Home  »  A Library of American Literature  »  Extracts from His Diary

Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889

Extracts from His Diary

By John Quincy Adams (1767–1848)

[Born in Braintree, Mass., 1767. Died in Washington, D.C., 1848. Memoirs of John Quincy Adams. Edited by Charles Francis Adams. 1874–77.]


WE had a band of music playing during the dinner. Richard asked me whether there was much taste for music in America. I told him no; that American genius was very much addicted to painting, and we had produced in that art some of the greatest masters of the age; but that we had neither cultivated nor were attached much to music; that it had always appeared to me a singular phenomenon in the national character, and I could not account for it otherwise than by supposing it owing to some particular construction of our fibres, that we were created without a strong devotion to music. “Oh, do not say so!” said he; “you will be chargeable with high-treason against the character of your country for such a sentiment, especially if you were to deliver it to an Italian or French connoisseur and virtuoso.” “I suppose so,” said I; “but then I must rely for my pardon upon the other tribute which I have paid to my country’s genius in the article of painting. As for the rest,” I added, “I pretend not to trace the cause of the fact, but music is not an object of enthusiasm in America; and that Marseillaise hymn, that your band are now playing, reminds me of a forcible proof of the fact I have stated. The Americans fought seven years and more for their liberty. If ever a people had occasion to combine the sensations of harmony with the spirit of patriotism, they had it during that time. Yet there never was during the whole period a single song written, nor a single tune composed, which electrized every soul, and was resounded by every voice, like your patriotic songs.” “That is indeed,” said he, “a very strong fact.” I told him that if I could be permitted to cite myself as an instance, I am extremely fond of music, and by dint of great pains have learned to blow very badly the flute—but could never learn to perform upon the violin, because I never could acquire the art of putting the instrument in tune—that I consoled myself with the idea of being an American, and therefore not susceptible of great musical powers; though I must do my countrymen the justice to say that few of them are so very dull as this; that I knew many who had a musical ear, and could tune an instrument with little or no instruction at all.

I know not whether the Representative Richard finally concluded that I was guilty of debasing the genius of my country; but the American character needs no speaking-trumpet of vanity to proclaim its praise. For us the voice of truth and of justice is enough, and on that ground we shall never dread the test of comparison with any nation upon earth….


Had she lived to the age of the Patriarchs, every day of her life would have been filled with clouds of goodness and of love. There is not a virtue that can abide in the female heart but it was the ornament of hers. She had been fifty-four years the delight of my father’s heart, the sweetener of all his toils, the comforter of all his sorrows, the sharer and heightener of all his joys. It was but the last time when I saw my father that he told me, with an ejaculation of gratitude to the Giver of every good and every perfect gift, that in all the vicissitudes of his fortunes, through all the good report and evil report of the world, in all his struggles and in all his sorrows, the affectionate participation and cheering encouragement of his wife had been his never-failing support, without which he was sure he should never have lived through them….

Never have I known another human being the perpetual object of whose life was so unremittingly to do good. It was a necessity of her nature. Yet so unostentatious, so unconscious even, of her own excellence, that even the objects of her kindness often knew not whence it came. She had seen the world—its glories, without being dazzled: its vices and follies, without being infected by them. She had suffered often and severely from fits of long and painful sickness, always with calmness and resignation. She had a profound, but not an obtrusive, sensibility. She was always cheerful, never frivolous; she had neither gall nor guile. Her attention to the domestic economy of her family was unrivalled—rising with the dawn, and superintending the household concerns with indefatigable and all-foreseeing care. She had a warm and lively relish for literature, for social conversation, for whatever was interesting in the occurrences of the time, and even in political affairs. She had been, during the war of our Revolution, an ardent patriot, and the earliest lesson of unbounded devotion to the cause of their country that her children received was from her. She had the most delicate sense of propriety of conduct, but nothing uncharitable, nothing bitter. Her price was indeed above rubies….


Attended the divine service at the Capitol, and heard Mr. Edward Everett, the Professor of the Greek language at Harvard University, a young man of shining talents and of illustrious promise. His text was from I. Cor. vii. 29: “Brethren, the time is short;” and it was without comparison the most splendid composition as a sermon that I ever heard delivered. He had preached it last Sunday evening, where my sons had heard him, and George had written to me that it was the finest sermon he had ever heard, and foretelling that he would preach it again here. Hackneyed as this subject, the shortness of time, is, I never before saw so forcibly exemplified the truth that nothing is stale or trite in the hands of genius. His composition is more rich, more varied, more copious, more magnificent, than was that of Buckminster. There were passages that reminded me perhaps too much of Massillon, but the whole sermon was equal to any of the best that Massillon ever wrote. It abounded in splendid imagery, in deep pathos, in cutting satire, in profound reflections of morals, in coruscations of wit, in thunder-bolts of feeling. His manner of speaking was slow, and his articulation distinct, perhaps to excess. There was some want of simplicity both in the matter and manner. A still greater defect was a want of unity in his subject. He gave as one sermon a cento of extracts from two or more. There was a description of the destructive operations of time, absolutely terrific—and a portrait of the blessings and future glories of this country, wrought up like a work of enchantment. The house was full, but not crowded. The New England hearers were rapt in enthusiasm. Mr. King told me he had never heard anything like it. The Southern auditors approved more coolly. Mr. Clay, with whom I walked, after the service, to call upon Chief-Justice Marshall, told me that although Everett had a fine fancy and a chaste style of composition, his manner was too theatrical, and he liked Mr. Holley’s manner better….


After this meeting, I walked home with Calhoun, who said that the principles which I had avowed were just and noble; but that in the Southern country, whenever they were mentioned, they were always understood as applying only to white men. Domestic labor was confined to the blacks, and such was the prejudice, that if he, who was the most popular man in his district, were to keep a white servant in his house, his character and reputation would be irretrievably ruined.

I said that this confounding of the ideas of servitude and labor was one of the bad effects of slavery; but he thought it attended with many excellent consequences. It did not apply to all kinds of labor—not, for example, to farming. He himself had often held the plough; so had his father. Manufacturing and mechanical labor was not degrading. It was only manual labor—the proper work of slaves. No white person could descend to that. And it was the best guarantee to equality among the whites. It produced an unvarying level among them. It not only did not excite, but did not even admit of inequalities, by which one white man could domineer over another.

I told Calhoun I could not see things in the same light. It is, in truth, all perverted sentiment—mistaking labor for slavery, and dominion for freedom. The discussion of this Missouri question has betrayed the secret of their souls. In the abstract they admit that slavery is an evil, they disclaim all participation in the introduction of it, and cast it all upon the shoulders of our old Grandam Britain. But when probed to the quick upon it, they show at the bottom of their souls pride and vainglory in their condition of masterdom. They fancy themselves more generous and noble-hearted than the plain freemen who labor for subsistence. They look down upon the simplicity of a Yankee’s manners, because he has no habits of overbearing like theirs and cannot treat negroes like dogs. It is among the evils of slavery that it taints the very sources of moral principle. It establishes false estimates of virtue and vice; for what can be more false and heartless than this doctrine which makes the first and holiest rights of humanity to depend upon the color of the skin? It perverts human reason, and reduces man endowed with logical powers to maintain that slavery is sanctioned by the Christian religion, that slaves are happy and contented in their condition, that between master and slave there are ties of mutual attachment and affection, that the virtues of the master are refined and exalted by the degradation of the slave; while at the same time they vent execrations upon the slave-trade, curse Britain for having given them slaves, burn at the stake negroes convicted of crimes for the terror of the example, and writhe in agonies of fear at the very mention of human rights as applicable to men of color. The impression produced upon my mind by the progress of this discussion is, that the bargain between freedom and slavery contained in the Constitution of the United States is morally and politically vicious, inconsistent with the principles upon which alone our Revolution can be justified; cruel and oppressive, by riveting the chains of slavery, by pledging the faith of freedom to maintain and perpetuate the tyranny of the master; and grossly unequal and impolitic, by admitting that slaves are at once enemies to be kept in subjection, property to be secured or restored to their owners, and persons not to be represented themselves, but for whom their masters are privileged with, nearly a double share of representation. The consequence has been that this slave representation has governed the Union. Benjamin portioned above his brethren has ravened as a wolf. In the morning he has devoured the prey, and at night he has divided the spoil. It would be no difficult matter to prove, by reviewing the history of the Union under this Constitution, that almost everything which has contributed to the honor and welfare of the nation has been accomplished in despite of them or forced upon them, and that everything unpropitious and dishonorable, including the blunders and follies of their adversaries, may be traced to them. I have favored this Missouri compromise, believing it to be all that could be effected under the present Constitution, and from extreme unwillingness to put the Union at hazard. But perhaps it would have been a wiser as well as a bolder course to have persisted in the restriction upon Missouri, till it should have terminated in a convention of the States to amend and revise the Constitution. This would have produced a new Union of thirteen or fourteen States unpolluted with slavery, with a great and glorious object to effect, namely, that of rallying to their standard the other States by the universal emancipation of their slaves. If the Union must be dissolved, slavery is precisely the question upon which it ought to break. For the present, however, this contest is laid asleep….


My own deliberate opinion is, that the more of pure moral principle is carried into the policy and conduct of a Government, the wiser and more profound will that policy be. If it is not the uniform course of human events that virtue should be crowned with success, it is at least the uniform will of Heaven that virtue should be the duty of man. There is one event to the righteous and to the wicked. Time and chance happeneth to them all. So says Divine Revelation, and so proves constant experience. The path of virtue is, indeed, not always clear, and in the complication of human affairs artifice and simulation itself must occasionally be practised. The sternest moralists allow it in time of war, and there may perhaps be occasions when it is justifiable in contemplation of war, or defensively against deceptions of the same kind. But it may, I believe, be laid down as a universal maxim that fraud is never justifiable where force would not be equally justifiable to effect the same object. Fraud is, therefore, a weapon essentially belonging to the relations of war, and in them to be very sparingly resorted to; for every instance of it, even when justifiable, tends when discovered to impair the confidence of mankind in the sincerity and integrity of him who uses it….


I went out this evening in search of conversation, an art of which I never had an adequate idea. Long as I have lived in the world, I have never thought of conversation as a school in which something was to be learned. I never knew how to make, to control, or to change it. I am by nature a silent animal, and my dear mother’s constant lesson in childhood, that children in company should be seen and not heard, confirmed me irrevocably in what I now deem a bad habit. Conversation is an art of the highest importance, and a school in which, for the business of life, more may perhaps be learned than from books. It is, indeed, and must be, desultory and superficial; and, as a school, consists more in making others talk than in talking. Therein has been, and ever will be, my deficiency—the talent of starting the game. A man who has that need talk but little himself. When once the ball is set in motion, it will roll, and in considering conversation as a school, I mean it as a school to learn, and not to teach….


Charles must teach himself all that he learns. He will learn nothing from others. Literature has been the charm of my life, and, could I have carved out my own fortunes, to literature would my whole life have been devoted. I have been a lawyer for bread, and a statesman at the call of my country. In the practice of the law I never should have attained the highest eminence, for the want of natural and spontaneous eloquence. The operations of my mind are slow, my imagination sluggish, and my powers of extemporaneous speaking very inefficient. But I have much capacity for, and love of, labor, habits on the whole of industry and temperance, and a strong and almost innate passion for literary pursuits. The business and sometimes the dissipations of my life have in a great measure withdrawn me from it. The summit of my ambition would have been by some great work of literature to have done honor to my age and country, and to have lived in the gratitude of future ages. This consummation of happiness has been denied me. The portion of life allotted to me is that of my mortal existence; but even in this failure of my highest objects, literature has been to me a source of continual enjoyment and a powerful preservative from vice.