“Whatever You Write, Preserve”


To be sure, there were exceptions. Even before the trust was established, the use of letters written to members of the family by their eminent contemporaries had from time to time been permitted, and after its establishment this policy was continued with more or less liberality. By far the most important instance occurred near the end of the trust’s fifty-year existence. In Professor Samuel F. Bemis of Yale the family at last found, and fortunately realized that it had found, the answer to its hundred-year-old question of who should write the life of John Quincy Adams. Mr. Bemis’ wise and thorough book was an overwhelming demonstration of the riches available in the Adams family papers.

While Mr. Bemis was completing his biography, important events were taking place in the trust itself. Henry Adams II died in 1951, and two young trustees bearing the historic names of Thomas Boylston Adams and John Quincy Adams were appointed by the surviving trustee to serve with him. Not being historians themselves, but having no predisposition to distrust members of that profession, they promptly called on a group of historical scholars to advise them concerning what should be done with the family archives.

As one of the scholars called upon, I have a confession to make. I came to the Old House in Quincy on that lovely summer day in 1952 prepared to argue a case. We sat around the baize-covered table in the Stone Library where Charles Francis Adams had edited his father’s Memoirs and Henry Adams had finished his History of the United States. The scent of roses, some of them growing on bushes planted by Abigail Adams on her return from London in 1788, drifted in from the garden. When the senior trustee present rose to tell us why we were there, it was at once apparent to my colleagues and me that all we were doing was breaking in an open door. The trustees had already made up their minds. They had reached a decision as historic in its way as any that their statesmen-forebears had made.

What followed is familiar from public announcements: the launching of a microfilming program, under the sponsorship of the Massachusetts Historical Society (in co-operation with the Microreproduction Service of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology libraries), to make available the entire corpus of the Adams Papers in major research libraries; the proposal by the Harvard University Press to undertake a comprehensive letter-press edition of the papers over its Belknap Press imprint; the offer of Time, Incorporated, to furnish editorial funds in return for the right to serialize selections from the edited copy in Life; and the setting up of the editorial office at the society late in 1954. Two years later the family trust was liquidated and the papers were deeded outright to the society.

Of its kind, the collection known as the Adams Papers is beyond price and without peer. No such assemblage of historical records touching so many aspects of American life over so long a period—just short of three centuries (1640–1920)—has ever been created and kept together by any other family in this country. The history of practically every other collection of early statesmen’s papers important enough to bear comparison makes a tragic contrast with that of the Adams Papers. Benjamin Franklin’s papers were divided between two continents, largely lost, then partly recovered from a stable in Pennsylvania, a tailor’s shop in London, and elsewhere. George Washington’s carefully preserved official and personal archives were plundered by autograph hunters and carted about the country before they were, so far as possible, reassembled in Washington by an act of Congress that purchased them from the heirs.

As conscientious a record-keeper as any man who ever served his country, Thomas Jefferson left his incomparably complete files of papers to his family, who contrived to keep them for some time, even though they lost the rest of his estate. In 1848 Congress moved to purchase them for the nation, but in its wisdom supposed that only the “official” papers of the Virginia statesman could have historic value. The result was that a bungling sorting process went on for many years, and Jefferson’s papers are now divided in two unequal shares between the Library of Congress and the Massachusetts Historical Society, with uncounted other pieces, largely due to an incredibly careless editor, scattered among half a dozen repositories elsewhere.

Nothing is more instructive than to read the debates in Congress on the proposed purchases of historical manuscripts during the middle decades of the nineteenth century, when the American people were first growing conscious of their heritage. In 1848 the papers of both Jefferson and his great colleague and antagonist Hamilton became available, and in view of sectional jealousies then prevailing, it seemed best to present the two collections together for congressional action. This strategy proved successful, but by a narrow margin, and not until after a great deal of wind had risen on Capitol Hill.