Edited by Allan Nevins (1928)
In his introduction to The Diary of John Quincy Adams, 1794-1845: American Political, Social, and Intellectual Life from Washington to Polk, editor Allan Nevins wrote that “no other American diarist touched life at quite so many points, over quite so long a period, as John Quincy Adams.” Adams’s remarkable diary spanned nearly 50 years of his life, most of which he spent in public service to his country.
John Quincy, born in 1767, began his life in an intellectual and political household. He was the son of John Adams, second president of the United States, and Abigail Adams, patriot, champion of women's rights, and an avid letter writer. At age 14 he became a secretary to the Russian envoy. He went on to serve in the U.S. Senate, as the sixth president of the United States, and in the U.S. House of Representatives, where he remained until his death.
Adams’s diary entries provided vivid detail of his involvement in the events of the period, such as negotiating the Treaty of Ghent, his participation in the Monroe Doctrine, his battles in the House of Representatives against the expansion of slavery, and his appearance before the Supreme Court in the Amistad case. He also painted a candid portrayal of some of the most eminent characters of his day. While in Europe he conversed with Czar Alexander I, Mme. de Stael, the Marquis de Lafayette, and Tallyrand. He met often with Thomas Jefferson, witnessed the farewell speech of Aaron Burr, and insightfully described the ambitions and intrigues of his contemporaries Henry Clay, Andrew Jackson, and John C. Calhoun, among others.
He was a literate man who read daily and, throughout the diary, provided comments on books from the Bible to Plutarch to Lord Byron. “Finished reading Paradise Lost, the admiration of which increases in my mind upon every perusal.” He took an intense interest in science and was instrumental in the establishment of the Smithsonian Institution. He told of attending popular theater performances. He dined with presidents and dignitaries. “The party at the President’s house last evening consisted of about a hundred persons, invited by Mrs. Tyler. . . . There was dancing in the now gorgeously furnished East Room, and an elegant supper.” He wrote frankly about his own perceived shortcomings and about his affection for his family.
Adams was often accused of being cold and aloof, but upon reading the diary, we learn otherwise, as editor Nevins explained: “To his contemporaries he was a frigid and icy New Englander; but we who have his diary can perceive that at heart he was really of a hot and passionate nature, volcanic in his hates, intense in his loves, compact of fervent feelings, and sometimes wrought up to the most extreme emotional pitch. The emotionalism of the diary is indeed one of its most appealing qualities.”