Charles Francis Adams (1807-1886)

Diary of Charles Francis Adams (1807-1886)
For the Period May 14, 1844 to May 16, 1844
Tuesday, May 14. Clear. Steamer Amaranth. Visit to Quincy [Ill.]

The day was fine–the boat an excellent one, and the company very much better than we have yet had. Among others Captain Bell of the Army was very civil to us. The river does not vary much in its character from what we have seen–As we ascend, we catch glimpses of open country, which is called prairie in this region. In other respects the scene is the same– the same low banks covered with wood, with now and then a rise which is called a bluff. In the course of the mornign we stopped at Quincy on the Illinois side–and for the sake of the name, we went up to see it. It is a very pretty place inhabited mainly by New England people. There is an open square in the centre of the town, and from the top of the hotel which is kept by a man who formerly kept the Bromfield House in Boston, we observed a very rich and beauiful prairie country. This was the only town on the river during this day which struck me at all favorably.

As we went on it became very necessary that we should settle upon our course. Quincy [Josiah Quincy, Jr., Adams’ travelling companion] wished to stop at Nauvoo, the city of the Mormons and see something of Joe Smith, the prophet. I was passive, as I have always been on this journey. But it became late before we got up and the passengers were full of discouraging tales of the disposition of these Mormons. Had it not been for a certain Doctor Goforth, a living skeleton of a man, I think Quincy would have been discouraged by the darkness and solitude which reigned on the shore. But he urged our landing so much that we finally ordered our things on shore.

Wednesday, May 15. Joe Smith. Visit the Temple.

It was about one o’clock when we got into the very indifferent room which the labours of our tall and thin doctor had procured for us in a house on the bank of the river. For at so late an hour we determined not to attempt to disturb the great prophet himself, although he was the keeper of the tavern. We threw ourselves on the outside of the bed allotted to Quincy and myself and slept until five o’clock, when the daylight roused us. Shortly aferwards the carriage of the prophet which had been sent for by the doctor and two other passengers who had stopped with us. There was also on the outside one of the leaders of the sect, who was called General White [Lyman Wight]. The day was cloudy and it soon after set in to rain and rained in showers until night.

At the door of a two-story wooden house with a sign post before it, we stopped and were introduced to the celebrated Joe Smith. A middle-aged man with a shrewd but rather ordinary expression of countenance, unshaved and in clothes neither very choice nor neat. The whole air of the man was that of frank but not coarse vulgarity. He received us civilly and forthwith introduced us into his house, trying one room after another without success as they all appeared to contain occupants. At last we were ushered into one where was a man in bed whom he very abruptly slapped on the shoulder and notified to quit. The awkwardness of this scene was relieved by a call to breakfast, which we all obeyed. The table was amply provided as usual in the Western Country, but without order or delicacy.

Upon our return form the meal we were introduced into another chamber with had been prepared in the interval, and here we sat down and held a long conference with prophet upon himself, his doctrines and his projects. He then took us down into his mother’s chamber and showed us four Egyptian mummies stripped and then undertook to explain the contents of a chart or manuscript which he said had been taken from the bosom of one of them. The cool impudence of this imposture amused me very much. “This,” said he, “was written by the hand of Abraham and means so and so. If anyone denies it, let him prove the contrary. I say it.” Of coarse [course], we were too polite to prove the negative,1 against a man fortified by revelation.

His mother looked on with attention and aided in the explanation whenever the prophet hesitated, from which I inferred that she was usually made the exponent of the writing to strangers. At the close, he notified us that for this instruction, his mother was in the habit of receiving a quarter of a dollar a piece form them, which sum we paid forthwith. Then came another long conversation, in which a brother of his and some other persons joined, detailing the severe and shocking persecution which they suffered at the time of their cruel expulsion from Missouri four years ago. This is one of the most disgraceful chapters in the dark history of slavery in the United States, and shows that the spirit of intolerance, religious and politcal, can find a shelter even in the fairest professions of liberty. 2

We dined at one, and after dinner, at our request, we went up in his carriage to see the stone temple and the font which the prophet is causing to be built. It is a massive edifice on a most commanding site, about half finished. The architecture is original–and curious. It is built by the contribution of one-tenth of labor and goods. The prophet seems to have drawn his ideas largely from the Jewish system. One of the persons who accompanied us from the boat, proved a travelling Methodist preacher, and he by his turn for dispute elicited much amusement to us. This on our return to the tavern took the shape of a specie of address to a parcel of the sect who were hanging about the door, half jest, half earnest, which appears to be habitual with Joe. I was not so well able to judge of it as I had been called upstairs to meet a gentleman by the name of Johnson, who was in the employment of the government of the United States and had come here to catch a defaulter supposed to be a lawyer–told me that he had thought it wisest to apply at once to Joe himself, being convinced that without his aid he should not succeed in his object–so well had Joe fenced himself in here from the ordinary course of law, by concessions made to him by the dominant party in the state in consequence of the control he exercises over the elections.

There is a mixture of shrewdness and extravagant self-conceit, of knowledge and ignorance, of wisdom and folly in this whole system of this man that I am somewhat at a loss to find definitions for it. Yet it is undoubted that he has gained followers at home and abroad–and boasts of having twenty-five thousand at Nauvoo and two hundred thousand in the Union. This is an extravagant estimate, but the number must be large. His theological system is very nearly Christian Unitarianism–with the addition of the power of baptism by the priests of adults to remit sin, and of the new hierarchy of which Smith is the chief by divine appointment. After tea, as we expected the steamer to take us off in the night, we returned to the wretched quarter we left in the morning–and bade good bye to the prophet, who accompanied us to them in his carriage. On the whole I was glad I had been [to see Joseph Smith]. Such a man is a study not for himself, but as serving to show what turns the human mind will sometimes take. And herafter if I should live, I may compare the results of this delusion with the condition in which I saw it and its mountebank apostle.

Thursday, May 16. Steamer Hibernian from Nauvoo. Davenport.

Quincy did not tell me of his discovery of the cockroaches assembled on the coverlet of our bed, drawn out probably by the fire, which was lighted to warm us. So I slept in happy ignorance upon the outside, expecting the call of the steamer every moment. It was in fact five o’clock in the morning before the Hibernian came along. We hastened to get on board for the sake of dressing a little more comfortably–this being the first time such a change has ever been deemed by me an improvement . . . 3

1. Just what Adams means here is unclear. Does he suggest that he and Quincy could have shown that the ms did not contain the writings of Abraham? It seems unlikely that either had any expertise in hieratic. Indeed, no one in the U.S. had at the time. Perhaps Adams is merely venting his general disgust for the frontier and its inhabitants of which he apparently thought Joseph Smith a somewhat atypical rascal. Adams’ very extensive diary shows a somewhat distasteful snobbery. A kind of visitor from hell reminiscent of a smirking George Sanders.

2. The episodes of Missouri resonated with Adams’ antislavery views. The connection Adams sees with slavery possibly stemmed from the Missouri compromise and the “packing” of the territory with the dregs of society by the slave states to strengthen their case. But perhaps he simply extended his revulsion directed against the practice to the inhabitants of the state, i.e., those capable of supporting slavery were capable of any outrage.

3. Adams generally found the conditions aboard the river boats to be primitive. The Hibernian was no exception, the comparison is meant to reflect on his Nauvoo accomodations. Joseph Smith’s hope to have a “first class” [i.e., the Nauvoo House] facility for greeting important visitors was never fulfilled.