Adams Family Correspondence, volume 2


Guide to Editorial Apparatus

Some Books the Adamses Read during the Revolution facing 263[unavailable]

Mottin de La Balme's Essais sur l'équitation. “We shall have all the Sages and Heroes of France here before long,” John Adams wryly observed to his wife at the beginning of a letter from Congress, 18 June 1777 (p. 267–268, below). Among other French soldiers of fortune whose arrival he reported was Capitaine Augustin Mottin xiiide La Balme, “a great Writer upon Horsemanship and Cavalry.” This officer had thoughtfully brought along with him a supply of his own books, and he presented copies of two of them to Adams, who La Balme knew was president of the Continental Board of War and who was at this time, whether or not La Balme knew it, an active collector of books on military science. The books presented were Essais sur l'équitation . . . , Amsterdam and Paris, 1773, the titlepage of which is reproduced here, and Elémens de tactique pour la cavalerie . . . , Paris, 1776. Both remain among John Adams' books in the Boston Public Library, along with other treatises attesting their owner's eagerness to become a military expert even though he never achieved his ambition to command troops in the field. La Balme, as things turned out, proved merely troublesome to Washington, did not last long as inspector of Continental cavalry, and wandered off to the Ohio country, where he was killed by Little Turtle's Indians in 1780.

Smollett's History of England. History being so obviously in the making all around them during the campaigns of the Revolution, everyone in the Adams family read historical books with avidity. On 2 June 1777 John Quincy Adams, then going on ten, wrote his father: “I have Set myself a Stent, and determine to read the 3d volume [of Tobias Smollett's History of England] Half out” by the end of the week; on the 8th he reported he had “almost” done so by spending several hours a day at his book instead of idling away his time on “Trifles and play” (p. 254–255, 261, below).

Charles Rollin's Method of Teaching and Studying the Belles Lettres. Three days after Congress adopted the Declaration of Independence, John Adams sent his wife a long letter discussing the education of their children and particularly the best means of their acquiring a fluent and effective literary style. “There is a Book,” he wrote, “which I wish you owned, I mean Rollins Belles Letters, in which the Variations of Style” — the epistolary, the oratorical, the historical, &c. — “are explained” (7 July 1776, p. 39–41, below). This three-volume work was procured (though precisely when is not known) in a copy of the sixth edition, London, 1769, and joined numerous other books by the very popular French writer Charles Rollin (1661–1741), concerning whom see Mrs. Adams' letter to her husband, 19 August 1774 (vol. 1:142–143).

Dodsley's Preceptor. In 1748 the London printer-publisher Robert Dodsley issued The Preceptor, with a very long subtitle and a list of the contents on the titlepage (here illustrated), aiming to furnish in two stout volumes and numerous engraved plates “A General Course of Education” embodying “THE FIRST PRINCIPLES OF POLITE LEARNING” in all fields, from “Reading, Speaking, and Writing Letters” through “Arithmetic,” “Geography,” “Chronology and History,” “Drawing,” “Logic,” “Natural History,” “Ethics,” and “Trade and Commerce,” to “Human Life and Manners.” Dr. Samuel Johnson wrote the preface, and various sections were prepared by good authorities under Dodsley's xiveditorship. The volumes contain both expository essays and illustrative readings in the subjects dealt with, and the work as a whole forms a remarkable compendium of human knowledge at the time that deserved and obtained wide circulation and long use in schools and homes. The present edition, it will be noted, is the fifth, published in 1769. John Adams discovered The Preceptor when he was in college, and in a diary entry of 5 June 1771 he put down a reminder to himself: “I hope I shall not forget to purchase these Preceptors, and to make my Sons transcribe this Treatise on Logick entirely with their own Hands, in fair Characters, as soon as they can write, in order to imprint it on their Memories. Nor would it hurt my Daughter to do the same” ( Diary and Autobiography , 2:24–25). In his letter to Mrs. Adams about their children's education, 7 July 1776, Adams recommended their reading particular letters of Pliny the Younger and John Gay, to be found in The Preceptor, as models of epistolary style, which should always be “simple, natural, easy, and familiar” (p. 39–41, below). In the set of The Preceptor now among the Adams books in the Boston Public Library, the first volume is a replacement copy, but on a flyleaf in the second volume appears the inscription “Abigail Adams 1772” in the round formal hand John Adams used for special occasions. This must indicate that he promptly carried out the intent of his diary entry in 1771 and then gave the books to his wife because she was the principal instructress of their young children.

Courtesy of the Boston Public Library.