“Whatever You Write, Preserve”

PrintPrintEmailEmailIn Philadelphia, just five days before the Virginia delegates to the Continental Congress moved a momentous resolution of independence, John Adams sat writing a letter to Mrs. Adams in Braintree, Massachusetts. The day before, he told her, it being the first day of June, he had dined with a friend. “We had Cherries, Strawberries, and green Peas in Plenty. I believe the Fruits are three Weeks earlier here than with you—indeed they are a fortnight earlier on the East, than on the West side of Delaware River. … The Reason is the Soil of New Jersey is a warm sand, that of Pensylvania a cold Clay. So much for Peas and Berries.”

Now [he went on] for Something of more Importance. In all the Correspondencies I have maintained, during a Course of Twenty Years, at least that I have been A Writer of Letters, I never kept a Single Copy. This Negligence and Inaccuracy, has been a great Misfortune to me on many Occasions. I have now purchased a Folio Book, in the first Page of which, excepting one blank Leaff I am writing this Letter, and intend to write all my Letters to you in it from this lime forward. This will he an Advantage to me in several Respects. In the first Place, I shall write more deliberately—in the second Place, I shall at all times be able to review what I have written. 3. I shall know how often I write. 4. I shall find out by this Means, whether any of my Letters to you miscarry.

It was really wonderful to think how many birds he could kill with this one stone! For that matter, so could Abigail. John Adams’ pen scratched on:

If it were possible for me to find a Conveyance, I would send you such another blank Book as a Present, that you might begin the Practice at the same Time, for I really think that your Letters are much better worth preserving than mine. Your Daughter and Sons will very soon write so good Hands that they will copy the Letters for you from your Book, which will improve them, at the same Time that it relieves you.

John Adams’ purchase of this book was, I believe, the first conscious act toward the making and preserving of a matchless family archive. Adams was aware that he, like his country, was on the threshold of great events. They had better be recorded as fully and accurately as possible. Acting on this conviction, he made, later this same month, the earliest copy of Jefferson’s draft of the Declaration of Independence and sent it home soon afterward, thus providing scholars of the present century with invaluable evidence on the early stages of the composition of that celebrated document. Upon his arrival in Paris in the spring of 1778, Adams was horrified by the offhand way in which his fellow commissioner Franklin had been conducting public business. “There never was before I came,” he wrote, “a minute Book, a Letter Book, or an Account Book; or, if there had been Mr. Deane and Dr. Franklin had concealed them from Mr. Lee, and they were no where to be found. It was utterly impossible to acquire any clear Idea of our Affairs. I was now determined to procure some blank books, and to apply myself with Diligence to Business.” The product of this diligence is an assemblage of records relating to the financing of the war and the negotiating of peace, still preserved in the Adams Papers, second in importance only to the official records of the Continental Congress, now in the National Archives.

We take you now, as the broadcasters say, to Ghent, some three decades later. Another Adams is now representing his country in another peace negotiation every bit as delicate and difficult as that of the 1780s, for in this case the enemy, instead of having been brought to her knees, is winning victory after victory over France, and the very city in which the American and British commissioners are meeting is garrisoned with Wellington’s red-coated veterans. In no hurry to take care of so minor a matter as the war with the United States, the British government is letting the American commissioners cool their heels. This may be all very well for his colleagues, but John Quincy Adams, as usual, is busy.

“They sit after dinner, and drink bad wine, and smoke Cigars, he complains for only his diary to hear, “which neither suits my habits nor my health, and absorbs time which I cannot spare. I find it impossible even with the most rigorous economy of time, to do half the writing that I ought.”

It was the most natural thing in the world to assign to a man of this temperament the bulk of the commission’s paper work, and though his colleagues frequently objected to both the substance and form of his drafts, Adams had at least the compensation of being able to complain of their ingratitude. He was also able to take custody of the records of the mission. Beyond the strictly official records turned over by Adams to the Department of State, there is a mass of material on the Treaty of Ghent still in his files, awaiting full exploitation.

But of course the classic example of the family’s record-keeping habits is John Quincy Adams’ personal journal, a dinosaur among diaries and probably the most extensive and faithful record of its kind ever compiled. The earliest childish entries were made in 1779, when he was twelve; the last in 1848, a few weeks before the old warrior died. This is a span of seventy years, and during sixty of those years there are virtually no breaks whatever in the daily entries.