“Whatever You Write, Preserve”


It was not that the brothers were unaware of their responsibility as custodians of a unique treasury of historical records. They were very well aware of it, but they did not know what to do about it. Henry’s brothers Charles and Brooks were both historical writers, but they approached history from different directions and for very different purposes. Neither of them was likely to agree to a publishing program planned or carried out by the other.

The solution they finally hit upon was primarily a delaying action, and hardly more than that. But under the circumstances this was exactly what was needed. The establishment of the Adams Manuscript Trust in December, 1905, simply deferred the ultimate disposition of the family archives for a full generation or more. It thereby prevented any division of them among the joint owners, and the almost inevitable consequences of such a division—pilfering, weeding, and loss at worst; sale and wide dispersion at best. By consent of all the heirs of full age to the undivided estate of Charles Francis Adams, a formidable legal instrument vested in four trustees (the three surviving brothers and C.F. Adams III, son of the deceased eldest brother) the ownership and care of the historic Adams houses in Quincy, the Stone Library, and the furnishings and other contents thereof, including “the public letters, public letter books and public documents, manuscripts, books, private diaries and family letters,” to use the lawyers’ language. Eventually the Adams birthplaces at Penn’s Hill were given to the city of Quincy, and the mansion house was given to the United States, so that after 1946 the only property remaining in the hands of the trustees was the family archives, long since removed for safekeeping to the Adams Room in the Massachusetts Historical Society.

There, where they reposed with relatively little disturbance for about half a century, we can leave them for the moment in order to tell something of the use that has been made of them.

The earliest use of the Adams manuscripts was by John Adams in preparing the rather fragmentary sketches that are collectively known as his autobiography. Written at different times between 1802 and 1807, the autobiography was an attempt to supply gaps in and amplify Adams’ contemporary diary record. For this purpose it is useful, but it is also disappointing because it does not go beyond his diplomatic career into his vice-presidency and Presidency, for which, unfortunately, there are virtually no diary entries either.

John Quincy Adams thought he was going to supply this major gap by writing a substantial memoir of his father and editing a selection of his papers. The memoir got only as far as 1770 and was then dropped. The publication of the papers did not get beyond some copying work. Charles Francis Adams before long abandoned hope that his father would perform these filial tasks, but Mrs. John Quincy Adams was more persistent. And she did not mince words in pointing out to her husband the clear path of duty.

Three years ago [she wrote him in 1839] I laid before you a Letter written by you to [your] affectionate Mother, in answer to one of hers on the subject of your Fathers Papers, in which you in your strong language, promise if God spares your life, to perform this sacred duty; and will you let this Letter go down to your posterity, to show the nothingness of such promises; while you are frittering away your precious time in oft repeated observations, beneficial to no one; and wearisome to yourself?

On the back of this letter her husband meekly wrote: “Good advice.” But he did not follow it.

Thus the work fell into the hands of his son, who fortunately found it wholly congenial. To be engaged in literary labors gave one social prestige in the Boston of that era, and young Charles Francis Adams, who was well-to-do and cared little for the drudgery of legal practice, was not averse to such prestige. His work on the family papers proceeded in several distinct stages. There was the first or exploratory period, in the 1830s, culminating in publication of the two pleasant little collections of his grandmother’s and his grandfather’s letters. The Letters of Mrs. Adams (1840) met with a phenomenal and unexpected success. To us there can be no cause for surprise in this, since it has long been recognized that Abigail Adams was one of the most charming and spirited commentators on the life around her who ever put pen to paper.

The family editor shrewdly capitalized upon this success by promptly bringing out a matching collection of Letters of John Adams, Addressed to His Wife (1841)—a wish having been expressed, as the preface genteelly put it, “that the mode and degree in which the affection and sensibility of the lady were returned should be shown.” In other words, the editor was now enabled to present to the public for the first time that amiable side of old John Adams that only his family and intimates had known. But the editor was also breaking new ground in a general as well as in a particular way. His preface contains a statement of editorial principles so far in advance of those current in an age when myths were forming round the leading names of the American Revolution, and it remains so basically sound even today, that it should be much more widely known.