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Adams Contra Mundum

ISSUE:  Winter 1931

The Adams Family. By James Truslow Adams. Boston: Little, Brown and Company. $4.00. Letters of Henry Adams. Edited by W. C. Ford. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company. $5.00.

In the history of the United States there are other families than the Adamses whose genius has flowered in several successive generations. There are the Ed-wardses and the Dwights in New England, the Bayards in Delaware, the Byrds in Virginia, to cite only a few examples. But there is after all no family which has won quite the same public distinction, and no family, which thanks to the cacocthes scribendi and an unlimited gift for introspection and self-analysis, has exposed itself quite so fully to the gaze of the analyst and the historian. Mr. James Trus-low Adams has selected a subject worthy of his powers, therefore, in the book to which he gives the title of “The Adams Family.” He has not set out in this highly interesting volume to make an original contribution in the field of pure scholarship. His purpose, well fulfilled, is to trace, with his usual skill in the marshalling of his facts, and with his accustomed literary instinct, the rise in the “psychical energy” of the Adams family, as he terms it, the gradual deviation of this energy from the main lines of “the greater forces driving society along its path.”

The fundamental thesis that seems to run through his volume is that, with the rising tide of democratic feeling, men of the Adams stripe were more and more excluded from the positions of high reward which came to their earlier generations. These highly intellectual and independent-minded sons of New England, as all of them were, these men of lofty and exacting conscience, Mr. Adams indicates, were able to make a place for themselves in the first quarter of the nineteenth century, but were inevitably restricted to narrower roles as time went on. Again and again he points out that democracy, and moral and intellectual independence of the Adams type are not likely to be highly compatible.

There is no denying the partial validity of the thesis. But it needs, it seems to the reviewer, qualifications which the author of “The Adams Family” hardly suggests. There have been men who were not conformist politicians who have reached the White House in the bad days of democracy. One needs only to think of Mr. Roosevelt and Mr. Wilson. And if it be said that there was something of the element of a fluke in the original entry of these two great leaders into the Presidency, one may well remember that John Adams was President “by three votes,” and that John Quincy, Adams attained the goal of his ambition only through the indirect course of election by the House of Representatives. It is not so certain as Mr. Adams supposes that virtue and worth were rewarded in the early days of the Republic so much more readily than they are today; and to time-serving and corruption the records of the early days of our government bear ample witness.

It seems true, also, that more of the fault than the author of “The Adams Family” supposes lay with the Adamses themselves. Intellectual and moral independence are, no doubt, extremely noble qualities; but they are not the only equipment for a statesman. Willingness to consider other views than one’s own, broad sympathy with human beings and with causes for which one has no initial impulse of enthusiasm, the imaginative insight which discerns what particular ideals are at a given moment most realizable, these are among the qualities of the greatest political leaders. And in these qualities the Adamses were to a large degree lacking.

There is in Mr. Adams’s work a distinct tendency to idealize the earlier members of the family. Even the austere John Quincy Adams was not quite the paragon which this book indicates, a man who thought only of duty and never of political advantage. The famous note to Erving of November 28, 1818, justifying Jackson’s invasion of Florida, was as much a political pamphlet as a diplomatic dispatch. And though this really great member of a great family, in the election of 1824, avoided with a noble conscientiousness anything that might savor of a corrupt bargain, it is not probable that mere zeal for the public service prompted him to propose his most formidable political rivals for diplomatic missions in 1823. There are two sides, also, to the bravest part of Mr. Adams’s career, his long defiance of the slave power in the House of Representatives. Grant that he showed superb qualities of will and moral courage, grant even that he was right in his assumption that interference with the right of petition was a blow at a fundamental principle of American public law, and it still remains true that he pursued his ends with an immense bitterness, and that he frequently did far less than justice to the men of the South, and indeed to all of those who disagreed with him. The dispassionate historian will often find himself wondering whether the cause of anti-slavery itself was always well served by Adams. .

I have said that Mr. Adams has tended to idealize the earlier members of the great family which he has subjected to study. He has, perhaps, failed to do justice to the later ones. His method of treatment hardly brings out to the full the remarkable qualities of Charles Francis Adams, Sr., probably the best-balanced and the most judicious of all the Adamses. And something might be added, too, to the account of Henry Brooks Adams, whose merits as an historian have hardly, been surpassed by any American historical writer.

Fortunately enough, for the latter figure, there has recently been published, under the distinguished editorship of Mr. W. C. Ford, a volume of letters which add much to our knowledge. In a measure Henry Adams sought to tell the story of his own life in the “Education.” But the “Education,” remarkable work that it is, suffers from some of the characteristic defects of the Adams mind, from a morbid introspection, from a dark pessimism, and from the harsh spirit of criticism which cropped out in others of the Adams family. The picture of Henry Adams which is given in the “Letters” is, it is thought, a juster as it is a more attractive picture, on the whole, of this extremely interesting man. The spectacle of growth which the “Letters” present is, perhaps, fully as authentic a picture as that which a self-conscious old man drew of himself in the latter years of his life. As a youth Henry Adams does not appear as overwhelmingly attractive. His years immediately following on college seem to be those of an intellectual flaneur, with a strong desire to know the best people, “best,” of course, even then, being not ignobly defined. Yet even in these early years the capacity for growth was clearly there, and the contact with German scholarship in 1858 arid 1859 surely had something to do with Adams’s success later as a teacher at Harvard. It is the Harvard years which exhibit the flowering of Adams. There was, of course, much grumbling on his part; no Adams has ever long ceased to grumble. But there was also a clear enthusiasm, and a very definite point of view. The letters to Henry Cabot Lodge, written during this period, reveal the genuine scholarship of Henry Adams’s mind, the painstaking quality of his historical genius, the wisdom and breadth of his criticism. They reveal an intellect which was never satisfied with mere grubbing, and whose interests were never so narrowly restricted as to cramp and narrow the whole man. In our modern era, when so many of our aspiring young Doctors of Philosophy rarely seem to ask themselves what is the larger meaning of the thing that they set out to do, and are likely to be abysmally ignorant on what does not touch them nearly, the tone and temper of the Adams letters brings refreshment and cheer. Here was a master mind, beyond question.

The period of Harvard is also the period of the editorship of the North American Review. And in this aspect of the life of Adams the usual qualities of the family appear. There is a supercilious independence, an air of aristocratic condescension which indicates clearly enough why Henry Adams could only dream of political activity, or play about on the periphery of practical politics, rather than become a great political leader.

Even Harvard and the Review too much restricted Adams. But the temper that made him a great teacher was to make him a great scholar, and a great observer of men and things. In the latter part of the letters, one sees him more in the latter than in the former role. There are no more charming letters imaginable than those which he wrote from Japan, and later from the South Seas. It is not too much of the latter to say that they are a vital contribution to an understanding of a declining racial culture. They are nothing short of masterpieces. Reading them, one wonders after all if there was in this fourth generation of the Adamses a real decline of the Adams genius. Henry Adams did not become President of the United States; but there are a few persons, even politically-minded persons, who would rather have written these letters than live for four years in the White House.


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