Thursday, April 24th, 2014
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1775 / Braintree, MA

Desolation Row

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If a form of government is to be established here, what one will be assumed? Will it be left to our assemblies to choose one? And will not many men have many minds? And shall we not run into dissensions among ourselves? I am more and more convinced that man is a dangerous creature, and that power, whether vested in many or a few, is ever grasping, and, like the grave, cries, “Give, give!” The great fish swallow up the small, and he who is most strenuous for the rights of the people, when vested with power, is as eager after the prerogatives of government. You tell me of degrees of perfection to which human nature is capable of arriving, and I believe it, but at the same time lament that our admiration should arise from the scarcity of the instances. The building up a great empire may now, I suppose, be realized even by the unbelievers. Yet, will not ten thousand difficulties arise in the formation of it? The reins of government have been so long slackened that I fear the people will not quietly submit to those restraints which are necessary for the peace and security of the community. If we separate from Britain, what code of laws will be established? How shall we be governed so as to retain our liberties? Can any government be free which is not administered by general stated laws? Who shall frame these laws? Who will give them force and energy? When I consider these things, and the prejudices of people in favor of ancient customs and regulations, I feel anxious for the fate of our monarchy, or democracy, or whatever is to take place. I soon get lost in a labyrinth of perplexities, but whatever occurs, may justice and righteousness be the stability of our times, and order arise out of confusion. Great difficulties may be surmounted by patience and perseverance. I believe I have tired you with politics. As to news, we have not any at all. I shudder at the approach of winter, when I think I am to remain desolate.

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About the Author

Abigail Adams, from a letter. Born Abigail Smith in Massachusetts in 1744, Adams wrote that she “never was sent to any school. I was always sick” and that her education consisted mostly of her grandmother’s “happy method of mixing instruction and amusement together.” She married John Adams, the second U.S. president, in 1764 and gave birth to John Quincy, the sixth U.S. president, in 1767. She counseled her husband in March 1776 to “remember the ladies and be more generous and favorable to them than your ancestors.”

The poor have sometimes objected to being governed badly; the rich have always objected to being governed at all.
G. K. Chesterton, 1908
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Lewis H. Lapham is Editor of Lapham's Quarterly. He also serves as editor emeritus and national correspondent for Harper's magazine.
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