dwarfed by his other services to the republic. Not least among his father’s achievements had been the drafting of the Constitution of Massachusetts, the world’s oldest functioning written constitution. Not least among his were his defense of the enslaved Africans who reclaimed their liberties aboard the slave ship Amistad and his extended service (after his Presidency) in Congress, where he waged a long and ultimately successful fight to end the “gag rule” that had barred discussion of the evil that had haunted the republic from its creation.

There are others better equipped to take full the measure of the younger Adams. My concern here will be limited to his translation of Friedrich von Gentz’s Origins and Principles of the American Revolution, Compared with the Origin and Principles of the French Revolution (1800). It is, to be sure, one of his lesser achievements, but it is not an insignificant one for those of us who have tried our hand at putting German into English. And it has particular relevance for the concerns of this blog.

The “German Burke”

It has been Gentz’s fate to be classified as a “German Burkean” or, indeed, as “the German Burkeand his service as Metternich’s secretary during the Congress of Vienna sealed his reputation. But, as Fred Beiser notes, Gentz was very much a child of the Berlin Enlightenment and even went so far as to pen a 1791 defense of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen for the Berlinische Monatsschrift. Like other friends of enlightenment, his view of the Revolution began to change in the wake of the September Massacres and the trial of the King. By the autumn of 1792 he was at work on a translation of Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France (see Frederick C. Beiser, Enlightenment, Revolution, & Romanticism (Cambridge, 1992) 317-326).

The Origins and Principles of the American Revolution, Compared with the Origin and Principles of the French Revolution debuted as a two-part article in the Historische Journal (Vol. 5, May and June, 1800), the journal he edited and, for the most part, wrote. Though considerably less influential than Burke’s Reflections, it is in some ways a better work. For one thing, Gentz was writing at a time when the Revolution had managed to confirm Burke’s worst fears, which meant that, unlike the Irish Burke, the German one did not need to work himself into a frenzy at the thought of Marie Antoinette having been roused from her bed chamber and — shivering in her nightgown, etc., — forced to move from Versailles to Paris. Gentz could confront actual atrocities, rather than imagined ones. Perhaps because Gentz had, by 1800, already dealt with the French Revolution, The Origins and Principles devoted most of its attention to the American rather than the French side of ledger, offering an account of the actions and misunderstandings in England and in the colonies that led to the break. The result was a sort of “Atlantic history” avant le lettre. It may also have helped matters that the book was not burdened by the tiresome bile that Burke directed at Richard Price. Gentz treated Price with what almost passes for respect and focused his fire on Tom Paine (see the long footnote on pp. 72-73 of the recent Liberty Fund edition). And unlike Burke he found no need to draw on “proselyting tales and imaginary cabals of the illuminati,” but instead found evidence enough for why the Revolution descended into terror in the writings of the revolutionaries themselves. Finally, his thoroughness in working his way through the documents he had on hand meant that Burke’s habit of getting around difficulties by turning up the rhetoric was not always an option for him. Having insisted again and again that, in contrast to the French, the Americans were staging a “defensive revolution” aimed to protecting the rights that they already possessed as English subjects, rather than attempting to invent new ones, he eventually came to see that he needed to do something about the difficulties that the Declaration of Independence and the new state constitutions (whose bills of rights were being eagerly read by the representatives of the Third Estate assembled at Versailles) posed for his argument. Burke was a skilled enough politician to know how to overlook details like this and plow ahead; Gentz was an honest enough historian to realize that he had a problem. His attempt to get around it isn’t pretty, but at least he didn’t shirk the task:

True it is, that the declaration of independence published by the congress, in the name of the colonies, is preceded by an introduction, in which the natural and unalienable rights of mankind are considered as the foundation of all government; that after this assertion, so indefinite, and so exposed to the greatest misconstructions, follow certain principles, no less indefinite, no less liable to be abused, from which an inference might be drawn of the unlimited right of the people to change their form of government, and what in the new revolutionary language, is called their sovereignty. It is likewise true, that most of the constitutions of the United States, are preceded by those on idle declaration of rights, so dangerous in their application, from which so much misery as a later period derived upon France, and the whole civilized world. Much, however, as it were to be wished, that the legislatures of America have disdained this empty pomp of words, that they had exclusively confined themselves within the clear and lawful motives of their resistance; their resistance at first constitutional, and afterwards necessary, and within the limits of their uncontrovertible rights, yet it cannot escape the observation of those, who attentively study the history of the revolution, that they allowed to these speculative ideas, no visible influence upon their practical measures and resolves — They erroneously believed to them necessary to justify their first steps; but here the dominion of empty speculation, was forever abandoned— Never, in the whole course of the American Revolution, were the rights of man, appealed to, for the destruction of the rights of a citizen …. (Gentz 70-71)

Finally, Gentz’s little pamphlet reads better than Burke’s windy polemic. But the thanks for that probably belongs to John Quincy Adams.

John Quincy Adams, the Germanist

Adams’ translation of Gentz has had a long and somewhat peculiar history. It was one of a number of translations — including a rendering of Wieland’s Oberon — that Adams undertook while stationed in Berlin as the American minister to Prussia. It was first published in Philadelphia by Asbury Dickens in 1800. It was republished in 1959 by conservative Chicago publisher Henry Regnery in a volume entitled Three Revolutions: Gentz took care of the French and American ones, while the cold warrior Stephan Possony dealt with the Russians. Happily, the new Liberty Fund edition opts to drop Possony’s contribution (though I suppose we are ultimately indebted to Mikhail Gorbachev for that). Less happily, the Liberty Fund entrusted the editorial labors to Peter Koslowski, an economist and philosopher trained in Tübingen and Munich, whose ideas about what needs to be done in editorial footnotes are —shall we say? — somewhat peculiar. It is far from clear what sort of reader Koslowski had in mind when he opted to begin his notes with a sprawling explanation of the events to which the term “American Revolution” refers (see 98-99).

Koslowski based his discussion of the circumstances surrounding the publication of the book on the letters available in Worthington Chauncey Ford’s 1913 edition of John Quincy Adams’ writings. In trying to make sense of the context of Adams’ labors, I had the benefit of a contact at the Adams Papers Editorial Project at the Massachusetts Historical Society (thanks, Sara!). The letters between Gentz and Adams held by the Adams Papers indicate that it was Gentz who initiated contact with a letter to Adams on June 15, 1800 that included both parts of the article. Adams responded on the 16th, informing Gentz that he was already familiar with article and “as an American citizen” felt himself “highly obliged to you, for the consideration you have bestowed upon the subject, as well as for the honorable manner in which you have borne testimony to the purity of principle upon which the revolution of my country was founded ….” He closed by assuring Gentz that he would “take much satisfaction in transmitting and making known the treatise to persons in the United States capable of estimating its merits” [this letter, included in Ford’s edition, is reprinted in the Liberty Fund edition]. Adams would seem to have either already decided that his “transmitting” of Gentz’s treatise would consist of a full translation or settled on this course of action soon afterwards: his diaries (which, since he favored single line entries for most days, make perfect tweets: the great man can be followed at @JQADAMS_MHS) record that he had completed the translation by June 28. He first met Gentz face to face on November 9, at the home of Lord and Lady Carysfort (John Joshua Proby, then English ambassador at Berlin, and his 2d wife, Elizabeth Grenville). They remained in contact until the next spring, when Adams left Berlin.

Adams’ biographers have tended to attribute his translation of Gentz to his desire to improve his German (he had already been engaged in the more demanding task of translating Wieland’s Oberon, only to find that another translator had published one). But it would seem that he had additional and perhaps more compelling reasons to find Gentz’s work intriguing. First, this extended a treatment of the American Revolution would have had obvious interest to a member of the American legation in Berlin. And Gentz’s having included Adams’ father — along with John Dickenson, John Jay, and Benjamin Franklin — in the list of “great authorities of the American revolution” who would hardly have supported the revolutionary cause as it was advanced in Paine’s “contemptible” pamphlet Common Sense (72, footnote) would also have been relevant, as would his praise of the “glorious impartiality” with which the Americans conducted the trial of the British soldiers involved in the Boston Massacre (though Gentz did not mention the senior Adams’ labors as attorney for the soldiers).

Adams’ interests were, however, not limited to American matters. In a 1974 contribution to the Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society (118:4, August 1974), Walter Morris provided list of the German books that Adams collected during this travels in Germany, which began with his 1781 journey from Cologne to Königsberg and continuing during his time in Berlin in 1800-1801. The list includes some intriguing items. In addition to works by both Kant (a second edition of the Critique of Pure Reason) and Mendelssohn (copies of Jerusalem, Phädon, and the Philosophische Schriften), Adams owned a copy of Briefe über Schleisen, a 1792-93 work by Johann Friedrich Zöllner, the Berlin clergyman responsible for launching the discussion of the question What is enlightenment? He also owned a copy of Johann Georg Zimmerman’s Fragmente über Friedrich der Grossen, a work whose analysis of the Berlin enlightenment I’ve discussed in a previous post. Finally, he picked up multiple volumes of Johann Wilhelm Archenholtz’s Minerva, one of the most important German sources for information about the French Revolution (I’ve discussed its significant for Hegel elsewhere). What this suggests is that — assuming John Quincy Adams actually read the books he’d collected (and, after all, there’s every reason for a serious book collector not to do so) his understanding of the French Revolution would have more or less resembled that of any number of those figures associated with the Berlin enlightenment who were beginning to have reservations about what the French were up to. Hence an additional reason why Gentz’s work might have appealed to him: it fit right in with what Adams was already reading. (An alternative hypothesis might also be worth considering: conceivably, Adams’ collecting might, at least in part, have been informed by recommendations from Gentz: these were, after all, books that a veteran of the Berlinische Monatsschrift would know about).

John Quincy Adams, an Anti-Jacobin?

Nor should we ignore the immediate political context. By the time Adams left Berlin in 1801, Thomas Jefferson was President. The election had been a bitter (and notoriously convoluted) one and there was no love lost between the Adams family and Jefferson. As Linda K. Kerber and Walter John Morris noted in a 1966 article in The William and Mary Quarterly [Third Series, 23:3 (1966) 450-476, in 1802 John Quincy Adams penned an adaptation of Horace’s Ode to Xanthia Phoceus that, taking aim Jefferson’s liaison with Sally Hemmings , included the lines “Dear Thomas, deem it no disgrace/With slaves to mend thy breed.”

There had been much anxiety in anti-Jacobin circles about the prospect of Jefferson winning the Presidency. Relaying the news of Jefferson’s victory to its readers, the Anti-Jacobin Review (VII, p. xi) predicted,

The success of the Jacobins will inevitably tend to encrease the animosity of both parties, and, in all probability, to produce a dissolution of the Federal Government. If the new President who will enter upon his office, at the beginning of March, act in conformity with his know principles, he will immediately form a close alliance with Buonaparte —par nobile fratrum! —and, by that means, give disgust to every friend of the existing Constitution, and occasion a separation of the now United States.

I don’t know whether Adams was a reader of the Anti-Jacobin Review, but he does seem to have been versed in the argot that anti-Jacobins used to discuss the forces they saw as threatening them. Consider this passage from the brief introduction that he wrote for his translation of Gentz:

A modern philosopher may contend that the sheriff, who executes a criminal, and the highway man, who murders a traveler, act on the same principles; the plain sense of mankind will still see the difference between them, that is here proved between the American and French revolutions. — The difference between right and wrong.

The crucial term to note is “modern philosopher.”

In my earlier discussion of Jefferson, I observed that the history of usage of “true enlightenment” does not track the history of the German “wahre Aufklärung.”

Wahre AufklärungBut “modern philosophers” (in the plural rather the singular) does much better:

modern philosopher(s)A glance at the samples nGrams provides confirms that, in these texts, “modern” does not have the same sense that it has today when we offer courses in “modern philosophy” or discuss the work of “modern” as opposed to “ancient” or “post-modern” philosophers. Like philosophism and philosophist it is a term with a distinct political edge: it designates those engaged in the spreading of false and dangerous doctrines, doctrines that are akin to the example offered by Adams in his introduction to Gentz. As such, it is a term that, like wahre Aufklärung, has a use only for as long as there is a battle to be fought. When defenders of wahre Aufklärung surrender the term Aufklärung to their opponents, wahre Aufklärung slips from usage. In the same way, when the anti-Jacobins conclude that the fires ignited in Paris are not going to engulf the entire world, “modern philosophers” begins to lose its purpose. If we think of words as rhetorical weapons, their becoming anachronisms marks the moment when they begin to be pounded into plowshares.

One-time enemies sometimes become friends: witness the remarkable correspondence conducted by Jefferson and the elder Adams over the last decade of their lives. Old enemies are sometimes are replaced by newer, more serious ones: John Quincy Adams won his glory not in his squabbles with “modern philosophers,” but rather in his long struggle against slavery.

Massachusetts celebrates something called “Presidents Day” on May 29 in honor of our four Presidents: John Adams, John Quincy Adams, Calvin Coolidge, and John F. Kennedy. Not a bad list, especially if you stick to the Johns.

About James Schmidt

Professor of History, Philosophy, and Political Science Boston University
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3 Responses to John Quincy Adams, Translator and Anti-Jacobin (Another Presidents’ Day Special)

  1. Pingback: Jefferson, an Epicurean? (Presidents’ Day Special, Part 1) | Persistent Enlightenment

  2. Ciekawe teksty, dobra tematyka Olej opałowy Katowice

  3. sandvick says:

    Reblogged this on and commented:
    This Sunday “Blog” from the Past concerns John Quincy Adams’ translation of Friedrich von Gentz’s Origins and Principles of the American Revolution, Compared with the Origin and Principles of the French Revolution (1800) from German to English. Adams wrote this translation while he was the American ambassador to Prussia. John Schmidt explores why Adams translated this work and explores what it said about Adams’ own political philosophy.

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