The Adams Papers

The Adams family of Massachusetts has produced more Presidents and more books than any other family in American history. In the essay that follows, THOMAS BOYLSTON ADAMS, an alumnus of Harvard and president of the Massachusetts Historical Society, takes a familial look at the volumes of the Adams Papers which have thus far been published by Harvard University Press. Two more volumes will appear this fall.

IN MASSACHUSETTS, in New England, in the eighteenth century, there came into being by the union of a farmer’s son with the daughter of a country parson a family that would be remarkable, if for nothing else, for its accumulation of written records. Some hundred and fifty years of these records of the Adams family have been put on microfilm since 1954 and made available to students in libraries over the world. The originals, row on row on row, are to be found on the shelves of the Massachusetts Historical Society. In 1961 the first four volumes of a letterpress edition were published by the Belknap Press of Harvard University Press. In 1963 came two more volumes. Perhaps a hundred will follow, containing much, but not all, that is recorded on the microfilm.

In the volumes of the Adams Papers published so far, the domestic relations of Americans are fully detailed. No passage has been changed, no word expunged. Diaries, letters, and documents are printed as written.

We begin with the diary entry of John Adams for November 18, 1755, “We had a severe shock of an earthquake,”and two and one half volumes later come to the final diary scrap, “The last week in August [1804] we ploughed a ditch and brought the earth into the yard and 32 loads of mud from the cove.” In the meanwhile the writer has helped make the Revolution, the Peace, and has been second President of the United States. The diary is somewhat of a patchwork, vivid and greatly detailed in some parts, entirely blank in others. Fortunately, John Adams wrote some parts of an autobiography, which fill the rest of the third and all of the fourth volume. The series will continue until the year 1889 and will contain the entire diaries of John Quincy Adams and Charles Francis Adams, with some additions from diaries of their wives and children.

The two volumes published in 1963 begin a new series, which will include family correspondence, that will throw much light on our country’s history from just before the Revolution until a generation after the Civil War. These first two volumes cover only the period from 1761 to 1778. The one exception is found in the introduction: a charming love letter, written in haste in 1678, from John Norton to the future great-grandmother of Abigail Adams, which very appropriately begins the story of a family. The greatest number of letters are from and to John and Abigail Adams, but many correspondents are included: brothers, sisters, other relations, and friends.

Each letter breathes, is alive, for it appears as written. Great scenes — the Continental Congress, the Court of Versailles, the Court of St. James’s — are recorded, and on the same page, with vivid detail, scenes of travel in Europe and America, of domestic life, not omitting the death of the gray horse and the theory and production of manure.

Editor Lyman H. Butterfield has not imposed himself on the text. Only his remarkable notes, identifying persons, explaining references, betray his presence.

The record will go on and on. through the long lives of John Quincy Adams and his son Charles Francis. There are thousands and thousands of pages of unpublished and unexplored material yet to come. Historians will revel in it. Wise men and men less wise, statesmen and political men will comment on it, will use it for purposes of enlightenment or their own purposes. But the great legacy belongs first of all to the American people; not to the professional but to the general reader.

THE Adams family traveled widely, thought a good deal, was active in politics and government. In its records, as in a mirror, the reader can discover his own image, the image of man Struggling for a more tolerable world. If he is curious, he can discover the history of the United States.

When John Adams, the farmer’s son, died in 1826, he had proved, in company with a very great majority of his countrymen, that Americans were different. The cruel penal laws of England were left far behind, the institution of monarchy was extinct, the individual was the final repository of power in the state, and the state had no other business than to work for his benefit. The Declaration of Independence was the creed of the young nation, and the Constitution its directions for following that creed.

John Adams had spent his whole life proving that Americans were different, and his son and his grandson and his great-grandsons were to go on with the work and with trying to improve on it, often desperately and seldom with satisfaction. There can be little doubt (despite his shouts to the contrary) that John got the most fun out of the job and enjoyed the greatest triumphs. His moment in history was extraordinary when he, a rebel said to to have been recorded by the Privy Council as expressly excepted from pardon, made his bow before George the Third as the first Minister Plenipotentiary of the United States.

The difference between America and the Old World dramatically emphasized by the Revolution was bound to diminish. Either the rest of the world would become more like America, or America more like the world. The likeness to the world, thought John and his descendants, seemed continually and deplorably to increase. Mark Howe, reading The Education of Henry Adams for the first time in 1918, penciled on the flyleaf an improvement on the Pilgrims’ Primer: “In Adam’s fall we sinned all, and since that maladroit beginning against the Adamses we’ve still been sinning.”

Whether the pure stream of Pilgrim aspiration would be lost in the universal sewer or, rising to a great flood, would carry away the wastes of the Old World to an all-purifying ocean was ever the preoccupation of New Englanders. Once, very soon after their arrival, it looked as if right would triumph, and some of the best of them went back to their native country to help. But the new Jerusalem was not so easily obtained, and the method of obtaining it was too precipitous, perhaps even questionable. Charles the Second and sin came back, and their enemies got away to America as soon as they could. There, some of the more dogmatic among them rather got the upper hand, the Bay Colony of Boston swallowed up the Old Colony of Plymouth, and at times it looked as if New World theocracy were going to be as bad as Old World monarchy.

But the ideas of John Robinson and William Brewster, and others like Roger Williams, had taken root. Perhaps some seed had fallen sooner, and the roots struck even deeper. There was something in the air and soil of America that inspired independence, that nourished dissent. The fishermen who, long before the Pilgrims, came to Monhegan and Damarascove were “rough, unruly fellows” (according to Sir Ferdinando Gorges’ deputy) who had no respect at all for either Norman blood or the notion that any gentleman in England had the right to tax their right to fish. From Maine to Virginia the settlers moved upstream and westward, toward the new country, away from authority.

Authority was never very popular in New England. The King’s ministers were avoided as much as possible, and the royal governors were always happiest in the largest houses in the largest towns. They did not feel comfortable with the people or the people with them. The only authority truly respected was the Bible, and the great advantage of the Bible was the variety of points of view it upheld. Theological disputation was the business of the ministry and the delight of the congregation. Litigation and field sports were the amusements; drinking, conversation, and conjugal felicity were the solace of a life full of hard work and troubled by the horrors of medical ignorance.

Into this world John Adams was born in 1735. The American reader will discover that it bears a remarkable resemblance to his own world. The life of an American boy today is a lot more like the life of an American boy of two hundred years ago than it is, or was, even then, like that of a European boy. “I spent my time as idle children do in making and sailing boats and ships upon the ponds and brooks, in making and flying kites, in driving hoops, playing marbles, playing quoits, wrestling, swimming, skating and above all in shooting, to which diversion I was addicted to a degree of ardor which I know not that I ever felt for any other business, study or amusement.”

The relationship between parents and children was free and pleasant. What it became in later generations, future volumes of the Adams Papers will no doubt reveal. Queen Victoria’s reign often seems more remote and unsympathetic than the age of Pitt and Fox and the founders of the American Commonwealth. Certain it is that the education of John and Abigail Adams, in their respective families, as well as the education they gave their children, was singularly modern in its methods; one is tempted to say “progressive” in its approach to ways of learning. John Adams, after graduating from Harvard, briefly kept school while fitting himself for the law, and wrote, “I find by repeated experiment and observation, in my school, that human nature is more easily wrought upon and governed by promises and encouragement and praise than by punishment, threatening and blame.”

John’s own father had rather a time persuading John to get educated at all. He even tried the expedient of letting the boy quit school and go to work, and found, as parents frequently do, that work, no matter how dirty, perhaps because it is delightfully dirty, often has more appeal to a boy than a bad school. But the experiment discovered the root of the trouble. The boy was discouraged, utterly discouraged, by his idle, unsympathetic schoolmaster. If only he could make a change! “Next morning the first I heard was “John, I have persuaded Mr. Marsh to take you, and you must go to school there today.’”

It seems apparent that the arbitrary use of authority was not popular in this family; probably not in New England. Children were very precious. The schoolmaster-god image was a much later importation from the English public school and never, even when new and at its most disagreeable, captured the imagination of more than a very small fraction of the population. The father-god may have reached England with Prince Albert and been smuggled into America with a load of antimacassars. Certainly, it did not come over in the Mayflower. Certainly, neither image has stuck. American children have never quite been able to take their parents seriously. Parents, like religion, have been subjects for discussion and have suffered the consequences.

John Adams was intended for the ministry but soon realized it was not for him. “My father was of so thoughtful and considerate a turn of mind, possessed of so much candor and moderation, that it would not be difficult to remove any objections he might make to my pursuit of physic, law or any other reasonable course.” His mother was a “pious woman" but had “no particularity for the life of a clergyman.” Clearly, the matter was thoroughly discussed and the assent of both parents obtained to make a change. In this American family, as in most American families today, the woman was no chattel, the children were not subject to the whim of a despotic father.

Life in America was then and still is freer for young people than it has ever been in most other societies. There has been a free mingling of both sexes and all ages, which has tempered the arbitrary nature of the male. As the world tries to solve the fatal possibilities of the atom, the importance of this fact will be appreciated more keenly. There are few examples more compelling than the courtship, marriage, and life together of John and Abigail Adams. In these two lives, domestic and public trial and triumph were inextricably mixed. John wrote from Philadelphia, “The second day of July will be the most memorable epocha in the history of America. I am apt to believe it will be celebrated.” Abigail was in Boston, where she had taken her whole family, including a cow to supply milk, to go through the terrific business of inoculation with the live virus of smallpox. She describes how she went to hear the Declaration read from the balcony of the Statehouse and saw the King’s arms taken down and burned in the street, and adds, “The little folks are very sick and puke every morning.”

BY THE time the final volumes of Series II of the Adams Papers are published, the stream of history will have become a flood, as grandchildren and great-grandchildren survey the immense battlefields of the Civil War, from Gettysburg to London, and contemplate the vastness of a universe exploding under a great head of steam into the twentieth century.

This is to come. Before us now are the emerging patterns of American thought, the serious discussion of current events, the daily problems of making a living and saving some substance, the pleasant scandal, and the delightful anecdote. “My father was in jovial mood last night.” Mark Twain would be comfortable in this company; Abraham Lincoln would feel at home.

There were stories about old Hook, the little crooked lawyer; crookbacked, that is. His character was no worse than that of most lawyers, then or now. At wedding receptions there were “good matrimonial stories to raise our spirits. The story of B. Bicknal’s wife is a very clever one. She said, when she was married she was very anxious, she feared, she trembled, she could not go to bed. But she recollected she had put her hand to the plough and could not look back, so she mustered up her spirits, committed her soul to God and her body to B. Bicknal and into bed she leaped — and in the morning she was amazed, she could not think for her life what it was that had scared her so.” And the law court story: “ The father caught the young fellow naked in bed with his daughter. ‘You wretch, what do you mean by trying to get my daughter with child?’ The young fellow answered him, ‘I try to get your daughter with child! I was trying not to get her with child.'

Life was very far from dull in eighteenth-century New England. It was so far from the history book doctrine of the Puritan that the general reader will at first think he has arrived at the wrong station. Who are these brawling, hard-drinking, dancing, singing, storytelling, merry taverners? Reader, they are your ancestors, Puritans every one, who kept the Sabbath solemnly and Saturday afternoon to get ready for it. “Young fellows and girls dancing in the chamber as if they would break the floor through.” “A wild rabble of both sexes, and all ages, in the lower room, singing, dancing, drinking flip and toddy and drams. — This is the riot and revelling of Taverns.”

This is America. This is the difference. This is liberty, independence, and what has been done with it. The picture shown is as real as Hogarth and Pepys. It invites comparison. John Adams had his moments when he went off after John Milton, but the soul of Falstaff was not absent from him. “All these gallant blustering speeches I have heard in words — and I have never failed to raise a horse laugh.”

History is the province of civilized man. A people ignorant of the past can live in confidence that the future will be ignorant of it. The converse is not necessarily true, though the moral is clear enough.

The magnificent vacancy in the eyes of the Maori fascinated Gauguin. Its subjective effect on the mind of the artist he expressed in a masterpiece. At the same time he confessed the limits of color and form to convey meaning, for he added the words, in a corner made glowing by the requirements of composition, “d’où venous nous, que somrnes nous, où allons nous.”

A contemporary American has at least one advantage over a nineteenth-century Maori. He knows more about whence he came. It may be truly said that the knowledge of time past has never been so vast. It is just as well. The vista behind must open up wide and far to explain to us what we are, to guide us whither we may go. It is just possible that as twentieth-century Americans rush into the future it may be of use to them to know that they can be different, as their eighteenthcentury forebears were different, who made government responsible and themselves responsible for government, basing their action on the Puritan insistence that not God nor all his regiments of angels could stand between a man and his own acts.

At any rate, the contemporary American is under no constraint to overrate the qualities of the Founding Fathers, a vice common to ancient Romans, nineteenth-century orators, and others. The great historical effort of our age is to edit the written record of the past and present it to the general reader as it was actually written. This is something new in the world. Any school child, or even parent, can find out what Jefferson said of Adams or Adams of Jefferson, with a host of others, not once but as many times as the name may occur in the total record. The lives of the greatest as well as the least men are revealed, the scenes of their lives, their finest hour and meanest moments. Historians, politicians, editors who may or may not write fiction, and those who write it professionally will need to be on their guard. The truth is too handy on the library shelf.