THE letters which passed between Van der Kemp and Adams during the presidential years were few but very cordial. The chief executive of the republic should not be distracted from his serious duties. The nation faced the crises of the XYZ Affairs, an undeclared naval war with France, and the Alien and Sedition Acts controversy followed by the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions. Van der Kemp was frequently puzzled by the intricacies of party conflict but the principles of free republican government were clear and strong. Some of the political developments reminded him of the history and principles of the Greek republics with which he was so familiar. The two friends generally agreed on the principles.
In the first year of Adams’ presidency, Van der Kemp wrote that his message to Congress was well received “in the western parts,” though a few thought it “too dry.” Van der Kemp thought Adams had cleverly suggested alternatives to Congress in such a way that his own leadership would prevail.1 In the middle of the Adams administration Van der Kemp introduced a letter with the following apology:
Was it not to satisfy the ardent wishes of a learned deceased friend I should consider it approaching to sacrilege to intrude upon you, and bereave you of the use of a single one of those precious moments, which you in this critical period, with unrelenting ardor consecrate to the securing and promoting the happiness of millions who entrusted themselves to your care and guardianship.
The friend, Louw Van Santen, had met Adams in one of the gatherings at the Golden Lyon during the American Revolution. As an editor and poet he sent his respects to the president through Van der Kemp. The latter now sent several of the books of Santen to Adams and said he would translate the poet’s works if he were “better acquainted with the progress of the Americans in Grecian and Latin critic” and if he could be assured of purchasers.2
Later in the year Van der Kemp read or heard that the political enemies of Adams were going to publish a refutation of the Defence. Since Van der Kemp had studied the work carefully, he offered to answer the “refutation” in place of Adams if the president wished it and indicated his “elucidations.”3 It seemed like a good idea but Adams thought otherwise. He recognized that, due to haste, the Defence contained inaccuracies but not errors. For twelve years the work had withstood “Violence and Virulence of Party Spirit.” He had never written a line in its vindication. “The more it is attacked the better.” Adams had heard that Thomas Paine was to write the refutation. He asked Van der Kemp what language he proposed to answer in and where he expected to find a printer.4
Van der Kemp suggested that an answer might well be “protected” [supported?] by the government since such an essay would instill principles of good government in the youth of the nation; it could be followed by similar works on the criminal and civil code. By these publications, “political prejudices and animosities would insensibly subside, local interest and ambition be bereaved of its principal spur, foreign influence effectually curbed and the whole mass of Americans consolidated into one undivided People.” He declared, “If Tom Paine is not better acquainted with the Classics and the times of the Middle Ages, than he was with the Oriental languages and Ecclesiastical history, his opposition will be very despicable.” He proposed to reply in English if a friend would correct it but could do better in Dutch or French. He hoped for a printer in New York or Albany.5
Adams assured him that he wrote “very well in English” but that he could hope for nothing from the government. He said he wrote the Defence in a hurry because of the disturbance of Shay’s Rebellion on one side and the French Assembly on the other. He doubted the effects of his work and remarked very cynically:
Mankind has found more amusement in shedding blood than in reading. If the time which has been spent in gazing at the blood streaming from the guillotine in the Place de Louis 15 had been spent in reading my dry volumes and spreading the doctrine of them, Mankind might have understood something of the subject. I have come off hitherto with mere abuse. Men write not upon government with impunity. Sydney was beheaded. Harrington died in prison distracted, and Montesquieu was banished ten years from his country. I have no reason to complain.6
The latter part of the comment was in response to a Van der Kemp remark that the Americans had not paid Adams well.
Nevertheless, Van der Kemp wrote a paper sometime in 1800 defending Adams’ writings and ideas. Two publishers turned it down, though one offered to print it if the author would buy 250 copies. He could not afford it. The main reason for the rejections were due to his inadequate style in the English language. He told Adams that he had also translated Luzac’s Socrates and sent it to the Massachusetts Historical Society without any response.7
The failure of Paine or anyone else to produce the criticism led Van der Kemp to say, caustically: “I am persuaded at present that the boasted answer to your Defense proposed by subscription by Barber [James Barber, Virginia] had been a low cunning electioneering trick.” He indicated further that the backers of Jefferson would do well to defend their own leaders and measures rather than attacking Adams.8 This was not a condemnation of Jefferson inasmuch as Van der Kemp respected the Virginian. It was the remark of a political scientist—a blunt one.
A lesser friend than Adams would have felt the rough edge of another political remark dealing with elected officials. Van der Kemp said that our safety up to 1800 was due “more to the mediocrity of Talents of our rulers than to our intrinsic virtue.” He meant that America had been fortunate that its leaders had no inclination to be autocrats. In George Washington he saw a man who was popular enough to enslave the Americans, and regarded Americans as weak enough to accept it.9 He was concerned about the election of 1800 as the month of September came and the tide was running against Adams. Van der Kemp asked, “Can your Excell. who is convinced of my disinterested attachment to his person with any propriety dissipate the excruciating pangs about the future election? Is it so doubtful?”10 As late as December 12, Van der Kemp expressed a hope that Adams would continue in office. By this time Adams had lost not only the election but also one of his sons. Van der Kemp attempted to console him by speaking of the success of John Quincy Adams and told him to think about his religion and look at his blessings.11 Adams agreed that his sorrow required the consolation of both religion and philosophy. However, he had no sorrow about the election—only solid pride.
Before this reaches you, the news will be familiar to you that after the 3rd of March I am to be a private citizen and your brother farmer. I shall leave the State with its coffers full, and the fair prospects of a peace with all the world smiling in its face; its commerce flourishing, its navy glorious, its agriculture uncommonly productive and lucrative.12
Van der Kemp complimented his friend as “the Father and Benefactor” of the country, agreed as to the fair state of the nation and said that Adams’ retirement would be honorable and notable. Lest Adams misunderstand his view on the new president, he added: “May your successor’s administration be as wise, firm and happy—equally respected at both sides of the Atlantic—then your utmost wishes will be accomplished.” He asked Adams to continue the correspondence, to write about the history and government of the United States, and of the political weaknesses and how to strengthen them.13 A few months later he wanted to know about the conference with Lord Howe, the Preston case, and several other incidents in Adams’ political life. Was there any truth in the report during the Revolution that General Nathanael Greene said Alexander Hamilton “never would be highly serviceable to this country either in the field or in the cabinet?” Did Adams apprehend immediate danger under Jefferson, or “after having silenced a few hungry office-seekers” would the goal of the administration be the salus populi?14
Adams responded to most of the questions with interest. He refused to comment on the new president.
You call upon me for a History of my ancient dreams. Prestons Tryal—and Howe’s Conferences are like long forgotten Reveries to me. There is a printed Tryal of the Soldiers—and I wrote a letter giving an account of the Conferences on Staten Island, but I know not how long time it would take me to find it. I never had a home till now and my papers are not arranged.
He did not know of a remark by Greene but recalled one by General Charles Lee that Hamilton was very brave but he doubted whether it was a kind of bravery that would do the country any good.15
The two men reminisced about their friendship in the Netherlands and of their meetings at the Golden Lyon and in homes, meetings with Baron Van der Capellen de Pol and John Luzac in particular.
From time to time, Van der Kemp lashed out at an injustice or an evil in government. Late in 1801 when Jefferson sent a squadron to Tripoli, Van der Kemp criticized severely the papers Jefferson passed to Congress on December 8 and December 22. The papers dealt with our affairs with the Barbary or North African piratical states, and covered sixty-two pages in the State Papers and Public Documents of the United States. America’s commerce with the Mediterranean countries was growing, and Jefferson wanted to persuade the African rulers through soft diplomacy and gifts not to seize American ships. A small squadron of four war vessels was dispatched in midsummer of 1801 to the Mediterranean to protect our trade. The public papers spoke of the squadron as though it were on a sight-seeing tour, and Jefferson’s letter to the Pasha of Tripoli appeared shamefully weak to Van der Kemp. The fiery patriot exploded in wrath. Why should our government apologize for sending a squadron to protect our ships? Why should we embarrass our ministers and consuls with the conciliatory letter to the ruler of Tripoli? Was the squadron sent to learn the pirate trade? Van der Kemp was certain Europeans would condemn the action. Then he asked Adams to correct him if he were wrong.16 When Adams defended some aspects of the procedures, Van der Kemp replied he had not intended to question the patriotism of the administration, but as an “independent citizen” he felt free to do so.17
Spurred by dissatisfaction with Jeffersonian handling of foreign affairs, Van der Kemp began early in 1802 to write an essay on the ancient Achaian republic. “The mad pranks of our ruling characters” prompted the project, but the greater consideration was Van der Kemp’s feeling of obligation to do whatever he could to preserve liberty and independence. By late March he was half through the work and asked Adams to criticize and smooth the writing.18 Adams praised the essay as “a valuable Addition to American Literature” and said it was richly deserving of publication. He hoped it would do some good for America, yet feared politicians would not be frightened out of their power “by a few paper shot.”19
In a letter which followed shortly, Adams reconsidered his opinion on the value of “paper shot.” While he agreed with his more optimistic friend that “the deadly infection” of party politics had not yet spread through “every limb” of the nation, how could sensible citizens overlook the popular journalist, James Thomas Callender, who had unfairly criticized Washington’s administration, supported Jefferson enthusiastically, then shifted to bitter condemnation of Jefferson for no good reason?
The Editors of Newspapers have no Check, and yet have Power to make and unmake Characters, at their Will, to create and uncreate Constitutions; to erect and demolish Administrations. When a few Scribblers, all foreigners, whose origin history and Characters nobody knows, have more Influence than President Senate, the Peoples own Representatives, and all the judges of the Land, [what shall we say]?
In hot anger, he said that some intelligent and educated writers who had failed to succeed, perhaps because of low morals, were writing only to keep from starving. For a guinea they would write for or against anything or anybody.20 Engrossed in the subject of the power of the press, Adams sent a second letter to Van der Kemp the next day. He had remembered a quotation of the French author, J. F. La Harpe, about the influence of writers in France during the Revolution.21 He quoted an entire paragraph.
Van der Kemp indicated that some of these observations would be reflected in the Achaian Republic. He thought there were too many writers who were poorly educated “philosophatters,” and regretted their ability to attract the “gaping crowds.”
He recalled that the Netherlands, too, had had its share of irresponsible and vacillating journalists. But Van der Kemp’s faith in democratic processes persisted; he was sure America presented more opportunities for correcting weaknesses of the state. He hoped to read more of La Harpe sometime.22
Van der Kemp recurrently pursued Adams for historical reminiscences, though with little success. At this time he sent Adams a number of inquiries concerning national affairs, but Adams replied to but one. Van der Kemp asked if Jefferson really believed in following the party but found himself forced to follow a clique.23
Adams replied that the doctrine that a president ought not think or act for himself was completely against the intent of the Constitution. It was true that he was not elected to rule by his own fancy, but he ought to have judgment and conscience enough to resist opposition “by his own Ministers in concert with a Party in the Senate aided by influential characters out of Doors.”24
Van der Kemp was never content with the Jefferson and Madison administrations, partly because of his Federalist leanings in national politics and partly because of the open admiration for the French exhibited by prominent Jeffersonians. He himself did not depend on France as a bulwark nor consider it a worthy model for the American republic. In the revolutionary movements of the Netherlands, he saw dangers of the same fate which had befallen the French. Indeed, he saw dangers to both his native and adopted countries which his story of the Achaian Republic would make evident.
From time to time corrections and additions were made to the manuscript. In its final form in 1809 it carried the title, A Sketch of the Achaian Republic in Letters to Colonel John Lincklaen. It was dedicated to the memory of George Washington and had a short but solemn foreword to the “American Reader” that if he spurned the warning and continued “to dream of peace without danger” and to trample on the American blessings, “then you shall accelerate your Doom.” An introductory letter of twenty-four pages spelled out the dangers of excessive political power, but ended with hopefulness:
Do not conclude from this disgusting scenery, that Liberty is a vain name—a palatable soporific, artfully administered by them, who aspire to reduce their countrymen in slavery. Altho this abuse cannot be controverted, it is however worth a bloody struggle to obtain its valuable possession. Indeed, it is worth this struggle, to secure an inestimable treasure to our Posterity, but by what means? When some wise and virtuous individual, when a George Washington knows and dares, after he has broken the fetters of his countrymen to model a government or persuades his fellow citizens to adopt one, in which the law is fixed on a firm and unmoveable basis, and its impartial execution entrusted to an independent body,—in which the power and inclinations of the few and many are so controuled and balanced, that all are compelled to do good, and cannot do any wrong. Such a government administered by an energetic—permanent Executive must secure the civil and Political liberty of this true Republic—preserve a dignified equality among its members, compell foreign applause and homage to a rising virtuous People, raise the Public credit to its highest summit and keep it there, till the increasing wealth and luxury have vitiated its morals, and Heaven’s decree marked its decay and death—25
Van der Kemp assured his readers that he continued to favor a republican form of government—if wisely administered. His hatred of tyranny had not subsided. He said that he would still lead an insurrection against oppression and sacrifice his life to save the Constitution and the country’s liberty.26
Van der Kemp told of the rise of the Achaian league of cities, their development into a republic, and the reasons for their subsequent troubles. “The history of ancient Republics is the history of those of our own times with altered names. What an instructif, awful warning is included in this truth.”27
From time to time Van der Kemp drew the parallels to modern times very strongly.
When the Constitution is violated—the morals are corrupted—venality is seated in the tribunals of justice and party rage becomes Patriotism—when factions engage in a bloody strife for the choice of a master, and foreigners are lurking to grasp at the throat with an iron hand—when all shall be too much exhausted, to avert the meditated blow—even if united in dispair—then the nation [is] lost—and lost forever. The Achaian Republick was in this period not in a more favorable situation.28
Van der Kemp concluded the work with the hope that he had shown that the “Liberty and independence of a Nation—that all the sacred rights of Individuals” could be longest preserved under a well-balanced government.
Achaia, alas! was lost—so were the Republicks after the Middle Age in Italy—So was Venice—Geneve—Genua—Lucca—Holland! Hamburg! and is there a solid hope that America shall learn from all these examples? 29
Van der Kemp prepared it for publication and sent it to Philadelphia. Two printers rejected it as not having enough sales appeal. Van der Kemp could not assume any of the financial risk and hoped there might be a “more enterprising bookseller” in Boston. He had no trouble getting things published when in Europe but now his essay was rejected while Paine’s “more than Billingsgate slander” was published with profit and greedily devoured.30 Adams was pessimistic; he thought studies of this kind were “not to the Taste” of the people. He suggested sending the essay to Joseph Dennie, Editor of Portfolio, asking him to edit it and print it by instalments in his periodical. He added that his son, Thomas Boyleston Adams, a lawyer in Philadelphia, would help with the editing.31 Dennie said he did not have time to condense the material and could not use it piecemeal. Adams (of Philadelphia) praised the work. Van der Kemp immediately sent the manuscript to his friend, the Reverend Theophilus Lindsey, in England, with a request for him to forward it to John Luzac after perusal.32
The Achaian Republic was read by Lindsey in England and went on to John Luzac in the Netherlands. This copy was promised to Robert Livingston for criticism. Rather than wait, Van der Kemp made another copy for Jonas Platt in the winter of 1806–7 and “in some parts materially improved it.”33
The copying of manuscripts was a chore to be reckoned with for the scholars of Van der Kemp’s day. In addition to copying excerpts from the works of others which had to be passed on or returned, Francis was obliged to spend countless hours in copying his own writings. He preferred to copy his own manuscripts, probably because of the scholar’s constant desire to revise and improve. Most of the surviving Van der Kemp manuscripts are in his own handwriting; the neat, rather decorative and finely legible script of a well-educated gentleman. A very few written in his declining years appear to have been copied by Betsy.
While perplexed with the problem of getting the principles of good, safe government before the American people, Van der Kemp decided that publication of the Adams memoirs would help. He insisted that Adams begin writing, but was laughed at. Adams said it would take almost a hundred volumes, and he would be dead before he could finish even one.34 When Van der Kemp repeated the request, Adams replied with more seriousness: “My life is already written in my Letter books as particularly as I wish it. There I shall appear as I wish with all my imperfections on my head.”35
In 1806 Van der Kemp penned a remark intended as praise but having the reverse effect on his friend. “What less can I return to the man, of whom a Washington declared that none could more cordially than himself approve the wise and prudent measures of his administration—which ought to have inspired universal and lasting confidence?”36
Adams lost his temper.
For the future I pray you to Spare yourself the trouble of quoting that great authority in my favour. Although no Man has a more Settled opinion of his Integrity and Virtues than myself, I nevertheless desire that my Life Actions and Administration may be condemned to everlasting oblivion, and I will add infamy, if they cannot be defended by their own intrinsic merit and without the aid of Mr. Washingtons Judgment.37
Van der Kemp accepted the rebuke by saying that he appreciated their correspondence because he could speak his mind. He did not intend to flatter Adams but merely to praise him. He continued:
As Washington is no more and left no progeny—I cannot yet agree that he can be extolled too high, provided it is not done at the expense of other meritorious characters—and how little I esteem Franklin as a statesman—I join willingly in his praises as an experimental Philosopher.38
In April, 1807, Adams sent word of a tremendous explosion which had occurred in the university section of Leyden, when a canal boat loaded with powder was ignited. Letters were enclosed which Adams had received. When Van der Kemp learned the extent of the destruction, he was appalled and overcome:
You shall not expect an excuse, for my delaying a few days to return the inclosed [letters]. My heart was too much oppressed with grief. I took refuge to labour to assuage its pain. My young friend Mappa [John] brought me your Lett. in my garden…. Since the account of Webster’s Gazette [Albany] of this horrible catastrophe, we have remained in that excruciating uncertainty, which is more tormenting than even the fatal dreaded events. You can form yourself an idea of Mrs. v. d. Kemp’s situation, when I have told you, that in the neighbourhood of that spot, where the explosion happened, several of our relations—a Sister in Law—a Niece a cousin—our best and oldest friends—Two families of Luzac and among them John—two families of Le Pole—perhaps three—that of Gyzelaer—that of Vreede, the friend of my bosom—resided.
In the evening I communicated the event to Mrs. v. d. Kemp—Luzac had been her friend—long before she was acquainted with me—a friend of more than forty years—a friend and more than a brother to her—when I was in confinement….
Coming out of the church I find a voluminous letter of Mrs. Busti of Philadelphia—informing us of more particulars—tho many uncertainties remain yet with regard to many dear to us—
About four hundred houses were destroyed and already nearly a million guilders had been collected for relief.39 It was learned later that John Luzac and many of the others had been killed but De Gyzelaer survived and had become the guardian of John Luzac’s children.40 The copy of the Achaian Republic which Luzac intended to edit was undoubtedly destroyed along with the editor.
The comparisons and resulting suggestions in the Achaian Republic became less and less relevant as conditions changed in America and the threat of Napoleon increased. The last possibility for its publication seems to have been in the latter part of 1808 when Jonas Platt asked Chief Justice James Kent to read it. Nothing resulted from this examination and Van der Kemp reluctantly laid the manuscript aside, believing it was good, believing it could be useful, but realizing it was unacceptable.
Van der Kemp’s grief upon hearing of the Leyden explosion was only one of a number of times when the friends shared their sorrows. However, they shared their personal joys also. Van der Kemp was always glad to hear about John’s son, John Quincy, who had served the country as ambassador to Russia and had just returned in 1801. Van der Kemp wrote: “I congratulate you Sir! with the safe arrival of your Hon. Son and family— … I hope your glorious days may be so long protracted—that He—pressing the footsteps of his father—may fill the highest office of our country—without longing for or fearing to accept it.”41 The next year John Quincy ran for Congress but was defeated. The father wrote to Van der Kemp that he had been persuaded to run against both his own and the son’s inclinations. He said he rejoiced in the loss of the election.42 Some months later Van der Kemp wished to ask the son some questions. Therefore, he asked Adams to remind his son who Van der Kemp was.43 John Quincy Adams was always very respectful to his father’s friend and in later years exchanged a number of letters with Van der Kemp.
In 1806 Van der Kemp congratulated John on the “accepted station” of his son and predicted great things for him.44 The father added that he expected his son to promote the “Taste and Litterature” of the country and that he had already done so with a fine course of lectures.45
When John Van der Kemp received a fine promotion from the employ of Mappa at Oldenbarneveld to the main office of the Holland Land Company at Philadelphia, his father told Adams of the great opportunity:
My Eldest son has accepted the offer of our Mr. Busti at Philadelphia—to be employed in his ofice at a salary of 1200 £ [?] with the prospect of 400 £ [?] more, if Mr. Busti, who is a Director of the Population Society can obtain for him this combination.46
Once Van der Kemp asked for Adams’ portrait. He said he had a small one of Washington and wanted one of Adams that he might bequeath to his children.47 Adams made a half promise to give him a portrait that Stuart started but he did not know whether it was ever finished. Apparently the portrait never got to Van der Kemp.
During the years of Napoleon when national and international affairs were critical, Van der Kemp reread his Cicero and Pliny and avidly consumed such other works as John Marshall’s Life of Washington.48 Then he began to read carefully the sixteenth century writers and later authors who wrote about that century.
That era was unquestionably all-important—and contained the seeds of all the following events during two centuries and a half—while a new one—no less prolific has been opened about the time of the American Revolution. An introduction to any modern history, similar in many respects to that of Robertson’s Charles the Vth but upon a larger scale, would be as useful as entertaining, but requires the hand of no less accomplished master, as it ought to comprehend history, Philosophy, Literature and commerce.49
He said he had spent the winter of 1808–09 “vox silentis in deserto” but certainly his mind was active. In addition to the considered scheme of the great history, he studied metaphysics and Protestant church law. When he was tired he read Chaulieu, La Tarre, Rabelais and Sterne.50
Perhaps in 1811, maybe a year later, he wrote his informal essay, “Dutch Conviviality.” Van der Kemp described a gathering of friends in Oneida County and their heated discussions. Bantering between Dutch and Yankees and between Germans and Yankees added a touch of humor, and social customs of the day were vividly described. The Dutch nation was defended and praised for its aid to America. American leaders were discussed, including John Adams. The nineteen page essay was later given the name, “Symposium Uticense.”51 Although it was never published, it was read with a great deal of pleasure by Van der Kemp’s friends. To the present-day reader, it offers a lively and fascinating view of an evening of solid enjoyment in Oldenbarneveld.