Diary of Charles Francis Adams, volume 4

Friday. 11th.

Sunday. 13th.

Saturday. 12th. CFA


Saturday. 12th. CFA
Saturday. 12th.

Fine day. Went to the Office after wasting a good deal of time at Market. The greater part of my leisure was taken up in writing a long letter to my father. It does not say what I wished to say, nor is it in the manner I wanted to use, but I cannot wait to do better. My opinions upon the subject of his course of life are plainly given, and my views of my own situation at present with a request of advice from him, accompany them. His course for the last fourteen months has not been calculated to raise him in the judgment of the public. The examples of Washington, Jefferson and Madison have produced so strong an effect 175that a departure from their line of policy is considered as a departure from true dignity. I think his only course is to set seriously about writing a biography of my Grandfather and a thorough examination of his papers.1 My whole time was taken up until the time for my regular walk.

Afternoon finished the Lucullus, and began the Treatise de finibus2 which opens with an elegant defence of the study of philosophy, as unpopular it would seem at Rome as it is now. Copied part of my father’s letter.

Evening went to the Debating Society. Found nobody there and the Society defunct. Called at Mrs. Frothingham’s for my Wife and returned home. Copied and read the Spectator.


CFA to JQA, 12 Nov. (Adams Papers). The letter was partly an effort, in which there were elements of desperation, to win JQA again to literary pursuits and away from politics, and partly a plea for JQA’s help in resolving his own dilemma brought to crisis by JQA’s proposal to acquire the Boston Patriot for CFA to edit (above, entry for 19 Sept.).

As occasion for the renewal of his entreaty to JQA to give himself to the writing of JA’s life, CFA seized upon the editorial note by Robert Walsh in the National Gazette and Literary Register (Phila., 29 Oct., p. 1, col. 1) accompanying the publication in the same issue of a lengthy extract from JQA’s eulogy of James Monroe. After giving high praise both to the eulogy and to the 4th of July oration delivered at Quincy, Walsh wrote, “We trust that he will not be satisfied with these occasional contributions to our political literature.... Political elevation, official labors ... merely, do not suffice to give durable and solid posthumous renown.... We shall not be content with Mr. Adams until he has finished a volume of history; under which denomination we would place such a Life of his venerable father as he is said to have undertaken.”

Thus emboldened, CFA attacked before directing his fire upon himself:

“Three years have now elapsed and they have been witnesses to the most extraordinary irresolution I ever knew you seized by, which was continually laying upon the future what the present was the best time to execute. I have not been gratified by your election to Congress, I have felt little satisfaction in your occasional productions, for the reason that they employ the time in momentary objects, which should be devoted to a durable monument to your reputation. It seems idle to say that you can benefit the Country by doing in a subordinate situation what you have already had opportunities of doing in higher ones. The Nation wants a national Literature. It wants objects to attach itself to, apart from the English Idols set up to lead them astray—And these objects can come from none but men of high literary reputation. The Poet who devotes the time to trifles which might produce a sustained work is condemned immediately as an indolent Gentleman of genius. Why shall not the same rule be measured to others? I know that you can never be charged with any thing like Indolence in fact, but the moral effect is the same as if you could. I know that upon leaving here you expressed a decision as to the next Summer which would seem to supersede the necessity of my saying all this. But I have heard nearly the same words before and I have accustomed myself to believe that to rely upon what a man is to do some time hence is only one mode of building Castles in Spain. As Mr. Webster says, there are many incidents happen which cause ‘a change of position to meet new circumstances.’

“I have said nothing of another view of the subject because I know that it never will have any effect on you. You 176have lived in an age when Literature in this Country was at its lowest ebb, and have not watched the progress which it has made to be a profitable occupation. The present state of it is, that literary names carry success, provided the subject is popular. Any work, if it was not too large, would be good in a pecuniary point of view if you thought proper to make it so. The eagerness of publishers for this proves it—And to me, no other method presents itself of repairing your broken fortunes, so likely to be certain; but your system has been through life to pay no regard to considerations of this kind in writing, and I confess that I have not much expectation you will do so now.

“Perhaps what I have said ought not to have been said. If so, I regret it. My way is to express opinions freely without meaning the least disrespect. My own very profitless way of life ought and does prevent me any confidence of language as it respects others. But I have to start from the beginning, to get the materials before I can use them, and the process of acquiring is slow and uncertain. You have long possessed them without question, and nothing remains but to use them.

“It is useless to speak much of myself, but to you I may at least indulge more than to others. Sensible that I have now reached a time of life when action ought at least to commence and desirous as I feel myself of not throwing away time which ought to be useful, I see nothing but difficulty in the way. My position is perhaps a peculiar one. Entirely destitute of friends and relations here, either from accident or my peculiar character, yet enjoying a degree of respect and reputation from hereditary and other advantages, I am on one side without any artificial aid to raise me, and on the other, forced to act with greater caution that I may at least lose no portion of the ground already gained. My custom always has been to rely upon myself mainly in my course, and this, while it has freed me from all advice, has also tended to make me fearful of results. In this state of things, if there is any course which you think I can take, it would be agreeable to me if you would suggest it for my consideration.

“You will readily suppose that much of the preceding is occasioned by the proposition you made to me before you left here. On many accounts I would gladly have embraced it and I should now like exceedingly to connect myself with some publication though a literary would be more agreeable than a political one. But my vanity is not sufficient to drown my sense of the risk of a new undertaking and old ones are already overcrowded. It is not labour I would refuse if I could see any prospect of getting any thing by it. But I do wish to have some little certainty to go upon; to go backwards would be folly while I have so much to lose. It would be better for me to sleep twenty years.”


In the edition of Cicero CFA was reading, “De finibus bonorum et malorum” concludes the 14th volume.