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Browsing: Adams Family Correspondence, Volume 2

This note contained in document ADMS-04-02-02-0016
9. This and the preceding letter, embodying JA's reflections in the course of the day after the United States became a nation, acquired early and deserved celebrity. But the history of their early publication and textual garbling offers a striking illustration of how difficult it is to overcome popular errors, or, to invert an idealistic saying, how error, crushed to earth, will rise again.
Only a summary of that history can be given here, and this summary is drawn largely from Charles Warren's article, “The Doctored Letters of John Adams,” MHS, Procs., 68 (1944–1947):160–170, a learned and skillful piece of scholarly detective work. Warren points out that the two JA letters to his wife dated 3 July were apparently first printed (the first of them with an indicated omission at the beginning of the text) in the Universal Asylum and Columbian Magazine for May 1792 (8:313–315) as part of a series of JA's Revolutionary letters. No explanation of their provenance is given there, and the identity of the recipient is in both cases disguised by the salutation “Sir.” (The texts as printed derive ultimately from JA's letterbook copies, are quite faithful, and were presumably supplied by some member of his actual or official family who had access to his letterbooks. JA himself, in a letter to JQA of 19 Sept. 1795 [Adams Papers], alluded to the printing of this “Letter,” as he called it, and said he prized it “above a statue or a Monument—merely as Evidence of my Opinion at that time and of my Courage to avow it”; but he gave no hint of how publication occurred.) On 4 July 1792 the Philadelphia Gazette of the United States reprinted these texts, with a brief tribute to the Vice-President's powers as a prophet.
On 1 July 1795 the Federalist Columbian Centinel of Boston published a letter from “An American,” who argued that his fellow Americans had all along been celebrating the wrong day (the Fourth of July) as the anniversary of independence; they ought, he said, to celebrate the Second. As evidence, he quoted “extracts of two letters, from Mr. JOHN ADAMS to a friend,” consisting of the seventh paragraph of JA's first letter of 3 July (“Yesterday the greatest Question . . .”) and the last two paragraphs of JA's second letter (“But the Day is past . . .”). “As a friend to propriety,” he concluded, “I could wish to see the alteration take place.”
Nine years later, in the same paper, 23 June 1804, “Seventy-Six” urged the same point, though in more sharply partisan terms. “Seventy-Six” cited the same passages from JA's “letters to a friend” of 3 July 1776 as proof that JA was the “efficient agent in this glorious work [of independence],” whereas Jefferson was an “adventitious” agent, merely { 32 } “penning a bill, after the principles [had] been decided upon.”
This argument having made little headway, a nameless Federalist writer took a different tack the next year. In the Boston Gazette for 4 July 1805 appeared a long, unsigned letter eulogizing the services of Washington and JA, and to this were appended the now familiar passages from JA's letters, run together and treated as if they constituted a single letter in and of themselves. The direction at the foot of the text reads: “To Mr.——,” which was by now canonical, but the date at the head of the letter as printed in 1805 reads “July 5, 1776,” and in the passage on celebrating the national anniversary the second sentence is altered to read “The Fourth day of July 1776, will be a memorable epocha,” &c., to square it with the doctored dateline.
This mode of reconciling the two national political parties' differing views on how (or rather when) the United States of America was born met with great and altogether undeserved success. Newspapers and holiday orators happily and frequently printed and quoted JA's “letter” on celebrating the “Fourth” of July. (In one case the hybrid document with its erroneous date appeared in the very same issue of a paper to which JA contributed autobiographical recollections on another subject; see the Boston Patriot, 4 July 1810.) Not until 1819 was there a clarification forthcoming, and it came directly from JA, who after AA's death late in 1818 had been rummaging among his old papers. On 16 Feb. 1819 JA wrote to Judge Thomas Dawes of Boston, a close friend and a connection by marriage, reminding him that “Once on a time, upon my Stony field Hill, you interrogated me concerning that extract [frequently printed in newspapers from JA's letter or letters of 3 July 1776] in so particular a manner that I thought you felt a tincture of pyrrhonism concerning its authenticity.” To settle any such doubts, JA offered to show Dawes the originals in JA's own hand, but meanwhile he enclosed full texts of the two letters addressed to AA, “one in the morning, and the other in the evening of . . . the day after the vote of Independence” (LbC in an unidentified hand, Adams Papers). Dawes communicated both enclosures, together with JA's letter to him and a valuable introductory note of his own, to the Columbian Centinel, where all of them were printed on 3 July 1819.
Thus were made available, for the first time, complete and substantially faithful texts of JA's two famous and prophetic letters, with their correct dates and a correct identification of their recipient. (These texts were actually drawn from JA's letterbooks, without comparison with the recipient's copies.) They were given still wider circulation and made permanently available by being reprinted in Hezekiah Niles' Principles and Acts of the Revolution in America . . ., Baltimore, 1822, p. 328–330. And yet just two days after they had appeared fully and correctly in the Centinel, another Boston paper, the Independent Chronicle, which held Republican views, printed an extract from one of them under the wrong date of 5 July 1776, “the day after the passage of the memorable Declaration of Independence”; and it did so again at the annual returns of the national anniversary in 1822, 1824, and 1826. Doubtless other papers did so too. What is more, the handsomely printed and decorated cards of admission to the Fourth of July feasts at Faneuil Hall in Boston now annually bore the old, telescoped, mangled, and misdated text of JA's “letter” from Philadelphia; two specimens of these—one directed to JA in 1821, and the other to JQA in 1824—are reproduced as illustrations in the present volume.
By this time even the Federalist Centinel, which had printed authentic texts and a full éclaircissement seven years earlier, was ready to cave in under dint of repetition. On 5 July 1826, the day after JA's death, it quoted him in support of celebrating “the Fourth of July” with “pomp, shows, games,” and all the rest. Editor Niles caved in too. His obituary tribute to JA reprinted the garbled version of the letters that had been in circulation for decades (Niles' Register, 30:345 [15 July 1826]. That version remained standard through the first half of the century, even after correct (though normalized) texts from the recipient's copies had been printed in { 33 } JA's Letters (1841).
In printing these texts, CFA for some reason did not allude to the corrupt and popular version or versions of them until he issued the JA–AA Familiar Letters in 1876. There, at p. 193, he furnished an editorial note that almost apologizes for having upset a tradition by presenting accurate texts, and explains that the initial garbling was done by JA's nephew and sometime secretary, William Smith Shaw (1778–1826), later well known as “Athenaeum” Shaw, on whom see the Adams Genealogy. Presumably the doctored text published in the Boston Gazette of 4 July 1805 was the one concocted by Shaw, but the present editors have not found the evidence on which CFA attributed it to him.
Cite web page as: Founding Families: Digital Editions of the Papers of the Winthrops and the Adamses, ed.C. James Taylor. Boston: Massachusetts Historical Society, 2018.