“Whatever You Write, Preserve”


Upon Charles Francis’ death, the ever-recurrent question in this family arose once more. How could Father’s career best be memorialized? Should there be a biography, an edition of his papers, or both? Who should write the biography, and who should edit the papers? There was an abundance of talent in the family for these tasks if only a plan could be agreed on among the brothers. The best qualified brother, Henry, shied off. He had used the family papers for a couple of projects that had briefly interested him, but though he wrote and edited important biographical and historical works on national subjects, he made surprisingly little use of these papers in any of them.

His older brother, Charles, a man of versatile talents and incredible energy, grew more deeply interested in family history as Henry grew less. During the 1890s, while managing his far-flung business enterprises and writing and speaking on an amazing variety of public issues, he studied his father’s diary and other papers and projected a biography and an edition of his writings, both of them on an ambitious scale. All that he ever published was a very abridged version of the biography, as a volume in the American Statesmen series (1900). His plans exceeded even his capacity: he died in 1915 with the greater work unfinished.

But long before this, both Charles Francis II and his brother Brooks had given some attention to those papers of their grandfather that had not been used in the great edition of his Memoirs. Charles contributed a valuable early section of John Quincy Adams’ diary, hitherto unpublished, covering his years as a law student in Newburyport, to the Massachusetts Historical Society’s Proceedings, and it was promptly reprinted by a trade publisher. Brooks worked for some years on a biography of his grandfather, documenting it heavily with the correspondence of several generations of the family. Brother Henry’s strictures on the manuscript discouraged the author from publication, and no doubt fortunately, for the biography delineated John Quincy rather too obviously as a philosophical precursor of Brooks Adams.

The formation of the trust in 1905, and the deposit of the papers in the new building of the Massachusetts Historical Society in Boston, presented a new opportunity for scholarly use of the collection—always, of course, under family oversight. Charles Francis Adams II, then president of the society, wanted to see this kind of use made of the papers, and it was he who induced Worthington C. Ford in 1909 to leave the Library of Congress and come to Boston to serve as editor of the society and consultant to the trust. Ford at once proposed to edit a large-scale collection of John Quincy Adams’ writings. All three brothers promptly approved; after all, this was a responsibility lifted from their shoulders. But Henry sounded a warning.

I doubt a little [he wrote to Brooks] whether Ford quite appreciates the magnitude of the job he has planned or the difficulty of fixing a limit at Speeches and Letters. … The old man did nothing but write, during seventy years without stopping.

In the face of the difficulties Ford did admirably. He planned an edition in twelve volumes and produced seven, covering very selectively the years 1779 to 1823, before his work was broken off, without explanation, in 1917.

The most puzzling thing in Ford’s edition is the editor’s acknowledgment to the Adams brothers, not for what it says but for what it does not say. He announced his deep indebtedness to them but did not mention their connection, as trustees, with the ownership of the papers he printed. In fact, the reader never learns who owned the collection or where it was. Apparently the name of the trust, like the name of the deity in some primitive religions, was something that could not be mentioned aloud.

From the standpoint of scholarship, this was not a healthy situation. Manuscripts do not exist in a vacuum, and the printed text of a letter often raises questions in the mind of a student that can be answered only by seeing the original or the other letters and papers around it. As an expert historical investigator himself, Ford surely knew this but probably could do nothing about it. Following the death of Charles Francis Adams II in 1915, Ford’s freedom of action was further curtailed; and after Brooks Adams’ death, in 1927, the collection seems, in effect, to have been sealed off from him as it was, of course, from the public.

So it remained for many years under the trusteeship of two members of the fourth generation since President John Adams: Charles Francis Adams III (1866–1954) and Henry Adams II (1875–1951), the first of whom had been one of the original trustees and the second of whom succeeded his uncle, Brooks Adams, in 1927. Their policy of custodianship rested on an assumption that, by and large, whatever ought to be published from the collection had been published. Since it is the business of historians to make discoveries, and the trustees thought it their duty to keep discoveries from being made, intercourse between inquiring scholars and the official custodians was seldom easy.