Remarks at a Luncheon Marking the Publication of the First Four Volumes of the Adams Papers.
Mr. Wiggins, Mr. Butterfidd, Dr. Boyd, Mr. Adams, distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen:
First of all, I want to say to Mr. Adams, that it is a pleasure to live in your family's old house, and we hope that you will come by and see us.
I suppose a number of things attract us all here today. Some of us think it wise to associate as much as possible with historians and cultivate their good will, though we always have the remedy which Winston Churchill once suggested in the House of Commons, when he prophesied during World War II that history would deal gently with us. And then in an afterward he said, "Because I intend to write it."
And then I think we like to be here because all of us as Americans are constantly bemused and astounded by this extraordinary golden age in our history which produced so many men of exceptional talent. I have not heard, nor I suppose is there a rational explanation for the fact that this 'small country, possessed of a very limited population, living under harsh circumstances, produced so many, many, many brilliant and extraordinary figures who set the tone for our national life and who really represent the most extraordinary outpouring of human ability devoted to government, really, than any time since the days of Greece. And any touch which we may have in our lives with that period attracts us all.
And then I think we are here because of our regard for the extraordinary record of the Adams family. I have in my office at the White House one of the few papers which got out of the hands of the Adamses, which is a report of a committee of the Congress which Mr. John Quincy Adams as Senator headed, which supported Thomas Jefferson's embargo which ruined Massachusetts commerce, and which cost John Quincy Adams his seat.
This tremendous devotion to the public interest, this vitality which goes from generation to generation down to the present is really the most exceptional scarlet thread which runs throughout the entire tapestry of American political life.
It is an interesting fact that Mr. Charles Francis Adams who was the Secretary of the Navy was also probably the best sailor that this country ever produced. This ability to do things well and to do them with precision and with modesty attracts us all. And therefore, as an honorary member of the Massachusetts Historical Society, I was delighted and proud of the fine speech made by our President, Mr. Adams, today.
Thomas Jefferson and Adams exchanged one bit of correspondence which I think is rather illuminating. In a letter to Jefferson in 1815, Adams wrote: "Who shall write the history of the American Revolution? Who can write it? Who will ever be able to write it?" And Jefferson replied: "Nobody, except merely its external facts. All its councils, designs and discussions having been conducted by Congress with closed doors .... These, which are the life and soul of history must forever be unknown."
These books, these volumes, do something to open those doors. But I am impressed by the difficulty, even with these contemporary records of the Adamses, the Jeffersons, Madisons, Franklins, and all the others, of really getting to the historical truth. Even with the most complete reporting which we now have, even with the most accurate contemporary record which may be kept, I still am impressed, from personal experience as well as observation, with how difficult it ever is to feel that we've finally gotten to the "bone" of truth on any great historical controversy.
But this does open the doors. This does bring us closer to the tables where the record was written. And for this reason it serves as a most valuable chronicle of a long series of lives which stretch down to the present date. And therefore this formidable record of a formidable family deserves the kind of great editorial support which it's now receiving.
I have no doubt that Lyman Butterfield and Thomas Adams are breathing heavy sighs of relief--4 volumes out, and only 80 or 100 more to go. Obviously the worst is over.
In a different field, I sometimes feel that way myself, until I read the somber words of Mr. Wiggins in the morning papers and realize how far we have to go.
It is interesting that in John Adams' prepresidential days, he once wrote, "The Deliberations of the Congress are spun out to an immeasurable Length. There is so much Wit, Sense, Learning, Acuteness, Subtlety, Eloquence, etc., among fifty Gentlemen, each of whom has been habituated to lead and guide in his own Province, that an immensity of Time is spent unnecessarily." Which shows how times do change.
Reading about the Presidency in those days does bring us a certain nostalgia. John Adams used to spend every summer in Quincy, and during the undeclared war with Spain he spent a substantial time away from Washington. I suppose for one who has spent, in the words of the AP, 14 straight weekends at Hyannis Port, we should not be too critical. But it does indicate that there was a different and more satisfactory pace in those times.
I feel that the Adams family intimidates us all, and what it has been, their extraordinary contribution to the public service, I have examined with some care. It is a source of interest to me that this extraordinarily able group of public servants, President Adams and his son, were the only two Presidents of the United States who were not reelected during the first 50 years of our country's service. So when posterity gives them something better than reelection, it does present a heart-warming thing to some of us who face the hazards of public life. And I'm sure they would have felt that way, too.
I think the other quality which I find interesting in the Adamses is their constant dissatisfaction with their own record. John Adams' son, John Quincy Adams, could write after having been Minister to Holland and Russia, England--worked for us in France, taking part in the Treaty ending the War of 1812--he could still write in his diary, "Two-thirds of a long life have passed, and I have done nothing to distinguish it by usefulness to my country and to mankind." And in his 70th year, after having held more offices than any other American in the history of our country, he could pronounce his life a whole succession of disappointments. "I can scarcely recollect a single instance of success in anything that I ever undertook."
This high regard for his own position, his own qualities, which led him into constant frustration and disappointment that he could never achieve in his own mind the goal that he and his wife and his family had set for themselves, represents a most extraordinary prod, and I think explains the tremendous contribution which he and his successors have made to our country.
In a sense it was their self-love and self-esteem, rather than any synthetic sense of their inadequacy, that made them work so hard, and yet made them all feel that they had failed to achieve what they were capable of and what the times demanded.
I think therefore that we can consider that they have bequeathed to us two extraordinary and important qualities: conscience, Puritan conscience, and courage--the courage of those who look to other days and other times.
A few days before John Adams in 1826 died, his fellow townsmen of Quincy asked him to send them a toast for the Fourth of July. His response was brief but comprehensive. His toast stands both for the Adamses and for America.
He recommended that the patriots of Quincy drink to a simple sentiment: independence forever.
I congratulate all those gentlemen who have labored so long to produce these volumes. I congratulate Dr. Boyd who was a pioneer in this field. I congratulate those Presidents of the United States who in recent days have been most concerned that effective, contemporary records be kept. I congratulate us--I congratulate this country-I congratulate us all--in being part of the legacy which President John Adams left to US.
Note: The luncheon, held at the Statler-Hilton Hotel in Washington, was sponsored by the Washington Post in honor of the publication of "The Adams Papers: Diary and Autobiography of John Adams" (Harvard University Press, 1961).
In his opening words the President referred to J. R. Wiggins, editor and executive vice president of the Washington Post; Lyman H. Butterfield, editor of the Adams Papers; Dr. Julian P. Boyd, editor of the Jefferson Papers; and Thomas B. Adams, president of the Massachusetts Historical Association and a great-great-great grandson of John Adams.
John F. Kennedy, Remarks at a Luncheon Marking the Publication of the First Four Volumes of the Adams Papers. Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/235709