1839 · Washington, D.C.
Adams opens the letter by telling Sewall he has "read with great satisfaction your two Lectures upon the Science of Phrenology, which I have never been able to prevail upon myself to think of as a Serious Speculation." Here, Adams is likely referring to Sewall's AN EXAMINATION OF PHRENOLOGY IN TWO LECTURES, published in London the previous year.
In the present letter Adams associates phrenology with alchemy, judicial astrology, and augury (all pseudo-disciplines decidedly out of favor among contemporary scientists). He compares some aspects of phrenological theory to George Berkeley's "antimaterial system," now known as Berkeley's theory of immaterialism, which called for a denial of material reality. Adams then congratulates Sewall on the success of his lectures, and concludes with news that he is returning newspaper clippings and a letter from Dr. [Ruel] Keith that Sewall had sent to him previously.
The letter reads, in full:
"Dear Sir I have read with great satisfaction your two Lectures upon the Science of Phrenology, which I have never been able to prevail upon myself to think of as a Serious Speculation. I have classed it with Alchemy, with judicial Astrology, with Augury - and as Cicero says that he wonders how two Roman Augurs could ever look at each other in the face without laughing, I have felt something of the same surprize that two learned phrenologists can meet without the like temptation.
"But as it has been said of Bishop Berkley's antimaterial system t[h]at he has demonstrated beyond all possibility of refutation, what no man in his s[enses] can believe, so without your assistance, I should never have been able to enco[un]ter the system of the thirty-three or thirty-five faculties of the immortal soul a[s] clustered on the blind side of the head. I thank you for furnishing me with argument to meet the Doctors, who pack up the five senses in thirty-five parcels of t[he] brain. I am glad that your Lectures have been so successful, and hope they will be yet more so in recalling the sober sense of the Material philosophers of our age to the dignity of an imperishable mind" [Adams has underlined both the words "material" and "imperishable" to stress his belief in material reality].
"I return the Letter of Dr. Keith, and the newspaper extracts, and remain, Dear Sir, very respectfully your friend J.Q. Adams."
John Quincy Adams was an amateur scientist and botanist who put great faith in scientific inquiry. He was a central figure in the establishment of the Smithsonian Institution, called for a national university and a national observatory, argued for universal weights and measures, among other scientific-minded policies. As president, Adams was the first to call for an American expedition along the Northwest Coast in 1828. He then spent the next eight years in Congress helping to secure funding for what became the celebrated United States Exploring Expedition led by Charles Wilkes, which advanced scientific inquiry for the young nation, and established America as a center for scientific study.
A philosophical and humorous letter by one of our most interesting and intellectually- curious American presidents, attacking a prominent pseudo-science of the day. (Inventory #: WRCAM54993)