“Whatever You Write, Preserve”

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Very early in the period of the Editor’s labor [Adams wrote] a grave question sprung up for his decision, how far he had a right to use his judgment in altering or omitting such portions of these papers as might for various reasons appear to him to be unsuitable for publication. … There were some passages which, although well enough when considered as written in the careless way of confidential correspondence, yet looked too trifling for a grave character when publication was in question. Others presented him as holding opinions upon various subjects which clash with the fashionable sentiments of the present day and with the prevailing political dogmas of the sovereign majority in the United States. And still others contain reflections upon individuals which might by possibility … offend the feelings of sensitive descendants or friends. … Yet, however strong these arguments appeared, obstacles of a very serious nature presented themselves to the performance of the duty which they recommended. In the first place it is a matter of doubt to the Editor how far any person, by virtue of a self-constituted office, has a right to alter and modify the language of another so as to make him appear before the public as saying more or less than he really thought. Secondly, admitting such a right to exist in its full extent, the exercise of it, to any great degree, appears to be of questionable expediency. For however it may effect the introduction of a tolerable degree of uniformity in literature this benefit can be gained only at the expense of all its vitality. The evils attending it appear to be of two kinds. The first, that it inevitably makes the character and opinions of an Editor the standard for judging those of the writer, and thus confounds all ability to discriminate between them. The second, that it tempts him to too great subserviency to the popular doctrines of the existing generation at the hazard of sacrificing of what may after all be the truth. If there is one recommendation of a literary work more than any other to be prized, it is that it should present the mind of the writer in as distinct a shape and as free from all extrinsic modeling as possible.

Running deliberately counter to the prevailing mode of making the founding fathers as immaculate and heroic as possible by discreet textual omissions and “improvements,” Charles Francis Adams declared for fidelity to the record as written. His distinction as an editor is that he not only declared for this principle, but adhered to it with far greater consistency than other historical editors did until a much later time. Having said this, however, it is necessary to say that the second stage of his editorial labors, expended on The Works of John Adams (Boston, 1850–56), was much less successful than one might have hoped.

That formidable set of books, bound in black, as Zoltán Haraszti has remarked, “as if for mourning,” is useful only because no substitute for it has yet been provided. It is exceedingly cluttered and confusing in plan, so that one never knows where one will find anything in it. Indeed the chances are good that the inquirer will not find what he is looking for, because the work is devoted so very largely to the public and official writings of John Adams, which are usually lengthy and dull, to the exclusion of his much more spirited and informative personal writings, notably his incomparable private correspondence, which his editor limited to the last volume and a half of a ten-volume set.

When Charles Francis Adams had finished with his grandfather’s papers, there remained, he noted in the preface, “yet larger stores” of material in reserve for another work, “to elucidate the history of the generation immediately succeeding.” But fifteen crowded years were to pass before he could get at this other great task. As finally issued from 1874 to 1877, the Memoirs of John Quincy Adams ran to twelve large octavo volumes. “At last, on a certain day in August, 1877,” the editor’s son later wrote, Charles Francis Adams “found the final volume lying on his table. The labor imposed on himself nearly forty years before in connection with his grandmother, his grandfather, and his father was completed; and, laying down the volume, he wrote: ‘I am now perfectly willing to go myself. My mission is ended, and I may rest.’”

The great merit of the Memoirs as a monument of editing is their textual trustworthiness, so far as the text goes. The available evidence shows that Adams stuck firmly to his assertion that “Whatever does appear … remains just as the author wrote it.” What appears, however, is very largely that which relates to the writer’s role in public affairs. His private life is illustrated only by occasional passages, and these are not wholly representative, since all references to at least one tragic but extremely important event in his domestic history—the suicide of his eldest son in 1829, just when his father had suffered his grievous political defeat—are suppressed. Yet for all that, the student who must often ply the pages of nineteenth-century editions of statesmen’s writings will find his respect for the editorial standards and skill of Charles Francis Adams constantly growing rather than, as in the case of other editors of that period, diminishing.