- 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
He got very little further with his memoir. It was not long before a committee waited on him to ask if he would serve his district in Congress. Adams tried without much success to conceal his eagerness to accept. To the distress of his son Charles, who had distinct ideas on how ex-Presidents should comport themselves, the elder Adams showed no liking for literary and philosophical retirement, was filled with weariness at the thought of “raking over” the stale excitements of John Adams’ political career, and took as much interest in current controversies, Charles noted with surprise and annoyance, “as if he was a young man.” He plunged back into public service and remained there until the day of his death, for as he had once predicted, life would retire from him before he would retire from life.
Meanwhile great masses of additional correspondence and other papers accumulated in his files. He did not have time to sort the worthless from the valuable, and so he would throw away none of them, though as he ruefully remarked in December, 1842, “I have not chests and boxes and bureaus and drawers sufficient in numbers and capacity to contain them.” His only hope lay in the archival and historical inclinations of his single living son. By the sixteenth article in his will, the phrasing of which he had very carefully thought out, John Quincy Adams bequeathed to his son Charles Francis “my library of books, my manuscript books and papers and those of my father, … and I recommend to my said son … , as soon as he shall find it suit his own convenience, to cause a building to be erected, made fire-proof, in which to keep the said library, books, documents and manuscripts safe.” He added a hope that “as long as may be practicable” the books and manuscripts would be kept together as a single collection and in the possession of the family.
Charles Francis Adams moved immediately to carry out his father’s wishes. He loved history more than he did politics and diplomacy, but they kept interrupting him—and, of course, adding to the bulk of the papers he had to care for. Not until after his seven-year mission in England could he go ahead with his long-delayed plans for a fireproof library to replace the old wooden farm or office building. He engaged Edward Clarke Cabot (best known for having designed the Boston Athenaeum) as architect, and in April, 1869, they selected a site just west of the mansion and on the edge of the garden. By the fall of 1870 the new building of Quincy granite, with its tile floor, lofty tiers of bookshelves, and mezzanine gallery, was complete. Its owner had scarcely arranged his books and papers ready for use before being obliged to take off for Europe once more to represent the United States in the Geneva arbitration proceedings of 1871–72.
The provision for the family books and records in Charles Francis Adams’ will extended his father’s and grandfather’s wishes regarding them. Charles Francis left his “papers, manuscripts and printed books … to such of my four sons as may survive me, and the survivors and survivor of them, in trust,” to be kept together in the Stone Library as long as “any of my male descendants bearing the family name shall continue to reside upon the said mansion house estate.”
The custodial responsibility now devolved on four brothers, all of them gifted but all strikingly different in temperament. The handling of the extensive family real estate and other assets, also left undivided, was a relatively easy task, for there were solid Bostonian precedents for this sort of thing, and good financial advice could be had for the hiring. But what precedents were there for administering a private collection of papers including those of two Presidents and three ministers to the Court of St. James’s? More by accident than by inclination, perhaps, it was Henry, the professional historian in the family, who first gave attention to the problem. During the summers from 1887 to 1889 he was writing and proofreading his History of the United States in the Stone Library at Quincy, not because he enjoyed life there, but because he had a job to finish and because his widowed and ailing mother had to be cared for. As an assistant on both the History and the family papers, Adams retained Theodore F. Dwight, who had been librarian of the State Department and who later went on to the Boston Public Library. Surrounded by the assemblage of his forebears’ diaries, Henry reread and committed to the flames his own, kept since college days, leaving, so far as I know, only the single gathering of sheets that recorded this systematic destruction. After his mother’s death, in June, 1889, he wrote his friend Mrs. Cameron:
I am left here with Dwight for a solitary summer. … As I expect it to be the last, and am absorbed in publishing, the punishment is not severe.…
Apparently I am to be the last of the family to occupy this house which has been our retreat in all times of trouble for just one hundred years. I suppose if two Presidents could come back here to eat out their hearts in disappointment and disgust, one of their unknown descendants can bore himself for a single season to close up the family den. N’one of us want it, or will take it.
Soon afterward, Henry’s brother Brooks nevertheless decided to take the Old House; Dwight left; and the family archives slumbered.