John Adams’ Diary by Bill Nye

Story type: Essay

December 3, 1764.–I am determined to keep a diary, if possible, the rest of my life. I fully realize how difficult it will be to do so. Many others of my acquaintance have endeavored to maintain a diary, but have only advanced so far as the second week in January. It is my purpose to write down each evening the events of the day as they occur to my mind, in order that in a few years they may be read and enjoyed by my family. I shall try to deal truthfully with all matters that I may refer to in these pages, whether they be of national or personal interest, and I shall seek to avoid anything bitter or vituperative, trying rather to cool my temper before I shall submit my thoughts to paper.

December 4.–This morning we have had trouble with the hired girl. It occurred in this wise: We had fully two-thirds of a pumpkin pie that had been baked in a square tin. This major portion of the pie was left over from our dinner yesterday, and last night, before retiring to rest, I desired my wife to suggest something in the cold pie line, which she did. I lit a candle and explored the pantry in vain. The pie was no longer visible. I told Mrs. Adams that I had not been successful, whereupon we sought out the hired girl, whose name is Tootie Tooterson, a foreign damsel, who landed in this country Nov. 7, this present year. She does not understand our language, apparently, especially when we refer to pie. The only thing she does without a strong foreign accent is to eat pumpkin pie and draw her salary. She landed on our coast six weeks ago, after a tedious voyage across the heaving billows. It was a close fight between Tootie and the ocean, but when they quit, the heaving billows were one heave ahead by the log.

Miss Tooterson landed in Massachusetts in a woolen dress and hollow clear down into the ground. A strong desire to acquire knowledge and cold, hand-made American pie seems to pervade her entire being.

She has only allowed Mrs. Adams and myself to eat what she did not want herself.

Miss Tooterson has also introduced into my household various European eccentricities and strokes of economy which deserve a brief notice here. Among other things she has made pie crust with castor oil in it, and lubricated the pancake griddle with a pork rind that I had used on my lame neck. She is thrifty and saving in this way, but rashly extravagant in the use of doughnuts, pie and Medford rum, which we keep in the house for visitors who are so unfortunate as to be addicted to the doughnut, pie or rum habit.

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It is discouraging, indeed, for two young people like Mrs. Adams and myself, who have just begun to keep house, to inherit a famine, and such a robust famine, too. It is true that I should not have set my heart upon such a transitory and evanescent terrestrial object like a pumpkin pie so near to T. Tooterson, imported pie soloist, doughnut mastro and feminine virtuoso, but I did, and so I returned from the pantry desolate.

I told Abigail that unless we poisoned a few pies for Tootie the Adams family would be a short-lived race. I could see with my prophetic eye that unless the Tootersons yielded the Adamses would be wiped out. Abigail would not consent to this, but decided to relieve Miss Tooterson from duty in this department, so this morning she went away. Not being at all familiar with the English language, she took four of Abigail’s sheets and quite a number of towels, handkerchiefs and collars. She also erroneously took a pair of my night-shirts in her poor, broken way. Being entirely ignorant of American customs, I presume that she will put a belt around them and wear them externally to church. I trust that she will not do this, however, without mature deliberation.

I also had a bottle of lung medicine of a very powerful nature which the doctor had prepared for me. By some oversight, Miss Tooterson drank this the first day that she was in our service. This was entirely wrong, as I did not intend to use it for the foreign trade, but mostly for home consumption.

This is a little piece of drollery that I thought of myself. I do not think that a joke impairs the usefulness of a diary, as some do. A diary with a joke in it is just as good to fork over to posterity as one that is not thus disfigured. In fact, what has posterity ever done for me that I should hesitate about socking a little humor into a diary? When has posterity ever gone out of its way to do me a favor? Never! I defy the historian to show a single instance where posterity has ever been the first to recognize and remunerate ability.

John Adams’ Diary. (No. 2.)

December 6.–It is with great difficulty that I write this entry in my diary, for this morning Abigail thought best for me to carry the oleander down into the cellar, as the nights have been growing colder of late.

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I do not know which I dislike most, foreign usurpation or the oleander. I have carried that plant up and down stairs every time the weather has changed, and the fickle elements of New England have kept me rising and falling with the thermometer, and whenever I raised or fell I most always had that scrawny oleander in my arms.

Richly has it repaid us, however, with its long, green, limber branches and its little yellow nubs on the end. How full of promises to the eye that are broken to the heart. The oleander is always just about to meet its engagements, but later on it peters out and fails to materialize.

I do not know what we would do if it were not for our house plants. Every fall I shall carry them cheerfully down cellar, and in the spring I will bring up the pots for Mrs. Adams to weep softly into. Many a night at the special instance and request of my wife I have risen, clothed in one simple, clinging garment, to go and see if the speckled, double and twisted Rise-up-William-Riley geranium was feeling all right.

Last summer Abigail brought home a slip of English ivy. I do not like things that are English very much, but I tolerated this little sickly thing because it seemed to please Abigail. I asked her what were the salient features of the English ivy. What did the English ivy do? What might be its specialty? Mrs. Adams said that it made a specialty of climbing. It was a climber from away back. “All right,” I then to her did straightway say, “let her climb.” It was a good early climber. It climbed higher than Jack’s beanstalk. It climbed the golden stair. Most of our plants are actively engaged in descending the cellar stairs or in ascending the golden stair most all the time.

I descended the stairs with the oleander this morning, though the oleander got there a little more previously than I did. Parties desiring a good, secondhand oleander tub, with castors on it, will do well to give us a call before going elsewhere. Purchasers desiring a good set of second-hand ear muffs for tulips will find something to their advantage by addressing the subscriber.

We also have two very highly ornamental green dogoods for ivy vines to ramble over. We could be induced to sell these dogoods at a sacrifice, in order to make room for our large stock of new and attractive dogoods. These articles are as good as ever. We bought them during the panic last fall for our vines to climb over, but, as our vines died of membranous croup in November, these dogoods still remain unclum. Second-hand dirt always on hand. Ornamental geranium stumps at bed-rock prices. Highest cash prices paid for slips of black-and-tan foliage plants. We are headquarters for the century plant that draws a salary for ninety-nine years and then dies.

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I do not feel much like writing in my diary to-day, but the physician says that my arm will be better in a day or two, so that it will be more of a pleasure to do business.

We are still without a servant girl, so I do some of the cooking. I make a fire each day and boil the teakettle. People who have tried my boiled teakettle say it is very fine.

Some of my friends have asked me to run for the Legislature here next election. Somehow I feel that I might, in public life, rise to distinction some day, and perhaps at some future time figure prominently in the affairs of a one-horse republic at a good salary.

I have never done anything in the statesman line, but it does not look difficult to me. It occurs to me that success in public life is the result of a union of several great primary elements, to-wit:

Firstly–Ability to whoop in a felicitous manner.

Secondly–Promptness in improving the proper moment in which to whoop.

Thirdly–Ready and correct decision in the matter of which side to whoop on.

Fourthly–Ability to cork up the whoop at the proper moment and keep it in a cool place till needed.

And this last is one of the most important of all. It is the amateur statesman who talks the most. Fearing that he will conceal his identity as a fool, he babbles in conversation and slashes around in his shallow banks in public.

As soon as I get the house plants down cellar and get their overshoes on for the winter, I will more seriously consider the question of our political affairs here in this new land where we have to tie our scalps on at night and where every summer is an Indian summer.

John Adams’ Diary (No. 3.)

December 10.–I have put in a long and exhausting day in the court to-day in the case of Merkins vs. Merkins, a suit for divorce in which I am the counsel for the plaintiff, Eliza J. Merkins.

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The case itself is a peculiarly trying one, and the plaintiff adds to its horrors by consulting me when I want to do something else. I took her case at an agreed price, and so Mrs. Merkins is trying to get her money’s worth by consulting me in a way I abhor. She has consulted me in every mood and tense that I know of; at my office, on the street, in church, at the festive board and at different funerals to which we both happened to be called. Mrs. Merkins has hung like a pall over several Massachusetts funerals which otherwise had every symptom of success.

I am a great admirer of woman as a woman, but as a client in a suit for divorce she has her peculiarities. I have seen Eliza in every phase of the case. She has been calm and tearful, stormy and snorting, low-spirited and red-nosed, violent and menacing, resigned but sobby, trustful and confidential, high strung and haughty, crushed and weepy.

She makes a specialty of shedding the red-hot scalding tear wherever she can obtain permission to do so. She has wept in my wood-box, in my new spittoon, on my desk and on my birthday. I told her that I wished she would please weep on something else. There were enough objects in nature upon which a poor woman who wept constantly and had no other visible means of support could shed the wild torrents of her grief, without weeping on my anniversary. A man wants to keep his birthday as dry as possible. He hates to have it wept on by a client who has jewed him down to half price, and then insisted on coming in to sob with him in the morning before he has swept the office floor.

One time she came and sobbed on my shoulder. Her tears are of the warm, damp kind, and feel disagreeable as they roll down the neck of a comparative stranger, who never can be aught but a friend. She rested her bonnet on my bosom while she wept, and I then discovered that she has been in the habit of wearing this bonnet while cooking her buckwheat pancakes. I presume she keeps her bonnet on all the time, so that she may be ready to dash out and consult me at all times without delay. Still, she ought not to do it, for when she leans her head on the bosom of her counsel in order to consult him, he detects the odor of the early sausage and the fleeting pancake.

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You may bust such a bonnet and crush it if you will,
But the scent of the pancake will cling round it still.

As soon as I saw that her object was to lean up against me and not only convulse herself with sobs, but that she intended to jar me also with her great woe, I told her that I would have to request her to avaunt. I then, as she did not act upon my suggestion, avaunted her myself. I avaunted her into a chair with a sickening thud.

She then burst forth in a torrent of vituperation. When the abnormal sobber is suddenly corked up, these sobs rankle in the system and burst forth in the shape of vituperation. In the course of her remarks, she stated in a violent manner that she would denounce me throughout the country and retain other counsel. I told her I wished she would, as my sympathies were with Mr. Merkins. I told her that she must either pay me a larger fee or I should insist on her weeping in the alley before she came up.

She then took her departure with a rising inflection. On the following day, however, I found her at the office door, and she stood near and consulted me again, while I took up the ashes and started a fire in the stove.

Her case is quite peculiar.

She wants a divorce from her husband on the grounds of cruelty to animals, or something of that kind, and when she first told me about it I thought she had a case, but when we came to trial I found that she had had every reason to believe that if she could be segregated from Mr. Merkins she could at once become the bride of a gentleman who ploughed the raging main.

Just as we went to the jury to-day with the case, she heard casually that the gentleman who had been in the main-ploughing business had just married without her knowledge or consent.

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