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See also: Henry Adams Collection

C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
Henry Adams (1838–1918)
Critical and Biographical Introduction
THE GIFTS of expression and literary taste which have always characterized the Adams family are most prominently represented by this historian. He has also its great memory, power of acquisition, intellectual independence, and energy of nature. The latter is tempered in him with inherited self-control, the moderation of judgment bred by wide historical knowledge, and a pervasive atmosphere of literary good-breeding which constantly substitutes allusive irony for crude statement, the rapier for the tomahawk.  1
  Henry Adams is the third son of Charles Francis Adams, Sr.,—the able Minister to England during the Civil War,—and grandson of John Quincy Adams. He was born in Boston, February 16th, 1838, graduated from Harvard in 1858, and served as private secretary to his father in England. In 1870 he became editor of the North American Review and Professor of History at Harvard, in which place he won wide repute for originality and power of inspiring enthusiasm for research in his pupils. He has written several essays and books on historical subjects, and edited others,—‘Essays on Anglo-Saxon Law’ (1876), ‘Documents Relating to New England Federalism’ (1877), ‘Albert Gallatin’ (1879), ‘Writings of Albert Gallatin’ (1879), ‘John Randolph’ (1882) in the ‘American Statesmen’ Series, ‘Historical Essays’ (1891), ‘Mont Saint Michel and Chartres’ (1904), ‘Life of George Cabot Lodge’ (1911); but his great life-work and monument is his nine-volume ‘History of the United States, 1801–17’ (the Jefferson and Madison administrations), to write which he left his professorship in 1877, and after passing many years in London, in other foreign capitals, in Washington, and elsewhere, studying archives, family papers, published works, shipyards, and many other things, in preparation for it, published the first volume in 1889, and the last in 1891.  2
  The work in its inception (though not in its execution) is a polemic tract—a family vindication, an act of pious duty; its subtitle might be, ‘A Justification of John Quincy Adams for Breaking with the Federalist Party.’ So taken, the reader who loves historical fights and seriously desires truth should read the chapters on the Hartford Convention and its preliminaries side by side with the corresponding pages in Henry Cabot Lodge’s ‘Life of George Cabot.’ If he cannot judge from the pleadings of these two able advocates with briefs for different sides, it is not for lack of full exposition.  3
  But the ‘History’ is far more and higher than a piece of special pleading. It is in the main, both as to domestic and international matters, a resolutely cool and impartial presentation of facts and judgments on all sides of a period where passionate partisanship lies almost in the very essence of the questions—a tone contrasting oddly with the political action and feeling of the two Presidents. Even where, as toward the New England Federalists, many readers will consider him unfair in his deductions, he never tampers with or unfairly proportions the facts.  4
  The work is a model of patient study, not alone of what is conventionally accepted as historic material, but of all subsidiary matter necessary to expert discussion of the problems involved. He goes deeply into economic and social facts; he has instructed himself in military science like a West Point student, in army needs like a quartermaster, in naval construction, equipment, and management like a naval officer. Of purely literary qualities, the history presents a high order of constructive art in amassing minute details without obscuring the main outlines; luminous statement; and the results of a very powerful memory, which enables him to keep before his vision every incident of the long chronicle with its involved groupings, so that an armory of instructive comparisons, as well as of polemic missiles, is constantly ready to his hand.  5
  The history advances many novel views, and controverts many accepted facts. The relation of Napoleon’s warfare against Haiti and Toussaint to the great Continental struggle, and the position he assigns it as the turning point of that greater contest, is perhaps the most important of these. But almost as striking are his views on the impressment problem and the provocations to the War of 1812; wherein he leads to the most unexpected deduction,—namely, that the grievances on both sides were much greater than is generally supposed. He shows that the profit and security of the American merchant service drew thousands of English seamen into it, where they changed their names and passed for American citizens, greatly embarrassing English naval operations. On the other hand, he shows that English outrages and insults were so gross that no nation with spirit enough to be entitled to separate existence ought to have endured them. He reverses the severe popular judgment on Madison for consenting to the war—on the assumed ground of coveting another term as President—which every other historian and biographer from Hildreth to Sydney Howard Gay has pronounced, and which has become a stock historical convention; holds Jackson’s campaign ending at New Orleans an imbecile undertaking redeemed only by an act of instinctive pugnacity at the end; gives Scott and Jacob Brown the honor they have never before received in fair measure; and in many other points redistributes praise and blame with entire independence, and with curious effect on many popular ideas.  6

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