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