THE LAST AMERICAN ARISTOCRAT: THE BRILLIANT LIFE AND IMPROBABLE EDUCATION OF HENRY ADAMS by David S. Brown

(Henry Adams)

What impact does one’s lineage have on the course of one’s life?  If you were born into a family where you are the great-grandson of a Founding Father, the grandson of a president, and the son of a Congressman and Minister to England one would assume you would have a great deal to live up to.  In the case of Henry Adams, an important contributor to the “Adams Dynasty” politics was not a passion as it was for those who preceded him, and he chose the path of journalism, historian, and author.  Adams lived a fascinating life based on his writing, travels, and the historical personage he was close to or came in contact with.  Adam’s journey is recounted in David S. Brown’s latest biography, THE LAST AMERICAN ARISTOCRAT: THE BRILLIANT LIFE AND IMPROBABLE EDUCATION OF HENRY ADAMS.

Adams excelled in a number of areas.  His reputation has been formulated in large part by his autobiography, THE EDUCATION OF HENRY ADAMS where he warned Americans about unlimited immeasurable power that would be unleashed in the 20th century which won a posthumous Pulitzer Prize in biography.  Adams’ other major work was his masterful HISTORY OF THE UNITED STATES DURING THE ADMIMISTRATIONS OF THOMAS JEFFERSON AND JAMES MADISON, a nine volume compilation that historian Gary Wills calls “the non-fiction prose masterpiece of the 19th century in America.”  Brown’s biography captures the fullness of Adams’ remarkable life that encompassed many highs, as a political reformer, novelist, world and traveler.  It also encompassed a number of devastating lows which include a pressure packed family familiar that was familiar with depression, alcoholism, and suicide along with presenting an important window into 19th century American history.

Brown emphasizes Adams’ role as a transitional figure between colonial and modern America.  More specifically American history was moving toward “an imperial, industrial identity, one both increasingly beholden to technology and concerned with the fate of the white race. This is the context that the author believes Adams must be viewed in order to understand him.

The book itself is divided into two parts.  The first takes his life to 1885 and the suicide of his wife, Marian Hooper, called Clover.  In this section the reader is exposed to Adams’ impressions, Harvard and European education, and influences and pressure brought forth by his family resulting in the last of his generation of relations to achieve national recognition.  During this period his rural Quincy, MA background which he believed was superior to other parts of America, his bitter reaction to partisan politics, his attraction to a cosmopolitan Europe, and the development of his elitist outlook on life are all explored.  Following Clover’s death, Brown deftly examines a person who seemed to be set adrift resorting to constant travel, darkening meditations on capitalism’s quick expansion, and a propensity toward different personas, i.e., “Henry the 12th century Norman, the Tahitian prince, and the progress defying and denying conservative Christian anarchist.”  All of the masks that Adams’ personality presents point toward some quiet defiance of modernity, as all were primitive and skeptical of the coming age. 

According to Brown, this component of his personality defined his outlook and “at times threatened to distort his work, leading to caricature, doomsaying, and the uncritical elevation of those civilizations and peoples he often patronizingly regarded as anti-modern.” This aspect of his thought process opened to him an exceptionally wide range of ideas and yielded a complicated and insightful individual as any American thinker for his time period and beyond.  As Adams wrote in his autobiography, “by the unknowable, uncontrollable dynamo of industrial development; it is a world we have inherited, a cultural spirit we have yet to shake.”

(Marian (Clover) Hooper Adams on horseback, 1869)

Brown has a strong handle on the course of American history during Adams’ lifetime.  He effectively integrates important events and characters into the narrative and how they impacted Adams’ opinions, thought processes and actions.  An area that Brown spends a great deal of time is dealing with race and slavery in particular.  Brown makes the important connection between the “Lords of the Leash” and the “Lords of the Loom” as he describes the economically incestuous relationship between northern manufacturers and southern planters.  In Brown’s view Adams saw slaves/blacks as inferior to whites and held many of the same racial views of his time including men like Abraham Lincoln and William Seward.  The difference is that Adams’ views concerning ending slavery did not evolve as Lincoln and Seward’s did.  Henry held the seemingly New England Puritan view that opposed anything compromised, wicked, or wrong.  This is evident in his efforts during the Gilded Age to combat various forms of political, financial, and corporate corruption on the part of “Robber Barons” and their political cohorts.

Adams’ intellectual development was greatly influenced by the trends and political movements he observed before the Civil War.  As he evolved as a “thinker” he was exposed to events leading up to and including the ramifications of the Mexican War that led to the Compromise of 1850 and the slow progression toward war.  For Adams, the difference between north and south presented a dichotomy he found difficult.  The north represented education, free labor, piety, and industry, but he was also attracted to the south’s lack of institutional oversight, of church, state, and school, that pinched him at home in Quincy.  Despite this view of the south and a close friendship with Robert E. Lee’s son, Adams could not shake the divergent views when it came to slavery.  Throughout the pre and post-Civil War period Adams suffered from a failure to grasp the ethical struggle over slavery.  Many of his views were rather fanciful, i.e., the idea that the south would be defeated quickly, he saw Lincoln as a clumsy, rustic and too western etc.  The strength of Brown’s biography emerges as he discusses of Adams’ intellectual evolution as he went from a poor prognosticator to an eminent historian.

Adams’ education was a cacophony of differences.  Harvard for him was not a success as unfortunately he attended the Cambridge institution at a time when it was at the tail end of its older scholastic tradition.  When he graduated in 1858 Harvard was on the cusp of major curriculum changes and approaches to teaching science, economics, and politics.  Adams would travel to Germany to further his education outside the study of law that seemed to be his family’s traditional avocation.  He rejected the stringency of German university education but enjoyed traveling throughout Bismarck’s realm.  While in Europe he wrote a column for a Boston paper reflecting his love of travel particularly Italy where he was taken by the Italian movement toward unity and meeting Giuseppe Garibaldi and learning about Cavour.  While traveling Adams read Edward Gibbons’ THE DECLINE AND FALL OF THE ROMAN EMPIRE and decided the Adams family needed a historian.

Charles Francis Adams

(Charles Francis Adams)

During the Civil War his father, Charles Francis Adams gave up his congressional seat to become the US Minister to England, Henry served as his secretary.  Their role was to make sure England did not afford the south diplomatic recognition and political and economic support.  After a slow start integrating into English society, Henry was able to adapt in large part because his own snobbish approach to people fit in with the English upper class.  Henry’s elitism plays a major role in Brown’s analysis of his subjects’ behavior and the evolution of his beliefs.  Upon returning to the US after the war it appeared the Adams’s were becoming more and more irrelevant which pushed Henry to leave Quincy for Washington and position himself as a political critic.  Obviously, the key issues of the day surrounded the plight of former slaves.

Brown’s insights into Adams views of race are insightful as he stresses Adams’ refusal to accept slavery’s corrosive and all pervading impact on America.  Brown is accurate when he argues that Adams narrow outlook reduced slavery to a  “repercussion-less fact, a wicked act now mercifully ended.”  In addition, he had an inability to see congressional reconstruction as a moral struggle rather than a political blunder reflecting his indifference to race.  He opposed the 15th amendment and feared Congress was overstepping its bounds, and he totally misjudged the south’s ferocity to reclaim what they saw was stolen from them.  Adams suffered from the delusion that a virtuous people was unfairly subjugated by a combination of Yankee carpetbaggers, black congressmen, and unscrupulous scalawags.  He had gone to Washington to free Congress from corrupt corporations and lobbyists but failed to appreciate America’s racial problems as” he lacked urgency, insight, or empathy.”

Adams was content to be a political outsider.  He viewed himself as a reformer despite the fact he clung to a patrician system that was on its way out.  He did recognize his personal aristocratic expectation of achieving political power was not going to pan out and resented the new social order that deprived him of this type of success from the monied men at the top to the immigrants at the bottom.  His anti-Semitism was ever present as he tended to blame Jews for the monied interests that appeared to dominate the American economy as it developed capitalist wealth which negatively impacted the American people.  Reflecting his elitism, Adams was the type of person who believed that few men or women were his equal, however his friends loved him, but he definitely was an acquired taste.

photograph of John Hay
(John Hay)

Brown does an exceptional job detailing Adams’ career as a writer and an intellectual.  He argues that Adams’ approach is diverse.  He can be considered one of the first “muckrakers” as coined by Theodore Roosevelt as he published a series of articles dealing with corruption during the Grant administration.  His “The New York Gold Conspiracy” zeroes in on Jay Gould and James Fiske’s attempt to corner the gold market.  In this and other articles he warns that a “rising plutocracy threatened to upend the republic.  Brown focuses on Adams’ more literary projects along with the personal drama surrounding the publication of each.  Novels like ESTHER and  DEMOCRACY reflect his talent as a satirist along with many personal details particularly his spouse Clover.  His greatest triumph came as a historian as his nine volume history of the Jefferson and Madison administrations reflected not only American history from 1800 to 1817 but also it places events in the United States in the context of European politics.  Brown points to the major criticism of the work in that Adams downplayed the impact of slavery and ignored its strong presence in the northern economy and society.  Further, women are hidden in the narrative with but a few mentions like Dolly Madison and Aaron Burr’s daughter Theodosia.  Adams’ focus is a dismissal of elitism and praises the contributions of non-elites for American society.  Following this history Adams continued his literary career with MONT-SAINT MICHEL AND CHARTRES, a meditative reflection on medieval culture.

Much of Brown’s approach as a biographer is his ability to analyze Adams’ personal writings and delving into a plethora of primary documents.  Further Brown’s portraits of Adams’ friends, allies, and enemies over his lifetime creates a coherent intellectual and political history of half of the 19th century.  Brown has created a land bridge through Henry Adams’ eyes that effectively connects the 19th and 20th centuries that his readers will benefit from.  But one must remember as Brown points out that Adams suffered a number of personal tragedies from the death of his sister Louise, the suicide of his wife that is reflected in his distinctive fatalism built upon an already “defensive and satirical exterior to stiffen.”

Henry Adams’ life is a historical duality in that he thought of himself as an 18th century man and argued for decades against corruption and searched for an antidote for Anglo-Saxon materialism.  However, despite his firm belief that capitalism could ruin the United States in the coming 20th century, he did little on a personal level to disavow his own wealth which allowed him to travel the world, purchase art works and other cultural artifacts, and benefit from the fruits of his societal position.

To sum up Brown has offered  a credible account of America’s transformation during one man’s lifetime, from a Republic where the Adams name was extremely consequential, to an industrialized monolith that had left the family behind.  As historian Amy Greenberg writes “it’s a tribute to Brown’s talent as a biographer that he enables the reader to feel empathy for a man who expressed so little for anyone else.”

The Education of Henry Adams by [Henry Adams]

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