Henry Adams Biography


Personal Background

Henry Brooks Adams was born in Boston, Massachusetts on February 16, 1838, the fourth of seven children of Charles Francis Adams and Abigail Brooks Adams. Henry's distinguished family included a great-grandfather, John Adams (1735-1826), who was the second President of the United States, as well as a grandfather, John Quincy Adams (1767-1848), the sixth President of the United States. Henry's boyhood memories included pleasant summers spent at Quincy, the residence of his paternal grandparents located seven miles south of Boston. A nearly fatal bout of scarlet fever shortly before his fourth birthday may have accounted for Adams's diminished physical stature (barely five feet three inches tall as an adult). A trip to Maryland, Virginia and Washington, D. C. with his father in 1850 exposed Henry to slavery and left a lasting impression; he and his family strongly opposed the institution. His formal childhood schooling was at the private Latin School of E. S. Dixwell in Boston where he was graduated in June 1854. On August 31 of that year, he began his collegiate studies at Harvard.

Henry was only an average student at Harvard but did contribute to the Harvard Magazine and was Class Orator for graduation. Throughout his life, Adams was critical of formal education; even Harvard could not escape his scorn. Following graduation in 1858, Henry sailed with several friends for the "Grand Tour" of Europe, a tradition that some of the privileged young men of the day enjoyed. Adams's specific plan was to study civil law in Berlin. Finding his German inadequate, he enrolled in a German secondary school. He spent most of 1859-1860 seeing Europe, significantly beginning his writing career by publishing travel letters in the Boston Daily Courier. Returning home in October 1860, Henry served in Washington as private secretary to his father, a member of Congress. He was also Washington correspondent for the Boston Daily Advertiser during this volatile period, just before the beginning of the Civil War.

Henry continued as private secretary to his father during Charles Francis Adams's tenure as Minister to England (1861-1868); until January 1862, he was also the secret London correspondent of the New York Times, a situation that nearly caused him and his father considerable embarrassment (see Chapter VIII of the Critical Commentaries). The American Civil War years (1861-1865) were especially intriguing because his father's work dealt with pro-Confederacy interests and successfully tried to keep England neutral.

Returning to the States in July 1868, Henry concentrated on a career as a freelance political journalist in Washington. He published extensively in journals during this period and earned a reputation as a reformer, especially in articles dealing with American finance and the New York gold conspiracy. While vacationing in Europe in the summer of 1870, he learned that his beloved sister Louisa had been in a cab accident near her home in Italy. He rushed to her side, but she died of tetanus a few days later. Despondent, Henry briefly sought solace in a monastery in England. He received a letter from the president of Harvard offering a position as assistant professor of history and editor of the prestigious North American Review. With personal reluctance but overwhelming encouragement of family and friends, he accepted.

At Harvard, he gained a reputation as an effective, innovative teacher and an unorthodox, iconoclastic, sometimes-dictatorial editor. He was an American pioneer in the use of the seminar system, evaluations by students, and the importance of student journals. He introduced graduate studies in history at Harvard and promoted the study of American history.

On June 27, 1872, Henry married Marian "Clover" Hooper of Boston. The couple spent the next academic year on an extended honeymoon in Europe and Egypt. He resigned from Harvard in 1877, moving to Washington to edit the papers of Thomas Jefferson's Secretary of the Treasury, Albert Gallatin. This precipitated a period of extensive publishing that included The Life of Albert Gallatin (1879); two novels (Democracy, published anonymously in 1880, and Esther, published under the pseudonym "Frances Snow Compton," in 1884); a critical biography of the southern statesman John Randolph (1882); and, most important, the History of the United States of America during the Administrations of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison (1889-1891), in nine volumes.

On December 6, 1885, Henry's wife, Marian, committed suicide after a long period of depression, a disease that ran in her family. The event was especially traumatic for Adams and the principal reason for his leaving twenty years of his life (1872-1892) out of his most famous work, The Education of Henry Adams (published in 1907). He sometimes referred to the rest of his life as "posthumous," but some of his best work was completed after his wife's tragic death.

After Adams's wife's suicide, his friends became even more important to him. He traveled the South Seas and visited Japan with the artist John La Farge and was especially close to geologist Clarence King and statesman John Hay. Elizabeth Cameron, married to a Senator from Pennsylvania, became his emotional confidante in an apparently platonic relationship.

Henry continued his interest in politics, explored a scientific approach to history, studied medieval philosophy and architecture, and wrote extensively. The Panic of 1893 drew him into the controversy over the gold standard: The question was whether international trade and American currency should be based on gold only or on both gold and silver, which would expand the economy and cheapen the currency. Henry supported the backers of silver and feared a new ruling class of gold capitalists (whom he called gold-bugs). He also advocated independence for Cuba. Remarkable advances in science caused him to wonder if scientific method could be successfully applied to the study of history. This is considered in detail in the Education and resulted in Adams's "Dynamic Theory of History." An intense interest in medieval philosophy and architecture led to the writing of Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres, printed privately in 1904. He thought of this and the Education as companion pieces.

Henry Adams was partially paralyzed by a stroke in 1912 and spent most of his remaining years traveling, resting, receiving dignitaries, and quietly socializing at his home at 1603 H Street in Washington. He died on March 27, 1918 and was buried beside his wife at Rock Creek Cemetery in Washington, D. C. The first trade publication of his Education came out later that year and was an immediate best-seller. In 1919, Adams was posthumously awarded the Pulitzer Prize for The Education of Henry Adams. In 1999, Modern Library listed the Education as the best nonfiction book, written in English, of the twentieth century.

Selected Writings and Reputation

Among Henry Adams's many publications, in addition to the Education, four are especially representative: the novel Democracy, the biography of John Randolph, the History of the United States of America during the Administrations of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, and the Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres. Each illustrates a different aspect of Adams's intellect and contributes to his reputation as a writer of diverse talents and interests.

Democracy An American Novel was printed anonymously in the United States and England in 1880 and was an immediate popular success. With the viewpoint of an insider, Adams quickly shows, through an inquiring but initially naïve female protagonist, that the title is ironic as he exposes the political and personal corruption of Washington. The prototype of this corruption is the fictional Silas P. Ratcliffe, a scoundrel devoted to power rather than principle. The President of the United States, nicknamed "Old Granite" because he formerly worked in a quarry, represents the lowest common denominator of the people who elected him. Somewhat reminiscent of Adams's opinion of President Grant, Old Granite is incapable of coping with the dastardly but brilliant Ratcliffe or any of the complexities of office. Despite its commercial success, the novel has never received much critical acclaim. For Adams, it was a diversion, an entertaining outlet for his wit as well as some of the frustrations left over from his days as a reform journalist. In 1885, he presented the copyright to the National Civil Service Reform League. A 1925 printing was the first to name Henry Adams as author.

In late March or early April 1881 (despite Henry's lack of sympathy for Southerners and, specifically, for John Randolph), John T. Morse, Jr., the editor of the "American Statesmen" series, invited Adams to take on the project of writing the biography of the Virginia orator and politician. Adams pursued the assignment with vigor, producing what Ernest Samuels in The Middle Years refers to as one of Henry's "portraits in acid." Randolph was a member of the House of Representatives at the age of twenty-six (1799), during the John Adams administration (1797-1801), and a United States Senator during John Quincy Adams's administration (1825-1829); he was a leading political opponent of Henry's great-grandfather as well as his grandfather. Randolph strongly advocated the States' Rights position, supporting the autonomy of individual states and limiting the strength of the federal government, including the Supreme Court. He even converted John Quincy Adams's Vice President, John C. Calhoun, to the States' Rights cause; because of its impact on slavery, the States' Rights issue would remain a major factor leading up to the Civil War. Published in 1882, the biography of Randolph offers some of Henry's liveliest writing; nevertheless, the consensus is that Henry's passion is too obviously biased in favor of the Adams family.

Adams expected his nine-volume History of the United States of America during the Administrations of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison (1889-1891) to be his crowning achievement. He tried to make the work as accessible as possible by using simple language, many primary sources, and a format that would be easy to read. While historians have always respected the work, Adams was disappointed that it was not a popular success, perhaps overestimating the public's enthusiasm for a history of this length. The tone is often abrasive, as it is in the John Randolph; Adams is quick to criticize Jefferson and Madison, the former for vacillation concerning the Constitutional problems with the Louisiana Purchase; the latter for his conduct of the War of 1812. Of the two, Adams admires and identifies more with Jefferson, whom he justifiably sees as a fellow intellectual and a man of taste, despite his being a Virginian.

Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres (1904) is a historical, philosophical consideration of thirteenth-century Christianity as symbolized by the architecture and icons of two famous French cathedrals built during that period. It is also an invitation to visit the churches (someday, perhaps, in person) and the era (in your imagination). Chartres is of primary interest. In it Adams sees the embodiment of a kind of unity and purpose now lost. Despite his enthusiasm for scientific method, Adams is nostalgic for the simple clarity of the past. The point of view is admittedly subjective; Adams creates an "uncle" who is part mentor, part tour guide, to a younger generation. Within that context, the book is a timeless classic. As Ferman Bishop writes, "[This work] retains all of its power to evoke the spirit of the Middle Ages. More than any other book, it captures the feeling of the Age of Faith."