The narrator is quick to point out that few people born in 1838 find themselves in more favorable circumstances than Henry Adams. The grandson of one President of the United States and great-grandson of another, Henry inherits a respected family name, automatic contacts with some of the most powerful people in the country, and financial security. As impressive as all that is, however, it is not the reason that we know about him today. What sets Henry apart is his intellectual curiosity. In discussing his "Dynamic Theory of History" (Chapter XXXIII), Adams suggests that mankind began to evolve beyond the apes because of a capacity to respond to the "attractive forces" that one may over-simply call knowledge. "Susceptibility to the highest forces is the highest genius; selection between them is the highest science; their mass is the highest educator," Adams says. Because of his unusual intellectual curiosity, Henry is more attracted than most to "highest forces," the ultimate levels of knowledge. That is his genius. He is interested in almost everything around him, and this interest helps him to distinguish, to select, between mundane and worthwhile pursuits. This is the one constant throughout his life.
As a young boy, Henry is attracted to the same things that attract most children. He prefers diversity, freedom, the "endless delight" of sensual impressions, and occasional "outlawry." But by the time he travels to Washington with his father in 1850, he is already becoming curious about larger issues. His first impressions of slavery shock him: "Slavery struck him in the face; it was a nightmare; a horror; a crime; the sum of all wickedness!" He wants to escape, along with the slaves, to free soil. His curiosity takes him beyond immediate impressions, some of which are actually pleasant. It occurs to him that the casual, relaxed life of the indolent South is paid for by human bondage. Especially upsetting and confusing is the trip to George Washington's home, Mount Vernon. Henry realizes that the father of his country, the man he has thought of as beyond reproach, was supported by slavery. At the age of twelve, Henry can't understand what exactly this adds up to; does it mean that Washington was an evil man? Henry ultimately slides into the uncomfortable, insufficient conclusion that Washington was unique. For the confused child, Washington just wasn't like other men; he "stood alone." Henry's education has not prepared him for further understanding.
Throughout his life, Henry protests against the limitations of formal education. His undergraduate years at Harvard (1854-1858) and his brief attempt at a legal education in Berlin (1858-1859) convince him that there is too much emphasis on rote memory and too little cultivation of legitimate intellectual curiosity in most educational systems. Henry is only an average student at Harvard, but he does begin to excel at expressing himself. He contributes to Harvard Magazine and is chosen Class Orator as a senior. In Berlin, his interest in learning the language causes him to attend a German prep school for a term, studying with boys several years his junior. While he finds German education even more repressive than that in the States, Henry does become fluent in the language and is seen reading novels and other books in German on his own during his "Grand Tour" of Europe.
As an assistant professor of history at Harvard (1870-1877), Henry takes advantage of an opportunity to improve higher education. Although he claims that his effort is a "failure," Adams introduces several innovative approaches that stand the test of time. His own intellectual curiosity causes him to experiment with liberating the curiosity of his students. Adams feels that the lecture system, which he never liked as a student, is not working for him as a teacher. Part of the reason is that he is not sufficiently expert in the medieval history classes that he is teaching; but the main problem is that one-way communication, lecturing professor dictating to note-taking students, is stultifying. In an honors class with only half a dozen students, Henry tries something different. He experiments with a seminar system, allowing the students to read on their own and bring what they have learned to the class, engaging their own intellectual curiosity. It works. The students are more involved and cover more material in a strikingly vital way. They inform and confront each other. Henry only wishes he had a second professor in the class to debate with him. The classes meet at Henry's private rooms rather than the lecture hall. He also introduces graduate studies in history at Harvard, encourages the study of American history, and encourages student evaluations as well as the keeping of journals. He complains that the regular system fails because no teacher can effectively work with more than six students at a time; most classes are much larger because of financial restraints, limiting the possibilities for real learning.
As a political journalist, Henry is drawn to reform. Serving as a freelance writer in Washington (1868-1870), he is especially interested in financial matters, seeking to overturn the creation of the "greenback" dollar and investigating the New York gold conspiracy. During the Civil War, the federal government issued greenback dollars, paper currency that was not supported by gold. Henry journalistically argues that this was unconstitutional and advocates their removal; the Supreme Court ultimately rules in favor of the greenback. The Gold Scandal of 1869 especially piques Henry's curiosity as he suspects collusion between Jay Gould and members of the Grant administration. Gould tries to corner the market on gold bullion and coin but falls just short as Secretary of Treasury Boutwell finally places on sale $4,000,000 worth of government gold. Suspiciously, Gould seems to have known about the government intervention beforehand and sells his gold at a substantial profit just in time. Although the involvement of the Grant administration is never proven, Henry uncovers Gould's part in the gold conspiracy while Henry's brother Charles investigates corruption in the management of the railroads.
The panic of 1893 draws Henry into another controversy, this over the gold standard. Eager to expand the economy and cheapen currency, Henry argues that international trade contracts and the American economy should be based on a combination of gold and silver, not on gold alone. Although born an American aristocrat, he finds himself supporting the position of farmers and small businessmen because he fears a new ruling class of bankers and gold capitalists (whom he calls gold-bugs). Henry is drawn to what he sees as a higher wisdom, a "susceptibility to the highest forces [being] the highest genius." With similar justification, he advocates independence for Cuba, which is liberated from Spain in the Spanish-American War of 1898.
Henry's curiosity is especially drawn to modern advances in science. Karl Pearson's classic work on scientific method, the Grammar of Science (1899) confirms, for Henry, the need to seek knowledge through experimentation and observation rather than working from a premise that the intellect simply tries to prove. Henry is impressed with advances in electricity and mechanical engines. He begins to wonder if the methods of science could be applied successfully to a study of history. At the same time, he has become a devoted student of medieval philosophy and architecture, especially their manifestations in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. While he is nostalgic for the unity that he sees in medieval Christianity, he realistically anticipates a need to adapt to the multiplicity of modern science. He is drawn to his creation of a "Dynamic Theory of History," which looks at the evolution of mankind as a series of gravitational attractions to "forces" such as knowledge concerning survival, spirituality, and science. In an examination of medieval unity, he writes Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres (1904), a historical, philosophical consideration of thirteenth-century Christianity as symbolized by the architecture and icons of two famous French cathedrals built during the period. As a companion piece, he creates The Education of Henry Adams (1907), a study of modern multiplicity as well as the biography of an education.
Henry Adams's rich and productive life is a product of his intellectual curiosity more than any other single factor. While it is true that he was born privileged, so are many others. Readers still find Henry Adams of interest in the twenty-first century because of his achievements, not his birth.