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Reading, Writing and History

“Speculators In Theories”: Henry and Brooks Adams

June 2024
9min read

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.

The principal merit of both these biographies lies in presenting the evolution of the ideas of Henry and Brooks; but they also furnish portraits of two remarkable personalities. As to the relative stature of the brothers we cannot be in any doubt. Brooks, ten years the younger, always looked up worshipfully to Henry. Not only did Henry have much the more powerful and better disciplined mind, but he was also, as Ernest Samuels showed in his study of Young Henry Adams , much the more versatile. While Brooks plodded from Harvard into law and brought out no important book until 1889, Henry was founding the seminar system at his alma mater, exposing the Black Friday gangsters, editing the North American Review , exploring ethnology and political economy, writing on Anglo-Saxon law, and leaping from medieval history to American history. He was a reformer in politics, business, journalism, and academic life; at twenty-five a philosopher—“a full-blown fatalist.” Despite his retiring ways—“You like roughness and strength,” he wrote his business-minded brother Charles Francis, Jr.: “I like taste and dexterity”—he seemed on the highroad to practical success when overtaken by a poignant domestic tragedy. His wife drank poison, and he wrote: “Fate at last has smashed the life out of me.”

Henry Adams: A Biography , by Elizabeth Stevenson. The Macmillan Co. 432 pp. $5.75.

Brooks Adams: A Biography , by Arthur F. Beringause. Alfred A. Knopf. 416 pp. $6.

Yet Brooks Adams, too, was a man of remarkable gifts. He had all the Adams oddities to excess. Mr. Beringause quotes an early exchange which shows what an odd family it was. Brooks, about ten: “Momma, do people need marry to have children?” Mrs. Charles Francis Adams, dryly: “Sometimes.” Brooks early established his position as a social pest, though the tolerant Henry protested that he was “really a first-rate little fellow, apart from his questions.” One life-long defect was the inconsecutive quality of his mind. While his mother complained because he “screams, & laughs, & rants, & twists, & jumps, & worries about so,” his father, the eminent minister to England, grieved because he was completely inattentive and endlessly talkative. When he broke out with boils, one compensation appeared. “Poor Brooks is much exercised,” his father wrote, “and for a wonder has become taciturn.” Of college he was contemptuous. “We go on grubbing in just the same stupid, pigheaded way that Harvard students have always grubbed since there was a Harvard to grub at.” In his freshman year the faculty privately voted to admonish him for copying at examinations! But he developed an intense interest in history, making to his father, a firm lover of Greco-Roman times, the “degrading confession” that he preferred the Middle Ages.

Inevitably, the two Adamses progressed intellectually in much the same way: Henry Adams a swift, unstable ocean liner; Brooks a yacht at first far in his wake, skimming here and there, but later shooting far ahead on some tacks. Both—reared on Burke, John Adams, and Tocqueville—were conservative, skeptical, and even waspish about popular rule. Brooks in his first important essay declared that liberty was “impossible,” equality was “absurd,” and fraternity was “a nauseous lie.” Both had a full supply of the good old Adams prejudices. Henry’s anti-Semitism would be more irritating if he were not also anti-British, anti-French, anti-German, anti-American, and in his last years anti-universe. Both had an incredible faculty for using their advantages of family, wealth, and brains to make themselves miserable. Two facts helped misshape their careers. Both were childless; children might have averted Henry’s private tragedy. Both were too free from the primal curse. As Brooks pointed out to Henry, their failure to make an adjustment with the world arose largely from the lack of a fixed occupation to absorb time. “Our misfortune has been that this necessary application of our energy has been denied us. We live largely on ourselves.”


But both were essentially radical in that they questioned nearly all fixed ideas and institutions. In Henry’s phrase, they became “speculators in theories.” When the panic of 1893 brought them together at Quincy to confer on the salvaging of their fortunes, they were astonished to find how fully they agreed. The Adams family had always hated Wall Street and State Street. Now Brooks became a rabid free-silverite, impatient of the halfway house of international bimetallism occupied by Lodge and Balfour; he drew Henry after him; and both contributed liberally to Bryan’s campaign fund. It is interesting to see that for some years Brooks, who had always deferred to Henry, stimulated and led him.

They seldom met, for Brooks got on Henry’s nerves. When they did, Henry would sometimes ejaculate: “Brooks, do go upstairs awhile; you tire my mind”—referring to his inconsecutive trait. But in letters they opened fresh realms to each other. Mr. Beringause publishes a really magnificent epistle of Brooks’s describing his emotions at a Mass accidentally heard in 1895 in the Gothic cathedral of Le Mans. “I disgraced myself,” wrote Brooks. “I felt for half an hour as I know the men must have felt who stained those windows and built those arches. I really and truly did believe the miracle.” This anticipates one strain in Henry’s Mont-Saint-Michel . Both men took long philosophical views of history, as eager to find universal laws as Hegel, and as pessimistic as Winwood Reade. Both, with pre-Toynbeean simplicity, tried to apply scientific concepts to historical interpretation, and both believed that one age was ending, and a darker new age supervening.

To students of modern politics, Brooks Adams is the more interesting. It is not astonishing that two of his books have lately been reprinted—his America’s Economic Supremacy and his Law of Civilization and Decay. When he turned to free silver and the idea of state-planning for the future, Theodore Roosevelt privately denounced him as intellectually dishonest and “a little unhinged”; but when he took imperialistic views of America’s future, urging the nation to prepare to rescue civilization, Roosevelt applauded him. Brooks held that survival in the world battle is the reward only of those lands which stay armed, organized, and courageous. He demanded a greater centralization of authority in America to meet the crisis. Western Europe, he wrote long before the First World War, is sinking in decay; China offers the great problem of the future; and America and Russia will be the two great antagonists for power. We must be ready for a grim test.

His ideas in The Law of Civilization and Decay are the most vital part of Brooks’s thought, and despite eccentric elements are truly remarkable for the time (1895). Adopting a materialistic explanation of history, he described how the center of trade (and power) had moved westward from the Middle East to Italy, thence to Holland, on to England, and finally across the Atlantic. Cycles, in his opinion, governed the destiny of man; nations rose and fell. His explanation of the cycles is, as Mr. Beringause observes, full of errors, but full also of vitality—it “coruscated with ideas.” The jurist Holmes wrote Sir Frederick Pollock that it was “about the most (immediately) interesting history I ever read.” One of its faults, characteristic of Brooks, is that it delivers ideas with too little coherence; and frequently these ideas are not truly original, but drawn from the thought of the time. Mr. Beringause, meaning to praise, says that the book anticipated Max Weber on the Reformation, Haushofer on geophysics, Spengler on ebb and flow, Beard on economic influences in law, and Veblen on technology. This is really an indictment of the odds-and-ends character of the volume. Yet even today it will provoke anybody to thought.

“Brooks,” wrote Henry to Mrs. Don Cameron, “is too brutal, too blatant, too emphatic, and too intensely set on one line at a time to please any large number of people.” Henry, so much abler and subtler, was also more adroit. In his lifetime he pleased, perplexed, and excited his own circles; since his death his half-irritated, half-fascinated audience has grown steadily. Those interested in history, letters, and art will find Miss Stevenson’s study not only full in its presentation of biographical fact, but rewarding in its critical judgments and psychological insights. America has had greater spirits than Henry Adams, but none more intensely searching. It has had finer minds, but no intellect freer, lonelier, more devoted to a grasp of realities. Reading this book, we are carried to the austere vantage point where he brooded, ever questing, ever dissatisfied, over the destinies of man.

What Miss Stevenson sees clearly is that the tragedy of Henry’s life, giving edge to his mind and depth to his meditation, was in a sense the making of that life. He was always, after 1885, in pain; existence was always a battle. Once so charming, Adams grew rather repellent. His morbidity became a system; his cutting tongue made enemies; his sneering pessimism, a mask for despair, impressed many as a pose. He became truly convinced that somewhere just ahead of mankind lay a terrible and final disaster; for he did not see with Thornton Wilder that mankind has always struggled from catastrophe to catastrophe by the skin of its teeth. We have had our disaster, and have moved to new tasks and rewards. Adams, fascinated by the contrast between the Thirteenth and Twentieth Centuries, wrote equally moving prayers to the Virgin and the Dynamo; and all his later writing, as Miss Stevenson says, “was an attempt to fill in the abyss between these opposites.” Where did it bring him?

We may sweep away much of his speculation with theories. What has Kelvin’s second law of thermodynamics to do with writing history, or Willard Gibbs’s law of physics to do with the movement of intellect? Adams’ great achievements remain the History , the Mont-Saint-Michel and the Education , here acutely analyzed. Yet we cannot dismiss this speculator in theories even when his ideas seem most fantastic. His pessimism healthfully questioned the cant about progress. Before Ortega, he described the transfer of power from the individual to the masses, and its dangers. His essays sound an alarm over the decline of the great traditions of faith, intellectual discipline, and intellectual prestige in a world ever more materialistic. And although his “rule of phase” is nonsense, he deserves credit for pointing out so early that while the amount of power in the world has been accelerating prodigiously, the amount of intelligence to control these powers has grown little if at all. Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin rose after him to illustrate that fact.

Brooks Adams with fiery eccentricity, Henry Adams with probing detachment, tried to throw much-needed illumination ahead of a world moving toward the abyss. Now that we are emerging from the abyss, we can still find values in that earnest if fitful illumination.

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