John Adams As He Lived

Unpublished letters to Dr. Benjamin Waterhouse, Professor of Physic at Harvard College



I received your friendly Letter of the 19 June, by my dear Mrs. Adams, with great Pleasure and shall ever be obliged to you for a Line when you have Leisure. I am very glad our University has so able a Professor of Physick, and I doubt not you will soon Silence all opposition. I should be obliged to you for your two orations.

All Paris, and indeed all Europe, is at present amused with a kind of Physical New Light or Witcraft, called Animal Magnetism, a German Empirick by the Name of Mesmer, has turned the Heads of a multitude of People. He pretends that his Art is an Universal Cure, and wholly Superseeds the Practice of Physick and consequently your Professorship, so that you will not, I hope become his Disciple.

The Thing is so serious that the King has thought it necessary to appoint a Number of Physicians and Academicians, with your Friend Franklin at their Head, to enquire into it. They are all able Men, and have published a Masterly Report, which shows very clearly that this Magnetism can never be useful, for the best of all possible Reasons viz. because it does not exist. one would think the Report sufficient to annihilate the Enthusiasm but it has not yet fully succeeded, on the Contrary it has stirred up a Nest of Hornets against the Authors of it, and Mesmer has the Boldness to apply to Parliament by a Public Process, to have his Art examined anew. What may be the consequence I don’t know: But I think the Phrenzy must evaporate.

The Professors of the Art have acquired sometimes a surprising ascendancy over the Imaginations of their Patients, so as to throw them into violent Convulsions, only by a few odd Gestures. All this the Commissioners ascribe to Imagination; and I suppose justly; but if this Faculty of the Mind can produce such terrible Effects upon the Body, I think you Physicians ought to study and teach us some Method of managing and controuling it.

I am, Sir with great Esteem, your Friend and humble Servant




This Letter will be delivered to you, by your old acquaintance, John Quincy Adams, whom I beg Leave to recommend to your Attention and favour. He is anxious to study sometime, at your University before he begins the Study of Law which appears at present to be the Profession of his Choice.

He must undergo an Examination, in which I suspect he will not appear exactly what he is, in Truth there are few who take their Degrees at Colledge, who have so much Knowledge, but his Studies having been pursued by himself, on his travells without any Steady Tutor, he will be found awkward in speaking Latin, in Prosody, in Parsing, and even perhaps in that accuracy of Pronunciation in reading orations or Poems in that Language, which is often chiefly attended to in such examinations.

It seems to be necessary therefore that I make this Apology for him to you, and request you to communicate it in confidence to the Gentlemen who are to examine him, and such others as you think prudent. If you were to examine him in English and French poetry, I know not where you would find any body his Superiour. In Roman and English History few Persons of his Age, it is rare to find a youth possessed of so much Knowledge. He has translated Virgils Aeneid, Suctonius, the whole of Sallust, and Tacitus’s Agricola, his Germany and Several Books of his Annals, a great part of Horace, some of Ovid and some of Caesars Commentaries in Writing, besides a number of Tullys orations. These he may shew you, and altho you will find the Translations in many Places in accurate in point of Style, as must be expected at his Age, you will see abundant Proof, that it is impossible to make those translations without Understanding his Authors and their Language very well.

In Greek his Progress has not been equal. Yet he has studied Morcells in Aristotles Poetricks, in Plutarchs Lives, and Lucians Dialogues, the Choice of Hercules in Xenophon, and lately he has gone through Several Books in Homers Iliad.

In Mathematicks I hope he will pass muster. In the Course of the last Year, instead of playing Cards like the fashionable world I have spent my Evenings with him. We went with some Accuracy through the Geometry in the Praeceptor, the Eight Books of the Simpsons Euelid, in Latin and compared it Problem by Problem and Theorem by Theorem with Le Pere Dechalles in French, we went through plain Trigonometry and plain Sailing, Fennings Algebra, and the Decimal Fractions, arithmetical aGeometrical Proportions, and the Conic Sections in Wards Mathematicks. I then attempted a Sublime Flight and endeavoured to give him some Idea of the Differential Method of Calculations of the Marquis de L’Hospital, and the Method of Fluxions and infinite Series of Sir Isaac Newton. But alas it is thirty years since I thought of Mathematicks, and I found I had lost the little I once knew, especially of these higher Brancehs of Geometry, so that he is as yet but a Smatterer like his Father, however he has a foundation laid which will enable him with a Years Attendance on the Mathematical Professor, to make the necessary Proficiency for a Degree. He is studious enough and emulous enough, and when he comes to mix with his new Friends and young Compaions he will make his way well enough. I hope he will be on his Guard against those Airs of Superiority among the Schollars, which his larger Acquaintance with the world, and his manifest Superiority in the Knowledge of some Things, may but too naturally inspire into a young Mind, and I be gof you Sir, to be his friendly Monitor, in this Respect and in all others.

With great Esteem I have the Honour to be, Sir your most obedient and most humble servant.




It was not, till yesterday that I received your kind Letter, with your Discourse on Animation; for both of which obliging favours I pray you to accept of my best Thanks.

My incessant Drudgery for three and thirty Years in the dull fields and forests of Law and Politicks, has rendered it impossible for me to spare much of my time, in disquisitions of natural knowledge. Whenever any Thing of the king however has accidentally fallen in my way, it has revived the kind of fond Attachment of my Youth, and given me more pleasure than I can account for.

There is no Physical Subject has no occurred oftener to my Thoughts, or excited more of my Curiosity, than that which you chose for your Discourse, Animal Life. It has long appeared to me astonishing, that it should be impossible to discover, what it is, which the Air conveys into our Lungs and leaves behind it, in the Body when we breathe. This, whatever it is, seems to be, the Cause of Life, or at least of the continuance and Support of it, in the larger Animals, whether the Air, in any Similar manner, supports the Animalcules which we discover by Microscopes, in almost every kind of substance I know not.

Dr. Franklin has sometimes described to me in Conversation, experiments which he made in various parts of his Life relative to this subject, which I hope will be found among his Papers. I should be afraid, upon mere memory of transient Conversation to repeat some facts which he related to me, of the revival of animalcules to perfect Life and Activity after ten Years of Torpor, in a Phyal which he left in Philadelphia when he went to England and which had not been handled till his return.

Pray where is the Evidence of the Existence of a Subtle Electric fluid which pervades the Universe? And if that fact were proved, where is your Authority for Saying that such an Electrick fluid is the Cause of Life? Why may it not as well be Magnetism? Or Steam, or Nitre? Or fixed Air? These are all tremendous Forces in nature. But where and what is the Principle or Cause of Activity in all of them?

The Cause of Motion in all these Phaenomena, as well as in the Emanations of Light, or the Revolutions of the Heavens or Gravitation on Earth, is still to seek.

Your Discourse, my dear Sir has given me great Pleasure, and, (if my opinion is worth your having tho indeed I must acknowledge it is of very little value in such Things) does honour to you, and to the Societies to which you belong.

With great esteem, I am, dear Sir, your most obedient and most humble Servant.


Presented by

Brigadier General (ret.) John Adams retired from the U.S. Army in 2007 and is an independent defense consultant.

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