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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Wednesday, May 13, 2020

“I can never give any thing but general accounts of conversations”

Last fall, I discussed a moment when John Quincy Adams discovered that his younger brother Charles had been reading his diary without permission.

At the time, the Adams brothers were students at Harvard College. John Quincy was about to turn twenty and increasingly interested in young women. Charles was in his mid-teens and increasingly getting into trouble with the college authorities.

John Quincy was still worried about prying eyes the following 17 Jan 1787, when he wrote:
I had a deal of chat, with Miss [Almy] Ellery, who has a larger share of Sense, than commonly falls to an individual of her sex. We conversed upon diverse subjects, but I can never give any thing but general accounts of conversations, for I cannot always keep this book under lock and key; and some people have a vast deal of curiosity.
Despite that caution about his conversation with Almy Ellery, in the same season John Quincy set down some delightfully acidic comments about other people he met.

On 4 January:
Miss [Catherine] Jones as usual was severe. Her disposition would be much more amiable, if she was not so sensible of her satirical talents, and so fond of them as to gratify her passion upon all occasions.
12 January:
We pass’d an hour in the evening at Mr. [Caleb] Gannett’s [the Harvard steward]; he was not at home: Mrs. [Ruth] G. is quite historical; that is she gives a very minute history of whatever occurs to herself or her family.
1 February:
Mr. [Thomas] Fayerweather and his family were there. An extraordinary character. The greatest range of his ideas, is between the counter of a shop, and the potatoe-hill behind his House; these furnish him with an universal topic of conversation, which he commonly enjoys alone, for he gives no other person time to express either approbation or dislike of his sentiments.
15 February, after a dance:
Of the Ladies, some had beauty without wit, and some wit without beauty; one was blest with both, and others could boast of neither. But little was said, and sentiment did not thrive, when the feet are so much engaged, the head in general is vacant.
16 February:
Miss [Rebecca] Hastings was there, but she has neither youth nor beauty, and if she has wit it is somewhat beneath the surface.
Clearly John Quincy Adams didn’t worry about his brother seeing those comments.

COMING UP: More catty comments to come.

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