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September 6, 2006

The marginalia of John Adams


Richard Brookhiser addressed the subject in an essay that appeared on the back page of the September 3, 2006 New York Times Book Review.

"John Adams, though an erratic writer, was the greatest marginalist of the founding fathers, as pungent as he was copious," wrote Brookhiser.

Some of the finest examples will soon be online at johnadamslibrary.org.

Here's Brookhiser's piece.

    John Adams Talks to His Books

    Every student marks his books — not, in most cases, to record his own thoughts, but to hammer home the teacher’s points. I bought my $2.95 Modern Library edition of “The Life and Selected Writings of Thomas Jefferson” in 1974, for a seminar taught by Garry Wills. Over one phrase in the first draft of the Declaration of Independence referring to George III’s misdeeds — “These facts have given the last stab to agonized affection” — I wrote, compressing what Wills said, “not froth but central pt of appeal.” The Continental Congress didn’t think the phrase belonged in their appeal at all, and cut most of the passage in which it appears. But Wills wanted to highlight it as the mark of a passionate Jefferson, stabbed, agonized and affectionate. Wills’s own central point is now declared in my library, as long as the binding of the book holds up.

    Every professional writer is familiar with the even more utilitarian jottings of book reviewing — the signs and expressions we use to help us compress two or three or five years of an author’s work into a thousand-word judgment. My tool kit of marginal notes is simple: “!,” “?,” “*,” “funny,” and for hard jobs, “echh.” But writing in margins can blossom into a form of writing or counterwriting all its own. John Adams, though an erratic writer, was the greatest marginalist of the founding fathers, as pungent as he was copious. Later this month, the Boston Public Library is mounting an exhibition called “John Adams Unbound,” displaying some 3,700 volumes that belonged to the second president. (I am one of the historians on the advisory panel.) They bring us close to a great and eccentric man, and give an object lesson in the history of book collecting. But they also contain a trove of marginalia. Some of the gaudiest examples will be displayed in open copies, which will be available permanently online at johnadamslibrary.org. Zoltan Haraszti, a former keeper of rare books and editor of publications at the library, published many of Adams’s marginalia in his 1952 book, “John Adams and the Prophets of Progress.” But now this quadrant of Adams’s mind will be completely mapped.

    Adams made his first known marginal notes when he was 20, in a 1755 pamphlet, “A Lecture on Earthquakes,” by John Winthrop. (Were earthquakes — Boston had just had one — made worse by lightning rods? Adams, in his notes, thought not.) But most of his marginalia over the rest of his long life was devoted to analyzing political upheavals. He wrote comments in fewer than 10 percent of his books, but when he got going — usually in works of history or political theory — he sometimes added thousands of words of his own to the text.

    Often he reacts to an author’s tone. What he most dislikes is breezy confidence; the pieties of both left and right set him off. Adams read Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s “Discourse on Inequality” in translation. “Savages are not bad,” Rousseau wrote of the state of nature, for “the calmness of their passions and their ignorance of vice... prevents them from doing ill.” Adams: “Calmness of the passions of savages! ha! ha! ha!” Adams thought more highly of Henry St. John, Viscount Bolingbroke, a Tory propagandist of the early 18th century whose supple attacks on the Whig establishment made him popular in revolutionary America. But when Bolingbroke turned solemn Adams was unimpressed. “The citizens of Rome placed the images of their ancestors in the vestibules of their houses” to recall “the glorious actions of the dead,” Bolingbroke wrote in “Letters on the Study and Use of History.” “But images of fools and knaves are as easily made as those of patriots and heroes,” Adams retorted in the margin. And further: “The virtue of one generation was transfused, by the magic of example, into several” (Bolingbroke), followed by “The vice too of one generation was transfused into several” (Adams). In the historical record villains are “unmasked at length” (Bolingbroke). “Not always” (Adams). “And the honest man is justified before his story ends” (Bolingbroke). “Not always” (Adams). This is Adams as heckler at the open-mike show of political theory.

    But sometimes Adams engaged in extended, if fragmentary, argument. Mary Wollstonecraft, the English feminist, moved to France in 1792, where she met many of the main players in the revolution. Her 1794 book “Historical and Moral View of the Origin and Progress of the French Revolution” reflected both high hopes and deep disappointment. Adams’s note on the front flyleaf is respectful, though it hints at trouble to come. “This is a lady of masculine masterly understanding.... With a little experience in public affairs and the reading and reflection which would result from it, she would have produced a history without the defects and blemishes pointed out with too much severity perhaps and too little gallantry in the notes.” Then he goes to work.

    Among innumerable short comments and some abusive exclamations (“this foolish woman”), Adams lays out a serious critique. Wollstonecraft, dismayed by the factionalism that tore the revolution apart, suggests that a simpler political system could have avoided “those aspiring follies.” This defied Adams’s deepest political conviction, that there is safety in complexity: only checks and balances prevent one class or party from tyrannizing everyone. He develops his view at length. “A woman would be more simple if she had but one eye or one breast; yet nature chose she should have two as more convenient as well as ornamental,” he writes at one point. “A man would be more simple with but one ear, one arm, one leg. Shall a legislature have but one chamber then, merely because it is more simple?” The French revolutionaries, Adams thought, were too simple, placing too much power in a one-house legislature, which became prey to demagogues and mobs. “The word ‘simplicity,’ ” he wrote, has “produced more horrors than monarchy did in a century.”

    Another author Adams marked up at length was John Adams. In 1805 a Boston publisher brought out “Discourses on Davila,” a collection of essays he had written in 1790-91, when he was vice president. Enrico Davila was the author of a history of 16th-century French civil wars — not obvious food for controversy, but Adams’s “Discourses,” which ran in a Philadelphia newspaper, included remarks praising hereditary monarchs as a useful balance in some societies. The ensuing flap pegged Adams as a reactionary, and ruptured his friendship with Thomas Jefferson. Looking again at his writings, Adams liked what he read: “This dull, heavy volume still excites the wonder of its author... that he had the courage to oppose and publish his own opinions to the universal opinion of all America.” But Adams had to admit that it had backfired: “Not one man in America then believed him. He knew not one then and has not heard of one since who then believed him. The work... powerfully operated to destroy his popularity.”

    Centuries after the invention of printing, millenniums after the invention of writing, literature still has many of the features of an oral/aural experience. We read books aloud, or listen to them on tape. John Adams talked to his books, ideas and authors becoming characters in a continuing free-for-all in his head. We don’t know if he spoke to himself as he made his jottings, but it’s hard to imagine him (“foolish woman”) writing in perfect silence. Today bloggers bang away at the mainstream media and one another, and their readers bang away in the comments, with all the informality of people meeting on the street, or in a bar. Writers aspire to the achieved stasis of print but, like John Adams, we often think and react in the margin.

September 6, 2006 at 10:01 AM | Permalink


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I can not express the joy to hear that this will be brought out. I truly concider Adams to be one of the greatest minds of the late 18th century and often covered over by Jefferson and Franklin who were also great minds but often not very truthful in who and what they were and represented. Jefferson has been given a free ride for a century or more and I truly hope that Adams gets the treatment he so sorely needed. One would hope that this exibit may show Adams...at his best and worst. One thing that is special about Adams is that he did allow both sides to be seen. Jefferson and Franklin are very much guilty of hiding much of who they really are.
Jefferson I truly believe outside of the hero worship (which is often not based on fact)Has hardly had the influence on our world more than Adams...Jefferson was just careful to make sure everyone knew it. Sorry for my rant here but I have been mad for years that John Adams does not get the honor he truly merits...and much of the honor given to Jefferson is not his, but Adams. Congrats to you all for your hard and honorable work! Jack

Posted by: Jack | Oct 1, 2006 11:53:27 AM

As a literature major (and later grad student), I constantly wrote in the margins. I even had a very organized system of different highlighters and pens for different notes. Writing everywhere...to the point it's hard to go back and read the books "cold" now.

I made myself stop after grad school because I no longer had a 20-page paper to churn out in a week as back then. I have succeeded in breaking the habit, but my fingers still itch sometimes when I'm reading.

OK, I'll admit it. I haven't completely gotten over it. I write in a notebook while reading instead of writing in the book. But still. It's a start.

And sometimes it still aggravates me that I have to write in the notebook even, because I do think there is a difference to abandoning yourself to a book and analyzing it, quoting it, chewing it up and spitting it out in your mind in the end.

Oh well. Maybe next year.

Baby steps. ;)

Posted by: Shawn Lea | Sep 6, 2006 2:29:27 PM

Really enjoyed reading this. But, was trained to NEVER write in books.....

Posted by: Mb | Sep 6, 2006 12:22:07 PM

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