Henry Adams liked to say that his pedigree and eighteenth-century upbringing had hobbled him in the races of the twentieth century. The scion of not just one but two Presidents of the United States–the second, John Adams, who helped formulate the principles of the Constitution, and the sixth, John Quincy Adams, who drafted the Monroe Doctrine–he had, as a young man, given every indication of being destined for an equally visible career of public service. During the Civil War, he was an indispensable aid to his father during the latter’s tenure as Minister to England. In the 1870s and 1880s, he inhabited a Richardsonian mansion on Washington Square and, with his wife, Marion ‘Clover’ Adams, hosted one of the most luminous salons of the era. Presidents and notables of various persuasions eagerly scurried across the square to tap his knowledge, which was far more prodigious than anyone else’s. Not one President, however, offered him employment.
Perhaps they recognized a snob when they saw one. One journalist of the 1870s wrote that he was like a begonia, his foliage showy and irrelevant. The epithet hit Adams hard. Had he become outmoded? For the next thirty years–years of frenetic intellectual output–Adams pondered the question. Too astute to refute the charge, he ultimately took to trumpeting his irrelevancy, grandiosely interpreting his apparent failure to effect change as part of a larger paradigm shift in values. The world of his forefathers, based on the revolutionary ideals of the Constitution and of Truth, Duty and Freedom, was clearly defunct. The new world, dominated by what he called “goldbugs” and power-hungry capitalists, had stamped out the class into which he was born. Money had replaced principles in determining policy. In such an environment, an Adams could not help but be as “antiquated as a mollusk from the Silurian period.”
Of course, this self-serving pose of aristocratic disdain was not endearing to Adams’s contemporaries; it helped secure him a reputation as a rather hopeless blue-blooded aesthete. Even Henry James, the friend of his youth, wrote in a much-quoted letter that Adams was burdened by an “irresponsible self-conscious [e]xtravagant pessimism, the fruit not wholly unnatural…of a disappointed and ineffectual personal career.” Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes remarked that Adams wanted power “handed to him on a silver platter” and, when it wasn’t, narcissistically proceeded to turn everything to “dust and ashes.” The fact that most of Adams’s predictions (for example, that the Occidental world would very likely blow itself up in 1917 or thereabouts, that scientists would chase power into the atom some decades after, resulting in nuclear conflagration) were uncannily correct has not changed this viewpoint.
The third installment of Edward Chalfant’s new biography forces a radical revision of this view. Thanks to unprecedented access to various archival sources, including the Worthington Chauncey Ford Papers at the New York Public Library, and to various additions to the Letters, Chalfant reveals the startling extent of Adams’s political activity. It appears that Adams deliberately chose to act behind the scenes and that most of his political work was in fact anonymous. That he would have liked to be offered power on a silver platter is undoubtedly true. That he might have refused the platter is a possibility. He was, after all, plagued by that triumvirate of characteristics that define so many who aspire to greatness: ambivalence, insecurity and ambition.