Spring 1987, Volume 4.1


The Tragedy of Henry Adams, A Secular Prophet of Doom

Henry Adams, "in certain respects, the most complete intellectual America ever produced" (McKitrick 22), was termed by his brother, Brooks, as one of the "prophets of doom and destructions" who looked upon a world "full of the sense of last things, as if it hoped for no resuscitations" (Brooks 409). Henry would agree with Brooks, although he would insist that his gloomy predictions arose from his scientific interpretation of history and not, as I suggest here, from his religious bent of mind, a mind which by nature and by education groped toward the Absolute but was tortured almost beyond endurance by a sense of chaos and meaninglessness in the universe, seemingly indicating to Adams that no Absolute existed. According to Paul million's definition, "Being religious is being unconditionally concerned, whether this concern expresses itself in secular or (in the narrower sense) religious forms!' (xi).

Henry Adams was a religious man. Certainly, one fruitful way of organizing a study of Henry Adams is to view his desperate search for "a great generalization that would reduce all history under a law as clear as the laws which govern the material universe" (Degradation 127) as a kind of religious quest. Adams himself seemed to consider his theory of history the result of metaphysics as much as of science. He wrote to Brooks: "This is, however, a line of ideas wholly new, and very repugnant to our contemporaries. You will regard it with mild contempt. I owe it to my having always had a weakness for science mixed with metaphysics. I am a dilution of Lord Kelvin and St. Thomas Aquinas.. ." (Ford 392).

Henry Adams sought to create a science of history; the most fundamental characteristic of that science of history would be its absolute nature. "Any science assumes a necessary sequence of cause and effect, a force resulting in motion which cannot be other than what it is. Any science of history must be absolute, like other sciences, and must fix with mathematical certainty the path which human society has got to follow" (Degradation 129). As Cater says, 'The one great force in the mind of Henry Adams was the pursuit of an idea. He searched for a philosophy of history. He never found it, but he wrote a series of books that tell the story of his quest" (lxxvi).

Brooks Adams compares Henry's goal in life with that of their grandfather, John Quincy Adams-namely, the shaping of an ideal democracy in America where men's dreams for perfection could be realized. Of John Quincy Adams Brooks writes:

With Mr. Adams science and education were passions, and amounted to a religion, as I have said. For forty years ago the theory of progression toward perfection was popularly accepted as Henry has described it to have been in his Education. "Unbroken Evolution under uniform conditions pleased every one, -except curates and bishops; it was the very best substitute for religion." All of which was perfectly true of London in the sixties, but it was not thus that John Quincy Adams mingled his science with his God. To him the issue was, literally, one of life and death, for were his premises false, and were he mistaken in his belief that the universe were ruled by a conscious and benign God, then progressive improvement would be impossible, civilization would be a failure, and the world itself a place in which he cared not to live.... (Degradation 53-54)

Like Moses, and a host of other idealists and reformers, John Quincy Adams had dreamed that, by his interpretation of the divine thought, as manifested in nature, he could covenant with God, and thus regenerate mankind . . . . (Degradation 77)

John Quincy Adams's messianic view of politics seems to stem rather directly from the Puritan theocratic concept of a "Holy Commonwealth!' established in Massachusetts under the supervision of an Absolute Director. The decay of the Holy Commonwealth led to an internalization of the ideal; individual men, like John Quincy Adams, felt themselves called to act out the will of God on behalf of the American Republic, which was, potentially at least, a divinely ordained society, a "messiah among the fallen peoples of the world." The American government, John Quincy Adams thought, was founded upon the divine law, and he insisted that all human legislation must be based upon the eternal and immutable laws of justice and morality.

Henry imbibed his secularized messianic ideal from his grandfather, and from Charles Francis Adams, his father, whose chief axiom was this: "The first and greatest qualification of a statesman ... is a mastery of the whole theory of morals which makes the foundation of all human society" (Hochfield 5). In 1868, when Henry Adams returned to the United States from London, he still thought of this country as a great social experiment to be continued according to moral law, and, true to the Adams tradition, he hoped to have a place in government and to become a leader in shaping the still new national democracy. Brooks describes the disillusionment Henry experienced in Washington as he saw firsthand the nasty realities of power politics and realized Grant's indifference to corrupt conditions:

Another generation passed and Mr. Adams! grandson (Henry), in 1870, sat in the gallery of Congress and listened to the announcement of Grant's cabinet. He has recorded his impressions. He blushed for himself because he had dreamed it to be possible that a democratic republic could develop the intellectual energy to raise itself to that advanced level of in intelligence which been accepted as a moral certainty by Washington, his own grandfather, and most of his grandfather's contemporaries in the eighteenth century, and whose dreams and ideas he had, as he describes, unconsciously inherited. He understood at length, as his ancestor had learned, that mankind does not advance by his own unaided efforts and competition, toward perfection. He does not automatically realize unity or even progress. On the contrary, he reflects the diversity of nature. It is the contrast between the ideal of the kingdom of heaven, peace and obedience; and the diversity of competition, or, in other words, of war. Democracy is an infinite mass of conflicting minds and of conflicting interests which, by the persistent action of such a solvent as the modem or competitive industrial system, becomes resolved into what is, in substance, a vapor, which loses in collective intellectual energy in proportion to the perfection of its expansion." (Degradation 108-109)

Many years later, in the sixth chapter of the first volume of his History, Henry describes the "American Ideal" as a perfectly free society, resting on no authoritarian or supernatural supports, but on perfected individual human nature realizing itself by unhindered spontaneous growth. In 1870, disappointed in his failure to receive a significant appointment in Washington and disgusted with political conditions as he saw them, he allowed himself to be persuaded to take a post at Harvard as Assistant Professor of History. He went to Cambridge, carrying with him a mind troubled with its "ultimate concern": "Why had man once more failed? What new conditions made the hope for perfection seem vain? What is the meaning of life in the modem world of machines?" (Spiller 1080).

At Harvard, Adams was a successful teacher; he taught "some lively history" because he was determined to "teach it my own way" (Ford 196). He was married in 1872. By this time, he had changed subjects at Harvard, moving from medieval history to American history of the Colonial period, and then to the early Republic from 1789 to 1840. In 1877, the son of Albert Gallatin, who was the Secretary of the Treasury under Jefferson and Madison, offered Adams the Gallatin papers and asked him to write his father's biography. As Adams undertook this work, his first major effort, he came to grips with the central problem running through all his works, the failure of democratic idealism. He was already convinced of the importance of the ideal of human perfectibility to American history, and he had come to identify Jeffersonian Republicanism as the great vehicle of the democratic movement for the very reason that Jefferson, Madison, and Gallatin had a scheme "as broad as society itself," the goal of which was to provide for and guide the moral and material development of the new era for "a fresh race of men." Democracy, then, starts with a faith in the innate capacity of men, when they are free of social restraint and encouraged by a democratic social order, to progress morally and materially toward an ideal secular condition, perfection.

In The Life of Albert Gallatin, published in 1879, Adams views the Jeffersonian Republicans as the true idealists for whom history took on meaning either as progress or delay of progress toward an ideal goal. Their cardinal objective, contrary to the Federalists's, was the limitation of governmental authority. A large national debt increased the power of national government in at least three waysby making the lenders dependent on government for repayment, by giving the officials an opportunity to increase their influence through the use of borrowed funds, and by ingraining the habit of taxation. Gallatin worked for ten years to reduce the national debt and succeeded in lowering it by over $42 million, only to see it increased by $78 million in two and a half years. Ironically, the Embargo, conceived by Jefferson to avoid war which would increase the debt and the power of the central government, not only required greater expression of authority to enforce it than had been known before, but ended in failure and in war after all. Thus, men of highest principle contributed to their own defeat. The breakdown of Jeffersonian democratic idealism, Adams seeks to show in Gallatin, resulted from the fact that circumstances are by their nature stronger and more permanent than men. One fundamental difference between the Republicans and the Federalists had been that the former believed that government must be ruled by principles while the latter replied that government must be ruled by circumstances. The Jeffersonians, expected their principles to control circumstances, but they failed.

Adams had scarcely finished his four-volume work on Gallatin when he began research for his nine-volume work on the History of the United States of America during the Administration of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. In this work, published from 1889 to 1891, the idealists are no longer the Republicans alone, but the whole American people. His chapter on "American Ideals" says that the American, from Jefferson and Gallatin down to the poorest squatter, believed himself to be working for the overthrow of tyranny, aristocracy, hereditary privilege, and priesthood, wherever they existed. Adams questions the provisions made for moral progress and concludes that Jefferson held the simple faith that men would improve morally with their physical and intellectual growth. This rather vague expectation was held also by Americans at large. In the chapter "American Ideals" in particular, and throughout the nine volumes in general, one encounters Adams's familiar quest for absolute ends. During the course of his writing of the History, his letters reveal an increasingly deterministic concept of history which he later said in The Tendency to be necessary for a true science of history. In a letter to Samuel Tilden in 1883, he wrote:

To do justice to Gallatin was a labor of love .... I cannot say as much for his friends, Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe, about whom I have been for years hard at work. In regard to them I am incessantly forced to devise excuses and apologies or to admit that no excuse will avail. I am at times almost sorry that I ever undertook to write their history, for they appear like mere grasshoppers kicking and gesticulating on the middle of the Mississippi River. There is no possibility of reconciling their theories with their acts, or their extraordinary foreign policy with dignity. They were carried along on a stream which floated them, after a fashion, without much regard to themselves.

This I take to be the result that students of history generally reach in regard to modem times. The element of individuality is the free-will dogma of the science, if it is a science. My own conclusion is that history is simply social development along the lines of weakest resistance, and that in most cases the line of weakest resistance is found as unconsciously by society as by water. (Cater 125-26)

This same thought seems a little more firmly fixed by 1884, when he wrote to Francis Parkman:

The more I write, the more confident I feel that before long a new school of history will rise which will leave us antiquated. Democracy is the only subject for history. I am satisfied that the purely mechanical development of the human mind in society must appear in a great democracy so clearly, for want of disturbing elements, that in another generation psychology, physiology, and history will join in proving men to have as fixed and necessary development as that of a tree; and almost as unconscious. (Cater 134)

The theme of the History is that the failure of American idealism is complete. In 1800, the goals of the American democracy-- spontaneous growth toward human perfection without authoritarian support, the shaping of laws and policy according to an increasingly high conception of moral order by a new race of free men-were clear. Now such noble ends are no longer clear, and Adams concludes his ninth volume with these questions: 'What interests were to vivify a society so vast and uniform? What ideals were to ennoble it? What object, besides physical comfort, must a democracy aspire to attain?" (History IX 242).

While writing the History with his right hand, Adams wrote three other books with closely related themes with his left. Democracy (1880) is a novel about Adams's disillusionment with power politics as he saw "democracy" in action in Washington. 'Democracy" is now nothing but a senseless clash of egos, at the best amoral, often immoral competition for personal power, power for its own sake. The novel was published anonymously, partly because Senator Ratcliffe is patterned so patently after Senator Blaine. Mrs. Lee, like Henry Adams, came to Washington seeking power, not power for power's sake, but for noble ends. She was searching for the ideal of democratic government, an object large enough, impersonal enough, and meaningful enough to be worthy of the total sacrifice of herself, to be worthy of her utter self-abnegation and even self extinction. Mrs. Lee, like Adams himself, awoke to the reality that true ideal democracy is dead; only Ratcliffes remain.

To people like Mrs. Lee or Henry Adams, when the Absolute was lost or proved illusory, life became an agonized absurdity. Without the transcendent, impersonal ends in which the Absolute was embodied, the individual was doomed to a blind and isolated pursuit of self-gratification. Without such ends, society was a pointless Hobbesian war of every man against every man, or interest against interest, or party against party .... At the close of the novel, her life is just as meaningless to Mrs. Lee as it was at the beginning. It is, in fact, "emptier now than ever" [now that the dream is over]. (Hochfield 32-33)

John Randolph (1882) again deals with the failure of Jeffersonian Republicanism, but this time the failure is due to the fact that power itself corrupts. The Jeffersonian Republicans failed when they did not carry through their intended reform of the Judiciary and again when they bought the Louisiana Territory by treaty rights and did not seek public validation for the act even though Jefferson was sure they had gone "beyond the Constitution." In each case idealism was sacrificed to political expediency; they were "perverted by the possession of power . . . ." Randolph is the epitome and horrible example of this corruption of idealism. His biography is a study of idealism destroyed by the overmastering force of self-love.

Esther (1884) is the story of the agonizing rejection, almost in despair, by both Marian and Henry Adams, of religious orthodoxy. This work, published under the pseudonym of Frances Snow Compton, is about Marian Hooper Adams, Henry's wife, although the characters inevitably mirror Henry as well. Esther loves Stephen Hazard, a too-aggressive minister, who, while he loves Esther, is equally interested in feathering his cap by getting her into his church. For the sake of personal integrity, Esther feels she must reject Stephen because his religion, which she must take with him, not only does not deliver her from self but thrusts self upon her "from every comer of the church as though I loved and admired it." She says to Stephen, "I love you. I cannot help loving you," but she insists, as Adams himself does everywhere, that the ends of life must be beyond the self. Her beliefs become symbolized by Niagara in which the individual particles make up, but are lost in, the mighty cataract, which represents the vast, steady flow of ultimate energy. In this work, Adams proves too painfully to be a prophet of doom. In the book, Esther's father dies, and she is so torn that she "wanted to escape, to run away, to get out of life itself, rather than suffer such pain, such terror, such misery of helplessness (Esther 149). Marian's father died in April of the next year; in December, she committed suicide in their new, not yet fully finished, home in Washington, D.C. Adams remained alone in the house with the corpse until his family arrived. He wrote, two days after her death, "I can endure, but I cannot talk," and eight days later, "I admit fate has at last smashed the life out of me: but for twelve years I had everything I most wanted on earth. I own that the torture has made me groan; but, as long as any will is left, I shall try not to complain" (Cater 157-58).

The next year, Adams left for a trip to Japan and the South Seas about which he wrote in Memoirs of Marau Taaroa, Last Queen of Tahiti (1893). Tahiti's message is similar to that which Melville and others have propounded, that the health and stable culture of the islands were degraded by contact with western civilization. During this trip to the East, Adams encountered Buddhism, and it left its influence on him, an influence visible in the memorial he ordered Saint Gaudens to make for his wife's grave, and in the poem "Buddha and Brahma." In the poem, Adams has the persona say.

0 Omniscient One,
Teach us, if such be in the Perfect Way,
Whether the world exists eternally.

Adams concludes that life is split between the realms of activity and contemplation:

But we, who cannot fly the world, must seek
To live two separate lives; one, in the world
Which we must ever seem to treat as real;
The other in ourselves, behind a veil
Not to be raised without disturbing both.
(Letters to a Niece 13)

By this time Adams had stopped writing history, but he never ceased his search for a scientific philosophy of history. His concluding works have essentially this one purpose. The Tendency of History was an address in absentia (Adams pretended to be in Mexico) to the American Historical Association that had elected Adams president even though he never attended any of their meetings. In this work which contains no positive statement of his own theory of history, Adams says (1) there will be a science of history; (2) it will be deterministic, and (3) the teaching of it will arouse opposition.1

Adams makes clear in the preface to the Education, which he wrote himself under the name of Henry Cabot Lodge, that MontSaint-Michel and Chartres (1904) and The Education of Henry Adams (1907 and 1918) are companion studies- the former "A Study in Thirteenth Century Unity," the latter, "A Study of Twentieth Century Multiplicity." In Chartres, the Virgin symbolizes the inner, centripetal force of religion or God through which man achieved, particularly in the period of 1150-1250, the inner and outer harmony expressed both in art and philosophy. In the modern world, evolution causes nature to supplant man as the center of the universe (for the Virgin was the human raised to the level of divinity), and The Education seizes the Dynamo as the symbol of mechanism raised to the infinite, a centrifugal force which not only challenges the unity of the preceding ages, but which represents the universe moving toward disintegration. The pessimistic view of history found in The Tendency begins to take a more specific shape in these two books in the form of a theory of history which ends in disintegration.

The Rule of Phase Applied to History" in Degradation attempts to find an analogy in the physical sciences for Adamss disintegration theory of history. For his purpose he found Willard Gibbs's work on the "Coexistent Phases of Matter" to be useful. For example, ice, water, and water-vapor are three phases of a single substance under different conditions of temperature and pressure. The phases are compared with stages in human history. "As science touches every material or immaterial substance, each in its turn dissolves, until the ether itself becomes an ocean of discontinuous particles .... If every solid is soluble into a liquid, and every liquid into a gas, and every gas into corpuscles which vanish in an ocean of ether, -if nothing remains of energy itself except potential motion in absolute space,--where can science stop in the application of this fecund idea?" (Degradation 269-70). In his letters, Adams complains that science does stop too soon; he takes up where science leaves off and applies this theory of acceleration toward entropy, the state of disorganization and non-availability of energy described by the second law of thermodynamics, to human history. Pressure in physics represents "Attraction," the historical rule of phase which gives to history its forward movement. Temperature represents Acceleration; Volume, mares Thought. Positing the mechanical age, 1600-1900, as the one of which he is most sure, by the law of inverse squares Adams concludes that social energy is in an ever-accelerating state of disintegration and leveling out, not in fine gradations but in jumps, and that human thought should reach its limits in 1921. The inadequacy of this theory was obvious even to Adams, and critics still disagree concerning Adams's attitude toward his own theory, but as the theory itself stands, it strongly confirms Adams as a secular "prophet of doom."

Ms final statement of his theory, A Letter to American Teachers of History (1910), is vigorously anti-evolutionary. In fact, he attacks the over-easy manner in which other historians employed Darwinian evolution to justify an optimistic doctrine of continuously upward progress in history. Adams concludes that the Vital Energy or Social Energy, suggested by biological evolution, itself comes under Kelvin's Second Law, that the law of Entropy "applies to all vital processes even more rigidly than to mechanical .... Beings grow old, never young' (Degradation 154). His "Solutions" are typically no solutions at all!

Jacques Barzun says "the basic requirement of any religion" is the subsuming [of] all phenomena under one cause" (73). This was precisely Adams's objective, to subsume all phenomena under one cause. In a letter to George Cabot Lodge which accompanied the manuscript of "The Rule," Adams speaks of a university as "a system of education grouped about History; a main current of thought branching out, like a tree, into endless forms of activity, in regular development, according to the laws of physics; and to be studied as a single stream, not as now by a multiversal but by a universal law . . . " (Cater 784). He groped for an absolute "universal law" of history as certain as that which seemed to govern the world of science. Adams's study of history was always oriented more toward the future than toward the past. The ultimate conclusion of his theory of history, however, was the degradation of all energy. 'The law of thermodynamics must embrace human history in its last as well as its earliest phase" (Degradation 195). Reason is nothing more than the passive instrument of "a physico-chemical energy called Will" and "in any case it must submit to the final and fundamental necessity of Degradation" (208). Concerning his world view, Adams wrote, "I am a pessimist--dark and deep, -who always expects the worst, and is never surprised when it comes . . ." (Ford 455). Brooks was certainly right; Henry Adams was a secular "prophet of doom."

Despite his tortured, repetitious turning "round and round" the problems of a world which seemed to him to be too plainly headed for destruction, he was never satisfied with his own gloomy theory. He strongly suspected the problem of grasping the reality of human history not only difficult, but impossible, a problem both insoluble and senseless. Yet that conclusion was even still more abhorrent, so the mind of Henry Adams revolved once more around his unsatisfactory theory which Blackmur suggests was that ". . . of a desperate, weary mind, still scrupulous in desperation and passionately eager in weariness ..." (412).

Adams is a tragic figure in the Bradleyan sense-a man of "high estate," as noble, aristocratic, and patrician as American democracy could produce. His tragic flaw, he said, was that his education was wrong. He was a religious man born in an age of drastic change and upheaval, an age of science coming to maturity. His nature seemed to cry out for religious unity, but he saw only scientific multiplicity, and, despite his own theory, a universe essentially chaotic and meaningless. His theory was obviously too inconclusive to be taken, as he wrote to Brooks, "too seriously," yet it was the best he could come up with, and no other solution appeared on the horizon.
Perhaps that is one reason he wrote, in 1915, to Henry Osborn Taylor:

... I am in near peril of turning Christian, and rolling in the mud in an agony of human mortification. All these other fellows did it-why not I?

Ever Yrs
Henry Adams
(Cater 768-69)

But he never did.

Henry Adams never found the self-transcending hope he sought. In an age of science, he could not find the "absolute" answer in traditional religions, nor any longer in American democratic idealism, and, finally and least of all, in science itself. Despite increasing frustration and futility, he prophesied doom for democracy and, unflinchingly looking despair in the face, determined "... as long as any will is left,... not to complain."


Charles A. Beard in "Historians at Work: Brooks and Henry Adams," The Atlantic Monthly, 71 (April 1943): 87-93, presents an impressive case for the theory that Henry, in The Tendency, was seeking to prepare the minds of historians for Brooks's Law of Cizilization and Decay, published the following year.


1. Primary Sources: Works by Henry Adams The Degradation of the Democratic Dogma. Ed. Brooks Adams. New York and London: Macmillan, 1919.

Democracy.- An American Novel. New York: Holt, 1880; London: Macmillan, 1882.

The Education of Henry Adams. Washington, D.C.: Privately printed, 1907; Boston and New York. Houghton Mifflin, 1918; London: Constable, 1919.

Esther, A Novel. New York: Holt, 1884; London: Bentley, 1885.

History of the United States of America during the First Administration of Thomas Jefferson. Cambridge, Mass.: Privately printed, 1884, rev. ed. Vols. 1-2. New York, 1889.

History of the United States during the Second Administration of Thomas Jefferson. Cambridge, Mass.: Privately printed, 1885; rev. ed. Vols. 3-4. New York, 1890.

History of the United States during the First Administration of James Madison. Cambridge, Mass.: Privately printed, 1888; rev. ed. Vols. 5-6. New York, 1890.

History of the United States during the Second Administration of James Madison. Vols. 7-9. New York, 1891.

John Randolph. Boston, 1882, rev., 1883.

A Letter to American Teachers of History. Washington, D.C.: Privately printed, 1910.

The Life ofAlbert Gallatin. Philadelphia and London, 1879.

Memoirs of Marau Taaroa, Last Queen of Tahiti. No place named: Privately printed, 1893. Republished, rev. and enl. under the title Memoirs of Arii Taimai E. Paris: Privately printed, 1901.

Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres. Washington, D.C.: Privately printed, 1904; rev. and enl, 1912; Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1913, London: Constable, 1914.

The Tendency of History. New York. Macmillan Co., 1928. II. Additional Primary Sources: Letters by Henry Adams Ford, Worthington Chauncey, ed. A Cycle of Adams Letters, 1861 1865. 2 vols. Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1920.

Cater, Harold Dean, ed. Henry Adams and His Friends. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1947.

La Farge, Mabel, ed. Letters to a Niece and Prayer to the Virgin of Chartres.. Boston and New York- Houghton Mifflin, 1920.

III. Secondary Sources Barzun, Jacques. Darwin, Marx, Wagner. Boston: Little, Brown, and Co, 1941.

Blackmur, R. P. 'The Expense of Greatness. Three Emphases on Henry Adams." Virginia Quarterly Review 12 (July 1936): 396-415.

Brooks, Van Wyck. New England. Indian Summer, 1865-1915. New York: Dutton, 1940.

Hochfield, George. Henry Adams: An Introduction and Interpretation. New York. Barnes and Noble, 1962.

McKitrick, Eric L. "Henry Adams! Conceptual Technique." New Leader 2 June 1958: 22-23.

Spiller, Robert E. "Henry Adams." Literary History of the United States. NewYork. Macmillan,1974.

Tillich, Paul. The Protestant Era. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1948.