"Young man, it doesn't make the slightest difference who lives in [the White House], history goes on with or without the president." --Henry Adams to Franklin Roosevelt, circa 1913
Henry Adams, a direct descendant of Presidents John Adams and John Quincy Adams, was a prominent American historian in the late 19th and late 20th centuries; if he’s remembered at all today, it is for his essay (written in 1900) “The Dynamo and the Virgin”. Nonetheless, Adams was the subject of a 2005 book by Garry Wills (HENRY ADAMS AND THE MAKING OF AMERICA), and he was a prominent figure in John Patrick Diggins’ THE PROMISE OF PRAGMATISM (1994). Despite his pivotal role in that latter volume, Henry Adams was by no means a Pragmatist himself; at least as Diggins portrays him, Adams rejected the serene optimism of John Dewey and William James in favor of, if not a tragic view of history, a deeply pessimistic one.
As Diggins explains:
In Adams’s era American society had seen the rise of coal, steam, and electrical power as well as dynamos, turbines, and combustion engines. All such developments signified man’s predatory relationship with an environment that had once taken its life from biological spontaneity and diversity…
While John Dewey’s Pragmatism presupposed that man, as a biological creature, could only develop in ways consistent with nature, Henry Adams suspected that something had gone awry:
Like Friedrich Nietzsche, Adams also believed that Western culture was on a catastrophic course because its inhabitants insisted that nature answer to their wishes for power and comfort. Both thinkers questioned Darwinism because they saw the drive for mastery as alien to nature and the drive for progress as conceit and self-deception. Both came to question the eighteenth-century Enlightenment assumption that scientific advancement meant moral as well as material progress. Adams chided the “cheerful optimism which gave to Darwin’s conclusion the charm of human perfectibility.” Adams saw no law of progress operating in the nation’s capital, where the spirit of the Constitution was defied and the heritage of the Founders ignored. “The progress of evolution from President Washington to President Grant,” he quipped, “was alone evidence to upset Darwin.” Adams had no trouble upsetting the easy assumptions of the “Gilded Age”. The age may have celebrated population growth and the achievements of science as indicative of the success of Homo Sapiens as an increasingly perfectible organism; but both the drive to grow and the drive to master could demand so much of nature as to doom the earth as a human habitat.
Prophetic, indeed, even though Adams didn’t express concern about other creatures being imperiled as well by the human “drive to master”. Regardless, says Diggins: Adams shared Nietzsche’s conviction that behind the drive to force nature into yielding its secrets was the human will to power masquerading as the pursuit of knowledge. Of course, since modern science began, more or less, with the dictum “Knowledge is power” (credited to Francis Bacon), Adams and Nietzsche were repeating something that had been openly stated and well-known for centuries but which had also been widely (and discreetly) ignored: a disinterested “search for knowledge” sounds more respectable and seems more defensible than a relentless “will to power”.
The more science discovered the more Henry Adams feared its consequences:
Adams [used] science his earliest ancestors had used religion: to instill the terrors of the unknown. If Adams’s reification of science and history suggested the modernist nightmare that nature and reason are alienated, it also suggested the old Calvinist riddle of salvation and submission. “To me, the new economic law brings or ought to bring us back to the same state of mind as resulted from the old religious law, that of profound helplessness and dependence of an infinite force that is to us incomprehensible and omnipotent...my belief,” he wrote to his brother Brooks in 1902, "is that science will wreck us, and that we are like monkeys monkeying with a loaded shell; we don't in least know or care where our practical energies come from or will bring us to." Science alienated man from nature by providing man with the knowledge to unleash its energies but not the values to control them."
Descended from Presidents, Henry Adams nonetheless had no illusions about the nation or about the national character:
John Adams had doubted America’s claim to a special national ‘virtue’; Henry also challenged the conceit of American uniqueness. In Democracy he chided those proud Americans who believed themselves exempt from the ‘operation of general laws’ of history that doom every republic to corruption; and in Esther he obliquely questioned…William James’s conviction that mere belief in free will can make freedom happen, breaking the mechanical cycle of cause and effect that governs the “iron-block” universe. The Jeremiah theme of perishability, of the subversion of freedom and virtue by power and luxury, ran in his blood, and no doubt he enjoyed a macabre sense of the humor of developing a capricious theory of history to dramatize the precariousness of human existence. “Thank God I was never cheerful,” he remarked to a friend. “I come from the happy stock of the Mathers, who, you remember, passed sweet mornings reflecting on the goodness of God and the damnation of infants.”
At this particular moment in our history, we could do worse than acquaint ourselves with Henry Adams and with his sometimes mordant assessments of history, democracy, and America. In 1904, Adams wrote: "Prosperity never before imagined, power never wielded by man, speed never reached by anything but a meteor, has made the world nervous, querulous, unreasonable, and afraid." Two World Wars, a Holocaust, a Gulag, and the horror of Hiroshima and Nagasaki later, it's hard to argue with Henry Adams' succinct summary of "all he had learned from politics and history": "Power is poison." Time will tell if any antidote exists or can be found.