DescriptionJohn Adams Letter Signed. Two pages (recto and verso), 8" x 10". Quincy, Massachusetts; December 23, 1822. Letter from Adams to Elkanah Watson in Albany, New York, in response to a letter from Watson dated December 17, in which the former president of the United States shares his views on scientific advances and the related issue of the allocation of credit for scientific discoveries. In full:
I have received, and heard read Mr. Troups letter to Judge Livingston of the 23d January 1822. You need not wish for a more ingenious, a more able, or a more spirited vindication of your claim to the first suggestion of the Canal policy in New York; or of General Schuyler's sagacious patriotism in adopting and supporting your Ideas in the legislature; you have both great merit, but still I think Mr. Clinton has great merit in supporting, promoting and executing your plan.
It is right to preserve the memory of the first discoverers and inventors of useful improvements for the amelioration of the condition of Mankind. The gentlemen my contemporarys [sic] in Philadelphia, used to say that the first discovery of the efficacy of Lightning rods was Ebenezer Kinnersley, a young gentleman of an ardent thirst for science who drew lightning from the clouds by his iron pointed kites before Dr. Franklin had attempted anything on the subject. Why indeed may we not say that this discovery was made in the time of the Roman Emperor Tyberius for in his reign the Astronomical, and Astrological Poet Manillius, wrote this line, 'Eripuit jovi fulmen viresque tonandi.' Yet all this diminishes in no degree the great merit of Dr. Franklin in maturing digesting and propagating to the world his system of lightning rods. It would be well to ascertain if it were possible the first discoverer of the invaluable power of Steam. While we should do honor to his memory, we should not with hold our admiration and gratitude, from the great Fulton whose Steam Navigation will be of greater benefit to mankind than Franklins philosophy, though that is very great.
And while I wish to do honor to these great Men; I ought to bare my testimony to the merit of your long exertions which I think have been very beneficial to this Country.
With must pleasure I repeat the assurance of the long continued esteem and affection of your friend and humble Servant.
On December 17, 1822, the 87-year-old former president John Adams received a letter from an old friend Elkanah Watson (1758-1842), a Massachusetts-born writer, agriculturalist, banker, businessperson, and canal promoter, who at the time was residing in Albany, New York. Watson enclosed in his letter a pamphlet published earlier that year in Albany by Robert Troup (1757-1832), a lawyer and land agent from New York, which was entitled A Letter to the Honorable Brockholst Livingston, Esq., One of the Justices of the Supreme Court on the Lake Erie Canal Policy of the State of New York. In the pamphlet, Troup, who served as an officer with the American army during the Revolutionary War, offered evidence supporting Watson's claim that he was the first to conceive of the idea of a New York canal system. According to Watson, he had proposed a plausible route for a canal to connect the Hudson with the Great Lakes. His proposal was championed in the New York State Legislature by General Philip Schuyler. The Western Inland Lock & Navigation Company and Northern Inland Lock & Navigation Company were chartered in 1792, with Schuyler as president of both. Trout's pamphlet, which followed an earlier 1821 version, entitled A Vindication of the Claim of Elkanah Watson, Esq., to the Merit of Projecting the Lake Canal Policy as Created by the Canal Act of March 1792, and Also a Vindication of the Claim of the Late General Schuyler to the Merit of Drawing the Act and Procuring its Passage through the Legislature, was prompted by the claim of then governor of New York Dewitt Clinton (1769-1828), that he was the first to conceive of a New York canal system. As a result, Watson engaged in a bitter and long-standing feud with Clinton over the issue of credit for projecting the idea of what became the Erie Canal. Unfortunately for Watson, Clinton's name, not Watson's, is inextricably linked to the Erie Canal.
The elderly Adams, whose signature is quite shaky, dictated the letter to Watson offered here, in which he acknowledged receipt of Trout's pamphlet and that someone (perhaps his wife Abagail?) read it to him. While Adams praises Trout's vindication of Watson, and Watson's and Schuyler's roles influencing the building of the canal, he admits that Clinton deserves credit for "supporting, promoting and executing your plan." One wonders if Watson was completely satisfied with the former president's comments concerning Clinton.
Adams, perhaps with the purpose of alleviating Watson anxiety, reminded him that allocation of credit for other scientific advances did not always go to the originator but to more famous personages, mentioning Benjamin Franklin in particular. Adams, who once held a high opinion of his fellow Founder, later became jealous and resentful of Franklin. In this letter to Watson, the former president claims he was told by Philadelphians in the know that it was not Franklin, but Ebenezer Kinnersley who was the first to discover the lightning rod. Kinnersley (1711-1778), who was born in England and moved to the American colonies as a small boy, was a shopkeeper and an occasional Baptist preacher who later became the first professor of English and Oratory at the College of Philadelphia (later the University of Pennsylvania). Kinnersley was also interested in science, and by 1747, he was among Franklin's associates involved in electrical experiments. At Franklin's urging, he delivered lectures (written partly by Franklin) on electricity throughout the colonies. It was in these lectures that Kinnersley was the first to publicly announce the effectiveness of the lightening rod. Kinnersley never claimed to be the discoverer of the lightning rod, however. Although the crusty old Adams may have been trying to dispute Franklin's most famous scientific claim, he had to admit that Franklin deserved credit for "maturing digesting and propagating to the world his system of lightning rods."
A fascinating letter from one of the country's founders and former president that shows that he was still mentally vibrant at the age of 87. Includes the original dealer folder from Forest H. Sweet circa 1930s. Ex. R. Douglas Stuart.
Condition: Age toning, a bit darker along top margin. Heavy wear along top resulting in small tears and bits of paper loss, particularly at one corner affecting the first word of the two top lines of text on verso. Two chips of paper loss along left margin not affecting any text.
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