“Whatever You Write, Preserve”

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The creation of this great family archive had resulted from a unique combination of opportunity, talent, and training. From that August day in 1774, when John Adams rode off from Braintree to attend the first Continental Congress, the Adamses displayed a kind of genius for being in interesting places at interesting moments, Their collective memory embraced the Bunker Hill battle, the voting of independence, the making of two major peace treaties, two residences in the White House (including the very first), Te Deums in St. Petersburg for Russian victories over Napoleon, glimpses of Napoleon himself during the Hundred Days, the framing of the Monroe Doctrine, the glorious fight that defeated the southern “gag rule” and preserved the right of popular petition in the thirties and forties, the excitements of the Free Soil campaign and the fugitive slave cases, the great “secession winter,” London during the blockade and intervention crises in the 1860s, Antietam, Gettysburg, the fall of Richmond (with the second Charles Francis Adams leading a colored regiment into the burning city), and the successful negotiation of the Alabama claims at Geneva. They had known Washington, Franklin, and Lafayette, Jefferson, Madison and Monroe, Jackson and Calhoun, Clay and Webster, Lincoln, Seward and Grant, Schurz and Tilden, and pretty nearly every major European chancellor and diplomat from the Comte de Vergennes to Lord Bryce, many of them on intimate terms.

All that the Adamses saw they were schooled from childhood to put down. To two young grandsons who were about to sail from Boston to join their parents in England in 1815, John Adams wrote:

I wish you to have each a Pencil Book, always in your Pockett, by which you minute on the Spot any remarkable thing you may see or hear. A pocket Inkhorn, any cheap Thing of the kind, and a sheet or two of paper, ought always to be about you. A Journal, a Diary is indispensable. “Studium Sine Calamo, Somnium.” Without a minute Diary, your Travels, will be no better than the flights of Birds, through the Air. They will leave no trace behind them. Whatever you write preserve. I have burned Bushells of my Silly notes, in fitts of Impatience and humiliation, which I would now give anything to recover. “These fair Creatures are thyself.” And would be more useful and influential in Self Examination than all the Sermons of the Clergy.

And so it went from one generation to another, the very children themselves in their various points of vantage in the capitals of Europe addressing one another and their elders, sometimes in numbered series of dispatches that remain in the family files with careful endorsements indicating the dates of receipt and reply. It was obviously a heavy literary responsibility to be born into this family, but very few of the children shirked it.

An equally important responsibility was how to care for the mounting accumulation of papers. Before John and Abigail Adams returned from Europe in 1788 they had purchased a handsome country seat on the road between Milton and Braintree. Disappointed to find it was less commodious than they had remembered, they had to improvise library and muniment rooms in a tenant house that stood close behind the residence. Several times enlarged and revamped, and variously referred to as “the farm building” or “the office,” this wooden structure continued to house most of the family’s books and papers until alter the Civil War. It is a wonder they survived, for there were fires or threats of fire again and again during those seventy years.

In his old age John Adams used the great airy room on the second floor of the Old House, now known as the Presidents’ Study, as a combined bedroom and literary workroom. On the day he signed his will, September 27, 1819, John Adams prepared and signed a separate deed of gift by which he turned over to his son John Quincy Adams “all my Manuscript Letters, and Account Books, Letters, Journals, and Manuscript papers,” contained in several trunks, a bureau, and an escritoire, each carefully described.

The old President died while his son was President in his turn. Not until after John Quincy Adams came back to the Old House in the summer of 1829 was he able to consider what should be done with his parents’ papers and his own. During the first few months of what he then supposed would be permanent retirement, he thought seriously of building a new house with good library facilities, or at the very least a separate fireproof office. His means were not sufficient for either scheme. He made long lists of the papers, set some of the neighbors’ boys to copying the fragile early diaries of John Adams, and projected a memoir of his father. He started, characteristically, by plunging into the chronicles of early New England, to provide a setting for the arrival of the first Adamses in these parts, about 1640.