Henry Adams says at the beginning of his autobiography, The Education of Henry Adams, that he was “distinctly branded” by the legacy of his famous family. Adams felt an obligation to maintain a family tradition of public service established by two presidents (his great-grandfather, John Adams, and his grandfather, John Quincy Adams). American politics was in his blood. When his father, Charles Francis Adams, a congressman, was appointed minister to England in 1861, Adams became his private secretary in London, where he learned the complexity and intrigues of international politics. When Adams returned to the United States in 1868, he became a newspaper correspondent and wrote articles exposing political and social corruption for major newspapers and magazines. In the tradition of his family, Adams was a reformer. For example, he worked for civil service reform and a reformed Republican Party. When he and the other reformers failed, he expressed his disappointment with American politics in a novel, Democracy. Adams became disillusioned with politics and never ran for an elected office, but he lived across the street from the White House, where he built his home and associated with political, social, and intellectual leaders until his death.
In addition to an intimidating political heritage, Adams acquired a love of knowledge from his family, who were published scholars in many areas of the humanities. He felt driven to understand the complexity of life at its core. This lifelong ambition, which he called his education, is traced in The Education of Henry Adams. His formal career as a scholar began in 1870, when he was appointed assistant professor of medieval history at Harvard. In 1877, he resigned to devote more time to his study of American history, in particular the administrations of Jefferson and Madison, resulting in his nine-volume History of the United States of America.
Gaining acclaim as an American historian was not enough to satisfy Adams’ search for understanding. After 1893, Adams studied modern science for more conclusive knowledge. The electric generator, also called the dynamo, became a symbol for him of modern American society, powerful yet indifferent to human beings and human values. Adams realized that his family’s values were especially threatened by a modern technological society. He found reassurance in the Virgin Mary of the Middle Ages as a symbol of protection, pardon, and love, as illustrated in his Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres.