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'Henry Adams and the Making of America'


This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Lynn Neary in Washington, sitting in for Neal Conan.

If Americans know anything about Henry Adams, they probably know that he is the great-grandson of one of the nation's first presidents and Founding Fathers, John Adams. They may also know him as the grandson of President John Quincy Adams. It's possible they've read his autobiography, "The Education of Henry Adams," or his novel, "Democracy." But they may be less familiar with Adams as an historian, and it's unlikely that most Americans ever made it through Adams' nine-volume history of the years spanning the administrations of Thomas Jefferson and John Madison.

That history is the subject of Gary Wills' new book, "Henry Adams and the Making of America." Wills, who has written on everything from Richard Nixon to the pope, has never been afraid to challenge conventional wisdom on anything. In this book, he refutes the accepted reading of Adams' history as an attack on Jefferson. His own thesis provides interesting insights into our national history which still resonate in the politics of today. A conversation with Gary Wills is today's TALK OF THE NATION.

If you have any questions for Mr. Wills on this book or his other works, give us a call. Our number here in Washington is (800) 989-8255; that's (800) 989-TALK. And our e-mail address is totn@npr.org.

Gary Wills joins us now from Northwestern University's studios in Evanston, Illinois.

Thanks for being with us.

Professor GARY WILLS (Author, "Henry Adams and the Making of America"): Thank you for having me.

NEARY: Let's talk first about Henry Adams and his background. I think the first thing we need to know, as I just mentioned, is his lineage: a member of one of the most prominent families of early America. How did he fit into that family?

Prof. WILLS: Well, the poor fellow could hardly live it down, though he certainly wanted to. There was only one member of his family that he really loved and admired, and that was his grandmother, Louisa, because she had no Adams blood, no Quincy blood, no Brooks blood, no New England blood. She was a Southerner, and he counted himself a kind of honorary Southerner all of his life. He thought his great-grandfather was a demagogue. When he was teaching American history at Harvard, he had let his prize student, Henry Cabot Lodge, take the Federalists' side and teach that, while he taught the Jeffersonian Republican side. And he told the president of the university that he did this because he was far more radical than his own ancestors, and Henry Cabot Lodge would give them a much fairer shake.

The reason for all of this is that he had read Louisa--his grandmother, Louisa's, diaries and letters, and she had been, she thought and he thought, terribly mistreated by the Adams family. She thought that Abigail Adams, her mother-in-law, had never wanted her to be in the family, because she was not a New Englander, she was not a Congregationalist, she was not from Massachusetts. She called her a half-blood, and she tried to discourage her son from marrying her. And when she went to Europe with her husband, Abigail kept two of her three sons behind and took care of them, and it was Louisa's conviction that she destroyed their lives. She was a nagging, terribly oppressive person.

She--the same thing had happened the generation before. She kept two of her own three sons behind, and they ended up alcoholic failures, and the same thing happened to Louisa's children.

NEARY: I was surprised to read that portrayal of Abigail, because she's had something of a renaissance, I think, lately, and has quite a few fans out there. And this was a more negative portrayal of her.

Prof. WILLS: Decidedly. She was a terrific wife. She was really wonderful. She supported John in all kinds of ways. But she told her children and her grandchildren, `You've got to live up to your father,' and she told John Quincy, for instance, when he was coming home as a boy from Europe, `If you have been corrupted by Europe, I hope the ship bringing you back home will sink and you will not reach America.' That was the kind of mother and grandmother she was. And as a mother-in-law, she was certainly as bad.

And Henry believed that, and so much so that he had written out, in his own hand, a compilation of the diaries of Louisa, and he was going to publish them as his first published work. That would have destroyed his father, to say that `Your mother called your father this oppressive tyrant.' So he didn't do that. On the other hand, he did not at all thing that the Federalists in general, and the Adamses in particular, were very good for America.

NEARY: Mm-hmm. Now...

Prof. WILLS: Now the strange thing is that it is doctrine in the historical profession to think that he did say that, that he did admire his ancestors and he did want to defend them against Jefferson in the history. How that can be is one of the great scandals, to me, of intellectual history in America.

NEARY: Yeah. Why do you feel it is so important to look at these nine volumes again, this history of the presidencies of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison--to write an entire book about it, for that matter?

Prof. WILLS: Well, for a lot of reasons. It's, I think, the greatest historical work in our history. I think it's the greatest prose masterpiece of non-fiction in America in the 19th century. It is also a book that the making of it--the story of the making of it is fascinating. Adams, from a very early age, wanted to write a great historical work. He took as his model Gibbon's "Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire." And so he had planned to do some big, big project.

Well, why would he have chosen just 16 years of American history for this big project and prepared for it so well, done all of the groundwork for over a decade, worked writing it for over a decade? He did that because he thought America, under the Federalists, had receded into a sectionalized, sluggish, intellectually indolent country, and the Republicans woke America up, shook it out of its doldrums, gave it a national vision, gave it a westward vision, gave it an international engagement. Much of this was done almost against their own will, but nonetheless, they had the vision and the practical tinkering ability to make it work.

So he begins the nine volumes with six chapters describing how terrible America was in 1800. Unfortunately, a lot of people read that and think that's a description of the whole work. But he ends the nine volumes with four chapters at the end saying it was a totally different country by then. It was intellectually adventurous. It was religiously more tolerant. It had a great interest in science and engineering. It had forged a whole new generation of leaders in the War of 1812 who would now take over the political leadership of the country. So that--this was a period that he chose carefully precisely to talk about the mechanics, the dynamics of social change. What brought about this change? It was a change that went very deep, demographically, economically, in intellectual ways, in art, in aesthetics.

NEARY: How did it happen that a president that promised to decentralize government came in and that the Jeffersonians then advanced both nationalism and internationalism in this country?

Prof. WILLS: Well, they had to, in the sense that they had a regional base, the slave culture of the South, and they had to create a larger coalition or they couldn't hold power. And in creating that larger coalition, they had to bring in first Pennsylvania, then New York, and they had to force themselves out of their own regional preconceptions, something that the Federalists were unable to do. They had the idea that New England had a monopoly on the intellectual capital of America, and there was no reason to go outside it and to try to create broader coalitions.

Also, of course, Jefferson needed Florida. His Southern people wanted an outlet through Mobile and other places. And so he went over to Napoleon and said, `I've got to have Florida,' and Napoleon said, `Well, you can't have that, but you can have Louisiana.' So all of a sudden, this huge tract was opened up in the West, and in order to cope with that, Jefferson had to create very strong central powers. He appointed the governor, the Legislature, the judiciary in this vast area out there. He had no choice but to use powers that he had criticized and condemned when the Federalists used them.

And then, of course, Madison got pushed, pushed, pushed into conflict with England, and the War of 1812 took place. And again, you had to have a centralizing of communications, transportation, logistics, supplies. All of those were nationalizing efforts that they couldn't avoid. And they didn't--they couldn't really avoid it on principle, because they did have an idea that this should be one nation, which the Federalists never had.

NEARY: Yeah. You also talk about the relationship--you mentioned Napoleon--the relationship between Jefferson and Napoleon. Let's talk--can you talk about that a little bit?

Prof. WILLS: Yes. One of the great things about Adams is that he sees the whole world, that America is not simply separated from Europe or from the rest of the world in general. He had traveled. He had worked in Europe. He had done lots of research in Europe. And so he was very aware of the fact that the two giants of the age, in his eyes, were Napoleon and Jefferson, and they were fencing all through this period. Napoleon knew that Jefferson desperately wanted Florida. There was then two Floridas, East and West. And he kept promising, `Well, you can have it if you do this,' `You can have it if you do that.' And Jefferson would say, `OK, OK,' and then Napoleon would pull it back. And so there was this kind of constant tension between them.

And then, when Madison came in, Napoleon played the trade game against England, trying to force America into war with England, and he succeeded. So, in a way, he was always a step ahead of the Jeffersonians and Madisonians. On the other hand, he'd failed because Toussaint L'Ouverture in Haiti broke his attempt to move into the Caribbean. And one of the great things about Adams...

NEARY: Hold that thought, because we're going to take a short break here, and when we come back, we'll continue our conversation with Gary Wills and we'll take your calls at (800) 989-TALK.

I'm Lynn Neary. It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

NEARY: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Lynn Neary in Washington, sitting in for Neal Conan.

Our guest today: historian Gary Wills. His latest book is "Henry Adams and the Making of America." You're invited to join the discussion. Give us a call at (800) 989-TALK, and our e-mail address is totn@npr.org.

And, Gary Wills, I interrupted you. If you'd like to just continue your train of thought...

Prof. WILLS: Well, I was going to say that Toussaint L'Ouverture, the great black leader of the rebellion in Haiti, frustrated Napoleon's designs. And one of the great things about Adams is that he realizes how much America benefited from the actions of other people that were outside our control. Toussaint was one. The Spanish people who were frustrating Napoleon was another. And Tecumseh was one, who didn't really frustrate our designs but is one of his great heroes. Two of the most important figures in the history are Toussaint L'Ouverture and the Native American leader Tecumseh. He was such a great warrior on the side of the British in the War of 1812 that Adams admires him immensely and describes him with great skill.

One of the things that's interesting about the book is that Adams, though he was not a warrior himself, vastly admires military leaders, and especially naval heroes. He describes the professionalism of the American seaman and of our naval architects. We were building the best ships in the world in this period. Joshua Humphries, the naval architect who designed the frigates under George Washington, designed boats that were considered miraculous. The British said, `No other frigate can go up against these. We've got to have a ship of the line, at least, to fight one of these things.'

And so one of the thrills of the book is the description of the feats of some of the naval leaders during the War of 1812. He had planned to do only eight volumes. It was all symmetrically arranged. There would be four for Jefferson, two for each of his terms; four for Madison, two for each of his terms. But the War of 1812 took so much coverage that he had to add a ninth volume to the Madison, so it would be five of Madison. And it's really pioneering military history. He'd prepared for it when he was his father's secretary during the Civil War in London. His father was our emissary to London. And he studied the kinds of law of the sea, logistical supply, things of that sort, to inform his father on these matters, and it made him one of the earliest people to understand the economic substrate of war.

Admiral Mahan was just coming out with his naval histories, and Adams anticipated many of his findings and was clever at using things like the Admiralty Court decisions on engagements, which involved insurance costs. And so you could estimate what was the exact cost of every engagement and how much an underdog prevailed and that kind of thing. So all of that goes into the history. As I say, he would prepare so thoroughly. He taught history at Harvard and studied historical method there. He set up the first graduate seminar. He graduated the first doctoral graduates. And then he edited the North American Review, in which he edited and wrote himself many, many reviews of historical things connected with this. And then he gave both up to devote himself to this project.

NEARY: Interestingly, though, you mention in the book that he's mostly taught in English departments at this point, not so much thought of as an historian.

Prof. WILLS: That's right. The historians have given him short shrift for a number of reasons, and they haven't caught up. They haven't gone back and caught up. The "Education" was written at the beginning of the 20th century and was published posthumously, and it became a great hit. And the English departments love it. It's ironical, it's stylistically very polished, and it's eschatological. It's doom-laden. We're facing the end of the world. And so...

NEARY: Mm-hmm. He's a famous pessimist.

Prof. WILLS: Yeah. And so that set the pattern of what people think about Henry Adams. That was written in his 60s. In his 40s, when he was writing the history, he was a totally different person. He was a nationalist. He was an optimist. He was all those things that nobody wants him to be who has got a deep emotional investment in the "Education."

NEARY: Let's see if we can get some calls in here. We're talking with Gary Wills about his new book, "Henry Adams and the Making of America." If you'd like to join our discussion, the number is (800) 989-8255. And we're going to take a call from Steve, who is calling from Arkansas, I believe.

Hi, Steve.

STEVE (Caller): Hi. Yes. My question is--I hope you can hear me because I'm not hearing you too well. Does Henry Adams...

NEARY: I can hear you.

STEVE: ...share George Washington's opinion of Jefferson? I just read a book about George Washington, and I learned that George Washington didn't really like Jefferson. He didn't trust him, and he blamed Jefferson for, you know, the campaign of character assassination that was leveled at George Washington during the constitutional period and during the presidency. So I'm just wondering, you know, doesn't Henry Adams share that in the fact that, you know, Jefferson really became the icon for the states' rights movements, the conservatives, which has never really been a very progressive strain of American politics? I would say that probably the only thing Jefferson really ever did that--you know, he was more of an idea man and not really a doer. The only thing he ever did, really, was the separation of church and state. And isn't that what Henry Adams thinks of Jefferson. I'm going to go off. Thanks.

NEARY: OK. Thanks.

Prof. WILLS: OK.

NEARY: Thanks for that question, Steve.

Prof. WILLS: No, I don't think it's quite fair to say that Washington despised Jefferson. He came to be disappointed in him and in Madison because they fought with Hamilton and undermined the unity of the Cabinet that he, Washington, was trying to hold together. He was much more disappointed in Madison than in Jefferson because he had been a lot closer to Madison, extremely close. But Adams certainly didn't think that Jefferson was a conservative. You can call states' rights conservative, which is perhaps anachronistic, but he was certainly a liberal and a radical in terms of intellectual freedom and religious tolerance and things of the sort that were very important to Adams.

Adams thought Washington was the greatest American leader. He thought John Marshall was a great leader. He thought Albert Gallatin was a great leader. He thought--they were all Virginians, by the way. And he thought that Virginians had led America in the most successful period of America, so he could not be contemptuous of Jefferson by any means.

NEARY: We're talking with Gary Wills. If you'd like to join our discussion or have any questions for Mr. Wills, the number is (800) 989-8255. And let's take a call now from Tom in Cincinnati.

Hi, Tom.

TOM (Caller): Hi. Professor Wills, thank you, first of all, for your work on Augustine and "Macbeth" and your journalism in The New York Review books. I appreciate that. First of all, could you go in--a little bit more define, delineate the dystopianism of Adams with regard to the currency--his currency on the--in the early 20th century of life, and how that was reflected when you look at something like "Chartres and Mont-Saint-Michel."

Prof. WILLS: Yes. After he finished the history, his wife had died in the course of that and it put him somewhat at odds with himself and the world, and he traveled in a kind of escapist mood, and he never devoted himself again to a huge scholarly project. In the '90s, his family underwent economic shocks from the Depression of 1892, and his brother, Brooks, started to influence him a lot in terms of fearing and hating Jewish bankers. Unfortunately for Adams, he was not a racist in most ways, but his attitude toward Jews was always unfavorable and became embittered, and that made him much more bitter in general toward life. He didn't have a really happy home life of the sort that a wife would have given him. He had an unfortunate, almost masochistic, platonic affair with a married woman that was frustrating to him, and he would try to escape that and come back.

So he never really worked very hard at some new project. "Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres" was a very elegant book, but he didn't spend much time on the scholarship of it. He was a wealthy man and he hired a chauffeur in one of the early cars to drive him around, him and his friends, from cathedral town to cathedral town looking at French cathedrals. It was a hobby that he developed into his book, so that there is a kind of loose-ends aspect to the end of his life, and the people who admire "The Education" often admire him because he is so cynical and critical and satirical. They think it's fun for him to make fun of American politics and politicians, and to think that we're heading toward a vast doomsday.

TOM: And, of course, you know...

Prof. WILLS: But that's a different man from the one I'm writing about.

TOM: I'm sure. Thank you.

NEARY: All right. Thanks so much for your call, Tom.

I wanted to ask you, with regard to the book, some of the sort of insights that you have that sort of resonate in today's political situation. You say there's a tendency that all Americans tend to think that you have to fall into two sort of different ideologies that have their roots in the thinking of either Jefferson or Hamilton, but that Adams shows in this book that that was really never the case, that our history is more complex than that. I wonder if you could expand on that idea a little bit.

Prof. WILLS: Yes. Well, it was almost the case before the Jeffersonians took over. There was certainly a Federalist and Republican divide. But in the course of reacting to reality, the Jeffersonians broke out of that, and it was not that they went back to federalism when they set up a more powerful central government; it's that they went into a different plane of action. And one of the things that is fascinating about the book is the play of irony. Adams had Tolstoy's "War and Peace." I can't prove that he read it because he didn't mark the margins. The pages are cut--you know, the three-volume set that he had, which I looked at at the Massachusetts Historical Society. But both Tolstoy and Adams are very good at saying `the great man theory' and `the ideological theory' and all these things are wrong because the ironies of history overtake you and push you in all kinds of directions you didn't expect to go and that...

NEARY: Let me just remind our listeners that you are listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Go ahead.

Prof. WILLS: And in order to survive to float on the floods of history, you have to flop around and come up with new things. That can happen tragically, which is what Tolstoy describes happening to Napoleon, or it can happen benignly, which is what he describes--he says that Jefferson and Madison were involved in a comedy of errors. They didn't know what they were doing, but it turned out well. He says you have to have a light touch, a beau marche(ph) touch, when you're dealing with them because they kept trying to do things wrong and they kept doing things right. It's a wonderfully ironic reading. And that's one of the great things about it. This play of wit, of sparkling wit through the whole nine volumes is just magnificent.

NEARY: There's an e-mail here that sort of also gets to this point from Dunken in Kentucky. He says, `I've been telling my kids that all of American history is a titanic struggle between Jefferson and Hamilton. I still think that's true, but I'm not sure who's carrying the ball for Jefferson these days. I suspect you'll agree that your paraphrase of Adams' description of federalist America sounded a lot like the country today. Where, if anywhere, would you look for a rebirth of democracy?'

Prof. WILLS: Well, our problems are quite different. We have an economic pressure on our democracy that's very hard to break--that is, it's so expensive to run for office with television ads, etc., and the lobbyists are so important to the financing of this that we have people who are ideologically for a decentralized government, but actually have to supply the needs of the lobbyists who want more and more money, more and more activity. So ideologically it's very hard to read America now. Is it conservative to have the lobbyists in such power? I don't see how that can be? On the other hand, the opposition is almost equally shackled by these economic needs.

The kind of national debt we're building up and the kind of expenditures by the central government are really staggering, and they go against the ideology of both parties. And I don't know exactly how that's going to be solvable.

NEARY: I'm curious. Do you think that the Adams history should be read by most Americans or mainly do you want it reread and rethought by historians?

Prof. WILLS: No, I think most Americans because--you don't have to read all nine volumes. That's one of the problems; that's kind of daunting. But read anywhere in it. It's just a good story. John Randolph is a kind of Shakespearean fool throughout. Aaron Burr is a very colorful villain. The account of the naval battles is extraordinary. If I were going to say for the ordinary reader where should you begin, I would say begin with the last volume, with the last part of the War of 1812.

NEARY: Skip right to the end, you're saying.

Prof. WILLS: And then I hope you'll fall in love with it and read around in other ways. As I say, I think it's the prose masterpiece of the 19th century.

NEARY: Well, thanks...

Prof. WILLS: If you're going to read "Moby Dick" this is a much better story.

NEARY: OK. Thanks so much for being with us today.

Prof. WILLS: OK.

NEARY: Garry Wills' new book is "Henry Adams and the Making of America."

I'm Lynn Neary. It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.