The American historian and author Henry Brooks Adams (1838-1918) lived in an era of remarkable change and recorded the implications of the period with great perception. He is best known for "Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres" and "The Education of Henry Adams."
Henry Adams was born in Boston on Feb. 16, 1838, the fourth of seven children of Charles Francis and Abigail Brooks Adams. Henry's mother was the daughter of one of Boston's wealthiest men; his father was the son of John Quincy Adams, sixth president of the United States, and the grandson of John Adams, second president. The boy grew up in a household which contained Boston's largest private library and in which politics and history were perpetually present.
Entering Harvard in 1854, Adams proved himself an able student, but the proffered reward of high class standing did not tempt him to become a conformist even in this period of rigid college regulations. He wrote for the Harvard Magazine, acted for the Hasty Pudding Club, and at his graduation in 1858 was chosen Class Day Orator. Although he had learned far more than a reader of his autobiography might imagine, he graduated without academic distinction. In the autumn he traveled to Germany, intending to study law at the University of Berlin. When he discovered that his German was inadequate for university study, he entered a gymnasium (secondary school) for one semester. He toured Europe for 2 years, sending reports to a Boston newspaper.
When Adams returned to America in 1860, he became private secretary to his father, newly elected to Congress, and again arranged to act as correspondent for a newspaper in his native city. The plans of father and son were abruptly altered in March 1861, when President Lincoln appointed the elder Adams minister to Great Britain. By the time the new minister and his private secretary sailed, Southern forces had fired on Fort Sumter and the Civil War had begun. Henry thought of seeking a commission, but his elder brother Charles, himself in the army, urged him to remain in England and advance the Union cause as a writer. Whether or not the reports Henry published in the New York Times and elsewhere contributed to the war effort is an open question, but the 7 years he spent with his father in England unquestionably contributed greatly to his education. He met Sir Charles Lyell and John Stuart Mill and at their urging read the works of Auguste Comte and Herbert Spencer; in the course of time these influences would reorient his thinking on politics, economics, and science. During this period Henry Adams published three long and promising articles in the influential North American Review.
Adams returned to the United States in 1868 and settled in Washington, where he reported on the political scene for the Nation and for some newspapers. The Adams family was accustomed to wielding power, and he doubtless dreamed from time to time of holding high office, but the political realities of Washington in the "gilded age" seem to have brought him quickly to the conviction that his role would be that of critic and commentator rather than political leader. His brilliant, acerbic articles were soon making him famous and men in and near the White House infamous. In the autumn of 1870 he reluctantly quit Washington for Boston to become editor of the North American Review and assistant professor of history at Harvard.
At Harvard, Adams's teaching assignments were concentrated in the medieval period, but his methods were modern and innovative, emphasizing student participation rather than lectures, and critical understanding rather than the memorization of names and dates. In 1872 Adams married the wealthy and intelligent Marian Hooper and took her to Europe for a year-long wedding trip. This was the beginning of the happiest and most productive period of his life— a period which, ironically enough, he omits entirely from his autobiography. By 1876 he was ready to offer his Harvard students a course on the history of the United States from 1789 to 1840. From that course he developed materials for the books upon which his reputation as a historian rests: Documents Relating to New England Federalism, 1800-1815 (1877); The Writing and The Life of Albert Gallatin (1879), a classic political portrait; John Randolph (1882); and the monumental History of the United States during the Administrations of Jefferson and Madison (9 vols., 1889-1891).
Adams resigned as editor of the North American Review in 1876 in an election-year dispute with the loyal Republican publishers. The following year he left Harvard and settled with his wife in Washington, where he could more easily pursue his historical research. In 1879 they returned to Europe, spending much of the winter in London, often in the company of their close friend Henry James. Before their return to America in the fall of 1880, an anonymous novel treating the political and social life of Washington appeared under the title Democracy; Adams's authorship of this sprightly piece was to remain a well-kept secret until 1909.
Living in Washington again, the Adamses established their own little court—a splendid circle of sentimental cynics which included John Hay and his wife, the brilliant geologist and writer Clarence King, and the aging senator Don Cameron and his wife, Elizabeth. Elizabeth, always a favorite of Adams, served as the model for Catherine in his second novel, the pseudonymous Esther (1884). The title character was based on Adams's wife, and it is a tender and touching portrait. In 1885 Marian Adams's father died; she sank rapidly into a manic-depressive condition and on December 7 committed suicide. "For twelve years I had everything I most wanted on earth," Henry Adams wrote to a friend; suddenly he seemed to have nothing.
Six months after his wife's death, Adams and the artist John La Farge set out for Japan. Adams returned in time to stand by his father's deathbed in November 1886. He went to Washington next and completed the History. More travels followed, notably a trip to Polynesia, again with La Farge, in 1890. One of the native women Adams admired provided materials for Memoirs of Marau Taaroa, Last Queen of Tahiti (1893). From the South Seas the writer-traveler journeyed to France.
In 1904 Adams privately printed Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres, a classic study of the architecture, thought, and spirit of the Middle Ages (a trade edition appeared in 1913). In this book the Virgin of Chartres stands as a symbol of 13th-century unity. For his next major work he also found a dominant symbol in France: the dynamo he observed at the Paris Exposition of 1900 somehow expressed for him the "multiplicity" of the 20th century. This was the subject of the book for which he is best remembered, The Education of Henry Adams (private edition 1907; published 1918). Customarily called his autobiography, it is really the history of an era.
Adams spent his last years in Washington, surrounded by nieces and visited by a new generation of America's social and political elite. He approved of President Wilson's decision to enter World War I because he hoped it would lead the country into a permanent Atlantic alliance. Adams died quietly in his home on March 26, 1918. He was buried in Rock Creek Cemetery beside the grave of his wife with no marker save the beautiful statue he had commissioned Augustus Saint-Gaudens to execute for her.
Ernest Samuels's exemplary biography in three volumes is the standard authority: The Young Henry Adams (1948), Henry Adams: The Middle Years (1958), and Henry Adams: The Major Phase (1964). J. C. Levenson, The Mind and Art of Henry Adams (1957), is rigorous and thorough. George Hochfield, Henry Adams: An Introduction and Interpretation (1962), is also useful.