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Welcome to the website of the Massachusetts Society of the Sons of the American Revolution. The society is an educational, non-profit that seeks to maintain and extend the institutions of American freedom, and a respect for our national symbols and American citizenship. We do this by perpetuating the stories of courage, sacrifice, and triumph of those who achieved our independence to inspire succeeding generations.

The Adams Family and the American Revolution

An Exploration of Four Generations

Attendees at the 2017 SAR Annual Conference listen as David Waldstreicher and Richard Samuelson discuss John Quincy Adams and Charles Francis Adams after they presented their papers in the Carriage House on the grounds of Peacefield, the Adams homestead.

By David E. Schrader, Ph.D.
SAR Magazine
Summer 2017 Vol. 112 No. 1

The 2017 SAR Annual Conference on the American Revolution took place in Quincy, Massachusetts, June 9-11. An SAR conference in Quincy could have but one basic theme: the Adams family.

The organizers were President General (2013-14) Joseph W. Dooley, the SAR Annual Conference director; and Richard Samuelson, the SAR Distinguished Scholar and associate professor of history, California State University at San Bernardino. Conference attendees included academic historians from Canada, Germany and the United States,
along with some of the staff from the Massachusetts Historical Society and the National Park Service, and numerous other interested people, including SAR members and their guests.

Like previous SAR Annual Conferences on the American Revolution, this year’s event was dedicated to a prominent historian. The 2017 conference honoree was the late Lyman H. Butterfield, who was the first and longtime editor of the Adams Papers, a project spanning four generations of the Adams family.

The conference was organized into five sessions of two papers each, two after-dinner presentations and a concluding, roundtable discussion. The first session focused on John Adams. Jasper Trautsch of the University of Regensburg, Germany, presented a paper on “John Adams and American Nationalism.” Trautsch explored John Adams’ attempt to create a sense of American identity at a time when France came to be identified with populist freedom and Great Britain with stability and social order. To facilitate a sense of American nationhood, it was important to steer a neutral course in the British-French conflicts, avoiding the identification with France that Adams saw in Thomas Jefferson and the identification with Great Britain that he saw in Alexander Hamilton. In the second paper, “Ideology, Empiricism, and Politics: The Philosophical Exchanges of Thomas Jefferson and John Adams,” Darren Staloff of the City College of New York examined the correspondence between Adams and Jefferson starting in 1815, when Adams wanted to heal the bitterness that had come to separate the two former presidents. Staloff sought to explore the philosophical differences between the two. In the correspondence it emerged that Adams was primarily influenced by the British philosophers following John Locke — Bishop George Berkeley and David Hume—to develop an empirical and somewhat skeptical
view. Jefferson, by contrast, was primarily influenced by a French tradition of Locke interpretation, championed by Étienne de Condillac and Antoine Destutt de Tracy that led to a tradition of ideological self-certainty. Many of the differences between the two
were traced to this philosophical conflict.

Session 2 focused, not surprisingly, on John Quincy Adams (JQA). Neven Leddy of Carleton University presented “Founders
and Sons: The American Revolution in Atlantic Perspective.” Leddy explored the education of upper-class American
boys largely through JQA’s boyhood correspondence with Peter Jay Munro, who was largely raised by his uncle, John Jay. The question was how one might go to Europe and get an “American education” rather than going to Europe and getting a “European education.” The second paper in Session 2 was “The Statesman and the Philosopher: John Quincy Adams, Jeremy Bentham, and America’s Post-Revolutionary Development,” by Robert Shimp, a doctoral student at Boston University and a member of the staff at Adams National Historical Park. Shimp examined JQA’s 1817 conversations with the British philosopher and reformer Jeremy Bentham. Shimp noted Bentham’s initial negative reaction to The Declaration of Independence, driven by his utilitarian rejection of “natural rights,” while emphasizing his views expressed to JQA that the United States stood as a “beacon of hope” to the world.

Session 3 looked at the first two generations of Adams women. Steven C. Bullock from Worcester Polytechnic Institute presented “Remembering the Ladies: Abigail Adams and the Rights of Women, 1776, 1876, and 1976.” Bullock examined Abigail Adams’s advocacy of giving women stronger legal status, expressed in her correspondence with John Adams, especially in 1776. Bullock traced the ways in which the Women’s Suffrage movement, a century later, and the Women’s Liberation movement, yet another century later, drew on the correspondence of Abigail Adams. Also in Session 3 was Neal Millikan’s paper, “Louisa Catherine Adams and the American Revolution.” Millikan, who works on the Adams Papers with the Massachusetts Historical Society, talked about the extensive writings of JQA’s wife, Louisa Catherine, and the challenges she faced as America’s first foreign-born first lady. She had been born in England, grew up in France, moved back to England after Session 2 focused, not surprisingly, on John Quincy Adams (JQA). Neven Leddy of Carleton University presented “Founders and Sons: The American Revolution in Atlantic Perspective.” Leddy explored the education of upper-class American boys largely through JQA’s boyhood correspondence with Peter Jay Munro, who was largely raised by his uncle, John Jay. The question was how one might go to Europe and get an “American education” rather than going to Europe and getting a “European education.” The second paper in Session 2 was “The Statesman and the Philosopher: John Quincy Adams, Jeremy Bentham, and America’s Post-Revolutionary Development,” by Robert Shimp, a doctoral student at Boston University and a member of the staff at Adams National Historical Park. Shimp examined JQA’s 1817 conversations with the British philosopher and reformer Jeremy Bentham. Shimp noted Bentham’s initial negative reaction to The Declaration of Independence, driven by his utilitarian rejection of “natural rights,” while emphasizing his views expressed to JQA that the United States stood as a “beacon of hope” to the world.

Session 3 looked at the first two generations of Adams women. Steven C. Bullock from Worcester Polytechnic Institute presented “Remembering the Ladies: Abigail Adams and the Rights of Women, 1776, 1876, and 1976.” Bullock examined Abigail Adams’s advocacy of giving women stronger legal status, expressed in her correspondence with John Adams, especially in 1776. Bullock traced the ways in which the Women’s Suffrage movement, a century later, and the Women’s Liberation movement, yet another century later, drew on the correspondence of Abigail Adams. Also in Session 3 was Neal Millikan’s paper, “Louisa Catherine Adams and the American Revolution.” Millikan, who works on the Adams Papers with the Massachusetts Historical Society, talked about the extensive writings of JQA’s wife, Louisa Catherine, and the challenges she faced
as America’s first foreign-born first lady. She had been born in England, grew up in France, moved back to England after
the Revolution and lived with her diplomat husband in numerous European capitals. This cosmopolitanism, while a tremendous asset to a diplomat’s wife, left her with some awkwardness in navigating domestic American society.

Session 4, “The Adams Family and the Crisis of Union,” started with a paper by David Waldstreicher of the City University of New York, “Founding Revisionist: John Quincy Adams’ American Revolution.” Waldstreicher noted that JQA’s chief challenge was balancing his absolute devotion to the Union with his equal devotion to justice. His early ambiguity on the issue of slavery came to be replaced by a view of America based centrally on The Declaration of Independence, with its assertion that “all men are created equal.” Session 4 continued with “Charles Francis Adams, the Revolution and the Sectional Crisis,” by Richard Samuelson of California State University, San Bernardino. Charles Francis Adams (CFA) was, among other things, the Free Soil candidate for vice president in 1848, running with Martin Van Buren and the U.S. ambassador to Great Britain during the Civil War. CFA shared the typical Adams skepticism about continuous progress as he worked to conceptualize the sectional crisis leading up to the American Civil War.

Session 5, “The Fourth Generation,” concluded the conference papers. Robert Eden of Hillsdale College was unable to be present, but Richard Samuelson presented his paper, “Locating Henry Adams’s Teaching on the American Revolution in his History.” Eden’s paper highlighted the influence of Francis Bacon’s inductive scientific method on Henry Adams’ understanding of history. Session 5 concluded with Natalie Fuehrer Taylor of Skidmore College presenting “Henry Adams ‘Remember[s] the Ladies’: the American Revolution in Female Manners.” Henry Adams wrote history, but he also wrote novels, a literary form largely read by women in the 19th century. He went beyond the earlier Adamses in his skepticism, developing an outright pessimism about the development of American society. He came to accept Alexis de Tocqueville’s view that we gain more from looking at “civil society” rather than political institutions. Henry Adams thought the Adams women, Abigail, Louisa Catherine, Abigail Brooks Adams and Clover Adams, may well have understood and adapted to the working of American democracy better than the Adams men.

In addition to the session papers, the conference featured two after-dinner speakers. Pulitzer Prize-winning author Daniel Walker Howe, professor emeritus at both Oxford University and UCLA, spoke after the Friday evening dinner on “John Quincy Adams and Slavery.” Howe talked of JQA’s concern to represent broad national interests in his role as secretary of state under James Madison, setting his own opposition to slavery to the side. Yet, in his later role as a member of the House of Representatives, JQA was free to press his firm commitment opposing slavery, rooted in his belief that government based on the consent of the governed could not be consented to by those in slavery. After the conference’s final dinner on Saturday, Mary-Jo Kline gave an address celebrating the conference’s honoree, Lyman H. Butterfield, with whom Dr. Kline worked on the Adams Papers.

The conference concluded on Sunday morning with a lively roundtable discussion of the conference theme and the several presentations. Like previous SAR Annual Conferences on the American Revolution, this year’s conference provided a stimulating occasion for SAR members to interact with academic historians. All those present benefited from discussions of pioneering work on a great family of American Patriots.

David E. Schrader earned his doctorate in philosophy and taught philosophy for more than 35 years. He served as executive director of the American Philosophical Association from 2006 to 2012. He has served as president of the Edmund Terrill Chapter, TXSSAR; the George Washington Chapter, PASSAR; and the Major Robert Kirkwood Chapter, DESSAR; and is currently president of the Cape Cod Chapter, MASSAR. He has also served as state chaplain in both the PASSAR and the DESSAR and serves as current chaplain of the Germany Society.

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