Last reviewed: June 2018
American historian and philosopher
February 16, 1838
March 27, 1918
Henry Brooks Adams’s father was Charles Francis Adams, American statesman and minister to Great Britain; his grandfather was John Quincy Adams, the sixth president of the United States; and his great-grandfather was John Adams, the second president of the United States. Henry Adams himself did very well. Despite the burden of family fame, he established himself in literature as a historian and philosopher of history. He became an enigmatic success on his own terms at least partly through branding himself a failure and writing an autobiography that attempted to show the force common to the Virgin Mary and the dynamo. Consequently, he was more than a mere recorder of events and relic of a great political past: He was a creator of literature and ideas. Because of his outstanding performances as a historian and philosopher of history he is now as eminent in his own way as his forebears are eminent in political history. Henry Adams
Henry Adams was born in Boston in 1838. As a boy he profited from a close and friendly relationship with his grandfather, John Quincy Adams. It was primarily through him that Adams developed a moral consciousness of the seriousness and importance of education and of the use of books in the process of becoming educated. The inquisitive mind and the dissatisfied one developed together in him as they had in his grandfather, so that he became no passive scholar but an active critic of events and ideas. When his grandfather died, Henry Adams was only ten years old, but he was to show the effect of John Quincy Adams’s influence for the rest of his life.
He attended Harvard University (1854–58) after a preparatory education at the Boston Latin School and the Epes Dixwell school in Boston. He then went to Europe in order to study civil law at the University of Berlin, but he concentrated on touring about Europe and studying the languages and cultures of various countries. He spent a short time studying law in Quincy, Massachusetts, and then became private secretary to his father, serving him both in Washington and in London. In 1868 he returned to the United States and became a freelance journalist for two years, writing for the North American Review, The Nation, and the New York Post.
He was married in 1872 to Marian "Clover" Hooper, two years after his reluctant acceptance of an instructorship in medieval history at Harvard. During this time he was also editor of the North American Review. He taught at Harvard until 1877, when he and his wife went to live in Washington, D.C. There he settled down to an intensive writing career. Part of the time he spent abroad, gathering documents in London, Paris, and Madrid and adding to his knowledge and impressions of Europe.
On December 6, 1885, his wife, ill and depressed since the death of her father more than a year before, committed suicide. Adams, although deeply shocked by his wife’s death, mentioned it only indirectly in his important autobiography, The Education of Henry Adams.
Following her death he visited Japan with John La Farge, the American artist and writer. By that time he had produced a distinguished historical biography, The Life of Albert Gallatin; a satirical novel of political life, Democracy: An American Novel; a less important biography, John Randolph; and another novel, Esther. Upon his return from his travels with La Farge, Adams worked steadily on his nine-volume history of the administrations of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. After another journey with La Farge, this time to the South Seas, he produced his distinctive philosophy of history in the two books Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres and The Education of Henry Adams. The first of these books represents a time when he argued society had achieved unity, the twelfth century; the second, a time when multiplicity had divided humankind and societies, his own era. Beautifully written, original in conception, these works are generally regarded as his masterpieces. He died in Washington, D.C., on March 27, 1918, shortly after The Education of Henry Adams, privately printed in 1906, had been republished in a trade edition.