Monday, February 16, 2009

TDIH: Henry Brooks Adams

"No mind is so well balanced as to bear the strain of seizing unlimited force without habit or knowledge of it; and finding it disputed with him by hungry packs of wolves and hounds whose lives depend on snatching the carrion." -- The Education of Henry Adams

Any discussion of political dynasties often refers to the politically successful and culturally influential line beginning with John Adams, the second president of the United States. John and Abigail Adams were American patriots, John a founding father and Abigail a woman remembered for her support of her husband, the American Revolution and her children. One of those children, John Quincy, would go on to be the sixth president of the United States.

However, sometimes overlooked in this political dynasty is the grandson of John Quincy, one Henry Adams. Henry Adams' father, Charles Francis Adams, Sr. studied law with one of the greatest orators in American history, Daniel Webster (Secretary of State, Member of the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate), served as ambassador to Great Britain, served in the Massachusetts House of Representatives and the Mass. Senate, and ended his political career as a member of the U.S. House. Charles Adams offered his son Henry an example of public service that his own father had offered him, an example of public service that had continued down a long line of men carrying proudly with them the surname of Adams.

On this day in 1838, Henry Brooks Adams was born a Bostonian.

Like any good and well-read Adams, he would attend Harvard, travel through Europe (even attend the University of Berlin), and practice law. Like his grandfather, Henry would serve as a private secretary abroad. His service for his father allowed him the opportunity to consider how his talents and education would best be used for the betterment of the nation. While across the Atlantic, serving under his father in Great Britain, two events were the decisive factors in young Henry's life when he would pave his future path as an American journalist and historian rather than an American politician like his father, grandfather and great-grandfather. The first being his reading of John Stuart Mill, a reading that convinced him knowledge among the elite was just as important to representative democracy as was their eventual service. The second event was an opportunity to serve as an anonymous correspondent for the New York Times.

The anonymous writings of Henry Adams would serve an important purpose as his portrayal of Britain and the British role in the American Civil War would influence many Union leaders. Upon his return to Boston, Henry Adams knew his place in society was as a journalist and historian.

The writings of Henry Adams exposed political corruption, explored the history of democracy and offered explanations on the most tedious of topics for the general public. Henry Adams may have been one of the first historians to write for a lower-class audience in an effort to educate them of the mistakes of their own history.

Adams wrote novels, taught history at Harvard, traveled the world, wrote a history of the United States, led the "Five of Hearts" and served as president of the American Historical Association (AHA). And his work, The Education of Henry Adams won the Pulitzer Prize in 1919, a year after Adams' death and the commercial publication of the book he wished to be only among friends until after his death.

I haven't always wanted to be an historian. In fact, my love for history has been a life-long affair, but it wasn't until I was in the second year of my collegiate career that I even entertained the idea of studying history. At the time I didn't understand what an historian actually did, what they studied or how they fit into the larger societal scheme. In fact, had it not been for an English class and one English professor who sought to mold students as an artist molds clay, I may never have ended up in the field of history at all. Upon the mention of The Education of Henry Adams in an abbreviated summary of American literature, I immediately found a copy and read the non-fiction work cover-t0-cover in the time frame of one weekend. When I finished The Education of Henry Adams I knew exactly what an historian does. It isn't a career that you arrive at every morning and depart the evening. It is an entire mindset, an approach to the past, present and future that is unique to the field and those who choose to study within that field.

Henry Adams, one of the greatest historical minds in this nation's history, taught me what a real historian is. I think I'll celebrate his birthday today.

1 comment:

Joe said...

Your celebration of Henry's birthday is excellent and moving.