AHA Presidential Addresses
Manuscript Sources of American History: The Conspicuous Collections Extant
By Justin Winsor, President of the American Historical Association, 1886–87
Published in Papers of the American Historical Association, vol. III, no 1 (1888), pp. 9–27
Books by Justin Winsor
I ask your attention to some considerations respecting the manuscript sources of American history, as they exist in this county, both in public archives and in private hands, with a view to suggesting some methods for their better preservation, and for insuring to the historical student a more thorough knowledge of their nature.
The subject is too wide to be considered in all its bearings within the brief space allotted here, and I shall therefore mainly refer to those collections of a more extensive sort which relate to the history of the American Revolution. It should be borne in mind that there was not, during that formative period of our nation, the same rigid enforcement of the rights of government to the official papers of its servants which prevails now. Accordingly, it would be impossible to write the full story of the American Revolution with the documentary evidence left in the hands of the departmental officers of the present day, as a legacy from the Committees and Boards and Congresses which, in those days, conducted our affairs. It is also true, though in a lesser that the English archives and those of the Continent of Europe need also reinforcement from family papers, if we would study completely the same period on the other side of the ocean.
It was this scant care and unstable protection given to government papers during those unsettled times which then made the collection of them in private hands of greater necessity than at present; and threw a larger share of the responsibility of preserving them, then than now, upon the servants of the government in their private capacity. Added to the habit of the time was what always accompanies a revolutionary administration—its lack of an efficient organization for such accessory functions of government as imply a body of archivists. It was then an enforced feeling of responsibility, as well as a consciousness that deeds were enacting which the world would, not willingly let die, that insured the collecting and transmission of such masses of papers as are now associated with the names of Washington and Greene in the army, and of Franklin and the Adamses in the Congresses, not at this moment to name others.
The earliest writers to make any considerable use of the government archives were Gordon and Ramsay. Gordon solicited access to Washington’s papers in vain, till the government had opened to him its own archives, so anxious was Washington that no use should be made of his papers till the government judged the proper time had come to throw open its documentary stores. Ramsay availed himself of his membership of Congress to make his own use of them an easy one. Both of these early writers had done their work, when a fire in the War Department in 1800 destroyed some portion of the papers in its keeping. The capture of Washington City by the British in 1814 was accompanied by destruction of papers more or less severe in the War, Navy, and Treasury Departments, and the Treasury again suffered in 1833. Fortunately the Department of State has escaped such perils, and it has been the principal depository of the historical records of the government ever since the first Congress, by an act approved in September, 1789, made it responsible for the safe custody of “the acts, records, and seal of the United States."
We may trace the beginning of a general interest in the preservation of our national muniments to the labors and influence of three men—Jared Sparks, Peter Force, and George Bancroft—the last still with us, and the occupant of this chair at our last meeting. Of the two that are gone I may speak freely. The skill and industry which marked the efforts of Colonel Force in his pioneer work was of the utmost importance to American history. His sharp eye went wandering over the country, and his eager hand was laid, almost always effectively, wherever his eye had penetrated. His scouring was none too soon. The actors in the Revolutionary struggle were not all dead. Their children had not lost all the enthusiasm for the story which recollections of personal participancy had enforced with the telling. The time had come for one who could garner, and Colonel Force was such a collector, as a pioneer in such things almost always is—an amasser, who fails sometimes in observing proportions, and particularly in the comprehension of the value of authentication. A few timely words, a mere reference, or a jotting or two of explanation, could Force have given them in the great collection which he began, would have saved his successors in historical studies an infinitude of trouble, and would have enabled them to judge of the value of his documents, and to have pursued their verification. Without such intimation and guidance, the great collection upon which his energy was bestowed must stand to-day too often questionable and uncertain. This was Force’s failure—a failure arising from a paramount eagerness to save, with too little concern to authenticate; a failure that comes too naturally to workers in a new field, where the very act of finding seems authentication enough.
The failure of Sparks, with all his great and manifold usefulness to his time, was akin to that of Force. He did not err, as Force had done, in neglecting to tell us whence he drew his material; but he did fail in not giving it to us as he found it. I cannot now go into the details of the controversy with Lord Mahon, from which Sparks emerged with no dishonor, but with the necessary acknowledgment that had he thought more upon the objections of his critics, he might have avoided the occasion of their criticism. That Sparks did not treat historical material as we would treat it to-day is because he was a pioneer in the work, one who was too much occupied in clearing the field always to judge fitly what should be spared.
If we, in our, time, are scrupulous to mark the signs of the fracture, when we break an historical document into fragments, it is because we recognize that the value of what we omit may have some significance to others, reading with a purpose different from the one which controls us in our writing—but this did not occur to Sparks, nor to Marshall, his predecessor—men of weightier judgments, doubtless, than many have who question their custom now; but the experience of later days must pass in some things as of sounder value than even such judgments.
The more I study the character of Washington the more I find of that supreme judgment and circumspection which was his distinguishing trait, which so well accounts for most of what he was and of what he did; and yet we can hardly approve that judgment when he applied it to his own writings. We know that after he had gone through the experiences of the Revolution, and had modified his perceptions by the light of those experiences, he sat down to refashion the correspondence of the French War, and give it the form in which he wished it to go down to posterity; and it is this redrafting, under the oversight of maturer years, that we read to-day as his record of those young days, when he fought with Braddock and defended the passes of the Alleghanies. Would we not rather have the record as he wrote it, with all its racy immaturity?
It was an easy thing for Sparks, sixty years ago, without the prompting of the experience which we enjoy, to fall into the belief that what Washington had done himself for his earlier letters, his editor should do for the later ones. I fear that all of us would have done the same under the critical influences which prevailed then, but which have now disappeared. Yet it must be acknowledged that in the general apprehension, at least, the extent to which this rectifying or changing the text of Washington was carried by Sparks, has been exaggerated. That it was done too often is evident, according to our later standards. We have learned that bad spelling or a solecism in grammar may have a significance in certain environments. I am glad to notice that Mr. Bigelow, in the preface to his new edition of Franklin, while looking upon Sparks’ method as questionable, is free to confess that his own editorial success must be assured, if he makes no more serious mistakes than characterized his predecessor.
One needs only to scan the many scores of bound volumes of manuscripts, which constitute the collection called by Sparks’ name at Cambridge, to appreciate the range and variety of research which characterized Sparks as an historical student.
It is about sixty years since these three distinguished students to whom I have referred began to make those preparations which have so fruitfully affected the study of American history, and Sparks was, by a few years; the leader of them. History in and pertaining to America had up to that time accomplished no signal work. We may trace the true historical sense for the first time in Thomas Hutchinson; and in the interval of another sixty years, which followed the publication of his Massachusetts Bay and extended to the date when Sparks and Force and Bancroft were making ready for a new era, we can hardly find an historical writer whose insight and breadth of learning gave token of more than a transient value, unless possibly we except Marshall, whose Life of Washington deserves more of credit in these days than it has. Its width of research was narrow compared with what would be essential now; and its style has few attractions; but for access to the best resources within his reach, for a discriminating use of them, and for a judgment that prefigured the decisions of his posterity, his book is still greatly worthy of study.
Of the other writers of those same sixty years, Ramsay was the best, decidedly, in a literary sense, and for a long time Ramsay was in his matter the best, exemplar of the American side of the Revolutionary struggle which our English critics could cite. Gordon was fussy, timid, and inconsiderate, though his nearness to the events and his acquaintance with the actors gave his book a value on some points where lack of information exists. The work of Mercy Warren, not published till she was past threescore, was that of a woman quick to see, sensitive to the peculiarities of the actors of a contest which she had known, and who, in its earlier stages had been in fact a part of it. Beyond what this implies, her book was far from learned in its details, and not free from a sort of posterior judgment, as John Adams rather too emphatically made known.
We can only judge what we have lost, when Adams himself failed to carry out in his retirement a purpose which he professed at one time to have cherished—of writing the history of the Revolution. He would certainly have made it incumbent on all future writers to follow him with caution, and to qualify his vigorous judgments with the opinions of more moderate men; but as a contribution to our knowledge of the men and of the motives of factions, it is hard to conceive of any thing which could have, taken the place of any history which he would have written.
The only publication of an historic nature during this period from Hutchinson to the new era, which, on the whole, we may find the least fault with, is the Annals of Abiel Holmes—not, indeed, that it rises to the highest import of historical writing, but for fidelity, research, and good judgment, a model then and a model now, for the writing of history in a simple, chronological sequence.
I have taken this hasty survey of the writing of American history during this formative period preceding the coming of Sparks and his compeers, in order to see what effect it all had on the historic spirit, as affecting the care of manuscripts. Without multiplying instances, the fates of the Hutchinson and Trumbull papers are at once suggested.
The papers of Jonathan Trumbull, of Connecticut, were, in the main, such as accrued on his hands as the executive of that State, and they are some of the, most important of such papers elucidating the history of the Revolution; for Connecticut stood in close relations to the army on the Hudson, on the one hand, and was contiguous to the posts held by the British at New York, and to Newport, the successive post of the English and the French auxiliaries, on the other hand. There seems to have been no doubt in the mind of Trumbull that the papers were his to dispose of as he thought best, and, it appears to have been his intention to deposit them in some public library. Trumbull died without carrying out this purpose, and his heirs, in 1794, determined to proceed in accordance with such intention. The Massachusetts Historical Society, the earliest of all such associations among us, had just been formed for the express purpose of collecting, preserving, and publishing our historical records; and to the heirs of the Connecticut governor, and to all others, so far as we now have any evidence, it seemed the most natural thing to place these papers in the custody of that society. It was accordingly done, creating a trust. The fact that the papers were accepted, that no comments were made upon their acceptance, and that the claims of the archives of the State as a fitter place were not mentioned, must be taken apparently as showing that the general sentiment of the time was to the effect that the public custody was not necessary for papers which were not needed for administrative reference. The sequel of this history is well known. When the public views changed, and it came to be held that the public custody was the fitter for such papers, the State of Connecticut made an equitable claim on that society for its own archives. The statute of limitations and the sacredness of an assumed trust were the reasons given for declining to make the restitution. It does not seem probable that such reasons can ultimately prevail.
The story of Governor Hutchinson’s papers is a more complicated one. You will recall that when the mob, in August, 1765, sacked the governor’s house in Boston, his papers were scattered in the streets during a wet night, and we may still see on some of them the stains of the Boston mud of that day, as we turn their leaves in the Boston State House. These papers, as he says, included not only those which he had been for years collecting, in his capacity as historian, but also such as were public papers of contemporary origin, then in his custody. Through the assiduity of the Rev. Andrew Eliot most of them were gathered up from the pavement, and restored to the governor, so that they all passed into that final collection which was seized after the governor’s flight in 1774, and thus became, public and private papers together, the property of the State; and in the possession of the State they all remained until 1821. At that date, a Secretary of the Commonwealth, himself an historical writer, Alden Bradford, separated from these papers such as he deemed no part of the secretary’s files, and with, the governor’s approval presented them to, or deposited them with—for both phrases are used—the Massachusetts Historical Society. Twenty-five years later, another Secretary of the Commonwealth, and an historical writer of greater prominence, Dr. Palfrey, took another view of the matter, more in accordance with the later opinions on the subject, and demanded their return. For another twenty-five years the dispute between the State and the society was intermittent. The same arguments of limitary statutes, and of a trust created, with complications arising from the possibility or probability of other papers, acquired earlier, being at that time bound with them, kept the settlement in abeyance, till both parties agreed to a reference, and the State won.
The conclusions from these two conspicuous instances are patent. Down to the time when a new historical spirit began to be operative under the impulse given by Sparks and his compeers, and even upon the very verge of it, as instanced in the case of Alden Bradford, there was no clear perception, in the general or official mind, of the right to the possession of public muniments being vested in government. Since that day there has been no conspicuous departure from the principle, which is now generally recognized, that to the office and not to the incumbent belong public papers. At the same time, there must of necessity be a good deal of shadowiness about the line of division between what an officer may keep and what he must surrender.
The epoch, then, which is made by the advent of this famous trio of historical students, now about sixty years ago, is the one back of which there is much need of research to ascertain the available resources for historical study, and, in the present condition of things, there is much that is very unsatisfactory. There has, indeed, been much done, but more action is needed. The general government has, on the whole, done well. To the papers, which came to the Department of State from the antecedent committees and officers of the Continental Congress and of the Confederation, the authorities at Washington have added some of the most important papers which under the old custom had been left in personal bands, together with other papers fitly private. Such are the Washington papers, upon which Sparks has done for us such conspicuous service. Upon these, as well as upon all others of Washington’s, wherever found, Congress would do well to devote, for the complete publication, a necessary portion of its surplus revenue, for the time has come when such a monument is due from the country to its greatest character.
Hardly of less importance are the acquisitions made by the State Department of the papers of Madison, Monroe, Jefferson, Hamilton, and, latest of all, its redeeming from pawn the used and unused manuscripts of Franklin.
It is also owing to the action of government that we are to-day enabled, in the library of Congress, to consult the papers of Rochambeau, and other miscellanies to the extent of about 5,000 pieces, as Senator Hoar showed, in a paper on the resources for historical study in Washington, which he read before the American Antiquarian Society, a year or two since.
At the same time the government has not bought all it should, though due allowance must of course be made for a natural hesitancy, when, on the part of the possessors of such papers, the demands for payment have been over large. Such, perhaps, was the case in the offers which were made of the papers of General Greene, about which I spent a considerable time lately in endeavoring to find their present resting-place in Georgia, and, if my letters have not miscarried, there is no eagerness at present to give any information respecting them. There is certainly among the military leaders of the Revolution no other to dispute with Greene a second place to Washington; and it is not altogether creditable that the government does not possess the papers of the greatest of the generals of Washington.
In considering the condition of Revolutionary manuscripts, not in the possession of the general government, we may regard them as of three kinds—those in the archives of State authorities, those in the cabinets of institutions, and those in private hands. It will not be necessary to consider any but the most conspicuous collections, though from inquiries which I have instituted in various parts of the country, I feel sure there are many minor collections about which we would do well to know more.
First, as respects the thirteen original States. Massachusetts has spent largely upon her archives, and they are still under the supervision of commissioners spending a yearly grant. I believe her records to be the most extensive and most valuable of all the States, as they certainly extend, in any considerable amount, farther back into the past. But Massachusetts has done far less than New York, either in printing her archives, or in adding to them by copies from foreign repositories. A series of transcripts from the French archives relating mainly to the French and Indian wars, made for the State by Ben: Perley Poore, is the only accession of this nature to her muniments. New Hampshire has set Massachusetts a good example by the assiduity with which she is printing her records, though it must be borne in mind that the lesser extent of those in New Hampshire renders the task a much easier one. Such of the Revolutionary papers of New Hampshire as were carried off to Nova Scotia by her last royal governor, and are now at Halifax, she has, I believe, taken measures to have copied. Rhode Island and Connecticut are also printing what they have with commendable fulness, though Connecticut naturally finds a considerable hiatus in her Revolutionary records by the absence of the Trumbull papers.
New York has done nobly in the care of her archives. She has acted wisely, as I think, in taking them out of the custody of a political officer like the Secretary of State, and in placing them in the keeping of a ready-made commission, like the Regents of the so-called University of the State of New York, with a trained officer in charge. If we do not owe much to the visionary enthusiasm of Alexander Vattemare, it is satisfactory to place to his credit the instigation which he gave to the New York authorities to take better care of their archives, when he brought to their attention the fact that he had observed the porters of the capitol use the State’s old records to wrap for transportation the legislative documents of a later day. This is said to have been the incentive which led to the employment of Brodhead and O’Callaghan to do their work upon the records of New York, which has placed historical students under such great obligations.
To New York, too, belongs the credit, more than to any other State, of having thoroughly and systematically drawn upon the archives of Europe—England, France, and Holland, in her case—to add to the interest of her own accumulations; and to her, too, is the credit, which belongs, I think, to no other State, of having purchased any considerable mass of papers from private hands, as she did when she acquired the papers of Governor George Clinton.
New Jersey is doing well, both in the publication of the New Jersey Archives, and in the assiduous efforts which Mr. Stryker, her Adjutant-General, is making to render her Revolutionary history complete.
Neither has Pennsylvania been sparing of pains in the arranging and printing of her documentary history. Maryland has transferred her historical papers to the care of her Historical Society, and, under the supervision of able editors, she is putting her records beyond the risk of accident in print. The archives of Virginia have suffered much, both from the raid of Arnold during the Revolution, and from the hazards of the late war. Something has been done to gather such as are left, and Mr. William Wirt Henry writes to me that in his studies for the Life of Patrick Henry, he has found that a good deal is preserved after all these mischances. The Carolinas have each drawn to some extent from the London State Paper Office to supplement their own records; but it does not seem clear, from all the information which I can reach, that in the burning of Columbia, during Sherman’s march, the archives were saved, though such was believed to be the case at the time, and that the last of the wagons containing them left the town as the Federal army approached.
I have mentioned that in Maryland the State has made the Historical Society the depository of its historical archives; and I think this the only one of the original thirteen States which has taken this step. The measure has certainly much to commend it, when we consider that the transitoriness of our public service carries much of danger to the accumulations of archives. That this danger is not small would seem to be the case from the fact that in no instance, as far as I can learn, have the possessors of papers of public interest been prompted to make the State the guardian of them, while in various cases public libraries and historical societies have been by preference chosen. Indeed, without the help to be derived from the deposits in such places, and from those public or semi-public papers in private hands, it would be quite impossible to tell the whole story of the American Revolution.
There are some instances where such papers, by some method of disintegration, apart from a settled purpose, have failed to be kept entire in one deposit; as, for instance, the Cambridge Correspondence of Washington and Joseph Reed, which is now in the Carter Brown Library at Providence, got separated from the bulk of the Joseph Reed papers, which are in the New York Historical Society; but I know of but one instance of any significance where an accumulation of personal papers has been divided for the purpose of increasing the chances of preservation of a part, as was the case with the papers of Arthur Lee. This Virginian succeeded at London, in the days before the outbreak of hostilities, to the agency for Massachusetts, which had been held by Dennis DeBerdt, and the papers which had accumulated in DeBerdt’s hands fell, with the office, to Lee, and were accordingly engulfed with the large mass which also came into his keeping during his service in Europe as a Commissioner of the Continental Congress. In due time, after the death of Lee, and when his nephew, the younger Richard Henry Lee, had used these papers in writing the ill-assorted memoirs of the brothers, Arthur and Richard Henry Lee, it seems to have occurred to the biographer to make three divisions of the papers in the most haphazard sort of way, just as if they were dealt upon three several piles, as cards are dealt, and these three piles he gave respectively to Harvard College Library, to the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia, and to the University of Virginia. When those in Cambridge, came into my custody some years ago I made inquiries for the rest. The fragmentary character of many a sequence in what was before me made it evident that there were gaps to be filled, if only the other depositories could be found. When these were discovered, I was able by the confidence of the custodians of the other fractions, to bring temporarily the three parts together, and to make clear the strange method of division which had been followed. For instance, of the series of the depositions taken after the affairs at Lexington and Concord, which were sent over to London to the agent of Massachusetts, some had fallen in the deal upon the pile destined for Virginia, and others fell to Harvard, while to Philadelphia chanced to come other documents which should have accompanied the whole to Cambridge. And as in this case, so in others, though I know of no other division of papers made quite as senselessly, among all the scattering of Revolutionary manuscripts.
Of all the semi-public depositories of Revolutionary documents, there would seem to be the largest accumulation in Boston. There are, in the cabinet of the Massachusetts Historical Society, the papers of Governor Jonathan Trumbull, to which reference has already been made. There also is the more important part of those of John Hancock, though some of the earlier ones have finally gone to private collectors. The papers of Josiah Quincy are not numerous, for his early death precluded any large amassment, but such as there are, passing down from the keeping of President Quincy, who embodied most of them in the life of his father, to his daughter, they, a few years since, at her death, came to the same society. Here also are the voluminous papers of Timothy Pickering, though they relate mostly to post-Revolutionary days; but they are deficient in the mass of papers respecting his administration of the Quartermaster’s Department, which many years ago were strangely acquired by a gentleman in New York State; and fifteen years ago passed into the archives of the War Department, where they are now lying, I fear in some forgotten corner. Also in the same society’s cabinet are the papers of General William Heath, a man who bore the distinction of having been the first general officer in the field, as directing the final pursuit of Percy from Lexington, and also the last in immediate command in the final movement of the army of the Revolution.
The papers of General Knox, the chief of the artillery of the Revolution, are also in the library of the New England Historic Genealogical Society in Boston, properly enough, for here, as a bookseller’s clerk, he began his career.
In the library at Cambridge are the papers of Governor Bernard, and a portion of those of Arthur Lee, as already explained; as well as the letter-book of Governor Tryon during his term in North Carolina, and the papers of Samuel Tucker, the naval commander. At Cambridge, also, is the most extensive series of copies of historical papers relating to American history, and particularly to the American Revolution, that is possessed by any institution—that made by Sparks during his long period of study in this field and amounting to about one hundred and seventy volumes. With them are a few originals, the most considerable of which are the papers of Sir Francis Bernard, already referred to, and a series of characteristic examples of the letters of all the leading characters of the Revolution, mainly a selection from Washington’s papers, which Mr. Sparks was allowed to retain after his labors on the edition of Washington’s writings were completed.
The Revolutionary portion of Mr. Sparks’ MSS.—much the most considerable part—shows the large drafts made by him on every resource—the archives of the government at Washington, those of every one of the thirteen States, the papers of Franklin and Washington, including much which he did not print in his edition of the latter. He also drew from all the principal and even minor collections in private hands throughout the country; and he added the mass which he secured at the dispersal of the manuscripts of George Chalmers; the copies which he was allowed to make in the State Paper Office in London, including particularly the diplomatic correspondence of Grantham, Stormont, Sir Joseph Yorke, and others, for Sparks had latterly in mind a purpose to write the diplomatic history of the Revolution, which he was not spared to accomplish.
He also drew upon that great mass of Headquarters papers, accumulated by the successive commanders-in-chief on the British side, which are gathered in the Royal Institution, and cited indifferently as the Carleton or Dorchester Papers—the extent of which, there is reason to believe, will be better understood when sundry packing cases in the cellar that building are examined, and which seem to have been forgotten till recently. The great resource of the Haldimand Papers was acquired by the British Museum too near the end of Sparks’ active career for his collection to profit from them; but we owe it to the intelligent action of the Dominion Government, and to the assiduity of the Dominion Archivist, Mr. Brymner, that copies of the Haldimand Papers are now at Ottawa, of which we are given an excellent key in the calendar now in course of publication by that same officer.
It was to the kind interest of Lafayette, and later of his son, that Sparks owed much of his opportunity of access to the archives in Paris, and to the papers of Gérard and Luzerne. Sparks’ extracts from the correspondence of the French and Spanish ministry, and his transcripts of the letters of Frederick the Great and his ambassador, touching points connected with the American Revolution, are necessary to complete the survey.
The place next in importance for the study of personal papers is New York, for though they have the Laurens papers in the Long Island Historical Society, it is in the library of the New York Historical Society that we find the papers of Gates, Charles Lee, Steuben, Joseph Reed, Stirling, and Lamb, the New York artillerist. The history of the Stirling manuscripts shows one of the kinds of vicissitude, arising even from an excess of care, to which old papers are subjected. The letters of Washington among the Stirling papers were separated to be placed in a spot of greater security, and then forgotten. Hutchinson also tells us that some papers which he had secreted where he thought no one would find them were forgotten when he took his flight, and they may possibly be the ones which are said to have been found in feather beds, at the time Hutchinson’s effects were sold.
Other collections in public institutions are not numerous. There are the papers of Esek Hopkins, gathered during his brief career as a commodore, lodged with others of less importance in the Rhode Island Historical Society; those of Silas Deane, in part at least, in the Connecticut Historical Society, while a small portion are still in the keeping of the descendants; those of Boudinot, Shippen, and some others, in the Pennsylvania Society; those of Benjamin Rush in the Philadelphia library. This enumeration indicates the most important masses of Revolutionary papers, in public institutions, so far as they have been preserved.
The papers in private hands include some of the most important, and those treasured in Massachusetts are the most extensive. Referring to the family muniment building at Quincy, which contains the papers of the Adamses, Dr. Hale has recently said, in the preface of his Franklin in France: “I know of no other collection in the world, where the history of a great nation can be so studied in the biography of one family,” comprising, as it does, the youthful observations of John Adams on the French War, and the part played by his grandson, at the other limit, in the conference at Geneva.
The latter gentleman, in editing the papers of John Adams, has said, with probable truth, that the private papers of the first of the Adamses most likely exceed in extent the papers of every other leading actor in the Revolutionary struggle. We have, of course, a representative portion of these papers in the Writings of John Adams; but the collection possesses, beyond what is there given, a mass of correspondence, to the publication of which historical students are looking forward, and with confidence, when we consider the strong historical instincts of the Adamses still among us. I am glad to learn that the younger Mr. Charles Francis Adams, who considers his present engrossment with the material interests of the country as but a temporary bar to more genuine service in historical research, has already determined to place the great stores at Quincy in more serviceable condition.
Of the papers of Samuel Adams, the portion which is left is in the hands of Mr. Bancroft, who describes them as very numerous, and as unfolding very fully the manner of molding into a system the acts of resistance to Great Britain. We know, however, that much spoliation of these papers took place, both before and after the death of Samuel Adams. John Adams pictures his kinsman as burning his correspondence in winter, and as cutting it into shreds in summer, to scatter it upon the winds, so that by no neglect of his could any of his associates be implicated, if fortune went against the colonies. Even from among such as were not destroyed, the friends of unstable patriots were said at a later day to have abstracted the evidences of their weakness.
The papers of James and Mercy Warren are also preserved by a descendant, Mr. Winslow Warren of Dedham, and they have never been used as they should be, though from these and from John Adams’ papers, there has been put into print a: famous correspondence of John Adams and Mercy Warren.
Of Massachusetts soldiers, the papers of General Lincoln, connected with some of the most important events of the war, are still in the family keeping, as are those of General Thomas, whose career was cut short too early to allow their being voluminous.
After Massachusetts, the most important local ownership is in New York, where, still in the hands of descendants, are the papers of Philip Schuyler, John Jay, and Gouverneur Morris. In the migrations of families, and the changes of ownerships, we find such personal papers scattered widely through the land. Those of Charles Thomson, the Secretary of the Continental Congress, are in Memphis; those of Sullivan, the New Hampshire general, are in Boston; those of Meschek Weare, the Governor of New Hampshire, are in New York; those of Wilkinson are in Louisville; those of George Rogers Clark are in Wisconsin; while those of Patrick Henry, Charles Carroll, Anthony Wayne, Cæsar Rodney, and George Read are still preserved near their homes.
The melancholy aspects of the subject are in the losses to be chronicled of some of these personal papers, which would be of the utmost help to us.
When we consider the activity of James Otis, and the wide correspondence which he maintained with gentlemen in all the colonies between 1760 and 1770, and how much was owing to him that the preparation was advanced and ripened for the final co-operation of the colonies, we can appreciate what we have lost in the destruction of his papers, when, in one of the unhappy moments of his aberration, he committed his manuscripts to the flames. John Adams tells how a daughter of Otis said to him that she had not a line from her father’s pen. What is left of the papers of James Bowdoin is inconsiderable; those of Thomas Cushing were seized by General Gage, and have disappeared, and we know nothing of those of Joseph Hawley—almost the only citizen in Western Massachusetts who did not join his fortunes to those of the Loyalists. The papers of Joseph Warren were consumed in the burning of a barn in Greenfield, Massachusetts. Much as we know of the early formative days of the Revolution in its birthplace, we can but conjecture what we have lost of the history of Massachusetts and of her relation to the other colonies at that time in the disappearance of such collections as these.
Only the scantiest measure remains of the papers of Francis Dana. Those of William Whipple of New Hampshire have in the main disappeared. What there is left of the papers of William Ellery hardly recompenses us for the loss of the letters which his friends destroyed at his request.
The papers of Stephen Hopkins were swept away by a flood in 1815, and Rhode Island regrets how her two most eminent citizens in the Senate are without suitable record in this way.
Connecticut is not privileged to treasure the papers of Roger Sherman, which in the main disappeared in a way which no one well understands. Maryland regrets the loss sea of those of Otho Williams. South Carolina saw the burning of those of Rutledge, and only a small portion of those of Pinckney are still known.
I would suggest, in closing, a method for the better preserving and making known what there is still left to us of the historical manuscripts of the country, not in places easily accessible to the student. My purpose must be obvious to all of you who have watched the progress of the work, as evinced in their successive reports, done by the Historical Manuscripts Commission in England; and I need hardly at this time detail their method and results; but I cannot resist the conviction that our Historical Association could do no better deed than to convince the National Legislature that something analogous, with such changes in method and organization as the conditions of this country suggest, should be undertaken before it is too late, and I shall be glad if some discussion to that end may be entered upon. I may add, in conclusion, that I am prepared to place in the hands of a committee some details of the workings of their methods, which have been sent to me by Mr. Maxwell Lyte, of the Rolls House, the director of the service of the English Commission.
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Text proofing and correction: Liz Townsend 1/13/01; 11/19/11
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Version © 2001, American Historical AssociationLast Updated: November 21, 2011 11:51 AM