The Magazine

Founder Reader

Perusing the books of John Adams, bibliophile.

Mar 26, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 27 • By EDWARD ACHORN
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John Adams Unbound

Boston Public Library

Through April 29, 2007

John Adams was nuts for books. Though he wasn't nearly as well off as Jefferson or Washington, Adams spent extravagantly on leather-bound volumes of literature, history, law, and political philosophy, and plunged into them with ravenous interest. Terrified that he might "live and die an ignorant, obscure fellow," he used books as his tools in constructing a vast tower of knowledge about man and politics, from which he could peer down at the common herd.

At 21, he designed a reading program: to rise at dawn and read the Scriptures on Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday mornings; and to study ancient authors in Latin on the other three mornings. He would devote his remaining free time around noon and at night to English authors. He was soon kicking himself in his diary for slipping at his reading regimen: "Let no trifling Diversion or amuzement or Company decoy you from your Books, i.e., let no Girl, no Gun, no cards, no flutes, no Violins, no Dress, no Tobacco, no Laziness, decoy you from your Books."

Perpetually disappointed in something or other, often including himself, Adams inevitably failed to eliminate all diversions. But his restless ambition did produce results, eventually turning him into one of the most consequential figures in history--a man whose deep knowledge of human nature and experience helped shape a brilliantly conceived nation, with its stolid federal and state constitutions constraining and balancing government power.

Adams was the go-to man in the Continental Congress for advice about making state constitutions; and he himself devised the Massachusetts constitution, which greatly influenced the federal plan. His fellow revolutionary and friend Benjamin Rush said the Founding generation believed Adams possessed "more learning probably, both ancient and modern, than any man who subscribed the Declaration of Independence." C. Bradley Thompson, in John Adams & The Spirit of Liberty (1998), reinforced that view: "No one, not even Thomas Jefferson or James Madison, read as much or thought as long and hard about questions of human nature, natural right, political organization, and constitutional construction."

It is fair to say that, without Adams and his well-thumbed library, we--and countless others who have benefited from America's existence--would not be enjoying the freedom we have today. Remarkably, thousands of his books have survived, and you can explore this seed of our liberty at the Boston Public Library.

Step inside the door, and you see on your left a massive bookcase--12-feet high by 40-feet long--holding more than 3,000 volumes from Adams's personal collection, from Aristotle to Machiavelli, from Cervantes to Swift to Locke. That totemic case, so emblematic of Adams's mighty intellect and love of learning, may seem daunting. But to the right of the entrance, under glass, is a slender volume, spread open to a page on which he's scrawled a note: "Blenheim, which I saw in Ap. 1786 with Mr. Jefferson." It's a gardening book, a copy of which Thomas Jefferson held when he and Adams toured some of the great gardens of Britain in April 1786, years before Jefferson's political backstabbing ended their friendship (for a time). At some point, Adams bought his own copy and annotated it.

And if that doesn't make you smile--the thought of Adams and Jefferson in their prime, chatting away and enjoying a spring day together--you may be dead to the joys of history.

One of the great delights of Adams's library is that he wrote with a quill pen in hand, making observations in the margins, some of them wry, some of them arguments with the author, as if to set the historical record straight, on the odd chance that someone, someday, might care what he wrote in his books. The Adams here is, engagingly, the Adams we well know: too testy, too cranky, too sarcastic, too open with his wounded feelings and failings to fit the marble-statue treatment accorded other Founders.

Thus, in his personal copy of his own notorious Discourses on Davila, from which his political enemies (Jefferson included) drew passages out of context to attack him, he complains: "This dull, heavy Volume Still excites the Wonder of its Author. . . . The Work, however, powerfully operated to destroy his Popularity. It was urged as full Proof that he was an Advocate for Monarchy."

In another note, he bemoans the "glory" heaped on Jefferson for the Declaration of Independence at the expense of "little Adams"--who actually drove Congress to make the declaration.

The first man to subscribe for a copy of William Gordon's History of the Rise, Progress, and Establishment of the Independence of the United States of America (1788), Adams writes sarcastically in a margin: "How happened it, that Jefferson was an Ambassador, and that first subscriber only a Minister? Oh History! How accurate thou art." Beside another passage he writes: "This Letter was a Forgery. No such Letter was ever written to Mr. Cushing or any other Man by John Adams."

In a book about comparative religion, beneath an illustration depicting naked men carrying some sort of demigod, the New Englander explodes: "Is this Religion? Good God!"

Adams endlessly argued against political theorists who, after the French Revolution, proposed a government without balancing power. Noting the mysterious death of the philosopher Condorcet, clapped in prison by revolutionary authorities, Adams observes, "It was Suicide by voluntary poison. It was an Effect of his own System, of a Government in one Assembly. It was the Fruit of the Tyranny of his own pretended democratic Majority, without a Ballance, or Check, which he abhorred."

Some notes are markedly less solemn. The Rev. Richard Hurd, in his Moral and Political Dialogues (1765), describes an "absurd, illiberal, clownish" youth. Adams, a Harvard man, quips: "An exact description of a Dartmouth educated scholar."

Curator Beth Prindle has done a superb job playing up this idiosyncratic personality. The exhibit is organized around a 1768 diary entry by Adams, then a striving 32-year-old lawyer: "I am mostly intent at present upon collecting a Library, and I find that a great deal of Thought and Care, as well as Money, are necessary to assemble an ample and well chosen Assortment of Books. Fame, Fortune, Power say some, are the Ends intended by a Library. The Service of God, Country, Clients, Fellow Men, say others. Which of these lie nearest my Heart?" Ms. Prindle hit on the ingenious idea of displaying some of the most interesting books around each of those themes: fame, fortune, power, God, country, clients, and fellow men. In the looming bookcase, meanwhile, are hundreds of other books that Adams interacted with, or argued against, pen in hand. The exhibit marks each with a gold ribbon. The mere sight of all those ribbons, each suggestive of a great man's passion for knowledge, is striking.

That this library survived intact is a minor miracle. Adams deeded most of it in 1822 to the proposed Adams Academy, a boys' preparatory school to be built in Quincy. But--since nothing involving the Adamses ever was easy--the school idea languished, and the books made their way to an old farmhouse, where they were exposed to damp and smoke. Finally, when the Adams Academy opened in 1870, the books were placed on open stacks, susceptible to the tender mercies of careless students and voracious autograph hunters. The cause of history is fortunate that many considered Adams a third-rate Founder whose jottings were of limited value.

That Adams built such an extraordinary library with his relatively limited means is no less amazing. As he lamented to his wife, Abigail, in a 1774 letter, he was far from rich: "I ought however, to be candid enough to acknowledge that I have been imprudent. I have spent an Estate in Books."

Visitors may conclude that no estate was ever finer, and no money ever put to better use.

Edward Achorn is deputy editorial page editor of the Providence Journal.