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First U.S. Teen-Agers Sound Similar to Today's : History: Journals at the Huntington library shows kids 200 years ago had the same sorts of dreams and fears as those today.

September 15, 1991|BOB POOL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

American history has proved one thing: Boys will be boys.

It was that way 200 years ago when this country's founders were writing the Bill of Rights. And it was that way the other day when copies of their handiwork were on display at the Huntington Library in San Marino.

Upstairs in the library's main exhibit room, 13-year-old Todd Grant was giving only a quick glance to the exhibit, which commemorates the bicentennial of the Bill of Rights. But the boy was taking time to closely study the knobs and deadbolts that form the intricate locking mechanism on a vault door leading to a library document storage room.

Downstairs in one of the library's research areas, a scholar was examining the diary that 16-year-old Benjamin Bache wrote in the summer of 1785. It showed that the teen-ager was all but ignoring the history being made around him--and was concentrating instead on hypnotism and hot air balloons.

Todd is an Upland eighth-grader. He was taking an end-of-the-summer excursion with his family to take in the Huntington displays and the Constitution exhibit that will be on view through Jan. 26.

Benjamin was the grandson of Benjamin Franklin. At the time he wrote his diary, he was traveling in France with his grandfather, who was there to negotiate a treaty with French leaders.

Young Bache's journal is one of nearly two dozen historic Huntington manuscripts that researcher Paul M. Zall has drawn from to create an unusual profile of the children of America's Founding Fathers.

As far as most history books are concerned, most of the offspring of George Washington, John Adams and other early leaders could just as well be called Founding Foundlings.

Little has been written about how they grew up in the shadow of the country's first genuine heroes. Less is known about their own contributions as the first generation of young Americans, or about their roles in America's first war.

Zall hopes to change that with the book he plans to call "Becoming American." It will tell the tale of Benjamin Bache and 20 other Revolutionary-era teen-agers, using their own words taken from diaries and personal letters.

A retired Cal State Los Angeles history professor, Zall, 69, has prowled the Huntington Library's stacks for 30 years. He has culled the teen-agers' manuscripts from the 2.2 million documents stored there.

The diaries show that although America has changed during over the past two centuries, teen-agers haven't.

Kids 200 years ago were just as uncertain and anxious about growing up as youths are today. The two generations share the same sorts of dreams and fears. And they may share the same kind of parents, too, the journals suggest.

Eighteen-year-old Abigail Adams, daughter of the nation's second President, had boys on her mind when her folks sent her to Paris in 1785 in an effort to break up her romance with her American boyfriend, Zall said.

After a French dinner party, Adams wrote candidly of checking out the men at the gathering.

"Lord Mount Morris attracted my attention," she admitted. "He's a very handsome man, a fine person and an adequate countenance. There was another Irish gentleman who was passable."

But another woman moved in and monopolized conversation with Lord Mount Morris during the dinner, Adams grumbled in her diary. To make matters worse, the man she was seated next to turned out to be a dud, she said.

The parents of 17-year-old Robert Lewis, the nephew of George Washington, may have taken a censor's pencil to the journal he wrote during 1789. Someone, at least, has tried to scratch out the young man's description of his visit to a New York bawdyhouse that summer when he was working as a secretary for Uncle George.

Girls were also on the mind of Benjamin Bache the summer he vacationed in France with his famous grandfather. In his journal, the 16-year-old ignored the wheeling and dealing taking place around him as Benjamin Franklin helped negotiate a historic peace treaty.

Instead, he filled it with musings about "young ladies so good and beautiful" and about men with "animal magnetism" who he was convinced could hypnotize both humans and trees. He wrote detailed descriptions of hot air balloonists he dubbed "aeronauts."

Young Bache also wrote of the strange animals he encountered during outings and of how a dolphin turned unusual colors after it was caught during an ocean sailing excursion.

"They wrote their direct impressions of what they were doing as things happened," said Zall. "This is not something they remembered in old age or reshaped later. They were living in a time of constant change."

That fact is not lost on today's teen-agers.

Fifteen-year-old Paul McCarthy-Boyington of Hollywood was intrigued by an early map, on display near the entrance to the Constitution exhibit, called "The Sacred Fire of Liberty." The map suggested that California was actually an island off North America's West Coast.

"I guess they did the best they could," Paul said. "I guess only the rich kids went to school back then. I don't think they were teen-agers like us."

His friend Jesse Monsour, 14, also of Hollywood, nodded in agreement. "Kids probably got along the best they could," said Jesse. "But I think they were probably pretty bored."

Back downstairs at a basement research desk that the library has given him, Zall grinned at that notion.

He said that he plans to have his book in his publisher's hands by Tuesday, the day that he is scheduled to help launch a special Bill of Rights educational program for elementary and junior high students.

He'll show youngsters the statue that he says George Washington posed in the nude for and he'll offer a humorous Constitutional quiz.

A sample question: "Magna Carta is President Jimmy Carter's second daughter. True or false?"

Zall doesn't want kids to be bored.

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