henry adams, thomas jefferson, and james madison -- 6/21/21

Today's selection -- from The Last American Aristocrat by David S. Brown. Henry Adams, grandson of one president and great-grandson of another, wrote histories of the presidencies of Jefferson and Madison titled History of the United States of America during the Administrations of Thomas Jefferson and History of the United States of America during the Administrations of James Madison, which are considered masterpieces. Unexpectedly, he considered these individuals to be subject to the circumstances of the time rather than giants who determined the direction of events. In one letter, he wrote, "They appear like mere grass-hoppers, kicking and gesticulating, on the middle of the Mississippi river;' … "There is no possibility of reconciling their theories with their acts, or their extraordinary foreign policy with dignity. They were carried along on a stream which floated them after a fashion without much regard to themselves.":

"Over a fifteen-month period beginning in October 1889 Henry's nine-volume History, some dozen years in the making, rolled off the presses. Mere length only hints at its singular achievement assaying the early American republic. A half-century after its appearance Columbia University's Henry Steele Commager called the project 'the finest piece of historical writing, in our literature,' and still another half-century later the noted Jefferson specialist Noble Cunningham Jr. agreed that it deserved 'a high place among the great writings in American history.' More recently Garry Wills wrote an entire book, Henry Adams and the Making of America (2005), revisiting the History's origins, reviewing its contents, and arguing for its unbroken relevance. 'It is,' Wills insists, 'the non-fiction prose masterpiece of the nineteenth century in Amer­ica.' Thinking even that encomium insufficient, Yale scholar Edmund S. Morgan raised the stakes still higher: 'Are the Histories the nonfic­tion masterpiece of the nineteenth century in America? Probably. Are they the masterpiece of historical writing in America in any century? Certainly.'

"At its most basic level, the History tells the story of America's growth and development between 1800 and 1817, a period encompassing the presidential administrations of Jefferson and Madison, the War of 1812, and the rise of a new post-Appalachian West. Many of the details concerning this long drama Adams discovered in European archives. Extended stays in London, Paris, and Madrid yielded huge caches of hitherto inaccessible primary sources closed to less connected schol­ars. Though Henry himself labored in these repositories, notably identifying important materials and working in newspapers, the task might have proven impossible if not for the small teams of copyists he employed to transcribe documents. He further enlisted both friends and officials in America and Europe to aid in the search for sources. On some occasions, so Clover liked to jest, she, 'being a woman, ... could make requests for permissions which Henry was ... too shy to make.'

"Other research courtesies were extended to Henry that emphasize the aristocratic nature of nineteenth-century historical writing. The National Archive at Madrid was opened for his use on a Sunday; copy­ists under his direction on two continents enjoyed unprecedented access to government documents; and Adams successfully prevailed upon Harvard librarian Justin Winsor to send to Beverly Farms var­ious books and newspapers. These included The Richmond Recorder (1802), Albert James Pickett's History of Alabama (1859), the New York Commercial Advertiser (1801), William Henry Foote's studies of the presbyterian Church in Virginia, and Benjamin Rush's unpublished autobiography. The last George Bancroft had tried unsuccessfully to consult in both 1849 and 1867. The security and preservation of the old materials need not be a concern, Adams assured Winsor, and he drew up a plan for packaging the precious items: 'If the college carpen­ter will, under your orders, construct for me a strong box, with stout hinges, iron handles, and a double lock, into which the volumes may be put, I think there will be very little danger of loss or injury.'

"This research paid off handsomely, and the treasures that Adams unearthed from the European archives in particular dramatically recast the project. At one time he anticipated needing no more than three volumes to tell the story of Jeffersonian America, but the rich­ness of source materials and the lengthening shadows they shed across the Atlantic World forced Henry to reconsider the study's scope. Impa­tient with a mere national history, he drew, rather, a nuanced portrait of British diplomacy, documented the collapse of Spanish power in the New World, and traced Napoleon's policies in Europe and its colonies. By putting the names of two Virginia presidents in the prosaic titles ­History of the United States of America during the Administrations of Thomas Jefferson and History of the United States of America during the Administrations of James Madison -- Henry gave the appearance of a strictly American topic, and yet its transnational reach argued otherwise.

"A further striking feature is the work's steep discounting of 'great' men. While preparing the volumes Adams wrote to the philoso­pher William James, 'With hero worship like [the Scottish historian Thomas] Carlyle's, I have little patience.' Process rather than person­ality, so he stressed, catalyzed change. The Jeffersonians had come to power in 1801, Henry observed, as a 'peace party' opposed, during the long French revolutionary and Napoleonic wars (1792-1815), to high taxes, a large national debt, and an expanding military. But this commitment ultimately collapsed. Near constant conflict between France and Britain enflamed the Atlantic and eventually drew the United States into the War in 1812. Such is the folly of men, parties, and platforms. In a letter to Samuel Tilden, written with the volumes well under way, Henry insisted that the celebrated Virginia triumvi­rate of Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe counted for very little in the larger scheme of things. 'They appear like mere grass-hoppers, kicking and gesticulating, on the middle of the Mississippi river,' he challenged decades of Founders' filial piety. 'There is no possibility of reconciling their theories with their acts, or their extraordinary foreign policy with dignity. They were carried along on a stream which floated them after a fashion without much regard to themselves.' …

"Some readers have wondered over the years if the History's downgrade of the Jeffersonians constituted a family vendetta. The evidence sug­gests otherwise. Yes, John Adams lost the 1800 presidential election to Jefferson, but John Quincy Adams, of whom Henry had a living mem­ory, prospered under Virginia presidents, who secured him diplomatic posts and a cabinet seat. Rather than attack the southern plantocracy, Henry saw it as simply another ephemeral power structure invariably relegated to history's ash heap."


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author:

David S. Brown

title:

The Last American Aristocrat

pages:

245-249
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