Mar 27, 2007

A Brief Evaluation of Henry Adams’s History of the United States During the Administrations of Jefferson and Madison

So Winters thought it was great, even “very great,” as a work both of literature and of history, as you read here last week. But how might I evaluate Winters’s evaluation? And what have other Wintersians thought of this work? This post contains my brief, provisional assessment. Still, I offer these comments with some trepidation. For you will see in a moment that I do not regard Adams’s History quite as highly as Winters did.

First, before going through my views, I want to mention that few Wintersians have ever mentioned, let alone discussed, the issue of how good Adams’s History might be as a work of literary art. David Levin, an American historian (and a fine writer, by the way) who was a colleague of Winters’s at Stanford for a time in the 1960s, has written essays on history as literature on occasion during his career. Yet his one extended study of the subject, a book entitled History as Romantic Art, only mentions Adams’s History in passing, though he does refer with approval to its reputation as one of the great histories of American scholarship. Otherwise, no critic or scholar who has studied Winters with any degree of sympathy has tried to study history as literature, assess Winters’s discussion of the subject in his 1943 essay concerning Henry Adams, or directly studied Adams’s History as a work of literary art. It would appear that every writer, critic, or scholar who has read Winters’s writings on history as literature and specifically on Adams’s History has decided that these issues are not worth considering -- except for me, Ben Kilpela, though I, of course, cannot be classified as writer, critic, or scholar. That makes me wonder, as it should, whether the issues I am considering in this post are important to any degree. But I will press on in the belief that they are. Perhaps I’m ahead of my time. (If I am, I am a long, long, LONNNNG way ahead.)

So now, as to my judgment of Adams’s History, I should start by emphasizing that rather than focusing on narrating what appear to be the major events of the time, the History concentrates heavily on studying American congressional politics during the Jefferson and Madison administrations as influenced by those larger events. Adams guides us through a serpentine study of various political and diplomatic maneuverings at the beginning of period of America's growth into one of the world’s powers (which I think, as you will see, was rather predictable) and as an innovatory federal republic espousing democracy. Critical opinion appears to be rising ever so slightly and slowly that the History is the first great history written about the U.S.A. Some have even said that it might be the first great work of history written by an American, though I would quibble with that. The achievements of William Hickling Prescott in the history of New Spain and Francis Parkman in the history of New France perhaps exceed Adams’s achievement, as literature, and they both wrote before Adams.

Some few critics have gone so far as to claim that Adams’s work rivals Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire in eloquence and sweep. But such a claim can mislead you. Gibbon’s grand story of imperial deterioration is quite different. Gibbon concerned himself with the long, slow slide to downfall of a vast, widely dominant, and highly and broadly influential empire over more than 1000 years, while Adams studied the way the government of a peculiar new country, governed in daringly new ways, quickly became more centralized at a time when some of its leaders opposed the consolidation and increase of federal power and as that country, unexpectedly at the time, began to loom on the horizon of the world scene. These occurrences took place, I should pause to note, when Napoleon was devising his outrageously grandiose plans for conquest, which he believed would lead to a prosperous and enlightened European empire under his rule. The provincial and fledging United States, in 1800 -- large in landmass, stupendously rich in natural resources, small in population, undeveloped in culture, unsure and unsteady in government, largely untried in the political and social freedoms it espoused -- overcame many obstacles to rise by 1817 from its national adolescence into a state of rapidly increasing international power and prestige. These changes appear rather puzzling because they came about under the leadership of two U.S. presidents who were candidly skeptical about the benefits of a strong central government and the trappings of deep involvement in the game of international power politics. Gary Will’s study of the History, Henry Adams and the Making of America (2005), draws attention to how Adams gave us some startling insights into the discordant principles and practices of the 1800-1816 period that shape America to this day.

My judgment, briefly -- and humbly standing in disagreement with Yvor Winters -- is that the History, though a superb work of historical scholarship and at times superbly written, is not one of our greatest histories as a work of literary art. I will have to save a comprehensive case for some later date, but let me say this much: I think that, in general, Adams burrowed far too deeply into the details of congressional maneuvering. Many of his long accounts of the twistings and turnings of political debate are simply too long. Further, in my judgment, the rise of the U.S.A. into one of the world’s powers during the years before and during the War of 1812 should not have been so surprising. The magnificently abundant resources and progressive social system that the U.S. enjoyed in its early years almost made it certain that the new country would rise quickly in power and influence. After much study of the matter, I think Adams’s History exaggerates the backwardness of the U.S. at the same time that Adams ignores the many obvious conditions and circumstances that almost inevitably propelled the country to a much higher status than people imagined it would achieve in the early days of the Republic.

Further, Adams, too often, paid far too much attention to details of secondary or even lesser importance, at the same time he paid far too little attention to many crucial aspects of the development of the U.S. in the period he put under study. For example, limiting my examples to Jefferson’s first term:

1) Adams pays too much attention to diplomatic wrangling in his consideration of the Haitian Revolution. Though certainly these matters played a part in affairs, they are less important than what led Napoleon to offer Louisiana and what the resulting purchase meant for the development of the country. Adams, I believe, did not need to go into such great detail on diplomacy but should have spent a great deal more time trying to fathom the causes and meaning of France’s abandonment of its last major possession in the New World.

2) Adams gets far too tangled in the tidbits of the congressional negotiations over the impeachment of Supreme Court Chief Justice Samuel Chase. Though the Chase trial is probably interesting to those with interests in the development of congressional politics and the status of the judiciary in our country, the bearing of the Chase affair on the central themes of the History is never adequately established. I believe the significance of the Chase Affair is far less than implied by Adams’s highly detailed account of political wrangling associated with Chase’s impeachment.

3) Adams gets far too tangled up as well in the details of the political intrigues of the so-called Conspiracy of 1804, the shaky political scheme in which a number of political leaders in the northern states considered seceding from the Union. He also concentrates too tightly on the less important details of political deal-making. Further, Adams fails to arrive at just and satisfying general conclusions about the overall long-term meaning of the conspiracy. Thus, Adams finds the conspiracy important for the wrong reasons.

These examples stand as three of the main reasons I consider the History not to be one of the greatest histories as literary art. Yet it is far from worthless. It is a superb work of literature and history -- just not one of the greats. I can say that I learned some important facts and concepts from the History and recommend it, though it is best read in small doses. It’s so long as well and covers such a short and relatively minor period of American history. Should one put one’s treasured time to Adams or to other works of historical art? The flaws I have pointed out in the History point me to the one larger reasons that I think other greats of historical literature deserve your attention first. This period, 1800-1816, is just not as important as Adams seems to have believed it is -- and now as Gary Wills clearly believes it to be. The whole subject matter of Adams’s History is of tertiary importance in the study of this country, let alone of the study of world history. Therefore, if the History’s value as a work of literature is not as great as Winters claimed and its importance as history is less than Wills takes it to be, I believe that you can wait to read it somewhere down the road, if you find the time.

It’s important to note, nonetheless, that the obscure period Adams put under study has received too little attention. This time, 1800 to 1816, when the young American nation was developing political habits that are much, much less familiar to us than the immediately preceding periods, the periods of the Revolution, the Constitutional Convention, and then Washington’s and James Adams’s presidencies. Yet it was in the years of Jefferson’s and Madison’s presidencies that the men who formed the American democratic system that Americans live within gradually chose and negotiated the ways in which our democracy would be conducted. Their choices and compromises -- accidental, willed, or forced -- played a significant role in making us what we are today. It’s an occasionally absorbing story (putting aside Adams’s excessive detail on political wrangling), especially Adams’s focus on the difficulties of Congressional politics, which seems a bit foreign to us nowadays, since the American Presidency became so ascendant over the course of the 20th Century. Also, despite the weaknesses in Adams’s coverage of the Conspiracy of 1804, I learned many interesting details about the attitudes of our early legislators and leaders toward the concept of union and what they might have meant to the development of America’s style of democracy.

Before closing, I want to return briefly to Gary Wills’s book on Adams’s History. In Wills’s opinion, Adams's innovations as a historian were far more than technical -- as Yvor Winters also pointed out. Though I do not have the training to judge the matter, Wills claims that Adams made many important advancements in the writing of history, especially in the use of contemporary documents in his account. Wills believes that Adams’s central, very broad, and overarching theme was an ironic view of the legacy of Jefferson and Madison. Wills claims that Adams argued for a theory that though these two presidents tried to protect the young country from "foreign entanglements," a standing army, a central bank, and excessive federal bureaucracy -- dreaming of an agrarian society untroubled by "big government," which could lead to the dangers of renewed tyranny that the country had escaped in the Revolution -- by the end of their presidencies they found that they had played a large part in permanently establishing all these conditions in American society. Wills sees what happened, through Adams’s History, as a fundamental expression of the "American paradox." He believes this paradox defines us today in our struggles for an idealized desire for isolation and political simplicity against the growth and intermingling of political, economic, and military forces. This is why Wills find Adams’s History such an important study. But the idea appears to owe more to Wills than to Adams. I think that Wills overplays this theme, though it is certainly there in Adams. It is just not so strongly emphasized as Wills claims, in my judgment. Nor is it exactly a paradox. It’s just the difficulties that would inevitably beset a very large, astonishingly prosperous country dedicated to liberty. Also, as I have noted, I think that Adams misrepresents a number of events in the era, and one of the biggest is his inability to see that the geographic conditions of the new country inevitably pushed it forward as one of the great nation-states.

In summary, my provisional conclusion about Adams’s History, offered with considerable humility, is that it is a fine work of literature but has some weaknesses and flaws that keep me from judging it to be one of the great works of literature. I also believe that it is not concerned with subject matter of the highest importance. Nonetheless, the New York Review of Books publishing imprint has given us a smaller book of selections from the History that can help you decide whether to read it and judge for yourself (see my previous post on this subject).

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