Henry Adams and the Making of America

Henry Adams and the Making of America
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Some time ago, my professor, Dr. Gerard Reed, encouraged me to study the philosophy of history of Henry Adams.  A century ago Henry Adams, the grandson of John Quincy Adams and great-grandson of John Adams, had a significant influence in teaching historians, writers and journalists; he developed the innovative method of using archival sources, interviews from eye witnesses and other techniques that established high standards in historical writing. I found most of my material from The Education of Henry Adams. I regret that I never tried to read Adams’s nine volumes of History of the United States of America During the Administrations of Thomas Jefferson & James Madison.  However, I continued to read Adam’s novels and books concerning him.

In a recent study, Henry Adams and the Making of America, the prolific Northwestern University historian Garry Wills establishes his point that, as a historian, Adams was an original.  Indeed, he asserts, Adams’ History is “the non-fiction prose masterpiece of the nineteenth century in America.”  Wills declares that Adams’s History  “turns upside down the previous consensus on the period covered, so drastically that many have missed the point of the History entirely”
(p. 389).  He believes that most readers, including historians, failed to read the complete nine volumes and thus incorrectly concluded that Adams was writing a family defense and justification.

Although Wills objects to people reading Henry Adams backward from The Education of Henry Adams to The History, he does exactly that in his book, dividing his treatise into two parts:  one, “The Making of an Historian,” and two, “The Making of a Nation.”  However, because of the great influence of Henry Adams, and of the recurring relevance of analyzing the formation of the United States, the method Wills employs in this book is justified.  Importantly, for us, anyone interested in “original intent” of the Constitution should read Adams’ History of the United States of America During the Administrations of Thomas Jefferson & James Madison.  For Adams gives evidence to a unique intellectual development and maturity that enabled him to correctly analyze how this great nation of ours was made.  “The processes of his own development and the nation’s are mutually reinforcing.  One mirrors the other.”

Adams would, Wills insists, as a philosopher of history, accept Tolstoy’s rule that men do not make events but events make men. He believed that the making of the American nation was “forged on the anvil of other nations.”  Yet, in an ironic twist, Adams as a practicing historian wrote and dwelt on the great leaders of this historical era.  He believed that two of the leading figures that shaped the America that we know today were the actions and response of two men responding to particular events:  Jefferson and Napoleon (p. 389).  Wills quotes an 1883 Adams’ statement reflecting on leading characters of his History:  “I am at times almost sorry that I ever undertook to write their history, for they appear like mere grasshoppers, kicking and gesticulating in the middle of the Mississippi River.  There is no possibility of reconciling their theories with their acts, or their extraordinary foreign policy with dignity.”

Yet, though such statements might indicate otherwise, Wills insists that Adams was not the deterministic, defeatist and pessimistic historian some have portrayed him to be.  Adams believed that a leading man’s response to events would and did bring about a brighter and better future.  I am reminded of similarities to President Ronald Reagan when Wills explains Adams explanation of Jefferson:  “By trusting that the outcome would be glorious, he became the transmitter of forces that would make the outcome glorious—and would make him accept it almost despite himself” (p. 392).

Thus, the “second revolution” that Jefferson spoke about was not a return to the original intent of the founders, as he claimed, but his leadership instead “led a breakout from both ideologies” of the Federalists and Republicans.  Jefferson the President was not a Jeffersonian!  Wills encapsulates this conclusion with an enlightening statement which gives us insight about Adams, about the making of history, about the making of men, and about the making of the great nation we call Home:  “This is the irony of history as Adams traces it.  It tells us how the Jeffersonians wrought better than they knew while they thought they were doing something else.  In the end, they made a nation.”

In our own political climate, in an era with its own issues with political parties, court appointments, administrative power, legislative corruption and centralized government, we should agree with Adams who believed it made no logical sense to view American History and current political events as a continuation of the eighteenth-century feud between the Hamiltonians and the Jeffersonians.

After reading Wills’ book, the only incentive that should remain is to find and read Henry Adams’ History—all nine volumes.


Allen K. Brown, is an attorney, living in Fullerton, California.