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Founder Reader

Perusing the books of John Adams, bibliophile.

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