- Historic Sites
“Whatever You Write, Preserve”
All that the Adamses saw they were schooled to put down and save. The result is a collection of historical records beyond price and without peer.
April 1959 | Volume 10, Issue 3
Adams complained bitterly about this self-imposed burden, saying that his effort to keep the diary up to date was “like the race of a man with a wooden leg after a horse,” and the net result “a multiplication of books to no end and without end.” Time and again he reproached himself for spending so much time on it, observing that he might have accomplished something really worthwhile in science or in literature if he had not devoted so much of his life to journalizing. Just the opposite of ordinary diarists, he would resolve that he would not write so fully and faithfully hereafter—and then would go on and write longer entries than ever.
One of the most graphic passages in the whole record occurs in August, 1817, when Adams was in New York with his family on the way from Washington to Quincy. Up at dawn to write his stint on the events of the day before, he totally forgot himself until, a few minutes before 7 o’clock, the boys knocked on his door to tell him if he did not hurry they would all miss the steamboat for New Haven. They missed it. In the spring of 1840, when Adams was approaching 73, he tripped on some matting newly laid on the floor of the House chamber, fell heavily, and dislocated his right shoulder. The first attempt to reset it was unsuccessful; he was then taken out of the House and physicians were summoned to reset the bone. Next day he reported that he had had “rather an uneasy night” and that his arm was in a sling. “I write against the kindest remonstrances of my family, and attended the morning sitting of the House against those of both my doctors.” The point was that there was business afoot that needed his attention. Someone might slip something over on him, and on the country, if he were not at his post of duty.
Charles Francis Adams did not quite maintain the pace his father had set. One reason is that the son was drawn slowly and reluctantly into public life rather than early and eagerly. And so, though he began to keep a journal while in his teens, for a long time he had less to record in it than his father had had during the corresponding period in his life. Still, Charles Francis Adams became a highly conscientious maker and keeper of records. He was tidier about it, too, because he seems to have been born with a talent and taste for archival housekeeping. During intervals in his public service he spent, all told, a good many years in this kind of work. Toward the close of his life he wondered whether the effort had been worthwhile. In 1876, almost a hundred years after John Adams had made the first entries in his new letterbook, his grandson recorded in his diary a day's work in his library, gathering up materials for binding and so on, and then added gloomily:
Yet it often occurs to me whether all my labor will prove of any use. The continuation of families is so uncertain, and the changes of habitation so much depend on the growth of the neighborhood that it is idle to expect permanency. This is the only large house left from the early part of the last century, excepting that occupied by Mr. Butler, and this has only been occupied by our family less than ninety years.
At the Old House in Quincy (occupied by Adamses for a mere ninety years or so), the process of accumulation was now nearly complete. But a whole generation of tireless scribblers was just coming on the stage. Three of the four sons of Charles Francis were active publicists, reviewers, and lecturers; Henry only for a time, but his brothers Charles Francis II and Brooks throughout their lives. Being Adamses, they had to instruct the public how to think and act on a great variety of topics. Ultimately much of what they wrote was added to the collection of family manuscripts and swelled it by some thousands of letters and other papers. Henry came to think that everybody in the family had written far too much. “Thanks entirely to the family habit of writing,” he remarked in a letter to Brooks in 1900, “we exist in the public mind only as a typical expression of disagreeable qualities. Our dogmatism is certainly odious, but it was not extravagant until we made it a record.”