The Alexander Bryan Johnson Papers consist almost entirely of correspondence, mainly between Johnson and members of his family. In addition, there are a few letters pertaining to the schooling of the children, the publication of books, and bank matters. The earliest letters date from 1823 and the latest from 1861.
The letters originally came in seven albums which were arranged by Johnson or some other family member. Five of these albums remain in original order; the other two albums were taken apart to prevent the glue and the album paper from destroying the letters. These loose letters are arranged in folders at the end of the collection. Although these letters bear page numbers from their order in the albums, it was more useful to arrange the letters chronologically.
The collection is arranged as follows:
Volume 1, letterbook labeled "Domestic Relics," 642 manuscript-numbered pages. This volume begins with notes on family history, including Johnson's account of an autopsy performed on his first wife. The earliest letters date from 1823. There are a few letters from Abigail Louisa Adams Johnson to her husband while she was visiting her family in Quincy, Massachusetts, as well as letters from other members of her family. Most of the letters in this volume, however, are from two sons, Alexander Smith Johnson and Bryan Johnson, while they were away at school. Alexander Smith Johnson attended Yale, graduating in 1835, and his letters reflect the quality of student life at the time. They include descriptions of his room and board arrangements and his studies, along with comments on the Yale celebration of the centennial of George Washington's birth, a visit of President Andrew Jackson, and plans for the visit of Harriet Martineau at commencement. There are discussions with his father about abolition and colonization societies. In 1834, there are some remarks in his letters concerning Jackson's removal of government deposits from the Bank of the United States and the impact on the financial establishment of the country. The last letters in the book date from 1835, including some from John Adams Johnson, who attended Yale for a short time. The letters in the volume are arranged chronologically, but occasional mistakes will be found, e.g. a letter dated 1845. The volume ends with an index to the correspondents.
Volume 2, letterbook labeled "Domestic Relics," 727 manuscript-numbered pages. Letters in this volume date from 1836 - 1839. The letters are arranged chronologically, but the volume is confusing because several undated letters were bound into the middle of it. (Many of these letters refer to children from Johnson's second marriage and therefore date from the 1840's.) There is an index to correspondents at the end of the volume.
Johnson's son Bryan learned the business trade in New York while working as a clerk. His letters discuss land speculation and several mention the panic of 1837 and list the businesses that failed. Johnson's other sons continued to write letters about their school lives. William Clarkson Johnson was at boarding school in Elizabethtown, New Jersey; John Adams Johnson attended Geneva College (now called Hobart); and Alexander Smith Johnson studied law in New Haven. There are also occasional letters from daughters Sarah, Louisa, and Fanny.
Three family tragedies occurred during this period: the death of Johnson's first wife in 1836; and the death of two sons, Bryan in 1837 and John in 1839. Suprisingly, the letters do not mention these events at all. There are discussions of "mother's illness," but after her death there are no letters from the grieving family.
Volume 3, letterbook labeled "Domestic Relics," 418 manuscript-numbered pages. The letters are from family members to Alexander Bryan Johnson and date from 1846 to 1848. Apparently, numerous items have been removed from the volume. The letters are arranged chronologically, but in reverse order, beginning each year with December and running to January. There is an index to correspondents at the end of the volume.
Included in the volume are several letters from son Charles Adams Johnson who served in the army and was stationed in Mexico during the Mexican War. Another son, William Clarkson Johnson, was married in 1847 and took a honeymoon trip to Europe. It is unfortunate that there are no letters from William about his trip, for he would have been a witness to revolution in Europe in the spring of 1848. Other relatives in their letters to A. B. Johnson speculate on what William might be witnessing. A letter from Louisa Catherine Adams, the recently widowed Mrs. John Quincy Adams, is also included in this volume.
Volume 4, letterbook labeled "Ancestral Letters" and composed of Alexander Bryan Johnson's letters to his children. The majority of these letters are addressed to Alexander Smith Johnson, though there are some to Bryan, John Adams, Charles Adams, and Sarah. The letters date from 1826 to 1845. Alexander Bryan Johnson had the letters bound to make a gift for his son Alexander. In his inscription he wrote that the letters contain "much detail of my domestic life and though totally uninteresting to strangers, such incidents will possess an interest to my children and their posterity."
Actually Johnson's description of the contents of his letters is far from accurate. There is little detail about family matters or Utica gossip. Rather, Johnson wrote to his children a course of letters to assist them in forming their character. He knew they would be of interest to others since he printed several of these letters in his book An Encyclopedia of Instruction; or, Apologues and Breviats on Man and Manners. He covered such topics as the vices of liquor and deceit, the necessities of experiencing pain and disappointment, the art of writing good letters, and the advantages of being an orator. He was frank with his sons on the need to control their desires in order to avoid promiscuous behavior and he devoted an entire letter to venereal disease. Other letters, containing discussions of a wide range of subjects, show Johnson to be a man of broad learning. Atoms, cholera, capital punishment, democracy, railroad stocks, canal building, and religious meetings were all subjects of letters, and Johnson would often use quotes from classical sources. Occasionally he would discuss his own writings and responses to them. He recounted (1835 Jun 19) a visit from a Quaker named Mott and a discussion with his "highly intelligent" wife who had read some of his works. His letter to his daughter Sarah (1841-1842), who was attending a New York boarding school, are of a different nature: he wrote children's stories to cheer up the homesick young girl. Two letters at the end of the volume give family history, especially details of Johnson's Jewish grandfather.
Volume 5. Letters in this volume had been rebound in a modern binder before arriving at Yale. The letters date from 1856 January - March, and there are approximately 60 numbered pages in the volume. There are letters from the following Johnson children: Bryan at school; a married daughter Louise; Alexander living in Albany; and William, who was negotiating for land in Iowa and traveled between Iowa and Washington. There are also a few letters from non-family members about Alexander Bryan Johnson's business dealings.
The letters arranged in folders at the end of the collection date from February 1856 to 1861. There is a slight overlapping of dates with items in Volume 5. Many letters from the married children are included in these folders. Most interesting are the letters relating to land development in Iowa from William, who by this time was president of the Des Moines Navigation and Railroad Company. Included in these folders are two broadsides advertising land for sale in Iowa. Louise's letters deal with the day-to-day problems of a well-to-do family. Her letters exhibit a certain boredom; she is surrounded by servants about whom she complains, and she spends a great deal of time doting on her children. There is some discussion in her letters of the financial distress in New York businesses in 1857. At the end of the collection are a few letters from Charles, a major in the 17th New York Regiment commanding troops stationed in Virginia after the rout of Union troops at Bull Run. There are several letters from Johnson's cousin Rachel in London, who wrote to remind him of his Jewish ancestors and engaged in interesting religious polemics. One item by Johnson (1856 May 30) is included in these folders: a copy of a letter sent to Preston S. Brooks giving approval for his action of physically chastising Charles Sumner on the floor of Congress.
The folders also contain several interesting letters from non-family members. There is a letter from Johnson's physician giving the nineteenth century prescription for relieving prostate troubles, as well as letters from the printers of Johnson's books. In 1856 reviews of Johnson's The Physiology of the Senses provoked letters from the general public. There are also letters from Johnson's friend S. DeWitt Bloodford on this book and a few letters from Roger B. Taney on Johnson's writings. When in 1857 Johnson's bank was forced to declare insolvency, several depositors wrote Johnson to seek relief from their financial losses.