Was JQA a Tweeter?

By Jeremy Dibbell

The micro-blogging site Twitter wasn’t around in John Quincy Adams’ day, but a recent visitor to the MHS suggested he might have found it a very natural addition to his routine. JQA was a prolific diarist, filling fifty-one volumes over sixty-nine years (amounting to nearly 15,000 pages) – and not only did he keep a diary, he often kept multiple diaries simultaneously (there are three different entries for the day he was inaugurated as president, for example: a long entry, a draft entry, and a line-a-day entry).

The line-a-day notes are mostly in a single volume, which contains entries for 1 January 1795 to 12 May 1801 and 5 August 1809 to 30 April 1836, and they’re very succinct comments on what happened that day. The first, for New Year’s Day 1795, reads “Thursday. The Hague. Attended the Stadtholder’s Court. Paid official New Years day visits.” Some almanac volumes and in one section of one of the main diary volumes also contain entries of this type. During a tour this month a student commented upon seeing these line-a-day notes, “It’s like he’s using Twitter.” And, we realized, that’s a pretty apt comparison. Twitter offers its users (known as tweeters, twitterers, or, less fondly, twits) a platform to answer the question “What are you doing?” in 140 characters or less. JQA’s line-a-day entries do just this (even if they were not, at the time, available for immediate public consumption). Here’s a sample:


– 12 October 1800: “My cough getting better. Walk round the Walls. Reading Amadis de Gaulis. Tedious.”

– 15 May 1819: “Commodore Rogers here. Ladies visited the Columbus. Homans at the Office. Rainy eve.”

– 22 November 1831: “Thunder and Snow. Letter on Imprisonment for debt. Reading on Masonry.”

These entries and all the rest of JQA’s diaries (part of the Adams Family Papers) have been made available digitally on the MHS website as “The Diaries of John Quincy Adams: A Digital Collection.” This project was partly funded by a 2003 “Save America’s Treasures” grant, which allowed us to conserve the diaries and create the digital versions. You can read more about the project here, or see this section for information on using the diaries (they have not been fully transcribed, so there is currently no full-text search function, but you can browse by volume or search by date). A detailed JQA timeline has also been provided. And since he had remarkably good handwriting all through his life, JQA’s diaries are easy (as well as fascinating) to read.

Today @ MHS: Egloff Brown-Bag

By Jeremy Dibbell

Join us today (Friday) at 12 noon in the Dowse Library for a brown-bag lunch with Jennifer Egloff, Ph.D. candidate at New York University and research fellow at MHS. Egloff will discuss her current project: “Popular Numeracy in Early Modern England British North America.”

This event is free and open to the public.

[Note: For the curious, “numeracy” is like literacy, but with numbers]

Online Gallery Launched

By Jeremy Dibbell

We’ve launched a new web gallery to show off some of the many highlights from the MHS collections. Check it out by clicking on the image or visiting
. You can also browse by category here. Our digital projects team will continue to add to this gallery, so expect periodic additions to the collection.

Today @ MHS: Wong Brown-Bag

By Jeremy Dibbell

Join us today (Wednesday) at 12 noon in the Dowse Library for a brown-bag lunch with Wendy Wong, Ph.D. candidate at Temple University and current Andrew W. Mellon Fellow at MHS. Wong will discuss her current project: “‘Diplomatic Subtleties and Frank Overtures’: Publicity, Diplomacy and Neutrality in the Early American Republic, 1793-1801.”

This event is free and open to the public.

Workshop Opportunity for Teachers

By Jeremy Dibbell

Teachers are invited to participate in a collaborative professional development project presented by the American Antiquarian Society (AAS), the Massachusetts Historical Society (MHS), and the Worcester Public Schools (WPS). Defining Freedom examines how Americans conceived and promoted both individual and communal liberties and responsibilities from 1763 through 1863. The project seeks to create a series of professional development experiences in which participating teachers will examine the imperial crisis, the American Revolution, the Early Republic, the antebellum period, and the Civil War.

The workshop will be held in late July at the MHS in Boston and AAS in Worcester. Teachers will interact with leading historians and scholars and explore the vast collections of primary source documents and images available through the collections of the American Antiquarian Society and the Massachusetts Historical Society in preparation for developing and piloting instructional units. These units will employ technology to help students develop and teachers assess 21st century skills. The project will encourage teachers to explore each of these institutions’ artifacts through onsite workshops, presentations, and individual research conducted by teachers at their own pace. Additionally, teachers will be encouraged to use various online resources, including those developed by AAS and MHS. Defining Freedom will employ various digital and printed resources to help students analyze and evaluate information, think critically, develop coherent and intellectually rich theses, employ evidence to support arguments, and fashion compelling written, oral, and multimedia presentations.

Registration information and more background on the workshop is available here.

Holiday Closure Notice

By Jeremy Dibbell

Please note: The reading room will be closed on Saturday, 23 May and Monday, 25 May for the Memorial Day holiday.

“… he is a moral nuisance …”

By Jeremy Dibbell

Our curator of art, Anne Bentley, recently pointed out a fascinating (but brutal!) passage quoted in the MHS Proceedings of the March 1929 meeting. I feel compelled to share, and for any current author out there who’s ever received a bad review, take heart – it could be worse.

The Proceedings record that Mr. Ford [Worthington Chauncey Ford, then the Society’s Editor] “read the following criticism on Emerson’s Conduct of Life, published in the Southern Literary Messenger for April 1861 [Volume XXXII, pp. 326-7] – a fateful month in our history.” What did the reviewer have to say about Mr. Emerson?

“His mind is like a rag-picker’s basketfull of all manner of trash. His books are valuable, for the very reason they are of no earthly account. They illustrate the utter worthlessness of the philosophy of free society. Egoism, or rather Manism, (if we may coin a word), propounded in short scraps, tags, and shreds of sentences may do very well for a people who have no settled opinions in politics, religion or morals, and have lived for forty years on pure fanaticisms. We of the South require something better than this no-system. Your fragmentary philsopher, of the EMERSON stamp, who disturbs the beliefs of the common folk, without again composing or attempting to compose them with a higher and purer faith, is a curse to society. Such a man ought to be subject to the mild punishment of perpetual confinement, with plenty of pens, ink and paper. Burn his writings as fast as they come from his table, and bury the writer quietly in the back yard of the prison as soon as he is dead. If in early life, the speculative lobes of his brain had been eaten out with nitric acid, EMERSON would have made a better poet than any New England has given us. As it is, he is a moral nuisance. He ought to be abated by act of Congress and his works suppressed.”

Thanks to the Making of America site, you can read a digital version of the original review (here), which includes two lead-off sentences not read by Mr. Ford into the Proceedings: “Whoever undertakes to conduct his life according to the precepts (if there be any) inculcated in this book, will find himself in a worse labyrinth than that of Crete. EMERSON never had a fixed opinion about anything.”

You can read a first edition of Emerson’s Conduct of Life (Boston: Ticknor and Fields, 1860) at the Historical Society, or online via the Internet Archive (click on “flip book” at the left margin).

Today @ MHS: Brown Bag, Annual Meeting

By Jeremy Dibbell

Note: the reading room will close at 3:30 p.m. today (Wednesday, 20 May) for setup purposes.

It’s going to be a busy day at the Historical Society!

Please join us at 12 noon for a brown-bag lunch with Alan Rogers, professor of history at Boston College and a 2009-10 New England Regional Fellowship Consortium fellow. Rogers will speak on “Smallpox and Skeptics: The Battle Over Compulsory Vaccination in Massachusetts.” This event will be held in the Dowse Library and is free and open to the public.

The MHS will hold its annual meeting beginning at 5:30 p.m., in Ellis Hall (the reading room). After Society business has been completed, attendees will enjoy the unveiling of the Massachusetts Historical Society’s newest publication, “Collecting History,” which details its vast collections. Peter Drummey, the Stephen T. Riley Librarian will conclude the meeting by talking about collection highlights.


Sedgwick Diaries Now Available

By Laura Lowell

We are pleased to announce that the diaries of Rev. Theodore Sedgwick (1863-1951) are now available for research. Sedgwick, an Episcopal minister, graduated from Harvard College in 1886 and from the Berkeley Divinity School in Middleton, Connecticut in 1890. He served as the rector of churches in New York City, Williamstown, Massachusetts, and St. Paul, Minnesota before becoming the rector of St. Paul’s American Church in Rome from 1930-1934.

Rev. Sedgwick’s diaries consist of 46 loose-leaf volumes dating from 1884 to 1950. Chronicling numerous European voyages and trips throughout the United States, as well as Sedgwick’s daily life in Rome, New York, Florida, and Sharon, Connecticut, they include newspaper clippings, postcards, photographs, letters, programs, brochures, and other mementos that have been pasted on pages opposite related text. Sedgwick begins regular journal-keeping in 1930, typing several pages each day for almost twenty years. His diaries eventually totaled 7,044 numbered pages compiled into two volumes per year. They came to MHS as a gift of his granddaughters in late 2008.

Sedgwick’s motivation for compiling these amazing volumes is best expressed in his own words: “For a number of years my ministry was in Italy, which meant a divided family. A daily record, type-written with carbons, one to each member of the family across the sea, held us together. The weekly letters went then, and have not stopped since to keep alive the bond created by the daily happenings, which although of slight moment, yet tell of thoughts and reading, of church-going and gatherings, of political rallies and candidates, of friends and all that happens in intimate associations. One copy I have always kept and its pages were bound, at first in alluring Italian leather covers, but now in simpler form. Against the pages I insert newspaper items, of which I have made mention, and at least these clippings form a history of importance.” (“Good Weaving: The Happy Values of Increasing Years,” The Evangel, March 1949)

With rich detail and gentle wit, Rev. Sedgwick, or “Teedy”, as he was known to his family, chronicles his observations of the Fascist revolution, the Great Depression, and World War II. My favorite diaries are those that he wrote in Rome (vols. 6-13), which contain many descriptions of the well-to-do American community in Rome, Sedgwick’s changing impressions of Italian dictator Benito Mussolini, and comments on Italian politics and culture. Here’s an example:

“Yesterday a priest came to me, I could not understand what he was driving at so I sent him to Sartorio. Henry told me he wanted to know of some rich American girls to whom he could affiance some poor Italian boys. Henry told him he was selling his soul. The priest did not like Henry.” (9 February 1933)

You can read more about Rev. Sedgwick and his diaries in the collection guide. MHS also holds a large multi-generational collection of Sedgwick Family papers (1717-1946), as well as the papers of Rev. Sedgwick’s brother, Ellery Sedgwick (1872-1960), former editor of the Atlantic Monthly.

MHS Remembers Longtime Member

By Jeremy Dibbell

David Herbert Donald, the Charles Warren professor of history emeritus at Harvard and a member of the MHS since 1960, died on Sunday at the age of 88. Mr. Donald’s many books included Lincoln’s Herndon (1948); Charles Sumner and the Coming of the Civil War (1960); Charles Sumner and the Rights of Man (1974); Look Homeward: A Life of Thomas Wolfe (1987); Lincoln (1995); and ‘We Are Lincoln Men’ (2003). With his wife Aida DiPace Donald, he edited a two-volume edition of The Diary of Charles Francis Adams, 1820-1829 (1964). He won Pulitzer Prizes for the first volume of his Sumner biography and for Homeward.

Dr. Donald was at work on a study of John Quincy Adams’ post-presidential career, which he spoke about during his last public lecture at the Historical Society, on 11 October 2006. He reported that he was delighted by the digital collection of JQA’s diaries, because they meant that he could work comfortably from home. In my notes from that talk, I wrote that a member of the audience asked a question after Donald’s lecture about how he’d decided to write the book, and he said his agent told him that the publisher wanted it done. “But I’m too old,” Donald said, to which the agent replied “You’re no older than Adams was and he kept at it.” Donald told the crowd that he kept saying no until the agent said “Listen, you have to write this book, you’re just as cranky and cantankerous as Adams ever was!” “And then,” Donald quipped, “I couldn’t say no.” In my notes from that night I also wrote how much I enjoyed listening to him speak – he had a wonderfully rich, Southern voice.

The first mention of David Herbert Donald in the MHS Proceedings was at the annual meeting in 1957, when Librarian Stephen T. Riley reported that he had visited the library for research purposes that year (Riley described Donald as having “been long engaged on his life of Charles Sumner”). The MHS elected Donald a corresponding member at the December 1960 meeting, and a resident member in January, 1975. Since 1963 he has been a member of the Adams Papers Editorial Advisory Board.

Donald, a native of Mississippi, was a graduate of Millsaps College (B.A., 1941) and the University of Illinois (Ph.D., 1946). He taught history at Columbia University, Smith College, Princeton University, Johns Hopkins University, as well as Harvard University. A full obituary appears in today’s Boston Globe.