Henry Adams: “History of the United States of America: During the Second Administration of James Madison” (Parts Two and Three)

To men who believed that every calamity was a Divine judgment, politics and religion could not be made to accord. Practical politics, being commonly an affair of compromise and relative truth,—a human attempt to modify the severity of Nature’s processes,—could not expect sympathy from the absolute and abstract behests of religious. Least of all could war, even in its most necessary form, be applauded or encouraged by any clergyman who followed the precepts of Christ. The War of 1812 was not even a necessary war. Only in a metaphysical or dishonest sense could any clergyman affirm that war was more necessary in 1812 than in any former year since 1783. Diplomacy had so confused its causes that no one could say for what object Americas had intended to fight,­—still less, after the peace in Europe, for what object they continued their war. Assuming the conquest of Canada and of Indian Territory to be the motive most natural to the depraved instincts of human nature, the clergy saw every reason for expecting a judgment. (920)

The final two volumes of Henry Adams’ nine volume history of America during the presidencies of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison cover the final year of the War of 1812, the peace settlement, and the legislation passed during the final two years of Madison’s term. There is also space, after almost 2,600 pages of detailed diplomatic, political, and military history to consider how the United States had changed between 1800 and 1815. The changes are dramatic and for Adams signified a consolidation of the national character. This is not very far from how historians now reflect on the War of 1812. They see it as an important war for its contribution to American identity and American nationalism. Of course, it provided many heroes (two would become presidents) and symbols (the National Anthem). I could not find any historians that agree with me that it should be looked at as a war for empire. I hope that is a sign of my novelty and not a sign that I am totally off base.

My opening quote is from Adams’ coverage of the Massachusetts clergy and their sustained opposition to the war. When reading it, I found it a useful reminder that some people certainly saw the war of 1812 for what it was, a vainglorious and ultimately successful attempt to expand the reach of the U.S. empire. I have covered this in my previous posts, so I will move to why Adams thinks 1815 was a turning point in the American identity.

Between 1800 and 1815, the United States became committed to the Federalist policies, even as they were being enacted by Republican legislatures. Acceptance of a national debt, a standing army, an expanded navy, and taxation were made necessary by the war and proved to be not at all as odious as the Jeffersonians made it out to be. There was a common acceptance of national development as well. “For the first time in their history, as a nation, the people of the United States ceased to disturb themselves about politics or patronage.” (1245) What replaced these political divisions was a movement toward economism. He even mentions in passing that this had a tragic consequence in entrenching slavery in the South. North and south, across parties, all whites could apparently enjoy the profits derived from the Cotton South, without political divides getting in the way. “The Rights of Man occupied public thoughts less, and the price of cotton more.” (1253) This, I hope we can agree, was not a positive shift in American life. It seems to suggest an end to a fierce debate in the early years of the American republic over what liberty would mean. It would not be until the Civil War that such a debate was revived (and again, capital and economic necessity would win out over an expanded definition of freedom).

While becoming more economically-minded and politically-unified, the nation had also become more integrated with canals, roads, and internal markets. Perhaps reflecting the turn toward practical politics, thought was also driven toward pragmatism. The hard-headed theological Puritanism of the colonial era gave way to new religious movements that had a softer, more unifying perspective. Adams reports on the rise of Unitarianism. Fixed principles in religion went along with fixed principles in politics. In literature, the shift in these years was the turn away from England and the development of an American character. Adams spares a few words for fellow Library of America member Washington Irving and his The History of New York.

The result of all of this, for Adams, was a country that was no longer in danger of being divided into separate nations. It is not clear what he made of the Civil War. Apparently it was not evidence of a divided nation. Writing at a time when the Civil War was commonly seen as an unfortunate scuffle between brothers, perhaps Adams really meant it. Is it possible that we can look at the period covered in Adams’ history as the beginning of the closing of political options and therefore the real end of the American Revolution. Never again could a politician get away with calling his election to president a “revolution,” like Jefferson did in 1800.

Adams ends his history connecting to some of the themes in his other work about the shift from the medieval to the modern. For the United States, the dynamo won out in 1815.

New subjects demanded new treatment, no longer dramatic but steadily tending to become scientific. The traits of American character were fixed; the rate of physical and  economical growth was established; and history, certain that at a given distance of time the Union would contain so many millions of people, with wealth valued at so many millions of dollars, because thenceforward chiefly concerned to know what kind of people these millions were to be. They were intelligent, but what paths would their intelligence select? They were quick, but what solution of insoluble problems would quickness hurry? They were scientific, and what control would their science exercise over their destiny? (1345)

 

 

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

The government expected no other difficulties in the Southern country, and had no reason to fear them. If new perils suddenly arose, they were due less to England, Spain, or the United State than to the chance that gave energy and influence to Tecumthe. The Southern Indians were more docile and less warlike than the Indians of the Lakes. The Chicksaws and Choctaws, who occupied the whole extent of the country on the east back of the Mississippi from the Ohio to the Gulf, gave little trouble of anxiety, and even the great confederacy of Muskogees, or Creeks, who occupied the territory afterward called the State of Alabama and part of George, fell in some degree into a mode of life which seemed likely to make them tillers of the soil. (771)

In the final quarter of his history of the Jeffersonian Republicans during the presidencies of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, Henry Adams breaks from tradition. Previously, he divided each term into two volumes, each covering a legislative session. In his coverage of the second term of Madison, however, he uses three volumes and spends most those three volumes on the first year and a half of that term, up until the Treaty of Ghent ends the War of 1812. He has little to say about the rest of Madison’s achievements (perhaps there were none) and instead centers on the changes to the nation since Jefferson took office.

My basic reading of Henry Adams history (see the previous six posts) has been a bit contrarian but largely supportive. He was writing a history of the United States in the world a century before it would become cool to do so. Indeed, it is now the newest way to be trendy enough to (with a little luck) land an academic post. My own book is in this tradition. Certainly, he is still too much in diplomatic history, but my placing much of the story in London, Paris, or Madrid, Adams was being quite forward thinking. While another great historian of the turn of the century, Frederick Jackson Turner, was looking to the frontier, Adams still saw the American story in an Atlantic context. Adams sees a general irony in the Jeffersonians. They came into office hoping to undo the Federalist project, but had more or less enshrined it by 1817, when Madison retired. Yes, the Federalists were defeated, but not because their ideas were destroyed. Instead, the Federalists were co-opted. This is a common enough occurrence in American politics that we need not dwell on it now. My contrarian reading has been that Adams missed a larger irony, and one much more destructive. What the Jeffersonians did not want to confess was that the United States was like Europe in imperial ambition. By doubling the size of the nation and then fighting what can only be looked at as a war of empire. Britain and the U.S. were fighting over who would dominate North America. In my last post I argued that the war, being fought with debt and by the working poor, should be eerily familiar to American readers. The U.S. made at least three invasions during the war with England. The first was in Canada, where the army announced their goal of spreading liberty. They also invaded the Northwest territories, finishing the job Harrison began in the war against Tecumseh. Third, they began the conquest of the southern tribes such as the Creek, beginning Jackson’s fatal work.

So, the War of 1812 was not the second war of independence, but the next in a series of wars for a North Americana empire. The first was the Revolutionary War, followed by the Whiskey Rebellion, followed by the Shawnee War. There is enough in the text to suggest Adams was aware of this, but was either too prejudice or too hesitant to point it out. Being written at a time when the United States was projecting its imperial power into the Pacific, we are right to question his oversight (others such as Mark Twain were not so blinkered.)

Well, the volume for today is devoted almost exclusively to 1813. To Adams’ credit, he spends much of this volume reporting on the violent and suppression of the Creeks during the war. Patriots often forget about Andrew Jackson’s activities prior to his 1814 victory in New Orleans. He was down there suppressing the Creek uprising against the United States. Apparently efforts at bringing the Creek into a grand coalition to oppose the expansion of the United States into the West had been going on for a while. Tecumseh had worked on it and left among the Creek many of his ideas, and more importantly likeminded leaders. The battle (or massacre) at Fort Mims was one of the great victories of the Creek in this uprising. Adams’ account of this is the first I have ever read, but it is a compelling read. The enslavement of all the blacks at Fort Mims by the Creek reminds us that one of the reasons the southern nations were seen by whites as more “civilized” is that they embraced agriculture and slavery.

creekwar2

So, we certainly have wars of conquest going on. Despite the claim made my Adams that the only territory gained during the war was of Mobile (the Spanish Fort Stoddert), we should not forget these internal conquests of Indians. Tecumseh, of course, died during the war in similar actions in the Northwest.

Surrender of the Creek

Surrender of the Creek

Adams continues to point out of Republican ideology led to the government to try to fight the war on the cheap, ensuring that the poorest Americans would do the fighting and dying. Much of what the government dealt with during the war was how to fund the army. Keeping costs down, “doing more with less,” is not a recent delusion. “Even if the whole bounty were added to the pay, and the soldier were to serve but twelve months, he would received only twenty dollars a month and his land-certificate. If he served his whole term of five years, he received little more than twelve dollars a month. The inducement was not great in such a community as the United States. The chances that such a measure would fill the ranks was small; yet the measure seemed extravagant to a party that had formerly pledged itself against mercenary armies.” (883) “Mercenary armies,” of course, is code for a professional, trained, and paid army.

Henry Adams: “History of the United States of America: During the First Administration of James Madison” (Part Two)

Politicians of the old school looked coldly on the war spirit. Nations like individuals, when driven to choose between desperate courses, might at time be compelled to take the chances of destruction, often destroying themselves, or suffering irreparable harm. Yet the opponents of war could argue that Americans were not placed between desperate alternatives. They had persevered hitherto, in spite of their leaders, in the policy of peace; had suffered much injury and acute mortification, but had won Louisiana and West Florida, had given democracy all it asked, and had remained in reasonable harmony with the liberal movement of the world. (374)

Henry Adams

Henry Adams

In 1811 and 1812, the Jeffersonian Revolution could be said to have died with the coming of war with England. If Henry Adams’ account is to be believed, it was less a problem of war itself, but the consequences of war such as a standing army, increased taxation, and acceptance of the fact that the United States would and could play the imperial game were more devastating to the imagination of the Republicans. They seemed to really believe, for a time, that the nation was not their parents’ children. There are three important themes that this volume of Henry Adams’ history covers: the war against the Shawnee, the war debate, and the first year of the war and the changes it brought to the political system.

Adams throws the relationship between the white Americans and the Indians into the background. It only emerges momentarily. Thus when it came time to document the Shawnee revolt, Adams had to go back and review Thomas Jefferson’s attitude toward them. While he believed that they should be brought into civilization, he was as brutal as any other president in the seizure of their lands. “His greed for land equaled that of any settler on the border, and his humanity to the Indian suffered the suspicion of having among its motives the purpose of gaining the Indian lands for the whites.” (348) Jefferson’s actions toward the Northwest territory Indians caused the Shawnee revolt as much as his foolish embargo pushed the nation to war. Both of these would be Madison’s job to clean up while Jefferson enjoyed blissful retirement. As anyone who has gotten this far into Adams’ history would expect, we learn much more about William Henry Harrison than we do about Tecumseh and the Shawnee Prophet. There is enough here, however, to know that the US policy toward the Northwest territory was imperial and violence was the end result of the U.S. greed for land. It was not so much one of the causes of the later War of 1812, it was a branch of the same tree.

tecumseh

In regards to the build up to war, Adams is most fascinated by the irony of the Jeffersonian Republicans taking such a violent lead to war. Was their earlier passivity, reflected in the Embargo Act, a reflection of their earlier naivety. Was the violent calls for war issued from Congress in 1811 their true colors? He momentarily plays with the idea that 12 years is as long as any such revolutionary spirit can be sustained before more cynical forces take over. “After the Declaration of Independence, twelve years had been needed to create an efficient Constitutions; another twelve years of energy brought a reaction against the government then created; a third period of twelve years was ending in a sweep toward still greater energy.” (380-381) In any case, the war debates overtook all other Republican policies. Adams argues that the army bill that funded the war was really a revolution in domestic policy, sealing the final gap between the Federalists and the Republicans.

As for the war, Adams’ position is that the United States was unprepared for the conflict, particularly against a nation that had been at almost continual war against France for literally decades. The lessons of the American Revolution, a war of liberation, would not serve the United States in a war of empire. I am now thinking that it is interesting that historians called this the “Second War of Independence” in yet another attempt to avoid the confession that their republic had become an empire. A proclamation to the people of Canada painted the U.S. invasion of that territory as a liberation. “You will be emancipated from tyranny and oppression, and restored to the dignified station of freemen. . . The United States offer you peace, liberty, and security.” (503) How many people have heard those words as they looked down the barrels of U.S. rifles? Well, for better or for worse, the U.S. designs on Canada faltered.

War in Canada

War in Canada

Like other American wars of empire, the War of 1812 was fought with little sacrifice of the people. There was little physical damage and few casualties. “The country refused to take the war seriously. A rich nation with seven million inhabitants should have easily put one hundred thousand men into the field, and should have found no difficulty in supporting them.” (567) Instead, the was was fought by the poor, who needed the meager army salary. The patriotic but well-off served the nation by joining the militias for six months of voluntary service, although never saw action. (These were the G.W. Bushes of the 19th century.)

The year 1812 ended with the nation at war, Madison easily re-elected president, but deep discord across the nation over who will fight the war, what the war is being fought for, and who would pay for the war expenses. The pattern established in this conflict would be carried on in future American conflicts. The war will be paid with debt, fought by the poor, and in the end celebrated as a great victory of a united people.

Henry Adams: “History of the United States of America: During the First Administration of James Madison” (Part One)

Meanwhile nothing could be more dangerous to the Americans than the loss of self-respect. The habit of denouncing themselves as cowards and of hearing themselves denounced as a race that cared only for money tended to produce the qualities imputed. Americans of 1810 were persuaded that they could not meet Englishmen or Frenchman on equal terms, man against man, or stand in battle against the veterans of Napoleon or Nelson. The sense of national and personal inferiority sank astonishingly deep. (150)

cover

This quote from Henry Adams study of James Madison’s presidency (the second half of his massive nine volume history of the Jeffersonian “revolution”) suggests the theme of the first half of Madison’s first term. With Thomas Jefferson’s embargo a political and diplomatic failure, Madison was forced to sustain Jefferson’s final law, the Non-Intercourse Act. This loosened some aspect of the Embargo Act, banning trade only with England and France, but more or less sustained the United States’ weak hand. Combined with weak leadership in Congress and the White House (Adams is quite harsh on Madison who he saw as failing to meet the times).

In many ways, the Jeffersonian revolution had already failed by the time Madison took office. The only bright side of the embargos was that they did promote some local industrial development, running contrary to the Jeffersonian hope for an agrarian nation. Military expenses, slashed when Jefferson took office, were forcing a renewal of the national debt in the early years of Madison’s first term. Neither Britain nor France seemed to respect the United States. The largest humiliation came when the attempt to get Britain to agree to the terms of the Non-intercourse Act, which would open trade with Britain in exchange for certain concessions, failed in a public humiliation for the United States. After agreeing to the terms, a new British diplomat came in (a man named Francis James Jackson) and rescinded the deal. Madison flayed around trying to get the British to commit to their previous agreements. Neither was the legislature any more impressive, which resorted to Macon’s Bill No. 2, which opened trade to both Britain and France provisionally. If either stopped playing nice, the United States would restore the boycotts.

The boycotts that worked so well during the struggle leading up to the Revolutionary War, were simply weak foreign policy and made the United States look like a petulant child, all the while overstating its importance in the international commercial system. Madison, who opposed the Bill, was forced to accept Napoleon’s exploitation of the bill. Napoleon immediately granted the United States rights as neutral carriers, something France needed to sustain its rule over the European mainland. Of course, he would not necessarily follow through on his promise not to strike American shipping with Britain. Well, after three long years of the Jeffersonian attempt at forced neutrality, shipping reopened, but not on the terms that made the United States look strong. Essentially, Macon’s Bill No. 2 was a surrender to the Europeans.

madison

Madison as President

Politically, the embargo crisis destroyed much of the energy of the Federalist Party, which was pushed to an even smaller minority in the 12th Congress. Adams also notices a change in the nature of the Republicans, who became less devoted to the principles that brought them into power and more interested in sustaining the power of the government. The previous Congress was so disliked that they even enjoyed some popularity although the institution was shattered. “Not only did Republicans and Federalists think alike for once, but even among the members themselves no one of weight had a good work to say of the body to which he belonged.” (221) This brings up an interesting question about why it is that the Congress of the United States is so commonly unpopular despite the innovations in self-rule that the American Revolution inspired. What does it tell us about the spirit of American politics that presidents tend to be more popular than the body representing the people?

While England and France were in a struggle for survival, the United States kept on playing small games on the side of these affairs. One of these was the 1811 law giving the president authority to seize East Florida. The 12th Congress also voted to end the charter of the Bank of the United States. This was an exception to the gradual shift toward central power Adams documents in the Republican presidents Jefferson and Madison. Madison supported ending the bank as part of the leftover agenda of Jefferson’s presidency, but Madison would oversee its return a few years later.

It seems to me that Adams had moved to largely explaining the causes of the War of 1812. Looking ahead in the volume I see that most of the remaining pages is devoted to either the causes of that war, or its fighting. The final two or three years of Madison’s presidency are presented as an afterthought. I still think that Adams here is a pioneer of the U.S. in the world approach to history, careful to show how event events in Russia and Sweden (and at one point India) are shaping the decisions of American policy-makers. But, if we are brutally honest, the second half of Adams’ history is really a telling of the story of the War of 1812. The lesson of this volume is that the United States, by sustaining a delusion of its own importance, wasted a number of good years where it could have acted like the empire it was. In this way, Madison proved to be no different than Jefferson in refusing to admit its own imperial activities. Perhaps this comes from the Atlantic perspective of these presidents (and Adams as the author). I am not sure what Adams will say about Tecumseh and the Shawnee revolt, but we will see in the next volume. Perhaps we will find a more honest empire there.

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

For a thousand years every step in the progress of England had been gained by sheer force of hand and will. In the struggle for existence the English people, favored by situation, had grown into a new human type,—which might be brutal, but was not weak; which had little regard for theory, but an immense and just respect for facts. America considered herself to be a serious fact, and expected England to take her at her own estimate of her own value; but this was more than could reasonably be asked. (978)

In volume four of Henry Adams’ history of the United States the major issue is foreign affair, and in particular, the rise and epic failure of Thomas Jefferson’s attempt at forced neutrality in the Napoleonic War, the Embargo Act. Adams believed that the failure of Jefferson’s foreign policy was America’s belief that it was more important to the world than they really were, more of an “established fact.” While, England and France were strong, established empires, the Americans were a passive force. “Jefferson and his government had shown over and over again that no provocation would make them fight; and from the moment that this attitude was understood, America became fair prey.” (978–979) Under the surface of this is the idea that Jefferson was both overstating his country’s importance (thinking that Europe could not afford to not trade with America) and underestimating its own power (by refusing to fight to defend its international position).

Adams also suggests that Jefferson misread the pulse of the American public in respect to British assaults on American sovereignty. While Jefferson invested all of his political capital on a forced peace through economic pressure, the people—much more honest about the nation’s imperial footing—was ready for war. The event that galvanized the public like never before was the attack by the British on the American ship “Chesapeake.” Only the force of his personality and his popularity seemed to hold back the tide of nationalistic exuberance among the people. The signs are there, in 1807, of a nation ready to project itself in the face of any insult, real or perceived. The embargo, may be read as yet another attempt by a closeted empire, but hiding it took every last bit of Jefferson’s ability and persuasive ability. He also had to put on a monarch’s cap, if only momentarily, to plug up the democratic energies calling for war.

Thus the embargo was imposed; and of all President Jefferson’s feats of political management, this was probably the most dexterous. On his mere recommendation, without warning, discussion, or publicity, and in silence as to his true reason and motives, he succeeded in fixing upon the country, beyond recall, the experiment of peaceable coercion. His triumph was almost a marvel; but no one could fail to see its risks. A free people required to know in advance the motives which actuated government, and the intended consequences of important laws. (1048)

Cartoon: A Smuggler During the Embargo Act 1807-1809 embargoact2

Adams sums up the costs of the embargo, of which the economic costs—not insignificant—were not the most significant. The republican experiment, Jefferson’s revolution of 1800, was “paralyzed” by the Embargo, requiring as it did Jefferson’s silencing of the people. Morally, the nation was harmed by the rise of smuggling and illicit trade. “Every citizen was tempted to evade or defy the laws.” (1118) Personally, Jefferson suffered great harm to his popularity and reputation. “America began slowly to struggle, under the consciousness of pain, toward a conviction that she must bear the common burdens of humanity, and fight with the weapons of other races in the same bloody arena; that she could not much longer delude herself with hopes of evading the laws of Nature and instinct of life; and that her new statesmanship which made peace a passion could lead to not better result than had been reached by the barbarous system which made war a duty.” (1126) I for one, do nor mourn this lost innocence. The non-imperial republic a myth form the beginning, as the Iroquois knew too well when being shuffled to reservations in upstate New York, or as the North Africans learned in the Barbary Wars. In the face of these things, Jefferson’s presumption that Americans could stand above such power politics looks more and more disgusting.

So where does Adams place the United States at in 1809, at the end of Jefferson’s first term? His last annual message to Congress in 1808 is revealing. While much of it was devoted to defending the faltering and heavily opposed embargo, Jefferson himself was capable of visions of future greatness for the nation, including a national university. As intellectual as he was, I doubt that he would have proposed such a nationalist institution in 1800. Jefferson was awash in nationalism and a population eager for greatness. Perhaps the national university was what Jefferson could offer in lieu of war. His final year in office even saw a return of the Federalists to a position of informing and contesting the president’s designs. “Not even in 1798 had factiousness been so violent as in the last month of President Jefferson’s power.” Jefferson himself was deeply hurt by his loss of popularity. Like so many sensitive introverts, Jefferson longed for “sympathy and love” of others.

Another picture of Jefferson. This one seemed more aristocratic to me.

Another picture of Jefferson. This one seemed more aristocratic to me.

More to Adams’ main point, Jefferson had left the nation very different and in complete betrayal of his revolution. “Jefferson has hoped to make his country forever pure and free; to abolish war, with its train of debt, extravagance, corruption, and tyranny; to build up a government devoted only to useful and moral objects; to bring upon earth a new era of peace and good-will among men.” (1246) His own actions and the victory of his enemies in his final months suggested the end of this dream. My feeling, if not Adams, was that this was always a myth, purely in the mind of Jefferson and his followers. One cannot hope to use the power of the state to end tyranny or promote morality or bring peace. It can only do the opposite.

The second half of Adams’ history, covering the presidency of James Madison, we suspect will only deepen the failure of the revolution of 1800, but we will see in future posts.

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)

jefferson

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.

burr

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.

 

 

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

For my next quest, I mean to read through the eight volumes of Henry Adams The History of the United States of America, which looks exclusively at the administrations of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. I plan on one post for each. Each volume of this massive history covers two years, roughly corresponding with one session of Congress.

cover

Adams is interested in this period for a variety of reasons, all of which should still be of interest to us today looking back at history for lessons on unintended consequences of our actions, or more bluntly on how to sustain our values in the face of historical change. One of his interests in is how Jefferson’s “revolution of 1800” was undone by himself and his successor, James Madison. In almost every area, Jefferson’s vision of government was challenged by the international systems and the changing nature of the American economy. He is also interested in the growth of an empire (commercial, territorial) in the aftermath of America’s anti-imperial revolution. Thirdly, he is exploring the maturation of democratic values and the final triumph over aristocracy. One thing that makes this account so very relevant today is that he was one of the first who detailed a clear narrative of America’s place in the world in its early history. Much of Adams’ curiosity is with the Atlantic and the diplomatic relations with Europe. At a time when historians were obsessed with the frontier, Adams looked abroad seeing the United States within a world system. With these themes in mind, we can being to approach the lengthy text.

Henry Adams

Henry Adams

Adams starts with a very useful survey of the geographical, economic, and intellectual conditions in the United States in 1800. Adams lived at a time when the United States’ conquest of the continent was more or less achieved. Less than one hundred years earlier, the United States was fragile, with a small population, and great internal divisions. While he may have seen the eventual rise of the United States as inevitable, he makes it clear that no one would have thought it likely at the time of Jefferson’s presidency. The two main divisions running across the United States were political and sectional. The political division (working at both the local and the national level) is not just between the Federalists against the Jeffersonian republicans. There was a deeper division between the conservatives who held onto the some of the major assumptions about leadership carried in from aristocratic societies. Facing this was a growing democratic society, helped along by the relative equality of conditions compared to Europe. He also details a deep sectional divide in the realm of the mind. Now, I suspect there is some teleology in this given that Adams is writing after the Civil War, but his case is fairly convincing. What seems to be going on is not that one section lacked what could be called a ruling class, they all had that (true aristocrats in the South, a more religious and traditional communitarian elite in the North). In the Middle Colonies, a more apparently democratic society was able to flourish. “New York possessed no church to overthrow, or traditional doctrines to root out, or centuries of history to disavow. Literature of its own it had little; of intellectual unity, no trace.” (77) But generally, across the nation what matter was how this division was interpreted based on the local conditions.

 

In a brilliant little chapter called “American Ideals, 1800” Adams lays out the fundamental divisions between the United States and Europe. Conservatives, in a sense, looked back to Europe. “[They] could tolerate no society without such pillars of order. . .  The Church was a divine institution. How could a ship hope to reach port when the crew threw overboard sails, spars, and compass, unshipped their rudder.” (122–123). But despite their shouts, the American social system was doing just that. Yet democracy was untested when Thomas Jefferson was elected president. He was one of its spokespeople, but there was yet an American language, an American literature, an American science. Its innovations, such as they were, were social and visible in existing reality, but whether that could create something new or would become disastrous was the test that Jefferson’s party faced.

Whatever radical visions Jefferson had for the United States, as detailed in his 1801 message to Congress were focused on reducing the role of the executive. These were almost immediately undermined by foreign policy challenges: first a war against the Barbary Pirates and second developments in the Haitian Revolution, which saw an increased interest of France in the Caribbean. Domestically, efforts did go forward to correct the mess left by John Adams last minute appointments to the judiciary and the promises to reduce internal taxations. (I find the fact that the United States survived so long by taxing commerce and not labor interesting.)

Adams is never only interested in what is going on in the United States. He always saw the young republic in the context of a world system that they did not control, but were note entirely subject to. As much as the continent may be have been a blank slate (it was not, but some saw it that way), the world system was not and the United States could not avoid the challenge of being a part of this competitive and often vile world. Adams spends two chapters talking about the Spanish court and the French interests in the Americas and another on the rise of Toussaint Louverture. The result is we find these United States diplomats a bit out of their league or at least, being pushed into directions they would not like to do. “When Jefferson became President of the United States and the Senate confirmed the treaty of Morfontaine, had Louverture not lost his balance he would have seen that Bonaparte and Talleyrand had out-manoevered him, and that even if Jefferson were not as French in policy as his predecessor had been hostile to France, yet henceforth the United States must disregard sympathies, treat St. Domingo as a French colony, and leave the negro chief to his fate.” (262) This is just one example of this larger scale that Adams always sees these Jeffersonian revolutionaries on.

The context of Jefferson's first term

The context of Jefferson’s first term

The first volume of his history ends with more foreign policy problems, due to the French closure of the Mississippi and the closure of the Congress in 1803.

Henry Adams, “The Education of Henry Adams”

The Education of Henry Adams contains two parts.  The first covers the first thirty-three years of Adams’ life and explores the continual failures of Adams’ attempts to find an “education,” the emergence of “chaos” reflected in the Civil War and the emergence of industrial capitalism in post-war America, and the end of his education after securing a teaching position in history at Harvard College.  The second part begins twenty years later and explores mostly his reflections on the changing nature of America and the conflict between his pre-industrial heritage, mind, and education with the industrial world.  This transition promised a new period of education in Adams’ life.

adams

I found the first part of this autobiography rich in commentary on education.  One cannot help but notice the privileged that Adams’ enjoyed.  He was born into an illustrious political family.  He had access to his family’s connections.  Adams attended Harvard College with other privileged youth.  His early careers was secured, first as assistant to his father when he served in Congress in 1860 and 1861 and then as an assistant to his father during the all-important diplomatic mission to Great Britain during the Civil War.  His constant complaint about his inability to find an education, despite these privileges cannot help but turn off someone of working-class roots like myself.  I certainly did not get to enjoy the library of a former president in my youth or bounce around Europe as a dilettante seeking an “education.”  Nevertheless, my goal in this blog is to give each writer a fair reading and find what, if anything, an anarchist can learn from the American tradition.  Well, in this sense, once we look past Adams’ privileged we find a rich and convincing discussion of the meaning, purpose, and means of education.   One cannot read this work and not come away questioning the utility of formal, bureaucratized education.  True education, Adams’ insists, comes from engagement in the world.  It is a product of life and action, not the receipt of information from the system.  We realize that yes, we did not get to go to Harvard because of our family connections but we also did not miss out on much.  Besides, he never forgets his privileged, unlike so many of the elite who never really reflect on how easy things have been for them.  “Probably no child, born in the year, held better cards than he.” (724)

In his “Preface” he claims that he wrote The Education to provide a guide for young people, complaining that despite Emile or Benjamin Franklin no guides existed.  Certainly none that spoke to the needs of the 20th century (or even the 19th).  This was Adams’ dilemma throughout his life.  His formal education prepared him for the 18th century, yet he lived in a world of industrial chaos – the world of the dynamo.  He does take from those writers a belief in autodidacticism.  The joke of Harvard learning and his insistence that education is an individual quest attest to this.  “If the students got little from his mates, he got little more from his masters.  The four years passed at College, were for his purposes, wasted.  Harvard College was a good school but at bottom what the boy disliked most was any school at all.  He did not want to be one in a hundred, — one per cent. of an education.  He regarded himself as the only person for whom his education had value, and he wanted the whole of it.  He got barely half of an average.  Long afterwards, when the devious path of life led him back to teach in his turn what no student naturally cared or needed to know, he diverted some dreary hours of Faculty-meetings by looking up his record in the class-lists, and found himself graded precisely in the middle.” (774)  He then adds that the one skill he needed for the modern world (mathematics) was not taught to him properly.  Not only did Harvard College fail to complete his education, he noticed that it did not even begin an education.

We notice with Adams that education needs to be dynamic and therefore must be deinstitutionalized.  The Civil War left “a million young men planted in thevmud of a lawless world, to begin a new life without education at all.” (820)  Every generation teaches their young for the world they grew up in, but change can be so dramatic and complete that all of those lessons are useless.  I reckon that our current educational crises is based on the perpetuation of an out-dated model.  Here is a useful clip from an education “reformer.”  Even advocates of formal education (in some form) realize what we have is useless.

Adams does receive a diplomatic education by working alongside his father, making connections, and learning lessons of “political morality.”  But strangely this education disqualified him for a life as a diplomat.  “For the law, diplomacy had unfitted him; for diplomacy he already knew too much.” (913)  Adams was after an education and nothing diplomatic after 1865 could be as interesting or educational as the politics of the war.  This drove him to the press.

Adams also discusses his relationship with Darwinism. It seems he took it up as a fad, but Darwinism is central to his argument about education.  Chaos, Adams insists, “breeds life” and order tradition and passivity.  This is essentially a vulgar Darwinian argument.  Darwin describes adaptation in response to a shifting world.  Adams describes formal educations obsolescent in transforming conditions.

Let me end this post by pointing out that he labels the chapter describing what for most intellectuals would have been the pinnacle of their dreams, a faculty position at Harvard, as “Failure.”  Why?  Well, he realized that he was part of an educational institution that was doomed to failure.  He could reach only a fraction of students but still fail to give that minority anything of value.  Adams was a relic.  Worse still, teaching ended his education.  “No more education was possible for either man.  Such as they were, they had got to stand the chances of the world they lived in; and when Adams started back to Cambridge, to take up again the humble tasks of schoolmaster and editor he was harnessed to his cart.  Education, systematic or accidental, had done its worst.  Henceforth he went on, submissive.” (1006)

It seems to me the lesson we should take from Adams’ failure is that we should not measure our success, our knowledge, and education by the standards of a by-gone age.  The world that created the institutions of public education and higher education and dinosaurs.  And every year since Adams wrote these words, these institutions have aged more and developed only in uselessness and decadence.  Millions of students attend glorified prisons (for both the body and the mind) to acquire a piece of paper, which will in turn allow them entrance into another prison.  Families and communities will pass on the ignorance of a generation.  Schools pass on the ignorance of an entire society.  I do not believe individuals can do worse then this.  We should have faith in each child’s capacity to teach themselves through experiences.

Henry Adams, “Mont Saint Michel”

From the context of modernity, science and reason, the medieval period strikes us as the exact opposite.  Rather than driven by reason, people of the middle ages embraced superstitions.  Instead of investing wealth in industry and “progress,” they invested massive wealth in cathedrals, castles, and a religious hierarchy.  They uplifted science over philosophy.  In Mont Saint Michel and Charters, Adams makes these distinctions.  It is less of a history of the architecture and philosophy of the Middle Ages and more of a nostalgic sigh, reminding people in the early 20th century of how people thought and created in the 13th century.  Through it all is not only do we not understand the medieval period, but that we have lost a perspective of value and richness.

Adams’ poem “Prayer to the Virign of Chartes” sums up this theme of lost and modernity’s tendency to reject the old as not only dated, but on some level worthless. “For centuries I brought you all my cares, and vexed you with the murmurs of a child; you heard the tedious burden of my prayers; you could not grant them, but at least you smiled!  If then I left you, it was not my crime, or if a crime, it was not mine alone.  All children wander with the truant Time.” (1202)  Throughout Mont Saint Michel, “The Virgin” is a symbol of the medieval perspective on life.

chartes3

This is contrasted in his poetry (and later in The Education of Henry Adams) with the “dynamo.”  While the Virgin is known to be forgiving and kind the dynamo is morally opaque.  “We know not whether you are kind, or cruel in your fiercer mood; but be you Matter, be you Mind, We think we know that you are blind, and we alone are good.”  Despite this, the Virgin is a mystery and a riddle, but the spirit of the dynamo demands knowledge of all.  No mystery can be unrevealed.  “Seize, then, the Atom! rack his joints! Tera out of him his secret spring! Grind him to nothing!–though he points to use, and his life-blood anoints me–the dead Atom-King!” (1204-1205)  Adams sees a danger in a science that will reveal all.  “The man who solves the Infinite, and needs the force of solar systems for his play, will not need me, nor greatly care what deeds made me illustrious in the dawn of day.” (1205-1206)  Mont Saint Michel develops these themes by trying to get into the head of the people of the 11th, 12th, and 13th centuries.

Mont Saint Michel

Mont Saint Michel

He looks across the middle ages broadly, but focuses on a few issues such as the massive investment in time, energy, and money in the building of great cathedrals such as the one in Chartes, the prominent role of women – such as the Eleanor or Heloise, folklore and legends, and philosophy.  In every area he finds a world directly opposed to ours, which is why this is not strictly a travelogue of a tour of medieval French sites, or a history.  On the grandeur and apparent waste of a cathedral, Adams writes.  “One has grown so used to this sort of loose comparison, this reckless waste of words, that one no longer adopts an idea, unless it is driven in with hammers of statistics and columns of facts.” (425)  When dealing with architecture, Adams is fascinated by the investment involved in these structures.  A capitalist would never make such investments.  Even the hope of Heaven, these investments would be a risk.  “One may be sure, too, that the bourgeois capitalist and the student of the schools, each from his own point of view, watched the Virgin with anxious interest.  The bourgeois had put an enormous share of his captain into what was in fact an economical speculation, not unlike the South Sea Scheme, or hte railway system of our won time; except that in one case the energy was devoted to shorting the road to Heaven; in the other, to shortening the road to Paris.”  (431)  Of course, we know that no capitalist today would make such an investment without the promise of a return.  This is summed up later in the work.  “Society had staked its existence, in this world and the next, on the reality and power of the Virgin; it had invested in her care nearly its whole capital, spiritual, artistic, intellectual and economical, even to the bulk of its real and personal estate; and her overthrow would have been the most appalling disaster the western world had ever known.” (576)  From the perspective of the modern world, Aquinas is not less awe-inspiring than the cathedrals as it reflects the same investment into the spirit that modern capital invests in “technological progress.” In the chapter on Aquinas, Adams constructs his view of God with the dynamo, his representation of 19th century progress.  But the difference is great: in one the created is trying to understand the creator.  In the dynamo, the creator lamely watches progress unfold.

Chartes2

I am not entirely convinced that the Middle Ages has much to teach us.  Adams, of course, ignores the exploitation of working people that stood at the foundation of medieval society and the creation of the Cathedrals.  For Adams, each Cathedral was the collective work of religious artisans, and not masons taking a job to support a family – or worse, deluded masses manipulated in producing palaces for the elite.  I do not know which is true, but I for one find little desire to return to 13th century France.  I am reminded that we need to keep on the lookout for alternatives.  If William James is correct, we cannot imagine outside of our experience and history.  If the Middle Ages can show us a world where women commanded political authority, where people were not slaves to capitalist logic, where the solving of mysteries produced as much respect as the investing of wealth, and where stories of heroes and poetry and craftsmanship and art produced wounder, then I am not opposed to opening a door to that world and time.  Perhaps we need a bit more wonder and mystery if we are to escape the enforced boredom of late capitalism.

Henry Adams, “Esther: A Novel”

Esther is Adams’ second and final novel.  The plot concerns a freethinking young woman’s encounter, through artistic pursuits, with a church, an experienced artist, and a orphan woman from the West.  As Esther incorporates herself into this world, she agrees to marry the preacher, Mr. Hazard.  She is all but an atheist.  Her close friend, George, is a paleontologist and agnostic.  Her father uses religion only for its moral influence on society, not out of any true believe.  Esther is never quite able to resolve her conflict between her love for Mr. Hazard (admitted in the final line of the novel) and her disgust with her finance’s beliefs and practices.  The idea of being a church wife, attending services and putting on the face of a devoted believer disgusts her.

Henry Adams

The world of Esther is a world in change.  We can foreshadow the “dynamo and the Virgin” in Esther.  The rise of the new woman, professional, educated, assertive, and in the public, runs in conflict with expectations about the role of women.  Listen to Hazard’s expectations of the woman he eventually courts.  “The next morning he looked about the church and was disappointed at not seeing her there.  This young man was used to flattery; he had been sickened with it, especially by the women of his congregation; he thought there was nothing of this nature against which he was not proof; yet he resented Esther Dudley’s neglect to flatter him by coming to his sermon.” And later on that same page, this is contrasted with his opinion of Catherine Brooke.  “Her innocent eagerness to submit was charming, and the tyrants gloated over the fresh and radiant victim who was eager to be their slave.  They lured her on, by assumed gentleness, in the path of bric-a-brac and sermons.” (214)  The transition to new ideas is clearly represented in the characters of Hazard and George Strong, the scientist.  The artist, Wharton, and his failed marriage also suggest the coming of a new era where traditional arrangements break down.  That these modern figures (Esther and Wharton) are hired to paint portraits for the church provides yet another dichotomy between tradition and modernity.   Catherine Brooke as an orphan from the West brought to New York City, suggests the conquest of the frontier and the end of that epoch of American history.

An atheist reader (like me) will be tempted to cheer on Esther as she allows her modern mind to prevent what could only be a disastrous marriage.  We are not entirely sure until the very end what Esther sees in Hazard.  He struck me as too authoritarian, too traditional, and too patriarchal for a women like Esther.  Yet the final confession, that she loved Hazard, reminds us of the danger of allowing the mind to overcome the heart.  Indeed, the conflict between faith and science, between tradition and modernity is not more of a problem than many other things that divide couples (monogamy/non-monogamy, politics, cultural differences).  To assume that faith is the irreconcilable barrier is rather irrational and peculate and boring.  This realization does not make one like Hazard any more, but it makes one dislike Esther a bit.  Without idealizing the concept of “romantic love” (full of capitalist logic, which I can have the chance to discuss in a later post), we can appreciate that Esther threw away an opportunity for happiness, friendship, and community through Hazard.  She simultaneously throws away the advances of George who loved Esther from the beginning of the novel.  (This time the problem is not intellectual, but a lack of feeling.)    These are the mistakes of youth and in my experience common enough.