A review of Henry Adams and the Making of America, by Garry Wills

Many educated Americans haven't heard of Henry Adams's History of the United States of America During the Administrations of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison (1889-91), a book rarely read and seldom discussed. Garry Wills wants to change that. If he succeeds, he will have done his countrymen a great service. Adams's opus is not just a great work of history; it is a treasure house of wisdom and insight.

A bright and well-read scholar, Wills's flashes of insight come through in this book with a certain regularity. The years he has spent studying the American Revolution and its aftermath serve him well. Even so, his account is awkward and unwieldy, displaying signs of hasty construction and sloppy thought. There are several sparkling sentences, many good paragraphs, but no really good chapters. 

Henry Adams and the Making of America has two parts. The first discusses the path that led Adams to history by tracing his intellectual, professional, and literary development. Most scholars stress the importance of the Adams family in Henry Adams's thought. Others stress its Tocquevillian dimension, pointing to Adams's comment that "I have learned to think De Tocqueville my model, and I study his life and works as the Gospel of my private religion." Wills disagrees with the former and ignores the latter. According to him, Adams's favorite ancestor was not an Adams at all. It was his grandmother, Louisa Catherine Johnson (Mrs. John Quincy Adams). Louisa was born in London to a Maryland family. Adams's sympathy for her, combined with his work on her biography and his praise for Virginians such as George Washington and John Marshall, leads Wills to describe Adams as an "honorary southerner." Yet later, Wills quotes Adams's comment to his brother that "[o]ur house needs a historian in this generation," which presumably did not mean the Johnson household. Wills's chapters on Adams's professional development ramble a good deal, but the overall point is that the youthful Adams was not the dyspeptic pessimist of the Education of Henry Adams. On the contrary, in these years Adams learned some important positive lessons that would shape the character of his History. In particular, he gained practical insight into American politics, and into the nature and purpose of historical writing. 

The second, far longer part of the book is little more than a synopsis of Adams's History, interspersed with occasional bits of commentary, usually with a reference to one or two other sources, and not always the most recent ones. Wills's chapters on the Jefferson Administration, for example, read sometimes like a moderated dialogue between Dumas Malone and Henry Adams. The plot summaries are not bad, but this part of the book is chock-full of diversions, so much so that the reader often loses track of Wills's point—which has to do with how to read the history. One is left wondering why Wills did not simply turn this part of the book into a 30-page chapter that made his case crisply and coherently.

Buried amid the verbiage, Wills maintains that most readers misunderstand the History because they mistakenly view it as the Adams family's revenge upon Thomas Jefferson; and because they read it in light of Adams's Education. They assume, in short, that the History is a petty work by a bitter man. Moreover, its chief interpreters have been literary scholars, who know little about the politics of the early republic. Yet, somehow the conventional understanding of the History that Wills describes rests in uneasy tension with the conventional belief that the History is a great work, and a great work cannot be so shallow.

While many readers regard the History as little more than a classic narrative, Wills understands that "[i]t is analytical throughout." Adams "turns upside down the previous consensus on the period covered, so drastically that many have missed the point of the History entirely—which is not that Republicans became Federalists in office, but that they led a breakout from both ideologies." In the History, the democratic nation rose as America's founding ideologies failed. But according to Wills, Adams thought this an unambiguously good thing, which is more than the facts will bear.

In 1876, shortly before resigning his posts as editor of the North American Review and Assistant Professor of History at Harvard to work on the History, Adams took a look back at the first American century. He commissioned a series of essays in the Review, which took stock of the nation. "The object," he wrote, "is to ascertain whether and to what degree Americans should feel satisfaction or disappointment at the result of a century's activity." Wills comments that "the report card was in fact more favorable, overall, than harsh," though tellingly, "it does not single out for praise the spurt of progress Adams would find in the first sixteen years of the nineteenth century." According to Wills, the History "moves from a fragmented country, its regions out of touch with each other and stalled in tired traditions, to a nation pulling itself together." But what about that nation's character? Events, Wills says, forced "party ideology itself, to become that most American of things—pragmatic." He notes Adams's belief that "'the American, in his political character, was a new variety of man,'" but he overlooks Adams comment that, "opinions might differ whether the political movement was progressive or retrograde."

Adams thought it too soon to pass judgment on the American people. Early in the History, he notes that the first colonies "all avowed a moral purpose, and began by making institutions that consciously reflected a moral idea." After 1800, Adams found, "From Lake Erie to Florida, in long, unbroken line, pioneers were at work, cutting into the forests with the energy of so many beavers, and with no more express moral purpose than the beavers they drove away." Wills quotes all that, but he cuts off the following sentence, "The civilization they carried with them was rarely illumined by an idea." And he misses the exchange that Adams put on the next page: Jeffersonians believed, "'[T]his is progress! I expect it to be made here, under our democratic stimulants, on a great scale, until every man is potentially an athlete in body and an Aristotle in mind.' To this doctrine the New Englander replied, 'What will you do for moral progress?'" Adams notes, "every possible answer opened a chasm." It is therefore no surprise that Wills overlooks the series of questions with which the History ends: 

They were intelligent, but what paths would their intelligence select? They were quick, but what solution of insoluble problems would quickness hurry? They were scientific, and what control would their science exercise over their destiny? They were mild, but what corruptions would their relaxations bring? They were peaceful, but by what machinery were their corruptions to be purged? What interests were to vivify a society so vast and uniform? What ideals were to ennoble it? What object, besides physical content, must a democratic continent aspire to maintain? For the treatment of such questions, history required another century of experience. 

Hardly a triumphant conclusion. Here Adams followed something his great-grandfather had said. On June 7, 1826, less than a month before his death, the second president wrote that American independence would be "a memorable epoch in the annals of the human race; destined in future history to form the brightest or the blackest page, according to the use or the abuse of those political institutions by which they shall in time to come be shaped by the human mind." A full lifetime later the jury was still out. The Adamses believed that America would be powerful, but would the nation use its power for good?

* * *

How does Wills miss this part of the story? He has written books about several founders, but not John Adams. He does not know what an Adamsian take on the founding looks like, nor does he notice how often Henry quotes his great-grandfather without attribution (Henry learned John Adams's wisdom at a young age. His first work of history, which Wills does not mention, was assisting his father in editing The Works of John Adams). Moreover, Wills does not appreciate the distinction Henry drew between John and John Quincy Adams. While working on this book, Wills became acquainted with Brooks Adams's unpublished biography of John Quincy. In his critique of the manuscript, Henry went after his grandfather with both barrels (one suspects that was partly to challenge his brother's vulgar partisanship). Wills quotes some of these passages with relish, though not always accurately, and from them he mistakenly concludes that Henry had it in for all of the Adams patriarchs. He ignores one important comment, however:

I have turned myself inside out like an india-rubber ball to make a case for everybody, and especially for J.Q.A. whose case is the weakest of the lot, at least for me to defend, because I am most interested in profiting by the defense. The result is what you see. All I ask is to be civil. I will not be as big a brute as J.Q.A. was, but I am ready to go all lengths for his father.

In the Education Adams described his opposition to Populism: "he thought it probably his last chance of standing up for his eighteenth-century principles, strict construction, limited powers, George Washington, John Adams, and the rest."

Henry Adams's comments about John and John Quincy Adams shed interesting light on the History, which documents the failure of both Hamiltonian and Jeffersonian party doctrines as governing philosophies. All that was left was federalism in its original sense—the sense in which Hamilton, Jefferson, Madison, and the rest of the founders had united in supporting the U.S. Constitution. When Henry Adams praised John Marshall and George Washington, he was praising moderate federalism, which the Adamses regarded as the best legacy of 1789. That was John Adams's brand of federalism. He made Marshall the Chief Justice for a reason. Lauding John Adams explicitly would be bad form for Henry. "I never write about such subjects when I can help it," he wrote, "because, if I admire them, it may be family prejudice." Moreover, John Adams's politics were not popular, and in a democratic republic parties needed popular ideologies. From an Adamsian perspective, the success portrayed in the History came at a cost. In order to forge the nation, Wills notes, "this governance violated every principle of both the old parties." If "every principle" upheld by Hamiltonians and Jeffersonians fell by the wayside, what remained? Could pragmatism be justified on its own terms? Few Americans wished to face that question. Near the History's conclusion, Adams noted that Americans looked away, "as though conscious that of all misfortunes that could befall the national character, the greatest would be the loss of established ideals which alone ennobled human weakness." 

Concluding his book, wills gives a brief for the living constitution. On the one hand, "[t]his eighteenth-century document is still the law of the land, and it must be construed as such." On the other hand, he says, "it reflects a society that was deeply flawed (as all societies must be)." Wills suggests that we indulge in "creative misreading" and "look at how Lincoln construed the Declaration of Independence." According to Wills, Lincoln "said that Jefferson's statement that 'all men are created equal' should mean that blacks are the equal of whites. But it did not mean that to Jefferson." That is a very creative misreading; Jefferson was indeed a votary of human equality. Wills turns to Washington—a hero he and Adams share—who, according to Wills, grew increasingly hostile to slavery as he aged. Yet Washington did not think major steps against slavery were politically feasible in his lifetime, so he did little. Jefferson faced the same problem and reached the same conclusion, and yet Wills does not extend him the same courtesy.

Adams did rather more justice to the founders in general and Jefferson in particular. Jefferson, after all, was his great-grandfather's friend. Henry Adams learned from his ancestors that prudence entails a negotiation between principle and expediency, and assumes that Jefferson understood that reality. In that sense, Adams's book does, in fact, vindicate all the founding fathers. Between the lines it teaches the virtues of a moderate constitutionalism. This constitutionalism does not, as Wills argues, jettison the past in the name of the future, and leave us drifting on a pragmatic sea. On the contrary, it seeks to preserve what was best in the founding as we meet the challenges of the present.

Henry Adams and the Making of America is not a bad book, but it is not particularly good, either. Readers would be better off skipping it and going directly to the fine edition of Adams's History published by the Library of America, keeping in mind three things. The History is the basic story of how America became a nation, even as its leaders blundered along; at the same time, Adams wished to evaluate the character of that nation; and finally, he tried "to make a case for everybody." That is, he tried to present how they understood things for themselves; and often phrases that seem to present Adams's opinion in fact provide Jefferson's, or Madison's, or John Randolph's. Sometimes Adams agreed with their opinions, but often he chose to keep his own views obscure. He learned from his fathers that free citizens must think for themselves.