Henry Adams during his lifetime was known as a snob and a grouch. He was, after all, an Adams, the grandson and great-grandson of two presidents not known for their cheery dispositions — John Adams and John Quincy Adams.
Today, two things distinguish Henry Adams in the public mind, neither particularly fun.
First, he commissioned a famous bronze sculpture known as Grief, which stands in a Washington, D.C., park. Second, he wrote an unusual autobiography, The Education of Henry Adams.
However, there’s a bit more to the 19th-century historian and intellectual with the famous last name.
Of his birth, Henry Adams commented, “Probably no child, born in the year, held better cards than he.” He was born Feb. 16, 1838, the third son of Abigail Brooks Adams and Charles Francis Adams.
Young Adams had wealth, brains, prestige, social connections and the Adams pedigree. The Adams ancestry, however, could be a burden as well as a blessing. As Adams put it, your family considered you a failure if you didn’t get elected president of the United States.
Henry Adams grew up in Boston with an 18th century mindset that caused him bewilderment as railroads, steam engines and telegraphs proliferated. “He belonged to the eighteenth century,” he wrote, referring to himself in the third person, “and the eighteenth century upset all his plans.”
After Harvard, he amused himself in Europe for a few years, ostensibly studying law. When his father won election to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1859, he insisted his son accompany him to Washington, D.C., as his personal secretary. There he had a front row seat to the unfolding drama of the Civil War.
President Lincoln then appointed the senior Adams as minister to England. Charles Francis successfully kept the British from siding with the Confederacy, at least openly during the Civil War.
Henry began his writing career in England. Over his lifetime, he edited the prestigious North American Review, taught at Harvard, published biographies and essays, wrote two novels and a nine-volume history of the Jefferson and Madison administration. His autobiography, published after he died, won the Pulitzer Prize, and the Modern Library called it the best English nonfiction book of the 20th century. .
Henry Adams, Failure
Though Henry wrote about history, he didn’t shape it as an Adams should–at least he thought so.
He spent 12 years writing his history of the Jefferson and Madison administrations. Then he figured only three serious people read it.
He called his life ‘a broken arch.’
Henry Adams suffered a stroke in 1912 shortly after the Titanic sank. He had tickets for the return voyage to Europe. For a while he could still write letters to family and friends, but finally on March 27, 1918, he died in Washington, D.C., age 80.
Here are some fun—well, maybe fun-ish — things to know about Henry Adams.
1. He Had a Little Club With Its Own Stationery and Tea Service. As an Adult.
While living in Washington, D.C., Henry Adams and his wife Marion Hooper “Clover” Adam,s formed an intense friendship with Clarence King and Clara and John Hay. King, a geologist, had brains, drive and a secret African-American wife in New York City. Hay, Abraham Lincoln’s biographer, would become secretary of state for Presidents McKinley and Roosevelt.
Adams met Hay in Washington in 1861, when he served as his father’s personal secretary and Hay as Lincoln’s. Adams then introduced King to the rest of the group after meeting him in 1871. They gathered frequently at the Adams’ home after they moved to Washington in 1877, and remained close for the rest of their lives. Adams was so close to Hay that they built adjoining houses near the White House, the site of the Hay-Adams Hotel. In 1881, they decided to call themselves the Five of Hearts. All were about 40, except 32-year-old Clara Hay.
John Hay had stationery printed with a five of hearts monogram, which the club used to write to each other. King had a tea service made with the same motif and a clock face showing 5 p.m., when Clover served tea to the group.
Among the five, though, they had plenty of other friends – the most famous people of their age. Their circle included Mark Twain, Henry James, Walt Whitmen, Augustus Saint-Gaudens, Henry Hobson Richardson, William Dean Howells, Edith Wharton, Rudyard Kipling, every president from Lincoln to Roosevelt and Andrew Carnegie.
2. He Left His Wife Out of His Autobiography.
Clover Adams committed suicide on Dec. 6, 1885 by drinking chemicals she used to develop photographs. Henry had married her at her father’s home in Beverly Farms, Mass., on June 27, 1872. He said he was wildly in love with her.
In the 467-page Education of Henry Adams, he didn’t once mention Clover. He also omitted the 12-1/2 years of his marriage from the book. Her death, he wrote, “smashed the life out of him.” Before she died, he had remained fairly stationary, but afterward he traveled extensively, to Japan, Hawaii, the South Seas, Mexico, Egypt, Britain, Cuba and Europe.
He commissioned Augustus Saint-Gaudens to create a bronze sculpture of a draped figure to mark her grave in Rock Creek Park in Washington, D.C. He urged Saint-Gaudens to use Buddhist devotional art as inspiration. The statue portrayed nirvana, a state of existence beyond joy and sorrow.
It was meant to ask a question, not to give an answer, wrote Adams.
The sculpture became a tourist attraction, and people call it “Grief.” Adams hated the name, officially known as the “Adams Memorial.”
3. He Didn’t Think Much of Harvard.
His life, he wrote, was “a search for education the schools cannot give.’
He went to Harvard, he wrote in his autobiography, because his family always had. None of them, he wrote, ‘had ever done any good there, or thought himself the better for it.’
He also wrote the college offered ‘chiefly advantages vulgarly called social, rather than mental.’
“Any other education would have required a serious effort, but no one took Harvard College seriously,” he wrote.
But when Adams was 32, Harvard President Charles W. Eliot invited him to teach medieval history, about which he called himself ‘utterly and grossly ignorant.’ Adams took the job, though, and for six years taught a survey course of European history from the 10th century to the 16th.
4. He Had an Unrequited Love Affair for 35 Years.
Henry Adams met the beautiful Elizabeth Sherman Cameron in 1881, nearly five years before Clover committed suicide. A captivating hostess who read widely, she had a miserable marriage to a wealthy alcoholic U.S. senator. “Lizzie” led Adams on for 35 years, while flirting with Russian Prince Orloff, poet Joseph Trumbull Stickney, the sculptors Saint-Gaudens and Rodin and even John Hay.
Did they ever consummate the relationship, which, according to their 35-years of letters, was mostly Platonic? Only they knew for sure. However, their friendship—or whatever it was—inspired plenty of gossip in their social circles.
When Henry suffered his stroke in 1912, Lizzie insisted on taking care of him. Henry’s sister Mary said no. “I won’t have her,” she said. Mary had concerns about the ‘disagreeable scandal’ and didn’t want tongues wagging about Lizzie coming from Paris to take charge of her brother’s care.
5. He Secretly Wrote a Best Selling Novel.
In 1880, Adams published a book called Democracy: An American Novel. An immediate best-seller, it prompted speculation about who wrote it and on whom did the author base his characters.
People thought maybe Adams’ friends, John Hay and Clarence King, wrote it. Or perhaps Clover Adams did it. Not until after his death in 1918 did his publishing company reveal he had written it.
Democracy tells the story of a ‘rather fast New York girl’ named Madeleine Lee who goes to Washington. She establishes a salon that attracts powerful men, and two fall in love with her. Each connives to get rid of his rival while the Bulgarian minister watches their machinations.
More than a century later, a Washington Post writer in 2005 gave it a positive review. “Democracy” is a joy — a worldly, profoundly knowing (and thus profoundly disenchanted), deliciously elitist social comedy…” The reason for the review: The Washington National Opera had performed an opera based on Adams’ novel in 2005.
Adams wrote his next novel, Esther, under a pseudonym, Frances Compton Snow. it didn’t sell too well.
6. He Believed Ulysses S. Grant Ruined His Life.
He moved to Washington in 1868 after working as his father’s secretary – and as a foreign correspondent for the New York Times and the Boston Advertiser, as well as a contributor to the North American Review.
He prepared to make his mark in Washington as a political journalist. Full of ambition and conceit, he thought, perhaps, Ulysses S. Grant might tap him as an adviser when elected president of the United States in 1868. Some of his family friends already served in high office.
It didn’t happen. Young Henry Adams failed to win the right friends and influence the right people in the capital. He rubbed some people the wrong way. Invited to a White House dinner in 1870, he gave his own performance a glowing review. “I chattered with that blandness for which I am so justly distinguished,” he wrote, “and I flatter myself it was I who showed them how they ought to behave.” Well, not really.
Grant had no use for the Adams family.
He failed to appoint Adams’ families friends to his Cabinet and cashiered others. He told his secretary the Adamses ‘did not possess one noble trait of character.’
“My family is buried politically beyond recovery for years. I am becoming more and more isolated as far as allies go,” wrote Henry Adams.
When Grant died, Adams offered up a bitter epitaph: “He had no right to exist.”
With thanks to The Education of Henry Adams by Carl Becker in the American Historical Review, April 1919 and Henry Adams and the Age of Grant by Brooks D. Simpson in the Hayes Historical Journal 1989. There’s a recent biography of Henry Adams called “The Last American Aristocrat: The Brilliant Life and Improbable Education of Henry Adams” by David S. Brown. You can help independent bookstores and the New England Historical Society by buying it here. This story was updated in 2022.