Henry Adams and the Age of Grant


Volume VIII, Number 3
Spring, 1989

As he looked back upon his life from the perspective of old age, Henry Adams could not help feeling embittered. As historian, journalist, and political gadfly, he had fallen far short of the goals he had set for himself. He spent much of his life grasping to possess and understand power, but found himself clutching at straws. Whatever others might think of his life's work, he knew that he had failed in his goal to shape American politics, intellect, and culture according to his standards. More than mere position or office, Henry Adams craved influence over American politics. He never attained it. As he sadly concluded, "We leave no followers, no school, no tradition."1

Adams knew who was to blame. "I have always considered that Grant wrecked my own life, and the last hope or chance of lifting society back to a reasonably high plane," he wrote his brother Charles in 1911. "Grant's administration is to me the dividing line between what we hoped, and what we have got." He had a score to settle with that silent, puzzling man. And Adams did more than settle it: in The Education of Henry Adams, published after his death in 1918, he issued a scathing indictment of the eighteenth president, summed up in a statement, "He had no right to exist."2

Henry Adams's vitriolic portrait of Ulysses S. Grant's first years in the White House has contributed greatly to the popular historical stereotype of the general-president, giving rise to yet another interpretation of Grant's malleable first two initials: "uniquely stupid." Most historians quote from the Education's account of this period of national politics with glee, charmed by Adams's wit and condescending attitude. As both Adams and his biographers have pointed out, however, the Education is no accurate autobiography. Adams himself told Henry James that he wrote it to provide "a mere shield of protection in the grave. I advise you to take your own life in the same way, in order to prevent biographers from taking it in theirs."3 Biographers Ernest Samuels, William Dusinberre, and David Contosta agree that the Education distorted the events of Adam's life, although they diverge as to the reasons why. Historians Ari Hoogenboom and John G. Sproat have also cast suspicion on the essential accuracy of Adam's autobiographical narrative. Other scholars, notably William Jordy, Richard P. Blackmur, and Dusinberre, debate whether Adam's true ambitions were political or literary. Even the success or failure of Adam's political career - indeed, what were the objectives he set for himself in politics - remains an issue of debate. Two items, however, seem beyond question: Adams had political ambitions of some kind, and he believed that Grant "shipwrecked" them, a belief expressed in private correspondence as well as in the Education.4

If the Education distorts the truth about Adam's career in politics during the Grant administration, it also distorts the truth about the Grant administration itself. Adams's account of Washington under Grant describes a world of corruption and incompetence, yet Adams left Washington in 1870 - years before the revelation of scandals in Congress and in the administration darkened Grant's reputation. Indeed, the years of Grant's second term, when these incidents of corruption were exposed, fall under the twenty-year span of silence imposed by Adams in his book. Yet, there is something especially bitter and cutting about Adams's description of Grant not only as a public figure but also as a person, almost as if Grant had caused Adams personal injury. What could have given rise to such intense reactions?

One should not answer these questions by engaging in yet another explication of the Education, for Grant appears in the Education basically as a symbol used to move the narrative along in the right direction, an illustration of the irrelevance of eighteenth century concepts of governance in the Gilded Age. Harsh as Adams's description of Grant in the pages of the Education may be, it pales beside the strident, bitter criticism of the Hero of Appomattox in his private correspondence. Rather, to understand the depth and source of Adams's hostility to Grant, one should examine the Henry Adams of 1870, "a strangely different being" from the person he was afterwards by his own admission. In 1870, Adams was a young, brash, reform-minded political journalist and editor, infused with energy, ambition, and desire, determined to make a mark for himself in American politics as he walked the streets of Ulysses S. Grant's Washington. When one lifts the shield of the Education to look at what motivated Adams and shaped his perspective of Washington politics, one discovers that Adams was, in fact, carrying on the family tradition of offering a classical republican critique of Reconstruction politics while attempting to carve out a place for himself as a political adviser.5

To understand Henry Adams, one must first understand what being an Adams meant. As Adams himself later put it, his education "was chiefly inheritance."6 And, while he insisted that "the family was rather an atmosphere than an influence," the air he breathed in the Adams household shaped the growth of the young boy's mind. Public service, political independence, a faith in human progress tempered by skepticism about human beings, intellectual excellence, and an education partial to things political and literary - all circulated freely through the rooms of the Quincy house and the minds of its occupants.7 The family's political creed was simple if strict and exacting. It was grounded in the ideals of ethics and education, in the creed of selfless service and virtue that formed the foundation of republican statesmanship. These notions had guided the actions of John and John Quincy Adams, Henry's great-grandfather and grandfather. Charles Francis Adams made sure to pass these ideals on to this sons, reminding Henry that "the study of ethics is of the greatest value to a man in active life."8

Ethics and principle could not be compromised, even under the pressure of party politics. An Adams prized independence of mind and from party. Henry's father believed that "no person can ever be a thorough partisan for a long period without sacrifice of his moral identity."9 One should not succumb to the temptations, ambition and popular adulation offered in exchange for betraying one's sense of duty and ethics. Indeed, one's independence and virtue were perhaps best measured through one's abuse. Such abuse, whatever else it might mean, certainly refuted any notion that one was pandering to popular acclaim or seeking personal advancement. Practicing ethical statesmanship inevitably entailed such risks. Ambition in public life must be directed toward service, not toward feeding one's vanity, although many an Adams took a peculiar pride in suffering defeat and ridicule.

Such values could lend stability and structure to one's life or stifle attempts to break free of the family mold. After all, an Adams had a heritage to uphold. The best schooling, independent wealth, and social standing removed the normal obstacles to success. And the price of failure was high. Going back to his grandfather's generation, each male Adams either achieved renown or died in disgrace. One of Henry's uncles committed suicide; another collapsed and died in the wake of financial failure.10 Even success had its troubling aspects, for each Adams was confronted with the need to equal if not surpass the achievements of his ancestors. To Henry's brother Charles, it was a joy for a member of the family to be recognized "as something more than the bearer of a distinguished cognomen . . . To have one's ancestors unceasingly flung in one's face is unpleasant."11 In an age when many Americans were obsessed with preserving the work of the Revolutionary generation, references to "our fathers" had more than ordinary significance to an Adams.

To be an Adams (at least a male member of the family), to lay claim to the family heritage, meant taking part in public life. Such a career sustained the family mission to preserve the republican experiment in America. Young Henry Adams was well-schooled in this family tradition. "There are two things that seem to be at the bottom of our constitutions," he remarked to his brother Charles in 1858. "One is a continual tendency towards politics; the other is family pride; and it is strange how these two feelings run through all of us."12 Yet the obligation of being an Adams could also taunt and haunt him. "My name is a trifle too heavy for me," he once sighed in exasperation.13 For Adams, the problem was how to reconcile his personal tastes and preferences with his obligations. He quickly realized that seeking political office was out of the question. Slight, balding, and with a somewhat whiny quality, Adams was hardly cut out for political campaigning. He refused to "go down into the rough-and-tumble, nor mix with the crowd" in pursuing his political goals, making clear his preference for "taste and dexterity" over "roughness and strength."14To compensate for these short-comings, he developed a rather sarcastic wit and arrogant demeanor, causing brother Charles to call him a "damned little cuss."15 An early bout with scarlet fever added to his bookish propensity, and he spent long hours in his father's study reading history and literature, surrounded by documents and artifacts that recalled the heritage of family and nation. Among his early idols was Charles Sumner, a man who seemed to combine the worlds of a man of letters and a man of affairs, the model of the scholar-gentleman in public life, someone who fused literary interests, social prominence, and an unyielding adherence to political probity. But Henry lacked Sumner's oratorical abilities or commanding presence; he would have to seek a different political role, one more in keeping with his personality and preferences.

Unable to shake the influences of his background, Adams sought to join them to his own interests and discover an identity and a role that satisfied the demands of family as well as of self. The legacy of being an Adams, however, predisposed him to look for intellectual and emotional sustenance in the familiar fields of politics, literature, and philosophy. The career of political journalist and adviser offered just such an outlet, for Henry Adams loved to write. At Harvard he contributed articles to the college magazine, and cherished these early productions so much that he had them bound. While traveling through Europe in 1860, he described Garibaldi's campaigns in the columns of the Boston Courier. He even entertained the idea of editing his grandfather's papers, but eventually shrank from the task, arguing that "It is not in me to do them justice."16 Returning to the United States that fall, he accompanied his father to Washington in the aftermath of the Republican triumph in the presidential contest. During the secession winter of 1860-61, he served as a correspondent for the Boston Advertiser. He had found a home in political journalism. And Adams loved the social and political whirl of Washington: "It's a great life; just what I wanted; and as I always feel that I am of real use here and can take an active part in it all, it never tires."17

The crisis of disunion presented the Adams family with a new opportunity to put its mark on America's history. While still in Europe, Henry read accounts of his father's speeches urging moderation. He proudly concluded that "the house of Adams may bet it's [sic] lease on life renewed - if, as I've various times remarked, it has the requisite ability still."18 Moreover, there was plenty of work to do, for Adams found it "humiliating to have to acknowledge the condition of our statesmanship."19 Americans needed to be educated about their political rights and responsibility, and there were no better teachers than the Adamses. "Our task so far as we attempt a public work," he told Charles, "is to blow up sophistry and jam down hard on morality," regardless of whether the union "stands or falls."20 It was with this desire to return to first principles in mind that Adams commenced his career in political journalism upon his return to the United States in 1860.

Secession and Sumter soon followed, presenting both a detour and a new opportunity. In May 1861, Henry Adams arrived in London as private secretary to his father, the newly-appointed minister to England. For the next few months, as he fretted over social protocol and bemoaned the lack of hospitable society, he transmitted anonymous dispatches to the New York Times, describing the state of English public opinion about the American Civil War. Adams's columns went beyond mere description, however, as he openly advocated a peaceful resolution to the Trentaffair, which momentarily threatened war between the North and England. Unfortunately for Adams his early efforts at journalism came to a sudden halt at the beginning of 1862, after a Boston paper revealed that he was the author of a piece highly critical of English society.21

Embarrassed and humiliated by the abuse of the English press, Adams withdrew to his studies for succor. Among the writers he discovered during this period were two who reinforced and gave voice to his own political beliefs: John Stuart Mill and Alexis de Tocqueville. Mill, "the ablest man in England" in Adams's estimation, insisted that a democratic society had to be supervised by an intellectual elite that worked to restrain democratic excesses and guide society down the proper paths, an idea that merely echoed family teachings. By educating the public, this elite could help a democratic society reconcile political equality with the pursuit of excellence: Mill had established a place for men of mind in such a society. Tocqueville also endorsed rule by the best, reminding readers like Adams that an aristocratic elite should curb democratic tendencies toward materialism, mediocrity, and majority tyranny. Doubtless Adams nodded in agreement with Tocqueville's assertion that the "best government is not that in which all have share, but that which is directed by the class of the highest principle and intellectual ambition."22

It is axiomatic to an Adams that the best and the brightest should rule. Indeed, there was little in the writings of Mill and Tocqueville to which Henry Adams did not already subscribe. But these writers gave such notions legitimacy apart from the family tradition and revitalized young Adams's commitment to them. He concluded that he was not responding merely to the legacy of the past, but to the necessities of the present. Mill and Tocqueville, whom Adams labeled "the two high priests of our faith," reinforced Adams's sense of obligation to serve society as a member of the elite. They provided "a vague and unsteady light in the direction toward which I ...must gravitate."23

Weaving the Adams heritage with the writings of Mill and Tocqueville, he developed a definition of his role in public life. "We want a national set of young men like ourselves or better," Adams told Charles, "to start new influences not only in politics, but in literature, in law, in society, and throughout the whole social organism of the country - a national school of our own generation."24The war provided an opportunity to achieve this vision. John Stuart Mill expressed this idea to John Lothrop Motley. "If you have among you men of calibre to use the high spirit which this struggle has raised," he wrote, ". . . as means of moving public opinion in favor of correcting what is bad and strengthening what is good in your institutions and modes of feeling and thought, the war will prove to have been a permanent blessing to your country."25 Henry Adams believed that he and his fellow gentlemen had the chance to "put the country on the right track." He could fight the fight of his fathers once more. "It will depend on the generation to which you and I belong." he told Charles, "whether the country is to be brought back to its true course and the New England element is to carry the victory." It was a great responsibility, but Adams embraced it. "We cannot be commonplace. The great burden that has fallen on us must inevitably stamp its character on us."26

Adams returned to the United States in 1868 prepared to assume the mantle of leadership. He did not need to hold political office to wield power; all he had to do was to gain the ear of those in power to influence policy. Although Reconstruction and financial issues dominated the presidential race that year, Adams believed that "political reform" was the most pressing issue confronting the reunited polity. That he had been out of the county for eight years and had precious little experience in American politics deterred him not a whit. Although a newcomer to the scene, he expected to play a major role right from the start, educating his readers and the nation's leaders on the correct means and ends of government.

Adams's early months in Washington, during the last lame duck months of the administration of Andrew Johnson, seemed to be more than he could ask for. Attorney General William Evarts, who had dined with Adams in London, opened his home to the young reformer, and dangled the prospect of office before his eyes - should Grant retain Evarts in the new cabinet. Secretary of the Treasury Hugh McCulloch not only let him work in the department records to prepare an article on American finance, but, as Adams reported to a friend, "pats me on the back, not figuratively but in the flesh."27 Even Charles Sumner welcomed the young man, although he still resented his father's conservatism on slavery and race. And Adams was all too willing to share his ideas of revitalizing republicanism and reforming politics with anyone who was in earshot. Moorfield Storey, private secretary to the Massachusetts senator, came away from one conversation with Adams convinced that the newcomer, for all his talk of "corruption and jobbing in private matters," was ignorant of politics as practiced.28

"The whole root of the evil is in political corruption," Adams told the Massachusetts free trade advocate Edward Atkinson.29 Initially his definition of corruption seemed to be the same as that employed by everyone else, involving petty theft, political deals, and the like. Adams's political articles, which appeared during the first two years of the Grant administration, soon employed the term corruption in a much different sense, as it was employed by classical republican theorists. In this sense, corruption meant the degeneration or decay of institutions of governance, the result in part of the impact of social change and in part of the collapse of the balance between the functions of government - executive, legislative, and judicial - that served as bulwarks of liberty by diffusing power. This equilibrium was preserved through constant adherence to the doctrine of the separation of powers, a concept dear to the heart of every Adams.

This return to the tenets of classical republicanism first appeared in "The Session," a piece penned by Adams for the North American Review's April 1869 issue. The core of corruption was to be found in the "debauching effect" of the present patronage-based political system upon the "parties, public men, and the morals of the state."30 Special interest groups - or "rings," as Adams preferred to call them - prostituted the political system and the parties to serve their own needs. Parties, which had "no decency and no shame," promised to support these interests in return for money. Through the patronage system the rings wormed their way to the heart of the administrative and legislative process. Thus infected, the body politic was crippled in its attempt to serve the public good. The incoming president should "wrest from Congress the initiative which Congress is now accustomed to exercise" by making appointments without consultation. The first target of such a campaign was the Tenure of Office Act, a piece of legislation passed in 1867 to hamstring Andrew Johnson by insisting that officeholders appointed with the approval of the Senate could not be removed without the approval of the Senate.31

A second article, which Adams described as "very bitter and abusive of the Administration," appeared in the October 1869 issue of the North American Review. Entitled "Civil Service Reform," this piece sounded the themes of republicanism once more. Casting aside the usual arguments about administrative efficiency that characterized previous articles advocating reform, Adams reminded his readers "that among the precautions necessary for the maintenance of a free government is a frequent recurrence to the fundamental principles of the Constitution." Having called for a return to first principles (in the process quoting from the 1780 Massachusetts constitution, drafted in part by John Adams), he placed himself firmly in the family tradition of supporting the principle of separation of powers. The purpose of civil service reform, was to reestablish independence of the executive branch by restoring to it the complete power of appointment, shredding the power of political machines, special interest groups, and Congress.32

"The whole executive system has become the avowed plaything of the legislature," Adams reported. "Whatever happens, Congress has established the right to seize and overthrow the whole administration once in every four years forever." He located the origins of the decay of presidential power in Andrew Jackson's theory of "rotation in office," taking a swipe at an old family enemy, and accused Abraham Lincoln of completing the process of crippling presidential power by permitting members of Congress to nominate candidates for office. While Grant's initial actions as president, especially in appointing a cabinet without consulting party leaders, seemed to be a break from the past in the right direction, he eventually succumbed to the crush for office, although, as Adams noted, "he did not surrender with a good grace." It was now up to Grant to insist upon his independence by making nominations without prior consultations, lest he otherwise betray his oath of office. The concerns Adams raised - separation of powers, executive independence, the appointment of public servants based upon virtue and merit alone, the corrupting impact of partisan politics and party machines - reflected his perspective of republicanism.33

Adams's investigation of the September 1869 attempt by Jim Fisk and Jay Gould to corner the market on gold was animated by the same concerns. "The New York Gold Conspiracy" appeared in the October 1870 edition of the Westminister Review. While he detailed the findings of a congressional investigation into this affair, which included an attempt by Fisk and Gould to obtain inside information on government gold transactions from Grant, he concentrated his analysis upon the impact of corporate power on American institutions. Gould and Fisk had created a corporation that "has proved itself able to override and trample on law, custom, decency, and every restraint known to society, without scruple, and as yet without check." Of course, the consequences of uncontrolled power and the need to restrain it were major themes of republican theory. Perhaps, Adams concluded, American institutions were not equal to the task; the federal government might have to move beyond the bounds of the Constitution in the direction of "an absolute central government" to tame the corporate monster.34

In July 1870, Adams's second (and last) annual review of national politics, "The Session, 1869-1870," appeared in the North American Review. In it he argued that the principles of American republicanism, as expressed in the Constitution, had collapsed. The creators of the American republic, choosing through the Constitution to make "an issue with antiquity," had applied the concept of the separation of powers to preserve liberty. Their purposes "were perhaps chimerical," their hopes "almost certainly delusive." However interesting the experiment, its history "demonstrates the impossibility of success through its means." Once again, he had resurrected some old tenets of republicanism, as embodied in the writings of John Adams. In the 1780s, Henry's great-grandfather had presented a cyclical theory of historical change, arguing that as social and political systems matured, they also began to decay, a process that was inevitable and irreversible. At best, such a process could be delayed or slowed, but it could not be halted.35

Thus, Adams's discussion presupposed the eventual collapse of American institutions under the accumulated weight of time, change, and decay. But all was not lost. Grant's administration had before it "the brilliant opportunity . . . not perhaps to change the ultimate results, but to delay some decades yet the demonstration of failure." According to Adams, the final judgement of Grant rested, not upon the success or failure of his policies on Reconstruction, fiscal and monetary matters, or international relations, but on whether he could stem the decay of constitutional authority by reasserting the independence of the executive branch. That Andrew Johnson had followed this exact path to disaster was silently passed over.36

Not surprisingly, Grant's first months in office failed to measure up to Adams's expectations. To Adams, the new president's most significant error was in appointing George S. Boutwell to head the Treasury Department, especially when someone so qualified as Adams's old crony David A. Wells was available. Boutwell believed that "knowledge was a deception"; his tenure made it clear that intelligence, creativity, and Henry Adams were no longer welcome at the Treasury Department. But appointing Boutwell was only the most glaring of Grant's sins. The new president, Adams asserted, not only failed to confront Congress over the issue of freedom of appointment, but tamely surrendered the patronage power, leading to "the certain abandonment of the original theory of the American system." Adams sadly concluded that "the internal fabric of the government" was "wrenched from its original balance."37

"The Session, 1869-1870" combined shrewd insight with a naivete about the way politics worked. Adams was among the first to wonder whether the Constitution could cope with an increasingly complex society. "The amount of business has become so enormous as to choke the channels provided for it," he noted, and as a result "the efficiency of the machine grows steadily less. New powers, new duties, new responsibilities, new burdens of every sort are increasingly crowding upon the government at the moment when it has become unequal to managing the limited powers it is accustomed to wield." In short, the country had outstripped its original framework; the republican ideal had been destroyed by the ravages of time and economic development and expansion. "All indications," Adams warned, "point to the conclusion that the system is outgrown. The government does not govern." These were perceptive comments. On the other hand, Adams's solution - that Grant reassert the principle of separation of powers and defy Congress - was woefully inadequate, unrealistic, and probably counterproductive. To do so would have been to follow in the footsteps of John Adams, John Quincy Adams, and Andrew Johnson - and fail. Adams was out of touch with his own time.38

Thus, when Adams spoke of corruption, he was referring not to the scandals and theft that plagued the Grant administration and Congress in the 1870s. Indeed, the exposure of these scandals lay in the future, long after Adams left Washington in the summer of 1870 to take a job teaching history at Harvard and serve as editor of the North American Review. Rather, when Adams used the term corruption he was employing it as his forefathers had, to describe the collapse of republican principles as embodied in the Constitution. No Adams had ever embraced the practice of American politics as it had evolved over the decades, with self-interest replacing virtue and patronage, not common goals, cementing alliances between the executive and legislative branches.

While Adams's republican critique might have been interesting, it was also outmoded. Grant would have been foolish indeed had he tried to turn back the clock and conduct his administration along the lines of either Adams presidency. Even Adams accepted this verdict. "The system of 1789 had broken down," he wrote in the Education, "and with it the eighteenth-century fabric of a priori, or moral, principles. Politicians had tacitly given it up. Grant's administration," he added, perhaps unfairly, "marked the avowal."39 Yet, historians draw unthinkingly from Adams's writings to substantiate their attack upon Grant's administration as corrupt, unaware of the different definitions and intellectual world in which Adams was operating. But intellectual irrelevancy, as bad as it might be, was not Adams's most serious mistake in his quest to shape American politics. Rather, it was the way he went about it that doomed him to watching from the sidelines. For Adams's writing tended to offend rather than to persuade, to annoy rather than to convince.

Adams took the family concern with placing principle over popularity to new extremes, avidly courting infamy. When he broached the idea of writing an article on "rings" for an English journal, he noted that such a production would "cover me with odium." No matter; "I am not afraid of unpopularity and I will do it."40 While he never actually produced such a piece, he fantasized about its impact, believing that "the return in public horror and disgust will I hope make me a 'degenerate son' and a 'traitor,' a 'cynical sceptic,' and a 'person whose career is closed before it had begun.'"41 While Adams's ancestors pointed to personal attacks as proof that they acted irrespective of personal ambitions and popularity, Henry seemed far more interested in the sensation he would cause than in the cause of sensation. He never stopped to think that such a reputation might not be conducive to his efforts to attain influence, concluding instead, "One's value is fairly measured by one's abuse."42

Adams's columns were filled with sarcasm masquerading as wit. He seemed unaware that these means were not exactly admirably suited to persuade the targets of his attacks of the correctness of his proposals. Rather, he took an almost perverse pride in the tone of his articles, characterizing his article on civil service reform as "rather bitter, rather slashing, very personal," in the same letter in which he announced plans to send copies to all members of Congress.43 This was going to extreme lengths to attract attention. And it was not the sort of attention that would "win friends and influence people," however, charming it might seem to scholars generations later.

Reviews of his work often noted the young reformer's attitude with disapproval. Samuel Bowles commented in the columns of the Springfield Republican that while Adams's "Session" article of 1869 was "a long a brilliant paper," it displayed "some conceit and some pedantry."44 Even Henry's father mentioned "the tone of parts of the article as savoring conceit more or less . . . . Shy natures are given to it from a necessity to support themselves from within against the first struggles with the opinion of the world." He warned Henry that if "you clearly expect to mix with men, I advise you to remove this obstacle to your influence with them altogether."45

But Adams ignored this wise advice. The Nation, reviewing "Civil Service Reform,"might say that the author had "made for himself an enviable reputation as a courageous politician," but it found his writing "to be at times a little too forcible" and the author "a little too fond of hard hitting."46 The Nation's review of another Adams piece on the Supreme Court's action in the Legal Tender Cases echoed these themes, complaining that Adams tended to "indulge too much his aptitude for general ridicule and satire."47 Adams's 1870 review of "The Session," according tp this reviewer, was "too unmitigatedly and severely fault-finding and critical."48

Certainly Adams's conduct alienated the very man whom he once claimed he wished to influence most. After reading such biting commentary, Ulysses S. Grant understandably had very little use for the young journalist-reformer. Nor did Adams seek to cultivate the new President. Invited to the White House in 1870 by presidential secretary Adam Badeau, Adams tried to dominate a discussion after dinner. "I chattered with that blandness for which I am so justly distinguished," he reported afterwards, "and I flatter myself it was I who showed them how they ought to behave."49 Such haughtiness was designed to offend, not befriend. And the President reciprocated in kind, applauding Senator Timothy O. Howe's stinging rebuke to Adams's "The Session, 1869-1870," published in the Wisconsin State Journal, and telling Adam Badeau that the entire Adams family "did not possess one noble trait of character."50

Nor did Adams find many friends in power, especially after 1870. He had been bitterly disappointed that Grant failed to name Evarts or another Adams associate, economist David A. Wells, to his cabinet. "My friends have almost all lost ground instead of gaining it as I hoped," he groaned. "My family is buried politically beyond recovery for years. I am becoming more and more isolated as far as allies go."51 Things got worse in 1870. In June Grant replaced Adams's friend, Attorney General Ebenezer R. Hoar, with a southerner; he broke openly with Sumner over the annexation of Santo Domingo; and in October he received the resignation of another Adams confidant, Secretary of the Interior Jacob D. Cox, after Cox had tried to countermand Grant's instructions regarding a land claim and paid vacations for clerks who wished to go home to vote.

Adams, finding himself without a friend in power, welcomed as a refuge the opportunity offered him at Harvard and the North American Review. But his political career remained stalled. His efforts to turn the Review into an organ of reform failed miserably, as he struggled to secure contributors. Nor did he play a significant role in the Liberal Republican movement of 1872, despite the fact that many reformers touted his father as a candidate. Adams did not attend the Cincinnati Convention, which nominated Horace Greeley, and during the fall presidential contest he was overseas on his honeymoon. Nor were his prospects much more promising during Grant's second term. Adams eagerly watched as public support for Grant declined in the wake of disinterest over Reconstruction, economic depression, and revelations of scandal that tainted the President. But his own efforts to secure the election of a reform candidate through independent action failed miserably. "The caucus and the machine will outlive me," he told Cabot Lodge, "and that being the case I prefer to leave this greatest of American problems to shrewder heads than my own."52

Although Adams moved back to Washington in 1877, he returned as a historian and political pundit, not as an adviser or journalist. His semifictional account of Washington politics and society, Democracy, published anonymously in 1880, provoked amusement and outrage, not reflection or reform. In the coming decades, he would observe the White House from the windows of his house across Lafayette Park, "a stable-companion to statesman, whether they liked it or not."53 But he would never exercise the influence he had once hope to wield - except upon future generations of historians.

Adams's later success as a historian and literary figure overshadows his initial failure in politics. Yet, Adams never forgot that his original plans to be an influential political journalist and adviser, a role carefully chosen to please both personal inclination and the dictates of family tradition, had been thwarted. His failure was painful and disappointing; he chose to ascribe responsibility for it to Ulysses S. Grant, and remained forever bitter toward him. "Grant's administration outraged every rule of ordinary decency," he complained, "but scores of promising young men whom the country could not well spare, were ruined in saying so."54 Among those "promising young men" was Adams himself. Never was he willing to admit that perhaps he should look elsewhere - a nearby mirror? - for the reasons for his failure.

But Adams's portrayal of the Grant administration and its head was shaped far more by his personal prejudices, perspectives, and disappointments than by an attempt to analyze the performance of the President. He judged Grant incompetent because Grant rejected Adams's theory of presidential power, which had been framed in accordance with the concerns of classical American republican thought. Adams urged Grant to ignore both partisan considerations and the interests of Congress in asserting the independence of the executive branch of government. After a year of false starts and fumbling, Grant chose instead to work within the existing political structure as a power broker, using patronage to build alliances in Congress that would support his policies.55

This approach to presidential power, which others might commend as realistic and pragmatic, qualified as "corruption" in Adams's eyes, for it violated the principles of independence, virtue, and freedom from partisanship that were hallmarks of classical republican notions of governance. To Adams, Ulysses S. Grant, popularly recognized as the savior of the Union, had in fact destroyed the classical republican ideal forever by failing to stave off its inevitable destruction through corruption. Indeed, compared to this crime, the instances of corruption during the Grant administration usually cited by historians fade into insignificance. Adams charge Grant with corruption long before Credit Mobilier, the Whiskey Ring, or the malfeasance of several administration officials came to light: he rarely mentioned these incidents in his own correspondence, and since these revelations occurred during the twenty years of silence in the Education, he passed over them. Historians who cite Adams in support of their contention that Grant was no politician should pause and consider exactly what Adams wanted Grant to do - abandon parties and patronage in launching an independent course destined for destruction.

Adams's tone and style in print severely hindered his quest for influence. His righteous rhetoric and searing sarcasm obscured the fact that what appeared to be a question of right versus wrong, of good versus evil, of intelligence versus stupidity, was in reality a difference of opinion over the means and ends of presidential power. Nor did Adams enhance the possibility of his exercising influence over Grant and his associates through articles characterized by arrogance and derogatory comments about those in power. His biting satirical portraits of public figures alienated their subjects and amused his readers, but they were more akin to political doggerel than to penetrating analysis. Such political advice, emanating from a peculiar frame of reference, and delivered in such an offensive manner, was sure to be ignored. Henry Adams's encounter with American politics in the age of Grant was a dismal failure. Unable to convince most people of the need to return to the pristine constitutional order endorsed by his fathers, his obsession with attempting to do so left him unable to respond creatively to the problems of Reconstruction America. His bitter sarcasm barred him from the corridors of power. Withdrawing to history as a means of understanding why the old order had fallen by the wayside, he spent the rest of his life contemplating the twin concerns of the relationship between knowledge and power, and man's control over his own fate. His conclusion in both the History and the Education - that society and politics were determined and defined by forces beyond human control - was foreshadowed by his own failure to influence his own time.




1Henry Adams to Charles Francis Adams, Jr., November 11, 1911, Worthington D. Ford, ed., The Letters of Henry Adams, 2 volumes (Boston, 1930, 1938), II: 575-576 (hereafter Letters [Ford]). 

2 Ibid.; [Henry Adams], The Education of Henry Adams, ed. Ernest Samuels ( Boston, 1973 [1918]), 266. 

3Adams to Henry James, May 6, 1908, Letters [Ford], II: 495.

4Ernest Samuels, Henry Adams, 3 volumes (Cambridge, 1948-1964); William Dusinberre, Henry Adams: The Myth of Failure (Charlottesville, 1980); David Contosta, Henry Adams and the American Experiment (Boston, 1980); Ari Hoogenboom, Outlawing the Spoils: A History of the Civil Service Reform Movement, 1865-1883 (Urbana, 1961); John G. Sproat, "The Best Men": Liberal Reformers in the Gilded Age (New York, 1968). 

5Adams to Elizabeth Cameron, February 6-13, 1891, in J. C. Levenson et al., eds., The Letters of Henry Adams, 6 volumes (Cambridge, 1982, 1988), III: 408. Hereafter Letters [Levenson]. 

6[Adams], The Education of Henry Adams, 26. 

7Ibid., 36. 

8Charles Francis Adams to Henry Adams, October 28, 1858, Adams Family Papers, Massachusetts Historical Society (microfilm edition). 

9Charles Francis Adams to Charles Francis Adams, Jr., November 8, 1861, in Worthington C. Ford, ed., A Cycle of Adams Letters, 1861-1865, 2 volumes (Boston, 1920), I: 67-69. 

10Jack Shepherd, Cannibals of the Heart (New York, 1981), 96, 312-321, 340-343; Martin Duberman, Charles Francis Adams, 1807-1886 (Stanford, 1960), 32-33, 52. 

11Charles Francis Adams, Jr., Charles Francis Adams (Cambridge, 1900), 93-95. 

12Henry Adams to Charles Francis Adams, Jr., November 3, 1858, Letters [Levenson], I: 521. 

13Henry Adams to Charles Francis Adams, Jr., February 28, 1867, Letters [Levenson], I: 5. 

14Henry Adams to Charles Francis Adams, Jr., May 21, 1869, ibid., II: 33. 

15Henry Adams to Charles Francis Adams, Jr., February 13, 1863, and May 8, 1867, ibid., I: 330, 533; Harold Dean Cater, Henry Adams and His Friends (Boston, 1947), cxvi, n. 170. 

16Henry Adams to Charles Francis Adams, Jr., March 13, 1859, Letters [Levenson], I: 28. 

17Henry Adams to Charles Francis Adams, Jr., December 9, 1860, ibid., I: 204. 

18Henry Adams to Charles Francis Adams, Jr., November 30, 1859, ibid., I: 67. 

19Henry Adams to Charles Francis Adams, Jr., January 18, 1859, ibid., I: 14. 

20Henry Adams to Charles Francis Adams, Jr., March 26, 1860, ibid., I: 106. 

21Contosta, Henry Adams and the American Experiment, 21-29. 

22Charles Vandersee, "The Political Attitudes of Henry Adams," Ph. D, dissertation, UCLA, 1964, 31-32; Henry Adams to Charles Francis Adams, Jr., February 13, 1860. Letters [Levenson], I: 330. 

23Henry Adams to Charles Francis Adams, Jr., May 1, 1863, ibid., I: 350. 

24Henry Adams to Charles Francis Adams, Jr., November 21, 1862, ibid., I: 315. 

25Mill quoted in Daniel Aaron, The Unwritten War: American Writers and the Civil War (New York, 1973), 102. 

26Henry Adams to Charles Francis Adams, Jr., May 22, 1862, and July 17, 1863, Letters [Levenson], I: 300-301, 371. 

27Henry Adams to Charles Milnes Gaskell, November 5, 1868, and to Charles Francis Adams, Jr., January 27, 1869, ibid., II: 5, 14. 

28Mark A. DeWolfe Howe, Portrait of an Independent: Moorfield Storey, 1845-1929 (Boston, 1932), 124-129.

29Henry Adams to Edward Atkinson, February 1, 1869, Letters [Levenson], II: 15. 

30Henry Adams, "The Session," in George Hochfield, ed., The Great Secession Winter of 1860-61 and Other Essays (New York, 1958), 70. 

31Ibid., 68, 70, 90. 

32Henry Adams, "Civil Service Reform," The Great Secession Winter, 97.

33Ibid., 99, 101, 105. 

34Henry Adams, "The New York Gold Conspiracy," The Great Secession Winter, 189. 

35Adams, "The Session," The Great Secession Winter, 193; John R. Howe, The Changing Political Thought of John Adams (Princeton, 1966), 133-134.

36Adams, "The Session," The Great Secession Winter, 195. 

37Ibid., 199, 219. 

38Ibid., 220. 

39[Adams], The Education of Henry Adams, 280-281. 

40Henry Adams to Charles Francis Adams, Jr., January 22, 1869, Letters [Levenson], II: 13. 

41Henry Adams to Charles Francis Adams, Jr., January 23, 1869, ibid, II: 14. 

42Henry Adams to Charles Francis Adams, Jr., June 22, 1869, ibid., II: 39. 

43Henry Adams to Charles Milnes Gaskell, August 27, October 5, 1869, ibid., II: 42-43, 47. 

44Springfield Republican, May 1, 1869. 

45Charles Francis Adams to Henry Adams, May 5, 1869, Adams Family Papers, Massachusetts Historical Society (microfilm). 

46The Nation, November 11, 1869. 

47Ibid., May 12, 1870. 

48Ibid., August 11, 1870. 

49Henry Adams to Charles Milnes Gaskell, December 7, 1869, Letters [Levenson], II: 56. 

50Timothy O. Howe to Grace Howe, December 9, 1870, Timothy O. Howe Papers, Wisconsin State Historical Society; Adams Badeau, Grant in Peace: From Appomattox to Mount McGregor(Hartford, 1887), 472. Evidence that the Grant White House was aware of Adams's commentary can be surmised from a review of the White House scrapbooks in the Ulysses S. Grant Papers, Library of Congress. 

51Henry Adams to Charles Milnes Gaskell, April 19, 1869, Letters [Levenson], II: 25. 

52Henry Adams to Henry Cabot Lodge, June 24, 1876, ibid., II: 279. 

53[Adams], The Education of Henry Adams, 317. 

54Ibid., 280. 

55This interpretation of the Grant Administration can be found in William B. Hesseltine, Ulysses S. Grant: Politician (New York, 1935) and David Donald, Charles Sumner and the Rights of Man (New York, 1970).