Commentary Magazine


Henry Adams: Waning of America's Patriciate
A Conservative's Destructive Impulses

There is a revival of interest in the Adams family—to put it mildly. Not only have they become, individually and en famille, a staple in the repertory of the academic periodicals; even Life has gone in for the Adamses, printing hitherto unpublished manuscripts of the family in its glossy pages.

What accounts for this? (If we are to believe the Adamses themselves, they never went out of their way to court anyone’s interest and never felt that popularity was among their long suits.) For one thing, the political climate is right. We are in the midst of prosperity, and there is a conservative revival of sorts. The Adamses fit, if not into an actual American conservatism, then certainly into what many people believe to be the pattern of American conservatism—even though that pattern may be more a mood than a political credo. For another thing, they belonged to the American patriciate, which is the closest this country has come to an aristocracy. It is the same class that Franklin Delano Roosevelt was born into—its Hudson River wing matching in status the Bostonian Back Bay of the Adamses.

John Adams was the second President of the United States, and his son, John Quincy, was the sixth. John Quincy’s son, Charles Frances, became an able political leader and served as Lincoln’s minister to the Court of St. James’s in the critical days of the Civil War. Thus the Adams family in three successive generations advanced both national and family greatness. Henry Adams, its best known representative in the fourth, gave the impression that he considered himself inferior to his immediate ancestors; where they had been men of action, leaders, he was only a man of the pen. Born in 1838 and dying in 1918, Henry Adams anticipated present-day moods by speaking frequently of “maladjustment,” “despair,” “degeneration,” “alienation,” and “degradation.” It should be obvious why the contemporary Adams revival centers mainly in his figure.

Henry Adams inherited a significant political legacy. All of the Adamses were skeptical about the large promise of democracy and about its absolute faith in the wisdom of the people. King Demos, said John Adams, was only slightly less capable of misrule than an autocratic monarch. His son, John Quincy Adams, wrote: “It is vain to say that democracy is less vain, less proud, less selfish, less ambitious, or less avaricious than aristocracy or monarchy. . . . These passions are the same in all men . . . and when unchecked produce the same effects of violence, avarice, and cruelty.”

The Adamses believed, as did Jefferson, that there was a natural aristocracy upon whom political leadership was incumbent. And though they may not have said so in as many words, they all seemed to be convinced that they themselves belonged to this natural aristocracy; if they were drawn to public service, it was by a sense of duty—by patriotic obligation and something like noblesse oblige, not by ambition. Somewhere, one feels, they agreed with the ancien régime, and its kings and nobles, that the art of ruling was an inborn gift that could not be conveyed to others, and that political power was, as Henry Adams himself said, aristocratic in its very nature, and that democratic power was a contradiction in terms.

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Our patrician Presidents have indeed shown more confidence and ease in governing than others have. In leadership they have tended toward boldness and innovation, and they have also preferred intelligence and planning to rule-of-thumb methods. John and John Quincy Adams, Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt—patricians all—(believed in firm and centralized government, and in a united, rather than divided, nation whose patrician Chief Executive would fill the traditional role of referee among contending social classes—saying to factions and special interests, as Franklin Roosevelt once did: “A plague on both your houses.” The patrician Presidents, inevitably, emphasized such symbols of national unity as the flag, army and navy, and a vigorous foreign policy. They stood, they felt, for the nation as a whole over and beyond its multifarious contending interests.

Skeptical of the motives of men and convinced of the fallibility of institutions, the Adamses seemed to seek an objective science of government that would, in effect, remove rule from the whims of rulers and make it a matter of fixed procedure. They believed not only that governmental forms could be improved by knowledge of underlying social and historical laws, but that the course of history itself could be controlled thereby. Old John Adams advised: “Study government as you do astronomy, by facts, observations and experiments; not by dogmas of lying priests and knavish politicians.” His great-grandson, Henry, took this admonition seriously and tried to apply historical and political science to the problems of his own era.

The post-Civil War era presented the greatest challenge to the patrician mentality that it had yet had to face in this country. Henry Adams and other young men of his class watched with apprehension the rapid industrialization of America, the class conflicts that sprang from it, and the yielding of the old families before the captains of industry. Patrician decorum in business, politics, and, finally, in society at large gave way as much to events as to the conscious pressure of the nouveaux riches. Unlike the aristocrats of other countries and other times, the American patricians retreated without putting up a real fight. A certain amount of social resistance was expressed in the novels of Edith Wharton; but her complaints about the new order were not much more vehement than her complaints about the decaying manners of the old Knickerbocker aristocracy from which she herself stemmed. For the most part the transition from the old to the new operated without resistance because traditions, patrician or otherwise, had never been firmly rooted in America in the first place. As Henry James said: “. . . no sovereign, no court, no personal loyalty, no aristocracy, no church, no clergy, no army, no diplomatic service, no country gentlemen, no palaces, no castles, nor manors, nor old country houses, nor personages, nor thatched cottages, nor ivied ruins.”

But this does not mean that the descendants of the old families which had led America in the past felt comfortable in the new situation, or that they were not very much aware of what was going on. Not only Henry Adams but Theodore Roosevelt and Henry Cabot Lodge were dismayed by the increasing materialism of American society, by the growth of political and moral corruption, and by the ascendancy of labor and capital, which, like upper and nether millstones, threatened to grind the patriciate between them. And the discomfort of the patricians was further increased by their inability to escape the general American ethos which required one to make his mark in society, no matter what that society might be like.

Against the forces they despised, the patricians pitted as best they could the fading power of family prestige, their reputation for neutrality in the struggle between labor and capital, and above all their presumably inherited experience and expertness in political leadership. The central problem of the patrician generation which reached maturity after the Civil War became how to make best use of their heritage and training in the face of the new conditions.

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After a conventional Latin School and Harvard education, Henry Adams started life as secretary to his father, Charles Francis Adams, in the London embassy during the Civil War. His chronic pessimism, which became intensified as he grew older, already began to show itself in the letters he then wrote home. On his return to the United States after the war he felt very much alienated from the new American scene. The Education of Henry Adams records his homecoming impression that a Jew just out of a Polish ghetto could not have felt less at ease than he, native of natives, in the face of the booming industrialism of America in the late 1860′s and the 1870′s, and the corrupt political milieu that it seemed to foster.

Henry first went to live in Washington, from Where he reported the various scandals that shook the administration of Ulysses S. Grant. Then, influenced not a little by the urging of his parents, he returned to Boston and became professor of history at Harvard. In 1872 he was active, along with his father and brothers, in the Liberal Republican movement against corruption in government. Discouraged by the Liberals’ sorry showing in the Presidential campaign of that year, he was never again to try his hand at politics. From then on scholarship and the observation of politics, not political activity, claimed him entirely.

Henry Adams lacked persistence in the face of discouragement. And yet it was such persistence that had characterized the earlier generations of Adamses. Despite the coldness, aloofness, and stubborn loyalty to principle they had in common, both John and John Quincy Adams had been elected to the Presidency. Neither was a very popular President and neither professed to care very much about popularity, viewing duty alone as the motive of his political activity. John Quincy’s complaint, when defeated by Andrew Jackson in 1828, was more against God than the people for having forsaken him. And as if to show God—and maybe to show him up—Adams spent the last fifteen years of his life in the House of Representatives, where he fought doggedly and, at times, single-handedly against the slaveholders and for the democratic right of petition.

Henry lacked the strength and power of conviction that had enabled his great-grandfather, John Adams, to risk his career and the unity of his party in opposing the desire of the Hamiltonian faction of the Federalist party for war with France. One, and only one, political defeat sufficed to dissuade Henry from further political activity. He simply could not forgive, or retain hope in, an electorate that preferred U. S. Grant and corruption to the reformers with whom he had cast his lot. The check to the liberal Republicans did not halt young politicos like Henry Cabot Lodge and Theodore Roosevelt, who immediately beat a retreat to the regular Republican ranks, but Henry saw in it both confirmation of his deepest fears concerning the judgment of the people and justification for his own abstention from politics.

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Henry’s ancestors were able to measure, and to some extent master, the politics of their respective times. Samuel F. Bemis, biographer of John Quincy Adams, writes: “There are certain words that stick in the mind of one who has read his writings, printed and unprinted, public and private. These are: ‘Almighty,’ ‘God,’ ‘Disposer of Events,’ ‘Time,’ ‘Fate,’ ‘Bible,’ ‘Job,’ ‘Psalms,’ ‘soul,’ ‘religion,’ ‘morality,’ ‘truth,’ ‘conscience,’ ‘inner monitor,’ ‘duty,’ ‘law,’ ‘temperance,’ ‘prudence,’ ‘defense,’ ‘fortitude,’ ‘justice,’ ‘frugality,’ ‘industry,’ ‘benevolence,’ ‘humility,’ ‘self-control,’ ‘fate.’ Grandson Henry’s recurring words and phrases are ‘hopeless,’ ‘despair,’ ‘panic,’ ‘tension,’ ‘disaster,’ ‘trembling on the brink,’ ‘going to pieces,’ ‘destruction,’ ‘breakdown,’ ‘collapse,’ ‘decay,’ ‘rot,’ ‘degeneration,’ ‘anarchy.’” This makes vivid the contrast of mood between these two generations of the Adams family. In Henry’s novel, Democracy, which is set in post-Civil War Washington, the principal characters go together to visit the site of George Washington’s home in Mount Vernon. Madeline Lee, heroine of the novel, asks another member of the group: “And would you bring the old society back again if you could?”

“What for?” is the reply. “It could not hold itself up. General Washington himself could not save it.” At another point in the book a politician of the Gilded Age remarks that if Washington came back he would have no chance of winning the Presidency again unless he learned the new ways of America in the 1870′s. Democracy, says Madeline Lee—Adams’s mouthpiece—is destined to destroy itself because of universal suffrage, corruption, and communism.

With the capitalist in the political saddle, the labor-unionist snapping at his heels, and the “anarchist” threatening from without; with corruption and venality prevalent in high places in government—in such a situation Henry Adams could find no guide for action in either of our two great ante-bellum traditions, which were patricianism and Jeffersonianism. All the political wisdom he had distilled from the experience of his ancestors, from his thorough study of the history of the Republic, and from wide reading and careful observation seemed highly irrelevant to the scene that confronted him whenever he emerged from his study.

Theodore Roosevelt, Henry’s close friend, was not without fears and misgivings himself. But he still tried to cope with the situation in conformity with the traditions of patrician politics: when in office he put his trust in intelligent administration, skilled parliamentarianism, firm leadership, and the consciousness on his own part of arcana imperium, of secrets of ruling. This lent a certain moral dignity to his political aims. As President, T.R. fought against the spoils system and the venality of the civil service; he advocated trained and career-minded civil servants and officials, who, he hoped, would form a governmental elite; he wanted arbitration of some of the fiercer struggles between labor and capital; he stressed the role of the administrative commission in dealing with some of the more complex problems of government; he appealed to patriotism and manifest destiny, and pursued a vigorous foreign policy in the hope of restoring thereby the national unity which class warfare had sapped.

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Unlike T.R., Henry Adams seems never to have contemplated the possibility that the patrician attitude might still have something to offer in the way of political solutions. The depression of 1893 only hardened his conviction that government by capitalists, trusts, and their political agents was a hopeless failure. Certain that nothing could be done, that the old traditions were now worthless, he let his political outlook in the 1890′s become a confused and rather helpless one. In 1896 he wrote: “Although I—very doubtfully—hold that on the whole the election of McKinley will do more mischief than that of Bryan, and, as a conservative anarchist, am therefore inclined to hope for McKinley’s success, while I help Bryan all I can, certainly I cannot make so complicated a program intelligible to any party.”

In this period Henry Adams was gravitating toward Populism, which was, and remains, the polar opposite and negation of patrician tradition. Populism calls for “everyman” in government and rejects the patrician emphasis upon the expertness, experience, and specialized intelligence of a dedicated elite. The Populist, extolling the God-given capacities of “everyman,” was distrustful of the legal system that the patrician lived by, preferred substantive justice instead. The Populist was also impatient with parliamentarianism and the niceties of administration. He believed in the common sense, good faith, and good intentions of “everyman.” It was he who would rescue the state from the conspiracy of the “interests”—the money-changers, the brokers, and bankers (and sometimes the Jews). Adams agreed with the Populist assertion that there was a gold conspiracy dominated by international Jewish bankers. “We are in the hands of the Jews,” he lamented in 1896. “They do what they please with us.” Investors, he concluded, had best keep their gold in a safe deposit box. “There you have no risk but the burglar. In any other form [of investment] you have the burglar, the Jew, the Czar, the socialist and, above all, the total irremediable, radical rottenness of our whole social, industrial, financial and political system.” Add to this the fact that the Adamses had traditionally distrusted the money-jobber and the plutocrat.

But Henry Adams himself certainly had no faith in “everyman,” and it would be a mistake to think that he felt a positive sympathy with the Populist leaders. What attracted him really in Populism was the political frenzy it fed on and which was fed by it. The Populists’ demand for radical change found an echo in his own barely suppressed passion for destruction. The intensity and extent of this passion, as measured by his very particular sympathy for all that was irrational and violent in Populism, reflects most of all his despair and frustration at the impotence of the patrician tradition. His Populist feelings were thus entirely a matter of negation.

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Like many other Americans, whether patrician or Populist, Republican or Democrat, Adams began to take a keen interest in foreign policy after the war with Spain. “Manifest destiny” offered an exhilarating escape from the tightening of class tensions that followed upon the depression of 1893, and from domestic problems that seemed almost insoluble. But Adams was able also to find a more personal motive for his new interest in national expansion in the conviction “that the family work of a hundred and fifty years fell at once into the grand perspective of true empire-building.”

Despite his essential negativism, he was convinced that American and Western civilization—“Atlantic civilization,” he called it—possessed values very much worth preserving. This nucleus of Christian values he saw as resistant to corruption from within by materialism, but menaced from without by Czarist Russia. He therefore considered the main task of American foreign policy to be the restriction of Russian expansion. That Adams’s close friend, John Hay, was made Secretary of State under William McKinley, to continue in that office under Roosevelt, lent zest to his deliberations, since he now had hopes of exerting a real influence on policy.

In keeping with patrician tradition, the foreign policy that Adams attempted to formulate for the United States was based upon natural law and historical experience. Like Theodore Roosevelt, he was a social Darwinist who believed that the struggle for existence and survival of the fittest ruled the human as well as the brute world. Adams saw large combinations of labor and capital as inevitable, and held that the same principle of combination on an ever larger scale applied to nations, with lesser states being absorbed into blocs dominated by the great powers. He foresaw two huge blocs emerging finally: an Eastern bloc dominated by Russia and a Western bloc dominated by the United States. (This was in 1898.) American diplomacy ought to bend every effort to create a land mass sufficient to match Russia’s. Adams warned that should “the vast inertia of China become united with the huge bulk of Russia . . . the result will be a single mass which no amount of force could possibly deflect”; and he saw the only counterweight to the massed power of China and Russia in an alliance between the United States and Britain.

Britain was then at the noon of her power, but Adams repeatedly said that she was doomed to decline; that the U. S. and not she would eventually become the major factor in the alliance. In November 1898, he prophesied that “sooner or later we must come to her [England's] assistance economically, but it is impossible to hold her up economically without also holding her up politically.” He hoped, too, that the “Jew business” of moneylending would not militate against a vigorous British and American policy toward Russia.

The Anglo-American alliance was, however, to be the foundation of a much broader coalition which Adams believed necessary in order to oppose Russia effectively. Half a century before the North Atlantic Treaty was signed, he spoke of the need to organize the nations between the Rocky Mountains and the Elbe in an “Atlantic combine,” or “Atlantic system,” as a bulwark of the civilization of the West. “We want our Atlantic system—which extends from the Rocky Mountains on the west to the Elbe on the east, and develops nine-tenths of the energy of the world—to control France and Germany as far as it goes.”

France, in 1894, had formed an alliance with Russia which Adams realized was as fatal to his calculations as though Britain herself had reneged. Consequently, he urged that no diplomatic effort be spared in the effort to detach France from Eastern Europe and bring her into an Atlantic system “where she had certainly at least an equal interest to be. . . .” At the same time, he predicted that France would not play a decisive role in the impending struggle for the world. Early in 1899 he told John Bigelow, the diplomat and writer, that all the Latin states, France included, were on the wane and that the only first-class powers would in the long run be Russia, Germany, and the United States.

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Situated between the Atlantic and Russian systems, Germany, Adams explained, had roots in both camps, and her choice of sides might well determine the outcome of the struggle between them. “In the long run,” Adams wrote in 1899, “say in three generations more—Russia and Germany, if they work together, are bound to be the biggest mass, in the most central position, unassailable to us, and able to overwhelm us at any point of contact.”

Adams’s analysis of the German situation was as prophetic as it was incisive. Adams saw Germany as eternally vacillating between the Eastern and Western systems because of her geographic position. In addition, he called attention to the fact that she had a tendency toward establishing a system of her own, independent of the other two, and thus would aspire inevitably toward rule over one or both of the others. Adams thought, in 1901, that the “law of mass” was against her fulfilling this aim. “She is not big enough to swing the club,” Adams told Secretary of State John Hay. Nevertheless, he predicted that Germany would try, and that her effort would disturb the peace of the world. Until her expansive force was exhausted, Adams saw no possibility of either political or economic equilibrium. In August 1901, he wrote of Germany as “a powder magazine,” and went on to say that “all her neighbors are in terror for fear she will explode, and, sooner or later, explode she must.” Only a few years later, he was able to predict, with amazing exactness, the date of the outbreak of the First World War.

Adams also foresaw that the Russian and Chinese mass, when it finally emerged, would be socialistic and despotic in character. In 1900, he asserted the need for an equilibrium between the rival systems dominated by the United States and Russia that would be modeled on the equilibrium that existed in nature. It was the task of statesmanship, Adams impressed upon Hay, to balance the rival blocs, otherwise an international conflagration would ensue with a result as catastrophic as that induced by a disequilibrium in nature.

And yet, realizing as he did how delicate the international balance was and how every ingenuity of statesmanship had to be employed to maintain it, Adams himself was among those most fascinated by the possibility of a worldwide conflagration, and one who entertained himself avidly with visions of it. The problem is to account for Henry Adams’s perverseness. One reason was that his friend John Hay died before having advanced very far the plan for an Atlantic system of nations. But much more important at bottom was his own neurotic appetite for destruction, an appetite nurtured by his experience as a politically disinherited patrician in a country “that knew not Jacob.” As he grew older, his conviction strengthened that the world was hardly worth saving. In the world of his ancestors it had still been possible for the fittest to survive, for patricians to serve both democracy and themselves—as his father, grandfather, and greatgrandfather had done, but which Adams, seemingly, could not do in a nation ruled by money-changers and venal politicians and in which the survival of the cheapest rather than of the fittest was the rule. In such a world, the Adamses were well out of things. Henry nodded agreement when his younger brother, Brooks, exclaimed: “It is seldom that a single family can stay adjusted through three generations. That is a demonstrable fact. It is now full four generations since John Adams wrote the constitution of Massachusetts. It is time that we perished. The world is tired of us.”

In the spring of 1904, Henry Adams’s mood was such, according to the sculptor, Augustus St. Gaudens, who visited him, that if the world were to blow up he would “shriek and yell in delight and derision as he sailed into the air.” In this frame of mind, his cherished international equilibrium was not so much repudiated as swallowed up and reduced to unimportance by the disaster greater even than world war which he conjured up.

Once again, he had recourse to the physical sciences to explain social phenomena. In 1909, in his “Rule of Phase Applied to History,” and a year later, in “A Letter to American Teachers of History,” he developed the theory that mankind and the universe were progressively losing physical and intellectual energy. Adams thought he had discovered scientific confirmation of this in the Second Law of Thermodynamics which Lord Kelvin promulgated in 1849—a principle that had found no widespread acceptance in the scientific community at that time, and which was altogether outmoded by the time Adams grounded upon it his belief in a dying universe and the waning of mankind’s powers. By 1921, at the latest by 1924, calculated Adams, thought would reach the limit of its possibilities and mankind would become incapable of responding creatively to the challenge of the environment. Shortly thereafter, the heritage of Henry Adams, along with everything else in the universe, would go down in disaster.

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Henry Cabot Lodge, patrician and another close friend, once touched upon an important motive for Adams’s desire for world destruction. Lodge spoke of the inevitable process by which one generation measured itself against another. “The effect, not unfamiliar, by which a man of independent spirit strives to show that he has merits of his own and refuses to be simply ‘the son of his father,’ is a severe one. How much more severe the ordeal when a man is forced to demonstrate that he is not only something more and other than the ‘son of his father’ but also more and other than the ‘grandson of his grandfather’ and the ‘great-grandson of his great-grandfather.’”

Adams literally cowered in the shadow of his ancestors. His frequent claim that he wanted neither position nor power expressed to some extent the reluctance to compete out of fear of not being capable of measuring up to the high level of ancestral achievement. He posed as a failure, and apparently enjoyed it. Yet guilt for having indeed failed haunted him and compelled him to attribute his failure to an environment whose menace he exaggerated, and to a conception of natural law that allegedly explained the degeneration of environment.

His desire, at the age of seventy-one, to find solutions with “red pepper and whiskey” in them should not blind us to the contemporaneity of his mood. The Second Law of Thermodynamics, as Adams’s critics have pointed out, is unquestionably invalid. But what of the idea he was attempting to convey: that mankind would become increasingly incapable of solving its proliferating problems, of responding creatively to environmental challenge—a thesis in which he anticipated Toynbee? Adams lived long enough to watch Theodore Roosevelt’s career end in a burst of demagoguery and neuroticism, and Lodge become a fanatical and embittered Republican zealot. Adams saw these men as defeated, even as he had been, despite their compromises and their courage, by forces that transcended compromise and courage. He might well claim that shrill demagoguery and fanatical party loyalty had to be the culmination of the patrician heritage in his own generation—even as his ghost might claim that Yalta had to be the culmination of the patrician tradition in Franklin Roosevelt’s.

And as the world stirs uneasily in the equilibrium Adams sought to work out for it more than fifty years ago, one wonders whether his final prophecy will be fulfilled: that “science will some day wreck the world once the secret of the atom was penetrated—making an end to all of our inheritances.”

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