John F. Kennedy photo

A Review of the First Four Volumes of the Adams Papers

January 01, 1963

THESE four volumes are the auspicious heralds of a major feat in American historical scholarship. They promise the publication in as many as one hundred volumes of the literary records of JOHN Adams, JOHN Quincy Adams, and Charles Francis Adams. That there is no greater family treasure house than the Adams Papers we have suspected from Professor Bemis' magistral biography of JOHN Quincy Adams and the ten volumes of The Works of JOHN Adams which were published more than a century ago by Charles Francis Adams, but these magnificently edited volumes more than fulfill our highest hopes. Mr. Lyman Butterfield and his associates have set standards of editorial judgment and care that would have met with the satisfaction of the three principal Adamses.

During the current decade we can anticipate an abundant harvest of such historical source material. Through the collaborations of many scholars, universities and university presses, foundations, and publications, the papers of Jefferson, the Adamses, Hamilton, Madison, Franklin, Clay, Calhoun, and Wilson will all be appearing in generous measure. There is no precedent for the simultaneous appearance of so many publications so vital to historical research and public understanding of our past. In this instance we are heavily indebted to the Adams family, the Massachusetts Historical Society, Harvard University, the Harvard University Press, and Life magazine. All too often cooperative research dulls scholarly design and enfeebles clear understanding, but in this enterprise all of the participants give mutual support and strength to the undertaking. Butterfield never ceases to be the unencumbered helmsman. His introduction in Volume I is a literary model for any archival publication.

The chronicle inaugurated in these four volumes will stretch from 1755, when JOHN Adams began his diary entries, until 1889, when the widow of Charles Francis Adams died. In full justice the editors could have included the brilliant triumvirate of the fourth Adams generation-Henry, Brooks, and Charles Francis II, whose productive careers stretched into World War I, but this would add several dozen more volumes to the series and place too heavy a mortgage on the time and energies of even these discerning editors.

The Adams family was extraordinary not only for the continuity of its achievement but also its diversity. Among them were two Presidents, a Secretary of the Navy, an industrialist, two authors, a diplomat, yet none is remembered for a single or even one dominant vocation. Among them also were lawyers, controversialists, authors, scholars, sailors. And each, as Butterfield stresses, had a special concern to foster links between government and learning. For the two Presidents particularly, their wives were intimate and memorable collaborators, and both Abigail and Louisa Catherine Adams will make important entrances of their own in these pages.

Such a recital of the Adams legacy is surely intimidating. To realize that JOHN Adams wrote his three volumes of the Defense of the Constitution while on diplomatic assignment or to trace his relentless mastery of many different strands of law is awesome. Yet reading JOHN Adams' own words and observations gives some reassurance. That Adams had considerable self-esteem and a strong propensity to self-justification is unmistakable. But the diary and autobiography do not leave an image of narrow conceit and severe austerity. There is at the same time his generous hospitality to new experience and ideas, a sharp eye for detail and color, considerable anecdotal leaven (only sometimes accidental). Though lacking much sense of style and rarely venturing into eloquence, Adams conveys honesty, tenacity, and pungent good sense. Adams was clearly less urbane and self-assured than Jefferson, but he is far from giving a disembodied and soulless impression. He had no markedly aesthetic nature and sometimes did not feel intuitively overtones of a new situation, but this was compensated by the honest directness of his reactions. If one doubts Adams' capacity to respond to the real world, one can find in these pages such delightful interludes as his accounts of his first ocean voyage, a trip across Spain on mule, or a night spent in 1776 with Franklin in a small room furnished with but one bed.

The absorbing interest of these papers derives, however, from the very fact that JOHN Adams, as the Adams family, had so many facets and can be seen in so many perspectives. As Butterfield points out, Adams was a complicated man "endlessly curious about himself and all that went on around him, and who was at the same time endowed with an unsurpassed gift for idiomatic and noblest language." Just as he felt society and government must be assessed critically and with full appreciation of the power and influence of irrationality, so he constantly set himself and his own actions against stern tests of rectitude and performance. This constant self-analysis combined with an underlying self-esteem was not debilitating but a prod to fresh achievement. This ability to blend private life and public activity, reflection and practical action, conscience and courage was for Adams a liberating force. His diaries became not a mere exercise in self-portraiture, but a faithful re-creation of an age. From all the clues that the editor gives us we can expect to have a genuine historical chronicle, not mere biographical vignettes, in all the volumes to follow. Happily, within the next year we shall possess the first two volumes of the family correspondence and the diary of Charles Francis Adams, and soon thereafter the documentary record of John Adams' legal career.

Not only are we grateful that the Adamses have been such indefatigable conservationists of all they have written and recorded; we are thankful, too, that the Adamses themselves have been so precious and endlessly renewable a natural resource.


NOTE: The President's review is reprinted by permission from the January 1963 issue of The American Historical Review. The four volumes were edited by Dr. Lyman H. Butterfield and they comprise Series 1 of "The Adams Papers: Diary and Autobiography of JOHN Adams" (Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass., 1961).

For the President's remarks at a luncheon marking the publication of these papers, see 1961 volume, this series, Item 397.

APP Note: This document is dated "January 1963" in the Public Papers of the Presidents series. The American Presidency Project used the first day of the month for inclusion in our database.

John F. Kennedy, A Review of the First Four Volumes of the Adams Papers Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

Filed Under



Simple Search of Our Archives