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    "History is not the Province of the Ladies"

    John Adams Autograph Letter Twice-Signed to Vice President Elbridge Gerry. Signed "John Adams" at close of letter and "J Adams" on address leaf. Two and one half pages with integral address leaf, 7.75" x 9.75", Quincy [Massachusetts], April 17, 1813, to "Elbridge Gerry Esquire Vice President of U.S. Cambridge". Adams writes to Gerry regarding an important law that he had drafted in 1775 regarding the fitting of armed vessels, one that Adams considered of the utmost importance; he criticizes its lack of even a mention in Mercy Otis Warren's History of the Rise, Progress, and Termination of the American Revolution (three volumes, 1805). He quotes extensively from her book and critiques her lack of research and the insertion of personal prejudices into her account, culminating with the oft-quoted statement that "History is not the Province of the Ladies". It reads, in full:

    "Since I have read again your Law 'for encouraging the fitting out armed Vessells' printed in Ede's Watertown Gazette of the thirteenth of November 1775; I have had the Curiosity to look into several of our Historians, in order to see what notice they have taken of this Transaction, which had such important Consequences.

    It was natural to begin with Mrs. Warren, as she was a native of this Province, a Daughter of the first Member of the Counsell, and the consort of the Speaker of the House, composing the Legislature which enacted it. In the first Volume of her History, page 239, Chap. 7, 1775, After representing the want of Arms and Ammunition She says

    'These circumstances accelerated a spirited measure before contemplated only by a few; the arming and equipping of Ships to cruise on British property was a bold attempt that startled the apprehensions of many zealously opposed to the undue exercise of British power: but necessity impelled and the Enterprize was pursued. The general assembly of the Massachusetts soon resolved to build, equip, and arm a number of vessels suitable for the purpose to cruise and capture any British Ships that might be found on or near their coasts. They granted letters of Marque and reprisal to several adventurers and appoint Courts of Admiralty for the Trial and Condemnation of any captures within those limits. By these means the seasonable capture in the beginning of this enterprise of a British Ship laden with Ordnance and an assorted Cargo of warlike Stores sufficiently supplied the exigencies of the Army and dissipated the fears of those who had suffered the most painful apprehensions for the safety of their Country.

    'These Naval preparations may perhaps be said not to have been merely of a defensive nature the Line yet avowedly observed by the Americans. But they had advanced too far to recede. Sophistical distinctions of words or names were laid aside. It is a fact of which everyone is sensible, that successful opposition to arbitrary power places a civic crown on the head of the Hero who resists; when contingences that defeat, confer an hempen cord instead of a wreath of laurel. The success of the infant Navy of America, will be shewn in the succeeding pages.'

    I should have expected that this ingenious lady would have at least inserted your law which is certainly one of the most important Documents in the history of the world, in her appendix to this volume. But no; the above Paragraph, is all she says upon an event so extremely important to the Salvation of her country at that time and at this. Had that Law been conceived or drawn by her Brother, her Father or her Husband Her reader would have been favoured with a more ample detail and a more elegant panegyrick. But I presume this was written after she had conceived the horror of a Navy which appears in other Parts of her History and after she had acquired the habit of concording with my Enemies in condemning me and my zeal to promote a Navy in 1798.

    In page 247 are recorded the Proceedings of Congress towards a Naval Establishment in a still more Summary manner.

    'Many gentlemen sanguine in opinion that an American Navy was no Utopian project, but that her Marine might rapidly rise to a respectable height; engaged with an energy that seldom fails of carrying into execution any attempt the human mind, on principles of reason is capable of forming. They accordingly built on the large rivers from Portsmouth to Pennsylvania, a Number of Vessels, Row Gallies, and Frigates from four to forty guns; fitted manned, and completely equipped them for sea in the course of a few months. All encouragement was given both to public and private adventurers who engaged in the sea service; success was equal to expectation; many very valuable Prizes and a vast number of Provision Vessels from England, Ireland, and Nova Scotia were captured, and by this means the Americans were soon supplied not only with the Necessaries for War, but with the conveniences and Luxuries of Life.'

    Is not this strange, that one of the boldest, most dangerous and most important Measures and Epochas in the history of the New World, The Commencement of an independent National Establishment of a new maritime and Naval military Power should be thus carelessly and confusedly hurried over? Had the historian never read the Law of Massachusetts? Nor the journal of Congress? One would think that this momentous business was all performed by a few rash individuals and private Adventurers.

    History is not the Province of the Ladies. These three volumes nevertheless contain many Facts, worthy of preservation. Little Passions and prejudices; want of Information, false Information, want of experience, erroneous judgment, and frequent Partiality are among the Faults.

    Other historians shall soon be examined by your faithful Friend."

    After he was defeated in the presidential election of 1800 by Thomas Jefferson, John Adams (1735-1826) retired to private life in Massachusetts as a gentleman farmer. (His retirement, which lasted twenty-five years, is the longest retirement of any president besides Herbert Hoover, Jimmy Carter, and Gerald Ford.) During this time, he corresponded with many of his old friends, including Gerry, a former congressman from Massachusetts and the current vice president under President James Madison. The two had been friends for decades - both were from Massachusetts and had graduated Harvard. Elbridge Gerry (1744-1814), like Adams, served in the Continental Congress and was a signer of the Declaration of Independence. He is possibly best remembered as the namesake of gerrymandering, the process of drawing electoral districts to aid the party in power.

    In 1775, as a member of the Massachusetts Provincial Congress, Gerry drafted and proposed a law to encourage the fitting out of armed vessels, authorize privateering, and to establish admiralty courts for the adjudication of prizes. The granting of letters of marque and reprisal, as mentioned in this letter, was always at the prerogative of the Sovereign and this was a rebellious, if not treasonable, act. The drafting of the act was accomplished by Gerry and Governor Sullivan in a small belfry in Watertown (as reported by the local paper referenced by Adams). These Massachusetts ships, the first sent out under the auspices of the colonies, captured many of the enemy's vessels, the contents of which furnished many necessities for the colonists.

    John Adams and Mercy Warren had, for many years, been quarreling about her book through a series of letters back and forth. Though loved and promoted by Thomas Jefferson about whom she wrote glowingly, John Adams was not so happy with her anti-Federalist orientation and felt that he was unjustly portrayed in the volumes. He wrote her in July 1807 objecting to her statements that "his passions and prejudices were sometimes too strong for his sagacity and judgment", that he had a leaning toward monarchy, and that "pride of talents and much ambition, were undoubtedly combined" in his character (History, Volume 3). The correspondence continued with mounting fury for a period until Warren wrote to Adams that his opinions "appear[ed] more like the ravings of a maniac than the cool critique of genius and science" (Collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society). This was unanswered by Adams for several years until Elbridge Gerry intervened and managed to affect some level of reconciliation between the two former friends. Even so, Adams could not help but make the comment that history was not the province of the ladies.

    Condition: Overall bright and clear. Weakness at the vertical center fold, tear at bottom margin and also from the seal.


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