Study Guide

Brooks Adams

Brooks Adams Essay - Critical Essays

Adams, Brooks

Introduction

Adams, Brooks 1848-1927

(Full name Henry Brooks Adams) American historian.

A noted historian of the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, Adams is primarily remembered for his exploration of the rise and fall of world civilizations based upon their relation to the major paths of economic exchange. Adams's body of work—characterized by his deep pessimism and anti-Semitism—represents his attempt to establish a cyclical view of history based in part upon the natural laws of thermodynamics, which he believed governed social and economic development and decline. Early in his career, Adams generated controversy for his attacks on New England's religious forefathers, whom he believed to be the antithesis of democratic leaders. In his later writings, Adams exhibited an increasing bitterness, reflecting his belief that the energy of the United States had been spent, and that the nation had succumbed to materialism and greed. During his life, Adams was also an outspoken advocate for converting the United States' economy from the gold standard to bimetallism—the use of both silver and gold as standards.

Biographical Information

The youngest of six children of Charles Francis Adams and Abigail Brooks Adams, Adams belonged to a dynasty of prominent American political thinkers. His great-grandfather John Adams and his grandfather John Quincy Adams were presidents of the United States. His father was the 1848 Free Soil candidate for U.S. vice president; he ran on the same ticket as Martin Van Buren. Charles Adams was also named minister to Great Britain during the U.S. Civil War by President Abraham Lincoln. Adams's older brother was Henry Adams, whose literary legacy includes his autobiography The Education of Henry Adams, the novel Democracy, and a nine-volume History of the Administrations of Jefferson and Madison. Two other brothers, Charles and John Quincy, also enjoyed modest fame. Adams attended English schools and graduated from Harvard in 1870. He completed one year of study at Harvard Law School, and passed the bar examinations without obtaining a law degree. His family's wealth enabled Brooks Adams to pursue his writing career unencumbered by financial concerns. Adams practiced law for a brief period before leaving for Europe with his father. During his adult life, Adams traveled extensively throughout Europe, the Middle East and India. From 1904 to 1911 he lectured at the Boston University School of Law.

Major Works

Adams published several articles and reviews before his first history, The Emancipation of Massachusetts (1887). In it, Adams attacked the hagiographic depictions of the Protestant forefathers of New England. He argued that previous depictions of early New England founders were untrue and that, instead of fostering democratic virtues, the founders engendered a climate of religious intolerance. The book was perceived as controversial in its time, and much was made of the unbalanced nature of Adams's presentation. Adams's defended his work to Henry Cabot Lodge: "It is really not a history of Mass. but a metaphysical and philosophical inquiry as to the actions of the human mind in the progress of civilization; illustrated by the history of a small community isolated and allowed to work itself free. This is not an attempt to break down the Puritans or to abuse the clergy, but to follow out the action of the human mind as we do of the human body. I believe they and we are subject to the same laws." While declaring his premise sound for the original, Adams added a 168-page preface to his 1919 revision, which many critics believe refutes the theories of his original manuscript.

In his next major work, The Law of Civilization and Decay: An Essay on History (1895), Adams examined the control of economic power and its effect on history, politics, culture, and religion. Adams posited that the cyclical nature of centralization and stagnation was governed by physical laws. Civilization, wrote Adams, followed a set pattern of stages: energy-gathering, which incorporated imagination, war and conquest; centralization and the accumulation of wealth; and usurpation of energy by capitalists. Once economic power is centralized in a civilization, greed becomes predominant, leading to stagnation in all elements of society. Adams supported his thesis using ancient Rome, Medieval Europe, and Imperial Britain as examples. When economic power became centralized in any of these areas, stagnation set in and this power moved elsewhere. While finding Adams's methodology unsystematic, critics received The Law of Civilization and Decay positively. The perception that Adams was disenfranchised from American capitalism and was predicting the eventual demise of the U.S. economy was reinforced by his subsequent efforts. America's Economic Superiority (1900), The New Empire (1902), and The Theory of Social Revolutions (1913) continued his theories into economic history. He also wrote the preface to brother Henry Adams's The Degradation of the Democratic Dogma (1920).

Principal Works

The Emancipation of Massachusetts (history) 1887

The Law of Civilization and Decay: An Essay on History (history) 1895

America's Economic Superiority (history) 1900

The New Empire (history) 1902

The Theory of Social Revolutions (history) 1913

Criticism

The Yale Review (review date 1896)

SOURCE: A review of The Law of Civilization and Decay, in The Yale Review, 1896, pp. 451-53.

[In the following excerpt, the reviewer finds Adams's The Law of Civilization and Decay a flawed yet valuable work in determining historical patterns. ]

Reference was made in a notice of Kidd's Social Evolution in the third volume of this Review, to the probability that we should have many attempts in the next few years to construct a philosophy of history on the basis of our existing knowledge. The present attempt is by the historian of the Emancipation of Massachusetts. Any one who thinks it possible for the present age to produce a final philosophy of history, would derive much instruction by reading this book and Mr. Kidd's together.

The term "science" of history rather than "philosophy" must be applied to the attempt, if we speak strictly. It opens—to give the order of the author's thought rather than of his statement—with three fundamental assumptions. First, actions of every kind are manifestations of material energy, and are controlled by its laws. Second, human history, as one of the "outlets through which solar energy is dissipated," is governed by fixed laws. Third, among human actions, thoughts or "intellectual phenomena," are those which determine the course of history. Starting with these propositions assumed, the science of history is developed in this way. The first controlling intellectual conception is fear. This leads to religious, military, and artistic types of civilization, and, in richly endowed races, to an accumulation of energy in the form of capital. As this accumulation takes place, the race passes into the second stage, and greed succeeds fear as the determining idea. This leads to economic organization in which capital tends to become supreme, to the decay of the earlier types of civilization, to the waste of energy through competition, and, as this can no longer be reproduced under a capitalistic organization, to the disintegration of society, from which there can be no return except through an infusion of fresh barbarian blood, that is, through a renewal of the earlier types of civilization.

The author's...

(The entire section is 922 words.)

Journal of Political Economy (review date 1902)

SOURCE: A review of The New Empire, in Journal of Political Economy, 1902, pp. 314-17.

[In the following excerpt, the reviewer unfavorably assesses Adams's The New Empire.]

Pursuing a line of argument already worked out in his Law of Civilization and Decay, Mr. Adams offers an explanation, a theory it may be called, of the rise and decline of successive "empires" from the dawn of history to the present. The objective point of the argument is to account for the present, or imminent, supremacy of America as an imperial power. This supremacy has, in Mr. Adams's mind, all the certainty of an accomplished fact. While it takes the form of a political supremacy,...

(The entire section is 679 words.)

The American Political Science Review (review date 1914)

SOURCE: A review of The Theory of Social Revolutions, in The American Political Science Review, Vol. VIII, No. 1, February, 1914, pp. 131-32.

[In the following excerpt, the reviewer finds Adams's methodology in The Theory of Social Revolutions flawed but intellectually stimulating.]

This work [The Theory of Social Revolutions] while filled with errors and hasty generalizations, possesses the quality of stimulating thought. Mr. Adams' primary contention is one against judicial authority in political matters. He contends that "no court can, because of the nature of its being, effectively check a popular majority acting through a coördinate...

(The entire section is 556 words.)

Stuart P. Sherman (essay date 1920)

SOURCE: "Evolution in the Adams Family," in The Nation, New York, Vol. CX, No. 2858, April 10, 1920, pp. 473-77.

[In the following excerpt, Sherman examines the genealogy of political and historical thought among members of Adams's family. ]

Brooks Adams apologizes for the inadequacy of his introduction to his brother's philosophical remains on the ground that the publishers hurried him, saying that if he did not get the book out within the year it would have lost its interest. Of course the readers who take up The Education of Henry Adams because it is the sensation of the hour will soon drop away, perhaps have already done so; but interest in the Adamses, so...

(The entire section is 5998 words.)

Worthington C. Ford (essay date 1927)

SOURCE: "Brooks Adams," in The Harvard Graduates' Magazine, Vol. 35, No. 140, June, 1927, pp. 615-27.

[In the following excerpt, Ford surveys Adams's major works.]

Brooks Adams, born at Quincy, Massachusetts, June 24, 1848, died at Boston, February 13, 1927. He was the youngest son of Charles Francis Adams and Abigail Brooks, daughter of Peter Chardon Brooks. After some years in English schools, his father being the American Minister to the Court of St. James's, he was prepared for Harvard College by Professor Ephraim Whitman Gurney, later to be professor of history in the University. Graduating in 1870, he passed one year in the Harvard Law School, but was taken by...

(The entire section is 5065 words.)

R. P. Blackmur (essay date 1939)

SOURCE: "Henry and Brooks Adams: Parallels to Two Generations," in The Southern Review, Vol. V, No. 2, Autumn, 1939, pp. 308-34.

[In the following excerpt, Blackmur explores the combined influence that brothers Henry and Brooks exerted over the study of history.]

The greater reputation and the imaginative character of his work have made Henry Adams' name more familiar and more significant than that of his brother Brooks. Actually each inseminated the other; their thought along certain lines was coöperative, and it is impossible to deal fairly with the political and energetic ideas which occupied Henry Adams towards the end of his life—from 1893 to the end—without...

(The entire section is 10702 words.)

Charles A. Madison (essay date 1940)

SOURCE: "Brooks Adams, Caustic Cassandra," in The American Scholar, Vol. 9, No. 2, Spring, 1940, pp. 214-27,

[In the following excerpt, Madison offers a survey of Adams's major works and political concerns.]

Brooks Adams is, a dozen years after his death, a truly forgotten man. A test poll of twenty-five college graduates of various ages and interests elicited the fact that less than a third were able to identify him and that only one, a writer on legal history, was familiar with some of his writings. Nor is this surprising. His radical social and economic views had early antagonized the class to which he belonged, and throughout his mature years he was scorned (by...

(The entire section is 4960 words.)

Donald J. Pierce (review date 1943)

SOURCE: A review of The Law of Civilization and Decay: An Essay on History, by Brooks Adams, in Political Science Quarterly, Vol. LVIII, No. 3, September, 1943, pp. 457-58.

[In the following excerpt, Pierce favorably reviews The Law of Civilization and Decay.]

It might be thought unnecessary to describe the contents of a book which was first published almost half a century ago, which appeared in two foreign languages and in several editions and reprints, and which is declared by Mr. Charles A. Beard, who now introduces it, to be "among the outstanding documents of intellectual history in the United States and, in a way, the Western World"; yet the reviewer knew...

(The entire section is 877 words.)

Rushton Coulborn (review date 1943)

SOURCE; A review of The Law of Civilization and Decay: An Essay on History, in American Historical Review, Vol. 49, No. 1, October, 1943, pp. 77-78.

[In the following excerpt, Coulborn favorably reviews The Law of Civilization and Decay, but finds much of its research and conclusions dated.]

The republication of Brooks Adams' theory of history [The Law of Civilization and Decay: An Essay on History] is an event of importance to historians. Mr. Alfred Knopf judged such an event timely. Dr. Charles A. Beard judged Brooks Adams' work the best lesson from the American classics for the present generation of historians. By this judgment and by his...

(The entire section is 1000 words.)

Harry Elmer Barnes (essay date 1944)

SOURCE: "Brooks Adams on World Utopia," in Current History, Vol. 6, No. 29, January, 1944, pp. 1-6.

[In the following excerpt, Barnes examines the intellectual background of Adams's The Law of Civilization and Decay.]

The air is full of planning for the future happy state of mankind. Glimpses of Utopia are everywhere in evidence. Glib and hopeful books on "The United States of the World" are being written by Clement Wood and others. The speedy installation of a strong and durable international political order and plenty of milk for the Hottentots are being freely predicted.

Personally, all this suits me perfectly and I hope that these rosy dreams may...

(The entire section is 2633 words.)

Daniel Aaron (essay date 1948)

SOURCE: "The Unusable Man: An Essay on the Mind of Brooks Adams," in The New England Quarterly, Vol. XXI, No. 1, March, 1948, pp. 3-33.

[In the following excerpt, Aaron surveys Adams's work and intellectual development.]

I

Brooks Adams has been dead for more than twenty years now, but there are still many people in Boston and Cambridge who remember this eccentric and arrogant man, the last of the children of Charles Francis Adams to survive. His nephews and nieces recall his gruff manner and his penchant for saying shocking things at dinner parties, his love of argument, his endless jaunts to watering spas, his fondness for the Scottish lays he...

(The entire section is 10687 words.)

Don M. Wolfe (essay date 1957)

SOURCE: "Brooks Adams: Human Nature in the Decay of Civilization," in The Image of Man in America, Southern Methodist University Press, 1957, pp. 239-48.

[In the following excerpt, Wolfe critiques Adams's approach to historical theory.]

"Perhaps Caesar's army was the best an ancient general ever put in the field, and yet it was filled with barbarians. All his legions were raised north of the Po, and most of them, including the tenth, north of the Alps."

—Adams

The historian, like the novelist and the economist, scatters through his pages colors and forms of his portrait of the nature of...

(The entire section is 3266 words.)

Frederic Copie Jaher (essay date 1964)

SOURCE: "Brooks Adams: Belligerent Brahmin," in Doubters and Dissenters: Cataclysmic Thought in America, 1885-1918, The Free Press of Glencoe, 1964, pp. 158-87.

[In the following excerpt, Jaher surveys Adams's career and examines claims that Adams was an anti-Semite.]

It was Brooks Adams's misfortune to be born in 1848. Had he lived a generation earlier or later he would have been a far happier man. Adams would then have escaped the frustration of estrangement from American life, the painful memory of decaying Brahmin prestige and power, and the obstacle of an unadaptable aristocratic outlook.

Patrician privilege, however, was still undisputed when...

(The entire section is 13663 words.)

Mina J. Carson (essay date 1983)

SOURCE: "The Evolution of Brooks Adams," in Biography: An Interdisciplinary Quarterly, Vol. 6, No. 2, Spring, 1983, pp. 95-112.

[In the following excerpt, Carson surveys Adams's body of work, which she characterizes as born out of his politically conservative background.]

Brooks Adams generally appears in the history of American thought as Henry Adams's cranky younger brother, an eccentric misanthrope who reputedly began each day "by singing a song of his own invention, which consisted entirely of three repeated words: "God damn it! God damn it! God damn it!' In a less apocryphal vein is the recognition that The Education of Henry Adams was fertilized by Brooks...

(The entire section is 9001 words.)