The Education of Henry Adams

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The Education of Henry Adams

Henry Brooks Adams 1907

Author Biography
Key Figures
Historical Context
Critical Overview
Further Reading


The Education of Henry Adams had been an important and influential text for a decade before Henry Adams was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in autobiography in 1918. The import of the text begins with its author, the weight of its influence with its first audience; its continued appreciation has as much to do with the first two factors as the fact that it was brilliantly constructed by a man of letters at the height of his powers.

Descended from one of America's most famous political families, Adams contributed a classic work of American historiography and one of the most famous autobiographies of American literature instead of making a great political contribution to the country. Adams does provide insight into the Adams family, a source of fascination not unlike the Kennedys, but he is curiously silent on two areas of his own life. Adams discusses his experience as private secretary to his father, minister to England during the American Civil War. However, he says almost nothing on his role as advisor and confidante to John Hay, secretary of state to President William McKinley and President Theodore Roosevelt, while the United States became a world power. The other deafening silence concerns the absence of the lessons he must have learned from his wife's suicide.

Adams' release of one hundred self-published folios of The Education of Henry Adams to some of the most powerful people on earth—from writers to heads of state—guaranteed interest. Those who were not among the first one hundred went to extraordinary lengths to glean any information about the contents. These one hundred copies had a preface authored by Adams. The second text was released to the general public after Adams died. This edition contained a preface penned by Adams but signed by Henry Cabot Lodge in 1918.

Author Biography

The fourth child of statesman and diplomat Charles Francis and Abigail Brown, Henry Adams was born in Boston, Massachusetts, on February 16, 1838. At the age of four, having survived a bout with scarlet fever, Adams joined the rest of the family at their new home on Mount Vernon Street in Quincy, a suburb of Boston. Along with receiving an education appropriate to his class, Adams absorbed current political ideas from his father and those who visited the house, particularly Charles Sumner. Adams grew up believing himself to be a member of the ruling class destined to be involved in politics.

Adams attended Harvard College, receiving a bachelor of arts in 1858. Due to the influence of his tutor, James Russell Lowell, Adams pursued two years of graduate study at the University of Berlin. Due to his birth rank, the family had lower expectations for Adams, although he saw his role as private secretary to his father, during service as America's minister to Britain from 1861 to 1868, as a stepping stone to a career in politics. On the way to London, Adams met John Hay, Abraham Lincoln's private secretary, and they became lifelong friends.

Returning to Washington, D.C., from London in 1868, Adams used journalism to remain involved in politics. His time as a journalist ended when he accepted an invitation from Charles Eliot, president of Harvard College, to serve as assistant professor in medieval history and the editor of the North American Review in 1870. As an established man, Adams married Marian "Clover" Cooper in June of 1872. He gave up the Cambridge career in 1877, and the couple moved to Washington, D.C., where Adams began work on History of the United States during the Administrations of Jefferson and Madison.

Adams kept his domestic affairs to himself and as a result speculation surrounded his years of married life. Tragically, Clover ingested a photochemical solution and died in December 1885. In response, Adams withdrew from society. He completed his nine-volume history (1889-1891) that won the Loubat Prize from Columbia University. In 1894, he became president of the American Historical Association.

Until a stroke in 1912 curtailed his activities, Adams traveled, reflected, and advised John Hay. Adams' journey to the South Pacific, where he visited with the people of Samoa and Tahiti, inspired a reconsideration of civilization. Adams saw the people of the South Pacific as still living in a unified culture. In response, Adams felt that unity was precisely the element eluding the America of the nineteenth century. His search for that lost unity led him to revisit the Gothic cathedrals of Normandy and inspired him to write Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres (1905). By 1906, the companion volume, The Education of Henry Adams existed but only circulated privately in 1907. Though he wrote several thousand letters and a couple essays more, Adams' work of 1906 was his swan song. He died on March 27, 1918, in Washington, D.C.


Early Years

Beginning at his birth, Adams' describes himself as being at the mercy of historical forces. He was born into a family with a founding father and second president of the nation, the sixth president, and the historical inertia of Boston's seat of the War for Independence against Great Britain. Adams comments on these forces and the way in which they display themselves while his earliest years are divided between the Brooks' home in Boston and the Adams' house in Quincy. After relating a remarkable lesson in discipline, taught to him by his grandfather, John Quincy Adams, Adams discusses his development in the shadow of his father's character. Adams molds himself after Charles Francis by observing him in comparison with other political figures that frequent the house, namely Charles Sumner. Throughout his childhood in Quincy and Boston, Henry Adams is "free to turn with the world." Washington, D.C., would change that.

School Years

In 1850, Adams travels with his father to Washington, D.C., to visit his grandmother, Louisa. While there, Adams' belief in his destiny becomes bolstered while he tours the Senate Chamber and visits President Taylor in the White House, a home he views as that of his family. He and his father tour Mount Vernon where the paradox of George Washington, symbol of freedom and slave owner, do not phase Adams. Back in Boston, Adams lost Sumner to a Congressional term in Washington, D.C.

Adams attends Harvard College where disillusionment sets in. Except for a few quirky Virginians, Adams finds his classmates unremarkable. Although Adams ranked near the bottom of his class, he was elected Class Orator and delivered the commencement address. From Harvard College, Adams headed to the University of Berlin for two years. He had thought it was the place to study Civil Law but his enthusiasm was stymied by "the lecture system in its deadliest form as it flourished in the thirteenth century." His other excuse for not studying was the city. A change to Dresden improved his scenery but not his study. He finds that the Germany he loved was a romanticized eighteenth-century Germany, not the militarized Germany of Bismarck. Fortunately, his sister—now married to Charles Kuhn—lures him to Switzerland and then Italy. Adams heads home after an accident causes his sister's death.

The Civil War

Since Adams had not embarked on any career, he accompanied his father to Washington, D.C., in the capacity of a private secretary. Adams intended to continue his law studies by reading Blackstone. Instead, the excitement of secession and possible war stopped progress on those lines as he joined the rest of the nation in the education of war. The first events came in the congressional battle to keep Virginia in the Union. Seward in the Senate and Charles Francis in the House led these efforts. As Lincoln's term in office opened, Adams meets John Hay but loses Sumner's friendship during the emergency wrangling.

Lincoln wisely sent Charles Francis to London as the American minister. There the legation's chief function was to maintain America's dignity at the seat of the British Empire while diffusing the British intent of illegally aiding the Confederates. With his few friends and his own social standing, Charles Francis played his role in British domestic politics and he played for time. Political success remained impossible while the Union Army suffered defeat but Charles' constancy paid large dividends in 1863 during "The Battle of the Rams," the ironclads Monitor and Merrimac. His use of British society and British law were now supported by Union victories and Britain was forced to dry-dock several ironclads that they had hoped to send to the Confederacy. Meanwhile, Adams discerned many lessons about the way British power works and how British minds operate. However, while an American politician might master the ecology of London utilizing family and social connection as well as brains, such an education exactly disabled him for service anywhere else.

A Career Despite Himself

Adams has a career in journalism, which begins with the publication of some of his letters home in Boston. Persuaded by his success and his family, he decides to take advantage of his connections and pursue writing to the extent of his powers. He begins writing while still working for his father and mostly out of boredom. He has several scoops published anonymously, which luckily do not create a scandal for his father. Attracted by the latest scientific theories disrupting the natural sciences, Adams successfully aids in their popularization through his magazine articles. This period of almost normal professionalism leads to a position as assistant professor at Harvard as well as a magazine editor. His career ends in 1877 when he decides that institutional education is useless.

Man as a Force

Remarking from the vantage point of 1892, Adams finished his education in 1871 when he began to apply it; this marked the beginning of his last section of his work. In this section, Adams reflects on the acceleration of change in American society wrought by technology and a shift to a "banker's world." His venues for reflection include the World's Fairs and the careers of his closest friends. In Chicago and again in Paris, he dwells on the power of the new machines at the heart of societal change. In response, he positions Hay and Clarence King as representatives of the new ideal American. In contrast to his own failure to attain a position of power, his best friends sit at the height of politics and science, respectively. Hay's accomplishments, as secretary of state, reveal a hope for the future and show that power does not always corrupt but, with some men, leads to a better world. King's accomplishments in the West promise to yield an even more prosperous, larger, America.

Throughout this last section, Adams discusses the current state of scientific history and poses guiding principles for further study. His prognostications have the appearance of prophecy but they are the result of a careful analysis and employment of a grammar. Realizing through Hay that the problems of the Atlantic World were being resolved, Adams notes that the future challenge will be a greatly expanded and powerful Russia. Finally, Adams believes that history will become a hard science complete with algorithms and laws.

Key Figures

Mrs. Louisa Catherine Adams

Despite Abigail's disapproval, Louisa was an ideal wife for John Quincy while they lived within the circle of European and American elite; as a wife of a Bostonian, Louisa fails miserably.

Mrs. Abigail Adams

Abigail Adams, wife of John Adams, is the ideal eighteenth-century woman. Abigail's disapproval of Louisa (Johnson) as a suitable match for her son, John Quincy, provides insight into Adams' idea of women. He says that this moment of disapproval teaches the correctness of women's judgment.

Brooks Adams

While Adams teaches at Harvard, he rooms in the same house as his brother, Brooks, who was attending law school. Brooks, younger by a decade, influences Adams' thinking about history. Brooks "taught [Adams] that the relation between civilizations was that of trade." Due to Brooks' influence, Adams searches the ancient trading routes for "a city of thought" but does not find one.

Henry Brooks Adams

The main character of the story attempts to discuss what parts of education are useful according to his own experiences. His search for knowledge also imitates other spiritual odysseys like Dante's or that of John Bunyan's Christian. He gained little from structured educational experiences. Whether grade school or Harvard College, education by discipline is a large waste of time in his mind. Stubbornly, Adams sticks to the idea that four tools are necessary to any successful education. They are knowledge of German, Spanish, French, and a facility with mathematics. Those are the building blocks. Otherwise, he highlights certain lessons in his own life but does not come up with any kind of educational program.

Mrs. Abigail Brown Adams

Abigail Brown, daughter of Peter Brooks and wife of Charles Francis, proved to be a great asset to the American legation in London because she excelled in British custom. Adams realizes that his mother's success stems from her ability to assimilate.

Mr. Charles Francis Adams

Adams' father, Charles Francis, served as America's minister to the Court of St. James during the American Civil War. His diplomatic success in preventing the British from openly siding with the Southern Confederacy is a highpoint of Adams' education, though it disqualified him for a political career. Adams looks to his father as his first role model.

Adams realizes that his father's concern with national politics stems from a principled refusal to take part in the corruption of state politics. He also admires his father's mind as it interacts with allies in the parlor of the Quincy home. Adams judges his father's mind to be "the only perfectly balanced mind that ever existed in the name." This did not mean it was a brilliant mind but that it "worked with singular perfection" so that Charles Francis "stood alone"—without master. A motivating force for this mind was a staunch conviction of Puritan thought that prevented Charles Francis from compromising his abolitionist stance.

President John Quincy Adams

Adams holds up his grandfather, John Quincy, as an exemplar man of power who can coerce others into following a proper path. While a boy, Adams once attempted to avoid going to school by throwing a tantrum against his mother. This ended when "the President" silently ushered him all the way to his school desk. "The President … had shown no temper, no irritation, no personal feeling, and had made no display of force. Above all, he had held his tongue." The remarkable thing for Adams about this experience was the impact; the president acted so correctly that Adams felt no "rancor" but just the opposite, he admired where before he had been "paralyzed by awe." The episode is just one of many moments in the book when Adams reflects on the proper use of power.

George Sewall Boutwell

Boutwell's appointment to secretary of the treasury by President Grant suggests that the Grant administration, in Adams' terms, will be victimized by "inertia." Boutwell's incompetence encouraged the notorious robber baron, Jay Gould, to attempt to corner the gold market. A nationwide panic ensued. Sadly, Boutwell represents the type of politician "pathetic in their helplessness to do anything with power when it came to them."

John Bright

Orators like John Bright, one of the most eloquent orators of nineteenth-century Britain, succeed in politics not only as a result of having "the courage of a prize-fighter" but because "Bright knew his Englishmen better than England did." Consequently, Bright "knew what amount of violence in language was necessary to drive an idea into a Lancashire or Yorkshire head." Bright's professional success bolsters Adams repertoire of lessons in national difference. Adams knows that Bright's methods would not work anywhere but amongst the English. Adams also sees that Bright's verbal violence combines with other qualities. Bright "betrayed no one, and he never advanced an opinion in practical matters that did not prove to be practical."

Peter Chardon Brooks

Adams' "other grandfather," Peter Brooks, was a wealthy banker whose fortune at his death was the largest in Boston. Brooks' estate was divided amongst the children and thus the Adams family increased in wealth through Abigail Brown's share.

Senator James Donald Cameron

Senator Cameron of Pennsylvania "had shipwrecked his career in the person of President Grant." Adams sees Cameron as a Pennsylvanian in the mold of Benjamin Franklin. For Adams, the Pennsylvanian puts aside his prejudices against the world once his interests are allied with those of others. Accordingly, Cameron was a member of Adams' circle as he was an ally of Hay, Lodge, and Roosevelt.

George Douglas Campbell
See Duke of Argyll

Duke of Argyll

One of Charles Francis' most valuable friends during his service at the Court of St. James was the duke of Argyll. The duke believed in Russell's honesty and Charles Francis follows him. Their gullibility amazes Adams.

Charles William Eliot

Adams had a brief career as a professor at the request of the president of Harvard College, Charles Eliot. After seven years, Adams views collegiate education, even under Eliot's reformed system, as costly and wasteful. Eliot "hinted that Adams's services merited recognition."

William Maxwell Evarts

Upon his return from London, Adams found welcome in the home of William Evarts, President Johnson's attorney general. They had long discussions about legal tender as Evarts sought to defend the president's position, although, Evarts had opposed it in the past.

William Edward Forster

One of the British statesmen who helps Charles Francis and the cause of the Union was the talented young radical, William Edward Forster. According to Adams, Forster was "pure gold" even when he eventually became part of the establishment as he rose to the rank of cabinet minister.

William Evart Gladstone

Gladstone's confession of 1896 causes Adams to rethink his education as private secretary to his father. In 1905, Adams learns that Gladstone considered it a mistake on his part to have thought that Jefferson Davis had actually formed a nation—a gross mistake that nearly led to war—but still a mistake. Dumbfounded by the passage, Adams reflects that "he had seen nothing correctly at the time. His whole theory of conspiracy … resolved itself into [Gladstone's] 'incredible grossness."' However, as with his grandfather, Adams feels no rancor because he believes that nothing about an individual's psychology can impact an historical event.

John Hay

As a reward for his support of McKinley's Republican campaign for the presidency, Hay was appointed the American ambassador to England. However, when William R. Day left to finalize the outcome of the Spanish-American War in Paris, Hay was recalled to serve as secretary of state. He stayed in this position.

Hay is the ideal American for Adams in part because he brings to fruition the political machinations of Adams' forebears. Hay studies John Quincy's work closely and he seeks advice from Adams on a regular basis. In Hay's successful foreign policy, Adams sees "the family work of a hundred and fifty years fell at once into the grand perspective of true empire building."

Ebenezer Rockwood Hoar

Adams' continuing hopes for a political position are dashed when he finds himself in disagreement with his friend, Ebenezer Hoar, President Grant's attorney general. Adams writes an article in favor of the Supreme Court in the matter of the Legal Tender Cases. Hoar, as Grant's point man, favors the government's right to print paper specie. The Supreme Court decided against this in 1870 but after Grant appointed two more justices, the Court found in favor of the government when it revisited the question. As a result of the political fights, Hoar was driven from office.

Lord Houghton
See Richard Monckton Milnes

Clarence King

As the first head of the Geological Survey, Clarence King was a remarkable combination of hardy adventurer and scientist. The occupation and exploitation of the continent was made possible due to men like King. For Adams, King is larger than life—a scientist but also a man who can survive in the wilderness. However, King's abilities do not prevent his tragic end. Losing his fortune in the crash of 1893, King dies alone and forgotten in a hotel in the Southwest.

Mrs. Louisa Catherine Kuhn

Firstborn child to Charles Francis and Abigail Brown, Louisa "was one of the most sparkling creatures [Adams] met in a long and varied experience of bright women." Louisa married Charles Kuhn and invited Adams to join them on a European tour. Adams happily accepts an excuse to leave Germany. This experience reminds Adams of the superiority of nineteenth-century American women—especially those of the Adams family—and his preference for being in their control.

Though Italy proved to be a wonderful influence on Adams, the death of Louisa becomes a powerful lesson; "he had never seen Nature—only her surface—the sugar-coating that she shows to youth." This was the first time Adams had watched someone die. Louisa had been thrown from a cab and bruised her foot. Tetanus had set in and "hour by hour the muscles grew rigid, while the mind remained bright, until after ten days of fiendish torture she died in convulsions." The "harsh brutality of chance" was not soon forgotten.

Mrs. Anna Cabot Mills Lodge

Along with Mrs. Cameron, Anna Lodge was a "dispenser of sunshine over Washington." Adams views Anna in a light usually reserved only for the women of his family. Mirroring the role of Louisa, Anna takes command of Adams. In 1895, when all the world seemed just simply too confusing to Adams, Anna gives him the busy task of serving as traveling companion and tutor to the Lodges and their two sons.

Henry Cabot Lodge

One of Adam's students at Harvard was Henry Lodge. Adams regarded Lodge as a younger brother or nephew and a source of solace toward the end of his life.

James Russell Lowell

Adams finds classes at Harvard a bore until he begins to take advantage of the German method of private readings used by James Russell Lowell. "Education was not serious" but Adams found Lowell to be a good conversationalist.

Richard Monckton Milnes

Richard Milnes epitomizes the "gargantuan type," the sort of man who is larger than life and whose grasp seems universal. Milnes was a member of the upper class whose breakfasts were so famous that nobody dared turn down an invitation but died to attend. He knew everyone and excelled in his literary and artistic tastes. As one of the pro-Union faction, he often provided refuge to Charles Francis at his home in Fryston.

Viscount Palmerston

When the Adams family journeys to the Court of St. James on behalf of the United States government in 1861, they find the British prime minister to be Palmerston. Known for his fiery defense of "British Interest," Adams likens his family to Christians showing up in Rome during the time of Emperor Tiberius when martyring Christians was good sport. Palmerston represents the despotic ruler who sacrifices others on a whim.

Earl John Russell

A study in British politicians is found in Palmerson's betise, John Russell. Of all the pro-Confederacy members of the British government, Russell's call for recognition of the American rebels is the loudest. In the end, his scheming falls apart and he must bow to Charles Francis and international law by finding new buyers for the deadly ironclads that he wanted to send against the Union Navy.

Governor William Henry Seward

William Seward was secretary of state to President Lincoln and friend of the Adams family since the days of the Free Soil Party.

Augustus St. Gaudens

Throughout the text, Adams lists Augustus St. Gaudens among the great artists of his day. In passing, Adams comments on his aesthetic reaction to the memorial Adams commissioned for Mrs. Henry Adams at Rock Creek Cemetery in Washington, D.C. The statue, in the text, is simply the virgin, the symbol of femininity, opposing the dynamo.

Charles Sumner

Until he disapproves of Charles Francis' appointment to head the legation to St. James Court in London, Charles Sumner stood fast as a friend of the family and a role model to young Adams. While still pursuing their unpopular abolitionist crusade as members of the Free Soil Party in Boston, Sumner stood out amongst Charles Francis' friends as "heroic." Sumner stood alone—he was without family and his political position made many doors closed to him. His lack of Boston allies outside the Adams' circle caused Sumner to cultivate his European connections. For this reason, he is one of the few American leaders during the Civil War of which the British think well.

Henry John Temple
See Viscount Palmerston



Adams presents himself as a scientist who will sample and test various methods of education so that he may offer some wisdom for a man facing the twentieth century. As he says in the preface, "no one has discussed what part of education has, in his personal experience, turned out to be useful, and what not. This volume attempts to discuss it." Traditional systems of education are soundly rejected; a schoolmaster is "a man employed to tell lies to little boys." The lecture system found in colleges does not fair much better nor does scientific education: "the theory of scientific education failed where most theory fails—for want of money."

In the rejection of standard educational systems, Adams formulates an alternative understanding of education. The acquisition of knowledge should not be the mastery of the schoolmaster's unity or the complete embrace of all possible scientific facts. Instead, education "required conflict, competition, contradiction" and "accidental education" in order to see the "world exactly as it is." For this reason, he emphasizes those moments in life when he learned by accident. His experience with men, from his grandfather to his students, teaches him about power and the benefit of a balanced mind. His experience with women teaches the profound problem of multiplicity. Accidental education causes Adams to realize that society does not educate itself "or aimed at a conscious purpose." Consequently, Adams notes that successful minds are those that react to the capriciousness of reality.

While Adams hints throughout the work that education amounts to self-knowledge, his formulation of self-knowledge involves an understanding of the journey he has been through. Toward the end of the text, Adams says:

Every man with self-respect enough to become effective, if only as a machine, has had to account to himself for himself somehow, and to invent a formula of his own for his universe, if the standard formulas failed, there, whether finished or not, education stopped.

Though a man may "invent a formula," his success is not assured. To prove this, Adams compares the fate of Clarence King and John Hay, two men who were able to formulate their universe and be effective. Hay masters the instruments of state in order to guide the foreign policy of the country through two administrations. King also has a formula—literally, he has an ingenious one for surveying the 40th parallel. However, King's story proves that science cannot exist independently of money, which King loses in the economic downturn of 1893.

Topics for Further Study

  • Imagine that The Education of Henry Adams will be published in 2007. What technological symbols could be used to interpret the twentieth century and prepare for the twenty-first century? Imitating the style Adams uses in his work, discuss those symbols in terms of their historical force through a description of an imagined event, like a World's Fair of the year 2005.
  • Compare the use of evolutionary theory in intellectual discourse of the late nineteenth century with the genetic explanations offered today. What are the dangers of popular usage of scientific theories? What are the benefits of making science transparent and accessible?
  • Explain the attraction that railroads have for Adams. What has happened over the last century to that rail network? What sort of analysis might Adams make of this change?
  • Coal is still our number one source for energy. What other sources of energy have been developed over the last century? Are those energy technologies sufficient to meet current and future needs? Discuss the challenges of energy policy in a particular country with reference to that country's historical development.
  • Select one of the many utopian novels written between Edward Bellamy's Looking Backward (1888) and the general publication of The Education of Henry Adams (1918). Compare the idea of the new human Adams puts forth to inhabit a technologically complex world to the ideal put forth by Utopian Socialists.
  • Jared Diamond, in his "Epilogue" to Guns, Germs, and Steel, discusses how history might become just as scientific as some natural sciences in which experimentation is impossible (like astronomy). Compare Diamond's reasoning with Adams' ideas on a scientific history. What future does history have as a science?


For Adams, technology is intrinsic to an understanding of the great difference between the late nineteenth and the thirteenth century. Moreover, technology holds the key to a bright future so long as a new mind will emerge within society that will not be overawed by it. Adams' inability to react appropriately to science and technology exacerbates his propensity for failure. This is presented early in the work through Adams' preference for a non-technological Boston to which the Boston and Albany Railroad has come regardless of his wishes. To his credit, Adams stubbornly faces the source of his discomfort with technology, especially with coal.

Adams constantly watches out for the extent to which a society, starting with his own, is burning coal. He knows that coal fuels industry, which fuels the economy. The cost to a society is the illness of its workers and of sections of the country. Still, Adams feels everyone must face up to coal in all its forms. For this reason, Adams describes coal production as a "Black District, another lesson, which needed much more to be rightly felt." Facing coal and its lesson becomes a rite of passage. Coal "made a boy uncomfortable.… The boy ran away from it, as he ran away from everything he disliked." But a man of education will face coal and its meaning. Within his scientific observation of societies, "Coal-power alone asserted evolution—of power—and only by violence could be forced to assert selection of type." Thus, the country that makes the best use of their coal will, eventually, be the greatest industrial might. The other technology Adams celebrates is the railway. The train engine burns coal and, therefore, the miles of track are another indicator of a country's coal-power.


Throughout The Education of Henry Adams, Adams formulates a new idea about scientific history wherein historical events emerge out of chaos or from nowhere, like the Pteraspis. The only thing that events prove, for Adams, is the ever-changing nature of society. Adams' notion of history invalidates any attempt to assume a grand narrative of history like the "Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and the Venerable Bede." History, in this view, becomes a dynamic and ever-changing record of life. Narrative approaches, meanwhile, indicate the specific feature of society Adams loathes, inertia.

Through the experience of actually teaching history from this viewpoint, Adams realizes the difficulty. His approach encourages students to think independently but without mastery of a body of knowledge that could be examined or displayed in a measurable way. Thus, while his approach approximates a more accurate understanding of historical dynamism, ironically it fails to be useful.



Adams uses his life story to illustrate his views of society, history, and education. However, his employment of the third person point of view serves to distance himself and the reader from the intimacy normally associated with the autobiographical form. As he confesses in his preface, the character of Henry Adams is a manikin—a figure adapted to the author's wants. In this case, the character of Adams becomes adapted to the larger purpose of exploring the theme of education that is a series of disillusionment with his "real" life, the promises of education, the United States as a nation, and women.

Other clues in the Preface and allusions scattered throughout the text technically support the conscientious illusion of autobiography and the admitted attempt at spiritual autobiography. In the preface, the figures of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and St. Augustine are invoked. Adams imitates their works to some extent in that he attempts to embody the fate of the nation. Later he will conjure Rasselas, Odysseus, and Dante. Like their works, his is a story of a journey toward knowledge. The fact that he never arrives at knowledge displays the impossibility of the quest. In other words, Adams' narrative device supports his theme of failure in order to operate as a reality check on those grandiose narratives of Western man.

Symbolism and Metaphor

Adams marks the break up of unity into chaos with various signs. Adams identifies these symbols and metaphors as such in the text. Due to the self-conscious discussion of symbols, they act as rational signposts for the larger theory of the work instead of romantic allusions. Adams consistently interrupts unified pictures with inhuman forces. One of the ways in which these two techniques work is exemplified in the death of his sister. His sister, symbolizing the unity of femininity and youth, has an accident that leads to an excruciating death. As Adams witnesses this, he identifies the entrance of nature into his text as a force of chaos that will forever disrupt attempts by humans to form unity.

Every time Adams mentions Quincy, the eighteenth century, or Boston, he evokes a string of nostalgia for a happier, quiet, almost Edenic time. Simultaneously, technologic representatives enter to ensure disruption and multiplicity. For Adams, a garden of bliss and rest is impossible for whenever a woman makes it likely, technology or other forces like a capricious nature, interrupt. The event of his sister's death encapsulates this construction, but the formula presents itself very early in the work. For example:

he and his eighteenth-century troglodytic Boston were suddenly cut apart—separated forever—in act if not in sentiment, by the opening of the Boston and Albany Railroad; the appearance of the first Cunard steamers in the bay; and the telegraphic messages which carried [news] from Baltimore to Washington.


Thinking that a number of perplexing problems with a scientific approach to history can be cleared up through an understanding of evolution, Adams seeks out the ultimate parent. Sir Charles Lyell introduces him to the Pteraspis. The fish happens to be the first vertebrate but its existence clarifies nothing about evolution. The fish simply enables him to prove change. In terms of the evolutionary chart, before the fish is nothing and after the fish is everything. From this point on, Pteraspis serves as a shorthand for those men or machines that appear in history with profound effect but no obvious ancestry.

Another motif is Adams' actual or virtual sitting on the steps of the Church of Santa Maria di Ara Coeli in Rome. The first time he sits there, he explains the significance of his act; his guidebook told him it was the place where Edward Gibbon had sat when he conceived the idea of writing Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Mention, therefore, of the Ara Coeli invokes Gibbon, Rome, and the historiographic fact that despite Gibbon's monumental history on Rome, the mystery of the fall of Roman Civilization remains just as provocative. Both Ara Coeli and Pteraspis repeatedly show Adams the futility of his quest for ultimate education. The motifs declare that Adams will fail in his attempt to clearly trace a line of progress from the Middle Ages to the present


The Education of Henry Adams does not faithfully represent historical events. Rather, Adams selects episodes when it suits his purpose for exploring themes. Certain events left out of the narrative lend support to the idea that part of the intent of the work was to mystify the elite of the United States. For example, Adams glosses over the fact that as capitalist industrialists moved toward full mass production, the skills of their workers dwindled, as one worker would insert a pin, another tighten a bolt, etc. Trained craftsmen were being replaced by unskilled laborers as technology became more prevalent. Adams does not hint at the embarrassing fate that befell his hero, Charles Sumner on the floor of the U.S. Senate Chamber when he was beaten with a cane. Violent outbursts with canes on the Senate floor were not unknown but Sumner spent the next three years recovering from the assault. Nor does Adams mention that Clarence King, under the name John Todd, had maintained a family with Ada Copeland, an African American—despite his proud recollection of his family's anti-slavery position.

Historical Context

Reform Era

A new spirit of civic awareness by members of the middle class who identified themselves as Progressives launched the Reform Era in the 1890s. Progressives believed that the rampant development of the economy had led to wasted resources, lives, and health. In response, Progressives applied a belief in maximum efficiency to every facet of life. Their goal was to make America a more efficient society and, in the end, more prosperous. The Progressives also applied new ideas about the individual. They replaced social Darwinism with environmentalism: good environments made good citizens. Thus, an improvement of society's environment (namely cities) would improve the citizenry. Both tenants were mixed with a fervent belief in the "Social Gospel" or a secularizing of the Christian gospels. Progressives, in other words, sought to make real the messages of "love of neighbor" that they believed Christ taught.

During the Reform Era, slums were cleared, houses built, and municipal services begun: sewage and water systems were installed and garbage pickup became customary. Political reform also made some headway as the corrupt political machines fell to the onslaught of Progressives and Populists. Labor movements seemed ascendant in the same era that Robber Barons ruled corporations whose annual profits dwarfed those of the entire U.S. tax revenue. Socialist parties were viable entities and would soon count mayors and governors. At the same time, the federal government regularly leant its troops to corporations engaged in battles with striking workers.

Progressives gradually looked to the federal government to increase its powers and control the reign of the Robber Barons. To this end, the Roosevelt administration began utilizing the Sherman Antitrust Act (1890) that led to the dissolution of the Northern Securities Company under order of the Supreme Court in 1904. Real progress against monopolies would not be made, however, until the Taft Administration's victory over the American Tobacco Company and the Standard Oil Company (both in 1911). The Reform Era ended with World War I.

Panic of 1907

The gross national product (GNP) in the United States increased from $18.7 billion in 1900 to $35.3 billion in 1910. Along the way, serious doubts were cast on the economy by the crisis of 1907, and the stock market collapse of 1893 (which affected the Adams family fortunes negatively) was never far from the minds of investors. Early warning signs accompanied the dawn of the new century: runaway global economic growth combined with an increase in government security issues fueled stock speculation that met a credit supply that had been decreasing since 1900. Countries responded by increasing their interest rates. Banks in Tokyo began to fail in early 1907 and were soon followed by banks in Europe and South America. Stock prices began to fall as a consequence but F. Augustus Heinze's attempt to corner the copper market almost destroyed the American financial market.

Compare & Contrast

  • 1907: Reginald Aubrey Fessenden ushers in the year with the second broadcasted radio program on New Year's Eve, 1906. Due to atmospheric conditions, the broadcast reaches the West Indies from its origination at Brant Rock, Massachusetts.

    Today: The internet continues to accelerate communications and media dissemination through worldwide fiber optic and satellite networks.

  • 1907: Robert Baden-Powell returns from leading a camping trip of twenty-five boys on Brownsea Island to establish the Boy Scouts.

    Today: The proud tradition of the Boy Scouts of America is under a cloud today due to its intolerance of openly gay scout masters.

  • 1907: Utilizing a right recently given by the U.S. Congress to bar non-U.S.-passport bearing people from the country, President Roosevelt refuses entry of Japanese workers to the United States from Canada, Hawaii, and Mexico.

    Today: The United States remains reluctant to welcome immigrants except in the case of Cubans or high-tech professionals.

  • 1907: President Roosevelt withheld antitrust action against U.S. Steel so that J. P. Morgan could prop up the American market.

    Today: The U.S. economy's incredible market pivots on one man, secretary of the Federal Reserve Board, Alan Greenspan.

  • 1900s: Department stores exist several decades before the first shopping centers are built. In 1907, one of the first such centers opens outside Baltimore, Roland Park Shopping Center. It lacks the intense planning and rationalization that would come to mark shopping center development. The first integrated mall is built outside Kansas City, Missouri, in 1922. It is called the Country Club Plaza.

    Today: Minnesota, which hosted the first two-story mall in 1956 (Southdale Mall), has become home to the mother of all shopping malls—the Mall of America (1992). The gigantism, which marks malls today, testifies to their central place in American culture.

America Becomes a World Power

Responsibility for the emergence of the United States as a world power, normally attributed to Roosevelt, lies with Secretary of State John Hay. The most precious advantage Hay gained for this coming out was the roping in of European powers into an American system of peace in the Atlantic. Guided by conversations with Henry Adams, Hay made the United States appear benevolent toward other nations in the name of open markets and free trade. This rule set the pace for American Foreign Policy of the twentieth century.

Hay's diplomacy had the backing of American victories. A military defeat of Spain in the Spanish-American War thrust America onto the world stage. This was accompanied by a display of force and technical ability through a circumnavigation of the globe by the U.S. Navy. Furthermore, successful construction of the long dreamed of Panama Canal, where the French had failed, crowned America's claim as an industrial power. These successes were unambiguous. However, the accomplishment of the "Open Door Policy" in China, paternalism in Latin America and the Philippines were less admirable.

The United States appeared to be a non-aggressor in the European race for colonies. Appearances aside, the United States agreed to allow European aggression so long as it respected the Monroe Doctrine (allowing the United States governance of the American hemisphere). This arrangement allowed the United States to violently put down the Filipino revolt and annex Hawaii. In all matters concerning the hemisphere, the American government took a stance favorable to multinational corporations.

Critical Overview

A discussion of the reception of the The Education of Henry Adams must first consider its route of dissemination. Adams first distributed his swan song to what amounts to a list of the one hundred most powerful and influential people of his time. He asked, in a rather tricky fashion, that each person correct their text and return it to him. Few were bold enough to do so and of those who did, Charles Eliot—who brought Adams to Harvard as professor of history and who created the famous Harvard Classics Series—returned his copy without comment.

Considering that the work won a Pulitzer for autobiography, biographers have found the text a tantalizing source for insight into the mind of Adams. Within this biographical criticism there are different points of emphasis. For example, Richard P. Blackmur, in The Expense of Greatness, focuses on the The Education of Henry Adams as Adams' reflection on his contribution to society. Gerrit H. Roelofs' "Henry Adams: Pessimism and the Intelligent Use of Doom" disagrees with Blackmur. For Roelof, Adams is challenging the twentieth century to live up to the greatness of the nineteenth century.

Another emphasis of scholars discussing Adams' work focuses on those moments in the text that predict America's development. Granville Hickes concludes his review, "Struggle and Flight," with "it is little exaggeration to say that The Education of Henry Adams carries us from the adolescence of American industrial capitalism to its senility." Nearly fifty years later, William Wassertrom echoed Hicks, in The Ironies of Progress, saying, "it was indeed Henry Adams who first insisted that America itself belied progress, that these states did in fact symbolize the hope and despair of advanced industrial order in the world." Adams' obvious perspicuity in all matters of American industrial triumph made The Education of Henry Adams an inspirational text during the first decade of the Cold War. In The Scientific Thought of Henry Adams, Henry Wasser appreciates Adams' rationalization of historical thought and its use as a point of reflection. Wasser writes, "Adams is scientific in his history in the sense that he tries to deduce the laws of history from the laws of science wherein laws applicable to human society are a special case of the laws applicable to the entire universe."

Recent criticism is applying gender and postcolonial theory to show that Adams veils the patriarchal and imperial operations of his friends and peers. Martha Banta, in "Being a 'Begonia' in a Man's World," exposes how Adams manipulates the period's notions of masculinity. Banta raises the idea that "whether [Adams] viewed himself as living up to his credentials as a male within the masculine society through which he moved" matters in a consideration of the text. John Carlos Rowe investigates another area of mystique. In " The Education of Henry Adams and the American Empire," Rowe zeroes in on the avowed purpose of the text to explain "Twentieth-Century Multiplicity" with the complete absence of any mention of "the political forces clearly reshaping the globe at the turn of the century." All of the critics mentioned here and those left out do agree with current assessments that The Education of Henry Adams belongs in the list of the greatest nonfiction works of the twentieth century.


Jeremy W. Hubbell

Hubbell seeks a Ph.D. in history with an emphasis on technological development at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, where he is a member of the Technoscience Research Group. In the following essay, he examines the relevance of Adams' work in the contemporary American philosophy of technology.

Long before the digital age caused headlines about digital divides and the rapidity of innovation, thinkers reflected upon human adaptation to accelerated technological innovation. The Education of Henry Adams, written as a reflection on the so-called second industrial revolution, was welcomed as such a reflection when it was published but has since become simply an autobiography. Adam's text explores the interaction between humans and technology, making note of generational tensions surrounding innovation. The idea of a child operating the VCR better than the parent enjoys the status of cliché now, but the concept of technology requiring new minds was not common knowledge at the time of Adams' writing. Yet, Adams foresaw that innovation would demand new types of people and personalities who in turn required greater technological complexity. In his work, Adams does not simply praise science or display the way in which technology awes the elderly; he also reveals the American pattern for embracing and adopting technology. The way in which Adams formulates his reflections early in the twentieth century has a similarity to the work of American philosopher of technology, Don Ihde, at the end of the century. Ihde, author of Technology and the Lifeworld: From Garden to Earth, without having read Adams uses the metaphoric device, the Garden of Eden, which is repeatedly used in The Education of Henry Adams to expose society's philosophy of technology.

Adams encapsulates this concern by tracing the trajectory of civilization as it evolved from the unity of Christendom (1200 a.d.) to multiplicity (1900 a.d.) through the heuristic device of the Garden of Eden. By way of contrast, Ihde uses the Garden of Eden motif to trace technological adaptation in different but contemporary cultures. He shows that even supposedly primitive tribes who, by definition, exist without the other worries of civilization live by virtue of technology exactly developed for their environment. Further, Adams shows that people are naturally quick to implement new technologies into an existing regime: "human activity from immemorial time and across the diversity of cultures has always been technologically embedded." This happens, according to Ihde, because technologies are multi-stable. By this term, he sums up the idea that while "technologies transform experience and its variations" for humans, the way in which this happens is without intent, or determinism. In other words, humans select technologies and utilize them for their specific purposes; they are not victimized by technology. Each accelerated stage of this process at once disturbs humans in their supposedly nontechnological garden until the technology withdraws into the background. When humans grow accustomed to riding trains, for example, then train travel becomes a "normal" part of life, part of society's garden. While Adams would agree with this analysis, he would focus on the process by which a technological device becomes disturbing and then accepted by people. With wariness, Adams considers the ability of the human mind to react quickly enough to innovation, a concern Ihde does not share.

While "The Dynamo and the Virgin," chapter XXV of The Education of Henry Adams, is one of the most often quoted chapters in the theoretical writings on technology, the rest of the book is often neglected. Many theorists have discussed Adams' arguments on science, but rarely has he been taken seriously as a philosopher of technology. Certainly, Adams helped popularize science and technology and he desired to examine history in scientific terms. But scientific elements in the course of historical reflection or moments of awe before dynamos do not begin to make a philosophy of technology. What proves that Adams is a philosopher of technology is his contention that technology always exists in relation to human society, represented by the metaphoric garden; through the garden motif he simulates the cultural process of technological adaptation. His formula shows that as technology grows more complex and prevalent, human society becomes a technologically embedded garden—a technical ecology that supports human interaction.

What Do I Read Next?

  • Adams described the unity of the medieval world-view as being reflected through its cathedrals in Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres. The work was published privately in 1904.
  • In A Letter to American Teachers of History (1910), Adams calls upon his fellow historians to make whatever changes necessary to the curriculum in order to prepare students for the technology of the twentieth century. In his letter, Adams expresses a fear that if education is not reformed, the consequences may be dire.
  • Adams refers to Jean-Jacques Rousseau's Confessions as a model for his work. Rousseau wrote his autobiography as a justification for his actions in hope that he might regain his friends and country. The work was posthumously published beginning in 1782.
  • An experimental novel by Laurence Sterne, entitled The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, was a surprising success from the moment of its release in 1759. Full of eighteenth-century British humor, this supposed autobiography shows some striking similarities to Adams' autobiography.
  • From Frederick Jackson Turner's 1893 Frontier Thesis—which still holds sway amongst conservatives in America—to Charles Austin Beard's 1913 work An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution, the writing of history in America became more scientific. Richard Hofstadter explores this transition in his 1968 work, The Progressive Historians: Turner, Beard, Parrington.
  • Historians of the early twentieth century rediscovered periods of history that had been defamed during the nineteenth century. Specifically, historians, like Adams, reappraised the Dark Ages. C. W. David discusses this reconsideration in "American Historiography of the Middle Ages, 1884-1934," in the April 1935 issue of Speculum.

Throughout Adams' text, a form of technology, whether Faraday's magnet, Curie's radiation, or Lyell's Pteraspis, presents "evidence of growing complexity, and multiplicity, and even contradiction." This leads him to surmise that he was "still Adam in the Garden of Eden between God who was unity, Satan who was complexity, with no means of deciding which was truth." This self-reflection is part of Adams' problem: he wants to be in the position of making the choice. Adams wants to introduce technology to himself and to his world, his garden, and not be imposed upon. Thus, Adams tries to experience the entire rail network in America and see how it makes the great space of America a garden viewed comfortably from a window. However, technology arrives too quickly for Adams to adapt to it and he cannot help but grow angry, feel cheated, and attribute a consciousness or magic to it. When Adams is not deluding himself, he knows he exists in a multi-stable universe where he can receive telegraphed reports from his friends back in Washington, D.C., even while exploring the primitive land of the Laps: "the electro-dynamo-social universe worked better even than the sun." Adams does not hide from technology or fear it; rather, he wants to comprehend leisurely the import of technological arrivals. He wishes to appreciate the telegraph at his own pace, no matter how much it complicates his life. He desires to control technological introduction and use of technology, which is why he likes the automobile.

The human garden, for Adams, grows increasingly complex as humans develop their technology. Knowing that the past was simpler causes Adams to feel nostalgic. However, his nostalgia is ironic since Adams owes his awareness of the garden to which he attributes the most human balance, the Middle Ages, to a form of technology. The ultimate Garden of the Gothic Cathedrals of Normandy was made possible by the automobile:

the automobile alone could unite them in any reasonable sequence, and although the force of the automobile, for the purposes of a commercial traveler, seemed to have no relation whatever to the force that inspired a Gothic cathedral, the Virgin in the twelfth century would have guided and controlled both bag-man and architect, as she controlled the seeker of history.

Adams knows that every human activity has been embedded with technology, but as a historian, he carefully denotes the arrival of each technology and the way it changes his garden. The number one machine disturbing his gardens is the railroad, but the steamer and the telegraph are worthy assistants while the automobile has not yet begun to alter the landscape. Adams begins this pattern of disruption of the old by the new early in the book, stating that "he and his eighteenth-century troglodytic Boston were suddenly cut apart—separated forever—in act if not in sentiment, by the opening of the Boston and Albany Railroad."

Understanding the formulation of past gardens, like Eden or his beloved eighteenth-century Boston, questions the view that this is Adams' professed discomfort with the technological development of society. Rather, Adams—far from being a failure—successfully outlines the garden as the space of societal change where the interaction between humans and their technology plays out. Adams views the human mind as deftly integrating technology and nature in order to renew the garden. Consider again the definition that Adams puts forth of the ideal man, one who has a "formula of his own for his universe" that makes him capable of reacting to and with societal change. Place that man in the following context:

The movement from unity into multiplicity, between 1200 and 1900, was unbroken in sequence, and rapid in acceleration. Prolonged one generation longer, it would require a new social mind … [that can] enter a new phase subject to new laws. Thus far, since five or ten thousand years, the mind had successfully reacted, and nothing yet proved that it would fail to react—but it would need to jump.

Now the Garden, whether eighteenth-century Boston always presented by Adams as literally disrupted by the arrival of the Boston-Albany Railroad, or primitive Lapland disturbed by the telegraph, is a natural and healthy indicator of the acceleration in societal complexity in place from the beginning. Like Ihde, Adams does not believe in a non-technological Garden, even though his religious predilection leads him to long for one.

"The main idea in Adams' work, further articulated by Ihde, is that technology always exists in relation to human society, to a garden."

Usually, in literature, the Garden of Eden motif conjures the notion of unspoiled nature created by God and untouched by human innovation; knowledge and changes created by it come with Satan's influence and, therefore, technology is automatically coded as evil. Showing that Adams plays with this motif out of a concern with technology and not simply with the theme of science, involves returning to The Education of Henry Adams to take seriously his consistent disruption of the Garden of Eden motif with a technological device. As a historian who desires time for reflection and introduction of new technology, Adams allows technology to appear as an evil disturbance in a calm scene, a traditional use of the image of the garden. However, he always writes about the same technology elsewhere as he uses it or as he reflects on how a device, say a telegraph, facilitates a positive aspect of human society—communication. Upsetting as the technology is at first, it eventually becomes essential to human society so much so that it becomes a natural part of living: it withdraws and embeds itself within the garden.

Adams' employment of this formula is not a means of predicting future dystopias, but of creating a system of education—a philosophy—wherein the human mind remains reactive to technology. The idea that people might be paralyzed in the face of a new technology and shy away from it frightens Adams. For this reason, Adams' formula presents a series of gardens in time or in space to show how human society, humanity's garden, has already been disrupted by technological innovation. Such gardens include his visit to the Laps in Scandinavia, the cathedrals of Normandy, or eighteenth-century Boston. Each idyllic and calm setting is disrupted by a train, a telegraphed message, or made possible only because of the automobile. In other words, technology is never absent from the garden; Adam's idea of education demands that people always be quick to integrate technology into their conceptualization of the "garden" of America.

Utopian writers, like Edward Bellamy, pinned their hopes for deliverance of utopia on the advancement of technology. Technology historians, like Lewis Mumford, or urban planners, like Patrick Geddes, also assumed that technology would eventually realize a more healthy and prosperous human environment. Thus, at the time of turn-of-the-century doom and gloom, optimism flowed concerning the future; yet all agreed a new citizen was necessary. Adams partook of this utopian discussion as the sober, patrician voice. He reveals a consciousness of a technologically embedded world—a more complex, multi-stable lifeworld—and the consequent problems associated therein. Adams earnestly desired to expose, for the benefit of Americans, the ways in which they might educate themselves to live within an industrialized America. Today, Ihde hopes to do the same thing using the heuristic device originated by Adams, the Garden of Eden, because Americans continue to cling to the notion of an unspoiled nature.


Jeremy W. Hubbell, Critical Essay on The Education of Henry Adams, in Nonfiction Classics for Students, The Gale Group, 2001.

Herbert F. Hahn

In the following essay, Hahn asserts that Adams' portrayal of his life as a failure was a literary device used for dramatic effect.

Anyone beginning to read Henry Adams' Education for the first time gets the impression from the very first chapters that Adams thought his life had been a failure, and that he considered it a failure because his education had not fitted him to play a useful part in the new and different world that was coming into being in the nineteenth century. The book can therefore be taken—so it seems—as a protest, based on one man's experience, against the effect of technology and industrialism on the personal values of the social system which they displaced.

Throughout the book Henry Adams gives the impression of a man who wished to participate actively in affairs but always missed the chance to function effectively. There is a certain poignancy in his desire to understand why a man like himself, who started with every apparent advantage and set out with such faith and eagerness, should have ended with so little accomplished. His antecedents and his personal attainments had indicated a career in the Adams tradition; yet he never found an opportunity to make a contribution to his time comparable with what his forebears had accomplished.

This presentation of himself as a failure has usually been accepted by Adams' readers at face value. In the 1920's a whole "generation of futilitarians" (Louis Kronenberger's phrase) found that Adams' theme of maladjustment between a cultivated personality and an increasingly mechanized civilization presented exactly the predicament which they were experiencing. His book became the Bible of the younger generation struggling with the frustrations of a world they neither made nor understood.

Could it be, on the other hand, that the dominant theme of Henry Adams' book was a literary device of the author's rather than a reflection of the facts? One recent critic has advanced the theory that Henry Adams fancied himself as the "heroic failure" of a modern epic. From this point of view, the dramatic irony inherent in the repeated assertions that Adams never felt at home in the world and despaired of ever playing a significant part in it was a consciously cultivated irony. If true, this view of Adams' intention helps to explain some things about the book which otherwise strike the reader as puzzling. There is, for example, in the chapters devoted to Adams' travel-years after graduation a certain tone of insouciance—a pose of naiveté—which leaves the reader with a very inadequate sense of how Adams reacted to the things he saw in Europe. He seems to be trying to emphasize the lack of "education" to be gained from the experiences available to a young man of his background in his day. And yet we know from the famous letters Adams wrote on subsequent travels that he was capable of responding richly to experience. In the Education, however, he gives the impression of making the grand tour without zest and of finding most things rather empty of meaning for him. This impression does not accord with what is otherwise known of his temperament. His attitude becomes understandable, however, if it can be regarded as a consciously planned device for emphasizing his "failure" to find an acceptable place in a civilization with which he felt himself out of tune.

Actually, the burden of Henry Adams' complaint was not his own "failure" to adjust to the world but the realization that the world in which he lived as an adult had changed so much from the world in which he grew up as a child that the traditional values of his upbringing had become meaningless and inapplicable. A relatively uncomplicated agrarian America, operating on the basis of stern but comprehensible Puritan principles, was rapidly being transformed into a highly complex industrialized state, with a bewildering shift in the principles on which it operated and an apparent exclusion of morality from the political means for achieving its goals. The disappearance of the sort of world in which an Adams could have functioned and its displacement by a new world which required a type of "education" such as no previous Adams had ever had—that is the real theme of Henry Adams' long book. He took pleasure, it is true, in presenting himself as an anachronism from a former age and indulged his tragic feeling of having been born too late. But behind the mask of "the tragic failure" was another Henry Adams who was not lamenting his fate so much as making a genuine effort to understand the times that were out of joint.

Henry Adams knew that a man must thoroughly understand the world in which he finds himself in order to be able to grapple with it. He sensed that his "education" in the ways of the new world would require him, first of all, to unlearn everything that he had been taught. However, he believed in the values of his grandfather's world; it was the rejection of those values by the new world, rather than his own failure to accommodate himself to it, that represented for him the real tragedy he was writing about. Nevertheless, he felt it was important to get beyond the perspectives of his traditional background and to make the attempt to understand the contemporary world. Lacking the opportunity to participate in affairs, he became an observer and commentator, writing detailed accounts of the political events he was living through, frequently with penetrating remarks on the personalities of the chief participants. His political chapters served the purpose of underlining the corruption, vulgarity, and cynicism of the modern world from which he felt himself alienated. Until Lincoln Steffens painted the same picture in more vivid colors and with much greater detail, Adams' account of the unprincipled dealings in American public life was the classic portrayal of a burgeoning business civilization creating a chaos in which self-interest was the sole guiding principle.

But political events and economic developments were only the surface features, after all. Henry Adams' education in the nature of the modern world would not be complete—at least, he would never be satisfied—until he had fathomed the driving forces and motivations that accounted for the surface phenomena. He understood in a general way that modern science with its practical achievements was responsible for the transformations which had changed the easy-going world of his forebears into a totally different, enigmatic world, that nevertheless seemed amazingly alive. But he doubted the correctness of the common point of view which regarded progress as inevitable and the American brand of material achievement as the climax of all progress. What Henry Adams really sought from his "education" was a standard or principle of interpretation by which he could estimate the truth of the world-view which made a virtue of chaos as long as it seemed to further "progress." As one who had been brought up in a tradition that gave great satisfaction through the unity and consistency of meaning it assigned to life, he was genuinely concerned to discover how it was possible to find a comparable satisfaction in a world that had become so complex and contradictory as to lose all unity and consistency of meaning.

Adams failed to solve the problem, at first, because he assumed from the start that satisfaction in life would be found only by those who learned to control the complicated, multiple forces dominant in the world in their time. When he saw politicians and business men who were not "educated," in his sense, doing just that with phenomenal success, and when he saw men like his friend Clarence King failing miserably even though trained (educated) for exercising such control, he became pessimistic about the value of "education" as a means of finding satisfaction in life. For him, satisfaction meant understanding as well as controlling. He observed, however, that the successful men of his day controlled the forces operating in the world without understanding them, or even being conscious of a need to understand them. Adams, therefore, despaired of the possibility of finding any principle of action in modern life that gave unity of meaning to the diverse activities it engendered.

"Critics are mistaken to emphasize the tragedy implicit in the Education a personal one for Henry Adams. Adams would have insisted that he was describing a situation that constituted a tragedy for all thoughtful and sensitive souls."

Adams, however, was not prepared to accept "multiplicity" as any more than a descriptive term for the modern situation: it could not be made, his whole temperament told him, into a philosophical justification for the situation. And so, he continued to study, to observe, and to weigh, in a constant search for the meaning of his contemporary environment. He gave up, for the time being, the attempt to identify a unifying principle in the world as he knew it; and turning to the world of the Middle Ages, where unity and significance had permeated all of life, he proceeded to study it thoroughly in order to find out its secret. It has been customary to regard Henry Adams' love affair with the Middle Ages as a nostalgic search for the very things he missed in modern civilization. The contrast between the two ages is striking enough: on the one hand, chaos without meaning; on the other, a unifying principle that gave significance to all the parts. But when Henry Adams immersed himself in the medieval outlook on life, it was not to "go home" to a world for which he felt an instinctive sympathy—actually he had been unaware of such a world before his tour of Normandy with the Henry Cabot Lodges. It was rather to gain perspective on his own world that he sought to understand medieval "unity" in contrast to nineteenth-century "multiplicity."

So satisfying did Henry Adams find the assurance and confidence reflected in the medieval point of view that he almost surrendered to it, and bowing himself before the Virgin of Chartres he asked for the peace that would come from understanding himself and his world as clearly as the Virgin's followers understood theirs. Significantly, he did not ask for "the peace which passeth understanding"; he insisted on having understanding; as a child of the scientific age, he had to know. So, wistfully, he started "once more" his search for "education" (enlightenment).

The real significance of Henry Adams' Education is not the story of maladjustment that it tells, nor yet the contrast between two civilizations that it makes, but the explanation which the author eventually worked out for the trend of civilization from medieval unity to modern multiplicity. In a series of brilliant though still ironic chapters (31-34), Adams summed up what he had learned from his lifelong search for understanding of the world in which he lived. These philosophical chapters have seldom been taken quite seriously; they have sometimes been brushed aside as derivative: the chief idea in them came from the author's brother, Brooks Adams. But there is a philosophy of history in them, seemingly artificial because applied too mechanically, yet containing an explanation of modern "chaos" and the "multiplicity" of modern civilization which has proved to be so appropriate and so illuminating that it deserves reconsideration.

Henry Adams had learned, first of all, that modern science (itself an attempt to discover the immutable "laws of nature") had ended by discovering, in modern physical theory, that there were no simple, immutable laws of nature which gave unity, consistency, and order to the universe; that, rather, the laws of the physical world seemed to be infinitely complex, not always consistently predictable in their application, and hence undependable as a basis for finding order in the universe. In a word, Henry Adams came to the realization that such a system of order and unity as the medieval synthesis was the creation of the mind of man imposing its desire for simplicity and significance on the phenomena of the world at large. As he said himself, "Chaos was the law of nature; Order was the dream of man."

Henry Adams had learned, in the second place, that the discoveries of modern science, destructive as they were to philosophical conceptions of the universe, were nevertheless making constructive contributions to the material comfort of mankind in the universe, by increasing man's knowledge of the number and kinds of physical energies available for application to his needs. As man's knowledge of the physical forces of nature became more complex (less unified even in theory), man's opportunities for bending them to his purposes increased proportionately. The "multiplicity" or complexity of modern industrialized life, in other words, corresponded to the actual "chaos" of forces existing in the physical universe.

In the light of these insights, it had been pointless as well as fruitless for Henry Adams to look for a unifying principle to explain the modern world. Multiplicity of conflicting forces was its chief characteristic, and inevitably so. Man might try to impose his control over the physical forces of nature and upon the human energies of society, but the resulting "order" was not inherent in either nature or society, and it lasted only as long as the mind of man thought the one and willed the other. Philosophically speaking, there was no "God" to give significance to the universe of forces and the world of energies. Logically, therefore, there was nothing wrong with the modern tendency to establish control of these forces and energies without understanding them. In relation to the universe and the world, men had become "as gods"—without the divine capacity, of course, to give real significance to what they were doing with their new powers. The significant fact, for Henry Adams, was that the tendency was irreversible. He had come to realize that there was no going back, that a world of meaningful unity had never really existed (outside the human mind), that a world of chaotic, conflicting forces corresponded more nearly to the reality than all the orderly worlds created by man's imagination and reason.

The most famous part of Henry Adams' philosophy of history was what he called "the law of acceleration" (unconsciously demonstrating within himself his view that, though there be no actual laws, even in history, the mind will impose law as a device to help itself understand what it is talking about). He thought he saw in history a consistent trend toward increasing control over the forces of nature. Starting in a small way with the discovery and exploitation of the power of a water wheel and the power in a windmill, man had then, with smaller and smaller gaps of time between discoveries, but larger and larger amounts of power at his disposal, proceeded to find and use steam power, electric power, and so on. Henry Adams was convinced that this "acceleration" in man's control of nature's forces would continue in geometric proportion, until (he predicted) man would have discovered within fifty years of Adams' time the ultimate source of power locked in the atom.

In his own generation, the symbol of modern man's control of force was the dynamo, which Henry Adams found to be the most fascinating embodiment of ultimate power under complete control yet devised. Fascinating he found it to watch in operation—but apalling to think about in its implications. As a symbol of force under control, it helped to explain to him the nature of the civilization in which he lived. As a prophecy of the trend of civilization, it suggested increasing efficiency in man's control of ultimate force until the human race reached the point where it could even destroy itself with atomic energy. This eventuality Henry Adams could not regard with complacency. He could not accept the view of his contemporaries that the history of mankind in modern times was a story of inevitable progress upwards. "Complexity, Multiplicity, even a step towards Anarchy, it might suggest, but what step towards perfection?"

It was not the ultimate denouement, however, that troubled Henry Adams in his innermost depths. That denouement, after all, remained only a logical possibility; it was not inevitably a foregone conclusion. He saw another already taking place which appalled him more specifically. As man's control of the forces of nature increased in efficiency, his will to dominate the social energies of mankind also increased, with a resulting tendency to concentrate the power inherent in the forces of society, again for the sake of efficiency. In other words, the technological advance of mankind was inexorably accompanied by a trend to regimentation and the collectivization of man's social relationships. It was the progressive destruction of human values in the accelerating trend towards a power civilization that appalled Henry Adams the most.

Here was the real tragedy of living modern times. Critics are mistaken to emphasize the tragedy implicit in the Education a personal one for Henry Adams. Adams would have insisted that he was describing a situation that constituted a tragedy for all thoughtful and sensitive souls. With the increase in the means of control over energy and power, all that was distinctively human in human life was gradually being supplanted by all that was mechanical and impersonal. Adams' book was not simply a protest against an intolerable situation by one who had been most uncomfortable in it; it was an attempt to instruct a whole new generation in the conditions under which life in modern times was being lived, and to emphasize that no other conditions were possible under the circumstances.

Henry Adams made all this sound very pessimistic. But behind the pessimistic tone of his discussion it is possible to discern a positive note of emphasis on continuing human values, particularly the human capacity for thought. It is true that, in its context, his quotation from Karl Pearson: "Order and reason, beauty and benevolence, are characteristics and conceptions which we find solely associated with the mind of man," sounds like a pessimistic acknowledgement of the fact that the universe does not contain order and reason but is essentially meaningless. On the other hand, like several ironic passages in Adams' last chapters, the quotation conceals his faith that, though the universe be meaningless, the very attempt of the human mind to create meaning from its diverse phenomena is the source of all truth and beauty and value in the human world. The meaningless chaos of the universe, though eternal, was as nothing compared with the ephemeral, but significant, flash of a human mind in the cosmic darkness.

Again, Henry Adams' parable of the young oyster, in which he compared the human mind to that little animal "secreting its universe to suit its conditions until it had built up a shell of nacre that embodied all its notions of the perfect," but "perishing in the face of the cyclonic hurricane or the volcanic upheaval of its bed," sounds like a realistic recognition of the fact that the universe has no interest in the existence of man and offers him only complete annihilation (death) as his ultimate fate. Few writers have described more pitilessly how completely indifferent the universe seems to be to the aspirations and strivings of the human race. Yet, behind the irony of the parable was the implication that it was precisely the aspiration and the striving that gave meaning, if only temporarily, to all that was human in an otherwise impersonal universe.

What Henry Adams accomplished in his Education was not only to describe remorselessly what kind of a world the modern world had become—philosophically, as well as politically and economically; he also provided a point of view with which to face that world without despair.


Herbert F. Hahn, " The Education of Henry Adams Reconsidered," in College English, Vol. 24, No. 6, March 1963, pp. 444-49.


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Mitcham, Carl, Thinking through Technology: The Path between Engineering and Philosopher, University of Chicago Press, 1994.

Roelofs, Gerrit H., "Henry Adams: Pessimism and the Intelligent Use of Doom," in Journal of English Literary History, Vol. 17, 1950, pp. 214-39.

Rowe, John Carlos, " The Education of Henry Adams and the American Empire," in Literary Culture and U.S. Imperialism, Oxford University Press, 2000, pp. 165-94.

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Wasserstrom, William, The Ironies of Progress: Henry Adams and the American Dream, Southern Illinois University Press, 1984.

Further Reading

Geddes, Patrick, Cities in Evolution: An Introduction to the Town Planning Movement and to the Study of Civics, Benn, 1968.

Beginning with an application of recent developments in cell theory, Geddes applies the notions of biology to urban planning. In this framework, the entire city with its people and industry form an organism within an ecology. Proper care of this system will evolve healthy, happy people.

Hays, Samuel P., The Response to Industrialism: 1885-1914, University of Chicago Press, 1957.

Hays briefly delineates the events and ideas composing the Reform Era in the United States.

Highman, John, "Anti-Semitism in the Gilded Age: A Reinterpretation," in Mississippi Valley Historical Review, Vol. 43, No. 4, March 1957, 559-78.

Highman's look at anti-Semitic themes of late nineteenth-century literature includes a discussion of Adams' work.

Lyon, Melvin, Symbol and Idea in Henry Adams, University of Nebraska Press, 1970.

Lyon's book is a schematic breakdown of the themes and techniques Adams uses throughout his writing. The intent of the work is to show how those themes and techniques reveal Adams's "program for improving society."

Mumford, Lewis, "The Nucleation of Power," in The Myth of the Machine: the Pentagon of Power, Columbia University Press, 1964, pp. 230-62.

Lewis Mumford argues that the advance of civilization depends upon the organization of humans into veritable construction machines. For Mumford, the complexity of human organization is more important than technological innovation.

Spring, Joel, Education and the Rise of the Global Economy, Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1998.

Spring's work serves as a starting point for reflecting on the inadequacies of twentieth-century education systems to prepare people for the demands of a digital age.

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