Making the Adams Family Papers Accessible to the Nation
The Adams Papers Editorial Project chronicles the journals, letters, and other writings of Founding Father and second President of the United States John Adams and three generations of his family. More than a family history or work of autobiography, the papers tell the story of the nascent United States and its growth and change throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The NEH has provided this project with periodic financial support since 1975 and has most recently funded the preparation and publication of The Papers of John Adams and The Adams Family’s Correspondence, which are available for free online.
“We live with them, day in and day out. There’s a bust of John Adams that I look at at work, and I have John and Abigail’s portraits behind me as I work. There’s always that sort of watchful eye—are we making sure to do them justice?”
Compiling and publishing the Adams family’s papers is a massive undertaking. In addition to making the more than 300,000 manuscript pages available, project staff make the papers accessible. This entails supplying historical context for each of the more than 50 volumes they have published, providing transcriptions of difficult handwriting and damaged documents, and indexing the volumes so that they are keyword searchable. According to Sara Martin, who directs the project, the staff’s constant task is to ensure their work adequately captures the Adamses’ real lives. This goes beyond helping the reader understand particular turns of phrase and antiquated language: “We live with them, day in and day out. There’s a bust of John Adams that I look at at work, and I have John and Abigail’s portraits behind me as I work. There’s always that sort of watchful eye—are we making sure to do them justice?”
The Adams Papers are used by educators, historians, and other researchers on a daily basis. The Massachusetts Historical Society uses the papers in teacher workshops and Massachusetts History Day. It has created specific curriculum materials on “Abigail’s War” and “Slavery and Abolition” for the Coming of the Revolution website. And the project has proven foundational to any research on the Revolutionary War and the founding of our nation, facilitating such works as David McCullough’s biography, John Adams, and the corresponding HBO series; Woody Holton’s biography of Abigail Adams; and, more recently, Gordon S. Wood’s Friends Divided: John Adams and Thomas Jefferson.