Censorship by Later Mediators

My project focuses on the writings of women in the Boston area from the Eighteenth Century. In my discussion of censorship by later mediators, I will look specifically at two of the women whose writings I explored. The first is Elizabeth Cranch Norton, called Betsey, who left behind copious diaries and letters that are currently housed in the Massachusetts Historical Society [1]. The other is Abigail Adams, whose connections as wife and mother to the 2nd and 6th Presidents of the United States, respectively, ensured that later generations preserved her writings. For Adams, the censorship was actually undertaken when the publication stage of her letters was first reached in the nineteenth century. As a note, Adams was the maternal aunt of Norton, a fact strenuously highlighted by Norton’s nineteenth-century mediator. As we know, by the end of the first quarter of the nineteenth century, the ideology of separate spheres had embedded itself so deeply into American society that the concept of woman and that of the domestic were virtually synonymous [2]. By the end of the nineteenth century, the Victorian ideology that significantly limited socially acceptable behavior for all members of polite society, but especially for women, was in very serious control of the realms the materials written by women of earlier times had to negotiate to continue into our own day. Censorship by later hands is an issue that factored into the preservation of early American women’s personal writing in a way that it did in few other forms of writing. Although improvable, it is safe to assume that many diaries were intentionally destroyed because later generations felt that the picture of the individual appearing in the diary was unflattering or challenged the dominant model of what the person was supposed to be. This was especially true when the later generation held a personal interest in maintaining or promoting the reputation of the diarist as someone other than the person who appeared to exist in the diary [3]. Because the writer of these texts was assumed to be representing a self, rather than a character, censorious descendents often saw familial reputations at stake, which propelled the destruction of many letters, diaries, or other pieces of writing.

Betsey Cranch Norton began a journal on 29 October 1786 with her reactions to the death of her fiancé. The response of one of Norton’s nineteenth-century descendents to her extreme distress shows the culturally-determined destruction that these texts could face. A couple of years after the death of her fiancé, Norton wed another man, had eight children, and was married for over twenty years. Almost a century after her death, a granddaughter inherited her papers, passing them onto a niece of her own, before donating them to the Massachusetts Historical Society. In an attempt to clarify for her niece who Norton was writing to and about (or more cynically any member of the public who might be reading them at the MHS), the granddaughter made many marginal notes clarifying both individuals and relationships. She made notes of maiden names and familial connections in many places, and she took special care in identifying Abigail, John, and John Quincy Adams, listing both their connections to Norton, and thus herself, and also spelling out in full “Second and Sixth President of the United States.” [4]

It is likely that Norton’s descendent read through her papers and made notes over a brief period of time. The reason for this supposition is that all of the margin notes appear to be made from the same hand and writing instrument, and the penmanship, the width of the ink strokes, and the ink, all appear identical. The relevance of this analysis is that in all of Norton’s papers there is only one brief section where anything in the body of her writing was disturbed by this latter-day commentator. She began her journal entry for 29 October 1786 noting the death of her “dearest friend” Thomas Perkins. Another line, presumably of sentiment or heartbreak, followed the statement of his death. The insertions made here by the pen of her nineteenth-century mediator included crossing out the name of Norton’s fiancé. Without knowing the name of her intended from other sources, a reader would never learn it here, due not to the original writer’s own unwillingness to share this information but to elimination by later hands. The next line was so well crossed out that it was thoroughly cast into the forever unknown.

The historical intrigue of this action is that Norton herself felt no need to eliminate the written record of a beloved fiancé who had died before Norton met the man who would become her husband, yet a nineteenth-century descendent, applying the much more rigid social strictures that had by then developed regarding the appropriate roles for women and for gender relations, did. I believe this particular solo act of destruction shows that this woman interpreted herself to be a descendent of Norton’s husband, Jacob, rather than Norton herself, and felt that Betsey’s grief for another man was inappropriate. She had, for a reason that can be guessed at, but never truly known, decided that before she could allow anyone else to read Norton’s papers she needed to attempt to eliminate the identity of the man that Norton had loved and lost. By eliminating him from Norton’s text, this descendent nearly succeeded in eliminating the historical existence of the man himself – at least in regard to the life of Norton. While the papers of Norton do allow her to represent herself, using her own words, these words were subject to the mediation of those future generations who physically controlled her texts following her death.

This revision, rather than an individual whim, was actually only a single instance of what had become a relatively widespread re-presentation by nineteenth and early twentieth-century writers of the men and women of the eighteenth century. [5] More of this selective presentation can be seen when looking at the excisions made in the first public presentation of the second First Lady of the United States, Abigail Adams, through her letters. In the 1860s, Charles Francis Adams, the grandson of Abigail and John Adams, decided to publish a collection of the letters his grandmother had written before and during the American Revolution. Because the late nineteenth century saw movements in both the literary and cultural arenas towards preserving and sanctifying the revolutionary past, the publication was very well-received. However, in comparing the versions of the letters that Charles Adams had censored prior to publication to the uncensored versions published in later times, we find a very different woman depicted [6].

Several years after this first publication, in honor of the centennial of the nation, when it was realized that another publication of Adams’s letters would most likely again be marketable to the reading public, the letters were reexamined and republished. For Charles Adams, though, something had changed, and more of Adams’s letters were included in an uncensored version. Charles Adams notes the new inclusions in his introduction to this new publication, but gives no hint as to why material he had found objectionable in the 1860s had become acceptable by 1876. He specifically discussed a letter Adams wrote telling of a dysentery epidemic that had swept Braintree shortly after her husband’s departure: “The letters written during the month of September, 1775, of which only extracts were printed in the early editions of these papers, for reasons then thought satisfactory, it is now deemed not unsuitable to produce in full” (xix). This admission that he had included more of her letters this second time around, due possibly to some unspecified alteration in his perception of society, is as close as he came to an admission of historical revisionism.

The Victorian-influenced descendent could not originally bring himself to depict his grandmother as the practical, grounded, and rather “earthy” woman that her uncensored letters showed her to be. It is important to realize that Charles Adams wanted to enhance his grandmother’s reputation, not undermine it. He was attempting to present her in as ladylike a manner as possible within the mores of a society in which she had never lived. Because American society had become much more restrictive about what women could do and say in the nineteenth century, Charles Adams most likely felt he had to rewrite who Adams was in order to make her fit into society’s new standard. He originally eliminated many comments that she made in the regular course of her letters, such as dealing with their children “taking the puke” or references to having prepared a mare for foaling [7]. These were things that a polite Victorian woman would never discuss, especially a woman who had been both wife and mother to presidents of the United States.

Nineteenth-century society was either more refined or less coarse; it was either more uptight or less earthy, especially when it came to women. Unfortunately, the writings of the eighteenth-century had to survive this time period in order to make it to our own. How many of these representations were fully destroyed rather than subjecting the nineteenth-century descendents to the mortification of having “earthy” or inappropriately passionate female ancestors will never be known.


1. Elizabeth Cranch Norton. Diary 29 October 1786. MS N-260. Elizabeth Cranch Norton Papers. Massachusetts Historical Society.

2. Kerber, Linda. “The Republican Mother: Women and the Enlightenment – An American Perspective.” American Quarterly, v. 28, # 2, 1991, p. 187-205.

3. Fothergill, Robert. Private chronicles; a study of English diaries. New York: Oxford University Press, 1974. 5

4. The special care given to these notations demands we understand how important Betsey’s granddaughter felt her own connection was to the Adams family.

5. As the acceptable roles for women underwent such a significant alteration in the nineteenth century, the actions of an eighteenth-century woman were much more likel than those of men to come under critique, and hence erasure, by later generations.

6. Butterfield, L.H., Marc Friedlander and Mary-Jo Kline (eds). The Book of Abigail and John: Selected Letters of the Adams Family, 1762-1784. Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1975.

7. Ibid.