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Henry Adams’s Theme

In response to:

The Unread Masterpiece from the November 17, 2005 issue

To the Editors:

I was happy that Edmund Morgan, in his review of my Henry Adams and the Making of America [NYR, November 17], affirmed the greatness of Adams’s History, the thing I most wanted to bring back to people’s minds. I was also pleased to see him knock down the widespread myth that the History worked out some kind of family feud. My gratitude works together with my hesitation to differ at all with a historian I esteem. But when he says that “there is not in fact a theme” to the History, that Adams set out “simply to tell what happened,” I feel some doubt that the clear window-pane approach to history is possible, presenting it as just as one damn thing after another. Even if this were possible, Adams declares a theme by devoting six substantial chapters, at the outset, to the sad state America was left in after twelve years of Federalist rule, and by ending with four substantial chapters glad to the point of gushing over the state it was left in after sixteen years of Republican rule.

Morgan rightly says that the outcome was not planned. So do I say it, repeatedly. I call it a comedy of errors, and invoke Tolstoy’s rule that men do not make events but events make men. In the Tolstoy image I quote, leaders are like hands of the face of a clock, thinking they move time, while the hidden machinery is what drives them. But some men are more able to ride with events (in Tolstoy’s story it is Kutuzov, not Napoleon, who yields to what the machinery is doing). In America, it was the Jeffersonians who, unlike the Federalists, were riding with history. The Jeffersonians did not want war, but when it came they waged it, while the Federalists resisted it to the verge of treason (which Adams felt they crossed). When Republicans had to buy the West, the Republicans governed it, while the Federalists resisted that. The Republicans formed a national party, which entailed national policies. They included the people after Federalists had excluded them. Their ends canceled their small-government means. The Federalists had no similar ends. The Republicans were so successful that, despite Jefferson’s own setback with the embargo, Madison ended up his second term surprisingly popular, able to hand on the government to his designated successor, James Monroe, who continued the Virginians’ reign through another two terms.

Morgan says that the truth is “not so far” from Hofstadter’s claim that Adams took a dyspeptic view of the Republican years, including Hofstadter’s dismissal of “a ludicrous and unnecessary war” (of 1812). Adams thought the war not only necessary but overdue—he thought it should have begun five years earlier, over the Chesapeake affair. And despite Morgan’s accurate reference to its badly fumbled beginning in 1812, Adams is almost embarrassingly patriotic and celebratory about its progress and outcome, about its initial naval and final land-force professionalism, and about Madison’s personal heroism at Bladensburg and after. (George Bancroft thought Adams too enthusiastic about military men.) Adams praises the heroes of engagements like Lundy’s Lane: “For the fourth time in six weeks a large body of British troops met a bloody and unparalleled check, if not rout, from an inferior force.” The war produced heroes who were prominent in politics for years after, and a patriotic surge that had much to do with the glad picture Adams leaves us with in his last four chapters.

Morgan is right that Adams does not tendentiously cram the complexities of his sixteen-year span into the straitjacket of a theme. But that is not the same as saying that there is no theme. If there were none, Adams would have been a blunderer to begin and end the way he did. He was not a blunderer.

Garry Wills

Evanston, Illinois

Edmund Morgan replies:

Disagreeing with Garry Wills is something I undertake with trepidation, for I have the highest respect for his judgment and learning. I can agree that the opening and closing chapters of the Histories give plausibility to his discovery of a theme of nation-building, but I cannot find the support for it that he sees in the text. If my dissent leads others to read Adams and judge for themselves, we may both be gratified.

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