Adam American Education Essay Henry New Novel

Books discussed in this essay:

The Education of Henry Adams: A Centennial Version, by Henry Adams, edited by Edward Chalfant and Conrad Edick Wright

History of the United States During the Administrations of Thomas Jefferson (1801-1809), by Henry Adams, edited by Earl N. Harbert

History of the United States During the Administrations of James Madison (1809-1817), by Henry Adams, edited by Earl N. Harbert


nder the shadow of Boston State House," on "February 16, 1838, a child was born, and christened later by his uncle, the minister of the First Church after the tenets of Boston Unitarianism, as Henry Brooks Adams."

The opening lines of The Education of Henry Adams are a familiar formulation, establishing the place and time of the author's entry into the world and the religion of his upbringing. But the paragraph that follows shocks the reader: "Had he been born in Jerusalem under the shadow of the Temple and circumcised in the Synagogue by his uncle the high priest, under the name of Israel Cohen, he would have scarcely been more distinctly branded, and not much more heavily handicapped in the races of the coming century, in running for such stakes as the century was to offer…."

To be told that one's life is so heavily accidental, so out of one's power from the beginning, is to be cast almost into the later 20th century and the pangs of postmodernism, where everything is seen as contingent and ironic, an insult to the intellect bent on comprehending events in the hope of controlling them. Adams is amused that the privileged post he enjoyed at the start had the effect of handicapping him in the race he in fact had to run. Life, he found, was little more than a crap shoot, for the rules upon which he had been weaned no longer applied. The value of his education receded with the passage of time, as though progress negated knowledge. Adams continued:

although in 1838 their value was not very great compared with what they would have had in 1738, yet the mere accident of starting a twentieth-century career from a nest of associations so colonial—so troglodytic—as the First Church, the Boston State House, Beacon Hill, John Hancock and John Adams, Mount Vernon Street and Quincy, all crowding on ten pounds of unconscious babyhood, was so queer as to offer a subject of curious speculation to the baby long after he had witnessed the solution. What could become of such a child of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, when he should wake up to find himself required to play the game of the twentieth? Had he been consulted, would he have cared to play the game at all, holding such cards as he held, and suspecting that the game was to be one of which neither he nor any one else back to the beginning of time knew the rules or the risks or the stakes?

Knowing how privileged he had been, having been dealt perhaps the best hand possible in an America of merit and talent, still Adams admitted he "never got to the point of playing the game at all; he lost himself in the study of it."

Voyage of Discovery

The opening passages of The Education presage the subjects that would preoccupy Adams for the rest of his life: the intellectual as spectator as well as inquirer; the inadequacy of education and the passing of the neoclassical truths that influenced the founding of the Republic; the sense of life as chance, coincidence, and as indeterminate and unpredictable as the shuffle of the deck; politics as the scheme of those who would control the deck as though fate could be defied by the wheelers and dealers of the world; the omnipresence of power acting upon people without their consent; history as the movement of events without rational causes or moral purposes.

The title The Education of Henry Adams is as ironic and playful as it is bitter. The more Adams learned, the less he understood. What began as a voyage of discovery ended in "The Abyss of Ignorance," the title of one of the book's chapters. Adams passed away in 1918 at age 80, a little over a decade after he wrote the Education.

The previous year President Woodrow Wilson persuaded America to enter the Great War because it would be "a war to end all wars." To Adams, Wilson was doing the opposite of Thomas Jefferson, the president who "proclaimed too openly to the world that the sword was not one of its arguments." Jefferson had dismantled the navy built by Adams's great-grandfather, President John Adams, and adopted a policy of nonentanglement that led to what it had set out to avoid—war with Britain. Progress was the seductress and politics its temptress. In his great History of Jefferson's era, Henry Adams wrote that despite Jefferson's dreams, America "could not much longer delude herself with hopes of evading laws of Nature and instincts of life; and that her new statesmanship which made peace a passion could lead to no better result than had been reached by the barbarous system which made war a duty." Wilson, having "kept us out of war," soon took us to war against war itself.

In its most recent edition, The Education of Henry Adams: A Centennial Version, edited by Edward Chalfant and Conrad Edick Wright and published by the Massachusetts Historical Society, the chapter on "The Abyss of Ignorance" has been retitled "A Kinetic Theory of Knowledge." When asked how this new version of the book would be different, Chalfant replied: "By getting the editors out and Adams back in." The two editors write brief, perfunctory introductions, mainly to make us aware of the disparities between the author's persona of The Education and the historian's actual life. But the editors and publisher busy themselves with tedious details of the book's composition and revisions. They give us numerous pages listing the changes made from manuscript to text, many of them dealing with the slightest deletions and additions, with spellings and the altering of lower case to upper and vice versa. One can only image what Henry Adams would make of all this. The book is subtitled "A Centennial Version," perhaps all right for advertising purposes but not exactly accurate when one considers that only a hundred copies of the text were privately circulated in 1907, and the book itself was not published until Adams's death in 1918. Specialists may be grateful that the editors have diligently corrected the "hundreds of defects that mar every presently available edition." But why, one wonders, is their edition so reader unfriendly? The book's lines and print setting are so spaced out that the text becomes needlessly bulky, so swollen and conspicuous as to seem inappropriate to an author who published one novel anonymously, and another under a pen name. Some scholars in literature and intellectual history esteem The Education as the best work ever written by an American. Fortunately, it remains available in editions of all sizes.

Uncertain Foundations

Many chapters of The Education deal with politics. The author transports us to the nation's capital in the pre-Civil War era, when Democrats and Whigs vied with each other over the pleasures of office, employing the rhetoric of classical republicanism not to restrain private interest for the sake of public virtue but simply to accuse the opposing party of corruption. Here one finds few traces of politics as the uplifting exercise in "civic humanism" and "participatory democracy" touted by many of today's scholars. In fact, Adams found democratic politics to be little more than "the systematic organization of hatreds."

During the Civil War he assisted his father, America's Minister to the Court of St. James, who did all he could to keep Great Britain neutral and to prevent America's old antagonist from recognizing the Confederacy. To Adams the maneuvers of Lord Palmerston and William Gladstone seemed part of a Kafkaesque nightmare in which nothing made sense and he could hardly tell America's enemies from its friends. He returned to America after the war, and provides insightful chapters on the Grant Administration and its corruptions, the scandals associated with the building of the transcontinental railroad and the cornering of the gold market.

At this point in his Education, Adams breaks away, jumping from 1871 to 1892. This 20-year gap in the narrative veils Adams's marriage to the talented photographer Miriam Hooper, nicknamed "Clover" (who made the priceless observation regarding Henry James that he "chews more than he bites off"). Her 1885 suicide is often attributed to the severe depression she suffered after her father's sudden death.

Adams doesn't pick up the thread of politics again until the end of the 19th century, when America enters world history. His close friendship with John Hay, Secretary of State in the McKinley and Roosevelt administrations, provided the opportunity to reflect on American imperialism, the Open Door policy in China, and the Spanish-American war. He esteemed Hay as an enlightened diplomat trying to establish a Pax Americana, with much the same reasoning about power employed by the American founders; and Adams delighted that Theodore Roosevelt reacted decisively while Europe hesitated, intervening to bring the Russo-Japanese war to an end and winning the Nobel Peace Prize.

The Education can be read as an intellectual history of the mid- and late-19th century as recorded by one of its most sensitive minds—a mind that deliberately stood apart from and even against the Pragmatism of Adams's friend William James. The chapter on "Darwinism," for example, might make a good contribution to today's debate between creationists and evolutionists. Adams tried to follow St. Thomas Aquinas's arguments for the rational validity of religion. But the idea that God created the world—because anything that has a beginning must have a cause—seemed unconvincing to a historian who wondered whether historical events have necessary causes. Adams wondered whether there was something impious in Aquinas's project. In his notes in a book on Scholastic philosophy, he asked, "Is not this the doctrine of Spinoza?" Adams also wondered whether Darwin's theory was anything more than an hypothesis, an exercise in imagination rather than verification. In his 1910 "Letter to American Teachers of History," he reminded his brother historians that "Darwin might perhaps have said that he was never a Darwinian." Talking to paleontologists, Adams noted that some species endured without evolving according to the law of natural selection. Pointing to the shark circling in the water since the beginning of time, and to the ugly horseshoe crab as the shell that could never make land, he could only wonder—are these ancestors?

The Reality of Power

In my student years long ago and far away, Adams's chapter on "The Dynamo and the Virgin" taught us to remind students that modern science rests on uncertain foundations. In fact, The Education muses on several scientific issues: the second law of thermodynamics, i.e., the idea of entropy; the geological explorations of his close friend Clarence King; Karl Pearson and the discovery of radium and atomic energy and the nightmare that one day we shall see "explosives never known to mankind" reaching the level of "cosmic violence."

Adams's interests in science and politics both grew from a deeper interest in power as history's most fundamental and inescapable reality. Those who think that Adams lusted after power should ponder his chapter "The Height of Knowledge," in which he warns that "power is poison." Men don't use power; it uses them. In a chapter he devoted to his friend Hay, Adams concludes that statesmanship and friendship don't mix, reminding his readers that Lucius Seneca learned from his friend Nero Claudius "that a friend in power was a friend lost."

For Adams, power was not alien to freedom, for humankind both absorbed power and exercised it. "Man's function as a force of nature was to assimilate other forces as he assimilated food. He called it the love of power." Adams studied power because his ancestors had believed that they could tame it with the "machinery of government." Constitutions, however, deal only with power as a political phenomenon involving the legislature, the executive, and the judiciary. A century later young Adams had to confront new forms of power involving international relations, the rise of big business, and new forms of energy and armaments based on developments in science and technology. Long before Michel Foucault criticized Marxists for assuming that power expresses the rule of wealth, Adams lectured his brother Brooks: "Please give up that profoundly unscientific jabber of the newspapers about MONEY in capital letters. What I see is POWER in capitals also. You may abolish money and all its machinery, the power will still be there."

Adams's preoccupation with power led him to reflect on the status of women. He dealt with the subject in an essay on "The Primitive Rights of Women," in Tahiti: Memoirs of Arii Taimai; in his novels Democracy and Esther, in which his indomitable heroines frustrate men's will; and in Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres, in which the Virgin Mary is a force of nature, an anarchist rebel defying the harsh rule of the Roman Catholic Church and extending mercy and forgiveness to the poor and suffering. Yet Mary was capricious. "She had," Adams notes, "many of the failings and prejudices of her humanity. In spite of her own origin, she disliked Jews, and rarely neglected a chance to maltreat them." In The Education, Adams deals with women in the chapter "Via Inertia." Nature may have confined the woman to "the cradle and the family," but she had a rebellious instinct for power. "The idea that she was weak revolted all history; it was a paleontological falsehood that even an Eocene female monkey would have laughed at." Perhaps Adams recalled his great-grandfather John's reply to his great-grandmother Abigail's "remember the ladies" letter of 1776: "We have only the Name of Masters, and rather than give up this, which would completely subject Us to the Despotism of the Petticoat, I hope General Washington, and all our brave Heroes would fight."

Unintended Consequences

The Education is troubling to many readers, despite, or perhaps because of, its brilliance. Writers on the Left dismiss Adams as a white male elitist of the Brahmin starch collar class, and they can hardly acknowledge that the American historian who died 90 years ago had sharper insights about power than do today's Marxists and poststructuralists. Scholars on the Right may find Adams too alienated from the timeless truths that they feel America needs in our culture of relativism. Some Jewish writers are understandably upset with Adams's outbursts of anti-Semitism during the Dreyfus affair and afterwards. But certain New York Jewish intellectuals—notably Irving Howe, Alfred Kazin, and Lionel Trilling—were willing to overlook Adams's momentary bigotry to ponder the enduring value of his writings, both fictional and historical.

Many readers of The Education claim that Adams was a poseur, always complaining about his "failure" and "ignorance" while living a very full life. They point out his many long stays in Europe meeting some of the leading lights of art and literature; the success of the students he taught at Harvard; seeing Tahiti with painter John LaFarge and discovering the sensual innocence of the natives; and enjoying his newly built mansion in the nation's capital.

Adams's calling himself a "failure" may be puzzling. He was, however, speaking of himself not as a social being or even as a husband but as a man devoted to the life of the mind, a scholar who had set out to answer a question which had, he realized after a dozen years of research, no answer.

The question animated Adams's masterpiece, The History of the United States During the Administrations of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, written in the 20 years omitted from the Education. First published in nine volumes from 1889-1891, it is now available in a two-volume set from the Library of America. Adams conceived and carried out this work at a time when the study of history purported to be a scientific enterprise that could lead to cumulative knowledge and causal understanding based on a rational sequence of events. "One sought only a spool on which to wind the thread of history without breaking it," he wrote in The Education. He neither found the spool nor unwound the thread. He set out to explain the causes of the War of 1812, but the explanation eluded him inasmuch as events seemed to happen without rhyme or reason. Or perhaps that was the explanation.

He was, after all, trying to explain why his great-grandfather, the subject of the popular HBO miniseries, failed as the second president. The answer was that Jefferson won the election of 1800 by attacking Adams for enlarging the power of the national government and, once in office, proceeded to do the same thing. He kept intact much of the Federalist economic program and eagerly purchased the Louisiana territory, which meant that America would not be a simple, small, virtuous republic—Jefferson's dream—but an expansive commercial empire—Hamilton's vision and Jefferson's nightmare. The irony of unintended consequences was one of Henry Adams's profound insights.

Teaching History

The last chapters of Adams's history deal with the tumultuous era of 1812-1815 and its aftermath, addressed by Leo Tolstoy in War and Peace. Both the American historian and the Russian novelist concluded that history, whether based on scholarly research or on artistic intuition, must be seen as an irrational spectacle, moved by forces that shape events and yet remain beyond the reach of science. Today such skepticism seems to have little place in American academic or public life. The radical Left has seldom been troubled by such a tragic vision, for the cunning of reason promised to fulfill Marx's prophecy that history culminates in a higher synthesis. If the Left affirms history's possibilities, some on the Right deny its perplexities. Many American conservatives cannot be bothered with something so metaphysical as the inscrutability of history. They believe fervently in President George W. Bush's simplistic dictum that "history…has a visible direction, set by liberty and the Author of Liberty."

My favorite sections in The Education concern Adams's reflections on teaching history, which he took so seriously that he lamented deeply his incapacity to impart any generalizations worthy of being called lessons, much less laws. "A parent gives life, but as parent, gives no more," reflected Adams. "A murderer takes life, but his deed stops there. A teacher affects eternity; he can never tell where his influence stops." Adams was impressed with the energy and ambition of his students, who survived Harvard's "boring" lecture system to do research on their own.

The boys worked like rabbits, and dug holes all over the field of archaic society; no difficulty stopped them; unknown languages yielded before their attack…they learned, after a fashion, to chase an idea, like a hare, through as dense a thicket of obscure facts….

Were the courses Adams taught useless then? His pupils, it turned out, had more faith in education than he did, and one told him: "The degree of Harvard College is worth money to me in Chicago." This answer settled Adams's doubts, satisfying him that "his teaching did them more good than harm."

For other people named Henry Adams, see Henry Adams (disambiguation).

Henry Adams

1885 photograph of Adams by William Notman

BornHenry Brooks Adams
(1838-02-16)February 16, 1838
Boston, Massachusetts
DiedMarch 27, 1918(1918-03-27) (aged 80)
Washington, D.C.
Pen nameFrances Snow Compton
Occupationjournalist, historian, academic, novelist
Alma materHarvard, University of Berlin
Genrememoir, history
Notable worksThe Education of Henry Adams, The History of the United States of America 1801–1817
SpouseMarian Hooper Adams
RelativesCharles Francis Adams, Sr. (father)
Abigail Brown Brooks (mother)
Military career
AllegianceUnited States

Henry Brooks Adams (February 16, 1838 – March 27, 1918) was an American historian and member of the Adams political family, being descended from two U.S. Presidents.

As a young Harvard graduate, he was secretary to his father, Charles Francis Adams, Abraham Lincoln's ambassador in London, a posting that had much influence on the younger man, both through experience of wartime diplomacy and absorption in English culture, especially the works of John Stuart Mill. After the American Civil War, he became a noted political journalist who entertained America's foremost intellectuals at his homes in Washington and Boston.

In his lifetime, he was best known for his History of the United States During the Administrations of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, a 9-volume work, praised for its literary style.

His posthumously published memoirs, The Education of Henry Adams, won the Pulitzer Prize and went on to be named by the Modern Library as the top English-language nonfiction book of the 20th century.

Early life[edit]

He was born in Boston, the son of Charles Francis Adams, Sr. (1807–1886) and Abigail Brooks (1808–1889) into one of the country's most prominent families.[1] Both his paternal grandfather, John Quincy Adams, and great-grandfather, John Adams, one of the most prominent among the Founding Fathers, had been U.S. Presidents; his maternal grandfather, Peter Chardon Brooks, was a millionaire; and another great-grandfather, Nathaniel Gorham, signed the Constitution.

After his graduation from Harvard University in 1858, he embarked on a grand tour of Europe, during which he also attended lectures in civil law at the University of Berlin. He was initiated into the Phi Kappa Psi Fraternity as honorary member at the 1893 Columbian Exposition by Harris J. Ryan, a judge for the exhibit on electrical engineering. Through that organization, he was a member of the Irving Literary Society.

Civil War years[edit]

Adams returned home from Europe in the midst of the heated presidential election of 1860, which also was the year his father, Charles Francis Adams, Sr., sought re-election to the US House of Representatives.[2] He tried his hand again at law, taking employment with Judge Horace Gray's Boston firm, but this was short-lived. After his successful re-election, Charles Francis asked Henry to be his private secretary, continuing a father-son pattern set by John and John Quincy and suggesting that Charles Francis had chosen Henry as the political scion of that generation of the family. Henry shouldered the responsibility reluctantly and with much self-doubt. "[I] had little to do", he reflected later, "and knew not how to do it rightly."[3] During this time, Adams was the anonymous Washington correspondent for Charles Hale's Boston Daily Advertiser.

On March 19, 1861, Abraham Lincoln appointed Charles Francis Adams, Sr. United States Ambassador to the United Kingdom. Henry accompanied his father to London as his private secretary. He also became the anonymous London correspondent for the New York Times. The two Adamses were kept very busy, monitoring Confederate diplomatic intrigues and trying to obstruct the construction of Confederate commerce raiders by British shipyards (see Alabama Claims). Henry's writings for the Times argued that Americans should be patient with the British. While in Britain, Adams was befriended by many noted men, including Charles Lyell, Francis T. Palgrave, Richard Monckton Milnes, James Milnes Gaskell, and Charles Milnes Gaskell. He worked to introduce the young Henry James to English society, with the help of his closest and lifelong friend Charles Milnes Gaskell and his wife Lady Catherine (nee Wallop).[4]

While in Britain, Henry read and was taken with the works of John Stuart Mill. For Adams, Mill's Considerations on Representative Government showed the necessity of an enlightened, moral, and intelligent elite to provide leadership to a government elected by the masses and subject to demagoguery, ignorance, and corruption. Henry wrote to his brother Charles that Mill demonstrated to him that "democracy is still capable of rewarding a conscientious servant."[5] His years in London led Adams to conclude that he could best provide that knowledgeable and conscientious leadership by working as a correspondent and journalist.

Historian and intellectual[edit]

In 1868, Henry Adams returned to the United States and settled in Washington, DC, where he began working as a journalist. Adams saw himself as a traditionalist longing for the democratic ideal of the 17th and 18th centuries. Accordingly, he was keen on exposing political corruption in his journalism.

Adams said, "I think that Lee should have been hanged. It was all the worse that he was a good man and a fine character and acted conscientiously. It's always the good men who do the most harm in the world."[6]

In 1870, Adams was appointed professor of medieval history at Harvard, a position he held until his early retirement in 1877 at 39. As an academic historian, Adams is considered to have been the first (in 1874–1876) to conduct historical seminar work in the United States. Among his students was Henry Cabot Lodge, who worked closely with Adams as a graduate student.

On June 27, 1872, Clover Hooper and he were married in Beverly, Massachusetts, and spent their honeymoon in Europe, much of it with Charles Milnes Gaskell at Wenlock Abbey in Shropshire, England.[7] Upon their return, he went back to his position at Harvard, and their home at 91 Marlborough Street, Boston,[8] became a gathering place for a lively circle of intellectuals. Adams was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1875.[9] In 1877, his wife and he moved to Washington, DC, where their home on Lafayette Square, across from the White House, again became a dazzling and witty center of social life. He worked as a journalist and continued working as a historian.

Adams's The History of the United States of America (1801 to 1817) (9 vols., 1889–1891) has been called "a neglected masterpiece" by Garry Wills,[10] and "A history yet to be replaced" by C. Vann Woodward. It is a highly detailed history of the Jefferson and Madison administrations, with a focus on diplomacy. Wide praise was given for its literary merit, especially the opening five chapters of volume 1, describing the nation in 1800. These chapters have also been criticized; Noble Cunningham states flatly, "Adams misjudged the state of the nation in 1800." In striving for literary effect, Cunningham argues, Adams ignored the dynamism and sophistication of the new nation.[11]

In the 1880s, Adams wrote two novels, starting with Democracy, which was published anonymously in 1880 and immediately became popular. (Only after Adams's death did his publisher reveal his authorship.) His other novel, published under the nom de plume of Frances Snow Compton, was Esther, whose heroine was believed to be modeled after his wife.

Adams was a member of an exclusive circle, a group of friends called the "Five of Hearts" that consisted of Henry, his wife Clover, geologist and mountaineer Clarence King, John Hay (assistant to Lincoln and later Secretary of State), and Hay's wife Clara. One of Adams's frequent travel companions was the artist John La Farge, with whom he journeyed to Japan and the South Seas. A long-time, intimate correspondent of Adams's was Elizabeth Cameron, wife of Senator J. Donald Cameron.

In 1884, Adams was elected a member of the American Antiquarian Society.[12] In 1894, Adams was elected president of the American Historical Association. His address, entitled "The Tendency of History", was delivered in absentia. The essay predicted the development of a scientific approach to history, but was somewhat ambiguous as to what this achievement might mean.

In 1904, Adams privately published a copy of his "Mont Saint Michel and Chartres", a pastiche of history, travel, and poetry that celebrated the unity of medieval society, especially as represented in the great cathedrals of France. Originally meant as a diversion for his nieces and "nieces-in-wish", it was publicly released in 1913 at the request of Ralph Adams Cram, an important American architect, and published with support of the American Institute of Architects.

He published The Education of Henry Adams in 1907, in a small private edition for selected friends. For Adams, the Virgin Mary was a symbol of the best of the Old World, as the dynamo was a representative of modernity. Only following Adams's death was The Education made available to the general public, in an edition issued by the Massachusetts Historical Society. It ranked first on the Modern Library's 1998 list of 100 Best Nonfiction Books and was named the best book of the 20th century[13] by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, a conservative organization that promotes classical education. It was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1919. Some center-right intellectuals view the book critically. Conservative journalist Fred Siegel considered the worldview expressed therein to be rooted in resentment of America's middle class. "Henry Adams," wrote Siegel, "grounded the intellectual's alienation from American life in the resentment that superior men feel when they are insufficiently appreciated in America's common-man culture."[14]

In 1912, Adams suffered a stroke, perhaps brought on by news of the sinking of the Titanic, for which he had return tickets to Europe. After the stroke, his scholarly output diminished, but he continued to travel, write letters, and host dignitaries and friends at his Washington, DC, home. Henry Adams died at age 80 in Washington, DC. He is interred beside his wife in Rock Creek Cemetery, Washington, DC.[15]

Troubled mental health of his wife, Clover, and her suicide[edit]

On Sunday morning, December 6, 1885, after a late breakfast at their home, 1607 H Street on Lafayette Square, Adams's wife, Marian Hooper Adams, known in her circle as Clover, went to her room. Adams, troubled by a toothache, had planned to see his dentist. While departing his home, he was met by a woman calling to see his wife. Adams went upstairs to her room to ask if she would receive the visitor and found his wife lying on a rug before the fire. An opened vial of potassium cyanide lay nearby. Clover had frequently used this poisonous chemical in the processing of her photographs. Adams carried his wife to a sofa, then ran for a doctor. Shortly thereafter, Dr. Charles E. Hagner pronounced Clover dead.[16]

Much speculation and numerous theories have been given concerning the causes of Clover Adams's suicide. Her death has been attributed to depression over her father's death.[17] Her suicide was also related to a family history of mental depression and suicide, a sense of frustration and lack of fulfillment as a cultured person and as a woman, and a feeling of intellectual inferiority over her husband's interest in and attention to another woman. The possibility of determining the validity of any or all of these causes was made more difficult by Henry Adams's destruction of most of Clover's letters and photos following her death.[18] In addition, a profound silence about his wife after her suicide and the conspicuous absence of any reference to her in his autobiography, The Education of Henry Adams, further contributed to an atmosphere of suspicion and mystery.

Henry, his brother, Charles Francis Adams, Clover's brother Edward, and her sister Ellen, with her husband Ephraim Gurney, were the attendees at a brief funeral service held on December 9, 1885, at the house on Lafayette Square. Interment services followed at Rock Creek Cemetery, but the actual burial was postponed until December 11, 1885, because of the inclement weather.[19] A few weeks later, Adams ordered a modest headstone as a temporary marker.[20]

Recovery from wife's death and long relationship with Elizabeth Sherman Cameron[edit]

On Christmas Day, Adams sent Elizabeth Sherman Cameron, a longtime friend and confidant, one of Clover's favorite pieces of jewelry requesting that she "sometimes wear it, to remind you of her." Just before the end of the year, Adams moved into his newly completed mansion next door at 1603 H Street (Figure 1, B) designed by his old friend, Henry Hobson Richardson, one of the most prominent architects of his day.[21]

Following his wife's death, Adams took up a restless life as a globetrotter, traveling extensively, spending summers in Paris and winters in Washington, where he commissioned the Adams Memorial, designed by sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens and architect Stanford White for her grave site in Rock Creek Cemetery.

Henry Adams first met Elizabeth Cameron in January 1881 at a reception in the drawing room of the house of John and Clara Hay.[22] Elizabeth was considered to be one of the most beautiful and intelligent women in the Washington area. Elizabeth had grown up as Lizzie Sherman, the daughter of Judge Charles Sherman of Ohio, the niece of Secretary of the Treasury John Sherman in Hayes's cabinet and the niece of General William Tecumseh Sherman. Her family had pressured Lizzie into a loveless marriage, but brokered a prenuptial agreement with Senator J. Donald Cameron which provided her with the income from $160,000 worth of securities, a very large amount in 1878, equivalent to about $3,970,000 worth in 2017.[23] The arranged marriage on May 9, 1878, united the reluctant 20-year-old beauty with a 44-year-old widower with six children. Eliza, his eldest, who had served as her father's hostess, was now displaced by a stepmother the same age. The children never accepted her. The marriage was further strained by the Senator's coarseness and indifference and his fondness for bourbon.

Henry Adams initiated a correspondence with Lizzie on May 19, 1883, when her husband and she departed for Europe. That letter reflected his unhappiness with her departure and his longing for her return.[24] It was the first of hundreds to follow for the next 35 years. They would record a passionate yet unconsummated relationship. On December 7, 1884, one year before Clover's suicide, Henry Adams wrote to Lizzie, "I shall dedicate my next poem to you. I shall have you carved over the arch of my stone doorway. I shall publish your volume of extracts with your portrait on the title page. None of these methods can fully express the extent to which I am yours."[25]

Adams's wife, Clover, who had written a weekly letter to her father throughout her marriage except for the brief hiatus during her breakdown along the Nile, never mentioned concerns or suspicions about Henry's relationship with Lizzie. Nothing in the letters of her family or circle of friends indicates her distrust or unhappiness with her husband in this matter. Indeed, after her death, Henry found a letter from Clover to her sister Ellen which had not been posted. The survival of this letter was assured by its contents which read, "If I had one single point of character or goodness, I would stand on that and grow back to life. Henry is more patient and loving than words can express—God might envy him— he bears and hopes and despairs hour after hour—Henry is beyond all words tenderer and better than all of you even."[26]

Second law of thermodynamics[edit]

Main article: Entropy and life

In 1910, Adams printed and distributed to university libraries and history professors the small volume A Letter to American Teachers of History proposing a "theory of history" based on the second law of thermodynamics and the principle of entropy.[27][28] This, essentially, states that all energy dissipates, order becomes disorder, and the earth will eventually become uninhabitable. In short, he applied the physics of dynamical systems of Rudolf Clausius, Hermann von Helmholtz, and William Thomson to the modeling of human history.

In his 1909 manuscript The Rule of Phase Applied to History, Adams attempted to use Maxwell's demon as a historical metaphor, though he seems to have misunderstood and misapplied the principle.[29] Adams interpreted history as a process moving towards "equilibrium", but he saw militaristic nations (he felt Germany pre-eminent in this class) as tending to reverse this process, a "Maxwell's Demon of history."

Adams made many attempts to respond to the criticism of his formulation from his scientific colleagues, but the work remained incomplete at Adams's death in 1918. It was published posthumously.[30]


Adams's attitude towards Jews has been described as one of loathing. John Hay, remarking on Adams's antisemitism, said that when Adams "saw Vesuvius reddening... [he] searched for a Jew stoking the fire."[31]

Adams, like many contemporary antisemites, believed the Jews conspired to control the world. His letters were "peppered with a variety of antisemitic remarks", according to historian Robert Michael. Adams wrote: "I detest [the Jews], and everything connected with them, and I live only and solely with the hope of seeing their demise, with all their accursed Judaism. I want to see all the lenders at interest taken out and executed."[32] Historian Edward Saveth quotes Adams as follows:

"We are in the hands of the Jews", Adams lamented. "They can do what they please with our values." He advised against investment except in the form of gold locked in a safe deposit box. "There you have no risk but the burglar. In any other form you have the burglar, the Jew, the Czar, the socialist, and, above all, the total irremediable, radical rottenness of our whole social, industrial, financial and political system."[33]


John Quincy Adams (1833–1894) was a graduate of Harvard (1853), practiced law, and was a Democratic member for several terms of the Massachusetts general court. In 1872, he was nominated for vice president by the Democratic faction that refused to support the nomination of Horace Greeley.

Charles Francis Adams, Jr. (1835–1915) fought with the Union in the Civil War, receiving in 1865 the brevet of brigadier general in the regular army. He became an authority on railway management as the author of Railroads, Their Origin and Problems (1878), and as president of the Union Pacific Railroad from 1884 to 1890.

Brooks Adams (1848–1927) practiced law and became a writer. His books include The Law of Civilization and Decay (1895), America's Economic Supremacy (1900), and The New Empire (1902).

Family tree[edit]

Adams family tree









John Adams


Abigail Adams (née Smith)
















































William Stephens Smith


Abigail Amelia Adams Smith


John Quincy Adams


Louisa Catherine Adams (née Johnson)


Charles Adams


Thomas Boylston Adams


































George Washington Adams


John Adams II


Charles Francis Adams Sr.


Abigail Brown Adams (née Brooks)
















































Frances Cadwalader Crowninshield


John Quincy Adams II


Charles Francis Adams Jr.


Henry Brooks Adams


Marian Hooper Adams


Peter Chardon Brooks Adams










































George Casper Adams


Charles Francis Adams III


Frances Adams (née Lovering)





John Adams




































Charles Francis Adams IV


Catherine Lovering Adams Morgan


Henry Sturgis Morgan


Thomas Boylston Adams



Writings by Adams[edit]

  • 1876. Essays in Anglo-Saxon Law (with Henry Cabot Lodge, Ernest Young and J.L. Laughlin).
  • 1879. Life of Albert Gallatin.
  • 1879. The Writings of Albert Gallatin (as editor, three volumes).
  • 1880. Democracy: An American Novel.
  • 1882. John Randolph.
  • 1884. Esther: A Novel (facsimile ed., 1938, Scholars' Facsimiles & Reprints, ISBN 978-0-8201-1187-2).
  • 1889–1891. History of the United States During the Administrations of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison (8 volumes).
  • 1891. Historical Essays.
  • 1893. Tahiti: Memoirs of Arii Taimai e Marama of Eimee... Last Queen of Tahiti (facsimile of the 1901 Paris ed., 1947 Scholars' Facsimiles & Reprints, ISBN 978-0-8201-1213-8).
  • 1904. Mont Saint Michel and Chartres.
  • 1911. The Life of George Cabot Lodge (facsimile ed. 1978, Scholars' Facsimiles & Reprints, ISBN 978-0-8201-1316-6).
  • 1918. The Education of Henry Adams.
  • 1919. The Degradation of the Democratic Dogma.
  • 1930–38. Letters (Edited by W.C. Ford, two volumes).
  • 1982. The Letters of Henry Adams, Volumes 1–3: 1858–1892 (Edited by J.C. Levenson, Ernest Samuels and Charles Vandersee).
  • 1988. The Letters of Henry Adams, Volumes 4–6: 1892–1918 (Edited by J.C. Levenson, Ernest Samuels and Charles Vandersee).


See also[edit]


  1. ^Chambers Biographical Dictionary, ISBN 0-550-18022-2, p. 6
  2. ^Henry Adams, The Education of Henry Adams (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1961), chapters 7–15, and Contosta, ch. 2.
  3. ^The Education of Henry Adams, p. 101.
  4. ^Gamble, Cynthia 2008, John Ruskin, Henry James and the Shropshire Lads, London: New European Publications
  5. ^Henry Adams quoted in Contosta, David R. (1980). Henry Adams and the American Experiment. Boston: Little, Brown & Co., p. 33.
  6. ^Quoted in Ken Burns's PBS production of the American Civil War.
  7. ^Gamble, Cynthia, 2015 – Wenlock Abbey 1857–1919: A Shropshire Country House and the Milnes Gaskell Family, Ellingham Press.
  8. ^Cox, Mary Lee (1999). "A Walking Tour in Boston's Back Bay – #5". Retrieved 2007-11-07. 
  9. ^"Book of Members, 1780–2010: Chapter A"(PDF). American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Retrieved 1 April 2011. 
  10. ^Garry Wills (2005), and Henry Adams and the Making of America. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company.
  11. ^Cunningham, Noble E. (1988). The United States in 1800: Henry Adams Revisited. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, p. 63.
  12. ^American Antiquarian Society Members Directory
  13. ^best book of the twentieth century
  14. ^Siegel, Fred (2013). The Revolt Against the Masses. New York: Encounter Books, p. 3.
  15. ^Wilson, Scott. Resting Places: The Burial Sites of More Than 14,000 Famous Persons, 3d ed.: 2 (Kindle Locations 415-416). McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers. Kindle Edition.
  16. ^Gurney, Ellen to Cabot, Mrs. James Eliott, January 1, 1886; Kaladin, Eugenia (1981). The Education of Mrs. Henry Adams. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, as quoted in Washington Critic, December 7–9, 1885, pp. 222–223.
  17. ^Maureen Dowd, "Washington Journal", The New York Times, July 29, 1990.
  18. ^Kirstein, Lincoln (1989). Memorial to a Marriage. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, p. 39.
  19. ^Mills, C.J. (1996). The Adams Memorial and American Funerary Sculpture, 1891–1927. University of Maryland: Doctoral Dissertation, p. 26.
  20. ^Mills (1996), p. 27.
  21. ^Samuels, Ernest, "Henry Adams. 3 volumes" Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1947–64, p. 237.
  22. ^Tehan, Arline Boucher (1983). Henry Adams in Love. New York: Universe Books, p. 53.
  23. ^Tehan (1983), p. 51.
  24. ^Tehan (1983), pp. 68–69.
  25. ^Kaladin (1981), p. 153.
  26. ^Kaladin (1981), p. 224.
  27. ^Adams, Henry. (1986). History of the United States of America During the Administration of Thomas Jefferson. Library of America, p. 1299.
  28. ^Adams, Henry (1910). A Letter to American Teachers of History. Henry Adams (1910). A Letter to American Teachers of History. Press of J.H. Furst Co. , Scanned PDF. Washington.
  29. ^Cater (1947), pp. 640–647; see also Daub, E.E. (1967). "Atomism and Thermodynamics". Isis. 58: 293–303. doi:10.1086/350264.  reprinted in Leff, H.S. & Rex, A.F., eds. (1990). Maxwell's Demon: Entropy, Information, Computing. Bristol: Adam-Hilger. pp. 37–51. ISBN 0-7503-0057-4. 
  30. ^Adams (1919), p. 267.
  31. ^Mayo, Louise (1988). The Ambivalent Image. London: Associated University Presses, p. 58.
  32. ^Michael, Robert (2005). A Concise History of American Antisemitism. Rowman & Littlefield, p. 116.
  33. ^Saveth, Edward N. (1948). "Henry Adams Norman Ancestors." In: American Historians and European Immigrants 1875–1925. New York: Columbia University Press, p. 74.

Further reading

Harvard graduation photo: 1858
Portrait of Elizabeth Sherman Cameron (1900) by Anders Zorn

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