An American historian, novelist, and man of letters, Henry Adams is the author of one of the outstanding autobiographies in Western literature and a towering figure in 19th-century American intellectual history. Belonging to a patrician family of statesmen and scholars, he felt out of place amid the modern egalitarian and technological forces that were transforming Western society at the end of the 19th century.
Henry Brooks Adams, born in Boston on February 16, 1838, was the product of that city’s Brahmin class, a cultured elite that traced its lineage to Puritan New England. He was the great-grandson of John Adams and the grandson of John Quincy Adams. The Adams family tradition of leadership was carried on by his father, Charles Francis Adams (1807-86), a diplomat, historian, and congressman.
His younger brother, Brooks (1848-1927), was also a historian; his older brother, Charles Francis, Jr. (1835-1915), was an author and railroad executive. Through his mother, Abigail Brown Brook, Adams was related to one of the most distinguished and wealthiest families in Boston. Tradition ingrained a deep sense of morality in Adams. He never escaped his heritage and often spoke of himself as a child of the 17th and 18th centuries who was forced to come to terms with the new world of the 20th century.
Adams was graduated from Harvard in 1858 and in typical patrician fashion, embarked upon a grand tour of Europe in search of amusement and vocation. Anticipating a career as an attorney, he spent the winter of 1859 attending lectures in civil law at the University of Berlin. With the outbreak of the U.S. Civil War in 1861, Pres. Abraham Lincoln appointed Adam’s father minister to England. Henry, age 23, accompanied him to London, acting as his private secretary until 1868.
Returning to the United States, Adams travelled to Washington, D.C., as a newspaper correspondent for The Nation and other leading journals. He plunged into the capital’s social and political life, anxious to begin the reconstruction of a nation shattered by war. He called for civil service reform and retention of the gold standard. Adams wrote numerous essays exposing political corruption and warning against the growing power of economic monopolies, particularly railroads. – (C.McH.)