April 1959 | Volume 10, Issue 3
All that the Adamses saw they were schooled to put down and save. The result is a collection of historical records beyond price and without peer.
Now [he went on] for Something of more Importance. In all the Correspondencies I have maintained, during a Course of Twenty Years, at least that I have been A Writer of Letters, I never kept a Single Copy. This Negligence and Inaccuracy, has been a great Misfortune to me on many Occasions. I have now purchased a Folio Book, in the first Page of which, excepting one blank Leaff I am writing this Letter, and intend to write all my Letters to you in it from this lime forward. This will he an Advantage to me in several Respects. In the first Place, I shall write more deliberately—in the second Place, I shall at all times be able to review what I have written. 3. I shall know how often I write. 4. I shall find out by this Means, whether any of my Letters to you miscarry.
It was really wonderful to think how many birds he could kill with this one stone! For that matter, so could Abigail. John Adams’ pen scratched on:
If it were possible for me to find a Conveyance, I would send you such another blank Book as a Present, that you might begin the Practice at the same Time, for I really think that your Letters are much better worth preserving than mine. Your Daughter and Sons will very soon write so good Hands that they will copy the Letters for you from your Book, which will improve them, at the same Time that it relieves you.
John Adams’ purchase of this book was, I believe, the first conscious act toward the making and preserving of a matchless family archive. Adams was aware that he, like his country, was on the threshold of great events. They had better be recorded as fully and accurately as possible. Acting on this conviction, he made, later this same month, the earliest copy of Jefferson’s draft of the Declaration of Independence and sent it home soon afterward, thus providing scholars of the present century with invaluable evidence on the early stages of the composition of that celebrated document. Upon his arrival in Paris in the spring of 1778, Adams was horrified by the offhand way in which his fellow commissioner Franklin had been conducting public business. “There never was before I came,” he wrote, “a minute Book, a Letter Book, or an Account Book; or, if there had been Mr. Deane and Dr. Franklin had concealed them from Mr. Lee, and they were no where to be found. It was utterly impossible to acquire any clear Idea of our Affairs. I was now determined to procure some blank books, and to apply myself with Diligence to Business.” The product of this diligence is an assemblage of records relating to the financing of the war and the negotiating of peace, still preserved in the Adams Papers, second in importance only to the official records of the Continental Congress, now in the National Archives.
We take you now, as the broadcasters say, to Ghent, some three decades later. Another Adams is now representing his country in another peace negotiation every bit as delicate and difficult as that of the 1780s, for in this case the enemy, instead of having been brought to her knees, is winning victory after victory over France, and the very city in which the American and British commissioners are meeting is garrisoned with Wellington’s red-coated veterans. In no hurry to take care of so minor a matter as the war with the United States, the British government is letting the American commissioners cool their heels. This may be all very well for his colleagues, but John Quincy Adams, as usual, is busy.
“They sit after dinner, and drink bad wine, and smoke Cigars, he complains for only his diary to hear, “which neither suits my habits nor my health, and absorbs time which I cannot spare. I find it impossible even with the most rigorous economy of time, to do half the writing that I ought.”
It was the most natural thing in the world to assign to a man of this temperament the bulk of the commission’s paper work, and though his colleagues frequently objected to both the substance and form of his drafts, Adams had at least the compensation of being able to complain of their ingratitude. He was also able to take custody of the records of the mission. Beyond the strictly official records turned over by Adams to the Department of State, there is a mass of material on the Treaty of Ghent still in his files, awaiting full exploitation.
But of course the classic example of the family’s record-keeping habits is John Quincy Adams’ personal journal, a dinosaur among diaries and probably the most extensive and faithful record of its kind ever compiled. The earliest childish entries were made in 1779, when he was twelve; the last in 1848, a few weeks before the old warrior died. This is a span of seventy years, and during sixty of those years there are virtually no breaks whatever in the daily entries.
Adams complained bitterly about this self-imposed burden, saying that his effort to keep the diary up to date was “like the race of a man with a wooden leg after a horse,” and the net result “a multiplication of books to no end and without end.” Time and again he reproached himself for spending so much time on it, observing that he might have accomplished something really worthwhile in science or in literature if he had not devoted so much of his life to journalizing. Just the opposite of ordinary diarists, he would resolve that he would not write so fully and faithfully hereafter—and then would go on and write longer entries than ever.
One of the most graphic passages in the whole record occurs in August, 1817, when Adams was in New York with his family on the way from Washington to Quincy. Up at dawn to write his stint on the events of the day before, he totally forgot himself until, a few minutes before 7 o’clock, the boys knocked on his door to tell him if he did not hurry they would all miss the steamboat for New Haven. They missed it. In the spring of 1840, when Adams was approaching 73, he tripped on some matting newly laid on the floor of the House chamber, fell heavily, and dislocated his right shoulder. The first attempt to reset it was unsuccessful; he was then taken out of the House and physicians were summoned to reset the bone. Next day he reported that he had had “rather an uneasy night” and that his arm was in a sling. “I write against the kindest remonstrances of my family, and attended the morning sitting of the House against those of both my doctors.” The point was that there was business afoot that needed his attention. Someone might slip something over on him, and on the country, if he were not at his post of duty.
Charles Francis Adams did not quite maintain the pace his father had set. One reason is that the son was drawn slowly and reluctantly into public life rather than early and eagerly. And so, though he began to keep a journal while in his teens, for a long time he had less to record in it than his father had had during the corresponding period in his life. Still, Charles Francis Adams became a highly conscientious maker and keeper of records. He was tidier about it, too, because he seems to have been born with a talent and taste for archival housekeeping. During intervals in his public service he spent, all told, a good many years in this kind of work. Toward the close of his life he wondered whether the effort had been worthwhile. In 1876, almost a hundred years after John Adams had made the first entries in his new letterbook, his grandson recorded in his diary a day's work in his library, gathering up materials for binding and so on, and then added gloomily:
Yet it often occurs to me whether all my labor will prove of any use. The continuation of families is so uncertain, and the changes of habitation so much depend on the growth of the neighborhood that it is idle to expect permanency. This is the only large house left from the early part of the last century, excepting that occupied by Mr. Butler, and this has only been occupied by our family less than ninety years.
At the Old House in Quincy (occupied by Adamses for a mere ninety years or so), the process of accumulation was now nearly complete. But a whole generation of tireless scribblers was just coming on the stage. Three of the four sons of Charles Francis were active publicists, reviewers, and lecturers; Henry only for a time, but his brothers Charles Francis II and Brooks throughout their lives. Being Adamses, they had to instruct the public how to think and act on a great variety of topics. Ultimately much of what they wrote was added to the collection of family manuscripts and swelled it by some thousands of letters and other papers. Henry came to think that everybody in the family had written far too much. “Thanks entirely to the family habit of writing,” he remarked in a letter to Brooks in 1900, “we exist in the public mind only as a typical expression of disagreeable qualities. Our dogmatism is certainly odious, but it was not extravagant until we made it a record.”
The creation of this great family archive had resulted from a unique combination of opportunity, talent, and training. From that August day in 1774, when John Adams rode off from Braintree to attend the first Continental Congress, the Adamses displayed a kind of genius for being in interesting places at interesting moments, Their collective memory embraced the Bunker Hill battle, the voting of independence, the making of two major peace treaties, two residences in the White House (including the very first), Te Deums in St. Petersburg for Russian victories over Napoleon, glimpses of Napoleon himself during the Hundred Days, the framing of the Monroe Doctrine, the glorious fight that defeated the southern “gag rule” and preserved the right of popular petition in the thirties and forties, the excitements of the Free Soil campaign and the fugitive slave cases, the great “secession winter,” London during the blockade and intervention crises in the 1860s, Antietam, Gettysburg, the fall of Richmond (with the second Charles Francis Adams leading a colored regiment into the burning city), and the successful negotiation of the Alabama claims at Geneva. They had known Washington, Franklin, and Lafayette, Jefferson, Madison and Monroe, Jackson and Calhoun, Clay and Webster, Lincoln, Seward and Grant, Schurz and Tilden, and pretty nearly every major European chancellor and diplomat from the Comte de Vergennes to Lord Bryce, many of them on intimate terms.
All that the Adamses saw they were schooled from childhood to put down. To two young grandsons who were about to sail from Boston to join their parents in England in 1815, John Adams wrote:
I wish you to have each a Pencil Book, always in your Pockett, by which you minute on the Spot any remarkable thing you may see or hear. A pocket Inkhorn, any cheap Thing of the kind, and a sheet or two of paper, ought always to be about you. A Journal, a Diary is indispensable. “Studium Sine Calamo, Somnium.” Without a minute Diary, your Travels, will be no better than the flights of Birds, through the Air. They will leave no trace behind them. Whatever you write preserve. I have burned Bushells of my Silly notes, in fitts of Impatience and humiliation, which I would now give anything to recover. “These fair Creatures are thyself.” And would be more useful and influential in Self Examination than all the Sermons of the Clergy.
And so it went from one generation to another, the very children themselves in their various points of vantage in the capitals of Europe addressing one another and their elders, sometimes in numbered series of dispatches that remain in the family files with careful endorsements indicating the dates of receipt and reply. It was obviously a heavy literary responsibility to be born into this family, but very few of the children shirked it.
An equally important responsibility was how to care for the mounting accumulation of papers. Before John and Abigail Adams returned from Europe in 1788 they had purchased a handsome country seat on the road between Milton and Braintree. Disappointed to find it was less commodious than they had remembered, they had to improvise library and muniment rooms in a tenant house that stood close behind the residence. Several times enlarged and revamped, and variously referred to as “the farm building” or “the office,” this wooden structure continued to house most of the family’s books and papers until alter the Civil War. It is a wonder they survived, for there were fires or threats of fire again and again during those seventy years.
In his old age John Adams used the great airy room on the second floor of the Old House, now known as the Presidents’ Study, as a combined bedroom and literary workroom. On the day he signed his will, September 27, 1819, John Adams prepared and signed a separate deed of gift by which he turned over to his son John Quincy Adams “all my Manuscript Letters, and Account Books, Letters, Journals, and Manuscript papers,” contained in several trunks, a bureau, and an escritoire, each carefully described.
The old President died while his son was President in his turn. Not until after John Quincy Adams came back to the Old House in the summer of 1829 was he able to consider what should be done with his parents’ papers and his own. During the first few months of what he then supposed would be permanent retirement, he thought seriously of building a new house with good library facilities, or at the very least a separate fireproof office. His means were not sufficient for either scheme. He made long lists of the papers, set some of the neighbors’ boys to copying the fragile early diaries of John Adams, and projected a memoir of his father. He started, characteristically, by plunging into the chronicles of early New England, to provide a setting for the arrival of the first Adamses in these parts, about 1640.
He got very little further with his memoir. It was not long before a committee waited on him to ask if he would serve his district in Congress. Adams tried without much success to conceal his eagerness to accept. To the distress of his son Charles, who had distinct ideas on how ex-Presidents should comport themselves, the elder Adams showed no liking for literary and philosophical retirement, was filled with weariness at the thought of “raking over” the stale excitements of John Adams’ political career, and took as much interest in current controversies, Charles noted with surprise and annoyance, “as if he was a young man.” He plunged back into public service and remained there until the day of his death, for as he had once predicted, life would retire from him before he would retire from life.
Meanwhile great masses of additional correspondence and other papers accumulated in his files. He did not have time to sort the worthless from the valuable, and so he would throw away none of them, though as he ruefully remarked in December, 1842, “I have not chests and boxes and bureaus and drawers sufficient in numbers and capacity to contain them.” His only hope lay in the archival and historical inclinations of his single living son. By the sixteenth article in his will, the phrasing of which he had very carefully thought out, John Quincy Adams bequeathed to his son Charles Francis “my library of books, my manuscript books and papers and those of my father, … and I recommend to my said son … , as soon as he shall find it suit his own convenience, to cause a building to be erected, made fire-proof, in which to keep the said library, books, documents and manuscripts safe.” He added a hope that “as long as may be practicable” the books and manuscripts would be kept together as a single collection and in the possession of the family.
Charles Francis Adams moved immediately to carry out his father’s wishes. He loved history more than he did politics and diplomacy, but they kept interrupting him—and, of course, adding to the bulk of the papers he had to care for. Not until after his seven-year mission in England could he go ahead with his long-delayed plans for a fireproof library to replace the old wooden farm or office building. He engaged Edward Clarke Cabot (best known for having designed the Boston Athenaeum) as architect, and in April, 1869, they selected a site just west of the mansion and on the edge of the garden. By the fall of 1870 the new building of Quincy granite, with its tile floor, lofty tiers of bookshelves, and mezzanine gallery, was complete. Its owner had scarcely arranged his books and papers ready for use before being obliged to take off for Europe once more to represent the United States in the Geneva arbitration proceedings of 1871–72.
The provision for the family books and records in Charles Francis Adams’ will extended his father’s and grandfather’s wishes regarding them. Charles Francis left his “papers, manuscripts and printed books … to such of my four sons as may survive me, and the survivors and survivor of them, in trust,” to be kept together in the Stone Library as long as “any of my male descendants bearing the family name shall continue to reside upon the said mansion house estate.”
The custodial responsibility now devolved on four brothers, all of them gifted but all strikingly different in temperament. The handling of the extensive family real estate and other assets, also left undivided, was a relatively easy task, for there were solid Bostonian precedents for this sort of thing, and good financial advice could be had for the hiring. But what precedents were there for administering a private collection of papers including those of two Presidents and three ministers to the Court of St. James’s? More by accident than by inclination, perhaps, it was Henry, the professional historian in the family, who first gave attention to the problem. During the summers from 1887 to 1889 he was writing and proofreading his History of the United States in the Stone Library at Quincy, not because he enjoyed life there, but because he had a job to finish and because his widowed and ailing mother had to be cared for. As an assistant on both the History and the family papers, Adams retained Theodore F. Dwight, who had been librarian of the State Department and who later went on to the Boston Public Library. Surrounded by the assemblage of his forebears’ diaries, Henry reread and committed to the flames his own, kept since college days, leaving, so far as I know, only the single gathering of sheets that recorded this systematic destruction. After his mother’s death, in June, 1889, he wrote his friend Mrs. Cameron:
I am left here with Dwight for a solitary summer. … As I expect it to be the last, and am absorbed in publishing, the punishment is not severe.…
Apparently I am to be the last of the family to occupy this house which has been our retreat in all times of trouble for just one hundred years. I suppose if two Presidents could come back here to eat out their hearts in disappointment and disgust, one of their unknown descendants can bore himself for a single season to close up the family den. N’one of us want it, or will take it.
Soon afterward, Henry’s brother Brooks nevertheless decided to take the Old House; Dwight left; and the family archives slumbered.
It was not that the brothers were unaware of their responsibility as custodians of a unique treasury of historical records. They were very well aware of it, but they did not know what to do about it. Henry’s brothers Charles and Brooks were both historical writers, but they approached history from different directions and for very different purposes. Neither of them was likely to agree to a publishing program planned or carried out by the other.
The solution they finally hit upon was primarily a delaying action, and hardly more than that. But under the circumstances this was exactly what was needed. The establishment of the Adams Manuscript Trust in December, 1905, simply deferred the ultimate disposition of the family archives for a full generation or more. It thereby prevented any division of them among the joint owners, and the almost inevitable consequences of such a division—pilfering, weeding, and loss at worst; sale and wide dispersion at best. By consent of all the heirs of full age to the undivided estate of Charles Francis Adams, a formidable legal instrument vested in four trustees (the three surviving brothers and C.F. Adams III, son of the deceased eldest brother) the ownership and care of the historic Adams houses in Quincy, the Stone Library, and the furnishings and other contents thereof, including “the public letters, public letter books and public documents, manuscripts, books, private diaries and family letters,” to use the lawyers’ language. Eventually the Adams birthplaces at Penn’s Hill were given to the city of Quincy, and the mansion house was given to the United States, so that after 1946 the only property remaining in the hands of the trustees was the family archives, long since removed for safekeeping to the Adams Room in the Massachusetts Historical Society.
There, where they reposed with relatively little disturbance for about half a century, we can leave them for the moment in order to tell something of the use that has been made of them.
The earliest use of the Adams manuscripts was by John Adams in preparing the rather fragmentary sketches that are collectively known as his autobiography. Written at different times between 1802 and 1807, the autobiography was an attempt to supply gaps in and amplify Adams’ contemporary diary record. For this purpose it is useful, but it is also disappointing because it does not go beyond his diplomatic career into his vice-presidency and Presidency, for which, unfortunately, there are virtually no diary entries either.
John Quincy Adams thought he was going to supply this major gap by writing a substantial memoir of his father and editing a selection of his papers. The memoir got only as far as 1770 and was then dropped. The publication of the papers did not get beyond some copying work. Charles Francis Adams before long abandoned hope that his father would perform these filial tasks, but Mrs. John Quincy Adams was more persistent. And she did not mince words in pointing out to her husband the clear path of duty.
Three years ago [she wrote him in 1839] I laid before you a Letter written by you to [your] affectionate Mother, in answer to one of hers on the subject of your Fathers Papers, in which you in your strong language, promise if God spares your life, to perform this sacred duty; and will you let this Letter go down to your posterity, to show the nothingness of such promises; while you are frittering away your precious time in oft repeated observations, beneficial to no one; and wearisome to yourself?
On the back of this letter her husband meekly wrote: “Good advice.” But he did not follow it.
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 1830s, 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.
That formidable set of books, bound in black, as Zoltán 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 1890s, 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.
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.
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.