California Literary Review

Henry Adams and the Making of America by Garry Wills

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April 22nd, 2007 at 8:23 am

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Henry Adams and the Making of America
by Garry Wills
Houghton Mifflin, 448 pp.
CLR Rating: ★★★★☆

Adams Redux

With his new book, Henry Adams and the Making of America, Garry Wills takes on the pleasant task of breathing life into one of the major but forgotten works of American history, Henry Adams’s nine-volume History of the United States During the Administrations of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. In doing so, Wills is dead set on reviving the reputation of Adams as a historian, going so far as attempting to establish him as the foremost American historical writer of the nineteenth century.

In Adams, Wills has chosen a slippery, famously evasive subject. Henry Adams (1838-1918) was an eccentric, morbidly private little man. He was idealistic and romantic, idiosyncratic, cerebral, and sensuous, always in the grip of some passion. Any account of his life must begin with the overbearing and inescapable circumstance that dominated his life: he was, for both good and ill, an Adams, a great-grandson of one American president and the grandson of another. Across his long life, Adams was a diplomat, an accomplished journalist, and a novelist of some talent. He was also a historian, a religious thinker, and a sly litterateur who deftly melded fiction, some would say lies, and autobiography. Through these endeavors, Adams became an American polymath, a ubiquitous gadfly, sometimes rising to real greatness and refreshing originality. At other times, however, and too often, he was merely an opera bouffe Herodotus, a minor Montaigne, a small-scale St. Augustine.

Apt characterization of Adams and his writings, therefore, is a treacherous task, far more frequently attempted than achieved. Both the man and his books are often unjustly reviled, and just as often unjustly praised. Much of this divergence, which unfortunately is not pursued by Wills with sufficient vigor, can be attributed to the jagged contradictions of both the man and the body of work that he left behind. This was a man who was capable of finely etched, penetrating passages, Hogarthian pen portraits, and wide-ranging social, cultural, and political analysis that rested on impeccable research. He was also capable of pure flap-doodle, and he wrote reams of it. He was born to power, but walked away from it in mid-career. He was a promising journalist, but seems to have lacked the grit for the long haul. He was a pioneering historian, both in methodology and as creator of Harvard’s graduate history department, yet he later expressed the most despairing assessments of the entire historical enterprise. Adams entered public life as an optimistic advocate of the American democratic experiment and, by the time of his famous, autobiographical The Education of Henry Adams, he was a crusty, acerbic elitist who had lost faith in both democracy and human progress. As he mellowed with age, Adams wrote impassioned descriptions of the religious mentalité of the high middle ages in Mont Saint Michel and Chartres, but he ended his days as a hidebound atheist, bowing to materialism, nearly worshipping the power of the electric dynamo. It is small wonder that such a man could manage to be so widely misunderstood.

Wills has shown wisdom, therefore, in his concentration on the historical volumes rather than the man, although that exposes him to the accusation of some superficiality in his treatment of the complicated, deeply conflicted Adams. What such an approach does permit, however, is the style that has become Wills’s forte, close reading and powerful, argumentative, unrelenting interpretation of a text. Though Wills has at times carried the method to the point of excess, no one does it better.

Wills begins his defense of Adams’s history by posing the question of why it should be so forgotten today. After all, this historical masterwork treats directly two giants of the nation’s founding, Jefferson and Madison. At a time when the shelves of the nation’s bookstores groan under the weight of similar subject matter, one could reasonably expect at least a small burst of interest in a work so assiduously researched and so elegantly written.

Wills believes that one reason these volumes are so seldom read in our era is that they have come to be entirely overshadowed by another work of Adams, the famous The Education of Henry Adams. Some view that work as the greatest American nonfiction literary work of the past century, and it has become a staple in English departments everywhere. Adams’s history, as a result, has fallen into the shadows and has been relegated to the level of a minor work by a major writer. Wills views this as shameful and spends several hundred well-researched, thought-filled pages explaining why we should go to the not inconsiderable effort of poring through hundreds of pages that have by now been appreciably superseded by more than a century of subsequent research.

Along the way, Wills addresses the attitudes of many professional historians towards Adams, which he finds more disconcerting and less honest than those of the broader public. The reputation of Adams’s history of the early republic, aside from its literary merits, has never been high among historians because so many have believed it to be an unabashed defense of two important political enemies of Jefferson and Madison, John Adams and John Quincy Adams. In that view, all criticisms that Henry Adams made of Jefferson and Madison, from his comments that Jefferson was a subject worthy of Beaumarchais, to the failure of Jefferson’s embargo, to Madison’s inept foreign policy and his stumbling direction as commander-in-chief, were all parts of a none-too-subtle attempt by Adams to retrieve family honor.

In Wills’s view, such estimations of Adams reveal deep ignorance of his real attitudes and family history. Some of that ignorance, of course, could be repaired by actually reading the texts, and Wills expresses a sense of scandal that many critics, especially those within the historical profession, seem never to have done so. This ignorance protects them from the facts. In reality, Henry always sought to be less Adamsy, hated Boston, disliked New England, and considered many in his family to be canting hypocrites. As Wills shows, Henry prided himself on what he unmathematically referred to as the quarter taint of southern blood that he believed he had inherited from his beloved part-English, part-Marylander grandmother, Louisa, who was not an Adams by birth. In addition, he had a low opinion of the political ability of John Adams and considered his grandfather, John Quincy, to have been an austere man, too cunning by half, a man willing to sacrifice all at the altar of ambition, even the well-being of his immediate family. As an adult, Henry lived out his life far from the family dysfunctions and family home in Quincy, Massachusetts, establishing himself in Washington and Paris, and carrying his family resentments to his grave. As Wills persuasively shows, any criticisms that Adams leveled at Jefferson and Madison were at least honestly held.

Wills also believes that the criticisms of Adams for his purported defense of the Adamses ignores the real admiration that he felt and expressed for the achievements of Jefferson and Madison. Adams believed that those two presidents, despite their southern penchant for decentralized government and jealously protected local rights, ironically took actions that greatly expanded the scope of the federal government, providing a unifying and modernizing effect on the nation. As Wills argues, this raised them even further in Adams’s estimation, showing them to have been pragmatists at heart rather than mere ideologues. For example, Jefferson used presidential authority that could not be found in the constitution to obtain the vast Louisiana territory from France. In a similar vein, his declaration of a trade embargo against Britain and France, as well as the overbearing steps he took to enforce it, were unprecedented and greatly expanded the power of the presidency and the role of the federal government in national life. By the end of the War of 1812, the United States had greatly increased its industrial capacity, revamped its professional military capabilities, and flexed its muscle in the international arena. Adams’s history tells why he believed that by 1817, when Madison stepped down from the presidency, the United States had become a proud and unified nation, enjoying the loyalty of its citizens, rather than remaining a backward, loosely affiliated agglomeration of bickering states, divided by distance, ideology, petty feuds, and regional loyalties.

Wills demonstrates throughout that Adams’s work on Jefferson and Madison deserves greater attention because Adams was, simply put, a superb and highly original historian. For example, he was the first to pursue the story of the Jefferson and Madison administrations from an international perspective. Adams gives us not only Jefferson and Madison, he also gives us Godoy, Bonaparte, Talleyrand, and Pitt. He was able to achieve this because he was at the forefront of an important sea change in American historical methodology, spending large amounts of his personal fortune gaining access to European archives. That is why Adams’s history is more than fluffy claims about this and that, more than weak inferences and conjecture. It is centered on documents, chased down on both sides of the Atlantic, painstakingly collected, and copied by hand. In short, Wills’s Adams was a seminal figure in the birth and development of professional American historical scholarship.

None of this, however, should obscure the chief reason for returning to Adams’s nine volumes, which is that they offer the pleasures of truly great literature, superbly imagined, written with lucidity and ease, and dripping with irony. With Henry Adams and the Making of America, Garry Wills proves himself to be a match for his subject, offering us the unusual example of one man’s history book about another man’s history books that is rich in conception, vigorous in argument, and a sheer intellectual delight.

  • patrick j walsh

    Just started reading Wills’s book. I think he is correct on Adams as superb historian, but think his interpretation of Adams’ position on Jefferson is not correct.

    Adams is critical of Jefferson who he sees as overcome by events -” a grasshopper”. Henry Adams was not an ideologue I suspect not a nationalist of the Wills/Lincoln type.

    Mr Wills in an intellectual who often turns ideas to suit his tastes. He does the same in in his purported Catholicism. Being Catholic is accepting on reason what the Church magisterium teaches. Mr Wills does do so and is in the strange position of professing what he does not believe kind of like belonging to a labor union but being against collective bargaining.

  • patrick j walsh

    correction –

    The last sentence above should read -

    “Mr. Wills is in the strange position of professing to be a Catholic, but not accepting what the Church teaches. This is a bit like being a member of a labor union but being against collective bargaining”

    patrick walsh

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