Record keepers: How John Adams and Thomas Jefferson recorded their days

John Adams kept a journal. Spared no thought or criticism. Emotions splattered on the page:

Keeping as full and honest a diary as he did was part of the inheritance passed on from his Puritan ancestors; but it was also an inevitable response to his acute self-awareness. None of his colleagues and in fact no American in the eighteenth century kept a diary like that of Adams. In it he poured out all his feelings — all his anxieties and ambitions, all his jealousies and resentments.

Friends Divided: John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, Chapter One, Contrasts, pg 25. Gordon S. Wood

It takes courage to keep a diary as Adams did. Surely he must’ve known it would be read by the public at some point in time. To record one’s insecurities and shortcomings is therapeutic and brave.

Wood continues:

Adams used his diary to begin a lifelong struggle with what he often considered his unworthy pride and passions. “He is not a wise man and is unfit to fill any important Station in Society, that has left one Passion in his Soul unsubdued.” Like his seventeenth-century Puritan ancestors, he could not have success without guilt.

Friends Divided: John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, Chapter One, Contrasts, pg 25, 26. Gordon S. Wood

John Adams was TMI. Thomas Jefferson stayed mysterious:

It is impossible to imagine Jefferson writing such a journal. Jefferson was always reserved and self possessed and, unlike Adams, he scarcely ever revealed much of his inner self. Jefferson seemed to open up to no one, while Adams at times seemed to open up to everyone. He certainly opened up to his diary. “Honesty, Sincerity, and openness, I esteem essential marks of a good mind,” he wrote, and once he got going his candid entries bore out that judgement.

Friends Divided: John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, Chapter One, Contrasts, pg 25. Gordon S. Wood

Thomas Jefferson in contrast, ditched the diary. He recorded facts:

Jefferson kept no diary, and if he had, he would never have expressed any self-loathing in it. Instead of a diary, Jefferson kept records — records, it seems, of everything, with what he called “scrupulous fidelity.” He religiously recorded the weather, taking the temperature twice a day, once in the morning and again at four in the afternoon. He entered into memorandum books every financial transaction, every source of income and every expenditure, no matter how small or how large — seven pennies for chickens or thousands of dollars for a land sale.

Friends Divided: John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, pg 27. Gordon S. Wood

No surprise then Thomas Jefferson kept an array of commonplace books:

He kept a variety of specialized books, including several commonplace books — a legal book, an equity book, and a literary book, in which he copied passages from his reading that he found important or interesting. He also kept a case book and a fee book, for tracking work and income from his legal career as long as it lasted; a farm book, in which he entered, among other things, the births and sales of slaves as well as farm animals; and a garden book. In his garden book, he made such notations as how many peas he was planting would fill a pint measure, how much fodder a horse would eat in a night, and how many cucumbers fifty hills would yield in a season.

Friends Divided: John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, pg 27. Gordon S. Wood

Fascinating how John Adams and Thomas Jefferson’s personalities were reflected in their daily writing habits. The pugnacious Adams’ confessionals, and Jefferson’s facts only approach.

From Gordon S. Wood‘s book: Friends Divided: John Adams and Thomas Jefferson


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