Quotations by Adams, John


The United States of America have exhibited, perhaps, the first example of governments erected on the simple principles of nature; and if men are now sufficiently enlightened to disabuse themselves of artifice, imposture, hypocrisy, and superstition, they will consider this event as an era in their history. Although the detail of the formation of the American governments is at present little known or regarded either in Europe or in America, it may hereafter become an object of curiosity. It will never be pretended that any persons employed in that service had interviews with the gods, or were in any degree under the influence of Heaven, more than those at work upon ships or houses, or laboring in merchandise or agriculture; it will forever be acknowledged that these governments were contrived merely by the use of reason and the senses.

John Adams (1735-1826) American lawyer, Founding Father, statesman, US President (1797-1801)
“A Defense of the Constitutions of Government of the United States of America” (1788)
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The jaws of power are always open to devour, and her arm is always stretched out, if possible, to destroy the freedom of thinking, speaking, and writing.

Adams - jaws of power - wist_info quote

John Adams (1735-1826) American lawyer, Founding Father, statesman, US President (1797-1801)
“A Dissertation on the Canon and Feudal Law” (1765)
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Let us tenderly and kindly cherish therefore, the means of knowledge. Let us dare to read, think, speak and write.

Adams - read think speak and write - wist_info quote

John Adams (1735-1826) American lawyer, Founding Father, statesman, US President (1797-1801)
“A Dissertation on the Canon and Feudal Law” (1765)
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Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passions, they cannot alter the state of the facts and evidence.

John Adams (1735-1826) American lawyer, Founding Father, statesman, US President (1797-1801)
“Argument in Defense of the Soldiers in the Boston Massacre Trials” (4 Dec 1770)
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The law no passion can disturb. ‘Tis void of desire and fear, lust and anger. ‘Tis mens sine affectu, written reason, retaining some measure of the divine perfection. It does not enjoin that which pleases a weak, frail man, but, without any regard to persons, commands that which is good and punishes evil in all, whether rich or poor, high or low.

John Adams (1735-1826) American lawyer, Founding Father, statesman, US President (1797-1801)
“Argument in Defense of the Soldiers in the Boston Massacre Trials” (4 Dec 1770)
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The law, in all vicissitudes of government … will preserve a steady undeviating course; it will not bend to the uncertain wishes, imaginations, and wanton tempers of men. … On the one hand it is inexorable to the cries of the prisoners; on the other it is deaf, deaf as an adder to the clamours of the populace.

John Adams (1735-1826) American lawyer, Founding Father, statesman, US President (1797-1801)
“Argument in Defense of the Soldiers in the Boston Massacre Trials” (4 Dec 1770)
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A desire to be observed, considered, esteemed, praised, beloved, and admired by his fellows is one of the earliest, as well as the keenest dispositions discovered in the heart of man.

John Adams (1735-1826) American lawyer, Founding Father, statesman, US President (1797-1801)
“Discourses on Davila: A Series of Papers on Political History,” Gazette of the United States, #4 (1790-1791)
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Nip the shoots of arbitrary power in the bud, is the only maxim which can ever preserve the liberties of any people.

John Adams (1735-1826) American lawyer, Founding Father, statesman, US President (1797-1801)
“Novanglus” #3, Boston Gazette (1774)
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Metaphysicians and politicians may dispute forever, but they will never find any other moral principle or foundation of rule or obedience, than the consent of governors and governed.

John Adams (1735-1826) American lawyer, Founding Father, statesman, US President (1797-1801)
“Novanglus” #7, Boston Gazette (1775)
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A government of laws, and not of men.

John Adams (1735-1826) American lawyer, Founding Father, statesman, US President (1797-1801)
“Novanglus” #7, Boston Gazette (6 Mar 1775)

Adams credited the line to James Harrington (1611-77), who wrote of "the empire of laws and not of men" (The Commonwealth of Oceana (1656)). Adams later used the term in the Massachusetts Constitution, Bill of Rights, article 30 (1780).
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We ought to consider what is the end of government before we determine which is the best form. Upon this point all speculative politicians will agree that the happiness of society is the end of government, as all divines and moral philosophers will agree that the happiness of the individual is the end of man. From this principle it will follow that the form of government which communicates ease, comfort, security, or, in one word, happiness, to the greatest number of persons, and in the greatest degree, is the best.

John Adams (1735-1826) American lawyer, Founding Father, statesman, US President (1797-1801)
“Thoughts on Government,” letter to George Wythe (Jan 1776)
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Laws for the liberal education of youth, especially of the lower class of people, are so extremely wise and useful, that, to a humane and generous mind, no expense for this purpose would be thought extravagant.

John Adams (1735-1826) American lawyer, Founding Father, statesman, US President (1797-1801)
“Thoughts on Government” (Apr 1776)
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Mankind is naturally divided into three sorts; one third of them are animated at the first appearance of danger, and will press forward to meet and examine it; another third are alarmed by it, but will neither advance nor retreat, till they know the nature of it, but stand to meet it. The remaining third will run or fly upon the first thought of it.

John Adams (1735-1826) American lawyer, Founding Father, statesman, US President (1797-1801)
(Attributed)

In R. W. Emerson, Journal (Aug 1851).
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It is more important that innocence be protected than it is that guilt be punished, for guilt and crimes are so frequent in this world that they cannot all be punished. But if innocence itself is brought to the bar and condemned, perhaps to die, then the citizen will say, “whether I do good or whether I do evil is immaterial, for innocence itself is no protection,” and if such an idea as that were to take hold in the mind of the citizen that would be the end of security whatsoever.

John Adams (1735-1826) American lawyer, Founding Father, statesman, US President (1797-1801)
(Attributed)

Cited in some cases as the closing argument while defending the British Soldiers accused of killing 5 colonists in the "Boston Massacre" (usually given as "Argument in Defense of the Soldiers in the Boston Massacre Trials" (Dec 1770)), but I did not find it in accounts of that defense.
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The only thing most people do better than anyone else is read their own handwriting.

John Adams (1735-1826) American lawyer, Founding Father, statesman, US President (1797-1801)
(Attributed)
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Because power corrupts, society’s demands for moral authority and character increase as the importance of the position increases.

John Adams (1735-1826) American lawyer, Founding Father, statesman, US President (1797-1801)
(Attributed)
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There are obviously two educations. One should teach us how to make a living and the other how to live.

John Adams (1735-1826) American lawyer, Founding Father, statesman, US President (1797-1801)
(Misattributed)

Actually American writer and historian James Truslow Adams (1878-1949). Variants:
  • "There are two types of education. One should teach us how to make a living, and the other how to live."
  • "There are two educations. One should teach us how to make a living and the other how to live."
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It must be made a sacred maxim, that the militia obey the executive power, which represents the whole people in the execution of laws. To suppose arms in the hands of citizens, to be used at the individual discretion, except in private self-defence, or by partial orders of towns, counties, or districts of a state, is to demolish every constitution, and lay the laws prostrate, so that liberty can be enjoyed by no man; it is a dissolution of the government. The fundamental law of the militia is, that it be created, directed and commanded by the laws, and ever for the support of the laws.

John Adams (1735-1826) American lawyer, Founding Father, statesman, US President (1797-1801)
A Defence of the Constitutions of Government of the United States of America, Vol. 3, ch. 3 (1787)
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Liberty cannot be preserved without a general knowledge among the people, who have a right, from the frame of their nature, to knowledge, as their great Creator, who does nothing in vain, has given them understandings, and a desire to know; but besides this, they have a right, an indisputable, unalienable, indefeasible, divine right to that most dreaded and envied kind of knowledge, I mean, of the characters and conduct of their rulers.

John Adams (1735-1826) American lawyer, Founding Father, statesman, US President (1797-1801)
A Dissertation on the Canon and Feudal Law (1765)
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Paraphrase: "The people have a right, an indisputable, unalienable, indefeasible, divine right to that most dreaded and envied kind of knowledge -- I mean of the character and conduct of their rulers."
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The desire of the esteem of others is as real a want of nature as hunger — and the neglect and contempt of the world as severe a pain as the gout or stone.

John Adams (1735-1826) American lawyer, Founding Father, statesman, US President (1797-1801)
Discourses on Davila (1790)

Full text.

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The poor man’s conscience is clear; yet he is ashamed. … He feels himself out of the sight of others, groping in the dark. Mankind takes no notice of him: he rambles and wanders unheeded. In the midst of a crowd, at church, in the market … he is in as much obscurity as he would be in a garret or a cellar. He is not disapproved, censured, or reproached: he is only not seen. … To be wholly overlooked, and to know it, are intolerable.

John Adams (1735-1826) American lawyer, Founding Father, statesman, US President (1797-1801)
Discourses on Davila, ch. 5 (1790)
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I must judge for myself, but how can I judge, how can any Man judge, unless his Mind has been opened and enlarged by Reading.

John Adams (1735-1826) American lawyer, Founding Father, statesman, US President (1797-1801)
Diary (1 Aug 1761)
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Virtue is not always amiable.

John Adams (1735-1826) American lawyer, Founding Father, statesman, US President (1797-1801)
Diary (9 Feb 1779)
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The Stream of Life sometimes glides smoothly on, through flowry meadows and enamell’d planes. At other times it draggs a winding reluctant Course through offensive Boggs and dismal gloomy Swamps. The same road now leads us thro’ a spacious Country fraught with evry delightful object, Then plunges us at once, into miry Sloughs, or stops our passage with craggy and inaccessible mountains. The free roving Songster of the forest, now rambles unconfin’d, and hopps from Spray to Spray but the next hour perhaps he alights to pick the scattered Grain and is entangled in the Snare. The Ship, which, wafted by a favourable gale, sails prosperously upon the peaceful Surface, by a sudden Change of weather may be tossed by the Tempest, and driven by furious, opposite winds, upon rocks or quicksands. In short nothing in this world enjoys a constant Series of Joy and prosperity.

John Adams (1735-1826) American lawyer, Founding Father, statesman, US President (1797-1801)
Journal (27 Mar 1756)
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There is danger from all men. The only maxim of a free government ought to be to trust no man living with power to endanger the public liberty.

John Adams (1735-1826) American lawyer, Founding Father, statesman, US President (1797-1801)
Journal, notes for an oration at Braintree (Spring 1772)
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I must study politics and war, that our sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy. Our sons ought to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history and naval architecture, navigation, commerce and agriculture in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry and porcelain.

John Adams (1735-1826) American lawyer, Founding Father, statesman, US President (1797-1801)
Letter to Abigail Adams (12 May 1780)
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Cities may be rebuilt, and a People reduced to Poverty, may acquire fresh Property: but a Constitution of Government once changed from Freedom, can never be restored. Liberty, once lost, is lost forever.

John Adams (1735-1826) American lawyer, Founding Father, statesman, US President (1797-1801)
Letter to Abigail Adams (17 Jul 1775)
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We cannot insure Success, but We can deserve it.

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John Adams (1735-1826) American lawyer, Founding Father, statesman, US President (1797-1801)
Letter to Abigail Adams (18 Feb 1776)
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Posterity! You will never know, how much it cost the present Generation, to preserve your Freedom! I hope you will make a good Use of it. If you do not, I shall repent in Heaven, that I ever took half the Pains to preserve it.

John Adams (1735-1826) American lawyer, Founding Father, statesman, US President (1797-1801)
Letter to Abigail Adams (26 Apr 1777)
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I am weary of reading Newspapers. The Times are so full of Events, the whole Drama of the World is such a Tragedy that I am weary of the Spectacle.

John Adams (1735-1826) American lawyer, Founding Father, statesman, US President (1797-1801)
Letter to Abigail Adams (27 Feb 1793)
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You bid me burn your letters. But I must forget you first.

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John Adams (1735-1826) American lawyer, Founding Father, statesman, US President (1797-1801)
Letter to Abigail Adams (28 Apr 1776)
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I read my eyes out and can’t read half enough…. The more one reads the more one sees we have to read.

John Adams (1735-1826) American lawyer, Founding Father, statesman, US President (1797-1801)
Letter to Abigail Adams (28 Dec 1794)
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I am well aware of the Toil and Blood and Treasure, that it will cost Us to maintain this Declaration, and support and defend these States. — Yet through all the Gloom I can see the Rays of ravishing Light and Glory. I can see that the End is more than worth all the Means. And that Posterity will tryumph in that Days Transaction, even altho We should rue it, which I trust in God We shall not.

John Adams (1735-1826) American lawyer, Founding Father, statesman, US President (1797-1801)
Letter to Abigail Adams (3 Jul 1776)
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The second day of July, 1776, will be the most memorable epocha in the history of America. I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated by succeeding generations as the great anniversary festival. It ought to be commemorated as the day of deliverance, by solemn acts of devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations, from one end of this continent to the other, from this time forward forevermore.

John Adams (1735-1826) American lawyer, Founding Father, statesman, US President (1797-1801)
Letter to Abigail Adams (3 Jul 1776)

The Colonial Congress approved of the Independence Resolution on 2 July. The final agreement on the Declaration, and its signing, was on 4 July.
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But I must submit all my Hopes and Fears, to an overruling Providence, in which, unfashionable as the Faith may be, I firmly believe.

John Adams (1735-1826) American lawyer, Founding Father, statesman, US President (1797-1801)
Letter to Abigail Adams (3 Jul 1776)
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Our obligations to our country never cease but with our lives.

John Adams (1735-1826) American lawyer, Founding Father, statesman, US President (1797-1801)
Letter to Benjamin Rush (18 Apr 1808)
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Nothing is more dreaded than the national government meddling with religion.

John Adams (1735-1826) American lawyer, Founding Father, statesman, US President (1797-1801)
Letter to Benjamin Rush (1812)
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We should begin by setting conscience free. When all men of all religions shall enjoy equal liberty, property, and an equal chance for honors and power we may expect that improvements will be made in the human character and the state of society.

John Adams (1735-1826) American lawyer, Founding Father, statesman, US President (1797-1801)
Letter to Dr. Price (8 Apr 1785)
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Thanks to God that he gave me stubbornness when I know I am right.

John Adams (1735-1826) American lawyer, Founding Father, statesman, US President (1797-1801)
Letter to Edmund Jennings (1782)
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But how has it happened that millions of fables, tales, legends have been blended with both Jewish and Christian revelation that have made them the most bloody religion that ever existed?

John Adams (1735-1826) American lawyer, Founding Father, statesman, US President (1797-1801)
Letter to F. A. Van der Kamp (27 Dec 1816)
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The Revolution was affected before the war commenced. The Revolution was in the minds and hearts of the people …. This radical change in the principles, opinions, sentiments, and affections of the people was the real American Revolution.

John Adams (1735-1826) American lawyer, Founding Father, statesman, US President (1797-1801)
Letter to Hezekiah Niles (13 Feb. 1818)
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Abuse of words has been the great instrument of sophistry and chicanery, of party, faction, and division of society.

John Adams (1735-1826) American lawyer, Founding Father, statesman, US President (1797-1801)
Letter to J. H. Tiffany (31 Mar 1819)
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Let the human mind loose. It must be loose. It will be loose. Superstition and dogmatism cannot confine it.

John Adams (1735-1826) American lawyer, Founding Father, statesman, US President (1797-1801)
Letter to John Quincy Adams (13 Nov 1816)
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What havoc has been made of books through every century of the Christian era? Where are fifty gospels, condemned as spurious by the bull of Pope Gelasius? Where are the forty wagon-loads of Hebrew manuscripts burned in France, by order of another pope, because suspected of heresy? Remember the index expurgatorius, the inquisition, the stake, the axe, the halter and the guillotine.

John Adams (1735-1826) American lawyer, Founding Father, statesman, US President (1797-1801)
Letter to John Taylor (15 Apr 1814)
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The priesthood have, in all ancient nations, nearly monopolized learning. Read over again all the accounts we have of Hindoos, Chaldeans, Persians, Greeks, Romans, Celts, Teutons, we shall find that priests had all the knowledge, and really governed mankind. Examine Mahometanism, trace Christianity from its first promulgation; knowledge has been almost exclusively confined to the clergy. And, even since the Reformation, when or where has existed a Protestant or dissenting sect who would tolerate A FREE INQUIRY? The blackest billingsgate, most ungentlemanly insolence, the most yahooish brutality is patiently endured, countenanced, propagated and applauded, but touch a solemn truth in collision with a dogma of a sect, though capable of the clearest proof, and you will soon find you have disturbed a nest, and the hornets will swarm about your legs and hands, and fly into your face and eyes.

John Adams (1735-1826) American lawyer, Founding Father, statesman, US President (1797-1801)
Letter to John Taylor (1814)
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Democracy … while it lasts is more bloody than either aristocracy or monarchy. Remember, democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts and murders itself. There was never a democracy that did not commit suicide.

John Adams (1735-1826) American lawyer, Founding Father, statesman, US President (1797-1801)
Letter to John Taylor (1814)
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There is nothing which I dread so much as a division of the republic into two great parties, each arranged under its leader, and concerting measures in opposition to each other. This, in my humble apprehension, it to be dreaded as the greatest political evil under our Constitution.

John Adams (1735-1826) American lawyer, Founding Father, statesman, US President (1797-1801)
Letter to Jonathan Jackson (2 Oct 1789)
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Old minds are like old horses; you must exercise them if you wish to keep them in working order.

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John Adams (1735-1826) American lawyer, Founding Father, statesman, US President (1797-1801)
Letter to Josiah Quincy III (14 Feb 1825)
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Public virtue cannot exist in a nation without private, and public virtue is the only foundation of republics. There must be a positive passion for the public good, the public interest, honour, power and glory, established in the minds of the people, or there can be no republican government, nor any real liberty: and this public passion must be superior to all private passions.

John Adams (1735-1826) American lawyer, Founding Father, statesman, US President (1797-1801)
Letter to Mercy Warren (16 Apr 1776)
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Virtue and Simplicity of Manners are indispensably necessary in a Republic among all orders and Degrees of Men. But there is so much Rascallity, so much Venality and Corruption, so much Avarice and Ambition such a Rage for Profit and Commerce among all Ranks and Degrees of Men even in America, that I sometimes doubt whether there is public Virtue enough to Support a Republic.

John Adams (1735-1826) American lawyer, Founding Father, statesman, US President (1797-1801)
Letter to Mercy Warren (8 Jan 1776)

Full text.

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To be good, and to do good, is all We have to do.

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John Adams (1735-1826) American lawyer, Founding Father, statesman, US President (1797-1801)
Letter to Nabby Adams (1776)
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I believe with Justin Martyr, that all good men are Christians, and I believe there have been, and are, good men in all nations, sincere and conscientious.

John Adams (1735-1826) American lawyer, Founding Father, statesman, US President (1797-1801)
Letter to Simon Miller (8 Jul 1820)
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The fundamental article of my political creed is that despotism, or unlimited sovereignty, or absolute power, is the same in a majority of a popular assembly, an aristocratic council, an oligarchical junto, and a single emperor.

John Adams (1735-1826) American lawyer, Founding Father, statesman, US President (1797-1801)
Letter to Thomas Jefferson (13 Nov. 1815)
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Power always Sincerely, conscientiously, de très bon foi, believes itself Right. Power always thinks it has a great Soul and vast Views, beyond the Comprehension of the Weak; and that it is doing God Service when it is violating all his Laws.

John Adams (1735-1826) American lawyer, Founding Father, statesman, US President (1797-1801)
Letter to Thomas Jefferson (2 Feb 1816)
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de très bon foi = "very candidly"
Added on 16-Oct-14 | Last updated 3-Aug-16
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Our Passions, Ambition, Avarice, Love, Resentment &c possess so much metaphysical Subtilty and so much overpowering Eloquence, that they insinuate themselves into the Understanding and the Conscience and convert both to their Party. And I may be deceived as much as any of them, when I Say, that Power must never be trusted without a Check.

John Adams (1735-1826) American lawyer, Founding Father, statesman, US President (1797-1801)
Letter to Thomas Jefferson (2 Feb 1816)
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Added on 3-Aug-16 | Last updated 3-Aug-16
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Books that cannot bear examination, certainly ought not to be established as divine inspiration by penal laws.

John Adams (1735-1826) American lawyer, Founding Father, statesman, US President (1797-1801)
Letter to Thomas Jefferson (23 Jan 1825)
Added on 25-Jul-08 | Last updated 25-Jul-08
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As to the history of the revolution, my ideas may be peculiar, perhaps singular. What do we mean by the revolution? The war? That was no part of the revolution; it was only an effect and consequence of it. The revolution was in the minds of the people, and this was effected from 1760 to 1775, in the course of fifteen years, before a drop of blood was shed at Lexington.

John Adams (1735-1826) American lawyer, Founding Father, statesman, US President (1797-1801)
Letter to Thomas Jefferson (24 Aug 1815)
Added on 22-Jan-08 | Last updated 10-Jul-16
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While all other Sciences have advanced, that of Government is at a stand; little better understood; little better practiced now than three or four thousand years ago.

John Adams (1735-1826) American lawyer, Founding Father, statesman, US President (1797-1801)
Letter to Thomas Jefferson (9 Jul 1813)
Added on 22-Feb-17 | Last updated 22-Feb-17
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May none but wise and honest
Men ever rule under this roof.

John Adams (1735-1826) American lawyer, Founding Father, statesman, US President (1797-1801)
Letter to wife, the day after moving into the new White House (2-Nov-1800)
Added on 1-Feb-04 | Last updated 1-Feb-04
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As the happiness of the people is the sole end of government, so the consent of the people is the only foundation of it, in reason, morality, and the natural fitness of things.

John Adams (1735-1826) American lawyer, Founding Father, statesman, US President (1797-1801)
Proclamation adopted by the Council of Massachussetts Bay (1774)
Added on 13-Oct-10 | Last updated 13-Oct-10
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