The Life of John Adams: Preface

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The Life of John Adams, by Charles Henry Adams

Editors Note: This is Volume 1 of the 10 Volume “The Works of John Adams”, (Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1856). The author, Charles Henry Adams is John Adams grandson. The copyright for the original text is in the Public Domain because its copyright has expired. The font, formatting, and spelling modernizations of this version of The Works of John Adams, as well as all other Americanist Library and Founders Corner selections are, unless otherwise specified, Copyright © 2011 Steve Farrell.


The preliminary genealogy, and the first two chapters of this volume, are taken from the fragment of a biography left by the late John Quincy Adams. That portion of it extending nearly to the end of the first chapter, appears to have been written by him during the summer of 1829, just after the close of his official term as President of the United States, and before he was recalled into public life. Of the remainder, which was added in brief snatches of leisure during the summer recesses of Congress, the greater part was composed in 1832; but the last pages bear the date of 1839, from which time the project seems to have been abandoned. No part of it was ever revised for publication. As a consequence some blanks were left in the manuscript, principally for dates or extracts from books and papers, which have been filled, and a few trivial errors occurred, which have been corrected by the Editor, for the most part without notice. The fragment, in all other respects adhering closely to the original copy, extends to page 89 of this volume. It furnishes a succinct account of the circumstances attending the youth and education of John Adams, and carries the narrative down to the time of the so-called Boston Massacre, in March, 1770, when he had reached his thirty-fifth year. In other words, it covers the period of his life as a private citizen, and stops exactly at the moment when the career which made him an object of public attention begins. This fact will readily suggest the reason why the work was terminated just at this point. It could not be further prosecuted without the application of a much greater share of time, and more extended investigations than the writer was in a condition to bestow, consistently with a faithful performance of the duties of a representative of Massachusetts in Congress, to which he had been summoned to devote his latest years. That most brilliant portion of his life it is impossible for any descendant of his to regret, even though it was pursued at the sacrifice of this noble undertaking, and the devolution of it to far less competent hands.

For in justice to the continuator it ought to be kept in mind, that even before this fragment was definitively laid aside, he had reason to know that he was looked to as the successor to the duty; and in that view, that all the manuscripts, books, and papers relating to it were to be committed to his care. From this it may be understood, that the enterprise was not altogether of his seeking. Whatever might have been his doubts of his own abilities to execute it, little room was left him to indulge them. Neither was it in his disposition to shrink from it, simply because of its difficulty. Of the peculiar obstacles in the way of a faithful and at the same time an acceptable performance of it, he was from the outset thoroughly sensible. Under other circumstances he might have regarded his attempting it as presumptuous. But in his case there was no alternative. To say that he has acquitted himself of his obligation to his own satisfaction is more than he can pretend. All that he will venture to claim for himself is an earnest desire to be right, and an endeavor by no trifling amount of industry to become so. That he may in many instances have fallen short of his aim will not surprise him. Infallibility in such a department of investigation is altogether out of the question. The writer has detected too many mistakes in his own work, and observed too many in the productions of others, to seek to cherish a spirit of dogmatism. Hence if it should turn out that he has fallen into any essential error, or been guilty of material injustice, he trusts that he may be acquitted of evil intention in the beginning, or inclination to persevere in it against evidence. Should any such be shown to him, he stands ready to acknowledge it with candor and to correct it with cheerfulness.

Much as the failure to complete the original narrative is to be regretted on other accounts, there is at least one particular in which the interposed delay has not been without a compensating advantage to the subject of this biography. During the interval that has elapsed, much new material has found its way to the light, and many old documents have been rendered accessible, which have greatly facilitated the elucidation of important facts in the narrative. The effect has been to rectify many impressions of the events of the last century and of their causes, which prevailed early and have been carefully handed down to us. This is particularly true in regard to the motives of action, which governed the policy of the great nations of Europe during the Revolution, as well as to those which controlled the course of Mr. Adams’s own administration afterwards. On these points, embracing as they do a great part of the disputed questions of his times, it is not to be presumed that all readers will at once concur in the views presented in this work, or be entirely satisfied with the judgments that are pronounced on some of the actors. It is enough to say in their behalf, that they have not been prepared without a careful examination of the evidence upon which they rest, an earnest desire to avoid every unnecessary word of offence, and a conviction of the necessity of submitting them, in justice to the individual whose history is given. Yet it is not to be doubted that much material yet remains undisclosed which will still further contribute to a correct understanding of the action of these times. If the production of it will in any way subserve the great end of establishing historical truth, it is to be hoped that no pains may be spared to bring it to the light of day.

So much has been said of late upon the duties of editors in publishing the papers committed to their care, that a few words may be necessary to explain the principles upon which this work has been conducted. In all cases the best copy obtainable has been closely adhered to, saving only the correction of obvious errors of haste, or inadvertence, or negligence. Yet as a considerable number of the letters have been taken, not from the originals, of which it is not known even that they are yet extant, but from the copy-book containing the rough drafts, it is by no means improbable that in case of a possibility of collation with the real letters, many discrepancies not to say interpolations and even erasures will be discovered. Should such instances be brought to light, it is proper that this explanation should stand on record, to guard against charges of alteration which already have been preferred against other editors, on grounds not altogether dissimilar. Against such variations it would have been impossible to provide without materially curtailing the valuable materials for the work. For all others, the Editor has acted on his own responsibility, and for reasons which appear to him satisfactory.

No person will be apt to imagine that in an undertaking so extensive as this, it is possible for the closest observer to escape without making many mistakes. Some of these belong to the typographical department, and can be easily corrected. Others and more material ones to the editor or the author. A few have occurred by trusting to statements made at second hand. More by taking for granted what appeared on good authority to be facts. And still others by the extreme difficulty of getting at the exact truth, especially in minute matters. It has not been deemed necessary in all cases to give notice of the corrections. It is sufficient to say that whenever any discrepancy is to be observed between the impressions of the work, it may be inferred that those which have been the last printed contain the corrected reading.

In dismissing these volumes, it is no more than an act of justice in the writer to recognize the obligations he is under to individuals and associations, for the readiness shown to aid him in the prosecution of his investigations. In but a single instance that he can recollect, has an application been neglected, or received in any other than the most cordial manner; and in that he has no desire to impute an unfriendly intention. To specify the slighter services rendered in this vicinity and at a distance would be tedious. The writer will therefore confine himself to a notice of the kindness of the Hon. Edward Everett, when Secretary of State of the United States, in allowing him to examine and to verify copies of important papers in the archives of that department; of the liberal manner in which the Hon. Jared Sparks placed at his disposal a volume of copies of French despatches, procured by him at Paris under the sanction of that government, which proved of the first importance in treating one portion of the narrative; and lastly of the great assistance rendered to him by his most esteemed friend, Dr. J. G. Palfrey, who cheerfully consented to read the greater part of the work in the proof-sheets, and to favor him with such critical and other remarks as occurred to him in the process. To all persons acquainted with the scholarlike habits of mind and the refined taste of that gentleman, it is needless to add that these pages have greatly benefited by this treatment. Whatever suggestions fell from him were, with rare exceptions, implicitly adopted, and it is only a matter of regret for the sake of the work that they were not more numerous, and, especially in that portion peculiarly belonging to the writer, not prompted by a less partial judge.

It is proper to add in conclusion, that these volumes by no means exhaust the valuable materials in the possession of the Editor, for the illustration of the era of the Revolution. Neither do they in the least encroach upon the yet larger stores in reserve for the other work, intended for publication at a future period, and destined, in giving the life of John Quincy Adams, to elucidate the history of the generation immediately succeeding.

Quincy, 26 July, 1856.

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