Henry Adams' study of the Republic during the presidencies of Jefferson and Madison is one of the greatest works of scholarship ever written by an American. It also remains one of the most unread works ever since the nine volumes first appeared in 1889-91. Today Adams commands the respect primarily of the philosopher and literary critic. Most contemporary American historians who have succumbed to the trendy "new social history" want their history straight, clear, and simple. Adams' complex mind is too demanding and, in some instances, too depressing. Even neo-conservative intellectuals like Norman Podhoretz have attacked Adams for his alleged "hatred" of America. Yet there are many reasons why Adams should be reappraised as one of the most modern of scholars--and one who perhaps started out loving America too much to avoid being disappointed by its unfulfilled promises.
As to modernity, it should be noted that in some respects Adams anticipated the French "Annales" school of methodology, particularly that of Fernand Braudel. For Adams too became convinced that history begins not so much with a story as a setting. Thus the first six chapters of his "History" provide a descriptive account of climate, soil, geography, population, habits, attitudes, and manners of America and its people in the year 1800. These conditions would be decisive in shaping an American character that wanted most of all to be left alone, untroubled by politics and free of Old World conflicts. Unlike the "Annales" scholar, however, Adams turns to events to show why history would intrude upon the lives of Americans and force them to confront a world of challenge and change. Adams also aimed to show how theory yielded at every turn to events and principles surrendered to circumstances. In Adams' view, history played havoc with American political thought, and the Constitution, originally founded to control power, simply followed the logic of power in the hands of the dominant political party.
Nothing more appalled Adams than to observe statesmen enunciating one set of principles when out of office and, once in the White House, embarking upon an entirely different course of action. Thus Jefferson the Philosopher and Jefferson the President become almost separate entities. The Philosopher wanted to preserve the values of rural life in the name of Republican simplicity, restrict the power of the national government in the interest of human liberty, and uphold the principle of state sovereignty as the best guardian of the will of the majority. The Philosopher also distrusted the power of the Executive and Supreme Court, and he called for a reduction in taxes and the national debt and elimination of the tariff and the Bank of the United States. Jefferson the President, however, violated his own principles in allowing the old Federalist banking system to remain and the debt to increase, in failing to revise the Judiciary Act, and most of all in negotiating the Louisiana Purchase without the advice and consent of Congress, a move that boldly expanded executive power and negated the Philosopher's own strict construction of the Constitution. Jefferson even went so far as to suggest changing the Constitution in order to create an annual fund for public works, arts, education, and for promoting manufacturing.
Today libertarian conservatives have become impatient with President Reagan for allowing many programs to stand that he had promised to eliminate. In the 19th Century Adams was not opposed to such federal programs--indeed his ancestors, Presidents John Adams and John Quincy Adams, advocated them. What he wanted was statesmen with a consistent theory of government so that principle would guide conduct and theory control power. Instead he observed in Jefferson's America politicians of both parties who "care nothing for fine-spun theories of what government might or might not do, providing government did what they wanted."
In his chapters on James Madison's two administrations Adams take pains to show that the War of 1812 should not have happened. He also takes pleasure in showing how Madison, like Jefferson, violated his own principle of state sovereignty by imposing a maritime embargo on a reluctant nation. The two Virginian Presidents also had to compromise their old classical aversion to war and standing armies, which once had been seen as the beginning of imperialism and the end of Republicanism. Again and again the forces of history compelled Americans to abandon old doctrines, but between 1800 and 1816 not one important thinker came forward with a new theory of politics.
Like Alexis de Tocqueville, Adams came to recognize that it was not politics and government that explained America but society and its people. And he too remained uncertain about the prospect of a society that assumed it could live by bread alone. "What interests were to vivify a society so vast and uniform?" Adams asked on the last page of his masterpiece. "What ideals were to ennoble it? What object, besides physical comfort, must a democratic continent aspire to attain?"
This present two-volume reprint of Adams' original nine-volume work comes as another handsome edition of The Library of America. It is monumental history written with epigrammatical brilliance.