Henry Adams

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Henry Brooks Adams (February 16, 1838 - March 27, 1918) was an American author and historian.

Birth and education

Henry Adams was the fourth child of Charles Francis Adams Sr. and Abigail Brown Brooks, grandson of John Quincy Adams and great grandson of John Adams. He was named after Henry Brooks, his mother's favorite brother. [1]

In 1854, as was expected, he enrolled in Harvard University. Adams later lamented these years, saying that "no one took Harvard College seriously," and that the course of study "resulted in an autobiographical blank, a mind on which only a water-mark had been stamped."[2] Nonetheless, Adams fell in with a circle of friends who had greater impact on his development than his professors: Roony Lee (son of Robert E. Lee), Henry Hobson Richardson, and Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.. He was also initiated into the Hasty Pudding Club. During these last years he was active in theater and discovered a passion for books. By his junior year he also began his journalism career, writing much for the Harvard Magazine. His greatest accomplishment at Harvard was being elected "class orator," the highest honor.[3] Adams graduated in 1858.


On the advice of James Russell Lowell, Adams decided to continue his studies abroad. He enrolled at the University of Berlin to study law but was hampered by his ignorance of German. He tried to remedy this by enrolling in a local boys' school. However, this setback only stripped Adams of motivation, and he spent most of his time frivolously.[4] By the summer of 1860, his travels were over.

Civil War years

Adams returned home in 1860 during both the heated presidential election and his father's bid for reelection to the US House of Representatives. He tried his hand again at law, taking employment with Judge Horace Gray's Boston firm, but this was short-lived. With his father's victory in November, Charles Francis asked Henry to be his private secretary, a familial role between father and son going back to John and John Quincy. It was a sign that Charles Francis had chosen Henry as the political scion of the Adams family. But Henry himself shouldered the responsibility reluctantly and with much self-doubt. "[I] had little to do," he reflected later, "and knew not how to do it rightly."[5] During this time, Henry secured outside (but anonymous) employment as the Washington Correspondent for Charles Hale's Boston Advertiser.

On March 19, 1861, Lincoln appointed Adams' father Minister to the Court of St. James (i.e. Britain), and Henry continued as his private secretary. In London, Henry again sought outlet for his literary pursuits, taking employment (again anonymously) as the London correspondent for the New York Times. Henry's main concerns, as London correspondent, lay in attempting to persuade the American audience to maintain patience with the British. As his social life expanded in Britain, Adams befriended many noted men including Charles Lyell, Francis T. Palgrave, Richard Monckton Milnes, James Milnes Gaskell, and Charles Milnes Gaskell.

It was also in Britain that Henry read and was taken with the works of J. S. Mill. For Adams, Mill showed (in Consideration on Representative Government) the necessity of an enlightened, moral, and intelligent elite to provide leadership to a government elected by the masses and subject to demagoguery, ignorance, and corruption. Henry wrote to his brother Charles that Mill demonstrated to him that "democracy is still capable of rewarding a conscientious servant."[6] His years in London showed him that as a correspondent and journalist (and not as a politician as was his family's tradition) he could best provide America with that knowledgeable and conscientious leadership.


Henry Adams returned to the US with his father in July 1868. The war had created many questions for the reforming republic. Questions about governmental power, about the economy, about the make-up of society. The United States' economy was entering into a period of intense industrialization, large concentrations of economic power were emerging that had not been a part of the pre-war republic. Adams threw himself into the public debate of these questions and changes. As a journalist for The Nation, the North American Review, and other serials, his views tended toward the reform ideas of the Liberal Republicans and mugwumps. In keeping with the lessons he gained from living overseas, he believed that the US, both politically and socially, had lost the moral and intellectual leadership of his elite class. In order to make an impact, Adams decided he needed to reside in the seat of power and so he moved to Washington.

Adams soon fell in with a group of reform-minded politicians and journalists including Carl Schurtz, David A. Wells, Jacob D. Cox, Samuel Bowles, Murat Halstead, and Henry Watterson.

Adams tried using the power of the press as his means to influence politics. His first subject of criticism was paper currency, the policy that the government had adopted to finance the Civil War. He also criticized the tariff, southern reconstruction, and the Grant Administration. The cronyism and scandals of the Grant Administration pushed Adams towards the civil service reforms of the Liberal Republicans. His disgust of Grant was immense. He even offered Grant as evidence for the dis-proof of Darwinism. His greatest condemnation of the Grant Administration came in his "New York Gold Conspiracy" an investigation of the 1869 Gold Corner.

Nonetheless, Adams found nearly all of his journalistic polemics falling on deaf ears. In trying to persuade the American public towards a course of action he had crashed like so many waves upon immutable rocks. He came to conclude that he could not influence politics as he wished and had become spent and disgusted in the effort. In the spring of 1870, he again left the United States for a European holiday. It was in Italy, that a letter from Charles W. Eliot caught up with him, asking that Adams accept a professorship of history at Harvard University.

Harvard professor


Jefferson and Madison

As Washington socialite


  1. Harold Dean Cater, comp., Henry Adams and His Friends (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1947), xvi-xvii.
  2. Henry Adams, The Education of Henry Adams (1961), 54 and 55.
  3. Cater, xvii-xxi.
  4. Adams, The Education, 74-81.
  5. Adams, The Education of Henry Adams, 101.
  6. Henry Adams quoted in David R. Contosta, p. 33.