- Historic Sites
An unbroken line
April 1959 | Volume 10, Issue 3
That formidable set of books, bound in black, as Zoltân 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.
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 1890’s, 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.