John Adams was appointed to a committee on 4 July 1776 with Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson “to prepare Devices for a Great Seal for the confederated States”; he suggested an allegorical emblem which in the end he admitted “is too complicated a Group for a Seal or Medal, and it is not original” (letter to Abigail Adams, 14 August 1776
, p. 96–98, below). This engraving by Simon Gribelin of the “Choice” or “Judgment of Hercules” appears on an internal titlepage in the third volume of the John Baskerville edition of Anthony Ashley Cooper, 3d Earl of Shaftesbury's Characteristicks of Men, Manners, Opinions, Times
, 5th edition, Birmingham, 1773, a work owned by John Adams and still among his books in the Boston Public Library (Catalogue of the John Adams Library in the Public Library of the City of Boston
, Boston 1917, p. 62). Shaftesbury published a short treatise on esthetics wholly based on the Judgment of Hercules theme in the first edition of the Characteristicks
in 1714; for a titlepage decoration he commissioned Paulo de Matthaeis in 1712 to paint the “Judgment” and had it engraved by Gribelin the following year. The original fable is attributed by Xenophon in his Memoirs of Socrates
, book II, chapter 1, to one Prodicus, a sophist and rhetorician of Ceos, who was admired by Xenophon and quoted by Socrates. Prodicus narrates a debate, or rather a succession of appeals to the young Hercules, by female impersonations of Virtue and Vice or Sensuality (or, to use Shaftesbury's terms, Virtue and Pleasure). Vice speaks first and points out the flowery path of self-indulgence; Virtue follows and adjures Hercules to ascend the rugged, uphill way of duty to others and honor to himself. The burden of Shaftesbury's treatise is that a successful treatment of such a theme, for either moral or esthetic purposes, must be natural, simple, and intelligible, and the artist must accordingly avoid the emblematic, cluttered, and exotic in both representation and style.
Gribelin's engraving, executed according to these principles, had a profound effect on Adams' attitude toward the fine arts, which to him typified luxury and therefore the threat of moral and social decadence. From Paris he wrote his wife in April 1780: “There is every Thing here that can inform the Understanding, or refine the Taste, and indeed one would think that could purify the Heart. Yet it must be remembered there is every thing here too, which can seduce, betray, deceive, deprave, corrupt and debauch it. Hercules marches here in full View of the Steeps of Virtue on one hand, and the flowery Paths of Pleasure on the other, and there are few who make the Choice of Hercules. That my Children may follow his Example, is my earnest Prayer: but I sometimes tremble, when I
hear the syren songs of sloth, least they should be captivated with her bewitching Charms and her soft, insinuating Musick” (Adams Papers