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Paper Trail

On letters, diaries, and other records of the American story at the Massachusetts Historical Society

By Nicholas A. Basbanes | HUMANITIES, January/February 2014 | Volume 35, Number 1

“Without a minute Diary, your Travels, will be no better than the flight of Birds, throughout the Air. Whatever you write preserve. I have burned Bushells of my Silly notes, in fitts of Impatience and humiliation, which I would now give anything to recover. ‘These fair creatures are thyself.’ And would be more useful and influential in Self-Examination than all the Sermons of the Clergy.”

—John Adams to his grandsons as they prepared to join their parents in England, 1815

Chartered in 1791, during George Washington’s first term as president of the United States, the Massachusetts Historical Society was the brainchild of the Reverend Jeremy Belknap, a Harvard graduate and Congregational minister whose single-minded purpose in life was to document the American experience. As an amateur scholar, Belknap achieved a modicum of renown with a painstakingly researched history of New Hampshire that drew heavily on obscure materials he had uncovered during the twenty years he spent as a village pastor in the Granite State, much of it dismissed by others as rubbish and not worth saving. “I am willing even to scrape a dunghill, if I may find a jewel at the bottom,” he declared boldly of his research method. Issued in three volumes between 1784 and 1792, his history earned the esteem of Alexis de Tocqueville, who wrote that “readers will find in Belknap more general ideas and more forceful thinking than in any other American historian to date,” while a duly impressed Noah Webster anointed him the “American Plutarch.”

Belknap’s zeal to preserve every manner of written artifact was decades ahead of its time, and he was clear about the way he wanted the nation’s first historical society to go about the task. “We intend to be an active, not a passive, literary body,” he wrote in a letter to a colleague who had pledged assistance, “not to lie waiting, like a bed of oysters, for the tide to flow in upon us, but to seek and find, to preserve and communicate, literary intelligence, especially in the historical way.” One foresighted strategy was to encourage prominent people of the day to donate their family papers, a precedent that led to the acquisition of numerous domestic archives, most spectacularly four generations of documents maintained by the Adams family of Brighton and Quincy, as well as those of such founding New England dynasties as the Winthrops, Mathers, Cabots, and Lodges. He was similarly keen on acquiring the papers of clergymen, entrepreneurs, and everyday people like Peter Brown, a soldier at the Battle of Bunker Hill whose letter to his mother on June 25, 1775, has been described as “the fullest account that survives of the feelings and observations of a participant in the ranks.”

Though its name suggests that it is the repository of a single state, the Massachusetts Historical Society set a mandate for itself that embraced the entire country, and as pretty much the only game in town during this formative period of the early republic, Belknap’s labor of love established the foundation of an institution that today numbers among its holdings some twelve million pieces of manuscript, most of them coming as gifts, the vast majority in the form of letters, diaries, notebooks, journals, sketches, or drawings. I have, over the past several decades, been shown through the vaults by two of the institution’s chief librarians, the first time in 1988, when I was starting research for what seven years later would become A Gentle Madness.

My guide at that time was Stephen T. Riley, then the director emeritus of the MHS and esteemed by colleagues as one of the outstanding librarians of his generation. Among the treasures Riley showed me that day were George Washington’s Newburgh Address of 1783; Cotton Mather’s seventeenth-century “Biblia Americana,” an unpublished ecclesiastical history comprising 4,500 manuscript pages; the holographic copy of Richard Henry Dana’s Two Years Before the Mast; a number of Revolutionary-era documents in the hand of Paul Revere; and the detailed journal the nineteenth-century historian Francis Parkman kept while researching what became his magnum opus, The Oregon Trail. Riley selected as his favorite item of them all a pair of letters exchanged between Abraham Lincoln and Edward Everett immediately following their respective addresses at Gettysburg on November 19, 1863. “I should be glad, if I could flatter myself, that I came as near to the central idea of the occasion in two hours, as you did in two minutes,” Everett wrote the president within hours of their remarks. Lincoln’s reply, posted the next day from the Executive Mansion, was magnanimous. “In our respective parts yesterday, you could not have been excused to make a short address, nor I a long one. I am pleased to know that, in your judgment, the little I did say was not entirely a failure.”

My host twenty years later was Peter Drummey, a young librarian on the staff when I first visited, by this time the Stephen T. Riley librarian, appointed to that position in 2004. Like Riley before him, Drummey lives with paper; the older it is, the better. His passion for the task is palpable, his knowledge of the materials encyclopedic. In the acknowledgments to his Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of John Adams, the historian David McCullough paid tribute to the “incomparably knowledgeable Librarian of the Massachusetts Historical Society, Peter Drummey,” for helping him navigate his way through the collections. When I interviewed McCullough in 2004, for Every Book Its Reader—we met on that occasion, in fact, at the Massachusetts Historical Society—he told me that what impressed him so much about Drummey was the dedication he has for placing in context every document he retrieves from the stacks, and the way pivotal events and great minds intersect across a quarter-millennium of American history through their interpretation. “It all comes alive in Peter’s hands,” McCullough said.

Drummey led my wife and me to the most secure area of the library, an inner sanctum aptly named the “treasure vault.” He directed our attention first to a single sheet of paper that he declared straightaway to be his personal favorite. A good-size document measuring twelve inches by just under eight inches, the sheet bore creases where it had been folded many decades earlier. “This is a letter by William Bradford, the first governor of Plymouth Colony, to John Winthrop, the first governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony,” Drummey explained and noted the date written to the left of the signature at the bottom: April 11, 1638. “Plymouth is only forty miles south of here, but at the time of the writing, they were independent colonies.”

The main body of the letter discusses in a firm but cordial way a disputed border, a matter that remained unresolved, even though the two colonies had united the year before in a war against the Pequot Indians. At issue still was whether Scituate, considered by the Pilgrims to be the northernmost town in Plymouth Colony, actually lay within the bounds of Massachusetts Bay, and whether Hingham, settled by Massachusetts Bay, actually fell within territory assigned by the Crown to Plymouth. Bradford used the occasion to express mounting concern over whether the religious dissident Anne Hutchinson, who would be expelled from Massachusetts Bay shortly after the Antinomian Controversy of 1636–38, might move with her followers into Plymouth, and he asked Winthrop for more information about Mary Dyer, a supporter of Hutchinson who would die as a martyr to religious freedom in 1660.

All in all, it is a letter of some substance, penned in a tight, careful hand on a large sheet of rag paper, handmade in Europe, of course—as the establishment of the first paper mill in British North America was still fifty-two years away—and in remarkably good condition. The considered response Winthrop drafted for Bradford was summarized on the reverse side of the same letter, on which the recipient’s address had been written but which otherwise was left blank. “Paper was very scarce in the colonies, not something to be wasted, so precious that an important exchange between two governors—two heads of state, really—would be written on a single sheet,” Drummey said.

“This profound respect for paper is by no means restricted to the seventeenth century, either,” Drummey continued, and he cited the example of Horace Mann, who was a distinguished reformer, abolitionist, and politician in the 1800s. “Horace Mann was born in the small town of Franklin, Massachusetts, in 1796, and he was brought up in the frugality of the countryside. So when he writes out lectures or speeches, he’ll do it on the back of a letter he has received, or something else that might be lying around, because no piece of paper goes unused. What you have so often with him are two different documents on one sheet of paper, more often than not unrelated to each other. It can be very problematic if you’re an archivist: You go looking at one thing and wind up trying to decipher another. My point is that you may say William Bradford—that’s the 1630s. I’m saying Horace Mann—1830s. It’s still doing the same thing.”

The respect early Americans had for paper was evident yet again in the next item Drummey had laid out, a small volume, bound in leather, that he identified as an early diary of John Adams. “It dates from 1755, when Adams graduated from Harvard and moved out to Worcester to be a schoolteacher.” He invited me to pick up the fragile octavo and examine the pages. “Look how tight the writing is,” he prodded, noting how Adams had written with extraordinary concision and economy. “Once again, paper is dear, so you write small. We have thousands of diaries in this building, probably hundreds from the time of the Revolution alone, and what is striking is that they are all little books just like this—and not an inch of space is wasted in any of them.”

We then turned to another John Winthrop item, one far more famous than the response to William Bradford we had examined a few minutes earlier, this one showing the physical effects of continued consultation over the previous three centuries. “This has magnetized people for hundreds of years; everybody has handled and touched it,” Drummey said, and he allowed me to go ahead and add my fingerprints to the vellum binding. It was one of the two surviving volumes of the journal Winthrop kept from the time he set sail from Yarmouth on the ship Arbella, in 1630, and maintained through 1649, the year of his death, by common consent the most important firsthand account relating to the earliest years of European settlement in North America. “This is the third volume, at the end of Winthrop’s life, and what I suggest you observe is how thoroughly the book has been read. Once you get into the meat of his descriptions, you can sense the number of people who have actually turned the pages of this volume; what you are looking at is the human effect on documents.”

In 1984, Richard S. Dunn, a University of Pennsylvania historian and at that time the most recent editor of the Winthrop journal, described the problems a scholar encounters when beginning a project of this complexity. “This set of texts is surely the most baffling of all major early American documents to decipher or to edit,” he wrote.

“The handwriting in the two surviving volumes is notoriously hard to read, the ink is faded, the paper is often stained, worn, or torn, and the text is studded with marginalia, insertions, cancellations, and underscorings.” Other scholars who worked directly with these texts over the decades have included William Hubbard and Cotton Mather in the seventeenth century; Thomas Prince, Ezra Stiles, Jonathan Trumbull, and Jeremy Belknap in the eighteenth; and James Savage in the nineteenth. Three separate editions preceded the 1984 effort—in 1790, 1825–26, and 1908. The second volume of the journal, containing 366 manuscript pages and the largest of the three, was destroyed in a fire at Savage’s home in 1825, a grievous loss, although a modernized transcription he had made of the text survives to preserve some sense of the content. Twentieth-century historians who consulted the journal include Bernard Bailyn and Walter Muir Whitehill.

Once again, Winthrop’s profound appreciation for paper is immediately apparent: When he formally began the chronicle of his great adventure to the New World on March 29, 1630, he started at the back of a journal he had already been using for other purposes. He simply flipped the volume upside down and wrote in reverse direction from the back, filling up all the pages before resuming his narrative with the now lost volume 2. Only volume 3—the copy I handled—began on paper that had not been written on previously.

As we moved away from this cubicle, Drummey paused to indicate an alcove that contained a teeming archive of correspondence, letter books, diaries, literary manuscripts, speeches, and assorted legal and business documents—some half a million pages of materials generated primarily by four generations of the Adams family—and took a moment to appreciate the enormousness of what is preserved in this compact space. It begins with John Adams, the second president of the United States, and continues with his son, John Quincy Adams, the sixth president. Next come John Quincy’s descendants, including his son Charles Francis Adams, the ambassador to Great Britain during the Civil War, in the third generation, followed, in the fourth, by Charles’s sons, who included the author Henry Adams and the historian Brooks Adams.

The archive came to the MHS in 1956, and editing it for publication has occupied a team of textual scholars for more than half a century now, with fifty-two volumes published by Harvard University Press through 2010. A microfilm edition of the papers, issued in 608 reels before the move to digital preservation began in the 1990s, runs to more than five miles in length. But far more impressive than sheer size is the realization that this is arguably the most significant gathering of documentary material relating to one family to be found anywhere in the United States. “Of its kind, the collection known as the Adams Papers is beyond price and without peer,” L. H. Butterfield, who served as editor-in-chief of the project during its earliest years, wrote. “No such assemblage of historical records touching so many aspects of American life over so long a period has ever been created and kept together by any other family in this country.”

For Drummey, the personal impact of the archive is beyond words. “This is where history lives,” he said simply. Certainly the best known component is the 1,160 letters exchanged between John Adams and his wife, Abigail, from 1762 to 1801—they were the centerpiece resources for David McCullough’s 2001 biography and for a greatly admired seven-part miniseries that aired on HBO in 2008—but there are other high spots equally as compelling, not least among them the two-way correspondence between John Adams and the man who succeeded him as president, Thomas Jefferson.

“The reason the Jefferson–Adams correspondence is so wonderful—and the reason we know it so well—is because John and Abigail kept every letter Jefferson wrote to them, and made copies of all the letters they sent to him. So we have both sides of the correspondence—and we have it here, in one collection of papers.” And every bit as vital as the John–Abigail letters and the Jefferson–Adams letters is the diary kept by John Quincy Adams, begun in 1779, at the age of twelve, and maintained faithfully for close to seventy years. The final entry was made just a few weeks before Quincy Adams collapsed on the floor of the House of Representatives, in Washington, in 1848, dying two days later. L. H. Butterfield regarded the diary as “probably the most extensive and faithful record of its kind ever compiled.” During one period of half a century, there are no breaks at all in the daily journal—365 entries a year, 366 during leap years—prompting Quincy Adams to complain, in one instance, that the marathon effort was “like the race of a man with a wooden leg after a horse,” creating, in his irritated view, “a multiplication of books to no end and without end.”

Comprising some fourteen thousand pages, the fifty-one volumes were first prepared for publication in a heavily truncated edition by John Quincy’s son Charles Francis Adams (himself a committed diarist), and more recently in its entirety, as part of the ongoing collaboration with Harvard University Press. “This is another interesting thing about paper records, be it faithful letter writing or the keeping of a diary across many decades,” Drummey said. “It is not simply a record, but a form of discipline. Someone who keeps a journal like this with an unbroken series of entries is doing a lot more than maintaining a diary. It represents so much of who he was. John Quincy Adams’s diary was so famous that people would refer to it in his own lifetime. A question would come up about some obscure matter before Congress, and someone would say, ‘Well, John Quincy Adams must have that in his diary.’ And it was considered to be probative.”

Before leaving the Adams Papers, we spent some time with two of the most frequently quoted letters from the archive: one from John to Abigail, announcing the formation of the new nation in Philadelphia; the other from Abigail to John, urging him in clear language to “remember the ladies” in whatever plans might be formulated for the new republic. Drummey also pointed out a number of letters that lacked the usual salutations—“my Dearest Friend”—not through any oversight but because they were written over several days for purposes of paper conservation—sometimes twice on the same day—until the entire surface was used up.

Drummey encouraged me to read aloud the letter from John, dated July 3, 1776, in which he discussed the momentous events of the previous day. “Adams thinks that July 2, the day they voted for independence, will be the one celebrated for generations to come, not when it was publicly declared,” he said. “When this letter was written on July 3, the Declaration had already been drafted and approved—but it had not yet been set in type or printed. So here you have a person who is on the committee to write the Declaration of Independence, he’s a direct participant, and what is most remarkable about this letter is that he predicts precisely the way the day will be remembered—only he’s got the exact day wrong.”

At this point I picked up the letter, ever so gently, and read into my digital voice recorder the following excerpt: “I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated, by succeeding Generations, as the great anniversary Festival. It ought to be commemorated, as the Day of Deliverance by solemn Acts of Devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with Pomp and Parade, with Shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more.” I took several photographs of the document and waited for Drummey to summarize what I had just held in my hands. “John Adams describes Independence Day exactly as we celebrate it,” he said. “Only he doesn’t know just yet that it is going to be the Fourth of July.”

Though written privately to his beloved Abigail, it seemed clear to me that Adams was aiming for a much wider readership. “He’s documenting everything for posterity,” I said. “Exactly,” Drummey replied, “and perfectly, too. Once again, this is a letter without an introduction, because he’s writing to his wife more than once a day on the same sheet of paper. Notice that the handwriting is more compact, neater, and more controlled.” The paper was smaller, too, than most of the others, undoubtedly a consequence of the shortages brought on by the war.

From the Adams Papers we turned to an archive of materials central to the life and career of Thomas Jefferson, including approximately 8,800 pieces of correspondence, of which 3,280 are letters written by Jefferson. Other materials include a number of journals Jefferson kept for more than fifty years, various legal papers, a catalog he compiled in 1783 of his personal library, and four hundred architectural drawings. It is, in fact, a larger collection of Jeffersoniana than the one held at the University of Virginia, in Charlottesville, an institution that the third president founded and where another considerable collection of his papers is preserved. The materials Drummey was about to show us had been given to the Massachusetts Historical Society in 1898 by Thomas Jefferson Coolidge of Boston, a great-grandson.

We began with a journal Jefferson kept on beautifully made rag paper that bears no formal title but is cataloged by the society as Thomas Jefferson’s Farm Book, a generic way of identifying what is essentially a record of the minutiae that went into the operation and management of a considerable Southern estate—some 10,600 acres, according to the journal—from 1774 to 1824. How many hogs may have been slaughtered in a certain month, whatever repairs had to be made on the outbuildings, provisions that were purchased and the amounts paid, all the plowing, sowing, planting, and cutting activities that were performed, the crop forecasts, and the harvests realized—all are part of the seasonal chronicle.

“If you want to understand how a plantation operates at this point in American history, this is where you go,” Drummey said. “Scholars today want to know how everyday life was lived; I won’t say this is unique, but it’s extraordinarily detailed.” My wife was taken by an entry that itemizes the precise number of turns a water-powered grinding wheel made over a certain period of time. “He’s an engineer, remember,” Drummey said, “so he’s fascinated by that stuff.” I marveled at the excellence of Jefferson’s handwriting. “And it sustains throughout his life,” Drummey said. “The last letter he writes is as clear and as legible as the letters he writes as a young man.” Also in the society’s collection is a companion volume to the Farm Book called the Garden Book, in which Jefferson recorded the varieties of vegetables, fruits, flowers, and trees planted at Monticello and at Shadwell, a fourteen-hundred-acre tract along the Rivanna River that he inherited from his father, as well as data on sowing locations, harvesting dates, and weather conditions; it spans the years 1766 to 1824.

Of consuming interest to people who examine the Farm Book are the names and personal details of the many hundreds of tenant farmers and “servants” who tended Jefferson’s fields and maintained his household. “The central dilemma of American history is on almost every page of this journal,” Drummey said. “These are slaves that belong to Jefferson, and you can’t disguise it. There are hundreds of people listed here.” The journal—Jefferson refers to it as a “diary”—includes lists of the names and locations of his slaves, including Sally Hemings, who was determined through DNA testing in 1998 to have been the mother of a son by Jefferson, and of her other children, who are listed on numerous pages. There are also itemizations of the cloth, bedding, and food—generally fish, bread, and beef—that was distributed to the slaves. “It’s all here, in his hand, and the record, again, is meticulous. It also includes data for Poplar Forest, the retreat he owned about eighty miles south of Monticello, and a number of other places that he owned as well.”

Among other items Drummey showed us was paper money printed during the Revolution, a good deal of it designed by Paul Revere, and a sheet of stamps of various denominations issued by the British government in accordance with the Stamp Act of 1765, materials that would be regarded as ephemeral for the periods in which they were produced, and thus very rare today. “These revenue stamps are vanishingly small in number and almost impossible to find,” he said. “Just about all of them were destroyed, most of them in anger by the colonists.” How these examples managed to be preserved goes back to principles put in place when the historical society was established in 1791. “The only person I can think of who made any effort to preserve them was our founder, Jeremy Belknap. He kind of got what it was all about—right from the beginning,” Drummey said in summation, his presentation finally finished, a three-hour tour de force in every way. “You know,” he said as we headed back downstairs to his office, “I sometimes wonder if you can love these documents too much; I say that because I haven’t found one among the twelve million yet that bores me.”

About the Author

From the book: On Paper: The Everything of Its Two-Thousand-Year History by Nicholas A. Basbanes. Copyright © 2013 by Nicholas A. Basbanes. Published by arrangement with Alfred A. Knopf, an imprint of The Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Random House LLC.

Funding Information

Nicholas A. Basbanes, the author of A Gentle Madness and several other well-regarded books, received a $50,400 research fellowship from NEH in 2008 to support work leading up to On Paper, from which this essay is excerpted.