Henry Adams and the Making of America
In the twelve years between 1879 and 1891, Henry Adams published fifteen books, including his two novels Democracy (1880) and Esther (1884), lives of two then-famous Virginians, Albert Gallatin and John Randolph, collections of Gallatin’s writings and his own historical essays, and his nine-volume History of the United States of America (1889-1891). As Garry Wills rightly observes, however, while Adams is a writer “deeply esteemed and widely studied,” his reputation is based not on these works of the most productive period of his life but on his last book, The Education of Henry Adams, which he wrote in his sixties and which appeared in a trade edition in 1918, shortly after his death.
Henry Adams and the Making of America, the latest volume in Wills’s distinguished series of studies in American history, tries to shift this balance: to recover Adams’s History from neglect and previous misreadings and to prove that it is both “the non-fiction prose masterpiece of the nineteenth century in America” and the beginning of modern historical writing in the United States.
In his polemical introduction, Wills argues that the History has been either unread of misread by previous commentators. When it is discussed at all, it is described as a critique of the administrations of the Jeffersonians, written by a descendant of their leading Federalist opponents. This reading, Wills insists, is not supported by the History but is imposed upon it by historians and critics who have either read only parts of it or been misled by “the family feud” thesis and “the Education effect.” He charges (but never proves) that historians seem to have written about the History on the basis of reading only the opening six chapters of its first volumea survey of the state of America in 1800, before Thomas Jefferson’s presidency beganwhich they treat as Adams’s judgment on the state of America after the Jeffersonians. The family feud thesis views Henry Adams as an avenger, setting out to restore the Adams family’s place in history by demonstrating the failures of those who defeated his great-grandfather and undermined his grandfather. The Education effect is the result of “reading Adams backward” from The Education of Henry Adams and finding its pessimism and sense of failure in something written twenty years before.
Wills sets out to correct and reverse these trends, to “read forward toward the History,” in a book that is divided into two parts. In part 1, “The Making of an Historian,” he examines Adams’s biography, focusing on the experiences and works that led him to the attitudes and historical method that shaped the History. In part 2, “The Making of a Nation,” he presents a volume by volume analysis of the History, arguing that during the four terms of Jefferson and James Madison the United States moved from being fragmented to having a national identity. In a provocative epilogue, he argues that Adams has much to teach in the present, where opposing sides in various political and constitutional conflicts lay claim to the “original intent” of the Founders as benediction for their positions.
“The Making of an Historian” is a masterful performance, full of original insights, previously overlooked materials, valuable context, apt quotations, and intellectual range. It succeeds brilliantly in both demolishing the family feud thesis and explaining how Henry Adams evolved into the author of the History. Drawing on the diaries and letters of Adams’s grandmother, Maryland-born Louisa Johnson Adams, which Adams read and organized, as well as statements from Adams’s own letters and works, Wills shows that he was always more drawn to the South than the North, to Washington and Virginia rather than Massachusetts, and was, in fact, not an admirer but a critic of the Adams family and his presidential forebears.
Adams told his Harvard students that “John Adams was a demagogue.” He also saw his great-grandfather as a political failure, pointedly saying that George Washington and Jeffersonnot John Adams“doubtless stand pre-eminent as the representatives of what is best in our national character or its aspirations.” He demonstrated his anti-Federalism in comments such as his observation that “everyone admitted that Jefferson’s opinions, in one form or another, were shared by the majority of the American people.” In his biography of Gallatin, he praised the “triumvirate” of President Jefferson, Secretary of State Madison, and Secretary of Treasury Gallatin, asserting that “no statesman has ever appeared with the strength to bend their bow,” (praise and hyperbole that he would temper when he later wrote his History).
The kindly grandfather who appears in the opening pages of The Education of Henry Adams could not be further from the John Quincy Adams he found in his grandmother’s private papers or described in his...
(The entire section is 2072 words.)