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  Adams, Henry Brooks
NameHenry Brooks Adams
Boston, Massachusetts , United States
Born February 16, 1838
DiedMarch 27, 1918 (80 years)
ContributorThomas Walker
Last ModifedThomas Walker
Dec 17, 2007 09:41am
InfoHenry Brooks Adams (February 16, 1838 – March 27, 1918) was an American novelist, journalist, historian and academic. He is best-known for his autobiographical book, The Education of Henry Adams. He was a member of the Adams political family.

He was born in Boston, Massachusetts, the son of Charles Francis Adams, Sr. (1807-1886) and Abigail Brooks (1808-1889). He was born into one of the country's most prominent families; both his grandfather, John Quincy Adams, and his great grandfather, John Adams, had been U.S. Presidents, his grandfather was a millionaire, and his 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.

Adams returned home 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. 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 the Adams family. But Henry himself 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." During this time, Adams was the anonymous Washington Correspondent for Charles Hale's Boston 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 befriended 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 Consideration 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." His years in London led Adams to conclude that he could best provide the USA with that knowledgeable and conscientious leadership by working as a correspondent and journalist.

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 journalistic pieces.

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 Boston, 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, became a gathering place for a lively circle of intellectuals.

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 an historian.

Adams's magnum opus is The History of the United States of America (1801 to 1817) (9 vols., 1889–1891). It is particularly notable for its account of the diplomatic relations of the United States during this period, and for its essential impartiality. Garry Wills's book Henry Adams and the Making of America (2005) examines Adams's History, and proclaims it a neglected masterpiece. The first six chapters of the Adams's "History" are often republished as "The United States in 1800," and constitute an early examination of American cultural history.

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 (1884), whose eponymous heroine was believed to be modeled after his wife.

Adams was a member of an exclusive club, a group of friends called the "Five of Hearts" that consisted of Henry, his wife Clover, 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.

On December 6, 1885, his wife, Clover, committed suicide. Following her death Adams took up a restless life as a globetrotter, traveling extensively, spending summers in Paris and winters in Washington, where he erected an elaborate memorial at her grave site in Rock Creek Cemetery.

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, which curiously omitted the years 1872-'91 and his entire marriage. The work concerned the birth of forces Adams saw as replacing Christianity. For Adams, the Virgin Mary had shaped the old world, as the dynamo represented 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 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.

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. This, essentially, is the use of the arrow of time in history. 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 manuscript The Rule of Phase Applied to History, Adams attempted to use Maxwell's demon as an historical metaphor, though he seems to have misunderstood and misapplied the principle. 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' death in 1918. It was only published posthumously.

Adams had a great deal of antipathy for Jews and Judaism, blaming them for his own feelings of alienation from modern American capitalism. He believed that Jews controlled politics, the financial world, and the newspapers. "With communism I would exist tolerably well... but in a society of Jews and brokers, a world made up of maniacs wild for gold, I have no place."

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

However, Adams' antisemitism is complicated by occasional statements in his letters defending Jews or protesting unfair or harsh treatment against Jews. Moreover, the harshest phase of his critique of Jews was during the last decade of the nineteenth century and the first decade of the twentieth, mostly during the wake of the Panic of 1893. Antisemitism, while present in the whole sweep of Adams' work, was mostly confined to his private letters and never constituted a central place in his published work, although there are several antisemitic comments in "The Education of Henry Adams."

His elder brother, John Quincy Adams (1833-94), a graduate of Harvard in 1853, was a lawyer. He was active in politics as a Democrat, serving several terms in the Massachusetts general court, and receiving the vice-presidential nomination in 1872 by a faction of the Democratic Party faction that refused to support Horace Greeley.

Charles Francis Adams, Jr. (1835– 1915), an 1856 graduate of Harvard, 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 an intellectual of wide interests. His books include The Law of Civilization and Decay (1895), America's Economic Supremacy (1900), and The New Empire (1902).



Title Purchase Contributor
The Education of Henry Adams  Purchase Craverguy 
Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres  Purchase Craverguy 
History of the United States of America  Purchase Craverguy 
Esther  Purchase Craverguy 
Democracy: An American Novel  Purchase Craverguy 

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Father Charles Francis Adams, Sr. 1807-1886
Grandfather John Quincy Adams 1767-1848
Great-Grandfather John Adams 1735-1826
Grand Aunt Abigail "Nabby" Adams Smith 1765-1813
Grand Aunt Susanna Adams 1768-1770
Grand Uncle Charles Adams 1770-1800
Grand Uncle Thomas Boylston Adams 1772-1832
Great-Grandmother Abigail Quincy Smith Adams 1744-1818
Uncle George Washington Adams 1801-1829
Uncle John Adams, II 1803-1834
Aunt Louisa Catherine Adams 1811-1812
Grandmother Louisa Catherine Johnson Adams 1775-1852
Brother John Quincy Adams II 1833-1894
Nephew Charles Francis "Deacon" Adams III 1866-1954
Brother Charles Francis Adams, Jr. 1835-1915
Nephew John Adams 1875-1964