- Historic Sites
An unbroken line
April 1959 | Volume 10, Issue 3
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.
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.