John Adams: Deadbeat, careless accountant, or the continuing victim of partisan politics?

Since last October, the project catalogers creating online rare-book level records for 1801-1820 imprints have been working on United States’ federal documents. Admittedly, some government documents are boring. But much more often than I imagined they have been a source of interesting, even surprising, information.

Many documents, but especially Secretary of the Treasury Albert Gallatin’s report to the House of Representatives, dated November 6th, 1807, remind us that the questions the country is grappling with today are the same as occupied Congress and government officials two hundred years ago:

On the first day of January, 1809, the principal of the debt, will, if the proposed modification be not assented to by the public creditors, amount to near fifty-seven millions and five hundred thousand dollars … That the revenue of the United States will … be considerably impaired by a war, neither can or ought to be concealed. … It is, on the contrary, necessary … to examine the resources which should be selected, for supplying the deficiency, and defraying the extraordinary expenses. … Whether taxes should be raised to a greater amount, or loans be altogether relied on for defraying the expenses of a war, is the next subject of consideration. …

Depending on one’s point of view, knowing this can be oddly reassuring (we’ve gotten through this before, we can do it again), or the cause for sadness (why don’t we learn from history?)

But the documents which have most recently piqued my interest and imagination are three statements from the Comptroller of the Treasury, dated 1814, 1815, and 1817. They report “unsettled balances” remaining on the books of the Treasury Dept. In the 1814 statement, John Chisholm, “conductor of Indians,” is listed with a balance of $926.24. The accompanying note reads, “He is not to be found.” Was he killed by Indians, did he die of illness or accident en route, or did he take the money and run? In the 1815 statement, Robert Alexander, contractor for building a custom house at New Orleans, is listed with an outstanding balance of $19,000. The note reads, “Custom House built, no account rendered.” Lost in the mail? And in the1817 statement, Samuel Sitgreaves, “commissioner under 6th article British treaty,” is listed with a balance of $6,857. 20. The note reads, “Advanced by Department of State. No account rendered. Mr. S. alleges that the public is in his debt.” Call me a cynic, but what are the odds that this was ever settled?

Others with outstanding balances were noted as deceased, insolvent, or subject to suit. Among the debtors are some familiar personages: William Henry Harrison, governor of the Indiana Territory, Joel Barlow, late minister plenipotentiary to France, and John Adams, late president of the United States. John Adams? Yes, on all three statements the second president of the United States is listed with an outstanding balance of $12,898 for “household accommodation.” In both the1814 and 1815 reports the note reads, “The money alleged to have been expended, but no sufficient vouchers produced.” In 1817 the note was expanded and softened a bit:

Advanced to him for the accommodation of the household of the president. Mr. Adams forwarded a certificate of his then secretary, that the money was expended according to law; but this has been deemed an inadmissible voucher by my predecessors, and cannot now be found in the office.

My imagination runs wild. Was Adams avoiding specificity so that it would not be known exactly how many place settings of china Abigail purchased? Or was he always a bit careless with his accounts? Or should the sloppy accounting be attributed to the Treasury Dept. rather than to Adams? By this time John Adams had been out of office for more than a decade. If there was a problem, why hadn’t it been resolved before this? The matter might simply have been ignored to avoid confrontation. Can you imagine being the clerk charged with contacting President Adams and requesting “proper” vouchers? Or maybe no one ever contacted Adams because some partisan official in the Treasury Dept. expected that the inclusion of Adams’s name on the list of “unsettled balances” would repeatedly embarrass the former president.

Well, time to shut off the imagination, end the speculation, and move on to the less interesting “Letter from the acting secretary of the Treasury, transmitting a report of the names of the clerks employed in the several offices of the Treasury Department …”

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Doris OKeefe

Senior Cataloger for Rare Books, American Antiquarian Society

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