J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Friday, September 22, 2006

John Adams's Notes on Display at BPL

Today's Boston Globe brings news of the "John Adams Unbound" exhibit at the Boston Public Library of John Adams's personal library, with many books opened to show the president's marginal notes. Adams was the best read American politician of his generation—even Thomas Jefferson was in awe of the number of books he consumed in his retirement—and he was rather poor at keeping his feelings and opinions under wraps. So he read lots of authors, and he argued with them.

The Globe article includes a photo (click above) of one page from a French book with comments like these:

So I hope.
Sub modo.
Demon.
Hons? Hindoo!
Mad!
Perhaps!
But 9/10ths [illegible, at least to me]
found silly.
And that's all on the bottom of one page.

At some point it might be possible to view Adams's commentary without making the serpentine journey through the BPL's old building to the Rare Books and Manuscripts Department. The Globe says:
with 30 volumes digitized from the Adams collection, an ambitious project has been launched to put as many of the president's books on the Internet as funding and technology will allow. The plans also include an electronic cross-referencing of Adams's reflections.

The Globe also reports on the exhibit, "There's a forensic map, drawn by Paul Revere, that Adams used at trial in his defense of British soldiers in the Boston Massacre." Actually, that trial is the best documented of the period, and the record contains no mention of a map. Nor do Revere's business records. The map didn't come from the Adams estate, but seems to have been bought from Revere's descendants in the mid-1800s. So really we can only guess at why he drew the map. Perhaps it was part of an investigation, or meant for the town report, or perhaps it was Revere's first stab at an engraving for public consumption, before he copied Henry Pelham's far more dramatic drawing of the shootings. (The labels are in Revere's handwriting, and some figures resemble those that Pelham drew.)

The only web image of the Revere map that I know of is a tiny one in the Bostonian Society's Boston Massacre game (an attempt to create "CSI: Colonial Boston," but actually focusing on the history of imagery as much as the event itself). But there are reproductions in several books on the subject, and at the Old State House Museum.

The "John Adams Unbound" exhibit runs from today through 1 April.

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