by HENRY ADAMS
[ "Popular Characteristics," from History of the United States of
America During the First Administration of Thomas Jefferson
( New York, 1889), I, 41-74.]
Henry Adamsdevoted the first six chapters of his History of the
United States of America during the Jeffersonand MadisonAdminis-
trations to an analysis of American life in the year 1800. Introducing a
primarily political history, these chapters which take up "Physical
and Economical Conditions," "Popular Characteristics," "Intellect
of New England," "Intellect of the Middle States," "Intellect of
the Southern States," and, finally, "American Ideals" are not too
well integrated with the bulk of the nine-volume narrative.1Never-
theless, the author had an over-all purpose in mind which was served
by including them.
In writing of the United Statesbetween 1800and 1817, Adams
was attempting to trace "linear progress" or "at least progression" in
American history between these two dates.2 Nature and mental
outlook, Adams felt, made for a certain amount of inertia in
American society in the year 1800. "The task of overcoming popular
inertia in a democratic society was new,"3Adamsadded, "and
seemed to offer peculiar difficulties." However, by1817, science and
invention had dragged society forward despite the resistance of the
populace and the physical environment. By that time, "the traits of
American character were fixed; the rate of physical and economical
growth was established."4
Conquest of the physical environment was not the only challenge
confronting American democracy. Both the first and the last parts
of Adams's History ended with the historian asking questions.
Adamssaid of the Americans of 1815, "they were intelligent, but
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Publication information: Book title: Understanding the American Past:American History and Its Interpretation. Edition: 2nd. Contributors: Edward N. Saveth - Editor. Publisher: Little Brown. Place of publication: Boston. Publication year: 1965. Page number: 183.
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