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June 14, 2014

Bit of history rediscovered at Ipswich High

Student stumbles upon forgotten letters from John Quincy Adams, John F. Kennedy

IPSWICH — Any forgotten treasures in your attic?

Thanks to an Ipswich High School student, the school department discovered recently that it’s in possession of long-lost letters from two former U. S. presidents. One, from John F. Kennedy, offers thanks to an Ipswich minister. The more significant missive is signed “John Quincy Adams.”

That Adams letter provided an opportunity for kids to learn about authenticating and preserving ancient documents. More broadly, it offers historians an insight into Adams’ correspondence at a time when he was a key voice against slavery.

The discovery was made last year by a now-former student named Hannah Emmert who found both letters framed and forgotten in a box in the school library, Assistant Principal Jeffrey Carovillano said. They likely went missing when the move was made to the new school in the 1990s.

One fortunate coincidence here is Carovillano.

“Before I was in education, I was an archaeologist,” he said. Having dealt in historic documents, he saw the importance of Adams’ letter and supported Emmert’s efforts to find out more about it.

“She researched it,” he said, bringing the letter to experts at the Massachusetts Historical Society. They determined it was genuine. Written to a young Harvard student named Nathaniel Bradley Baker, it dates to 1836, when the former president continued to be a national figure as congressman from Massachusetts.

Adams addresses sophomore Baker, referring to himself as “elder brother.” The student had apparently requested an autograph.

“I cannot furnish you with the autograph of any great man,” Adams offered modestly. “But such as I have to give is at your service.” He provides a translation of an ode by the Roman poet Horace, urging its “great beauty.”

This matters more than it might seem because “there was a large volume of correspondence after this,” Carovillano said. It included Adams’ musings on important subjects. Until this letter was rediscovered, historians were somewhat in the dark regarding his links to Baker, a New Hampshire native who later became the state’s governor and, after moving to Iowa, was a Union stalwart during the Civil War, Carovillano said.

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