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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Monday, June 11, 2007

John Quincy Adams Wishes He Kept a Journal

I’m busy preparing my butt off to go to the 2007 Dublin Seminar for New England Folklife conference this upcoming weekend in historic Deerfield, Massachusetts. This is the second year the seminar is devoted to New England diaries of all kinds.

The first paper to be delivered on Friday evening will be my own: “The Revolutionary-Era Boy and ‘His Joyrnal’: Diary-Keeping as a Step Toward Manhood.” To get in the right mood, today I’ll share John Quincy Adams’s thoughts on keeping a journal and letterbook from a letter to his mother, 27 Sept 1778:

My Pappa enjoins it on me to keep a journal, or a diary, of the Events that happen to me, and of objects that I See, and of Characters that I converse with from day, to day, and altho I am Convinced of the utility, importance, & necessity, of this Exercise, yet I have not patience, & perseverance, enough to do it so Constantly as I ought.

My Pappa who takes a great deal of Pains to put me in the right way, has also advised me to Preserve Copies of all my letters, & has given me a Convenient Blank Book for this end; and although I shall have the mortification a few years hence, to read a great deal of my Childish nonsense, yet I shall have the Pleasure, & advantage, of Remarking the several steps, by which I shall have advanced, in taste, judgment, & knowledge.

a journal book & a letter Book of a Lad of Eleven years old, Cannot be expected to Contain much of Science, Litterature, arts, wisdom, or wit, yet it may Serve to perpetuate many observations that I may make, & may hereafter help me to recolect both persons, & things, that would other ways escape my memory.

I have been to see [various sites]…in & about Paris, which if I had written down in a diary, or a Letter Book, would give me at this time much Pleasure to revise, & would enable me hereafter to Entertain my Freinds, but I have neglected it & therefore, can now only resolve to be more thoughtful, & Industrious, for the Future & to encourage me in this resolution & enable me to keep it with more ease & advantage my father has given me hopes of a Present of a Pencil & Pencil Book in which I can make notes upon the spot to be Transfered afterewards in my Diary & my Letters this will give me great Pleasure both because it will be a sure means of improvement to myself & enable me to be more entertaing to you.
If John Quincy had taken all the effort that went into this letter and just kept a diary from the start, then he wouldn’t have felt such guilt and anxiety about disappointing his parents on that score. But I get the feeling he would have suffered a lot of guilt and anxiety about disappointing them anyway.

About a year later John Quincy did start a journal, which covers the start of his second journey to Europe, and I’m going to discuss that in my paper. Eventually Adams got so into the daily habit that his 51-volume diary is one of the daunting monuments of nineteenth-century America.

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