Every president has a past, and to his regret, John Adams did not save all of it for history’s sake. “Whatever you write preserve,” he directed his grandsons in 1815. “I have burned, Bushells of my Silly notes, in fitts of Impatience and humiliation, which I would now give anything to recover.”
Luckily, his descendants listened. For son and sixth president John Quincy Adams, a great deal of that past is planted in the Stone Library at Adams National Historical Park in Quincy, Massachusetts. Set in a lush garden and open to the public, the Library is largely the work of Charles Francis Adams. Better known as the American minister in Queen Victoria’s court and arbitrator of the Alabama Claims, Charles (1807-1886) led a transatlantic shelf life as a diplomat and historical editor. Charles’s peak work ranged from 1829 to 1874. Son and grandson of presidents, Charles issued popular editions of private family letters and memoirs, just as his readers fought their way toward the country’s centennial. Today, with a new presidential library on the horizon, The Junto looks at Charles’s–and early America’s–contribution to what has become a cultural tradition.
Charles, 22 years old and drifting toward a career in either letters or law, closed out the autumn of 1829 in the New England countryside. His father, John Quincy, was newly returned to Washington, D.C., as a U.S. Congressman. While his mother, Louisa Catherine, did not wholly “condemn” that choice, the family circle remained tired and tense. Eager for a distraction, Charles began to uncrate his father’s library: some 12,000 volumes plus ephemera. In his “wand’ring life,” John Quincy had purchased heaps of literature in London, Paris, The Hague, Prussia, St. Petersburg, and, seemingly, at every bookseller in between. Meticulous in recording weather and in assessing foreign weights and measures, John Quincy was less successful in curating his own library. He lacked the wealth and estate to house it properly. “Compelled to crowd” his books, the sixth president once glanced at the overloaded shelves and sighed: “I have them now in extreme confusion, and know not when I shall get them in better order.”
Boasting one of the few American libraries with the same resources that a Gibbon, Mather, or Hume might pluck for research, the cache held family papers, too: letterbooks, ledgers, and diplomatic correspondence of the revolutionary era. Next to the standard “springs of action” operated by statesmen like his grandfather John, Charles read of an untold “history of feeling” in the stories of women like former First Lady Abigail Adams.“This is a beautiful Library and if I live I promise myself much pleasure from it,” Charles wrote. But it was also, as father and son acknowledged, a beautiful mess to inherit. Charles, wading through page by page, found only scattershot item lists. Yet that manuscript trove—the sheer mass of ideas that Charles first confronted in 1829—inspired him to create the “first” presidential library from its core.
For Charles, plunging into the project set him on the path toward becoming the family archivist. Mirroring his professional idol Thomas Carlyle’s methods of manuscript research, Charles determined to “go into chaos and make it cosmos.” Access to a presidential library (though still a private one) made Charles into a better student of American history. For, if the pool of libraries at Harvard/Yale/Columbia and Boston/New York City/Philadelphia lacked material, then a prospective “literary man” like Charles faced great personal expense. Charles longed to research on Carlyle’s scale, but high import duties on rare books could defeat even the most ambitious gentleman scholar. It was not unusual to invest $200 in an early Shakespeare folio, for example, and then pay another $75 in foreign fees. Historian George Livermore called America “a nation unequalled as readers and book-buyers.” But it was also one where the serious scholar suffered, unable to touch Gutenberg’s type or to view Caxton’s maps. Gaining unparalleled entry to John Quincy’s library resolved many of Charles’s research dilemmas.
By the time his father’s massive library landed at Quincy, Charles was an ardent bibliophile. Beginning in the 1830s, after a happy marriage to Abigail Brooks cemented his wealth, Charles haunted Boston auction rooms twice daily—at 9 and 2, or at 11 and 3—to sweep for acquisitions. A serious buyer like Charles symbolized the “American” success of bourgeois values, operating a step or two above the “tasteful general reader” whom shopkeepers solicited in their newspaper ads. He knew it was the “highest degree of absurdity to purchase books” when he had inherited so many, but Charles frequented book sales across the country. At the same time, he dabbled in writing articles for The North American Review. The fledgling author, entering a mass-market trade without real copyrights or clear contracts, barely broke even. A set of articles sold to the Review, for example, brought him $25; Charles promptly spent $50 on new books.
As he stacked sets of Cicero and Scott, Charles’s passion and skill for history crystallized throughout the 1840s. He broke up family duties with afternoons in the makeshift Adams library, “pasting my name to my books.” Charles settled on a motto from Seneca: “Vita sine litteris mors est,” or, “Life without letters is death.” John Quincy died in 1848, and willed the creation of a “stone, fireproof building” to store his library and papers. Gazing at his father’s writing desk, still strewn with work—and reluctant to clear the statesman’s last notes—Charles, at first, wheeled and ran from the room. Later, sinking down to update his diary, Charles wrote: “I am alone in the generation.”
But Charles was not alone. Rather, he was now sole custodian of the family archive and two presidents’ libraries. He set to arranging old letters and mending broken spines. He adapted English reference manuals for use in what became the Stone Library. As “Peacefield” transitioned to a gentleman’s farm, Charles’s creation of a professionally catalogued “library of the presidents” reshaped public ideas of how to commemorate legacies of leadership. In 1869, he hired Boston architect Edward Clarke Cabot, an old colleague in the Union cause, to build a fireproof library on the Quincy grounds.
Charles swiftly approved the $10,000 construction bid, finalized architectural plans, and moved books as soon as shelves were fitted to the double-height wall. The black-and-red marble fireplace—a place for Adams to relax or, as he sometimes did, to burn unsavory manuscripts—displayed his father’s set of “household gods,” a row of busts of Greco-Roman orators. Begun in 1869, the whole building was completed in less than a year. A rare visitor, the author Edward Everett Hale, toured the Stone Library and left awestruck. In a single farmhouse room, Hale recalled, he had “seen the manuscript history of America,” preserved for research. (To visit the Stone Library or to learn more about the Adams Papers, start here and here).
In making the Stone Library, Charles made clear choices about what to save, read, write, or burn. At least one live-in researcher and heir, busy writing a new history of early America, heeded the room’s unique past. “I have ghosts,” he wrote in 1884, “but they are my only companions here: good old family ghosts of half a dozen Presidents with their wives.” That heir was John Adams’s great-grandson Henry, and he proposed a radically different kind of Education.