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An unbroken line
April 1959 | Volume 10, Issue 3
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.
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 1830’s, 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.
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.