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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 658


This is the grave of Brooks Adams.

Born into America’s most elite family in 1848, Peter Chardon Brooks Adams was the son of Charles Francis Adams, the grandson of John Quincy Adams, and the great-grandson of John Adams. He followed their long tradition to Harvard, where he graduated in 1870. He then went to Harvard Law for two years. He spent a couple of years traveling the globe, including to India and the Middle East. He practiced law in Boston until 1881, when he gave it up for the study of history. He married in 1889, to Evelyn Davis, the daughter of Admiral Charles Henry Davis. They had no children.

Adams became one of the leading historians of the Gilded Age, just at the time that the writing of history was becoming a professional occupation. His first book, The Emancipation of Massachusetts: The Dream and the Reality came out in 1887. He followed that with The Gold Standard: A Historical Study (1894), The Law of Civilization and Decay: An Essay on History (1895), America’s Economic Supremacy (1900), The New Empire (1902), Railways as Public Agents: A Study in Sovereignty (1910), and Theory of Social Revolution (1913).

Through these books, Adams’ big theme was the common old money elite complaint about the Gilded Age–that American values were being ruined by moneyed capitalism. His overarching thesis was that the fight for individual wealth undermined spirituality, community, and culture. And while he arguably has a point there, this was no Marxist. Rather, this was a reactionary critique of capitalism, a longing back to the earlier days when his forefathers were in high-ranking political positions, not just leading scholars. For both he and his brother, historian Henry Adams, democracy was doomed to decay. That was the basic topic of The Law of Civilization and Decay.

Adams’ secondary theory was that world economic centers had moved west for hundreds of years, from Constantinople to Venice to Amsterdam and to London, with New York next. And while this is true enough I suppose–and now maybe it is China–this the kind of singular logic of explanation that one can poke enormous holes in. But hey, whatever, it was the 1890s and this was the great era when people thought history was HISTORY and it had laws like gravity and evolution. The Theory of Social Revolution went deeper into the darkness he saw in America–saying that untrammeled wealth without social obligation would destroy the country. And I mean, hey, one can make that argument about the present, but again, Adams was nostalgically longing back to the era of noblesse oblige, not calling for the New Deal ahead of his time. After Henry died, Brooks continued on this theme writing the introduction for his brother’s unpublished book The Degradation of the Democratic Dogma (nice alliteration Henry!), published in 1919.

Adams may have been something of a reactionary, but he was not blind to the problems of his beloved state’s past. The Emancipation of Massachusetts made it very clear that the Puritans ran a pretty awful theocratic government with no place for freedom of speech or religion.

Adams also thought about a political career. Unlike his father though, who had helped save the nation during the Civil War through his brilliant work as Ambassador to the UK, where he helped keep the Palmerston government from recognizing the Confederacy, Brooks Adams was a Democrat. That he was very much a Gilded Age Democrat reflected the Liberal Republican anger over what the Republicans had become in 1872, both in terms of the very real political and financial corruption and because the party still wanted to help Black people. He became a pretty big power player in state level politics and in 1898, there was a real campaign to get him to run for governor. But that failed basically because Adams was a big time imperialist at a time when the Democratic Party opposed U.S. expansion overseas, mostly because they didn’t want to bring more non-whites into the nation.

However, Adams’ embrace of imperialism started him on a path back to the Republican Party. That only increased after The Law of Civilization and Decay became a big influence on Theodore Roosevelt. He sometimes consulted Adams in his presidency, even though what they really shares similar politics was a longing for a return to the right people leading the nation responsibly, as well of course as a love of American expansionism.

Although he certainly did not need to work, Adams became a lecturer at the Boston University Law School in 1903 and stayed there until 1909. In 1912, he was a big backer of Roosevelt’s Bull Moose Party and worked hard for his friend’s doomed campaign, one that divided the Republican Party in part between the people Adams liked and the reason he had left the party in the first place. After 1912, he was not particularly productive. His health was only so-so in later years. He spent a long time in Germany recovering from ill health in 1913. He did this a bunch in later years. He still wrote, especially when he was overseas, but it was mostly essays that repeated the same points he had always made. He died in Quincy, Massachusetts in 1927, at the age of 78.

Brooks Adams is buried in Mt. Wollaston Cemetery, Quincy, Massachusetts.

If you would like this grave to visit other early American historians, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. George Bancroft is in Worcester, Massachusetts and Andrew Dickson White is in Ithaca, New York. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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