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John Quincy Adams: Twitterer

Posted by Christopher Shea  July 31, 2009 01:06 PM

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A sketch by John Quincy Adams, taken from the inside back cover of one of his diaries

Those of us who think modern bloggers and Twitterers have taken self-chronicling (or self-absorption) to new heights (or depths) might consider the case of John Quincy Adams, the sixth president of the United States. Over 69 years, Quincy Adams filled 51 volumes with diaristic entries, and he was frequently juggling several diaries. One included lengthy entries, another shorter musings, and a third summed up his day in telegraphic style. Examples from the tersest diary include the following:

January 1, 1795: "Thursday. The Hague. Attended the Stadtholder's Court. Paid official New Years day visits."

October 12, 1800: "My cough getting better. Walk round the Walls. Reading Amadis de Gaulis. Tedious."

November 22, 1831: "Thunder and Snow. Letter on Imprisonment for debt. Reading on Masonry."

Reading on masonry!

A few months ago, a student touring the Massachusetts Historical Society observed, upon hearing of these entries, "It's like he's using Twitter."

"That got the wheels spinning" at the society, wrote Jeremy Dibble, a librarian there, on its official blog, The Beehive, this week. The results of their brainstorming? The historical society plans to launch a John Quincy Adams Twitter feed next week.

They're taking advantage of a nice historical coincidence. Adams's line-a-day diary entries cover two periods: January 1, 1795 to May 12, 1801; and August 5, 1809 to April 30, 1836. August 5, therefore, marks the 200th anniversary of the start of Adams's second round of line-a-day writing, which begin as Adams is departing for Russia, where he would serve as the first U.S. ambassador.

Readers can follow Adams's daily thoughts, 200 years later to the day, at http://twitter.com/JQAdams_MHS. "His short entries are surprisingly rich, full of wonderful details about his reading, meals, weather, and shipboard activities," Dibbell writes. Where possible, the tweets will include additional information about Adams's whereabouts, links to longer diary entries, and other contextual nuggets.

"This is an exciting opportunity for us to test out some new technological tools (and to create a transcription of the line-a-day diaries, which will be useful for future projects as well)," Dibbell concludes.

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About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
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Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. Amanda Katz is the deputy Ideas editor. Stephen Heuser is the Ideas editor.

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Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."

Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.

Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.


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