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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Saturday, July 18, 2020

After-Death Revelations from the John Adams Papers

The letters from Abigail and John Adams that I’ve been quoting come of course from the Adams Papers project at the Massachusetts Historical Society.

This week the project received printed copies of the twentieth and latest volume of the Papers of John Adams, covering the period June 1789 to February 1791, when he was adjusting to being Vice President.

Series editor Sara Georgini wrote on the M.H.S. blog about an unusual document being published for the first time in this volume:
But John Adams did pause to reflect on the passing of Benjamin Franklin. Just as his Discourses on Davila began to appear in the American press, Adams’s writing took a more fanciful turn. Following Franklin’s death, Adams memorialized the milestone in a playful skit, titled “Dialogues of the Dead.” We do not see a lot of “creative writing” in John Adams’s papers, so this is a unique treat. Adams’s scene stars a cast of characters in conversation [Charlemagne, James Otis, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and Frederick II (the Great)] as they await Franklin’s arrival in the afterlife.

Though it seemed like a quirky choice for the author of serious works like the Defence of the Constitutions, Adams’ sardonic salute showed his Harvard-trained classical roots. In content and style, Adams emulated the Syrian satirist Lucian of Samosata’s Dialogues of the Dead. Adams riffed on Franklin’s science experiments and took a few jabs at his statesmanship. He observed that Franklin “told some very pretty moral Tales from the head—and Some very immoral ones from the heart.” For such a breezy and colorful bit of writing, Adams certainly worked hard to get it right; the manuscript bears plenty of his edits and deletions.
This unpublished essay could make a lively pairing with the wholly unauthorized message from the afterlife of John Quincy Adams, discussed here.


Unknown said...

A correction to this item's publication history: I believe it first appeared in print, in its entirety and fully annotated, in The Documentary History of the First Federal Congress, 1789-1791: Correspondence Series: Second Session (Baltimore, 2012) 12:1283-86. Deeming John Adams, as President of the Senate, a qualified "member" of the First Federal Congress, the editors routinely included relevant material from his papers. This document stood out not only because of its whimsical style (as Sarah Giorgini points out), but because it was another salvo in Adams's decades-long campaign against Franklin's memory. At the time of his death, Franklin was still very much public figure--thanks mostly to his recent work on behalf of the Pennsylvania Abolition Society's petition campaign in the First Federal Congress. Adams retrieved his "Dialogues of the Dead" from his papers much later, in 1813, when he wrote Benjamin Rush that he had dashed off the original draft shortly after hearing of Franklin's death on 17 April 1790. (The news from Philadelphia reached the seat of government in New York City on 21 April.) "The moment it was written," Adams concluded, "is the most curious Circumstance attending it."

J. L. Bell said...

From a follow-up email, I learned that the comment above came from William ("Chuck") diGiacomantonio, who worked on the First Federal Congress project. He wants people to know the citation should be to volume 19 of the series, not 12. Thanks, Chuck!