“Speculators In Theories”: Henry and Brooks Adams


Like the Mississippi, the flood of books on the Adams family rolls on; and indeed its crest, now that the long-barred portals to the family papers in the Massachusetts Historical Society have been unlocked, still lies ahead of us. How assuredly it was the most articulate as well as the greatest family in American history! Conscious of the role they played, inveterate diary-keepers and letter-writers, the Adamses from generation to generation told us much of themselves and their forebears. But a few dark episodes they suppressed; for example, the suicide of John Quincy Adams’ scapegrace son George Washington Adams, which gave such anguish to the father and mother, and on which not a line appears in the twelve-volume edition of JQA’s diary. Some of their deepest emotions they hid. And many minor facts about them, much illuminating detail, a rich store of characteristic anecdotes, remain to be quarried from what is probably the most remarkable family archive on the face of the globe. Long as the shelf of books by and about the Adamses is, it will be doubled during the next generation.

Charles W. Eliot, listening to one of Brooks Adams’ lectures at the Harvard Law School, remarked to him afterward that he appeared to have little respect for democracy. Rejoined Brooks: “Do you think I’m a damned fool?” One remarkable quality of the family is the way in which essential traits continually reappeared. From John Adams down, no Adams believed in popular democracy; they really wanted government by an elite. No Adams had any tact;,like Brooks, they spoke their mind. All Adamses were suspicious, jealous, proud, and at times morose; that is, all except the great JQA’s minor son of the same name, a genial man who might have made a conspicuous political success in Massachusetts (on the Democratic side!) but for the un-Adamslike vice of laziness. Mrs. Duncan Cryder recalled one Adams as friendly and cheerful at thirteen, but very different when mature: “Now he is full of gloom and he depresses me.” All Adamses, too, were stiffly impracticable. Theodore Roosevelt said crisply of Brooks, viewed politically: “He is unusable.”

But the quality of greatness never, in four generations, forsook the Adams family: greatness of intellect, of principle, of courage, and of action, making the line one of our national glories. In measuring them, interesting changes of perspective have occurred. For a generation after John Adams’ dramatic death on the fiftieth anniversary of independence, he seemed the illustrious Adams, his son a lesser man; but after the Civil War men perceived that John Quincy was the greater man of the two. Many still think him the greatest of all, a view which Samuel Flagg Bemis’ forthcoming volume on his later career may well sustain. Others, however, would differ. Though Henry Adams throughout life suffered from a sense that he was over-shadowed by his ancestors, many since his death have credited him with the profoundest mind and rarest spirit of the group; and today interest in the ideas of Henry and Brooks is keener than interest in the activities of their ancestors.

To be sure, as we read the latest book on the author of the Education and Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres, Elizabeth Stevenson’s penetrating and absorbing Henry Adams: A Biography , we feel a certain danger that the two men may be overlauded. She is always judicious, but some other critics are not. She sees the later Henry Adams as an obsessed and pitiable figure, living “an interior life of high velocity of thought and violence of sensation”; and she does not exaggerate, as some others do, the success with which he got his flying ideas into a certain coherency. When we turn to Arthur F. Beringause’s Brooks Adams: A Biography , another illuminating and valuable volume, we feel yet more strongly the danger of glorification. Mr. Beringause, whose book usually reads like a highly mature work, but occasionally like a doctoral dissertation, is capable of flinging adjectives (“magnificent,” “daring,” “brilliant”) about rather wildly. Granting the force and vitality of the best work of Henry and Brooks, the provocative sting of their ideas and the depth of the questions they (particularly Henry) asked, we must nevertheless feel that a part of their fame is factitious.

Why factitious? Because it derives in part from the enigmatic personality of Henry Adams, the eccentric traits of Brooks; from the ironic, almost saturnine quality of Henry’s pen, mocking the world in a way that specially appeals to young minds; from the daring both men showed in playing with ideas which, when closely examined, become either meaningless (like Henry’s rule of phase in history) or inaccurate (like some of Brooks’s distortions of economic theory); in part from the curious relationship between the brothers, each complementing and magnifying the other; and in part from the mere intellectual prestige of the family, and the glamour of the wide world in which both men moved, consorting with Presidents, secretaries of state, and leading figures of all sorts. In part their fame also derives from their uniqueness in the American scene, which they would have lost at once in contemporaneous Britain or France. Did they have the fiery conviction of Carlyle? Did their ideas have anything like the system and harmony of Bagehot’s, or Taine’s? Does Henry Adams’ achievement as historian, critic, and essayist greatly overtower that of Froude or even John Addington Symonds? Let us praise them—but with discrimination.