The Beehive: the official blog of the Massachusetts Historical Society

Beyond John and John Quincy: Thomas Boylston Adams’ Letters and Diary

Thomas Boylston Adams, John and Abigail Adams’ youngest son, spent the majority of his life in the shadows of his father and his eldest brother, John Quincy. In part because of this—and much like his other brother, Charles—writers often overlook Thomas Boylston. Yet he might have been the most interesting of all.

In the next volume of Adams Family Correspondence, however, Thomas Boylston is a central figure. Thomas Boylston wrote fantastically detailed letters to family members. He also wrote to prominent Americans, including editor Joseph Dennie Jr. and U.S. diplomat Joseph Pitcairn. He offers detailed commentaries on not only Franco-American relations and the Quasi-War, but also on the French Revolution, the pageantry and partisanship of domestic politics, print culture, George Washington’s deification, and the intricacies of eighteenth-century travel, all of which he does with a certain panache not typically associated with the Adams men. When discussing allegations of Napoleon Bonaparte’s death on 2 March 1799, he noted, “I believe, nor care a whit about it.” In September 1799, after being presented with German documents, he told John Quincy: “I will never decypher a page of German writing without payment or the prospect of it. It begins to cost me money merely to profess myself a lawyer and I should very soon be insolvent if I practised it without reward or the hope of it.”

His diary is similar. It’s neither as comprehensive nor as prolonged as other Adams diaries, but it’s just as detailed and it’s written in the same style as his letters. Taken together, Thomas Boylston’s writings offer readers a unique picture of elite life in late eighteenth-century America.

On February 22, 1799, for instance, Thomas Boylston noted in his diary that he attended an event to commemorate “the birth day of ‘Columbia’s pride & boast,’” that is, George Washington. On 1 March, Thomas Boylston offered his father a brief summary of the event. He described himself as “animated by the glow of patriotism” and noted that he delivered a toast to “Miss Nelly Custis,” who had recently married Washington’s nephew, Lawrence Lewis. His diary, however, contains a far more effusive description, and, unlike in his letter, he detailed how many people were at the event and, more important, where it was held. Adams noted that about 250 people descended upon Concert Hall in Boston for “a Splendid entertainment.” The occasion was so “Splendid,” in fact, that he had “Had two very unaccountable falls in going home from Concert hall.” More than seventeen “national, spirited & well assorted toasts” were delivered that evening; it’s not hard to guess why he twice lost his footing. “Quer. The cause,” he ended the entry.

Most of Thomas Boylston’s letters and diary entries are similar—wonderfully written, full of personality, imagination, and memory. Perhaps upon the publication of the next Adams Family Correspondence volume, someone interested in Thomas Boylston Adams might put him in the spotlight.

permalink | Published: Wednesday, 25 May, 2016, 2:08 PM


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