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Chats With Henry Adams

May 2024
10min read

Never before published, Frederic Bancroft’s diary jottings give an intimate picture of a great historian at his leisure

The actual conversations of great men of the past—saving Samuel Johnson, perhaps, and a legendary Socrates—have seldom been recorded. How instructive and interesting would it be now had some posterity-conscious person recorded a conversation of Benjamin Franklin as he talked with friends at the City Tavern or Junto Club in Philadelphia, or Thomas Jefferson’s after-dinner discussions with guests at Monticello, or the conversations of Henry David Thoreau with the thinkers of Concord!

So reasoned Frederic Bancroft, biographer and historian of the South, when he set his sights on Henry Adams in 1910. Already a living legend, Adams had made his home in Washington since 1877. Behind him lay his nine-volume History of the United States during the Administrations of Jefferson and Madison, his brilliant study of the civilization of the Thirteenth Century, Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres, and his autobiography, The Education of Henry Adams, now a classic in American literature and an indispensable guide to the intellectual history of the United States during the four decades after the Civil War.

It was Charles Francis Adams, Jr., who introduced Bancroft to his younger brother, Henry. Thereafter, Bancroft occasionally met him at the home of mutual friends and several times lunched or dined with him. After each encounter he rushed home and, using a shorthand system which he had devised in college, made a meticulous, sometimes verbatim, record of their conversations.

Although he had met him many years earlier, Bancroft first called on Adams on a spring morning in 1910. Believing that he needed a pretext for his visit, Bancroft, who at the time was editing the works of Carl Schurz, the famous German-American politician of the late Nineteenth Century, had written asking for an interview about Schurz.

“I called about 10 A.M. ,” Bancroft wrote in his diary, “and spent a little more than half an hour with him.

“Cordiality is not in his manner. He is pleasant, mild, quiet, without enthusiasm. He reminds me of a very small and superior watch: his tick and movements are hardly noticeable. The mental machinery does not much influence the physical machinery. He was neither cold nor warm, but easygoing to the verge of indifference. He did not offer me his hand; he only pulled a large and very low chair toward his desk as a sign for me to sit there.

“To my question as to how he was and how he had been he answered: ‘I am growing old fast. After 70 one ages rapidly and then one realizes how little is left and how little has been done …’ My complimentary remark about his having accomplished a vast amount of work before he had advanced much beyond my present age drew out no response. To my rather commonplace remark that most men had little in life but its comforts and pleasures from day to day and the fortunes and families they may have acquired, he said: ‘But nowadays one does not know how long the fortunes may last, financial crises and fires sweep them away’ [There had been a $500,000 fire in Chelsea near Boston the night previous.] Yet as to this fire, aside from the financial loss and personal suffering it might be a blessing—‘a blessing of the kind that would do Boston good, for several of the other suburbs should go in the same way …’”


Bancroft asked how many volumes of Schurz’s speeches he should publish. “‘Speeches are usually lies,’ Adams replied, ‘prepared for a special purpose and occasion’; but letters are usually true and almost always interesting and historically valuable. So he was almost enthusiastic about the letters and advised their publication.

“Toward the end he became more responsive. He talked more freely as I started to go and little by little let me move and finally accompanied me to the door, and said that he would be glad to see me again if he could be of any assistance to me.”

Two weeks later Bancroft met Adams at a luncheon given by John Franklin Jameson, editor of the American Historical Review.

“I was surprised and pleased when I learned that Henry Adams was to be of the party. He is always quaint, to me at least, and altogether interesting. His humor is always that of reticence almost to the point of bashfulness, except that he has no hesitancy in saying whatever he wishes to. Probably as a result of talk about archaeology, Henry Adams observed in his odd quiet way, ‘I am 2550 years old.’ This caused some of us to smile and object that we felt pretty old ourselves. Looking at me he said, ‘You are only half as old.’

“Just what he meant in either case was not quite apparent. Probably it was merely a humorous way of saying that he at seventy-two felt that he was very old in comparison with the others. At another time he said that he had found Paris is the only place to live in; the only place where one could find and do everything that one wished.

“We walked away together from the luncheon and as we neared his house he asked me to come in and sit awhile. To my suggestion that probably he wished to work, he answered that he never did any work, so I gladly stopped for half an hour.

“I had often wished that I could get him to tell me about his own literary methods and points of view. Now I found it not at all difficult to draw him out. He said that he had found that what would make thirty or forty printed pages was about all his mind could turn over and put into proper shape at one time. As to whether he revised much, he answered: ‘I doubt if there is a chapter in my history that I have written less than four or five times.’”

Adams was away from Washington until January, 1911. Soon after his return he wrote Bancroft extending an invitation to lunch “when you feel yourself bored and wish to get away. …”

“For twenty minutes,” Bancroft recorded, “we talked about ailments and their oddities. He said that he had had several which left him after a time. He was less odd than usual in his opinions, but still odd in many of them. He seemed much fuller in the face than last Spring. His eyes seemed to be much inflamed or were very red where the eye lashes grow. John Quincy Adams’ were said to be the same.

“He said that few long histories were worth reading fully; that Gibbon was the great exception and that he had re-read it when he had found himself under favorable circumstances. It was the greatest picture of a thousand years and very concise, in comparison with present day writing.

“The luncheon was announced at precisely 12 and we were alone. We had: milk soup, wild duck, rice, peas, sweet potatoes, apple pie, nuts, chocolate creams and coffee. Water was the beverage and he drank two or three glasses but ate lightly.

“When we took up the Civil War, it was evident that his memory was clear enough as to the things which he had known well. … Something—perhaps my question as to whether anyone could have avoided the War—caused Henry Adams to remark: ‘It is there that I disagree with my brother Charles and Theodore Roosevelt. I think that Lee should have been hanged. It was all the worse that he was a good man and a fine character and acted conscientiously. These facts have nothing to do with the case and should not have been allowed to interfere with just penalties. It’s always the good men who do the most harm in the world. Lee and Davis were both good men but were different from nearly all the others and were almost Puritan in their goodness. It was undoubtedly the women of Lee’s family who influenced Lee. Lee’s daughter is still bitter.’ When I led in conversation Adams did not seem to be familiar with my points. … He seemed rather indifferent to new points in my opinions and probably cared but little for his own. …


“We were at table just an hour. I remained ten minutes longer. Adams’ manners are odd as nearly all say. I stood up for a minute or two after luncheon, thinking that he would suggest that I take a seat or give some sign as to his wishes. It was indifferent to him what I might do, just as it was as to where I should sit at the table. I had waited to be told, but he merely said, ‘Sit wherever you wish.’”

Adams was in Washington for the next four months but Bancroft, although infrequently encountering him at the home of Charles Francis Adams, Jr., did not have an occasion to talk to him. On a bright warm morning in April, 1911, remembering that Adams had given him an invitation to call on him any time, Bancroft strolled to 1607 H Street and rang the bell.

“I found by inquiry that he had no company, was not specially busy and that it would be all right to stop. I found him at his desk where he seems always to be sitting. In his quaint way, which could be disconcerting if one were not familiar with it, he looked up without any special cordiality even of facial expression and remarked: ‘You interrupt me right in the midst of my being engaged in a very annoying business; I am paying my taxes.’ By that time I was near the chair where one is expected to sit. He then got up and slowly offered me his hand, and sat down. Understanding his humor I expressed my regret that my interruption could not be so permanent as entirely to cut off the necessity for his completing his task. He smiled and then began with one of his quaint and always interesting monologues, about in these words, although I can only give the gist:

“ ‘It is a most outrageous and barbarous system of taxation which the government has. Every year it comes and tacks on a little more and expects one to come down and swear if the levy is not correct. It is all a system of robbery. It proceeds upon the theory that somehow I am a party to a contract to allow it to rob me as it sees fit. I have nothing to do with it; I have never entered into such a contract and wish that the government would take what it pleases and let me alone. Then I would draw my check and that would be the end of it. One morning a year I devote to my taxes and this is the morning.’

“I recalled Thoreau’s theory that the greatest luxury in life was to have one’s entire freedom, and to be so situated that when one needed a few articles or a little money to pay for one’s board one might stop and work in someone’s garden or do an odd job. My intention was to add a humorous touch … but I soon perceived that to this aristocrat, living in luxury and having a surplus at that, there was nothing humorous in Thoreau’s conception of life. So I discreetly abandoned my little fancy. In due time, Henry Adams continued his monologue without being diverted.

“He supposed that the absurd theory of a social contract was the logical result of the old orthodox church, that there was a contract between God and man, and that man should bear certain obligations and lead a life in harmony with the divine contract. As for himself he was an anarchist; he avowed it openly and wished that he might be let alone. The State was a robber without conscience or reason and particularly absurd and illogical in its methods.

“This was all thoroughly characteristic in its burlesque humor. He loves to speak in paradoxes and indulge in these fancies. One of his favorite theories maintains that Chinese civilization is the highest the world has ever known. I think I have never heard this from him, but one or two others have mentioned it. His monologues of this kind are of course only jeu d’esprit.

“Just about this time breakfast was announced. Fearing lest he might not care for company I got up to go; but he remarked, ‘No, no; stay to breakfast of course. My friends always come so that we may talk at breakfast.’

“According to my notions, he lives in the most perfect but not the greatest luxury that I have anywhere seen. There was not a sign of display, but everything is rich, artistic and in perfect taste. There was a large bouquet of flowers on the table and a vase of gorgeous American beauty roses on a stand at one side of the dining room. …

“The subject of robbery and confiscation suggested to me to ask Mr. Adams’ opinion about the policy of the French government in relation to the Catholic church, as he lives in Paris more than half of each year. It was the first step in the policy of the socialists to get possession of property. … He laughed in his very unemphatic way—which might be described as an audible smile—and said that the next step for the socialists was to get the property of the Bourgeoisie.… He was altogether opposed to the socialistic scheme, for it was thoroughly apparent where it was to lead.”

Adams seemed in an unusually talkative mood and Bancroft, always eager to hear his opinions, introduced one subject after another. Adams predicted “that there was no resisting Germany if she pursued her course carefully and awaited her opportunities,” and discussed the career of Alexander Hamilton.

“We left that subject and also the table at about the same time. He asked me if I smoked and pointed to the cigars and cigarettes on a polished table and told me to help myself, which I did. He seems not to smoke.

“I inquired about his eyes, which I noticed were considerably inflamed. … ‘O! I have very agreeable conversations with Dr. Wilmer, occasionally, but I do not know whether he has found out what is the matter with my eyes, if anything. I used to be bothered a great deal with rheumatism or gout, and perhaps this is only the result of my indigestion, or my rheumatism may be working out through my eyes. What I need is to find a physician for my brain. My mind is all going to the dogs and wandering about the streets. I have long been expecting that I should suddenly find that it was out of working order and that I should go walking about aimlessly or be knocked down by a truck or fall in an apoplectic attack. Something like that is of course the usual order of things and we should expect it, although we should like to avoid it if possible.’

“I have long been waiting for a good opportunity to ask him to let me read his autobiography, which he calls The Education of Henry Adams. It is two or three years since I first heard of printed copies being in the hands of some of his friends. He does not give away the copies but lends them with the request that they be returned with criticisms. He exclaimed, ‘I supposed that I had given you a copy.’ Then he looked about in the drawers of his writing desk and drew out a large quarto volume with the remark that this was the only one he had at hand, and it was his own copy in which he had made some notes, but I was very welcome to take it; and he put it down on the table before me. … He stated that his condition in lending a copy was that each reader should contribute at least one marginal criticism. As a rule he had found it difficult to get criticisms. …

“As we were coming down the stairs I made some remark about the luxury of being able to have one’s book printed privately. He said that he had made up his mind never to give another dollar to publishers; that having his books printed this way was a form of indulgence which he could afford because he had no other expensive vices to spend his surplus on—not caring for drinking or cards or women. Then his few words about publishers indicated clearly that he had anything but a high opinion of them. ‘I will have nothing to do with them or their ways; I have resolved never to give them another dollar because I think they are a bad lot; all except one—and I always decline to name that one,’ he added with a slight chuckle.”

During the next three years, Bancroft saw Adams occasionally and continued to record his conversations. In May, 1914, while vacationing in Europe, he traveled to Paris where he found Adams “thoroughly convinced that the war soon would be general.” Adams was 74 then and no mellower for the passage of years. He complained, as Bancroft faithfully recorded, “about how inconsiderate it was of the nations of Europe to disturb his peace.”

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