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Henry Brooks Adams

For other people named Henry Adams, see Henry Adams (disambiguation).
Henry Brooks Adams
Harvard Graduation Photo: 1858
Born (1838-02-16)16 February 1838
Boston, Massachusetts
Died 27 March 1918(1918-03-27) (aged 80)
Pen name Frances Snow Compton
Occupation journalist, historian, academic, novelist
Language English
Nationality American
Citizenship American
Alma mater Harvard, University of Berlin
Genres memoir, history
Notable work(s) The Education of Henry Adams, The History of the United States of America 1801-1817
Spouse(s) Marian Hooper Adams
Relative(s) Charles Francis Adams, Sr., father; John Quincy Adams, grandfather; John Adams, great-grandfather; Abigail Adams, great-grandmother; John Quincy Adams II, Brooks Adams, Charles Francis Adams Jr., brothers; Nathaniel Gorham, great-grandfather; Peter Charding Brooks, grandfather

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, 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 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 Administration of Thomas Jefferson, a 9-volume work, praised for its literary style, but sometimes criticised for inaccuracy.

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 twentieth century.

Early life

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

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 reelection 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 reelection, 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 Minister (ambassador) to the United Kingdom. Henry Adams accompanied him to London as his private secretary. Henry 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 New York 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.

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."[4] 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

In 1868, Henry Adams returned to the United States and settled down in Washington, D.C., where he started 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."[5]

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. Included among his students were Henry Cabot Lodge, who worked closely with Adams as a graduate student.

On June 27, 1872, he and Clover Hooper were married in Beverly, Massachusetts, and spent their honeymoon in Europe. Upon their return, he went back to his position at Harvard and their home at 91 Marlborough Street, Boston,[6] 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.[7] In 1877, he and his wife moved to Washington, D.C., 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., 1891–1896) has been called "a neglected masterpiece" by Garry Wills.[8] It is a highly detailed history of the Jefferson and Madison administrations, with a focus on diplomacy. There is wide praise for its literary merit, especially the opening five chapters of volume 1, describing the nation in 1800. Those chapters have also been criticized; Cunningham says 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.[9]

In the 1880s, Adams also wrote two novels. He is credited as the author of Democracy, which was published anonymously in 1880 and immediately became popular. (Only after Adams's death did his publisher reveal Adams's 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 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. It was only following Adams's death that The Education was 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 twentieth century[10] by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, a conservative organization that promotes classical education. It was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1919.

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, D.C., home. Henry Adams died at age 80 in Washington, D.C. He is interred beside his wife in Rock Creek Cemetery, Washington.

Troubled mental health of wife, Clover and her suicide

On Sunday morning, December 6, 1885, after a late breakfast at their home, 1607 H Street on Lafayette Square, Adams' 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.[11]

There has been much speculation and numerous theories concerning the causes of Clover Adams’s suicide. Her death has been attributed to depression over her father's death.[12] Her suicide was also related to a family history of mental depression and suicide, a sense of frustration and unfulfillment as a cultured person and as a woman, a feeling of intellectual inferiority over her husband’s interest and attention to another woman. The validity of any or all of these causes was sharpened by Henry Adams’ destruction of most of Clover’s letters and photos made by her, following her death.[13] 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.[14] A few weeks later Adams ordered a modest head stone as a temporary marker.[15]

Adams' recovery from wife's death and long relationship with Elizabeth Sherman Cameron

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.[16]

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.[17] 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’ 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 Donald Cameron which provided her with the income from $160,000 worth of securities, a very large amount in 1878.[18] 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 she and her husband departed for Europe. That letter reflected his unhappiness with her departure and his longing for her return.[19] 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.”[20]

Adams' 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. There is nothing in the letters of her family or circle of friends to indicate 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.”[21]

Second law of thermodynamics

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.[22][23] 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.[24] 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.[25]


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." [26]

Adams, like many a contemporary antisemite, 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." [27] Historians 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." [28]


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 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).

Writings by Adams

  • 1876 (in collaboration with Henry Cabot Lodge, Ernest Young and J. L. Laughlin). Essays in Anglo-Saxon Law.
  • 1879 Life of Albert Gallatin
  • 1879 (ed.). The Writings of Albert Gallatin (3 volumes)
  • 1880 Democracy (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
  • 1891 Historical Essays
  • 1893 Tahiti: Memoirs of Arii Taimai e Marama of Eimee ... Last Queen of Tahiti (facsimile of 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
  • 1930-38 Letters. Edited by W. C. Ford. 2 vols.

Published as

See also


Further reading

  • Adams, James Truslow, 1933 (reprinted 1970). Henry Adams.
  • Adams, Marian Hooper, 1936. The Letters of Mrs. Henry Adams, 1865–1883. Edited by W. Thoron.
  • Richard Brookhiser, 2002 America's First Dynasty: The Adamses, 1735–1918.
  • Cater, H. D., ed., 1947. Henry Adams and His Friends: A Collection of His Unpublished Letters.
  • Chalfant, E., 1982 " Both Sides of the Ocean: A biography of Henry Adams, His First Life, 1838-1862" Archon Books. ISBN 0208019014
  • Chalfant, E., 1994. " Better in Darkness: A Biography of Henry Adams, His Second Life, 1862-1891" Archon Books. ISBN 0208020411
  • Chalfant, E., 2001. " Improvement of the World: A Biography of Henry Adams, His Third life, 1891-1918" Archon Books. ISBN 0208022325.
  • Contosta, David R., 1980. Henry Adams and the American Experiment. Boston: Little, Brown & Co. ISBN 0-316-15400-8
  • Dusinberre, W., 1980. Henry Adams: The Myth of Failure.
  • OCLC 427157
  • O'Toole, P., 1990. The Five of Hearts: An Intimate Portrait of Henry Adams and His Friends, 1880-1918.
  • Samuels, E., 1948. The Young Henry Adams.
  • Samuels, E., 1958. Henry Adams: The Middle Years.
  • Samuels, E., 1964. Henry Adams: The Major Phase.
  • Simpson, Brooks D., 1996. The Political Education of Henry Adams. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press.
  • Garry Wills, 2005. Henry Adams and the Making of America. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 2005. ISBN 0-618-13430-1
  • Zencey, Eric, 1995. Panama: ISBN 978-0-425-15602-5

External links

  • at the University of Virginia American Studies Hypertext project.
  • at the University of Virginia American Studies Hypertext project.
  • at the University of Virginia American Studies Hypertext project.
  • The Letters of Henry Adams
  • WorldCat catalog)
  • Project Gutenberg
  • Democracy, an American novel by Henry Adams at Project Gutenberg
  • Esther by Henry Adams at Project Gutenberg
  • Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres by Henry Adams at Project Gutenberg
  • The Education of Henry Adams by Henry Adams at Project Gutenberg
  • LibriVox
  • Henry Adams, Globe Trotter in Space and Time
  • Encyclopædia Britannica: Henry Adams
  • Index entry for Henry Brooks Adams at Poets' Corner
  • Find a Grave
  • , an unpublished work by Lorrie Tussman exploring the theme of unity in Western civilization based on the writings of Henry Adams
  • C-SPAN's American Writers: A Journey Through History

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