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Henry Adams and Lafayette Square, 1877-1885

ISSUE:  Summer 1986

A grandson and great-grandson of presidents, Henry Adams had a proprietary interest in the White House. His great-grandmother Abigail Adams had hung the family wash to dry in the unfinished East Room, and his grandmother Louise Catherine Adams had entertained Lafayette there in 1825, to mention only two family associations. Henry Adams himself made his first visit at the age of 12 in 1850 to the sleepy Southern village of Washington. Taken by his father, Charles Francis Adams, to call on President Zachary Taylor, he passed the president’s horse, “Old Whitey,” grazing in a paddock outside the White House. Adams recalled (in the Education of Henry Adams) that he had “felt no sense of strangeness” in meeting the president.

“He felt no sensation whatever before Presidents. A President was a matter of course in every respectable family.” Subsequently, in 1860, he came to Washington as private secretary to his father, who had been reelected to Congress. These were the tense months before the Civil War. Then, after spending the war years in London, again as secretary to his father, who was minister to Great Britain, Henry Adams returned to Washington in 1868 as a lobbyist and journalist working for “large internal reforms” of the government. One of his slashing articles earned him the epithet “begonia” from an irate senator, and he achieved the reputation, as reported in the national press, of being “one of the three best dancers in the capital.” In 1870, partly as a result of family pressure— they did not quite approve of the Bohemianism of his life in Washington—Adams left to become assistant professor of history at Harvard College. He left reluctantly: “I lose by the change,” he wrote his closest English friend, Charles Milnes Gaskell, from Cambridge, Massachusetts. “The winter climate is damnable. The country is to my mind hideous. And the society is three miles away in Boston. In return I have only the satisfaction of hoping that I may be of use. . . .” Besides teaching, he also edited the influential North American Review, which he fashioned into an organ for the Liberal Republican movement that he and his brother Charles Francis Adams helped organize. In 1872, Henry Adams married Marian Hooper, known as “Clover.” She was 28, independent financially and otherwise, not “handsome” but not “plain,” in Henry’s opinion; a “charming blue,” she read German, Latin, and a little Greek. She was witty, aesthetic, satiric; a “Voltaire in petticoats,” according to Henry James. In the autumn of 1877, Henry and Marian Adams made what he called “a great leap in the world” by moving to Washington. Earlier, that June, Adams had resigned from Harvard, where he had made his mark as a brilliant, innovative teacher and from the editorship of the Review. With the failure of the independents to put into the presidency their candidate in 1876, the movement was quiescent. By inheritance and his own temperament, Adams was drawn to Washington as a center of political power. He was to live in Washington for 40 years, until his death in 1918, and exerted at times considerable political influence as, in his words, “a stable-companion to statesmen.” In 1877, however, Adams was returning to Washington not as a reform publicist or political aspirant, but as a gentleman of private means and as an independent scholar. He had been asked to edit the papers of Albert Gallatin and was to write his biography. In Washington he would have easy access to the necessary archives.

There were other reasons for choosing to live in Washington. Announcing the move to Gaskell, Adams said, “. . . I gravitate to a capital by a primary law of nature. This is the only place in America where society amuses me, or where life offers variety.” On the more serious side, he spelled out his conception of what his and his wife’s role in the capital was to be—social and cultural emissaries.

Here, too, I can fancy that we are of use in the world, for we distinctly occupy niches which ought to be filled. We have taken a large house in which we seem lost. [The address was 1501 H Street, near Lafayette Square, owned by the banker and philanthropist William Wilson Corcoran.] Our watercolors and drawings go with us wherever we go, and here are our great evidence of individuality, and our title to authority. . . . One of these days this will be a very great city if nothing happens to it. Even now it is a beautiful one, and its situation is superb. As I belong to the class of people who have great faith in this country and who believe that in another century it will be saying in its turn the last word of civilisation, I enjoy the expectation of the coming day, and try to imagine that I am myself, with my fellow gelehrte here, the first faint rays of that great light which is to dazzle and set the world on fire hereafter. Our duties are perhaps only those of twinkling, and many people here . . .wonder what we’re at. But twinkle for twinkle, I prefer our kind to that of the small politician.

When Adams wrote these words, Washington, with its four universities, the old Library of Congress, the Smithsonian Institution, and a higher proportion of scientists in the population than in any other American city, as Constance Green has noted, was already an important intellectual center. George Bancroft, the “dean” of American historians, had lived just off Lafayette Square since 1874, and there was promise of an increasingly lively literary and artistic atmosphere. On the other hand, Washington was still youthful, raw, unformed. For all of its 160,000 or so inhabitants and its oases of parklike graciousness such as Lafayette Square around which society clustered, it was a shabby, disheveled town. The Pennsylvania Depot with its trains and tracks was on the Mall. The shaft of the Washington monument was a stump, not to be completed until 1884, and there were no Lincoln or Jefferson Memorials, to name a few of today’s other landmarks. As a courtesy, Adams was given a desk for his work at the State Department, then housed with the War and Navy Departments in the new flamboyant pseudo-French château (west of the White House) and now the Executive Office Building. It has been said that from there one could hear the shots of duckhunters in the tidal swamplands beyond the Ellipse.

Not only was Washington still physically undeveloped. The American democratic system was still conceived as an experiment, a new society which had not yet evolved into its mature form. Implicit in the passage just quoted is Adams’s belief that the success or failure of the American experiment would ultimately depend on the culture America would produce—its art and architecture, its literature and thought, its social life and amusements. Adams’ major work of his middle years was his multivolumed History of the United States during the administrations of Jefferson and Madison, begun in 1881 and published 1889—1890. The importance Adams placed on the quality of American civilization may be judged from the conclusion of his introduction to the History. From the perspective of 1800, he envisions “a coming time when the diffused ease and education should bring the masses into familiar contact with higher forms of human achievement, and their vast creative power, turned toward a nobler culture, might rise to the level of that democratic genius which found expression in the Parthenon; might revel in the delights of a new Buonarroti and a richer Titian; might create for five hundred million people the America of thought and art which alone could satisfy their omnivorous ambition.” For Adams, the basic question was whether the energies of the American people could be transmuted into “the higher forms of thought.” As an historian and intellectual leader, Adams was contributing to the “thought and art” of the country. By “twinkling” in a social firmament of Washington as tastemakers and adepts in the amenities of civilized life, the Adamses were lighting the way toward the “nobler culture” of his hopes.


There were, of course, less high-minded and Arnoldian reasons for the move to Washington. Among its virtues was that, unlike in New York, one did not have to be rich on the scale of post-Civil War barons of industry to live there comfortably, and mere money did not guarantee social position. Its simplicity, small-town ease, and informality appealed to Adams. Furthermore, unlike Boston, which was an extended family, Washington, with its constant influx of officials, foreign diplomats, and visitors from other parts of the country and the world, offered variety and cosmopolitanism.

Adams was delighted with its homey sophistication. He described life in Washington extravagantly but with true feeling in a letter to Gaskell of Nov.28, 1878, as idyllic.

Here society is primitive as the golden age. We run in at all hours to see everybody. . . . We make informal evening calls on the President, the Cabinet and the Diplomates. Ten days ago I went uninvited to Yoshida’s, the Japanese Minister’s, and played whist with him and his Japanese wife till midnight, after which I beat him at Go-Bang and he showed me how to play Go; after which we closed with oysters and Champagne and such a headache the next day. . . . Innocent and peaceful as we are, our Arcadian season has begun, and I must finish my letter in order to dress for dinner. For we have a little dinner tonight, as is not unusual, for we have to entertain our eminent Boston constituents when they come on. Would you know our company? Behold them! Mr Sidney Bartlett, aged 79, head of the Boston bar, rich, eminent, and considered witty. His son Frank Bartlett, a contemporary of my own. Mr Senator Lucius Quintius Curtius Lamar of Mississippi, the most genial and sympathetic of all Senators and universally respected and admired, —once a rebel envoy to Russia. Gen. Dick Taylor of Louisiana, brother-in-law of Jefferson Davis, himself one of the best of the rebel Major Generals, a great friend of the Prince of Wales, a first-rate raconteur and whistplayer, a son of a former President of the United States. Ecco! Six, you observe. We regret that Lady Catherine and you are not here to make eight. We would teach you to eat terrapin.

As this example suggests, the Adamses’ social gatherings were almost always intimate with the highest premium placed on good talk and congeniality of guests. The “form” of their entertaining owed much to the social experience Adams had gained in his London years, though he was to deny in the Education that he had acquired any social education. The preference for small, intimate gatherings came about in part as a result of Adams’s discomfiture at the great receptions and dinners in the London season. “I won’t trouble you with an account of balls,” he wrote his brother from London in May 1863, “at which I am usually a miserable attendant, looking and feeling like an exhibited horned owl.” “These great routs,” he said, “are a sort of canonization of mediocrity. No one attempts to have a good time, and if they did, they would be voted vulgar. In the whole system I see nothing to admire, and sincerely believe that it hurts everyone who gets into it.” He disagreed with the historian-diplomat John Lothrop Motley, who had pronounced the London social season “the perfection of human society.” In the Education, Adams described London social life as “solitude in crowds.” Typically, conversation at great dinners was banal, the women dowdy, and the food—English. England soured Adams on fashionable society, but he was also introduced there to intellectual, literary gatherings—dinners and country house visits “with clever people,”—which gave him a social standard and model he translated into American terms.

In the Washington social season, the Adamses mostly avoided the state dinners and large receptions that were the counterpart of the London scene. Though Adams in his youth had at least once attended that “melancholy function called an Inaugural Ball,” he and his wife rarely frequented “large or public occasions.” They declined all dances. This juxtaposition in one letter of Marian Adams of February 1881 nicely sets forth their preferences: “We are to dine at the White House Thursday—a State dinner—don’t you pity us?” “Also,” she continued, “a conditional dinner at Burnside’s [General Ambrose Burnside, then senator from Rhode Island]. . . . He is a nice old fellow and his dinners very funny and informal; music-box, six rocking chairs, much Apollinaris; everyone stretches across the table and all talk at once.”


As Marian and Henry Adamses’ letters suggest, “good talk” was the absolutely essential requirement of their social life. Their social arrangements in their own home were designed to provide the best possible conditions for conversation to flourish. Though various and numerous friends floated in for afternoon tea, dinners were usually confined to six or eight at the most, to allow for “good round talk.” What makes good talk, Senator Henry Cabot Lodge said in his autobiography, “is impossible to define exactly, is peculiar in its requirements and demands an especial combination of qualities. It must have humor, wit, and seriousness, all three. It demands wide knowledge of books and men. The anecdote it uses must be apt to the highest degree and sparingly employed. It must pierce deeply and yet touch lightly. In a word it must have charm, that impossible attribute which no one can define but which in absence or in presence is at once recognized.” Lodge placed Adams and John Hay on his short list of the best talkers he had known.

Good talk was of the essence, but the Adamses also sought to give pleasure through beauty in décor and excellence of table. At the Washington house of the New Yorker Levi P. Morton, Marian saw “no good pictures, but plenty of cheap stuff which in the charitable evening light looks well enough,” but Morton did have “an English butler and liveried flunkies,” who added, she said scornfully, “a glamour of magnificence calculated to dazzle and charm the simple Congressional guests”. . . . In contrast, the Adamses did not live ostentatiously, but their things were “good”: a library-drawing room with Turkish rugs, low, comfortable chairs, paintings and drawings including Turner, Bonington, Winslow Homer, William Blake, and 18th-century English watercolors, a collection in advance of traditional taste, as well as Japanese vases and hangings. In his years abroad, Adams had become something of a connoisseur of food and wine, having learned from visits to Paris and to certain English houses that worldly pleasures and social graces, contrary to his family’s puritan traditions, could be combined with high seriousness.

Adams cared about the decorative aspects of life, not only the scientific, historical, cosmic scheme of things with which he is usually associated. It was at his urging that Marian Adams went to the Parisian artist of dress, the great Worth, for her clothes in 1879. She ordered a duplicate of the gown made for the Grand Duchess of Würtemberg. The blue and green color suggested, she said, “a serious peacock” and it “not only fills my soul but seals it hermetically. Still it has enough air about it to prevent suffocation.” The prospect of more new gowns bored her, but, “Henry says, “People who study Greek must take pains with their dress.”” Adams may be forgiven for the male chauvinist tenor of his comment in view of his habit of leavening his own learning with irony and wit. Also, physical appearance or stylishness was not enough for a woman to enter their social circle. One of the most beautiful young women of the time, Elizabeth Cameron, the wife of Senator J. Donald Cameron, won the friendship of the Adamses because she had, besides beauty, appealing candor, intelligence, and tact. Emily Beale (later Mrs. John McLean), a Californian and not a beauty, was welcomed for her breeziness and impudent wit; she was the prototype of Victoria Dare in Adams’s novel Democracy.

Beginning with Marian Adams herself, women had a more important role in the Adamses’ social world than was common in British intellectual society. There were masculine evenings, such as that of Jan.18, 1879 when the guests for dinner were Jacob Cox, former secretary of Interior, E. L. Godkin, editor of the Nation, and Clarence King, soon to become director of the U.S. Geological Survey. “We had much Indian talk,” Adams noted. More often the talk was general and, as in the French salon, the hostess figured prominently not merely to bring out others but as a conversationalist herself. Henry was proud of Marian’s wit and would sit back and allow her to shine. She also appears to have had more rigorous standards than he about who was to be admitted to their house.

Mr. and Mrs. Bonnycastle in Henry James’ story “Pandora” are modeled on Marian and Henry Adams, of whom James saw a great deal on his visit to Washington in 1882. The Bonnycastles have the “pleasantest house” in Washington, though “the complaint [was] sometimes made of it that it was too limited, that it left out, on the whole, more people than it took in . . . Alfred Bonnycastle all winter indeed chafed a little at the definiteness of some of his wife’s reserves; it struck him that for Washington their society was really a little too good.” With the season almost over, he declares, “Hang it, there’s only a month left; let us be vulgar and have some fun—let us invite the President.” The Adamses were not alone in distinguishing between official society and “social” society. They were, however, more than usually stringent, excluding not only the “resident bores,” but people they disapproved of on moral grounds. They declined invitations where they might be forced to meet politicians such as Senator Roscoe Conkling, Republican boss of New York, and members of Grant’s cabinet suspected of corruption, which meant almost all of them. Their “pet enmity” was James G. Blaine of Maine because of his “stained record.” “We have always refused him even social recognition. . .,” Adams wrote in 1882, “and I assure you that to stand alone in a small society like this, and to cut the Secretary of State, . . .without doing it offensively or with ill-breeding, requires not only some courage but some skill.” As for sexual scandal, they were not prudish about the illegitimacy of Victoria Sackville-West, the daughter of the British minister to the United States and the Spanish dancer known as “Pepita.” They drew the line, however, at Lily Langtry, the former mistress of the Prince of Wales. They refused to have anything to do with her when she came to Washington on a stage tour and likewise Oscar Wilde when he was there on his 1883 speaking tour. There were also instances of friends or would-be acquaintances snubbed for sins of impropriety.

The Adamses’ exclusiveness slipped into snobbery, but it was mostly a moral and intellectual snobbery, not of class, birth, or money. The stream of people who entered their house was not Whitmanesque, but it was large and diverse, including many private, relatively obscure people, friends cherished for their personal qualities regardless of status or genealogy. It might also be said, however, that there was hardly anyone of consequence of the period who came to Washington that Adams did not know or meet. Their innermost circle of friends consisted of some of the most distinguished people of their time, beginning with John Hay and Clarence King.


Hay’s life may be seen as a case of the American dream fulfilled: from a modest, Midwestern background (his father was a country doctor; he spent his childhood at Spunky Point, now Warsaw, Indiana), he rose to international prominence as secretary of state under McKinley and Roosevelt. On his marriage in 1874 to Clara Stone, the heiress of a self-made Cleveland entrepreneur, he became a millionaire, and their children married into families of great wealth and social status. Their marriage was a happy one; he was witty, sociable, prone to nerves and depression, frail and hypochondriacal; she was large in girth and spirit, monolithic, imperturbable, a “quiet and majestic presence,” in Henry’s words. Hay was also a literary man, famous for his dialect verse and Castilian Days. He was working on the Lincoln biography in collaboration with John G. Nicolay. Whatever the diffidence or flaw in his make-up that prevented his achieving greatness in either the politics or literature, he had a gaiety and empathic grace that made him a favorite with such diverse people as President McKinley, Mark Twain, Henry James, and Queen Victoria.

The attractions of Clarence King’s personality were legendary in his own time. He had, to quote the Education,“everything to interest and to delight Adams.” In the memorable account of their first meeting in the wilds of Wyoming, Adams refers to him as “a bird of paradise rising in the sage-brush.” All of his contemporaries attested to his “manysided genius,”—his brilliance as a scientist, author, connoisseur of art and poetry, “his wit and humor; his bubbling energy . . .his personal charm of youth and manners.”

By the early 1880’s, the Hays, King, and the Adamses had become inseparable. The relation of Henry and Marian, who were childless, with the Hays and their young children had become familial, but without the strains and pains of family life in Boston Adams had gladly escaped by moving to Washington. King did not live in Washington. He did not live anywhere, as far as having a permanent address. Whatever inconvenience his elusiveness caused his friends, he made up for it on his flying visits with tales of searching for Mambrino’s helmet in Spain or silver in Mexico. The Hays, Adamses, and King called themselves the “five of hearts”, and as a playful imprimatur on their friendship had for correspondence among themselves stationery printed with the playing card as an emblem. Their close mutual friends included the artist John La Farge, the sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens, and the architect Henry Hobson Richardson. Adams was important to them, in turn, not only as a friend but as a patron and promoter.

The cultural influence the Adamses exerted went beyond that of creating in their own home a haven for art works and decorative objects from Europe and the Orient. Marian was an accomplished photographer whose pictures became known, though she did not publish or exhibit them, beyond their circle. As an author, Adams made important literary contributions in those years with his biographies of Albert Gallatin and of John Randolf and with his anonymously published novels, Democracy and Esther, as well as by fostering intellectual life in other ways, such as by helping to found the Cosmos Club in 1879. As a devotee of the arts, he disseminated among friends the drawings and paintings of old masters from the collection his English friend Thomas Woolner was selling.(Later, Adams similarly acted as an agent in America for the sculptor Rodin.) When John La Farge was just beginning his experiments with stained glass, Adams encouraged him by circulating samples of his work among people who were building new houses. The two windows that La Farge made for the John Hay house are among his masterpieces. And when Hay and Adams decided to build adjoining houses on Lafayette Square, they commissioned H.H. Richardson for the project.

The Hays-Adams double house, one of the Capital Losses of James Goode’s admirable and melancholy book of that title, was nearly completed by 1885, but Marian Adams was never to live there. She committed suicide on Dec.6, 1885, after almost a year of depression brought on by the death of her father.

The death of Marian Adams, a cataclysm in Henry Adams’ life, brought to an end the golden age of Lafayette Square. That he became a recluse after his wife’s death is, however, a popular myth. There was a silver age, too, in McKinley’s and Roosevelt’s administrations, but that is another chapter of Adams’ story. To what extent Adams realized in Washington his lofty ideals of a national cultural advancement is moot. In their eight years in Washington Henry and Marian Adams enriched and stimulated its social, artistic, and intellectual life. Their gift to the city may be figured in Augustus Saint-Gaudens’ statue at Rock Creek Cemetery commissioned by Henry Adams as a memorial to Marian Hooper Adams.


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