Born in Boston, son of Charles Francis Adams, Henry Adams 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 adored wife. 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); J. T. Adams, Henry Adams (1933, repr. 1970); W. Thoron, ed., The Letters of Mrs. Henry Adams, 1865–1883 (1936); H. D. Cater, ed., Henry Adams and His Friends: A Collection of His Unpublished Letters (1947); E. Samuels, The Young Henry Adams (1948), Henry Adams: The Middle Years (1958), and Henry Adams: The Major Phase (1964); W. Dusinberre, Henry Adams: The Myth of Failure (1980); E. Chalfant, Better in Darkness (1994).
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