Article abstract: Adams was a first-rate historian who wrote several biographies and the monumental nine-volume History of the United States of America (1889-1891), covering the administrations of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. His two most famous works are interconnected and autobiographical: Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres (1904) and The Education of Henry Adams (1907).
Henry Brooks Adams was born February 16, 1838, the fourth of five children of Charles Francis Adams and Abigail Brown Brooks. His father was a cold and distant figure, and it was to his mother that he looked for affection. It is not surprising that Henry would always feel out of place. His elite Brahmin heritage both paved the way for his future and controlled it. A kinsman, Samuel Adams, had become involved in the American Revolution as a manipulator of mobs. His great-grandfather John Adams helped draft the Declaration of Independence, was the first vice president, and the second president. Henry’s grandfather John Quincy Adams served as secretary of state and then as president. Henry’s father served as ambassador to England during the crucial diplomatic period of the Civil War and was later elected to Congress.
In addition to his distinguished heritage, Henry’s immediate family was one of the wealthiest in Boston, based on the mercantile fortune of his mother, Abigail Brooks. Adams’ full name appears to sum up his life—“Henry” betokening the scholar rather than the man of action; “Brooks” the moneyed inheritance that was his by birth; and “Adams” the line of blue-blooded forefathers who had taken such an active part in the creation of the United States. Henry’s dilemma was to live a successful life in the shadow of such eminence.
Adams attended Harvard from 1854 through 1858. In The Education of Henry Adams, he later stated that he had learned nothing while there. Upon graduation, in typical patrician fashion, he set out on a tour of Europe. He studied law and learned to speak German while at the University of Berlin, from 1858 to 1860. While in Europe, he also began his efforts in journalism, which he would continue throughout his life.
In 1861, as the Civil War broke out in the United States, President Abraham Lincoln appointed Adams’ father minister to England, a critical position, since the South was attempting to gain recognition from England. At age twenty-three, Adams accompanied his father and acted as his private secretary. While there, Adams continued his journalism, working anonymously for The New York Times, and he also began his historical work by writing articles for the North American Review.
In 1868, Adams returned to Washington. He and his brothers decided that politics had done nothing but bring sorrow to the family. Adams’ worldview might be broken into two segments: his philosophical speculations about the world, especially the United States, and what he was going to do with the remainder of his life. As it turned out, Adams spent the remainder of his life looking for answers to both questions through an interaction of the two. In a way, Adams became an intellectual dilettante, one of the best America has ever produced.
Adams did not spend his whole life behind a desk. He enjoyed parties, people, and friendships immensely, and his family fame brought him into contact with the celebrities of the time. Although short in stature, he was handsome, and he became known as one of the three best dancers in Washington.
From 1868 until 1870, Adams was a free-lance journalist, serving as a correspondent for The Nation and other leading journals as he plunged into both the social and the political worlds of Washington. His primary interest was the reconstruction of a war-shattered nation. He fought for civil service reform and the retention of the gold standard. He wrote articles exposing political corruption and warning against economic monopolies, especially within the railroads.
In 1870, Charles W. Eliot, the famous Harvard president, asked Adams to become assistant professor of medieval history. Out of tune with the world for which he was destined, Adams accepted. Despite having one of the best minds in the country, Adams was ill-trained to be a teacher. He threw himself furiously into his new task, often staying only one lecture ahead of his class. Without planning it, Adams was preparing the groundwork for what would become one of his masterpieces, Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres. Adams also became the first American to employ the seminar method in his classes.
Adams’ work at Harvard became his first step toward studying the American past. In 1877, he resigned from Harvard to complete two biographies, The Life of Albert Gallatin (1879) and John Randolph (1882). This research increased his interest in the early American period, and hoping to understand the nature of an evolving American democracy, he began what was to become his nine-volume History of the United States of America.
In 1872, Adams married Marian “Clover” Hooper, a woman with impeccable family connections, great intelligence, and a solid income. The two took a yearlong wedding trip which included a tour of Europe and boating up the Nile. Henry and Clover made a complementary couple, and Adams would later speak of their years together as years of happiness. Their union produced no children.
Adams published two novels anonymously, Democracy: An American Novel (1880) and Esther: A Novel (1884). Neither...
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