174 Henry Adams’ America

One of my former students—and subsequently a good friend—Allen K. Brown, an attorney in Fullerton, CA, sent me his review of Garry Wills’ recent book, Henry Adams and the Making of America, that I duplicate for you:

    While under the teaching of Dr. Gerard Reed he 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 Adam’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 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 our 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.

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Fortuitously, Allen Brown’s review arrived while I was in the midst of reading all nine volumes of Adams’ History!  Such reading, I confess, should have taken place at the beginning rather than the ending of my academic life, but (as the cliché says) better late than never.  Anyone interested in doing the same will find that Henry Adams’ History of the United States of America During the Administrations of Thomas Jefferson (New York:  The Library of America, c. 1986) and History of the United States of America During the Administrations of James Madison (New York:  The Library of America, c. 1986) are now available in two relatively inexpensive, nicely-bound volumes.  

Several strengths mark these volumes:  1) thorough, footnoted research in primary sources, frequently giving extended quotations from letters and official documents; 2) discerning evaluations, helping the reader grasp the real import of events; 3) a sustained commitment to placing American events within the broader European context; 4) an engaging style that encourages one to persevere in reading all 2500 pages of the history.  Above all it’s evident that two of this nation’s premier thinkers proved to be at best second-rate presidents!  Jefferson’s greatness resides in The Declaration of Independence and the ideas he advocated—such as states-rights and strict constructionism.  Madison’s work in forging the Constitution of the United States secured for him a bright star in the nation’s firmament.  Neither man, however, effectively implemented many of his deepest convictions as President.  Compared with George Washington, for example, neither man merits the label “great” as President.  

The first six chapters (some of the best in the entire work) of Adams’ study of Jefferson’s administration are devoted to portraying the physical, economic, popular, and intellectual conditions of the new nation in the year 1800.  There were some five million Americans, two thirds of whom lived within 50 miles of the Atlantic seaboard.  Roads through the mountains had been built, however, and a mass movement into the vast Ohio and Mississippi River basins was beginning.  Drawing upon travel narratives, Adams enables us to visualize the differences between residents of the North and South, East and West.  Thus, he noted (anticipating by five years Frederick Jackson Turner’s famous frontier thesis):  “The Mississippi boatman and the squatter on Indian lands were perhaps the most distinctly American type then existing, as far removed from the Old World as though Europe were a dream” (p. 40).  

“European travelers,” Adams wrote, “who passed through America noticed that everywhere, in the White House at Washington and in log-cabins beyond the Alleghenies, except for a few Federalists, every American, from Jefferson and Gallatin down to the poorest squatter, seemed to nourish an idea that he was doing what he could to overthrow the tyranny which the past had fastened on the human mind” (pp. 119-120).  Still more:  “Greed for wealth, lust for power, yarning for the blank void of savage freedom such as Indians and wolves delighted in,—these were the fires that flamed under the caldron of American society, in which, as conservatives believed, the old, well-proven, conservative crust of religion, government, family, and even common respect for age, education, and experience was rapidly melting away” (p. 121).  

Intellectually, Noah Webster (the noted New England educator and compiler of the influential dictionary) lamented, “’our learning is superficial in a shameful degree, . . . our colleges are disgracefully destitute of books and philosophical apparatus, . . . and I am ashamed to own that scarcely a branch of science can be fully investigated in America for want of books, especially original works’” (p. 45).  Clearly, Adams said, “The labor of the hand had precedence over that of the mind throughout the United States” (p. 90).  And this was even  more pronounced in the South than the North, where a Southerner, Thomas Jefferson, declaimed:  “’Those who labor in the earth are the chosen people of God if ever he had a chosen people, whose breasts he has made his peculiar deposit for substantial and genuine virtue’” (p. 102).  Jefferson himself, of course, was hardly a yeoman farmer!  Adams notes that he found his “true delight” in the “intellectual life of science and art.  To read, write, speculate in new lines of thought, to keep abreast of the intellect of Europe, and to feed upon Homer and Horace, were pleasures more to his mind than any to be found in a public assembly” (p. 99).  

And it was this man who was inaugurated as the third President of the United States in 1801.  He was the first President inaugurated at Washington, and the ceremony was notably simple.  “In Jefferson’s eyes a revolution had taken place as vast as that of 1776” (p. 130) and he determined to make visible his democratic convictions.  In his First Inaugural Address, Jefferson reaffirmed his deepest philosophical principles and called for “’a wise and frugal government, which shall restrain men from imbuing one another, which shall leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement, and shall not take from the mouth of labor the bread it has earned.  This is the sum of good government, and this is necessary to close the circle of our felicities’” (p. 137).  He disliked national banks, national debts, standing armies and centralized powers.  “Peace is our passion!” he said, in an 1803 letter (p. 285), and he wanted to keep America removed from European conflicts.  He also hoped for national unity, famously declaring:  “’We are all Republicans, we are all Federalists’” (p. 136).  

Jefferson’s words and ideals were quickly tested by the realities of his presidential position.  Governing effectively was quite different from writing elegantly.  Jefferson himself was temperamentally incapable of authoritative leadership, for as Alexander Hamilton noted, “a true estimate of Mr. Jefferson’s character warrants the expectation of a temporizing rather than a violent system’” (p. 189).  He was, Henry Adams concluded, “sensitive, affectionate, and, in his own eyes, heroic.  He yearned for love and praise as no other great American ever did” (p. 220).  Still more:  “Jefferson had the faculty, peculiar to certain temperaments, of seeing what he wished to see, and of believing what he willed to believe” (p. 641).  He was, in short, ill-suited for executive effectiveness, something that was earlier evident when he served as Governor of Virginia during the War for Independence.  Jefferson quickly found himself at odds with a strong-willed Federalist, John Marshall and the Supreme Court!  He faced not only Federalist opposition but dissensions within his own Republican ranks in Congress. His every appointment and decision seemed to evoke criticism and calumny from various quarters.  

Added to this were foreign entanglements!  Napoleon Bonaparte was restructuring Europe, and Adams goes into great detail documenting developments that process, for it inevitably affected America.  Muslim pirates in North Africa, off the coast of Tripoli, were terrorizing commercial ships, including those sailing under an American flag.  Spain still controlled vast regions of North America, and tensions developed wherever American frontiersmen rubbed up against Spanish authorities in the Old Southwest.  

Of particular import was the opportunity given Jefferson to acquire the Louisiana Purchase.  When Napoleon persuaded Spain to cede to France this vast region, he apparently envisioned a extension of his empire.  Soon thereafter, however, the successful revolt of slaves in Haiti, dissuaded him, and he impulsively offered to sell the territory to the United States.  To Adams, “The sale of Louisiana was the turning point in Napoleon’s career” (p. 328), for he thereby lost credibility in France.  But he inadvertantly  blessed the United States!   “The annexation of Louisiana was an event so portentous as to defy measurement; it gave a new face to politics, and ranked in historical importance next to the Declaration of Independence and the adoption of the Constitution” (pp. 334-335).  

In purchasing Louisiana, however, and bringing it “into the Union without express authority form the States” (p. 363), Jefferson compromised his own convictions regarding a strict construction of the Constitution.  In Adams’ judgment, “the Louisiana treaty gave a fatal wound to ‘strict construction,’ and the Jeffersonian theories never again received general support” (p. 363).  Indeed:  “By an act of sovereignty as despotic as the corresponding acts of France and Spain, Jefferson and his party had annexed to the Union a foreign people and a vast territory, which profoundly altered the relations of the States and the character of their nationality” (p. 381).  Adams deals carefully with such developments as the Yazoo land claims, the impeachment trial of Justice Chase, but it was diplomatic developments in Europe that conclusively shaped Jefferson’s first term.  “’The United States,” said a French diplomat, writing to Talleyrand, “find themselves compromised and at odds with France, England, and Spain at the same time.  This state of things is in great part due to the indecision of the President, and to the policy which leads him to sacrifice everything for the sake of his popularity’” (p. 577).  

These conflicts determined the course of Jefferson’s second administration.  Like many Presidents, he found his second term less than successful!  Spain’s presence in Florida created continual problems— particularly since frontiersmen pressured their politicians to acquire it.  His former Vice President, Aaron Burr, engaged in a conspiracy designed to empower him in the Old Southwest.  Napoleon’s Berlin Decree—and Britain’s Orders in Council—embroiled him in Europe’s conflicts and precipitated his commitment to an 1807 embargo on foreign commerce!  This was yet another violation of Jefferson’s states-rights philosophy, proved economically disastrous for New England especially, and led to serious talk of secession on that region.  Though the embargo was repealed before Jefferson left the presidency, John Randolph declared that “’never has there been any Administration which went out of office and left the nation in a state so deplorable and calamitous’” (p. 1239).  The man who longed above all to be popular 

“left office as strongly and almost as generally disliked as the least popular President who preceded or followed him” (p. 1239).  

Inaugurated in 1809, the fourth President of the United States was another Virginian, James Madison, who shared with his predecessor a fine philosophical mind and administrative incompetence.  Even intellectually, Adams says, Madison showed little power as President.  Indeed, he declared:  “If Madison’s fame as a statesman rested on what he wrote as President, he would be thought not only among the weakest of Executives, but also among the dullest of men” (p. 125).  Napoleon’s wars, including the struggle with England for supremacy of the seas, inexorably involved the United States in European affairs, culminating in the War of 1812, promoted primarily by “war-hawks” in the West who envisioned the annexation of Canada to the new nation.  As William Randolph lamented, following the 1811 debates in Congress, “’we have heard but one word,—like the whipporwill, but one monotonous tone,—Canada, Canada, Canada!’” (p. 395).  

Adams carefully recounts (in 800 pp.) the military and diplomatic operations in this war with England, demonstrating the woeful ineptitude of most American endeavors, especially the failed invasions of Canada—“disasters” that could have ended the nation’s brief life.  Congress often interfered with, and refused to appropriate funds for, the war Madison supervised.  There were a few, isolated naval victories on the Great Lakes and Atlantic and profit-hungry privateers enjoyed sporadic successes.  Some Indian tribes (especially the Creeks, defeated by Andrew Jackson at Horseshoe Bend in 1814) were crushed.  But on the whole the War of 1812 was a marked military failure.  Ironically, Andrew Jackson’s great 1815 victory in New Orleans (costing the British 2,236 casualties, compared with 71 Americans lost) was won after the Peace of Ghent had ended the war.  

What was lost in war was regained by the peace treaty, however, because “the treaty became simply a cessation of hostilities, leaving every claim on either side open for future settlement” (p. 1218).  Both sides compromised, and the Americans may have seemed to to be “the chief losers; but they gained their greatest triumph in referring all their disputes to be stttled by time, the final negotiator, whose decision they could safely trust” (p. 1219).  Subsequently, Madison’s final two years in office proved far more balmy than Jefferson’s.  The economy boomed as commerce revived.  Cotton quickly proved to be “king” in the South, and tobacco and rice continued to be good cash crops.  The Federalists, strong enough to stage a secessionist Hartford Convention during the war, simply disappeared as rivals to the Republicans by 1816, though in fact Federalist principles had become large parts of the Republican system.  

Culturally, the new nation vibrated with new ideas.  “Religious interest and even excitement were seen almost everywhere, both in the older and in the newer parts of the country; and every such movement offered some means of studying or illustrating the development of national character” (p. 1301).  Unitarianism replaced Calvinismwherever Harvard University shaped New England’s intelligentsia.   Eminent preachers, such as William Ellery Channing, considered “dogma” rather irrelevant to the religion of “love” and “righteousness” they defined as Christianity.  “No more was heard of the Westminister doctrine that man had lost all ability of will to any spiritual good accompanying salvation, but was dead in sin” (p. 1306).  A “deified humanity” replaced the orthodox Trinity as the focus of man’s worship.  In the West, however, a decidedly different version of Christianity flourished as the camp meeting movement, the beginnings of America’s “Second Great Awakening,” launched a spiritual revolution that would effectively christianize the nation by mid-century.  

Tested and tried, during the 16 years of the administrations of Jefferson and Madison, the United States had assumed a more definite character and established a deeper unity and strength, sufficient to sustain the nation in the unfolding 18th century.  To understand this, Henry Adam’s History proves invaluable.  

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