• Email
  • Print

The Unread Masterpiece

1.

In a recent discussion of American literary classics in these pages, none of the writings of Henry Adams was mentioned. Probably no one missed them, or if anyone did, there might have been some sort of homage to The Education of Henry Adams. The guardians of the canon have often granted it a place. But they have seldom included the nine volumes with the awkward titles: History of the United States of America During the Administrations of Thomas Jefferson (four volumes) and History of the United States of America During the Administrations of James Madison (five volumes). These might qualify as classics in the sense that they are more often praised than read. Garry Wills, however, bestows on them the accolade of “the nonfiction prose masterpiece of the nineteenth century in America.”

Those who have actually read the volumes, and I’m afraid we are a small group, may not challenge this judgment. What could be the rivals? Well, Thoreau’s Walden, of course. It is not likely to be displaced, but what else is there? I would add the Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant, Richard Henry Dana’s Two Years Before the Mast, and Francis Parkman’s Half-Century of Conflict. Parkman is the most appropriate comparison. But for anyone with an ear for style, for words and ways of using them, Adams is unmatched. To the modern ear Parkman’s prose is so florid as to be embarrassing. The rolling periods and wordy pen-pictures that entranced his contemporaries no longer seem like high style, particularly in comparison with Adams. Adams’s wit, insight, and economy give his writing a resonance that reaches us as freshly today as when the words were written. He can capture a mood, a character, an idea, a confrontation, more effectively in a few phrases than most of us could do in volumes.

Wills invites anyone who doubts this to open a page anywhere and read it through. Here, for example, is a portion of Adams’s initial characterization of Thomas Jefferson, the flawed hero of both works:

His instincts led him to widen rather than to narrow the bounds of every intellectual exercise; and if vested with political authority, he could no more resist the temptation to stretch his powers than he could abstain from using his mind on any subject merely because he might be drawn upon ground supposed to be dangerous. He was a deist, believing that men could manage their own salvation without the help of a state church. Prone to innovation, he sometimes generalized without careful analysis. He was a theorist, prepared to risk the fate of mankind on the chance of reasoning far from certain in its details. His temperament was sunny and sanguine, and the atrabilious philosophy of New England was intolerable to him. He was curiously vulnerable, for he seldom wrote a page without exposing himself to attack. He was superficial in his knowledge, and a martyr to the disease of omniscience. Ridicule of his opinions and of himself was an easy task, in which his Federalist opponents delighted, for his English was often confused, his assertions inaccurate, and at times of excitement he was apt to talk with indiscretion; while with all his extraordinary versatility of character and opinions, he seemed during his entire life to breathe with perfect satisfaction nowhere except in the liberal, literary, and scientific air of Paris in 1789.

Wills does not rest his valuation of the Histories simply on Adams’s felicities of style or his insights into character. His purpose is to rescue the volumes from a century’s misunderstanding of their theme. They have been known and faintly praised for their opening chapters, which offer a vivid but dismal picture of American society in all its dimensions—social, economic, religious, intellectual—as it existed when Jefferson took office. This picture, Wills shows, while recognized as a tour de force of social history, has been taken as a foretaste of the sixteen years to come. For example, Richard Hofstadter, one of the most eminent of modern historians, summarized Adams’s portrayal of the years 1800 to 1816 as “an age of slack and derivative culture, of fumbling and small-minded statecraft, terrible parochial wrangling and treasonous schemes, climaxed by a ludicrous and unnecessary war.” Hofstadter, Wills maintains, was wrong about Adams’s treatment and interpretation in every particular.

Any reader of the Histories will acknowledge that there was a lot of fumbling in those sixteen years, and Adams’s narrative does not spare the details. But the outcome, Wills argues, was nothing less than the creation of a nation and a new national power. Almost in spite of themselves, he writes, Jefferson and Madison pulled together the disparate states and the expanding West, in pragmatic repudiation of their own preconceived attachments to local loyalties and local power. Adams’s closing chapters, designed to match the opening ones, offer a picture as hopeful as those were dreary. The Histories, Wills insists, were not an indictment of the Jeffersonians but a celebration.

Why, then, have they been so long misunderstood? Wills offers several answers. The simplest is that few readers have persevered to the closing chapters. (The Library of America two-volume edition comprises 2,597 pages.) It requires close attention to Adams’s narrative to catch the hints of where Jefferson’s and Madison’s stumbling, often unwitting, efforts are taking them. Only the closing chapters of Madison’s final volume make the author’s intention clear.

Another common source of misunderstanding is the assumption that Henry Adams was writing as an Adams, avenging his great-grandfather by trashing the administrations of the men who overthrew him. A close look at what Adams had to say elsewhere about his forebears completely undercuts this assumption. President John Adams, he told students at Harvard, was a demagogue, and his administration richly deserved the opposition raised by the Jeffersonians. His grandfather, John Quincy Adams, figures colorlessly in the Histories as a senator from Massachusetts (1803–1808), serving less than one term, and on the mission to Ghent that negotiated the treaty ending the War of 1812. But when Henry’s brother Brooks wrote an admiring biography of John Quincy, Henry privately savaged it for its favorable treatment of a man he considered a political opportunist, “abominably selfish…incapable of feeling his duty to others,” and so barren of interest in literature or art that “he must have lived a life of pure void.” The Histories offer no apology for either the grandfather or the great-grandfather, nor do they offer a defense.

But the most potent source of misunderstanding of Henry Adams’s Histories is Henry Adams. The Education etches an indelible self-portrait of a man born world-weary and disillusioned. That so obdurate a pessimist could have depicted the likes of Jefferson and Madison any other way seems unlikely. But the Adams who wrote the Histories when he was in his forties, Wills believes, was not the jaded author of The Education, written in his sixties. Reading Adams’s view of things backward from The Education has resulted in a misunderstanding of the Histories. Wills proposes to read the Histories forward, from Adams’s previous experience in politics, in journalism, and in the assiduous study of history.

The first part of Wills’s book, “The Making of an Historian,” gives us Adams as an ambitious young man taking the measure of his dynastic heritage, not much liking it, but gaining from it a New Englander’s consciousness of the past and an Adams’s inside look at the conduct of politics and diplomacy. After a conventional (Harvard) education and grand tour of Europe, he went to Washington as private secretary to his congressman father, Charles Francis Adams. In 1861, when Lincoln appointed the father ambassador to England, Henry accompanied him as secretary of the legation. For the next seven years he was present as somewhat more than an observer at the intersection of European and American politics, an experience that would give him a unique perspective on Napoleon’s role in forcing Jefferson from isolationism into the maelstrom of European politics. Returning home he pursued a career in political journalism. At the same time he became engaged in the new kind of historical research, promoted by German universities, that relied on the study of original documents in public archives and private collections (the Adamses themselves had a large one). For a time he taught history at Harvard and succeeded a long line of other historians as editor of the North American Review. Then, as he was about to turn forty, he resigned from Harvard and from the Review to devote himself to the Histories.

In Wills’s reconstruction of the young man’s growth into his great work the single figure who looms largest is his grandmother, Louisa Johnson Adams, wife of John Quincy, whose letters and autobiographical writings he discovered in the family collection. To the small boy of The Education she was a remote figure with a “delicate face…gentle voice and manner” and a “vague effect of not belonging there.” To the young man who discovered her writings, transcribed them, and intended to publish them, she was a warm and sensitive woman, abominably treated by her mother-in-law, Abigail, and by her “demonic” husband, John Quincy.

Abigail Adams, wife of the second president, has won a deserved place in history for her refreshing independence and wit. But Louisa’s letters disclose a tyrant of correctness, oppressing the spirits of a young bride who “was prone,” as Wills says, “to burst into loud laughter at the absurdity of things.” Henry rejoiced in being the grandson of such a woman and in the connection, however tenuous (Louisa’s father was from Maryland), that she gave him to the South. Her capacity for laughter survived her marriage to a dried-up and pompous husband, and the “crackling pages” she wrote about public figures she encountered are echoed in her grandson’s histories.

In identifying with Louisa, Henry made himself an honorary southerner. Her posthumous companionship offered an escape from the stiffness of New England and an entry into a world that could produce men like Jefferson and Madison, a world where people harbored high hopes and made mistakes and changed their minds and enjoyed themselves. Into that world Adams carried his familiarity with the workings of national politics and of international diplomacy, his practiced literary skills, and his very own understanding of human nature. The combination gives his work, as Wills says, a sense of “command and control—command of the evidence, control of the tone and tempo, an easy marshaling of information without strain or obscurity.” His account of Adams’s preparation for his work has the lucidity and force that we have learned to expect from Wills. There could be no better introduction to the Histories.

2.

The Making of an Historian” occupies 107 pages. Wills follows it with “The Making of a Nation,” a 270-page, chapter-by-chapter, volume-by-volume summary and analysis of the Histories. Why has he done this? His objective is to redeem the reputation of the Histories by showing the author’s mastery in unraveling the particulars that went into the changing course of events. He shows how Adams has been confirmed or revised by subsequent scholars, his weaknesses and his strengths, and his unique understanding of European influences beginning with Napoleon’s scheme, before the Louisiana Purchase, to take over the trans-Mississippi American West. The two most conspicuous figures in the Histories, Wills points out, are not Jefferson and Madison but Jefferson and Napoleon. American policies, foreign and domestic, had to be calculated in response to Napoleon’s imperial ambitions and England’s efforts to thwart them.

Wills’s most arresting claim, however, is that Adams built the Histories around the success of the country’s two great political theorists in actually building the nation. This, he insists, is the “great theme” of the work. It is an astonishing claim, for it is difficult to discover such a theme in Adams’s account of Jefferson’s and Madison’s halting progress from ideology to pragmatic action, an account that is not so far as Wills would have it from Hofstadter’s characterization. It is a story of false starts and tribulations that could easily have resulted in the dissolution of the national government they inherited from Washington and Adams.

The problem with seeing the two men as nation-builders, even as accidental nation-builders, is not that readers have failed to consider the last four chapters as well as the first six. In both cases Adams offers surveys of society, of culture in all its dimensions, the one in 1800, the other in 1816. What lies between them at such length is a complex narrative of political, diplomatic, and military events, only incidentally touching on the religion, art, literature, education, and science discussed in the beginning chapters of Jefferson and the closing chapters of Madison. The portrayal of a dynamic national life and culture in 1816 does offer a dramatic contrast to the static picture of the opening, but it also makes a dramatic contrast to the entire narrative. The closing chapters can even be read as an exercise in irony, a demonstration that Americans had learned to go fruitfully about their business without giving too much attention to what their brainy leaders had been up to, “marking the general drift of society toward practical devices for popular use, within popular intelligence.”

Wills tells us that Adams has given “frequent pointers to the motion from the opening chapters to the concluding ones.” But the pointers in Wills’s summary come more from Wills than from Adams, and in giving them Wills has to contend with his principals’ resistance to the nation-building that their administrations are said to have produced. In 1807, for example, when relations with Great Britain were already strained, a British warship, Leopard, in an attempt to take off British seamen, fired on the United States frigate Chesapeake, killing three of its crew and wounding its commander. Jefferson turned aside popular clamor for armed vengeance because war would magnify the powers of the national government, “violating his small-government principles.” Instead, he imposed an embargo forbidding American ships from leaving for foreign ports. This was designed to bring Britain to heel by depriving her of American commerce. But to enforce the embargo required giving “sweeping and arbitrary powers to the state, and especially to the executive, accomplishing what war would have—thus helping to make the nation, which is Adams’s theme.”

If that is the theme, it is continually submerged in the opposite intentions of the men embodying it. At the end of Jefferson’s two terms, Adams sums up Jefferson’s achievements thus:

He had undertaken to create a government which should interfere in no way with private action, and he had created one which interfered directly in the concerns of every private citizen in the land. He had come into power as the champion of States-rights, and had driven States to the verge of armed resistance. He had begun by claiming credit for stern economy, and ended by exceeding the expenditure of his predecessors.

Quoting this passage, Wills says, “The interesting thing is that Adams does not consider these developments bad for the nation. No matter how it was brought on, stronger authority and central control were necessary steps to making a nation.” But Adams does not actually say so. What Adams says is that it took twenty years for Jefferson’s reputation to recover from his presidency, “for not until the embargo and its memories faded from men’s minds did the mighty shadow of Jefferson’s Revolutionary name efface the ruin of his Presidency.” And Adams closes his account of the presidency with Jefferson’s address to his neighbors of Albemarle County, Virginia, consoling himself with their approval when he knows he does not have the nation’s.

After bringing Jefferson back in disgrace to Monticello, Adams leads us on through the disastrous years of Madison’s presidency. If Jefferson had unwittingly expanded executive powers, neither he nor Madison had prepared the nation for war. Adams saw the War of 1812 as coinciding with a new surge of national feeling but only after “ten years devoted to weakening national energies.” The first action of the war ended at Detroit with General William Hull’s surrender of the feeble force with which he had invaded Canada, expecting an easy conquest. It was, Adams remarks, “the greatest loss of territory [most of the old Northwest] that ever before or since befell the United States,” and he places the ultimate blame on “Ex-President Jefferson, whose system had shut military efficiency from the scope of American government.” The daring of General Hull’s nephew Isaac Hull in command of the famous frigate Constitution helped to redeem American honor. But by the end of the year 1814, six years of Madison’s presidency left the national government “discredited and falling to pieces.” It was effectively bankrupt financially, with the United States army dissolving for lack of recruits, the states forming armies of their own, Washington in ashes, New Orleans threatened, and the New England states organizing secession. That does not sound like nation-building, and Adams does not treat it that way. “As of late January, 1815,” he says, “division into several nationalities was still thought to be possible.”

The happy ending comes as a surprise when the treaty ending the War of 1812 leaves the country no worse off than when the war began. News of the treaty, arriving in February 1815, was followed by a burst of postwar prosperity, and Adams is able to close his Histories with a tribute to what has happened in the country at large while its elected officers were pursuing the hapless transactions he has been following in the narrative. He gives the details: astonishing growth in population (from 5,300,000 in 1800 to a probable 8,750,00 in 1817), even greater growth in per capita wealth, roads built, canals dug, books written, religion liberalized. After surveying the scene, Adams concludes that “probably no great people ever grew more rapidly and became more mature in so short a time.”

It happened while Jefferson and Madison were in office. Because of their leadership? In spite of it? Adams does not quite say. Jefferson is clearly the central figure of the Histories, continually hovering over Madison’s administration after finishing his own. Adams is fascinated by him as someone whose ideals “were shared by a majority of the American people.” But Adams’s commitment as a historian is simply to tell what happened under Jefferson’s supervision, a story of cherished dogmas, failed intentions, diplomatic traps, battles won and lost. Adams is a master storyteller, able to carry a reader effortlessly through all the disparate elements that combined to produce seemingly unpredictable events. Since he has to deal with so many missed opportunities and narrow escapes, if there is a theme it is one of surviving rather than building, or it might be called the triumph of Realpolitik over good intentions.

But I think there is not in fact a theme. If Adams had intended one, he would have made it evident without any gloss, for his writing never lacks clarity. If the Histories have been little read, it is perhaps because readers want more drama than the facts deliver. Adams set himself the task of describing what happened to Americans as a people under the presidencies of two highly intelligent, not very wise men. Most of those who have held the office since have entered it with stated intentions they were unable to fulfill. Adams chose two presidents whose intentions might have been disastrous for the nation, while the thwarting of those intentions proved beneficial. Fortunately neither Jefferson nor Madison was much good at administration, partly because they were both hampered by political ideas they had developed in opposition to British rule and then in opposition to the nationalistic administrations of Washington and John Adams. They were also up against the unique difficulties of dealing with the consequences to their country of Napoleon’s tremendous contest with Great Britain, a contest whose proportions were not matched again until the twentieth century.

Jefferson and Madison somehow survived and were lucky to leave the country no worse for their mistakes. It is a story without heroes, except perhaps for Albert Gallatin, who as secretary of the Treasury generally understood what needed doing at any given moment better than his presidential masters. (He did not want an embargo in 1807, nor a war with Spain over Florida in 1813, nor a fleet of shallow-draft gunboats at any time.) But Gallatin is a pretty sober, I am tempted to say prosaic, supporting actor. What makes the Histories a masterpiece is Adams’s ability to explain what happened simply by telling what happened, telling it with authority in its extraordinary complexity, with its full load of irony, not apologizing, not condoning, giving admiration where admiration is due and scorn where scorn is called for, but never falling into the didactic morass that awaits historians with less “command and control.” There has not been his like among American historians since.

Are the Histories the nonfiction masterpiece of the nineteenth century in America? Probably. Are they the masterpiece of historical writing in America in any century? Certainly.

Letters

Henry Adams’s Theme December 15, 2005

  • Email
  • Print