Henry Adams: “History of the United States of America: During the Second Administration of Thomas Jefferson” (Part One)

[Indians] are combated by the habits of their bodies, prejudice of their minds, ignorance, pride, and the influence of interested and crafty individuals among them, who feel themselves something in the present order of things, and fear to become nothing in any other. These persons inculcate a sanctimonious reverence for the customs of their ancestors; that whatever they did must be done through all time; that reason is a false guide, and to advance under its counsel, in their physical, oral, or political condition, is perilous innovate that their main duty is to remain as their Creator made them, ignorance being safety, and knowledge full of danger. In short, my friends, among them is seen the action and counter-action of good sense and bigotry they too have their anti-philosophers. (Thomas Jefferson, 606)


This—from Jefferson’s second inaugural address—is how a philosopher president justifies conquest.

In the third volume of his history of the United States from 1800 to 1817, Henry Adams continues to focus his attention on foreign affairs. In my last post, I dwelled on how the Louisiana Purchase (or Jefferson’s first term in general) oversaw the emergence of the United States as a self-denying but no less openly imperial nation. Of course, Jefferson would continue these denials throughout his presidency and the nation would follow his lead. There are still those who deny this brutal truth. Adams himself seems unaware that the events he was recounting were describing the rise of an imperial nation. In Jefferson’s second term he was forced to face this by forces much more honest than he was. The first challenge was Aaron Burr, who should be given credit for calling a spade a spade as he attempted to carve our his own little empire. The second challenge, to dominate Jefferson’s second term was the European empires who knew very well that the United States was in the game and refused to allow the United States to pretend to be a passive bystander. I will deal with the embargo crisis later. For now, I will focus on Adams’ account of Aaron Burr’s conspiracy.

The official reading of the Burr conspiracy is that Aaron Burr was attempting to create an independent nation in the frontier areas, in places controlled by Spain. Immediately this seems to be an interesting historical coincidence since this is almost exactly what the U.S. settlers in Texas did in the 1840s. In a sense, they were much worse than Burr, even brining the United States into a war with Mexico. Evidence that Burr was after a private empire was that he collected military forces for the expedition down the Mississippi and had a massive holding (40,000 acres). Burr’s point of view was that he was renting the land from Spain and just planned to work it. In that case, he would have been a predecessor to the Bonanza farms of the later nineteenth century. Although he claimed he was not treasonous, he never claimed that he was not after a private demesne, just that his would be legally defined by the typical language of capitalist exploitation.


Adams takes on the position of the government that Burr’s plan was a grandiose effort at creating an empire in the west, even going so far as to kidnap people in Washington in order to effect his scheme, if he could not get the required aid from Britain or Spain. Adams gives a detailed history of the conspiracy that is a quite a lively read, covering a handful of chapters. When the conspiracy finally fell apart, as such wild dreams almost must when not backed by the authority of the state, it is reworked too the interests of political power. Adams points out that the trial of Burr became more of a fight between Jefferson and his enemies than a dialog on the costs and consequences of expansion and conquest. In re-reading, I find Aaron Burr’s honesty about the nature of the game fascinating and refreshing.

Adams seems quote sympathetic to the rolling of civilization across the continent. This enthusiasm for empire (never called that) is a bit strange coming from the same man who praised the virtues of the Middle Ages against modern civilization. He was simply not equipped to look at the expansion west of the United States in anything but the language of Manifest Destiny. This is him on the Lewis and Clark expedition, which was apparently great except for its modesty.

Creditable as these expeditions were to American energy and enterprise, they added little to the stock of science or wealth. Many years must elapse before the vast region west of the Mississippi could be brought within the reach of civilization. The crossing of the continent was a great feat, but was nothing more. The French explorers had performed feats almost as remarkable; but, in 1805, the country they explored was still a wilderness. Great gains to civilization could be made only on the Atlantic coast under the protection of civilized life. For many years to come progress must still centre in the old thirteen State of the Union. (751—752)

lewis and clark

What might a more honest republican empire had looked liked? Perhaps not much different. It may have faced the Napoleonic wars with more of a spirit of realpolitik. Perhaps it was this self-denial about empire that allowed Indians to sustain their autonomy as long as they did, but I doubt that. On the contrary, perhaps seeing Indians as colonial subjects, rather than people uncivilized by choice (as Jefferson’s inaugural stated) may have ensured a more honest and less destructive policy toward them. In any case, we still see shadows of Henry Adams when we read history textbooks today.




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