Henry Adams and the Making of America

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2072

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.

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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 own. The elder Adams’s letters to his wife show him to be cold, priggish, humorless, overbearing, emotionally abusive, and cruelly insensitive. (In her letters to her daughter-in-law, Abigail Adams appears almost as bad.) In an eighty-page critique of his brother Brooks’s proposed biography of their grandfather, Henry unleashes a litany of invective. He writes that his grandfather had “an astonishing faculty for self-deception”; that for much of his career he was “a tool of the slave oligarchy”; that he was “abominably selfish,” “incapable of feeling his duty to others,” “indifferent to art,” “demonic”; that he “must have lived a life of pure void.” Henry Adams was so critical of both his great-grandfather and his grandfather in his first major work, The Life of Albert Gallatin (1879), that his brother Charles attacked him and the book anonymously in a review in The Nation.

Wills then provides a fascinating intellectual biography that traces the emergence of Henry Adams as a leader in the development of historical method in the nineteenth century. Newly opened archives created the opportunity to draw on new source materials, but the archives were unorganized, uncataloged, and geographically dispersed. In America, and especially in Boston, Wills explains, this led to the rise of “gentlemen historians”writers such as Francis Parkman, George Bancroft, Edwin Everett, and Adams, who had the connections, leisure, and financial independence to visit widespread archives, hire copyists, and gain diplomatic appointments that allowed them to spend time in the collections in other countries. Adams’s own historical debut at twenty-three, for example, an examination of the various claims John Smith made about his relationship with Pocahontas, was made possible by his gaining access to archives in England while he was a part of his father’s diplomatic mission there during the Civil War.

In 1870, Adams accepted an appointment to teach history at Harvard, began offering one of the first graduate seminars in history in America, and became the editor of the North American Review. In the early 1870’s, Adams focused his energies both on trying to create political reform through muckraking reports on the political scene and developing and teaching the new methods of historical scholarship. Research for his biography of Gallatin gave him access to “the inner councils of the Jeffersonians.” Work on subsequent biographies of Randolph and Aaron Burr (unpublished) and his two novels were experiments in prose forms through which he evolved from “a chronicler” into the historian and literary stylist of the History.

In “The Making of a Nation,” Wills traces Adams’s examination of the major events, arguments, and figures of the period from 1801 through 1817 as they unfold in the History. He generously quotes Adams, thereby indisputably demonstrating that the book is a prose masterpiece. As Wills summarizes and discusses each volume, Adams emerges as an extraordinary combination of political, diplomatic, military, intellectual, cultural, financial, economic, geographic, demographic, legal, and religious historian. His portraits of figure after figureof Jefferson, Madison, James Monroe, Gallatin, John Marshall, Samuel Chase, Burr, Andrew Jackson, Randolph, Tecumseh, and hundreds of lesser-known Americans; and of an international cast headed by Napoleon and Talleyrand, George Canning and William Pitt, Manuel de Godoy, Toussaint Louverturesparkle with insight, wit, and style. One of the great achievements of Wills’s book is that throughout his more than two hundred pages of summary and analysis of the History, the reader’s interest almost never flags. On the contrary, he is offered a fascinating review of the history and characters of the times, as well as of Adams’s treatment of them. This summary is enlivened by Wills’s wit and style.

The ultimate irony of the nine volumes of Adams’s History is that it is, as Wills acknowledges, “a comedy of errors, not a tragedy.” Adams’s description of Jefferson’s two presidential terms is, finally, a catalog of failures of practice and principle in both foreign and domestic terms. Aside from the Tripolitan War and the Louisiana Purchase, his foreign policy record consisted of courting Napoleonwho repeatedly outfoxed himfailing to support the struggle for liberty in Haiti and Spain, attempting to negotiate agreements that never materialized, weakening the national defense on both land and sea, and establishing an embargo that was internally divisive and externally ineffectual.

Domestically, Jefferson created a national political party, but he also expanded the patronage system, suppressed dissent, abused the powers of the executive, sought to undermine the judiciary, so alienated the New England states that they seriously considered secession, supported slavery and its expansion in both the South and the West, regularly neglected his duties in favor of extended vacations each summer at Monticello, and imposed an embargo that seriously hurt the domestic economy without accomplishing its purposes.

The five volumes devoted to Madison’s two terms describe most of the same weaknesses, without the saving grace of Jefferson’s strength or literary style. Adams labels Madison’s cabinet “the least satisfactory that any president had known” up to that point. His negotiations with foreign governments were similarly unsuccessful, nearly farcical, and his conduct of the War of 1812-1817, which he began, was an almost total disaster. His commitment to the Non-Intercourse Act that succeeded the embargo resulted in a general disrespect and disregard for the law that would not be equaled until Prohibition. Wills says that Madison “was an amateur in foreign policy and economics.” He was also an amateur in military strategy (as was Jefferson), which did not stop him from ignoring those who better understood the country’s lack of preparedness on the eve of war, the need for regular army forces, or the potential power of the various enemies his navy and troops would face.

Madison’s popularity and moral authority plummeted, even before his administration negotiated a peace treaty that achieved none of the five aims for which he had brought the country to war. His reputation was saved at the end of his second term by a conjunction of events that he did not shapeespecially Jackson’s victory at the Battle of New Orleans.

It is hardly surprising, then, that many have seen the History as the story of the failures of these two administrations. One need not subscribe to either the family feud thesis or the Education effect to read it this way. Wills is certainly right, however, in his essential assertion: As Adams tells the story, both in spite of and in the process of these failures, Jefferson and Madison’s administrations succeeded because they “almost inadvertently” created a sense of national identity. The comedy of errors ends happily because of unintended consequences.

Wills chooses to read Adams forward to the History. If one reads forward from the History to the Education, what Adams learned in writing the History becomes even more apparent. In a wonderful essay on Adams included in his An American Procession (1984), Alfred Kazin makes the connection, stating that Adams’s “subtle purpose” was to show how political leaders were “swept by a force, national destiny, that they could not control. It was not science but force that was, already in Adams’s History, the great motif and interest of his work.” The theme of the History, he wrote “is the submission of principle to power.” In this conflict between force and will, chaos and order, and reality and principle, failure leads to success.

Kazin also perfectly captures the impression that the History cannot help but make on its readers. The most striking literary characteristic of the History, he writes, is “its easiness, its intellectual address, that magisterial command over the materials that is associated with the historian’s natural confidence in himself as a judge of history.” This description applies to Henry Adams and the Making of America as well.


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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 43

Booklist 101, no. 22 (August 1, 2005): 1988.

Foreign Affairs 85, no. 1 (January/February, 2006): 152-154.

Kirkus Reviews 73, no. 14 (July 15, 2005): 784.

Library Journal 130, no. 13 (August 15, 2005): 103.

The New Republic 233, no. 16 (October 17, 2005): 30-35.

The New York Review of Books 52, no. 18 (November 17, 2005): 19-20.

The New York Times Book Review 154 (September 11, 2005): 17.

Publishers Weekly 252, no. 28 (July 18, 2005): 201.

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