Henry Adams and the Making of America
by Garry Wills
A review by Andrew Delbanco
Some people are hard to imagine as ever having been young. When Henry Adams referred to himself in old age as an "octogenarian rat," it was as if he had finally arrived at the role for which he had rehearsed all his life: the superannuated pest. It pleased him to witness age triumphing over youth, as when he explained in a letter to his niece how the financier Levi P. Morton, a man "hovering in or about the nineties," survived a railroad accident, then
crawled out from the dead bodies through an upper window, got a cab nearby, drove two hours, caught another train, and got to Paris at eleven o'clock, while his daughters were turning over all the corpses on the field to find him. There's some style in that -- when your daughters are handsome and named Edith Swansneck or something, and adore kings or dukes. The old man knew better than to be killed, and leave his daughters ten million apiece. No Lear about him!
In an earlier letter to the Harvard literatus Barrett Wendell, Adams looked back at how the public had received his writings over his lifetime, comparing himself to a man who throws his dog into the Mississippi River "for the pleasure of making a splash," only to discover that "the river ... drowns the dog."
This is the familiar Adams with whom Robert Lowell felt the special solidarity (in a recently published letter to Elizabeth Bishop) of one disaffected Brahmin for another:
I find the blighting tone of Henry Adams, my old Bible, a terrible bore, coals to Newcastle, though I wouldn't want anyone else to say it. I guess what is so good about him is that he did too, and knew it was a real illness in him -- one he loved to exploit. I think his tone is a state anyone from our background should go through to be honest and alive, and then drop. I suspect anyone who hasn't been that bitter. Still, staying there is like calling malaria life. I guess what I mean is that there was a real malaria under the jokes, exaggerations, and epigrams, a sort of Baudelairian gallantry. But who could want what Empson says somewhere to learn a style from a despair?
Now, in a book somewhat grandly titled Henry Adams and the Making of America, Garry Wills has set out to retire the malarial old crank and to re-claim the younger man. The young Adams, Wills believes, was nothing less than America's first great historian.
Wills's subject is the great-grandson of one president (John Adams) and grandson of another (John Quincy Adams). But unlike his forebears, Henry Adams was destined to live on the sidelines, a "stable-companion," as he put it in retrospect, "to statesmen, whether they liked it or not." He tried his hand at reporting, editing, teaching, writing fiction and biography as well as economic, political, religious, and architectural history, and, in his most famous work -- The Education of Henry Adams -- autobiography, the theme of which was the failure of his eighteenth-century education to prepare him for living in the nineteenth century, and his lifelong effort to rectify the deficit.
After graduation from Harvard in 1858 as Class Orator, Adams worked as Washington correspondent for a Boston newspaper, reporting on the rise of secessionist sentiment in Congress. Following the attack on Fort Sumter, he went to England as private secretary to his father, Charles Francis Adams, whom Lincoln, partly in order to placate the eastern wing of the Republican Party, had appointed ambassador to Britain. The younger Adams continued to write journalism, reviews, and historical articles while in London, including a celebrated piece debunking the legend that Pocahontas saved Captain John Smith from execution by Indians -- an essay that was read then, and has been read since, as a Northerner's sneer at the founding myth of the defeated South.
In 1868, Adams took up residence in Washington, where he turned with indignation to the large subject of corruption in the Grant administration. His iconoclasm and his capacity for ferocious research impressed Harvard's president Charles W. Eliot, who offered him an appointment to teach history. After declining at first on the grounds that "he could see no relation whatever between himself and a professorship," Adams changed his mind under Eliot's persuasion and agreed to develop a course on the Middle Ages -- a subject to which he had previously devoted "an hour, more or less." The traditional Harvard "lecture system to classes of hundreds," he later wrote in the peculiarly self-estranged third-person voice of The Education, "suited Adams not at all." He preferred seminars, which he regarded as experiments in collaborative learning with such students as Henry Cabot Lodge, who remembered him long afterward as a master of "the great secret of teaching" -- the ability, as Lodge put it, to awaken "opposition to his own views."
But Adams recalled his Harvard days as time wasted. Except for some disparaging comment about his colleagues, whom he found provincial (their idea of "society was a faculty meeting without business") and some favorable comment about his students ("excellent company"), he had little to say about his years in the classroom, which he summed up in a chapter of The Education titled "Failure." Wills refutes this dubious self-judgment by showing that one of Adams's legacies was his introduction of the first genuine seminar into an institution hitherto coasting along on a tired system of lecture and recitation.
Returning to Washington in 1877, where he remained for the rest of his life except for intervals of travel, Adams set to work in the State Department archives on a biography of Albert Gallatin, the Swiss-born secretary of the treasury in Jefferson's administration, who led the first attempt in American history to arrest the growth of the federal budget. Wills is very good on the ways in which Adams both carries on and departs from the genteel tradition of New England historians (George Bancroft, Francis Parkman, John Lothrop Motley), but Adams himself said even less about these years than he had said about his years in Cambridge. The Education, which begins in 1838, breaks off in 1877, and resumes in 1892, omitting his most productive period, when, in addition to the book on Gallatin, he composed the History of the United States in the Administrations of Jefferson and Madison (1889-1891), a prodigious nine-volume account of the sixteen years of the third and fourth presidencies, as well as two novels -- Democracy (1880) and Esther (1884) -- a biography of John Randolph (1882), and an unpublished life of Aaron Burr.
Adams also passed over in silence the suicide in 1885 of his beloved wife Clover, and his efforts to resuscitate himself by traveling through the Pacific. Anyone who would bring into view the man who created, in the History, what Wills calls "the non-fiction prose masterpiece of nineteenth-century America," must overcome Adams's reticence about, and denigration of, himself. Wills goes a long way toward meeting this challenge.
His purpose is to rescue Adams's History from the shadow cast backward by the "detached, arch, and pessimistic" writings of the later years -- in particular, The Education. Adams conceived his History on the scale of Gibbon's Decline and Fall, the idea for which came into Gibbon's mind while he was "musing amidst the ruins of the Capitol" at Rome, where he was seized by a sense of loss amid the tumbled stones. Adams, by contrast, felt called to write a tale of rise if not triumph. Reversing Gibbon, he imagined the paltry "impression made upon the traveller who visited Washington in 1800, and mused among the unraised columns of the Capitol," and he set out to write the story of how a loose confederation of semi-sovereign ex-colonies -- an "embryo nation" -- became a genuine nation-state.
In 1800, the odds against this transformation seemed long even to those, such as Alexander Hamilton, who wanted to see it happen. In enumerating the obstacles, Adams was especially hard on his native New England. With the same impatience that he had brought to his portrait in Esther of Reverend Stephen Hazard (loosely based on his cousin Phillips Brooks), he remarked that whenever a new idea flickered into existence, the Protestant priests at Harvard could be counted on to snuff it out. The same retrograde spirit was felt everywhere from the pulpit to the dance floor, where "the ancient minuet was danced as late as 1806," and "the waltz was not yet tolerated."
As for the rest of the nation -- although couples in Charleston or New York may have danced faster and closer than their Boston counterparts -- they were no more likely to think of themselves as citizens of some vague political entity called the United States. At a time when "the voyage to Europe was comparatively more comfortable and more regular than the voyage from New York to Albany, or through Long Island Sound to Providence," many Americans felt more closely connected to the Old World than to the state next door. In other words, the America of 1800 was disconnected from itself. "To be sure, it took him some twenty years before he stated his determinist views publicly with full candor."
Having established in his opening chapters the choking effect of this kind of localism, Adams proceeded to his theme of America's awakening to itself -- and it is in this connection that Wills insists on a rupture between the author of the History and the older Adams of The Education. "The pessimist of later years is not to be found here," he says. This is overstated, if not wrong. It misses the fact that Adams in the 1880s was already well along toward the fatalism of his later years. In a letter to Parkman in 1884, for example, he predicted that "in another generation psychology, physiology, and history will join in proving man to have as fixed and necessary development as that of a tree; and almost as unconscious." What he meant was that human affairs, no less than the movement of planets or stars, are governed by invariable laws -- and that the historian's job is to find them.
To be sure, it took him some twenty years before he stated his determinist views publicly with full candor. In The Education (first printed privately in 1907, more than a decade before its posthumous publication in 1918), he described history as a field of knowledge that lagged "a hundred years behind the experimental sciences." In an essay in 1908 titled "The Rule of Phase Applied to History," he predicted that "the future of ... History lies in the hands of the physicists," and warned that "if our historical department in the Universities cannot enter this next Phase, the physical department will have to assume the task alone."
The History, too, is peppered with phrases ("the next question forced itself on Congress") that convey the sense of some vast impersonal fate overwhelming the human will, though this sort of grim determinism is hinted at more than stated. But it is certainly there. Behind the apparent chaos -- the schemes, alliances and betrayals, the rebellions and reactions that are the stuff of historical narrative -- there does seem to be, in Adams's History as in his Education, an ineluctable process by which the nation took form out of feeble and scattered beginnings. Men who had once been loud on behalf of states' rights become tacit partisans of federal power. Regionalists become nationalists. The figures -- whether presidents, judges, or emperors -- acquiesce more than act. And those who hold out against what is happening are swept away.
Consider John Randolph, once a debonair and dignified critic of centralized power, who, during the first Jefferson administration, becomes (in Wills's excellent phrase) "a tormented but truth-telling jester" -- reduced, during the fights over judicial impeachment and the debates over the constitutionality of the Louisiana purchase, from a consequential actor to a marginal commentator. Where a lesser historian might have elevated, and thereby reduced, Randolph (or Marshall or Jefferson or Burr) into a mere personage, Adams brings them all to life with a novelist's touch. Randolph is "ill-balanced, impatient of obstacles, incapable of sustained labor," but "sparkling and formidable in debate or on the hustings, where he could follow the wayward impulse of his fancy running in the accustomed channels of his thought." Jefferson, in "slippers down at the heel," is tall and lanky, his skin "thin, peeling from his face on exposure to the sun, and giving it a tettered appearance." Napoleon languishes "in his bath, the water of which was opaque with mixture of eau de cologne," while he instructs his ministers on the next move in the struggle against Britain.
There is a sense in which Adams's History belongs to that broad literary movement sometimes called "naturalism" (Zola, Hardy, Dreiser, and Norris), in which a recurrent theme is the puniness of the individual human will. But the better analogy is with the literary artistry of Adams's friend Henry James. As Wills points out, the chapters on how Jefferson, Madison, and Gallatin try to fathom the motives and methods of their French, British, and Spanish counterparts (Talleyrand, Pitt, and Godoy) bear comparison to James's fictional elaborations of the theme of innocents abroad. Even the most sophisticated diplomats whom America can muster find themselves stumbling about in the labyrinth of Old World intrigue. And like any critic who takes on a great stylist, Wills sometimes emulates his master -- as when he quotes a passage in which Jefferson boasts that American warships will thwart the British navy, then follows with a flourish that Adams might have written himself: "That passage is almost enough to make one wonder if Jefferson really, as we have been told, drank no alcohol but light wines."
As the chief instrument of America's "necessary development," Jefferson is Adams's central figure (even Madison seems a kind of appendage), a study in contradiction who clings to anti-federalist principles while radically enlarging the boundaries of the United States by presidential fiat. "While he signed the laws for governing the [Louisiana] territory," Adams writes, "he warmly objected to the establishment of a branch bank of the United States at New Orleans." It is a brilliant portrait of a man dragged into actions he would once have reviled; and yet the force that shapes the future is not Jefferson's change of heart. The real actor in history, the one whom we come to know most intimately in Adams's account, is the continent itself. Geography counts for more in Adams's History than biography: the Mississippi River, as recent events have brutally reminded us, meets the sea at New Orleans, and, whatever the interests of Spain or France, the Americans who increasingly populate its banks demand an outlet for their goods. The westward flow of migrants is the action, and Jefferson is the reaction.
One feels that Adams already privately believed, as he was later publicly to declare, that "modern politics is, at bottom, a struggle not of men but of forces." Yet -- and this is one of the secrets of the power of the History -- the determinist in Adams is always in tension with a pragmatist who knows that these forces, if they exist at all, will not easily reveal themselves. "History," Adams was to write in The Education, "is a tangled skein that one may take up at any point, and break when one has unraveled enough ... one may not begin at the beginning, and one has but the loosest relative truths to follow up." In "The Rule of Phase," where he is writing theory, he seems sure that "an attractive force, like gravitation" governs history "by a law with which [the] supposed wishes or appetites" of human beings "had no conscious relation." But when he is actually practicing the art of history, he sounds more like his friend William James, who insisted that "when we talk of reality 'independent' of human thinking ... it seems a thing very hard to find." The History (for which the books on Gallatin and Randolph had been rehearsals) was Adams's effort to find it. "Wills has written a deeply informed and informative book about a man who might be called a neo-providential historian."
Wills has written a deeply informed and informative book about a man who might be called a neo-providential historian. But there is an Adams whom we do not meet in Wills's book -- or at least whom we do not get to know very well. This is Adams the ironist, who knows how impenetrable history proves to be. The whole History is cast in a fundamentally ironic form, as when Adams develops his theme that Jefferson's embargo -- his policy of prohibiting overseas trade in an effort to curb impressment from American merchant vessels -- had the effect of promoting domestic industrial development of the sort that Jefferson opposed.
This is the same kind of irony that one encounters in Adams's fiction, as when he writes in Democracy that the vulgar Senator Ratcliffe "was a great statesman," and that the "beauty of his work consisted in the skill with which he evaded questions of principle." Ratcliffe is usually seen as the villain of the tale, but it is not entirely obvious that Adams's second statement contradicts the first. He recognized the difference between holding to principle in the face of temptation and sticking to ideology in the face of reality. In the History, it is Randolph who blurs this line. In Democracy, the fictional Senator Ratcliffe is certainly a thief and a cheat: among other scams, he rigs an election. But he thereby delivers his state to Lincoln and the Republicans, saving the nation from the "peace" party that would have ended the Civil War on terms favorable to the Confederacy.
Where Adams stands on the issue of realpolitik or, more generally, the question of means versus ends, is never quite clear -- and it is this sense of ambiguity that explains why the History has been subject over the years to sharply contrary readings. Some (including Wills) read it as a celebration of Jefferson's statesmanship. Others have read it as a bitter condemnation of Jefferson as a flip-flopping temporizer. Adams's gift for self-concealment is of course part of what makes him worth reading. Young or old, he was a man who rarely revealed himself, and whatever the discontinuities in his development, the screen of irony through which he viewed character and history was always there.
It remains to be seen whether Wills's book can restore Adams's History to currency as a work widely read. His introduction, where he makes the case for freeing the History from the shadow of Adams's later works, is titled "Reading Henry Adams Forward." In fact, the History is not much read today, backward or forward. Most readers encounter it in one of the abridgments that have appeared over the years, or in the fragmentary paperback edition familiar to generations of college students under the title The United States in 1800 -- a version that cuts out the main body of the narrative altogether, sparing only the six opening chapters about social and cultural conditions in the post-revolutionary United States. For a long time, the whole History could be found, with luck, only in the antiquarian bookshops, until it became available again in 1986 in an unabridged two-volume edition excellently edited by Earl N. Harbert for the Library of America. One of the services of Wills's book is to provide not only a fine commentary on Adams's History, but also -- with his shrewd redactions and well-chosen quotations -- what is, in effect, the best abridgement.
Wills is unpersuasive that there were really two Henry Adamses, but he skillfully clarifies the salience of Adams's History to our own situation. Wills's own furor scribendi has led him over his career in many directions; but whether he is writing about past or present, his work has always been sensitive to the connection between the two. In 1978, he published an innovative book about Jefferson, Inventing America, that situated Jefferson's racial attitudes within the moral egalitarianism of the Scottish Enlightenment and thereby disclosed a Jefferson who strikingly resembled the sort of new-South politician who was emerging at the time. Twenty-five years later, after a disputed election that may have been won by the disfranchisement of black voters, Wills published another book on Jefferson, provocatively titled The Negro President, in which he argued (erroneously, in the view of some historians) that Jefferson essentially stole the election of 1800 by means of the constitutional clause that counted two-thirds of "other persons" (non-voting black slaves) in apportioning state representation in Congress.
Wills would surely agree with Adams's statement, in a letter to a professional medievalist explaining his great late-life meditation Mont St. Michel and Chartres: "Your middle-ages exist for their own sake, not for ours. To me ... the middle-ages present a picture that has somehow to be brought into relation with ourselves." Adams knew that the choice of where to pick up the "tangled skein" is never exactly a free choice, and that, however deeply one researches the past, one inevitably writes from the perspective of the present. And if this was true of Adams as medievalist, it was certainly true of Adams as Americanist. He spent long days in the archives, not only in Washington but in Madrid, Paris, and London, poring over the record, trying to understand "for their own sake" how the European powers, against their will, ceded America to the Americans. Yet when he described how the secessionist impulse flared up in both the North and South during the early years of the republic, he was writing, at least obliquely, about the secessionist movement through which he had lived as a young man. When he discussed the growth of intra- and inter-continental trade, he was writing about the "necessary development" of the United States into the vast consolidated power that, by his own time, it had patently become.
The great strength of Wills's book is that it helps to renew and extend the pertinence of Adams's History from his time to our own, thus fulfilling Adams's wish, as expressed in The Education, "to project his lines forward and backward indefinitely, subject to correction from anyone who would know better." The History, after all, concerns an incipient nation whose development into nationhood is retarded by a wealthy class unwilling to divert its wealth from private wants to public needs. It is about a president whose "ideas of Presidential authority in foreign affairs were little short of royal," and a party that comes to power promising to put an end to war, but whose military expenditures reach unprecedented heights, beginning with a war against an enemy deemed pirates. Of Jefferson's victory in 1800, Adams writes, "Rarely was a Presidential election better calculated to turn the head of a President, and never was a President elected who felt more keenly the pleasure of his personal triumph." Before 1800, the opposition party preached against what today we would call "Big Government," but once it ascended to power, it exercised more power more high-handedly than its opponents had ever dreamt of doing. It was a party that suspected judicial authority and flirted with demagoguery. And in our age of "values" politics, one cannot help but be struck by Adams's comment, which Wills pointedly quotes, that "the day when a nation's politics turn exclusively on questions of fidelity to great moral abstractions is a disastrous day for good government."
Wills's insights into Adams's History are continually interesting, from his opening discussion of Adams's identification with his grandmother Louisa, through the subtle chapter-by-chapter readings, to the suggestive epilogue, which concludes with an excursus on the "infantilism of American attitudes toward the Founders." He seems to have in mind the recent flurry of best-selling books about the architects of the Republic who authored the Declaration and the Constitution. In his closing pages, he turns away from Jefferson, Madison, Hamilton, and Marshall, who do appear in Adams's History, and announces that it was Washington (virtually absent from the History) who was Adams's "special hero" -- special and heroic because he was, along with Franklin (also absent), the "most practical and realistic" of them all, a man who understood both the risks of anarchy and the menace of centralized power. Some twenty years ago, Wills wrote a book called Cincinnatus, about how Washington was memorialized in art and letters; perhaps he intends to return to this earlier interest by undertaking a study of Washington's own life and thought.
Wills's record of casting new light on one historical subject after another over the last forty years constitutes one of the impressive intellectual performances in contemporary American letters. But he has a tendency to press the novelty and the originality of all his views. What especially mars his new book is an unfortunate condescension toward some previous scholars, whose oversights he tends to overstate, and whom he dismisses or derides or -- in the instances of William H. Jordy and J.C. Levenson, who wrote illuminatingly about Adams's historical thinking -- outright ignores. Perhaps these lapses of generosity are attributable to Wills's immersion in whatever subject has lately seized his imagination, and to his sometimes exaggerated certainty that he has made that subject completely his own.
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