|Adams Henry (1838 – 1918)
American writer and historian, b. Boston; son of Charles Francis Adams
(1807–86). He was secretary (1861–68) to his father, then U.S. minister to Great
Britain. Upon his return to the United States, having already abandoned the law
and seeing no opportunity in the traditional Adams vocation of politics, he
briefly pursued journalism. He reluctantly accepted (1870) an offer to teach
medieval history at Harvard, but nonetheless stayed on seven years and also
edited (1870-76) the North American Review.
In 1877 Adams moved to Washington, D.C., his home thereafter. He wrote a good
biography of Albert Gallatin (1879), a less satisfactory one of John Randolph
(1882), and two novels (the first anonymously and the second under a
pseudonym)-Democracy (1880), a cutting satire on politics, and Esther (1884).
His exhaustive study of the administrations of Jefferson and Madison, History of
the United States of America (9 vol., 1889–91; reprinted in a number of
editions), is one of the major achievements of American historical writing.
Famous for its style, it is deficient, perhaps, in understanding the basic
economic forces at work, but the first six chapters constitute one of the best
social surveys of any period in U.S. history.
Never of a sanguine temperament, Adams became even more pessimistic after the
suicide (1885) of his adored wife. He abandoned American history and began a
series of restless journeys, physical and mental, in an effort to achieve a
basic philosophy of history. Drawing upon the physical sciences for guidance and
influenced by his brother, Brooks Adams, he found a satisfactory unifying
principle in force, or energy. He selected for intensive treatment two periods:
1050-1250, presented in Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres (privately printed 1904,
pub. 1913), and his own era, presented in The Education of Henry Adams
(privately printed 1906, pub. 1918). The first is a brilliant idealization of
the Middle Ages, specifically of the 13th-century unity brought about by the
force of the Virgin, which was dominant then. The second was classified by his
publishers as an autobiography, although it was written in the third person and
was unrevealing about much of his life. It is, however, a tour de force, and
describes his unsuccessful efforts to achieve intellectual peace in an age when
the force of the dynamo was dominant. These two books, containing some of the
most beautiful English ever written, rather than his monumental History, won
Adams his lasting place as a major American writer.
The Degradation of the Democratic Dogma (1919), edited by Brooks Adams and
prefaced with a memoir by Henry Adams, contains three brilliant essays on his
philosophy of history- “The Tendency of History,” “A Letter to American Teachers
of History” (pub. separately in 1910), and “The Rule of Phase Applied to
History.” Friendships, especially those with John Hay and Clarence King, played
a large part in Adams's life, and his personal letters reveal a warmer man than
one might suspect.