Politics, Henry Adams wrote, has always been "the systematic organization of hatreds." Despite the surface cynicism of the statement, its truth seems undeniable. Every political campaign, on local and national levels, provides a fresh abundance of examples. But the proposition contains two elements. It acknowledges partisan animosities while allowing for their "systematic organization." Adams takes hatred as a given of human nature; what ultimately matters is the shape of the structures it assumes. Adams in his idiosyncratic way was that rarity, an optimist without illusions.
In his "History of the United States of America during the Administrations of Thomas Jefferson," first published in 1889 and completed three years later by his "History of the United States of America during the Administrations of James Monroe," Adams drew on this mix of disillusioned lucidity and cautious hopefulness to show just how America became America. Although often invoked, the "History," is less often read. That is a great pity. Adams's work is a masterpiece, the closest thing to an American epic we possess. For all its wealth of detail, on everything from demographics to thevwestwardvexpansion, fromvfiscal policy to the wrangles of clergymen — with any number of unforgettable portraits of statesmen and scoundrels alike — the "History" is fundamentally concerned with discovery. His curiosity propels the whole colossal work.
The complete "History" is available in the Library of America, in two plump volumes (vol. 1, 1,308 pages; vol. 2, 1,436 pages, $45 each), but readers daunted by its bulk may prefer to begin with "The Jeffersonian Transformation: Passages from the ‘History,'" edited and introduced by Garry Wills (NYRB, 236 pages, $14.95). Mr. Wills's selection contains the first six and the last four chapters of the entire work. This makes it something like the sandwich without the filling. In particular, since these chapters deal with general topics, such as the "Intellect of New England" and "American Ideals," Adams's extraordinary gift for characterization, the equal of any novelist's, is not much on display (he had honed that talent in his two novels.). But even abridged, the genius of the "History" shines through on every page.
Henry Adams (1838–1918) had the best connections a historian of America could hope for. The great-grandson of John Adams and the grandson of John Quincy Adams, in whose house he often summered as a child, he was on familiar terms with the powerful, and he observed them closely. In "The Education of Henry Adams," hisautobiography published posthumously in 1918, he remarked that his upbringing had been "as though he were steeped, from his greatest grandmother's birth, in the odor of political crime." As Mr. Wills points out in his superb introduction, Adams was consistently harsh towards his own forebears. The hero of the "History" is Jefferson, the implacable enemy of New England values. And Jefferson's unusual character, mercurial and fiercely principled at once, comes through with great force and sympathy. Even his preferred manner of dress, his "red-plush waistcoat and sharp-toed boots," is turned to telling effect in Adams's account.
No scene could better display the systematic organization of hatreds than Jefferson's first Inauguration on March 4, 1801. The 6-foot-two Jefferson, "shy in manner" and "awkward in attitude," mounted the steps of the Capitol to find himself flanked by Aaron Burr, his newly elected vice president, and chief justice John Marshall, whose "one weakness," in Adams's words, was that "he detested Thomas Jefferson." When they appeared together in the Senate chamber, "the assembled senators looked up at three men who profoundly disliked and distrusted each other." Such was the inauspicious beginning of "the Jeffersonian transformation."
In addition to a sheer mastery of all available data, from census statistics to the finer points of Unitarianism over an obscure twenty-year period, Adams had two other qualities as a historian that rank him alongside Thomas Macauley and Edward Gibbon, his most admired models. He possessed a sense of scope. He saw in the rough beginnings of a scattered America all that it might become. And he had a rare gift of detached sympathy. He could identify with figures whom he otherwise detested, such as the aristocratic but slippery Aaron Burr. This allowed him to give full weight to all sides of the debates that raged at the time. And like Macaulay and Gibbon, Adams commanded a magnificent prose style that could be at one moment brutally terse, at another profoundly eloquent, though always controlled by a fine sense of irony. Sweep and subtlety are rarely found together to such effect.
1800 may seem an unlikely year with which to begin such a history. But as Adams noted in a final volume, "in the brief space of thirty years, between 1787 and 1817 — a short generation — the Union had passed through astonishing stages. Probably no great people ever grew more rapidly and became more mature in so short a time." He concluded the "History" with an openness to possibility that is strangely moving, especially today. "Americans," he wrote, "were peaceful, but by what machinery were their corruptions to be purged? What interests were to vivify a society so vast and uniform? What ideals were to ennoble it? What object, besides physical content, must a democratic continent aspire to attain?" These may be Jeffersonian questions, but they're still ours to answer.