Henry Adams and his dog

He was the great grandson of one U.S. president. The grandson of another. The son of a diplomat and U.S. congressman. A Harvard graduate and a member of the New England intellectual elite. And as he began his career as a political writer, Henry Adams set his sights on Ulysses S. Grant, a man he considered unfit for the presidency.

Born in Boston on February 16, 1838, Henry Adams grew up in an atmosphere of wealth and culture. His great-grandfather, John Adams, had been the United States' second president. His grandfather, John Quincy Adams, had been the sixth. Adams' father, Charles Francis Adams, was a historian. Charles would also serve his country as a congressman and a diplomat. Adams' mother, Abigail Brown Brooks, was a Boston Brahmin, a daughter of one of the city's wealthy, exclusive families.

As a boy, Henry Adams studied at an exclusive private school, but he also learned a great deal from his father. The family home included a library of some 18,000 books -- the largest in Boston at the time. Later, at Harvard University, Henry studied broadly. His subjects included Greek and Roman literature, mathematics, government, botany, astronomy, physics, and French. In 1858 Henry graduated from Harvard, just as his father, grandfather, and great-grandfather had done before him.

After graduation, Adams traveled to Germany, where he began to study law at the University of Berlin. But when Abraham Lincoln appointed his father minister to England in 1861, Henry abandoned law school. He went to London, where for seven years he served as his father's personal secretary.

Henry Adams

Henry returned to the United States in 1868. He settled in Washington, D.C., where he began a career as political journalist. Adams' work began to appear in influential periodicals such as The Nation, the New York Evening Post, and the North American Review. In his articles, Adams focused his razor-sharp wit on corruption in government and big business. Among the men Adams criticized most harshly was Ulysses S. Grant.

Adams believed Grant lacked the sophistication needed to be president. Grant, Adams later wrote, was "pre-intellectual, archaic, and would have seemed so even to the cave-dwellers." Adams also believed that Grant encouraged and even participated in corrupt politics. Reform was necessary, Adams wrote, to take power away from the crooked politicians and financial swindlers who held it.

One of Adams' attacks on Grant followed the collapse of the New York gold market on Black Friday, September 24, 1869. Adams' article, "The New York Gold Conspiracy," detailed Jay Gould and Jim Fisk's plot to corner the gold market. The article hinted that Ulysses S. Grant had participated in or at least known of the scheme.

"I want to be advertised and the easiest way is to do something obnoxious and do it well," Adams had once written. But political writing had neither made Adams famous nor eliminated government corruption. In 1870, after just two years in Washington, Adams returned to Boston. There, until 1877, he taught medieval history at Harvard. But politics still flowed through Adams' veins. In 1870, the same year he started at Harvard, he also became editor of the North American Review, a job he held for six years.

As editor of one of America's most influential journals, Adams continued to support government reform. He practiced his ideas as well as preached them. In 1872 Henry Adams was among the Republicans who left their party to nominate the Democratic newspaper editor Horace Greeley for president. But Greeley's defeat -- and a look at politics from the inside -- disappointed Adams. Disgusted with the political world, Adams began to concentrate on a career as a historian.

From 1877 to 1911, Henry Adams wrote a number of history books, including biographies of Albert Gallatin, John Randolph, and George Cabot Lodge; a nine-volume History of the United States; and a book of medieval history. He also wrote two novels, Democracy, An American Novel, which he published anonymously, and Esther, which he published under a pseudonym. But Adams' greatest work was his autobiography, The Education of Henry Adams, which he printed privately in 1906 but did not release to the public.

In 1912 Adams suffered a serious stroke, but managed to recover. He died in 1918, the same year that his autobiography was published and made generally available. In 1919, one year after its author's death, The Education of Henry Adams was awarded the Pulitzer Prize.

My American Experience

My American Experience photos

Share Your Story

Do you admire Ulysses S. Grant? Or perhaps Robert E. Lee? Tell us who is your favorite and why.

  • Additional funding for this program was provided by

  • NEH