“Whatever You Write, Preserve”

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Members of the House rose to point out that the Constitution said nothing about the purchase of statesmen’s papers. It was none of the federal government’s business to see that such papers were safeguarded and published. If they were worth publishing, let other agencies undertake the work, but let us keep our chaste Constitution inviolate. One southern representative said he would “vote for the purchase of these papers [those of Jefferson and Hamilton] as soon as for those of anybody; but if this course was to be pursued, it would not be many years before the hundred volumes of Mr. J.Q. Adams’ journal and writings and perhaps the papers of ex-president Tyler would be purchased.” (John Quincy Adams, who had been laid in an honored grave only a few months before, would have shuddered at this conjunction of his name with that of “His Accidency” John Tyler.) Adams’ good friend John G. Palfrey, a member from Massachusetts and the historian of New England, immediately rose to deny “with some warmth … that the House would ever be asked to purchase the papers of Mr. Adams.”

And so it has proved. Thanks, however, to the collective vigilance, pride, financial solvency, and wisdom of the Adams family, their representatives have been enabled to turn over to the public, and have now turned over, intact, a uniquely extensive and significant body of historical records. After the manner of Adamses, down through the republic’s history, they have discharged their trust well.

Of one thing those of us who have worked with the papers are especially confident: they will unfold a great human story. In the preface to his recent biography of Gladstone, Philip Magnus mentions that Gladstone’s son said of Morley’s monumental life of Gladstone, published in 1903, that “luminous and interesting as are Lord Morley’s pages, they do not preserve for those who did not know Mr. Gladstone, a true and complete view.” The burden of his complaint was that Morley had followed the dictates of nineteenth-century taste, which forbade lifting the curtain on a great man’s private life—however significant such details might be—unless to show him in a conventional pose amongst his family.

Yet today it is beyond dispute that we cannot fully comprehend a man’s public conduct, to say nothing of the man himself, if we see only his public face. The job of the historian is to scrutinize all the sources available to him, including both official documents and personal records in the form of diaries and correspondence, and to sift from them every scrap of evidence bearing on the subject in hand. The Adams Papers are almost inexhaustibly rich in both these kinds of records. And by an act of unparalleled generosity they are now placed before those whose task it is to interpret the past to the present and the future.