The Magazine

Man on the Brink

Nine decades since 'The Education,' a look back at Henry Adams.

Dec 1, 2008, Vol. 14, No. 11 • By PATRICK J. WALSH
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At the Massachusetts Historical Society's library, an American classic lies open before me: Henry Adams's The Education of Henry Adams, privately printed in 1907. A century ago Adams sent copies of this text to his close friends for comment. This edition belonged to Henry Adams. In the margins, neatly handwritten, are his notes for a corrected version never published in his lifetime. The Education was published in 1918, after Adams' death, by the Massachusetts Historical Society, and won a Pulitzer Prize.

A companion book to the Education, also privately published (in 1904), is Mont Saint Michel and Chartres, Adams called it "a study of Thirteenth-Century Unity." Unlike the leaders of the European Union, Henry Adams understood that "Europe was a unity then, in thought, will, and object. Christianity was the unit." His Education juxtaposed this unity with what he called "Twentieth-Century Multiplicity." Adams held the chaotic disunity of his time responsible for what he regarded as a life of failure, and explained the private printing in a letter: "I stopped publishing books twenty years ago because I could not induce anybody to show the least interest in them."

Henry Adams was a great writer, and one of America's preeminent historians, author of The Life of Albert Gallatin, John Randolph, and his magisterial History of the United States during the Administration of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. He also wrote political novels still well worth reading, Democracy and Esther.

Of course, Adams (1838-1918) descended from a prestigious pedigree. His father, Charles Francis Adams, was the son of our sixth president, John Quincy Adams, who in turn was the son of the illustrious John Adams. Henry attended Harvard and after graduation in 1858 departed for Germany to study civil law. President Lincoln appointed Charles Francis Adams to serve as Minister to Britain during the Civil War and Henry served his father as an unofficial, unpaid private secretary during 1861-68.

Returning to America after nearly a decade, Henry Adams found the country changed. A great mechanical revolution had occurred, transferring power to "coal, iron and steam," usurping the older order of "agriculture, handwork and learning." Still, at 30, Adams hoped to offer his talents in public service for government reform. But the Grant administration's "policy of drift" ended such plans, and a thoroughly disappointed idealist, Adams now believed "the system of 1789 had broken down and with it the 18th-century fabric of a priori, or moral principles."

A traveler in the highways of history looked out of a club window on the turmoil of Fifth Avenue and felt himself in Rome, under Diocletian, witnessing the anarchy, conscious of the compulsion, eager for the solution, but unable to conceive whence the next impulse was to come or how it was to act. The two-thousand year failure of Christianity roared upward from Broadway, and no Constantine the Great was in sight.

Still a young man, Adams found himself out of place in this new world and labeled himself a "relic of the eighteenth century." Offered an assistant professorship of medieval history at Harvard in 1870, he left Washington for Cambridge where he also assumed the editorship of the North American Review. In 1872 he married the erratic Marian Hooper and, though childless, their 10-year marriage gave birth to his histories and novels, and were the most fruitful years of Adams's life.

Disenchanted with the gilded American present, Adams turned to the American past. John Lukacs says of his History of the United States during the Administration of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison that, in "literary judgment and a quality of style," it is "probably without equal in the writings of American historians." Adams had sympathy for Jefferson-not because of bitterness against his own Federalist ancestors, or because Adams was "an honorary Southerner" or furtive
Jeffersonian Republican (as Garry Wills imagines in Henry Adams and the Making of America)-but because Adams satirizes the utterly impractical visionary policies of Jefferson and Madison, narrating the demise of Jeffersonian Republicanism. Jefferson's purchase of Louisiana in 1804 destroyed the Republican tenet of a "strict construction" of the Constitution, and his embargo actually curtailed liberty, along with property rights, while investing government with what his own Treasury secretary, Albert Gallatin, called "the most arbitrary powers."