John Adams letter to Abigail Adams, 7 July 1776


Philadelphia, 7 July, 1776.

IT is worth the while of a person, obliged to write as much as I do, to consider the varieties of style. The epistolary is essentially different from the oratorical and the historical style. Oratory abounds with figures. History is simple, but grave, majestic and formal. Letters, like conversation, should be free, easy, and familiar. Simplicity and familiarity are the characteristics of this kind of writing. Affectation is as disagreeable in a letter, as in conversation, and therefore, studied language, premeditated method and sublime sentiments are not expected in a letter. Not withstanding which, the sublime as well as the beautiful, and the novel, may naturally enough appear, in familiar letters among friends. Among the ancients there- are two illustrious examples of the epistolary style, Cicero and Pliny, whose letters present you with models of fine writing, which have borne the criticism of almost two thousand years. In these you see the sublime, the beautiful, the novel and the pathetic, conveyed in as much simplicity, ease, freedom and familiarity, as language is capable of.

Let me request you to turn over the leaves of the Preceptor to a letter of Pliny the younger, in which he has transmitted to these days the history of his uncle's philosophical curiosity, his heroic courage and his melancholy catastrophe. Read it, and say, whether it is possible to write a narrative of facts in a better manner. It is copious and particular in select ing the circumstances most natural, remarkable and affecting. There is not an incident omitted, which ought to have been remembered, nor one inserted that is not worth remembrance. It gives you an idea of the scene, as distinct and perfect, as if a painter had drawn it to the life before your eyes. It interests

your passions us much as if you had been an eye witness of the whole transaction. Yet there are no figures or art used. All is as simple, natural, easy and familiar as if the story had been told in conversation, without a moment's premeditation.

Pope and Swift have given the world a collection of their letters ; but I think, in general, they fall short, in the epistolary way, of their own eminence in poetry and other branches of literature. Very few of their letters have ever engaged much of my attention. Gay's letter concerning the pair of lovers killed by lightning, is worth more than the whole collection, in point of simplicity and elegance of composition, and as a genuine model of the epistolary style. There is a book, which I wish you owned, I mean Rollin's Belles Lettres, in which the variations of style are explained.

Early youth is the time to learn the arts and sciences, and especially to correct the car and the imagination, by forming a style. I wish you would think of forming the taste and judgment of your children now, before any unchaste sounds have fastened on their ears, and before any affectation or vanity is settled on their minds, upon the pure principles of nature. Music is a great advantage ; for style de pends, in part, upon a delicate ear. The faculty of writing is attainable by art, practice and habit only. The sooner, therefore, the practice begins, the more likely it will be to succeed. Have no mercy upon an affected phrase, any more than an affected air, gait, dress or manners. Your children hare capacities equal to any thing. There is a vigor in the understanding and a spirit and fire in the temper of every one of them, which is capable of ascending the heights of art, science, trade, war or politics. They should be set to com pose descriptions of scenes and objects, and narrations of facts and events. Declamations upon topics and other exercises of various sorts should be prescribed to them. Set a child to form a description of a battle, a storm, a siege, a cloud, a mountain, a lake, a city, a harbor, a country seat, a meadow, a forest, or almost any thing that may occur to your thoughts. Set him to compose a narration of all the little incidents and events of a day, a journey, a ride or a walk. In this way a taste will be formed, and a facility of writing acquired.

For myself, as I never had a regular tutor, I never studied any thing methodically, and consequently, never was completely accomplished in any thing. But, as I am conscious of my own deficiency in these respects, I should be the less pardonable, if I neglected the education of my children. In grammar, rhetoric, logic, my education was imperfect, because unmethodical. Yet I have perhaps read more upon these arts, and considered them in a more extensive view, than some others.

John Adams

Letters of John Adams, Addressed to His Wife. Edited by His Grandson, Charles Francis Adams, Volume I, 1841