Diary of Charles Francis Adams, volume 5



Thomas Baker Johnson, Attributed to Chester Harding facing or following page 212[unavailable]

Thomas Baker Johnson (1779—1843), only brother of Charles Francis Adams’ mother, in early 1836, on leaving for Europe with the intent to remain there, carried out his earlier plan to place his financial affairs entirely in the hands of his nephew, Charles Francis. Although the hoped–for improvement in his health did not occur and Johnson returned to America in 1838, Charles Francis Adams remained his agent and trustee until Johnson’s death, and thereafter under the terms of his will. Despite this manifestation of trust on the one side and magnanimity on the other, there was no intimacy between the two men. Indeed, Johnson was without any intimates, living his later life in a seclusion in Georgetown and Washington penetrated only by his immediate relatives. See below, p. 341; vol. 6:211, 339, 372; see also Thomas Baker Johnson, Will, 25 February 1842, Adams Papers, Microfilms, Reel No. 603.


As a young man Johnson had shown promise, and he was not without some mental powers even in his last years. He was a student at Harvard College from 1796 to 1798. He became deputy postmaster at New Orleans in 1810, retaining the post until 1824. During that period he was able to lay by out of his salary the $45,000.00 which he later turned over to his nephew to be invested. He seems always to have been inclined to parsimoniousness, fearing that poverty would overtake him as it had Joshua Johnson, his father.

Other fears, carried to extremes that suggest the pathological, increasingly possessed him. These included an abiding horror of Blacks, a terror that “encreased to a degree beyond remedy.... His Nights are destroyed by horrible visions; and the nervous suffocation and sweats that ensue exhaust his Frame to almost childish weakness” (Louisa Catherine Adams to John Quincy Adams, 8 November 1840; see also, same to Charles Francis Adams, 18 April 1836, 27 December 1840, all in Adams Papers). His diaries, maintained uncontinuously from 1807 to 1838 (Adams Papers, Microfilms, Reels 332—339), are revealing of this and only less so of his loathing of Jews. They show too a preoccupation with his maladies, both those which had clear and serious physiological manifestations and those which seem essentially hypochondriacal. Whether his self–absorption and self–deprivation of friends and society was the expression of a consuming indolence, or the reverse, it resulted in his retirement from all employment after 1824, seized and bound by the “great demon of Ennui” (vol. 6:16, below). Brief sketches of Johnson are at vol. 1:443, above, and in Diary and Autobiography of John Adams , Cambridge, 1961, 3:240; an overview of his life is undertaken by Louisa Catherine Adams in letters to her husband, 10 July 1834, and to her son, 18–21, 29 March 1838, all Adams Papers; see also Adams Genealogy.

What significance attaches to Johnson’s manifest interest in portraits of himself and of members of his family is a subject for speculation. It was Johnson who in 1816 had Charles Robert Leslie commissioned to paint the likenesses of John Quincy and Louisa Catherine Adams which he gave to Charles Francis Adams in 1836 (vol. 6:372, 386, below; Andrew Oliver, Portraits of John Quincy Adams and his Wife, Cambridge, 1970, p. 57–64). He also sat for at least two portraits of himself. One, done probably in 1820 and attributed to “Thomas Sully or a student,” was owned in 1967 by William C. J. Doolittle of Barneveld, New York, an Adams descendant. That reproduced in the present volume of a somewhat older sitter than the other, hangs in the Old House in Quincy, the gift of Charles Francis Adams 2d to whom it had been bequeathed by Robert C. Buchanan, a nephew of Thomas Baker Johnson. A note in Adams’ hand, dated 1903, on the back of the painting attributes the portrait to Chester Harding, on what grounds is not known. One of the surviving likenesses may be that for which Johnson sat to Charles Bird King in 1823 (Louisa Catherine Adams to Charles Francis Adams, 13 June 1823, Adams Papers).

Courtesy of the National Park Service, Adams National Historic site.