Friday, October 30, 2015

A spirit to our honour

‘The Year 1765 has been the most remarkable Year of my Life. That enormous Engine, fabricated by the British Parliament, for battering down all the Rights and Liberties of America, I mean the Stamp Act, has raised and spread, thro the whole Continent, a Spirit that will be recorded to our Honour, with all future Generations.’ This is a diary entry by John Adams, born 280 years ago today, who was a key figure in the American colonies advocating independence from Great Britain. He would go on to become George Washington’s vice-president, and then president in his own right.

Adams was born at Massachusetts Bay Colony on 30 October 1735, and studied at Harvard. After several years teaching in Worcester, he decided on a career in the law, becoming an apprentice at a local law firm, and being admitted to the bar two years later in 1758. He married a distant cousin, Abigail Smith, in 1764; they had five children who survived infancy. In 1768, Adams moved his family to Boston, where he was elected to the Massachusetts Assembly in 1770, and, thereafter, to the first and second Continental Congresses.

Even before moving to Boston, Adams had made a name for himself by orchestrating opposition to the Stamp Act of 1765 - this had been imposed on the American colonies by the British without consultation. After the so-called Boston Massacre, Adams, reluctantly, defended the soldiers accused of killing civilians. He succeeded in winning acquittals or lesser convictions for each of them, thereby considerably enhancing his legal reputation. Once at Congress, he nominated Washington to be commander-in-chief of the colonial armies; and, in 1776, he offered a resolution that amounted to a declaration of independence from Britain. He promoted the importance of international trade, and, specifically, argued for a treaty with France, so Congress appointed him to join others as a commissioner in Paris. On his return in 1779, he participated in the framing of a state constitution for Massachusetts.

In 1781, Adams participated in the development of the Treaty of Peace and was one of its signatories. He also served as ambassador in the Dutch Republic, securing its recognition of an independent United States, and as the United States’ first ambassador to Great Britain. While in London, he published his work, A Defence of the Constitutions of Government of the United States. On his return, he moved to Peacefield, a large house in Quincy, Massachusetts, which remained the family home for the rest of his life.

In 1789, and again in 1792, Adam was elected vice-president under George Washington; and then, he himself, was elected president in 1796 (serving from 1797 to 1801). His presidency was dominated by the threat of war with France, and argument over the US’s role in the European war between France and Britain. Moreover, in this early period of independence, Adams, a federalist, seemed to be in constant dispute with Thomas Jefferson, a Republican about the limits of federal power over the state governments and individual citizens. In the election of 1800, Adams lost narrowly to Jefferson, and retired to Peacefield. He lived to see his eldest son, John Quincy Adams, become the sixth president of the US, but died in 1826 (within hours of Jefferson). Further biographical information is readily available at Wikipedia, the White House, the Miller Center, or World Biography.

Adams kept a diary for much of his life, at least prior to being vice-president and then president, and left behind 51 small manuscript volumes describing both his daily activities and major events in which he was a participant. The diaries were first published within The Works of John Adams, as edited by his grandson, Charles Francis Adams, (10 volumes in all, published by Little, Brown in Boston between 1850 and 1856). The diary texts can be found in volumes two and three, both of them available online, either through the Online Library of Liberty or through Internet Archive.

The Massachusetts Historical Society, which holds all but the first of the manuscript diaries (which is held by Vermont Historical Society), provides a brief description: ‘The earliest diaries include John Adams’s descriptions of student life at Harvard College, his experiences as a teacher in Worcester, Massachusetts, and accounts as a lawyer and a member of the circuit court system. Beginning in 1774, most of the manuscript volumes describe the events Adams witnessed as a Congressional delegate and diplomat in Europe through the summer of 1786.’ The Society also provides a full list of Adams’s diaries, with links to images of the original manuscripts and transcribed texts for each one. Here are several extracts.

18 November 1755
‘We had a severe Shock of an Earthquake. It continued near four minutes. I was then at my Fathers in Braintree, and awoke out of my sleep in the midst of it. The house seemed to rock and reel and crack as if it would fall in ruins about us. 7 Chimnies were shatter’d by it within one mile of my Fathers house.’

21 July 1756.
‘Kept School. I am now entering on another Year, and I am resolved not to neglect my Time as I did last Year. I am resolved to rise with the Sun and to study the Scriptures, on Thurdsday, Fryday, Saturday, and Sunday mornings, and to study some Latin author the other 3 mornings. Noons and Nights I intend to read English Authors. This is my fixt Determination, and I will set down every neglect and every compliance with this Resolution. May I blush whenever I suffer one hour to pass unimproved. I will rouse up my mind, and fix my Attention. I will stand collected within my self and think upon what I read and what I see. I will strive with all my soul to be something more than Persons who have had less Advantages than myself.’

22 August 1756
‘Yesterday I compleated a Contract with Mr. Putnam, to study Law under his Inspection for two years. I ought to begin with a Resolution to oblige and please him and his Lady in a particular Manner. I ought to endeavour to oblige and please every Body, but them in particular. Necessity drove me to this Determination, but my Inclination I think was to preach. However that would not do. But I set out with firm Resolutions I think never to commit any meanness or injustice in the Practice of Law. The Study and Practice of Law, I am sure does not dissolve the obligations of morality or of Religion. And altho the Reason of my quitting Divinity was my Opinion concerning some disputed points, I hope I shall not give Reason of offence to any in that Profession by imprudent Warmth.’

18 December 1865
‘How great is my Loss, in neglecting to keep a regular journal, through the last Spring, Summer, and Fall. In the Course of my Business, as a Surveyor of High-Ways, as one of the Committee, for dividing, planning, and selling the North-Commons, in the Course of my two great journeys to Pounalborough and Marthas Vineyard, and in several smaller journeys to Plymouth, Taunton and Boston, I had many fine Opportunities and Materials for Speculation. The Year 1765 has been the most remarkable Year of my Life. That enormous Engine, fabricated by the british Parliament, for battering down all the Rights and Liberties of America, I mean the Stamp Act, has raised and spread, thro the whole Continent, a Spirit that will be recorded to our Honour, with all future Generations. In every Colony, from Georgia to New Hampshire inclusively, the Stamp Distributors and Inspectors have been compelled, by the unconquerable Rage of the People, to renounce their offices. Such and so universal has been the Resentment of the People, that every Man who has dared to speak in favour of the Stamps, or to soften the detestation in which they are held, how great soever his Abilities and Virtues had been esteemed before, or whatever his fortune, Connections and Influence had been, has been seen to sink into universal Contempt and Ignominy.’

21 January 1783
‘Went to Versailles to pay my Respects to the King and Royal Family, upon the Event of Yesterday. Dined with the foreign Ambassadors at the C. de Vergennes’s. The King appeared in high Health and in gay Spirits: so did the Queen.M. [Madame] Elizabeth is grown very fat. The C. D’Artois seems very well. Mr. Fitsherbert had his first Audience of the King and Royal Family and dined for the first time with the Corps Diplomatique.’

30 March 1786
‘Presented Mr. Hamilton to the Queen at the Drawing Room. Dined at Mr. Paradices. Count Warranzow [Woronzow] and his Gentleman and Chaplain, M. Sodorini the Venetian Minister, Mr. Jefferson, Dr. Bancroft, Coll. Smith [William Stephens Smith] and my Family. Went at Nine O Clock to the French Ambassadors Ball, where were two or three hundred People, chiefly Ladies. Here I met the Marquis of Landsdown and the Earl of Harcourt. These two Noblemen ventured to enter into Conversation with me. So did Sir George Young [Yonge]. But there is an Aukward Timidity, in General. This People cannot look me in the Face: there is conscious Guilt and Shame in their Countenances, when they look at me. They feel that they have behaved ill, and that I am sensible of it.’

8 July 1786
‘In one of my common Walks, along the Edgeware Road, there are fine Meadows, or Squares of grass Land belonging to a noted Cow keeper. These Plotts are plentifully manured. There are on the Side of the Way, several heaps of Manure, an hundred Loads perhaps in each heap. I have carefully examined them and find them composed of Straw, and dung from the Stables and Streets of London, mud, Clay, or Marl, dug out of the Ditch, along the Hedge, and Turf, Sward cutt up, with Spades, hoes, and shovels in the Road. This is laid in vast heaps to mix. With narrow hoes they cutt it down at each End, and with shovels throw it into a new heap, in order to divide it and mix it more effectually. I have attended to the Operation, as I walked, for some time. This may be good manure, but is not equal to mine, which I composed in similar heaps upon my own Farm, of Horse Dung from Bracketts stable in Boston, Marsh Mud from the sea shore and Street Dust, from the Plain at the Foot of Pens hill, in which is a Mixture of Marl.’

The Diary Junction

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