Henry Adams

Henry Adams, 1838–1918, American writer and historian, b. Boston; son of Charles Francis Adams (1807–86). He was secretary (1861–68) to his father, then U.S. minister to Great Britain. Upon his return to the United States, having already abandoned the law and seeing no opportunity in the traditional Adams vocation of politics, he briefly pursued journalism. He reluctantly accepted (1870) an offer to teach medieval history at Harvard, but nonetheless stayed on seven years and also edited (1870–76) the North American Review.

In 1877 Adams moved to Washington, D.C., his home thereafter. He wrote a good biography of Albert Gallatin (1879), a less satisfactory one of John Randolph (1882), and two novels (the first anonymously and the second under a pseudonym)—Democracy (1880), a cutting satire on politics, and Esther (1884). His exhaustive study of the administrations of Jefferson and Madison, History of the United States of America (9 vol., 1889–91; reprinted in a number of editions), is one of the major achievements of American historical writing. Famous for its style, it is deficient, perhaps, in understanding the basic economic forces at work, but the first six chapters constitute one of the best social surveys of any period in U.S. history.

Never of a sanguine temperament, Adams became even more pessimistic after the suicide (1885) of his wife, Clover. He abandoned American history and began a series of restless journeys, physical and mental, in an effort to achieve a basic philosophy of history. Drawing upon the physical sciences for guidance and influenced by his brother, Brooks Adams, he found a satisfactory unifying principle in force, or energy. He selected for intensive treatment two periods: 1050–1250, presented in Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres (privately printed 1904, pub. 1913), and his own era, presented in The Education of Henry Adams (privately printed 1906, pub. 1918). The first is a brilliant idealization of the Middle Ages, specifically of the 13th-century unity brought about by the force of the Virgin, which was dominant then. The second was classified by his publishers as an autobiography, although it was written in the third person and was unrevealing about much of his life. It is, however, a tour de force, and describes his unsuccessful efforts to achieve intellectual peace in an age when the force of the dynamo was dominant. These two books, containing some of the most beautiful English ever written, rather than his monumental History, won Adams his lasting place as a major American writer.

The Degradation of the Democratic Dogma (1919), edited by Brooks Adams and prefaced with a memoir by Henry Adams, contains three brilliant essays on his philosophy of history— "The Tendency of History," "A Letter to American Teachers of History" (pub. separately in 1910), and "The Rule of Phase Applied to History." Friendships, especially those with John Hay and Clarence King, played a large part in Adams's life, and his personal letters reveal a warmer man than one might suspect.


See his letters (ed. by W. C. Ford, 2 vol., 1930–38) and H. D. Cater, ed., Henry Adams and His Friends: A Collection of His Unpublished Letters (1947); W. Thoron, ed., The Letters of Mrs. Henry Adams, 1865–1883 (1936); biographies by J. T. Adams (1933, repr. 1970) and E. Samuels (3 vol., 1948–64); biography of his wife by N. Dykstra (2012); W. Dusinberre, Henry Adams: The Myth of Failure (1980); E. Chalfant, Better in Darkness (1994); R. Brookhiser, America's First Dynasty: The Adamses, 1735–1918 (2002); G. Wills, Henry Adams and the Making of America (2005).

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright© 2018, The Columbia University Press.

Henry Adams: Selected full-text books and articles

The Literary Vocation of Henry Adams By William Merrill Decker University of North Carolina Press, 1990
FREE! The Education of Henry Adams: An Autobiography By Henry Adams Houghton Mifflin, 1918
A primary source is a work that is being studied, or that provides first-hand or direct evidence on a topic. Common types of primary sources include works of literature, historical documents, original philosophical writings, and religious texts.
FREE! Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres By Henry Adams Houghton Mifflin, 1913
The Life of Albert Gallatin By Henry Adams Peter Smith, 1943
FREE! John Randolph By Henry Adams Houghton Mifflin, 1898
The Ironies of Progress: Henry Adams and the American Dream By William Wasserstrom Southern Illinois University Press, 1984
Touching the World: Reference in Autobiography By Paul John Eakin Princeton University Press, 1992
Librarian's tip: "Henry Adams on the Ara Coeli Steps" begins on p. 145
Epistolary Practices: Letter Writing in America before Telecommunications By William Merrill Decker University of North Carolina Press, 1998
Librarian's tip: Chap. 5 "I Write Now d'Outre Tombe"
Exiles from Eden: Religion and the Academic Vocation in America By Mark R. Schwehn Oxford University Press, 1993
Librarian's tip: Chap. 5 "Adams's Education"
American Madonna: Images of the Divine Woman in Literary Culture By John Gatta Oxford University Press, 1997
Librarian's tip: Chap. Five "Henry Adams: The Virgin as Dynamo"
Columbia Literary History of the United States By Martha Banta; Terence Martin; David Minter; Marjorie Perloff; Daniel B. Shea; Emory Elliott Columbia University Press, 1988
Librarian's tip: "Henry Adams" begins on p. 645
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