A fourth-generation descendant of John and Abigail Adams, Henry Adams shared their brilliance with the written word. During his lifetime, he won acclaim as a historian, journalist, intellectual, and social critic. However, he is best known for his autobiography, The Education of Henry Adams, which was published after his death and is considered by many to be the greatest example of the genre ever written by an American.
Unlike his father, grandfather and great-grandfather, Adams never entered public service, and he often distanced himself from the burdens of upholding the family legacy. Yet a good deal of his life and work was devoted to observing and critiquing the “family business”: politics, government, and the evolution of American democracy.
Following a well trodden path
Born in Boston in 1838, Henry was the son of Charles Francis Adams and Abigail Brooks Adams and the older brother of Brooks Adams. Following family tradition, he graduated from Harvard in 1858, toured Europe, and studied law. During the Civil War, he served as personal secretary to his father while Charles Francis Adams was minister to Great Britain. During this time, he also worked anonymously as a correspondent for the New York Times, although he eventually resigned out of fear that his writings would compromise his father’s diplomatic mission.
After a brief stint in Washington working as a journalist, Adams accepted a professorship at Harvard University, where he taught medieval history from 1870 to 1877. He is credited with introducing an academic innovation while at Harvard: the use of the seminar format in teaching history. He also developed many of the intellectual themes that would animate his writing for the next 40 years. During this period, Adams served as editor to the influential North American Review, the oldest literary magazine in the U.S.
Captivating the nation’s capital
In 1872, Henry married Marian “Clover” Hooper, a witty and stylish socialite who is believed to be the inspiration for novelist Henry James’s title character, Daisy Miller. In 1877, the couple moved to Washington, D.C., prompting Henry to write, “The fact is that I gravitate to a capital by a primary law of nature. This is the only place in America where society amuses me, or where life offers variety. … As I am intimate with many of the people in power and out of power, I am readily aided to do all the historical work I please.” The Adamses’ sumptuous home on Lafayette Square, across from the White House, became a glittering and exclusive center of the capital’s social life, attracting leading artists, writers, and politicians of the day.
The couple, who had no children, were part of a tight-knit social and literary group that dubbed itself The Five of Hearts. The other members were John Hay (secretary of state under William McKinley and Teddy Roosevelt), Hay’s wife Clara, and a well-known geologist and mountaineer, Clarence King, who was the first director of the U.S. Geological Survey. Hay was Henry Adams’s closest friend. As a young secretary to Abraham Lincoln, Hay was present the morning Lincoln died. He went on to carve out an illustrious career as a diplomat and statesman who influenced U.S. foreign policy on the Spanish-American War, trade with China, and preparations for building the Panama Canal.
An American tragedy
In 1884, the architect H.H. Richardson designed adjoining townhouses on Lafayette Square for the Adams and Hay households, but Clover never lived to see their new home completed. In 1885, she fell victim to her family’s history of mental illness. A talented amateur photographer, she committed suicide by drinking the photographic chemical potassium cyanide.
Adams grieved deeply but privately. To distract himself, he traveled to Japan with the renowned stained glass artist John La Farge. After a period of reflection, he commissioned the sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens to create a memorial in Clover’s honor. The ethereal sculpture, which sits in Washington’s Rock Creek Cemetery on a pedestal designed by the architect Stanford White, became one of Saint-Gaudens’s best known works and still attracts visitors from around the world. Experts consider it to be one of the greatest examples of American funerary sculpture.
Returning to work
The work Adams produced from the late 1880s to 1907 cemented his reputation as a leading figure in American arts and letters. Among the most notable works produced during this period are a history of the early United States, a meditation on the great cathedrals of France, and his autobiography, which has been in print continuously since its posthumous publication in 1918.
Adams never remarried. Instead he formed a comfortable social circle that included close friends and his many nieces. In April 1912, he suffered a stroke, possibly triggered by news of the sinking of the Titanic on her maiden voyage; he had tickets for the return trip to England. After he recovered from the stroke, his written output diminished, but he continued to travel and host dignitaries and friends at his home. Henry Adams died in 1918 at the age of 80 and was buried beside Clover in Rock Creek Cemetery.