PREFACE – John Adams, The Works of John Adams, vol. 2

The Life of John Adams, by Charles Henry Adams


A Diary is the record in youth of a man’s sentiments, in middle life, of his action, and of his recollections in age. To others, it can be interesting only if it have impressed upon it the stamp of strong individual character. But with this as a substratum, notices of striking scenes, of extraordinary events and noted contemporaries, may be superadded to form a memorial worth transmitting to posterity.

The fragments now published can scarcely be said to fill up this idea; yet, beginning as they do with the writer’s entrance into responsible life, and extending through a large part of a great career, they may be considered as in a measure superseding the necessity of an elaborate biography. Perhaps the propriety of the insertion of so large a portion of the early entries may be questioned. The answer is, that they go far to effect the main object of showing character. The moral and meditative cast of the author’s mind is thus laid open at an age when that of most men is yet slowly gaining maturity. The leading principle of his life may thus be easily traced by those fond of psychological investigations, from his first theological investigations, through his legal studies, and still more strikingly, his early practice, into the mental habits which formed the politician and the statesman. Incidental to this, and accessary to it, are the pictures of domestic life in New England during a period which has been somewhat overshadowed by the superior interest attaching to earlier and to later times. Puritan Massachusetts, whilst dropping much of her early religious bigotry, was yet nursing in the French wars the stern qualities that carried her successfully through the fiery trial of the Revolution. She contained one, whilst Virginia furnished the other, of the two germs of public sentiment which have since spread extensively over this continent, and which bid fair yet to develop themselves indefinitely. To these two types of mind all classes of American opinion may be ultimately reduced. The state of society through which the first of these was evolved, until from a religious it took a political direction, and the influences through which the change was shaped, gain much illustration from the following pages.

The broken and partial nature of this Diary is the circumstance most to be regretted about it. As the time advances towards the most interesting events in the Revolution, the record becomes less and less satisfactory. It is a great disadvantage attending even the most regularly kept of such works, that just in proportion to the engrossing interest of the action in which the writer finds himself engaged, is the physical inability to command the leisure necessary to describe it. Thus it happens in the present case, that the sketches sometimes stop just when the reader would have them begin, and at other times no notice whatever is taken of events which are the most prominent in the life of the writer. Yet, after making all suitable deductions from the value of these papers on this account, it is believed that much is left richly to reward perusal, particularly since some of the most marked instances of deficiency are compensated for by resorting to the reminiscences of a later period. The passages from an autobiography are not indeed entitled to claim quite so high ground on the score of authority in matters of fact as the contemporaneous record, but they merit attention as well on account of the superior animation of the style as of the circumstance that they do supply some of the details that are wanting in the other. Even on the score of accuracy, the papers of other persons treating of the same events, which have since found their way to the light, go a great way to establish the substantial truth of the narrative from memory. A good degree of credit may therefore be confidently assigned to it, even though we admit that it belongs to a different class of evidence. Whilst the editor has endeavored, so far as it may be done, to unite in the present volume, the substance of the Autobiography with the Diary, he has carefully tried to keep the two so distinct as to furnish to the critical reader every opportunity to distinguish the nature of the testimony. Twenty-five or thirty years can pass over the head of no man without affecting the exactness of his recollection of events. If we consider how small a share of the public documents now at the command of every one, was readily accessible, or was actually consulted in the year when the Autobiography was written, the wonder is rather at the tenacity than the failure of the writer’s memory.

The editor has sought to avoid burdening the text with annotation. Yet so rapidly does time obliterate the traces of local names and history, and particularly after periods of civil convulsion, that occasional explanation seems required to smooth the way for the general reader. In performing this duty, it is always difficult to reach the golden mean, and particularly in American annals, where the extent to which an acquaintance with details can be presumed is so unsettled. Of late, the greatly increased attention paid to this subject tends to justify the inference that much may be taken for granted as now well understood. Yet the smallest examination of many of the popular works of the day will suffice to show that almost as much still remains to be elucidated. The omission to note the change wrought by the revolution in the classification of the social system has already done something to obscure the history of political opinion during the first stage of free government. Neither is the relative advance of the respective Colonies in the course of the struggle, or the nature of the difficulties peculiar to each, generally comprehended. To acquire right notions on these matters, it is necessary to ascend some distance for a starting point. Every thing that can illustrate the state of opinion, of manners, and of habits, prior to the year 1776, is of some value to the right conception of what has happened since. Guided by this idea, the editor has taken the liberty, either to supply such explanatory matter as he deemed likely to be of use to the curious, or, where he did not, to indicate as briefly as possible the sources in which fuller information may be readily obtained.

It is proper, in cases of publication like this, to define the extent to which it has been carried. The editor has suppressed or altered nothing in the Diary, which might be considered as bearing either against the author himself, or against any other person, for that reason alone. Wherever any omission has been made, it has been from other motives than those of fear or favor. The main purpose has been to present to the public a fair and unbiased picture of the mind and heart of an individual, so far as this may be supposed to command any interest. To do this, it is as necessary to retain the favorable or unfavorable opinions expressed of men, including himself, as those of things or of events. No true, honestly written Diary can be regarded as in itself a correct general history. It is good always as biography, often as furnishing materials for history, and that just in proportion as it appears on its face never to have been written or prepared for publication. But if this be true, it is obviously perverting its character to attempt to make patchwork of it, by selecting to be seen only such passages as show a single side. Rather than this, it were wise not to publish at all. The effect is to make an opinion for the reader instead of allowing him to form one for himself, to control rather than to develop his judgment. In the present instance at least, the fact may be relied on, that no experiment of the kind has been tried. The reader is more likely to feel disposed to find fault with being supplied beyond his wants than with having less than he might get.

This volume embraces all of the Diary written prior to February, 1778, the period of the writer’s first departure for Europe; but that portion of the Autobiography covering his Congressional life is barely commenced. It likewise includes all the notes taken of debates in the Continental Congress which the editor has been able to find. The meagre and unsatisfactory nature of these would forbid their publication, if it were not for the circumstance that they constitute almost the sole remaining memorial of the kind that has come down to us. Imperfect as they are, it is believed that they will serve to throw some light upon the civil history, or that portion which is least understood, of the great contest.

For the purpose of clearly distinguishing the passages of the Autobiography from the Diary, they are, in all cases, marked with brackets at each end of the extract; and, when so brief as to be placed among the foot notes under the text, they are indicated by an asterisk, instead of the small numerals prefixed to the editor’s explanations.

Editors Note: This is Volume 2 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, and formatting 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.

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