"Man is an imperceptible atom always trying to become one with God." -- Henry Adams
Henry Brooks Adams (February 16, 1838 — March 27, 1918; normally called Henry Adams) was an American journalist, historian, academic and novelist. He is best-known for his autobiographical book, The Education of Henry Adams. He was a member of the Adams political family.
"A teacher affects eternity; he can never tell where his influence stops.""Chaos often breeds life when order breeds habit.""I have written too much history to have faith in it; and if anyone thinks I'm wrong, I am inclined to agree with him.""No one means all he says, and yet very few say all they mean, for words are slippery and thought is viscous.""The Indian Summer of life should be a little sunny and a little sad, like the season, and infinite in wealth and depth of tone, but never hustled."
He was born in Boston, Massachusetts, the son of Charles Francis Adams Sr. (1807-1886) and Abigail Brooks (1808-1889) into one of the country's most prominent families. Both his paternal grandfather, John Quincy Adams, and great grandfather, John Adams, one of the most prominent among the Founding Fathers, had been U.S. Presidents, his maternal grandfather was a millionaire, and another great grandfather, Nathaniel Gorham, signed the Constitution.
After his graduation from Harvard University in 1858, he embarked on a Grand Tour of Europe, during which he also attended lectures in civil law at the University of Berlin. He was initiated into the Phi Kappa Psi Fraternity as an honorary member at the 1893 Columbian Exposition by Harris J. Ryan, a judge for the exhibit on electrical engineering. Through that organization, he was a member of the Irving Literary Society.
Adams returned home from Europe in the midst of the heated presidential election of 1860, which also was the year his father, Charles Francis Adams Sr., sought reelection to the US House of Representatives. He tried his hand again at law, taking employment with Judge Horace Gray's Boston firm, but this was short-lived. After his successful reelection, Charles Francis asked Henry to be his private secretary, continuing a father-son pattern set by John and John Quincy, and suggesting that Charles Francis had chosen Henry as the political scion of that generation of the family. Henry shouldered the responsibility reluctantly and with much self-doubt. "[I] had little to do," he reflected later, "and knew not how to do it rightly." During this time, Adams was the anonymous Washington Correspondent for Charles Hale's Boston Daily Advertiser.
On March 19, 1861, Abraham Lincoln appointed Charles Francis Adams, Sr. United States Minister (ambassador) to the United Kingdom. Henry Adams accompanied him to London as his private secretary. Henry also became the anonymous London correspondent for the New York Times. The two Adamses were kept very busy, monitoring Confederate diplomatic intrigues, and trying to obstruct the construction of Confederate commerce raiders by British shipyards (see Alabama Claims). Henry's writings for the New York Times argued that Americans should be patient with the British. While in Britain, Adams was befriended by many noted men including Charles Lyell, Francis T. Palgrave, Richard Monckton Milnes, James Milnes Gaskell, and Charles Milnes Gaskell.
While in Britain, Henry read and was taken with the works of John Stuart Mill. For Adams, Mill's Consideration on Representative Government showed the necessity of an enlightened, moral, and intelligent elite to provide leadership to a government elected by the masses and subject to demagoguery, ignorance, and corruption. Henry wrote to his brother Charles that Mill demonstrated to him that "democracy is still capable of rewarding a conscientious servant." His years in London led Adams to conclude that he could best provide that knowledgeable and conscientious leadership by working as a correspondent and journalist.
In 1868, Henry Adams returned to the United States and settled down in Washington, D.C., where he started working as a journalist. Adams saw himself as a traditionalist longing for the democratic ideal of the 17th and 18th centuries. Accordingly, he was keen on exposing political corruption in his journalism.
According to Ken Burns PBS production of the American Civil War, Adams said, "I think that Lee should have been hanged. It was all the worse that he was a good man and a fine character and acted conscientiously. It's always the good men who do the most harm in the world."
In 1870, Adams was appointed Professor of Medieval History at Harvard, a position he held until his early retirement in 1877 at 39. As an academic historian, Adams is considered to have been the first (in 1874—1876) to conduct historical seminar work in the United States. Included among his students were Henry Cabot Lodge, who worked closely with Adams as a graduate student.
On June 27, 1872, he and Clover Hooper were married in Boston, and spent their honeymoon in Europe. Upon their return, he went back to his position at Harvard and their home at 91 Marlborough Street, Boston, became a gathering place for a lively circle of intellectuals. In 1877, he and his wife moved to Washington, D.C., where their home on Lafayette Square, across from the White House, again became a dazzling and witty center of social life. He worked as a journalist and continued working as an historian.
Adams's The History of the United States of America (9 vols., 1889—1891) has been called "a neglected masterpiece" by Garry Wills (Henry Adams and the Making of America (2005)).
In the 1880s, Adams also wrote two novels. He is credited as the author of Democracy, which was published anonymously in 1880 and immediately became popular. (Only after Adams's death did his publisher reveal Adams's authorship.) His other novel, published under the nom de plume of Frances Snow Compton, was Esther, whose eponymous heroine was believed to be modeled after his wife.
Adams was a member of an exclusive circle, a group of friends called the "Five of Hearts" that consisted of Henry, his wife Clover, geologist and mountaineer Clarence King, John Hay (assistant to Lincoln and later Secretary of State), and Hay's wife Clara. One of Adams's frequent travel companions was the artist John La Farge, with whom he journeyed to Japan and the South Seas. A long-time, intimate correspondent of Adams's was Elizabeth Cameron, wife of Senator J. Donald Cameron.
On December 6, 1885, his wife, Clover, committed suicide by drinking potassium cyanide. Her death has been attributed to depression over her father's death. Following her death Adams took up a restless life as a globetrotter, traveling extensively, spending summers in Paris and winters in Washington, where he commissioned the Adams Memorial, designed by sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens and architect Stanford White for her grave site in Rock Creek Cemetery.
In 1894, Adams was elected president of the American Historical Association. His address, entitled "The Tendency of History," was delivered in absentia. The essay predicted the development of a scientific approach to history, but was somewhat ambiguous as to what this achievement might mean.
In 1904, Adams privately published a copy of his "Mont Saint Michel and Chartres," a pastiche of history, travel, and poetry, that celebrated the unity of medieval society, especially as represented in the great cathedrals of France. Originally meant as a diversion for his nieces and "nieces-in-wish," it was publicly released in 1913 at the request of Ralph Adams Cram, an important American architect, and published with support of the American Institute of Architects.
He published The Education of Henry Adams in 1907, in a small private edition for selected friends. For Adams, the Virgin Mary was a symbol of the best of the old world, as the dynamo was a representative of modernity. It was only following Adams's death that The Education was made available to the general public, in an edition issued by the Massachusetts Historical Society. It ranked first on the Modern Library's 1998 list of 100 Best Nonfiction Books and was named the best book of the twentieth century] by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, a conservative organization that promotes classical education. It was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1919.
In 1912, Adams suffered a stroke, perhaps brought on by news of the sinking of the Titanic, for which he had return tickets to Europe. After the stroke, his scholarly output diminished, but he continued to travel, write letters, and host dignitaries and friends at his Washington, D.C., home. Henry Adams died at age 80 in Washington, D.C. He is interred beside his wife in Rock Creek Cemetery, Washington.
In 1910, Adams printed and distributed to university libraries and history professors the small volume A Letter to American Teachers of History proposing a "theory of history" based on the second law of thermodynamics and the principle of entropy. This, essentially, states that all energy dissipates, order becomes disorder, and the earth will eventually become uninhabitable. In short, he applied the physics of dynamical systems of Rudolf Clausius, Hermann von Helmholtz, and William Thomson to the modeling of human history.
In his manuscript The Rule of Phase Applied to History, Adams attempted to use Maxwell's demon as an historical metaphor, though he seems to have misunderstood and misapplied the principle. Adams interpreted history as a process moving towards "equilibrium," but he saw militaristic nations (he felt Germany pre-eminent in this class) as tending to reverse this process, a "Maxwell's Demon of history."
Adams made many attempts to respond to the criticism of his formulation from his scientific colleagues, but the work remained incomplete at Adams's death in 1918. It was only published posthumously.
"We are in the hands of the Jews," Adams lamented. "They can do what they please with our values." He advised against investment except in the form of gold locked in a safe deposit box. "There you have no risk but the burglar. In any other form you have the burglar, the Jew, the Czar, the socialist, and, above all, the total irremediable, radical rottenness of our whole social, industrial, financial and political system."
Adams's attitude towards Jews has been described as one of loathing. John Hay, remarking on Adams's antisemitism, said that when Adams "saw Vesuvius reddening... [he] searched for a Jew stoking the fire.
His writings were "peppered with a variety of antisemitic remarks," according to historian Robert Michael. Adams wrote: "I detest [the Jews], and everything connected with them, and I live only and solely with the hope of seeing their demise, with all their accursed Judaism. I want to see all the lenders at interest taken out and executed."
Charles Francis Adams, Jr. (1835—1915) fought with the Union in the Civil War, receiving in 1865 the brevet of brigadier-general in the regular army. He became an authority on railway management as the author of Railroads, Their Origin and Problems (1878), and as president of the Union Pacific Railroad from 1884 to 1890.
Brooks Adams (1848—1927), practiced law and became a writer. His books include The Law of Civilization and Decay (1895), America's Economic Supremacy (1900), and The New Empire (1902).
An American Novel, Esther, Mont Saint Michel, The Education (Ernest Samuels, ed.) (Library of America, 1983) ISBN 978-0-940450-12-7
History of the United States During the Administration of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison (Earl N. Harbert, ed.) (Library of America, 1986) Vol I (Jefferson) ISBN 978-0-940450-34-9. Vol II (Madison) ISBN 978-0-940450-35-6.