The Adams Family Papers

The Adams Family is a popular topic in this blog. Here is another blogpost on them, Martijn Slokker’s last one: 

Abigail Adams (source: wikipedia)

John Adams (source: wikipedia)

When I wrote my course paper, I worked with the Adams Family Papers, an electronic archive which contains (among other things) the correspondence between John Adams (1735-1826) and his wife Abigail (1744-1818). As a farewell to the course I thought I’d write a short review of the archive and its usefulness as a tool for academic research.

The collection, which is held by the Massachusetts Historical Society, numbers over 1,100 letters, written between 1762 and 1801. The vast majority of the letters in the archive are original letters as received by the addressee. However, there are also a few letterbook copies and draft letters, as well as an 18th-century transcript of a letter. The status of the letters is always marked, making it easy to determine what type of letter you are dealing with.

The archive is divided into six parts that mark important periods in the John Adams’ life:

  • 1762-1774, letters written during courtship and early legal career
  • 1774-1777, letters written during Continental Congress
  • 1778-1779, letters written during the diplomatic mission to France
  • 1779-1789, letters written during diplomatic missions to Europe
  • 1789-1796, letters written during vice presidency
  • 1796-1801, letters written during presidency

The letters are listed in chronological order in each of these sections and it is also possible to display lists with only John’s or Abigail’s letters. Furthermore, the archive has a handy search function, which allows you to find specific words and phrases you may be researching.

The letters themselves are presented in two forms: a transcription and an image of the original document. The transcriptions appear to follow the original documents as closely as possible, including capitalization, non-standard spellings, strike-throughs and insertions, although it is mentioned that certain changes have been made in order to improve legibility; this includes punctuation changes and shorthand being expanded. The transcriptions further include supplied text in the following format: [blue text in brackets]. This format is used to clarify, correct and complete passages and can be a useful tool when studying the letters as it provides the reader with information that may not have been available otherwise.

Unfortunately, there are also ways in which the transcriptions do not match the original manuscripts: the line breaks do not match and, while the transcriptions in general match the original documents very well, I did encounter some problems with missing self-corrections. I will give an example of this below.

“It began raining hard about two hours before we reach’d the city, continued through the Night, and all day yesterday, a mere flood.” (Letter from Abigail Adams to John Adams, 19 February 1801)

This is the transcription as it appears in the archive. However, if you look at the original manuscript (4th line from the bottom of the page), you can see that originally the text read as follows: “it began raining hard about? / about two hours before we reach’d the city, continued through the / Night, and all day yesterday, a mere flood”. The transcription does not include the erased about, which looks as though it was either struck out because it was misspelled or because it did not fit on the line properly.

I found several of these transcription errors in the archive. The most frequent mistakes seem to occur with insertions that are not marked as such in the transcriptions, which was unfortunate since self-corrections were the topic of my paper.

Overall, I think the Adams Family Papers electronic archive an excellent resource for the study of letters; however, it appears you cannot always rely on the transcriptions when studying specific letter writing features like self-corrections. Luckily the archive always provides you with the original manuscripts in cases like this. Using these manuscripts is more time consuming of course, but it does allow you to work as accurately as possible. My list of pros and cons for using the archive looks as follow:


  • Easy navigation
  • Search function
  • Original manuscripts are available alongside the transcriptions
  • Transcriptions attempt to be true to the original letters
  • Archive indicates what type of letter you are dealing with
  • Archive fully accessible to everyone who is interested


Transcriptions are sometimes not 100% accurate

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