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.

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Wednesday, 25 May, 2016, 2:08 PM

This Week @ MHS

It's tough to be believe that we are almost at the end of the month, but here we are hurtling toward Memorial Day. Before the summer unofficially begins, come by the MHS for some history! Once again, we have a week that is heavy with Brown Bag talks, along with a couple other items of note. 

- Monday, 23 May, 12:00PM : Karen Weyler, University of North Carolina at Greensboro, kicks off the week with her Brown Bag entitled "Serendipity and Literary History: The Problem of 'Firstness' in Histories of the American Novel." Weyler discusses how some of her findings here at the MHS might challenge traditional inception points for literary histories of fiction in British Ameria and the early United States. As always, Brown Bag talks are free and open to the public. 

- Tuesday, 24 May, 6:00PM : Join us for a conversation with Joseph Bagley, Boston Archaeologist and Author, who will talk about "A History of Boston in 50 Artifacts." As a result of the Big Dig and the artifacts it unearthed, Bagley uncovers a fascinating hodgepodge of history that will surprise and delight even longtime residents. This talk is open to the public free of charge, though registration is required. A pre-talk reception begins at 5:30PM and the program starts at 6:00PM. 

- Wednesday, 25 May, 12:00PM : The second Brown Bag talk of the week is "'For the Good of the Country': Captive Trade Networks in the Colonial Northeast, 1630-1763." Join Joanne Jahnke Wegner, University of Minnesota, as she discusses her project which examines the commodification of captive peoples who were trafficked in the colonies, across imperial borders, and into the Atlantic world. This talk is free and open to the public. 

- Thursday, 26 May : This is your last chance to view The Private Jefferson, our current exhibition. The exhibit will close for good at 4:00PM on Thursday. Be sure to come in for a look before it's gone!

- Friday, 27 May, 12:00PM : To round out the trifecta of Brown Bag talks this week, stop by on Friday for "From the Partisan Press to the Political Procedural." This talk features Mary Hale of the University of Illinois - Chicago, whose project considers the development of a new post-Civil War genre of political novels specifically by looking at Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner's The Gilded Age and Henry Adams' Democracy.  

The Society is CLOSED on Saturday, 28 May, and Monday, 30 May, in observance of Memorial Day. Normal hours resume on Tuesday, 31 May

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Sunday, 22 May, 2016, 12:00 AM

Natural Beauty

Spring has officially, if tardily, sprung here in Boston and researchers and staff alike are again staring distractedly out of the reading room windows at the green grass, new leaves, and vibrant sunshine.

To draw our wandering attention back inside, I decided to showcase a few examples of early Bostonians preserving and portraying the natural world in all its beauty.

While the MHS offers countless examples of artistic depictions of nature, I chose just two to share here: one for its pure beauty, the other for its scientific bent.

The first is a nondescript volume from the Quincy-Howe family papers. Labeled as “Flower paintings, clippings -- Eliza S. Quincy,” and dating to the mid-19th century, the volume is part scrapbook, part sketchbook, with newspaper clippings of familial news mounted opposite hand-drawn sketches of ornate flowers.

Colorful painting of a flower in Eliza S. Quincy’s 19th century album of flower paintings and clippings

The emphasis of this work is artistic, the mood of the drawings complements the clippings. They are at turns mournful and celebratory, with romantic lines and rich colors.

A painting of a somewhat mournful-looking flower sits opposite a 1867 poem on the life and death of J.W.R.

A delicately-colored painting of a flower in full bloom is unaccompanied by a newspaper clipping

From a similar period (1850s-1870s) the second example is far more scientific, although the beauty of nature is not lost on the viewer (or creator).

The cover of Ocean Mosses from 1872, owned, if not assembled, by Mrs. Edwin Lamson

Inside 3 bound volumes from the Lamson family papers are pressed clippings of “ocean mosses” and “ocean flowers” collected along New England coastlines. Some are identified with binomial nomenclature, others are left unlabeled. All are impressively well intact for being approximately one-hundred-and-fifty years old.

An unlabeled segment of ocean moss from a Lamson family volume entitled Ocean Mosses c. 1850

A labeled segment of ocean moss from Mrs. Edwin Lamson’s 1872 volume

Even though this collection tend towards a more scientific look at underwater nature, the elegance and beauty of these plants prevails.

Artfully arranged ocean mosses surround a poem in Mrs. Edwin Lamson’s June 22, 1872 volume

The poem wreathed by moss reads:


fanned by the

winds of a summer

parterre, Whose gales

are but sighs of an evening

air, Our delicate, fragile and 

exquisite forms, Were nursed

by the billows, and rocked

By the storms. 

Investigating a bit, this appears to be a slightly modified verse of a longer poem entitled “Seaweeds”:

Oh call us not weeds, but flowers of the sea,

For lovely, and gay, and bright-tinted are we;

Our blush is as deep as the rose of thy bowers,

Then call us not weeds, -- we are ocean’s gay flow’rs,

Not nurs’d like the plants of the summer parterre,

Whose gales are but sighs of an evening air;

Our exquisite, fragile, and delicate forms

Are the prey of the ocean when vex’d with his storms

I found several versions of this poem, although few bore official attribution. One version, attributed to a Miss Elizabeth Aveline of Lyme Regis, England, that I found most interesting was mentioned in a book by Patricia Pierce on Mary Anning, an English paleontologist whose early 19th century discoveries of Jurassic marine fossils helped shape our scientific understanding of the world. Pierce mentions how Anning scrawled this poem in an album under a clutch of dried seaweed. An eerily similar description to Lamson’s treatment pictured above.

While I found no reference to Anning amongst the Lamson volumes, this tentative, poetic link piqued my interest in the transatlantic discussions of scientific discoveries had by 19th century women. A topic I am sure to continue exploring.

If 19th century depictions of the natural world strike your fancy and you would like to see these volumes in person, please feel free to stop in and visit our library. If you are interested in seeing what other materials we have related to botany and the beauty of nature you can browse our online catalog, ABIGAIL, from the comfort of your own home.


comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Saturday, 21 May, 2016, 3:43 PM

Following Their Bliss: Two Very Different Trips to California

Serendipity is one of the great things about working in archives. Just a few months apart, the MHS acquired, purely by chance, two collections related to members of the Bliss family. Pelatiah Lawrence Bliss (Lawrence to his friends) and James Wheaton Bliss were very, very, very distant cousins. In fact, to trace their exact connection, you’d have to go back many generations, to the 17th century.

While Lawrence and James were contemporaries, there’s no reason to believe they knew—or even knew about—each other. And they didn’t have much in common. Lawrence (1821-1851) was the youngest child of a West Springfield, Mass. tanner. He tried his hand at various careers, working as a store clerk, teacher, and farmer in Georgia, Alabama, and Michigan, apparently without much happiness or success at any of them.

James (1825-1875), on the other hand, was an established Boston businessman. According to the Bliss family genealogy published by a relative, “as a prominent and successful merchant in the clothing trade [James] was highly esteemed. […] Few men of his age were more frequently consulted by their business associates.” He served on the Executive Committee of the Boston Board of Trade.

I did find one interesting parallel between Lawrence and James: both men traveled from Boston to San Francisco, though under dramatically different circumstances. In 1849, Lawrence joined the California Gold Rush and sailed on the Drummond around Cape Horn. The trip took seven months. Twenty-one years later, his distant cousin James rode on the first chartered transcontinental railroad excursion to San Francisco and back. He was home in just over a month.

Both manuscript collections are small, but Lawrence’s papers consist primarily of correspondence, including a detailed 18-page letter he wrote during his voyage on the Drummond. He seemed to have no illusions about his prospect for success in the Gold Rush, worrying, as he watched a sunset, about how “deceitful luster” can lead to “perished expectations.”



James’s train trip was luxurious. A colleague described the Pullman excursion here at the Beehive a few years ago. The MHS has also digitized a broadside about the trip, as well as the first issue of the newspaper printed on the train. You can find James and his teenage daughter Josie, who accompanied him, listed on both documents. I don’t have a picture of James, but here’s Josie, with the receipt for their fare.


Lawrence was unfortunately unsuccessful as a gold prospector. On 8 Aug. 1850, he wrote home, “Misfortune, disaster, & disappointment seem to have attended me ever since I arrived in the country. […] Don’t let anybody come to California whom you can influence.” And a few weeks later, “I cannot blame myself for my ill success, as I have done the best I could.” He died penniless in San Francisco just three days shy of his thirtieth birthday.

As for James, he married Sarah Jane Wood in 1849 (the same year of Lawrence’s fateful trip west) and had six children, four of whom lived to adulthood. He died in 1875.

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Wednesday, 18 May, 2016, 2:40 PM

This Week @ MHS

It feels like spring finally arrived here in Boston. Why not get outside and take a walk to the MHS for some public programs? This week we are heavy on our lunchtime Brown Bag talks, but there are also a couple other public programs to balance things out. Here's what's coming:

- Monday, 16 May, 12:00PM : The first Brown Bag talk of the week is titled "Valuing the Body of the Enslaved: From the Cradle to the Grave." Pack a lunch and come listen to short-term research fellow Daina Ramey Berry of the University of Texas at Austin. Berry presents her framework for understanding the valuation of enslaved peoples from birth to beyond death, based on 10 years of research in northern and southern archives. This talk is free and open to the public. 

- Monday, 16 May, 6:00PM : "Jefferson the Architect" is the final public program from the Jefferson Series, which centers around our current exhibition. In this talk, Henry Adams of Case Western Reserve University explores the impact of Jefferson in American architecture and the legacy he has left on our country's built environment. This talk is open to the public, though registration is required with a fee of $20 (no charge for MHS Fellows and Members). There is a pre-talk reception at 5:30PM and the talk begins at 6:00PM. 

 - Wednesday, 18 May, 12:00PM : Brown Bag talk number two this week is presented by Sarah Templier of Johns Hopkins University, and is called "The Lives of Textiles: Trading and Consuming Clothing, Fabrics, and Apparel Accessories in French and British North America, 1720s-1770s." The progam presents an overview of Templier's dissertation research. This talk is free and open to the public. 

- Thursday, 19 May, 6:00PM : POSTPONED: "Mass Momentum: Highlighting the Innovation Hub."

- Friday, 20 May, 12:00PM : The third and final Brown Bag talk this week features Travis Jacquess, University of Mississippi. In his talk, "'My Principles for Government...Are Fixed,' Declarations of Independence between Fathers and Sons in the Age of Revolution," Jacquess argues that the spirit of of independence - the spirit of '76 - gave rise to the spirit of individualism, which was passed from father to son as a natural product of their experience in the Revolution and their engagement in the new American Republic. This talk is free and open to the public. 

- Saturday, 21 May, 1:00PM : Join us for the final instalment of this season's discussion of primary readings, Begin at the Beginning, led by Dr. Abby Chandler. "John Gyles' Odd Adventure : A Different Captivity Narrative" tells a story of his upbringing among the Micmac and Maliseet peoples: a story of understanding and respect, unlike most Puritan captivity narratives that tell tales of horror and fear. This program is open to the public and registration is required at no cost; Please RSVP

Finally, if you have not yet come in to see the Private Jefferson, your time is running out. The exhibition remains on view to the public through Wednesday, May 26. Don't miss it!

There is no Saturday tour this week



comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Sunday, 15 May, 2016, 12:00 AM

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