“Johns Adams Unbound” Online Site Support Notebook
“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?”— Diary of John Adams, 1768
Believing at age 32 that an “ample and well chosen Assortment of Books”could serve seven possible ends—Fame, Fortune, Power, God, Country, Clients, and Fellow Men, John Adams (1735–1826) began assembling one of the greatest private libraries in early America.
This extraordinary collection of more than 3,500 volumes is the culmination of the second president’s lifelong endeavor. John Adams’s personal library provides a unique window into the mind and heart of this remarkable founding father as he built and used this collection throughout his active personal and political life.
John Adams acknowledged in his diary that it would require much “thought and care, as well as money ... to assemble an ample and well chosen assortment of books.”He took enormous pride in his library, and his books served as essential tools in his varied roles as student, lawyer, revolutionary, diplomat, president, and elder statesman. Toward the end of his life Adams made arrangements for the library to continue to serve the public good.
Abigail Adams shared her husband’s love of books, and together they passed on their reverence for reading to future generations of the Adams family. From their earliest years, the four Adams children—Abigail (Nabby), John Quincy, Charles, and Thomas Boylston—were instructed that books counted among the world’s highest goods. It was a duty of citizenship, a call to religious and moral contemplation, and a gateway to the imagination. John Adams impressed on his children the importance of reading whenever the opportunity arose: “You will never be alone with a poet in your pocket. You will never have an idle hour.”
John Adams first established his reputation in the courtroom, not the political arena. As a young lawyer in the 1760s, his eloquence and intelligence gained him early notice, and he ultimately became one of Boston’s busiest attorneys. Adams’s early legal training shaped much of his political philosophy, and he firmly believed that the rule of law in a civil society must be immune to the clamors of public opinion.
The Boston Massacre trial of 1770 put Adams’s belief in every citizen’s right to a fair trial to a difficult test. Although he knew that his reputation and legal practice would suffer greatly, Adams agreed to serve as defense attorney for the British troops accused of “massacring” five colonists during a skirmish one cold March evening. Drawing upon scores of volumes from his large law library, Adams shaped a powerful argument for every man’s right to self-defense and ultimately succeeded in winning the British soldiers’ freedom. Although he was later condemned by fellow colonists for his assistance to the Crown, Adams stood firm on principle and deemed his effort “one of the best Pieces of Service I ever rendered my Country.”
Over the course of John Adams’s long life, America grew rapidly from a group of loosely affiliated British colonies to a powerful nation of twenty-four states. Adams was not a mere witness to the creation of this new and unprecedented republic: he was instrumental in defining the new country. He negotiated its geographical borders and commercial rights, persuaded European powers to officially acknowledge the United States’ independence, contributed to its most important founding documents, and served as the country’s first vice president and second president.
The books in John Adams’s library provided their owner with invaluable geographical, philosophical, and political resources. Adams voraciously absorbed all he could from his books to make sense of the changing world around him and tested his new knowledge in the heat of revolutionary and diplomatic action. His dynamic, addictive reading gave force to his shaping of key documents of American government and the very nation as a whole.
As a public servant, John Adams never amassed the fortune he might have earned as a successful attorney. While he freely made the sacrifice, he also lamented his limited means compared to those of the independently wealthy Founding Fathers. He and his wife Abigail lived very frugally with one notable exception: he spent enormous sums on books.
Eighteenth-century Enlightenment Europe was filled with idealists, but practical John Adams had little patience for romantic optimism in politics or government. Voltaire, Turgot, Condorcet, and others emphasized rationalism over religion and asserted that reason could overcome human passions, but Adams believed that tyranny was an inevitable expression of human nature. Adams was certain that personal ambition would always overpower reason—history and his long experience in politics had proven that reality time and again. Only the formal institution of governmental checks and balances could control man’s competitive instincts.
For Adams, the French Revolution proved to be a telling modern example of the dangers of unchecked power. Soon after learning that a mob had stormed the Bastille on July 14, 1789, Adams predicted the popular uprising against the French monarchy would fail to create a stable democracy. During the next decade, the escalating violence, chaos, and bloodshed committed during the Reign of Terror only confirmed his belief in the need for multiple branches in government. However, Adams’s early public warnings found few supporters, and he resorted to the margins of his books to record his disapproval.
John Adams was a man driven by ambition, although he often denied the charge. In his later years, he grew increasingly embittered by the public’s exaltation of America’s more charismatic founders: George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and Alexander Hamilton. All were lavishly praised with orations and marble monuments, yet Adams felt his own contributions to American independence—including his call for revolution in the Continental Congress and pivotal diplomatic negotiations abroad—had been painfully obscured.
In particular, Adams was insulted by contemporary books written about the American Revolution and its heroes that exalted some founders but neglected to account for the important role Adams himself had played. As he wrote to friend Benjamin Rush in 1790: “The history of our revolution will be one continued lye from one end to the other. The essence of the whole will be that Dr Franklin’s electrical Rod smote the earth, and out sprung General Washington.”In his retirement, Adams resorted to the margins of his books to personally revise the written record of American history.
John Adams was fascinated by questions of religion and spirituality. He read widely in the subject all his life, and he even considered becoming a minister in his younger years before settling upon the law. Despite his lifelong pursuit of religious studies and interest in spiritual controversies, his fundamental beliefs remained constant. As he affirmed to Jefferson at the age of 81, “The Ten Commandments and the Sermon on the Mount contain my Religion.”
As steadfast as he was in his own faith, Adams could not resist ongoing debates regarding the nature of miracles and questions of religious toleration. His books became places where Adams could consider, question, and ultimately confirm his basic Unitarian belief in God and the inscrutability of divine mysteries. These pilgrimages carried him beyond his own moment, from the realms of ancient pagan mythologies into the mysteries of the Koran and beyond, to explore the many religions and sects of the world in which he lived. The end result of his study only confirmed for Adams that his own fundamental beliefs were sound. As he reported to Jefferson, the reading of all these volumes had “made no Change in my moral or religious Creed, which has for 50 or 60 Years been contained in four short Words, ‘Be Just and Good.’”