From the Papers of JQA’s Diary

by Doug Girardot, Adams Papers Intern

John Quincy Adams, after 1860
Carte de visite of daguerrotype by Brady’s National Photographic Portrait Galleries, [Matthew B. Brady], after 1860
In June, I began my internship with the Adams Papers editorial project at the MHS and started working on the Diary of John Quincy Adams, led by the wonderful Neal Millikan.

There was just one problem: I didn’t care about John Quincy Adams. What’s more, I knew almost nothing about him, apart from the fact that he was John Adams’s son and served as president.

As it turns out, your perceptions of someone change a lot when you read dozens upon dozens of pages from their personal diary. After transcribing and proofreading several months’ worth of his writings and doing web encoding for over a year of entries, I ended up getting to know quite a bit about the ins and outs of John Quincy Adams. Three months or so later, I think JQA, as we affectionately abbreviate him in the Adams Papers, is one of the most fascinating figures in American history.

JQA kept a behemoth of a personal record: his diary comprises fifty-one volumes, which he wrote over the course of 68 years beginning when he was twelve years old. They provide an unparalleled window onto the period between the nation’s founding in the last quarter of the 1700s and the time when a distinct national identity of the United States began to coalesce by the mid-1800s.

Despite the Homeric scale of his diaries, their small details are even more interesting than the grand geopolitical narratives which they convey.

His writings about religion are fascinating, and it’s amazing to glance into what religion looked like in the adolescent years of an independent America. Every Sunday, JQA quoted the readings from church and summarized the preacher’s sermon. Then, he bluntly—and often ruthlessly—critiqued the homilist’s eloquence and speaking style before proceeding to give his judgement on the theological contents and coherence of the sermon itself. About Rev. William Newell, minister of the First Parish of Cambridge, JQA wrote:

“His discourses are sensible and moral, but neither brilliant nor profound. The theological school at Cambridge, is yearly producing several such clergymen, and they are introducing a uniformity of composition and delivery, superior to those of their predecessors of the last age, but which leaves a desire for more variety at least of manner—” (28 August 1836)

Good reviews from JQA—something like the Roger Ebert of his time for religious services—were few and far between.

And while it is intellectually interesting to read about his solemn take on religion, it is outright fun to read words crafted in his decidedly less pious side. Peppered throughout his diary are insults which only a well-traveled, bookish, Harvard-educated, diplomat-turned-president-turned-legislator could concoct. Take this passage from his time in Congress, in which he gracefully provided his thoughts on prospective presidential candidates for the election of 1844:

“Buchanan is the shadow of a shade and General Scott is a Daguerrotype likeness of a candidate—all sunshine, through a camera obscura. . . . M’Lean, is but a second edition of John Tyler—vitally democratic, double-dealing and hypocritical—” (3 April 1843)

While at first it can be challenging to connect with someone from around two hundred years ago, for whom daguerreotype was modern technology, a further look provides glimpses of timeless humanity that makes JQA resemble what he really was—a person.

This comes through in his reflections on the quotidian tasks of keeping up with his correspondence, diary, and speeches, all of which he spent countless hours composing in addition to his regular duties as a statesman. Though JQA may have been a prolific and erudite writer, it didn’t come easily. Many a student in the midst of a paper can relate to his comments regarding backlogged diary entries which he was working on:

“Had I spent upon any work of Science or Literature, the time employed upon this Diary, it might perhaps have been permanently useful to my Children and my Country— I have devoted too much time to it— My physical powers sink under it—” (20 March 1821)

Diary entry for 20 March 1821 by JQA
John Quincy Adams diary, 20 March 1821

More than simply an austere historical figure, JQA strikes me in his writing as a genuinely good person, striving to do what was right. Toward the end of his life, he undertook the writing of a speech to advocate for the abolition of slavery. While it was a daunting and exhausting project, JQA pressed on, determined

“to leave behind me something which may keep alive the flame of liberty and preserve it in that conflict between Slavery and freedom which is drawing to its crisis and which is to brighten, or to darken the condition of the human race upon earth—” (11 April 1843)

Keeping up with his writing might have been a constant source of pressure for JQA, but I am certainly grateful that he did it anyway. Without these invaluable records, he might well have remained just another name in a textbook for me. Fortunately, interning at the MHS has furnished me the opportunity to discover the vibrant, devoted, intelligent, sometimes curmudgeonly, but always loveable character that he was.

Abigail Adams’s “curious conversation” with Thomas Jefferson

by Hobson Woodward, Series Editor, Adams Family Correspondence

Volume 14 of the Adams Family Correspondence, published by Harvard University Press, arrived in the Adams Papers offices last month. Spanning the period October 1799 through February 1801, the volume chronicles the final months of Abigail and John Adams’s public service. Among the 277 documents included in the book is one that records a “curious conversation” between Abigail and the family’s former friend and political rival, Thomas Jefferson. The conversation took place at a dinner party in January 1801. A month earlier, presidential electors had cast their ballots. While the official election results would not be announced until 11 February, John Adams’s loss was already widely presumed. Ultimately, it was the House of Representatives that determined the outcome of the election of 1800, casting 36 ballots before breaking the electoral tie between Jefferson and Aaron Burr on 17 February. Thus, the tension of the moment makes the conversation between Abigail Adams and Thomas Jefferson all the more extraordinary.

25 January 1801 letter from Abigail Adams to Thomas Boylston Adams
Letter from Abigail Adams to Thomas Boylston Adams, 25 January 1801

Abigail enclosed her transcript of the conversation with a 25 January 1801 letter to her son Thomas Boylston, telling him that it “was not heard by any one but ourselves, as we spoke low.” The enclosure relates an impressive exchange on Washington politics, where the president’s wife and one of the contenders for his replacement offered their impressions of a partisan Congress and ruminated on the characters of particular members. The give-and-take was frank, unrestrained. Thomas Jefferson said he avoided attending the House of Representatives, writing, “I am sure there are persons there who would take a pleasure in saying something, purposely to affront me.” Abigail Adams was equally candid, noting, “Some are mere Brutes, others are Gentlemen— but party Spirit, is a blind spirit.”

enclosure, Adams Family Papers, MHS
enclosure, Adams Family Papers, MHS

The conversation then turned to the Senate’s debate over the ratification of the Convention of 1800, an agreement that ended the Quasi-War and resulted from John Adams’s decision to send a second peace mission to France. Thomas Jefferson believed the Senate would not give its advice and consent, a position that surprised Abigail Adams given that mercantile interests favored ratification. If defeat did occur, Abigail claimed the fault would lay with Federalists allied with Alexander Hamilton, who had opposed the president’s diplomatic efforts. “There have always been a party determined to defeat it from the first sending the Mission,” Abigail said, adding, “I Mean the Hamiltonians; they must abide the concequences.”

The conversation came to a close when the vice president attempted to broach the subject of what the House would do about the deadlocked presidential election. There, the First Lady declined to respond. The election “is a subject which I do not chuse to converse upon,” Abigail claimed. Instead, she offered a telling anecdote:

I have heard of a Clergyman who upon some difficulty amongst his people, took a text from these words—“and they knew not what to do”—from whence he drew this      inference, []that when a people were in such a Situation, that they do not know what         to do; they should take great care that they do not do—they know not what.”

To that, Abigail wrote, “he laught out, and here ended the conversation.”

enclosure, Adams Family Papers, MHS
enclosure, Adams Family Papers, MHS

Future volumes of Adams Family Correspondence will include letters between Abigail Adams and Thomas Jefferson both before and after the breach in their relationship that lasted from 1804 to 1813. The letters provide fascinating insight into the friendship between the Adamses and Jefferson, though none reveal quite the same rapport as Abigail did when she took up her quill to transcribe her “curious conversation” with Thomas Jefferson.

The Adams Papers editorial project at the Massachusetts Historical Society gratefully acknowledges the generous support of our sponsors. Major funding is provided by the National Endowment for the Humanities, the National Historical Publications and Records Commission, and the Packard Humanities Institute. The Florence Gould Foundation and a number of private donors also contribute critical support. All Adams Papers volumes are published by Harvard University Press.

@JQAdams_MHS Celebrating 1 Decade of Diary Entries on Twitter!

by Alexandra Bush, Digital Production Assistant

Screenshot of JQA Twitter page
@JQAdams_MHS Twitter Page

Today marks the 10 year anniversary of the @JQAdams_MHS Twitter feed, which tweeted its first entry from John Quincy Adams’ line-a-day diary on 5 August 2009! The MHS staff has diligently posted one entry every day since, exactly 200 years after each was recorded by JQA, e.g. posting his 5 August, 1809 entry on 5 August, 2009 and so on. Since then we have accompanied him through all manner of wild weather, meetings, portrait sittings, evening walks, trips abroad, political debates, astronomical observations, and more. While JQA’s line-a-day entries aren’t exactly verbose, they provide an evocative look into his daily life.

The journey began in 2009, or 1809 for JQA, on the eve of his tenure as the United States’ ambassador to Russia, where he dined with Czar Alexander I and negotiated and signed the Treaty of Ghent. Next we followed him to London upon his appointment as envoy and ambassador to Great Britain in 1815/2015, marking the beginning of a years-long string of complaints about the dreary weather. JQA became Secretary of State to President James Monroe in 1817/2017, whereupon he returned to Washington, D.C. These past few years have seen JQA firmly establishing his presence in the capitol; assisting in matters of international relations, helping to formally define the borders of the United States, and baring his soul to the world every summer morning during his nude Potomac swims. What’s in store for the future? Only time—or our meticulously digitized, transcribed, and fully searchable web database of each of his diaries from 1779 to 1848—will tell.

Our followers’ impressions of JQA’s succinct line-a-day entries are one of the best parts of this venture. It is wonderful to see how words written 200 years ago can still be impactful today.

@Loiarchives writes:
@JQAdams_MHS Dear JQA, why do I find your tweets so calming? 

@SpiritbearNY writes:
Huh. He felt about his journal, which consumed his mornings, the way many of us feel about our use of social media. At least he was documenting history, though, not rage tweeting about his political enemies. 🙄

@fararelliott writes:
I love JQA – a bath is essential to celebrating Independence Day.

@k59griffie writes:
Another luscious word from the diary of @JQAdams_MHS : “underwitted.” He has given me two great words:  vagarious and underwitted.  I am happy.

Sometimes, though, the voice of a long-dead historical figure on a modern social media site can be a little confusing.

@AngusDoubleBeef asks:
Is this really John Quincy Adams or like a fan account?

Regardless of your views on the possibility of tweeting from beyond the grave, we encourage anyone with a Twitter account to follow @JQAdams_MHS. Join us as we finish out his Secretary of State years and celebrate his presidency in 2025! None of this would have been possible without the tireless work of the members of the Adams Papers Editorial Project, whose long hours of transcription provide us with a constantly growing source of fascinating JQA writings. You can find images and transcriptions of JQA’s diary including line-a-day entries, long-form entries, drafts, and more, on the MHS website. See full page images here http://www.masshist.org/jqadiaries/php/ and transcriptions of long entries here https://www.masshist.org/publications/jqadiaries/index.php.