The Alienation of Henry Adams

by Davis S. Brown 
464 pp., $30.00
Henry Adams (1838-1918) was born in the waning years of the early Republic. As he entered into adulthood after the Civil War, the country he saw emerging did not please him. The new society was more democratic, less patient with civility and class distinction, and more enthusiastic about financial power. Politics was shaped by what he later called the “dynamo” of economic and social change, which made politics for him a lesser art than it had been for his father, his grandfather and great-grandfather—the latter two serving as the nation’s second and sixth presidents.
It is our good fortune today that Adams chose not to enter the political realm, but remained an observer—one of the most acute observers of the American scene in the annals of our national literature. In this well-written and enthralling biography, David S. Brown, who teaches history at Elizabethtown College in Pennsylvania, makes the case for Henry as the most interesting of the Adamses, despite his lack of the political cursus honorum that distinguished his ancestors. Adams’ importance appears once we see him as what Brown calls a “transition figure.”
At Adams’ birth, there were not a few Americans who had spent large portions of their lives as British subjects. By the time of his death, these people were all gone, and Ford was mass producing hundreds of thousands of cars in massive factories. During his last stay in Paris in 1913-14, as a fully mechanized war was looming, he was chauffeured around the city in a luxury car: “Henry enjoyed the pleasing dichotomy of blending … a medieval patina with modern conveniences.” Although he despised the “growing prestige of the machine,” he enjoyed its fruits.
Indeed, he wrote in a letter to Charles Gaskell that being a professor or officer of state was nothing compared to being “a slave to the automobile,” even if the culture that built the automobile and the stock exchange could not build Chartres Cathedral. Only a few decades after his death, Americans had, en masse, become willing slaves to the automobile. This in turn gave birth to the suburbs, illustrating Adams’ conviction that mechanized forces were increasingly driving history.
In his famous autobiography, The Education of Henry Adams (1918), he argued that modern politics is: 
[A]t bottom, a struggle not of men but of forces. Men become every year more and more creatures of force, massed about central power-houses. The conflict is no longer between the men, but between the motors that drive the men, and the men tend to succumb to their own motive forces.
Visiting the “great hall of dynamos” at the Great Exposition of 1900 in Paris, guided by his scientist friend, Samuel Langley, Adams saw the dynamo as a “symbol of infinity,” and of irresistible power. In the end, he wrote, “one began to pray to it; inherited instinct taught the natural expression of man before silent and infinite force.” Adams spoke sardonically, of course, but not without philosophical intent.
Adams’ alienation from the changes sweeping North America and Europe was evident from early on. After his Harvard graduation in 1858 he embarked upon a year-long tour of the South Pacific. There he visited not only Australia but places like Fiji and Samoa, accompanied by the artist John La Farge. In so doing he eschewed the traditional European Grand Tour, which had been an aristocratic affair undertaken by young men of prominent families. With the advent of the automobile, the older elite were joined, no doubt to their dismay, by an influx of newly moneyed bourgeoisie. Adams’ sojourn in the more primitive South Pacific may have been in part an expression of his distaste for such trends.
above: detail of a portrait of Henry Adams, American historian, circa 1885 (photo by William Notman, Harvard University Archives)
In calling Adams the “last” aristocrat,  Brown presumably means he was among the last of those who represented the spirit of the privileged class of Boston Brahmins in their prime. Henry had no children, but Adamses continued to play prominent roles in American life well into the 20th century, as did other Brahmin families. Yet some have argued that absent the Depression, World War II, and the Cold War, the WASP elite would have departed the scene much earlier, given their shrinking role and numbers. In view of those national challenges, Americans trusted in the comfort of familiar names, accents, and networks to lead them.
As Brown makes clear, part of the pathos of Henry’s life was that, although he took great pride in the Adams legacy of political and diplomatic accomplishments, he himself lacked the temperament for such pursuits. He was drawn to the arts and to the life of the mind, not unlike the young George Cabot “Bay” Lodge, whose early death in 1909 provoked a strong reaction from Henry, who was Lodge’s biographer. According to Brown, Adams felt that his friend Bay was “the best and finest of my time and hopes.” His death seemed to epitomize the disappearance of an older and finer world.
Bay had been a frustrated poet and a half-hearted business man with little interest in playing his expected role in the Lodge legacy, not unlike Adams himself. They both sampled various religious traditions, and Bay had developed his philosophical perspective under the tutelage of George Santayana at Harvard. Unlike Henry, Bay had a son, Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr., who became prominent in Massachusetts and national politics for decades and served through the Kennedy administration in various roles, shedding Christianity and the nationalism of his grandfather, Henry Cabot Lodge Sr., for a crusading global Americanism.
Henry saw the decline  of the Adamses and other elite families against a backdrop of corruption, beginning especially during the Grant presidency. As Brown notes, once Adams decided his favored role would be as critic rather than statesman, attacks on the moneyed powers began to pour from his pen in the form of essays published in The Nation, including “The Legal Tender Act” and “The New York Gold Conspiracy.” Both of these critiqued the emerging financial capitalism Adams deplored. Brown notes that Adams’ concern was not only about the corruption of magnates like Jay Gould, but also about how “the nation at- large [had] quite promiscuously flung itself into the Stock Exchange. Anyone with a little cash … began to push dollars into the swollen market,” which soon collapsed in the Panic of 1873.
Another memorable work written during the same period was Adams’ novel Democracy (1880), a deliciously satirical expose of Washington political society and corruption in the Grant era. One of the novel’s central characters, Sen. Silas P. Ratcliffe, is a power broker whose ability to manipulate others to achieve his aims is so marvelous that his many admirers call him a great statesman, though in reality, “the beauty of his work consisted in the skill with which he evaded questions of principle.”
Men like Ratcliffe knew that their success depended upon “letting principle alone. Their principle must be the want of principles.” For Adams, Ratcliffe and his ilk were exemplars of the rising democracy of the Gilded Age, a democracy in bed with powerful corporate interests.
In addition to being a literary artist, essayist, and autobiographer, Adams was a distinguished historian. He published in 1889 the first of his nine volume The History of the United States of America, 1801-1817. This monumental work is still considered an indispensable historical text and is often praised for its literary qualities. Some years ago, critic Alfred Kazin noted that Adams “stands out as the last and the best” of those who wrote history as “a branch of literature”—despite the fact that Adams saw himself as a “scientific” historian.
Perhaps even more important was his Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres (1913), which is both a work of history and a meditation—both spiritual and aesthetic—upon the high Middle Ages, the period in which he specialized while a professor at Harvard in the 1870s. At the heart of this fascinating work is the figure of the Virgin Mary, whose status as an object of “worship” in the great cathedrals of the era brings the spiritual aspirations of the Catholic Church to their highest expression.
At one point Adams writes: “The Virgin of the thirteenth century is “no longer an Empress; she is Queen Mother, too high to suffer, or want, or to revenge, or to aspire; but not too high to pity, punish or pardon.” Catholics today might question the orthodoxy of his account; nonetheless, it demonstrates that while Adams was in some ways a man of his time, he was also a man capable of transcending his inbred limitations.
Adams lived for more than half of the “long nineteenth century,” typically defined as the period of profound change between 1789 and 1918. As a young man, he worked in London as personal secretary to his father, Charles Francis Adams, who served as ambassador to England during the administration of Abraham Lincoln. As an old man, he was visited by Eleanor and Franklin Delano Roosevelt. The troops he saw assembled in Paris in 1914 reminded him of the Union troops he had seen assembling in 1860 for that earlier conflict.
In the year he died, he witnessed the final dissolution of the old European culture, even as he had seen, in the decades prior to the Great War, the dissolution—by way of demography and democracy—of the old American culture he so valued.

Gerald Russello

Gerald J. Russello is editor of The University Bookman (www.kirkcenter.org).

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Excellent review. Now I find myself wanting to know more about Henry Adams and his writings.


This is a fantastic review of a book I will most certainly be reading. Adams outlook evokes a poignance about the course of American history that is rarely mentioned today.


I just finished this bio and highly recommend it. I am a Bostonian and this book reminds me and anyone interested in how our cities, let alone smaller towns, had distinctive cultures pre 1900, for better or worse, but necessary for the shaping of our truly great men(and yes women, eg, Abigail Adams). Henry Adams as Brown depicts him(with a bit of PC disapproval, though not obnoxiously) was a "racist" by today's broad terms, believed that "Anglo Saxon" culture existed and was worthier than other European cultures(Adama hardly gave "African" culture a thought, nor did anyone else in American 19 cent leadership, including Lincoln and the Republican stooges who followed him thru TR). Adams was a "loner", not unlike his illustrious forebears, and never fit in. LIke John and JQ Adams, his real "family" were the classical authors and heroes of the Roman and Greek worlds. One learns from this book and from the equally useful bio of JQ Adams by Fred Kaplan that for these men, Latin was a very "live" language and Rome was a living culture. Yet as the Adams' witnessed decay in America, driven in part by their neighbors in Boston and Concord earnestly repenting the sins alleged of the Puritans, we experience decay far beyond what the Adams' could imagine. Henry Adams would have been squashed at contemporary Harvard(or equally elite univ) if he had been admitted at all to Harvard today.