Reading About the "Hindoos" with John Adams

By Michael J. Altman

One of my favorite digital sources I discovered as I wrote my dissertation was John Adams' 1799 copy of Joseph Priestley's A Comparison of the Institutes of Moses with that of the Hindoos and Other Ancient Nations. Held in the John Adams Library at the Boston Public Library, the book has been scanned and made available through the Internet Archive (along with over 3,000 other titles from Adams' collection). What's great about the digital version is that the high quality scans include all of John Adams' original marginalia. In effect, you can read the text along with him and follow his reactions to Priestley's descriptions of Hindu religion

Most of the notes are the sort most of us make in books, summary statements or topical notes such as "Vedas" in the margin of the section that discusses the Vedas. But some of Adams' marginalia are exasperated and surprised reactions to Priestley's descriptions of Hindu religion. For example, when Priestley quotes the penalty for killing and eating animal flesh from The Institutes of Menu, "as many hairs as grow on the beast, so many familiar deaths shall the slayer of it for his own satisfaction in this world endure in the next, from birth to birth," Adams wrote in the margin "Transmigrations enough!"

The majority of the marginalia in the text are on the early chapters that cover Hindu theology and later chapters on Hindu rituals and food restrictions. In those later chapters, Adams consistently compares Hindu religion to Roman Catholicism in the margins, writing "Oh Priestcraft!" and labeling Hindu practices as "ridiculous observances." When Priestley writes, "But the Hindoos go far beyond the rest of mankind in voluntary restrictions and mortifications," Adams asks "Far beyond the Romish Christians?" in the margin.

The uneven marking throughout the book may reflect the way Adams read the text. Perhaps he started it, got bored, and skipped ahead to the interesting ritual passages. There's no way to know for sure. But however he read it then, the text is now a digitally accessible source and a remarkable example of the earliest American encounters with Hindu religions and the Oriental other. You can flip through the pages of the book and check it our for yourself below.


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