JQA's Diary - The Original Social Media

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JQA's Diary - The Original Social Media

by Joel Castellaw

John Quincy Adams was many things–the son of a U.S. President, a diplomat under President George Washington, a U.S. Secretary of State, the sixth U.S. President, a member of the House of Representatives, a husband, and a father. He was also an avid diarist.

In 1779, he began keeping a diary at age twelve and continued until shortly before his death in 1848. The initial impetus for keeping the diary is recorded in this note: “My Pappa enjoins it upon me to keep a journal, or a diary, of the Events that happen to me, and of objects that I See, and of Characters that I converse with from day, to day.” Some entries run for pages. Sometimes Adams seems to have put the diary down for stretches at a time. Other times he caught up by using very short summary entries. In the end, his diaries spanned 51 volumes, adding to more than 14,000 pages.

He recorded his thoughts about important figures such as King George III and Alexis de Tocqueville, ruminated on his relationships with family members such as his father John and his mother Abigail, chronicled major events in his life, such as the 1824 and 1828 U.S. Presidential elections, and explored topics as varied as anti-slavery, the Monroe Doctrine, and science and nature.

The diaries are noteworthy as a record of Adams’s views on many of the weighty matters that dominated 19th Century America. Adams’s anti-slavery views, which were instilled in him by his father John and his mother Abigail, are apparent in many diary entries, especially those that deal with the 1841 Amistad case. This was a case in which Adams defended 53 captive Africans who had rebelled aboard a slave ship against a charge of mutiny before the U.S. Supreme Court.

In the aftermath of the trial, Adams wrote: “What can I, upon the verge of my seventy-fourth birthday, with a shaking hand, a darkening eye, a drowsy brain, and with all my faculties, dropping from me, one by one, as the teeth are dropping from my head, what can I do for the cause of God and Man? for the progress of human emancipation? for the suppression of the African Slave-trade?” Adams wrote in his diary on March 29, 1841. “Yet my conscience presses me on—let me but died upon the breach.”

The diaries are held by the Massachusetts Historical Society and a full digital collection of all 51 volumes is available. Only a fraction of the entries have been transcribed, but Adams’s hand is generally legible, and searching the diaries can be quite the Internet rabbit-hole. As part of their social media efforts to draw attention to the diaries, the Massachusetts Historical Society tweets a line each day, with entries that correspond to the current date from 200 years ago. You can access them @JQAdams_MHS


And it’s fitting that Adams’s diaries would appear today in social media, because according to Lee Humphreys, a communications and media researcher at Cornell University, diaries are the original social media. Most of us today think of diaries as private, but in Adams’s day people would gather to read each other’s diaries as a way of sharing their lives with each other. Diaries served as chronicles of important events, such as weddings, births, and deaths. Because they were shared, they were also used as a means of maintaining and strengthening relationships. Fast forward to today and our own use of social media, and we can see that many of us maintain our accounts for the same reasons that people in Adams’s day kept diaries.

And there’s another parallel between Adams’s diaries and the social media of today, of course. Adams was the most prolific Presidential diarist, and our sitting President today is sometimes referred to as the Twitter-in-Chief. Donald Trump uses social media – the modern-day diary–to share ruminations, to proclaim policy, to antagonize his opponents, and to rally his faithful. There is no doubt but that there will be an archive of his Presidential tweets at least as comprehensive and well-maintained as John Quincy Adams’s diaries. For good or ill, it’s all part of posterity.

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Photo Credit:
Portrait of John Quincy Adams by William Hudson, Jr. Public Domain from https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:William_Hudson,_Jr._-_Portrait_of_John_Quincy_Adams_(1844)_-_Google_Art_Project.jpg