Americana: Henry Adams


(1838-1918). Henry Adams was an historian and writer, a fourth generation member of one of America’s most distinguished families. Henry Adams loved history and lived it, which became an influence on his long life. Childhood visits to his grandfather, John Quincy Adams, in the White House and family tales of great-grand parents, John and Abigail Adams allowed him to personalize facts and dates he studied as history in school. During the Civil War he witnessed history in the making as secretary to his father, Charles Francis Adams, minister to the Court of St. James.

Henry Adams was a master of English prose, and instead of becoming a physical part of history he chose to write about it. His classic account of his school years was written in a book entitled The Education of Henry Adams, privately printed in 1907 and published in 1918. Today it remains a popular historic work that includes letters, essays and Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres that was privately printed in 1904 and published in 1913. He also wrote novels: Democracy in 1880 and Esther in 1884.
Henry Adams reputation as an historian is recognized in his nine-volume History of the United States of America during the Administration of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison
(1889-1891), a pioneer piece of intellectual literature and documentary history that focuses upon the years between the presidency of John Adams and John Quincy Adams.
Henry Adams is also known for his introduction of both the seminar method and the Germanic rigor of the Ph.D. degree to Harvard during his seven-year tenure as a faculty member and editor of the North American Review. Dissatisfied with both academic positions, he moved to Washington, DC, where he conducted research for his nine-volume history. After that period he traveled extensively during the remaining years of his life.
In 1885, his domestic world was shattered by the suicide of his wife, Marian Hooper Adams who he affectionately called Clover, which drove him into seclusion.
His notable friends and acquaintances were geologist Clarence King; political John Hay, biographer of Abraham Lincoln; and the beautiful Elizabeth Cameron, who was unhappily married to a much older senator, who consoled him in his later life.Henry Adams believed in scientific history – founded upon physics and mathematics. Yet in his book of his education years he wrote:
Chaos was the law of nature; Order was the dream of man.
Henry Adams insisted that although the traits of American character were fixed any final test of the results required another century to experience.


Henry Adams: Scientific Historian by William H. Jordy, 1952; The Mind and Art of Henry Adams by J.C. Levenson, 1957; Henry Adams by Ernest Samuels, 1989.