Monday, December 26, 2016

Henry Adams's 2016

I must admit that I have never been a huge fan of The Education of Henry Adams. Adams comes across to me as the guy who rants on Facebook about how everything always sucks. Yes, you know who I am talking about. We all have at least one of these people in our social media relationships. Bear in mind that I first read Adams in pre-internet and pre-social media existence, but the sentiment that he was a chronic complainer who cast all in the bleakest terms. Worst of all, to me at least, is that Adams was an entitled elitist from one of America's premier families. He tarred and feathered President Ulysses Grant most vigorously in The Education. "The progress of evolution from President Washington to President Grant," Adams wrote, "was alone evidence enough to upset Darwin." 1. Ouch! Granted that Adams was writing about himself and using only several episodes from Grant's Administration to tell his own memoir, The Education shaped historiography of the eighteenth president throughout the twentieth century. If you want to see an example of a twentieth-century mugwump/progressive historian using Adams as a guide, read Allan Nevins, Hamilton Fish, a biography of Grant's secretary-of-state. Nevins gave no quarter. As one of my history instructors at St. John's University used to say, "give the poor guy a break, he's dead." While I would never posit that Grant was a great or near-great president, I have felt for some time that he deserves to be considered a better president than how Nevins and other twentieth century historians depicted him. Brooks Simpson, Jean Edward Smith, Joan Waugh, and Ronald White, among others, have given Grant a more sympathetic treatment in recent years. A disappointed office seeker himself, Adams focused on Grant's appointments, which, to be honest, were unconventional. On the other hand, Adams gave almost no attention to Reconstruction, the area where twenty-first century historians are giving Grant more credit than in the past. Having said all this, in the last couple of months I feel a growing sense of sympathy for Henry Adams. In the wake of the nasty, brutish, and, protracted 2016 presidential election, I think I better understand the pessimism with which Adams viewed his own times. 
1. Henry Adams, The Education of Henry Adams (New York: Vintage Books, 1995), 249.

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