Personal Libraries:


I read my eyes out and can’t read half enough. … The more one reads the more one sees we have to.
John Adams to Abigail Adams, December 28, 1794.

I am mostly intent at present, upon collecting a Library, and I find, that a great deal of Thought, and Care, as well as Money, are necessary to assemble an ample
and well chosen Assortment of Books.
Diary of John Adams, January 30, 1768


ohn Adams was born into a modest Massachusetts family of farmers who, though not well educated themselves, valued both education and reading.  [figure 4.7]  Because he was the first in his family to attend college, much was expected of the young Adams.   At his father’s insistence, he attended Harvard to become a minister, but John Adams became a schoolteacher instead.  Later, finding teaching unsuitable to his temperament (and wishing to have more time for his books), he went on to study law.  After completing his apprenticeship, he returned to Braintree to become a prosperous provincial lawyer who would in time become internationally renowned. 

Having obtained a formal education, Adams was well versed in both classical and contemporary texts and could read both Latin and Greek. Given his role as a lawyer, revolutionary, and statesman, he pored over books of law, history, and political theory. In 1780 he wrote to his wife Abigail, explaining his why he read what he did:     

I must study Politicks and War that my sons may have liberty to study Mathematicks and Philosophy. My sons ought to study Mathematicks and Philosophy, Geography, natural History, Naval Architecture, navigation, Commerce and Agriculture, in order to give their Children a right to study Painting, Poetry, Musick, Architecture, Statuary, Tapestry and Porcelaine.
~ John Adams to Abigail Adams, May, 12, 1780

Creating a nation was a burdensome business that Adams felt left him little leisure to read for enjoyment or general edification, although he would eventually find time to do so.    

Adams was not a born reader.  As a child he found reading a chore.  It was only as a student at Harvard that he discovered his passion for books.  There was no Adams family library when he was growing up, just a bookshelf piled with a few essential texts. As a young lawyer he finally began the long, and expensive, process of creating a library of his own.  He may have lamented the process, but he knew it was essential to personal success.  He was determined to furnish myself, at any Sacrifice, with a proper Library: and Accordingly by degrees I procured the best Library of Law in the State.”  Adams did eventually acquire a fine law library in his Braintree home.  As an American diplomat in Europe, however, he realized how limited his reading material really was.  Regardless of price, he snatched up books while in Europe.  In three months alone, Adams managed to purchase twenty titles, most of which were multivolume sets of European works.  Adams’s library continued to grow by leaps and bounds. [figure 4.8]  Sadly, it was not until his retirement in 1801 that he had a chance to fully enjoy the library he spent thirty years creating, but enjoy it he did.  At the age of eighty-one, he sent a letter to Jefferson noting that he had read some forty books that year.  In 1822 he gave 2,742 books from his library to the Adams Academy.  Almost a century later, the Boston Public Library acquired this collection. A good deal more of his library remains in the family home. [figure 4.10]  

Adams the reader eventually became Adams the writer.  He wrote numerous essays on government, including his Defense of the Constitutions of Government of the United States of America. [figure 4.9] In addition to writing professionally, Adams was a prolific journal and letter writer.  He kept a diary for most of his life, and he and his wife Abigail (1744–1818), from whom his travels often separated Adams, exchanged over 1,100 letters.  He also wrote an autobiography. And unlike any other president, Adams talked to his books!  [figure 4.6]  His marginalia are notorious. Adams’s pen left doodles and argumentative diatribes alike on the printed pages of his books.



> > scroll over & click
any figure for more information
















< < previous page


Home | Image Bank Resource | About | Bibliography | Site Contents | Exhibit Illustration Index | AAS Home

This site and all contents © 2010 American Antiquarian Society