Books discussed in this essay:

The Education of Henry Adams: A Centennial Version, by Henry Adams, edited by Edward Chalfant and Conrad Edick Wright

History of the United States During the Administrations of Thomas Jefferson (1801-1809), by Henry Adams, edited by Earl N. Harbert

History of the United States During the Administrations of James Madison (1809-1817), by Henry Adams, edited by Earl N. Harbert


Under the shadow of Boston State House," on "February 16, 1838, a child was born, and christened later by his uncle, the minister of the First Church after the tenets of Boston Unitarianism, as Henry Brooks Adams."

The opening lines of The Education of Henry Adams are a familiar formulation, establishing the place and time of the author's entry into the world and the religion of his upbringing. But the paragraph that follows shocks the reader: "Had he been born in Jerusalem under the shadow of the Temple and circumcised in the Synagogue by his uncle the high priest, under the name of Israel Cohen, he would have scarcely been more distinctly branded, and not much more heavily handicapped in the races of the coming century, in running for such stakes as the century was to offer…."

To be told that one's life is so heavily accidental, so out of one's power from the beginning, is to be cast almost into the later 20th century and the pangs of postmodernism, where everything is seen as contingent and ironic, an insult to the intellect bent on comprehending events in the hope of controlling them. Adams is amused that the privileged post he enjoyed at the start had the effect of handicapping him in the race he in fact had to run. Life, he found, was little more than a crap shoot, for the rules upon which he had been weaned no longer applied. The value of his education receded with the passage of time, as though progress negated knowledge. Adams continued:

although in 1838 their value was not very great compared with what they would have had in 1738, yet the mere accident of starting a twentieth-century career from a nest of associations so colonial—so troglodytic—as the First Church, the Boston State House, Beacon Hill, John Hancock and John Adams, Mount Vernon Street and Quincy, all crowding on ten pounds of unconscious babyhood, was so queer as to offer a subject of curious speculation to the baby long after he had witnessed the solution. What could become of such a child of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, when he should wake up to find himself required to play the game of the twentieth? Had he been consulted, would he have cared to play the game at all, holding such cards as he held, and suspecting that the game was to be one of which neither he nor any one else back to the beginning of time knew the rules or the risks or the stakes?

Knowing how privileged he had been, having been dealt perhaps the best hand possible in an America of merit and talent, still Adams admitted he "never got to the point of playing the game at all; he lost himself in the study of it."

Voyage of Discovery

The opening passages of The Education presage the subjects that would preoccupy Adams for the rest of his life: the intellectual as spectator as well as inquirer; the inadequacy of education and the passing of the neoclassical truths that influenced the founding of the Republic; the sense of life as chance, coincidence, and as indeterminate and unpredictable as the shuffle of the deck; politics as the scheme of those who would control the deck as though fate could be defied by the wheelers and dealers of the world; the omnipresence of power acting upon people without their consent; history as the movement of events without rational causes or moral purposes.

The title The Education of Henry Adams is as ironic and playful as it is bitter. The more Adams learned, the less he understood. What began as a voyage of discovery ended in "The Abyss of Ignorance," the title of one of the book's chapters. Adams passed away in 1918 at age 80, a little over a decade after he wrote the Education.

The previous year President Woodrow Wilson persuaded America to enter the Great War because it would be "a war to end all wars." To Adams, Wilson was doing the opposite of Thomas Jefferson, the president who "proclaimed too openly to the world that the sword was not one of its arguments." Jefferson had dismantled the navy built by Adams's great-grandfather, President John Adams, and adopted a policy of nonentanglement that led to what it had set out to avoid—war with Britain. Progress was the seductress and politics its temptress. In his great History of Jefferson's era, Henry Adams wrote that despite Jefferson's dreams, America "could not much longer delude herself with hopes of evading laws of Nature and instincts of life; and that her new statesmanship which made peace a passion could lead to no better result than had been reached by the barbarous system which made war a duty." Wilson, having "kept us out of war," soon took us to war against war itself.

In its most recent edition, The Education of Henry Adams: A Centennial Version, edited by Edward Chalfant and Conrad Edick Wright and published by the Massachusetts Historical Society, the chapter on "The Abyss of Ignorance" has been retitled "A Kinetic Theory of Knowledge." When asked how this new version of the book would be different, Chalfant replied: "By getting the editors out and Adams back in." The two editors write brief, perfunctory introductions, mainly to make us aware of the disparities between the author's persona of The Education and the historian's actual life. But the editors and publisher busy themselves with tedious details of the book's composition and revisions. They give us numerous pages listing the changes made from manuscript to text, many of them dealing with the slightest deletions and additions, with spellings and the altering of lower case to upper and vice versa. One can only image what Henry Adams would make of all this. The book is subtitled "A Centennial Version," perhaps all right for advertising purposes but not exactly accurate when one considers that only a hundred copies of the text were privately circulated in 1907, and the book itself was not published until Adams's death in 1918. Specialists may be grateful that the editors have diligently corrected the "hundreds of defects that mar every presently available edition." But why, one wonders, is their edition so reader unfriendly? The book's lines and print setting are so spaced out that the text becomes needlessly bulky, so swollen and conspicuous as to seem inappropriate to an author who published one novel anonymously, and another under a pen name. Some scholars in literature and intellectual history esteem The Education as the best work ever written by an American. Fortunately, it remains available in editions of all sizes.

Uncertain Foundations

Many chapters of The Education deal with politics. The author transports us to the nation's capital in the pre-Civil War era, when Democrats and Whigs vied with each other over the pleasures of office, employing the rhetoric of classical republicanism not to restrain private interest for the sake of public virtue but simply to accuse the opposing party of corruption. Here one finds few traces of politics as the uplifting exercise in "civic humanism" and "participatory democracy" touted by many of today's scholars. In fact, Adams found democratic politics to be little more than "the systematic organization of hatreds."

During the Civil War he assisted his father, America's Minister to the Court of St. James, who did all he could to keep Great Britain neutral and to prevent America's old antagonist from recognizing the Confederacy. To Adams the maneuvers of Lord Palmerston and William Gladstone seemed part of a Kafkaesque nightmare in which nothing made sense and he could hardly tell America's enemies from its friends. He returned to America after the war, and provides insightful chapters on the Grant Administration and its corruptions, the scandals associated with the building of the transcontinental railroad and the cornering of the gold market.

At this point in his Education, Adams breaks away, jumping from 1871 to 1892. This 20-year gap in the narrative veils Adams's marriage to the talented photographer Miriam Hooper, nicknamed "Clover" (who made the priceless observation regarding Henry James that he "chews more than he bites off"). Her 1885 suicide is often attributed to the severe depression she suffered after her father's sudden death.

Adams doesn't pick up the thread of politics again until the end of the 19th century, when America enters world history. His close friendship with John Hay, Secretary of State in the McKinley and Roosevelt administrations, provided the opportunity to reflect on American imperialism, the Open Door policy in China, and the Spanish-American war. He esteemed Hay as an enlightened diplomat trying to establish a Pax Americana, with much the same reasoning about power employed by the American founders; and Adams delighted that Theodore Roosevelt reacted decisively while Europe hesitated, intervening to bring the Russo-Japanese war to an end and winning the Nobel Peace Prize.

The Education can be read as an intellectual history of the mid- and late-19th century as recorded by one of its most sensitive minds—a mind that deliberately stood apart from and even against the Pragmatism of Adams's friend William James. The chapter on "Darwinism," for example, might make a good contribution to today's debate between creationists and evolutionists. Adams tried to follow St. Thomas Aquinas's arguments for the rational validity of religion. But the idea that God created the world—because anything that has a beginning must have a cause—seemed unconvincing to a historian who wondered whether historical events have necessary causes. Adams wondered whether there was something impious in Aquinas's project. In his notes in a book on Scholastic philosophy, he asked, "Is not this the doctrine of Spinoza?" Adams also wondered whether Darwin's theory was anything more than an hypothesis, an exercise in imagination rather than verification. In his 1910 "Letter to American Teachers of History," he reminded his brother historians that "Darwin might perhaps have said that he was never a Darwinian." Talking to paleontologists, Adams noted that some species endured without evolving according to the law of natural selection. Pointing to the shark circling in the water since the beginning of time, and to the ugly horseshoe crab as the shell that could never make land, he could only wonder—are these ancestors?

The Reality of Power

In my student years long ago and far away, Adams's chapter on "The Dynamo and the Virgin" taught us to remind students that modern science rests on uncertain foundations. In fact, The Education muses on several scientific issues: the second law of thermodynamics, i.e., the idea of entropy; the geological explorations of his close friend Clarence King; Karl Pearson and the discovery of radium and atomic energy and the nightmare that one day we shall see "explosives never known to mankind" reaching the level of "cosmic violence."

Adams's interests in science and politics both grew from a deeper interest in power as history's most fundamental and inescapable reality. Those who think that Adams lusted after power should ponder his chapter "The Height of Knowledge," in which he warns that "power is poison." Men don't use power; it uses them. In a chapter he devoted to his friend Hay, Adams concludes that statesmanship and friendship don't mix, reminding his readers that Lucius Seneca learned from his friend Nero Claudius "that a friend in power was a friend lost."

For Adams, power was not alien to freedom, for humankind both absorbed power and exercised it. "Man's function as a force of nature was to assimilate other forces as he assimilated food. He called it the love of power." Adams studied power because his ancestors had believed that they could tame it with the "machinery of government." Constitutions, however, deal only with power as a political phenomenon involving the legislature, the executive, and the judiciary. A century later young Adams had to confront new forms of power involving international relations, the rise of big business, and new forms of energy and armaments based on developments in science and technology. Long before Michel Foucault criticized Marxists for assuming that power expresses the rule of wealth, Adams lectured his brother Brooks: "Please give up that profoundly unscientific jabber of the newspapers about MONEY in capital letters. What I see is POWER in capitals also. You may abolish money and all its machinery, the power will still be there."

Adams's preoccupation with power led him to reflect on the status of women. He dealt with the subject in an essay on "The Primitive Rights of Women," in Tahiti: Memoirs of Arii Taimai; in his novels Democracy and Esther, in which his indomitable heroines frustrate men's will; and in Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres, in which the Virgin Mary is a force of nature, an anarchist rebel defying the harsh rule of the Roman Catholic Church and extending mercy and forgiveness to the poor and suffering. Yet Mary was capricious. "She had," Adams notes, "many of the failings and prejudices of her humanity. In spite of her own origin, she disliked Jews, and rarely neglected a chance to maltreat them." In The Education, Adams deals with women in the chapter "Via Inertia." Nature may have confined the woman to "the cradle and the family," but she had a rebellious instinct for power. "The idea that she was weak revolted all history; it was a paleontological falsehood that even an Eocene female monkey would have laughed at." Perhaps Adams recalled his great-grandfather John's reply to his great-grandmother Abigail's "remember the ladies" letter of 1776: "We have only the Name of Masters, and rather than give up this, which would completely subject Us to the Despotism of the Petticoat, I hope General Washington, and all our brave Heroes would fight."

Unintended Consequences

The Education is troubling to many readers, despite, or perhaps because of, its brilliance. Writers on the Left dismiss Adams as a white male elitist of the Brahmin starch collar class, and they can hardly acknowledge that the American historian who died 90 years ago had sharper insights about power than do today's Marxists and poststructuralists. Scholars on the Right may find Adams too alienated from the timeless truths that they feel America needs in our culture of relativism. Some Jewish writers are understandably upset with Adams's outbursts of anti-Semitism during the Dreyfus affair and afterwards. But certain New York Jewish intellectuals—notably Irving Howe, Alfred Kazin, and Lionel Trilling—were willing to overlook Adams's momentary bigotry to ponder the enduring value of his writings, both fictional and historical.

Many readers of The Education claim that Adams was a poseur, always complaining about his "failure" and "ignorance" while living a very full life. They point out his many long stays in Europe meeting some of the leading lights of art and literature; the success of the students he taught at Harvard; seeing Tahiti with painter John LaFarge and discovering the sensual innocence of the natives; and enjoying his newly built mansion in the nation's capital.

Adams's calling himself a "failure" may be puzzling. He was, however, speaking of himself not as a social being or even as a husband but as a man devoted to the life of the mind, a scholar who had set out to answer a question which had, he realized after a dozen years of research, no answer.

The question animated Adams's masterpiece, The History of the United States During the Administrations of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, written in the 20 years omitted from the Education. First published in nine volumes from 1889-1891, it is now available in a two-volume set from the Library of America. Adams conceived and carried out this work at a time when the study of history purported to be a scientific enterprise that could lead to cumulative knowledge and causal understanding based on a rational sequence of events. "One sought only a spool on which to wind the thread of history without breaking it," he wrote in The Education. He neither found the spool nor unwound the thread. He set out to explain the causes of the War of 1812, but the explanation eluded him inasmuch as events seemed to happen without rhyme or reason. Or perhaps that was the explanation.

He was, after all, trying to explain why his great-grandfather, the subject of the popular HBO miniseries, failed as the second president. The answer was that Jefferson won the election of 1800 by attacking Adams for enlarging the power of the national government and, once in office, proceeded to do the same thing. He kept intact much of the Federalist economic program and eagerly purchased the Louisiana territory, which meant that America would not be a simple, small, virtuous republic—Jefferson's dream—but an expansive commercial empire—Hamilton's vision and Jefferson's nightmare. The irony of unintended consequences was one of Henry Adams's profound insights.

Teaching History

The last chapters of Adams's history deal with the tumultuous era of 1812-1815 and its aftermath, addressed by Leo Tolstoy in War and Peace. Both the American historian and the Russian novelist concluded that history, whether based on scholarly research or on artistic intuition, must be seen as an irrational spectacle, moved by forces that shape events and yet remain beyond the reach of science. Today such skepticism seems to have little place in American academic or public life. The radical Left has seldom been troubled by such a tragic vision, for the cunning of reason promised to fulfill Marx's prophecy that history culminates in a higher synthesis. If the Left affirms history's possibilities, some on the Right deny its perplexities. Many American conservatives cannot be bothered with something so metaphysical as the inscrutability of history. They believe fervently in President George W. Bush's simplistic dictum that "history…has a visible direction, set by liberty and the Author of Liberty."

My favorite sections in The Education concern Adams's reflections on teaching history, which he took so seriously that he lamented deeply his incapacity to impart any generalizations worthy of being called lessons, much less laws. "A parent gives life, but as parent, gives no more," reflected Adams. "A murderer takes life, but his deed stops there. A teacher affects eternity; he can never tell where his influence stops." Adams was impressed with the energy and ambition of his students, who survived Harvard's "boring" lecture system to do research on their own.

The boys worked like rabbits, and dug holes all over the field of archaic society; no difficulty stopped them; unknown languages yielded before their attack…they learned, after a fashion, to chase an idea, like a hare, through as dense a thicket of obscure facts….

Were the courses Adams taught useless then? His pupils, it turned out, had more faith in education than he did, and one told him: "The degree of Harvard College is worth money to me in Chicago." This answer settled Adams's doubts, satisfying him that "his teaching did them more good than harm."