Henry Adams and the gift of pessimism

Declinism is a temptation for frustrated conservatives. It can also be a source of genius.

(Image credit: (Bettmann/CORBIS))

When a conservative fails at politics, his temptation is to become a Declinist. All that is left is cataloging human folly, and sighing wistfully at the civilization that is moldering around him. Rather than making his interpretation of history parallel to the theory of biological evolution — where everywhere there is adaptation and higher forms — the Declinist is haunted by the physical law of entropy. All dissipates before him.

Henry Adams is America's greatest Declinist, and proof that this particular form of despair has its charms, even its own genius. The grandson of John Quincy Adams (and great grandson of John Adams), Henry was a close observer of political life, acting as a secretary for the American delegation to St. James' court once he was out of school. Henry Adams tried to make his effect on the world through political journalism, which was about as effective in shaping history during the Gilded Age as it is now.

Adams was a living rebuke to the notion, sometimes floated by paleo-conservatives and reactionaries, that the culture of New England Puritanism invariably descends into the wan, moralizing politics of universalism. In no man was the Yankee heritage more thoroughly concentrated than in Henry Adams, and in no one else does disgust with universalist pieties more thoroughly reside.

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The Adams strain of American politics retained core elements of 19th-century conservative nationalism throughout its incarnations — support for public education, a distaste of populism, tighter restrictions on immigration, a hatred of spoils politics, and counseled caution in foreign affairs (accompanied by a stern warning to outsiders with the Monroe Doctrine). It detested Jeffersonian radicalism, Jacksonian democracy, and the Slave Power. Over time the Adamsite tendency could retain loyalty to the Union over the Confederacy, but deplore the way Progressivism would warp the Republican Party in which it made an uncomfortable home.

As a young man Henry Adams believed himself to be far more radical than the rest of the Adams clan, and more optimistic too. He was excited by the emergence of the Republican Party, which had ended the political faction associated with his grandfather through incorporation. Henry Adams was very aware that his forebears gave the impression that it was a pity the American nation extended beyond the Hudson River on the southwest and Bowdoin College on the northeast. The GOP allowed Adams to dream of a political force — both American and republican — that had a sense of the nation beyond Harvard.

But this optimism wouldn't last. Russell Kirk, who in many ways invented the idea of a conservative tradition of American thought, said, "A case might be made that Henry Adams represents the zenith of American civilization." Reading Adams' lovely, foreboding histories of the American republic, it is easy to be convinced of the same. And it seems that sometimes Adams viewed himself that way.

Yes, Adams was easy to dislike, as Kirk noted. He shared his harsh judgments of others frequently, and could be nasty to his contemporaries. Like the English historian and a fellow-medievalist Hilaire Belloc, Adams could be an acidly opinionated historian when it came to the modern era. And in a way that was even more intense than Belloc, he had the unappealing habit of blaming Jews for the depredations of capitalism in the late-19th and early-20th centuries.

Adams could not always decide when the decline of civilization began — a problem for a Declinist. In the American context he placed it at the election of Ulysses H. Grant as president, an event that dimmed his own political prospects. Sometimes he saw the energies of Western civilization beginning to dissipate in the late Middle Ages, as Europe moved on from the Crusades and building cathedrals dedicated to the Virgin.

All this may make Adams sound like the worst, most provincial crank. If it does, Adams should be regarded as the transcendent specimen of the type. Gary Wills is correct to crown Henry Adams' voluminous history of the United States from 1801 to 1817 as the greatest literary achievement of 19th-century America, and a work that rewards re-reading even today.

Anonymously, he composed what is hailed as the only lasting Washington novel, Democracy, which stuck daggers in his enemies, like Maine Gov. James G. Blaine, even as it outlined Washington archetypes (the lobbyist, the idealist) and arguments (the spirited defense of party-line voting, the despite-all-the-grubbiness faith in a democratic people to chart their course) that feel contemporary. This is a novel that could only come from someone who had given up on shaping events himself.

The pessimism and world-weariness also gave Henry Adams the gift of foresight. At the close of the 19th century, he predicted a great world war and the advance of technologically aided socialism in the West. His grandfather had been a champion of education in the sciences, but Henry was worried about what science was doing to the imagination and morals of Americans. "My belief is that science is to wreck us, and we are like monkeys monkeying with a loaded shell," he wrote in 1900.

Declinism admits few adherents. It hushes ambition and fertilizes despair. And it cuts just too hard against the material progress so many have experienced. It is a frame of mind that settles on bitter losers, or is adopted by those wealthy and well-regarded enough to back away from the ambitions and enthusiasm of their own time. Henry Francis may have been all of the above. "We leave no followers, no school, no tradition," Henry mourned in a letter to his brother Charles.

Perhaps. And yet Declinism has its genius: It leaves us history told as a cautionary tale.

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Michael Brendan Dougherty

Michael Brendan Dougherty is senior correspondent at TheWeek.com. He is the founder and editor of The Slurve, a newsletter about baseball. His work has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, ESPN Magazine, Slate and The American Conservative.