John Adams, Abigail Adams, John Quincy Adams, Correspondence, Adams family, Thomas Boylston Adams, Charles Adams
One of the perks of historical study is getting paid to read other people’s mail. Especially in the era of the early republic, many of our research subjects used letters for a myriad of purposes—including but not limited to self-justifying, explaining, reporting, investigating, debating, wooing, complaining, celebrating, venting, keeping a family together, and exchanging gossip. All of these uses of letter-writing are on enlightening and entertaining display in the eleventh volume of the Adams Family Correspondence.
Reviewers of previous installments of the Adams Papers, now nearing its sixth decade, have rightly extolled it as one of the most remarkable documentary-editing projects comprising what historian William W. Freehling called the “documentary-editing revolution.” From this beginning of this vast project (the raw material for which fills 508 reels of microfilm), its editors recognized the need to divide it into concurrently published series, to ensure continuing productivity for the whole enterprise and to recognize the genres representing the Adams family’s assiduous labors with the pen. (Other series present diaries and autobiographies, general and specialized papers, and portraits.)
The Adams Family Correspondence series is unique to the Adams Papers (though the Papers of Thomas Jefferson is now beginning to explore the documentary trail left by Jefferson’s grandchildren, to admirable effect, in its Family Letters Digital Archive). Adams Family Correspondence gives separate treatment to the correspondence of the many members of the far-flung Adams family, reflecting the importance of family life to generations of Adamses and this public-spirited family’s intermingled attention to public and private concerns. An added benefit conferred by the Adams Family Correspondence is the opportunity it presents to integrate issues of social and family history with study of the Adamses’ contributions to the nation’s constitutional, political, and legal history. The many excellences of Volume 11 require from this reviewer the obligatory praise of the editors’ commitment to the highest standards [End Page 493] of documentary editing and publication. Like its predecessors, this volume is scrupulous in selection of texts, and rigorous in their editing and annotation; further, its high standard of bookmaking craftsmanship continues the handsome, durable design associated with the Adams Papers.
The story told by volume 11 brackets the pivotal year 1796. It presents a second generation of Adamses already ensconced in the ranks of adulthood. The new generation’s leader is the remarkable, driven John Quincy Adams, who in this volume is American minister to the Netherlands (under French occupation as the Batavian Republic); the early years of the Napoleonic Wars complicated the duties and challenges of a post familiar to him from the early 1780s, when he served his father (the first holder of that office) as a precocious secretary and interpreter. An additional complication arises in the spring of 1796 when John Quincy Adams begins to court Louisa Catherine Johnson, daughter of an American Loyalist merchant from Maryland; their lively though sometimes discordant correspondence presages their marriage in 1797. Thomas Boylston Adams is serving as his oldest brother’s secretary while contemplating a return to the United States to resume his fledgling legal career. Their brother Charles Adams is in New York City, developing his law practice and wooing a wife of his own, the sister-in-law of his sister and oldest sibling, Abigail Adams Smith, who is in turn contending with the turbulent personal and financial dimensions of her marriage to William Stephens Smith. Not only they, but their anxious, eminent parents, Vice President John Adams and Second Lady Abigail Adams, ponder, debate, and advise such private choices as those of career and marriage, and such great public questions as the implementation of the Jay Treaty, the significance of the French Revolution in American public life, and, above all, the presidential election of...