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The Presidency:

July 2024
12min read

An unbroken line

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.

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.

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.

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