The Other Adams

Actually, there are a zillion Adamses, many of them interesting, but the one I want to talk about is Henry Adams (1838-1918), great-grandson of the President John Adams, grandson of President John Quincy Adams.
This Adams was a total intellectual. He had money so he did not need to work, and mostly didn’t. He was on the Harvard history faculty for a few years. He was secretary to his father while his father was U.S. Minister to Great Britain during the Civil War. That may be it for paid employment.
Henry Adams in 1875
But the man wrote remarkable books. His political novel, Democracy, is often cited as the best American political novel. His autobiography, The Education of Henry Adams , is required reading for an infinite number of American Studies course.
Adams also has proved to be a terrific subject for books. Patricia O’Toole’s Five of Hearts is a brilliant treatment of Adams and his closest circle of friends, which included Lincoln secretary and Secretary of State John Hay. O’Toole is masterful in blending the story lines of five different people — a brutally difficult job that she manages seamlessly — but it helps that Adams, despite being a dilettante who never actually DID anything, is a fascinating, sympathetic, and human character.
Garry Wills has checked in with Henry Adams and the Making of America, which I would describe as an extended book report about Adams multi-volume histories of the Jefferson and Madison Administrations (1800-1816). I know it sounds dull, but it’s anything but.
First, Wills is never dull (even though there were a couple of depressing factual errors in the book — see p. 77, Thad Stevens was never a Senator!). He brings a curious, well-informed mind to every subject.
Second, there is something deeply weird about a direct descendant of two presidents (John and John Quincy) who chose to write about John A.’s mortal enemies, Jefferson and Madison, and to praise them. That’s interesting.
There’s lots more. I was intrigued by Wills’ theory that the redoubtable Abigail Adams destroyed the lives of four of her descendants by her incessant harassment. It’s certainly true that her two younger sons turned out miserably (drunks, ne’er-do-wells); Wills claims that John Quincy escaped that fate because Papa John took him to Europe when he was 12, and got him out from under Mom’s tongue-lashings.
Then J.Q. left his two older sons with his Abigail for several years while he was Minister to Russia. Sure enough, those two turned out just the same; only Charles Francis (J.Q.’s youngest, who escaped extended exposure to Abigail) was worth a damn. Food for thought. Then again, maybe it’s the old symptom of always blaming the mom.
Anyway, I got steamed up enough to put Adams’ histories of the Madison and Jefferson Administrations on my birthday list, and I got them! Pretty sweet, you’re thinking. Give him a try.


  1. Colin Stewart on April 5, 2008 at 8:11 pm

    I just bought “Democracy” today before reading this post. I’m looking forward to reading it!

  2. Nate Levin on April 7, 2008 at 3:12 pm

    In “Beyond the Hundredth Meridian”, Wallace Stegner’s classic (if not always sound) biography of John Wesley Powell, Powell, the doer-optimist is contrasted with Henry Adams, portrayed as a thinker-pessimist.

Leave a Comment