Peter Chardon Brooks Adams

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Peter Chardon Brooks Adams

The American historian Peter Chardon Brooks Adams (1848-1927) stimulated studies of his field in the United States by outlining his belief that economic and geographic conditions affect the course of history.

Brooks Adams was born on June 24, 1848, in Quincy, Mass. His father, Charles Francis Adams, was the son of one U.S. president and the grandson of another. His mother, Abigail, was the daughter of Peter Chardon Brooks, a wealthy Massachusetts merchant.

After an unhappy childhood, Adams entered Harvard in 1866. He graduated from Harvard Law School and was admitted to the bar in 1873. But the practice of law never appealed to him, and so, independently wealthy because of a legacy from his maternal grandfather, he decided to pursue his own interests in writing and politics. He achieved prominence in the Massachusetts Democratic party and was widely mentioned in 1898 as a possibility for the governorship, but he broke with his party on the issues of imperialism and expansion, being an unremitting advocate of both. He was poorly suited to politics anyway, and all who knew him agreed that he was shy, gloomy, and eccentric.

He achieved real prominence through his writings. His first important historical work was The Emancipation of Massachusetts (1887), in which he attempted to show that Puritan Massachusetts had been a theocracy where freedom of religion, of speech, and of opinion had no place. More importantly, the book contained the first expression of Adams's primary preoccupation as a historian: the search for and demonstration of a law of history establishing the relationship between historical events and economic conditions.

This concept was sharpened by current political events in the United States. The controversy between the advocates of the free and unlimited coinage of silver and those who supported the gold standard imparted immediacy to his ideas, resulting in The Law of Civilization and Decay (1895), in which Adams argued that the course of civilization was determined primarily by economic conditions. The book attracted the favorable attention of Theodore Roosevelt, who, when he became president in 1901, gave Adams a considerable role as an adviser. In this position Adams advocated imperial expansion along with stringent regulation of American business.

In 1903 Adams became a lecturer at the Boston University Law School, remaining there until 1909. In 1912 he worked for Roosevelt's nomination by the Republican party. His efforts failing, he left to take a rest in Germany. This became the pattern of his life: frequent trips in search of health and occasional writing and lecturing, in which usually he merely repeated his previously expressed ideas. He died in Quincy, Mass., on Feb. 13, 1927.

Further Reading

The standard biography of Adams is Arthur F. Beringause, Brooks Adams: A Biography (1955), but its organization makes it somewhat difficult. Timothy Paul Donovan, Henry Adams and Brooks Adams: The Education of Two American Historians (1961), is an illuminating examination of the brothers' ideas. Thornton Anderson, Brooks Adams: Constructive Conservative (1951), is probably the clearest exposition of Adams's thought.

Additional Sources

Beringause, Arthur F., Brooks Adams: a biography, New York:Octagon Books, 1979. □