. . .

Failing towards Freedom : Brooks Adams, 1

Since the capitulation of Paris the soldier has tended to sink more and more into a paid official, receiving his orders from financiers with his salary, without being allowed a voice even in questions involving peace and war. The same fate has overtaken the producing classes; they have failed to maintain themselves, and have become subjects of the possessors of hoarded wealth. Although the conventions of popular government are still preserved, capital is at least as absolute as under the Caesars, and, among capitalists, the money-lenders form an aristocracy. Debtors are in reality powerless, because of the extension of that very system of credit which they invented to satisfy their needs. Although the volume of credit is gigantic, the basis on which it rests is so narrow that it may be manipulated by a handful of men. [...] The aristocracy which wields this autocratic power is beyond attack, for it is defended by a wage-earning police, by the side of which the legions were a toy; a police so formidable that, for the first time in history, revolt is hopeless and is not attempted. The only question which preoccupies the ruling class is whether it is cheaper to coerce or to bribe.
- The Law of Civilization and Decay: An Essay on History
by Brooks Adams (1895-6)

Brooks Adams never set "The Law" in a single line of Greek and arithmetic; his wife's suggested title was The Path to Hell: A Story Book. He thumps out a simple enough pattern, though.

History describes the inverse relationship of two emotions: Fear and Greed. ("That's not where I want to be.") As a population centralizes, Fear becomes less important, Greed more. The power (or status or survival he makes no distinction) of an individual (or "organism", "type", "breed", "race" he makes no distinction) in any community (or "culture", "civilization", "nation", "race" he makes no distinction) is determined by whether Fear or Greed has the ascendancy. Military heroes and priests rule the Fearful; capitalists rule the Greedy. As Greed accelerates, the increasingly capitalistic community becomes dependent on cheaper external goods and labor. Eventually this leads to collapse, dispersion, and Fear.

The leading indicators (or the sole engines he's vague) of cultural change are control of financial exchange and access to the units of exchange.

  1. The Roman empire rose and conquered under the banner of forced high-interest credit, and declined under the same. Pax Romana was just another name for trade deficits and agricultural ruin: "Economic competition became free, land tended to concentrate in fewer and fewer hands, and this land was worked by eastern slaves, who reduced the wages of labour to the lowest point at which the human being can survive."
  2. The Empire moved to Constantinople to follow the center of international trade, where exchange could be balanced. Collapse of the Western empire brought the Italian peasantry immediate relief.
  3. As decentralization of Western Europe progressed and technology was lost, the money value of the miracle rose. Which eventually led to the Crusades, which eventually led back to economic recentralization.
  4. The Renaissance? The Crusades diverted money from Byzantimum towards Italy. "Placed between the masterpieces of the East and West, and having little imagination of his own, the Florentine banker conceived the idea of combining the two systems and embellishing them in a cheap and showy manner...."
  5. As the power of capital advanced, it brought about the Protestant Reformation. A personal relationship with God is cheaper than miracles purchased through His licensed agent.

Follow the money: Rome plundered Europe and the Near East. The merchants plundered Rome. The Church plundered Europe. Italy plundered Constantinople. Portugal stole the Indies trade from Italy. Spain plundered the New World. The Dutch stole the ocean trade from Spain. Improved technology re-centered trade in England. England plundered India. Germany plundered France. Bankers plundered everyone.

So it seems to be a habit with us. What makes Adams's account most impressively legalistic is his tone, the attorney's habit of argument by inevitability. "She had no choice but to pull the trigger." "You have no choice but to find her guilty." "The Knights Templar might as well have argued with gravitation." "That ostentatious, sordid, and cowardly race, being better adapted, rose to dominance."

... to be continued ...


"a habit with us" - Seeing as how they've truncated your sense of us-ness down to somewhat minus the last 3 millenia, with an unspoken codicil that any pre-our-history human lives were larval and inconsequent, like indigenes generally, even the useful ones, it might get more toward the actual analysis of motivation to say "this here us".
Fear and Greed are the driving wheels of this particular clot of this particular primate spooge, what we are as a race, or specie, is rather larger than what passes for history now.

I see where you're coming from and I'm getting there, although I can't blame you if you're tired of waiting. I meant this first part as summary, not as endorsement. (I wonder how many "Little Nell must die" letters were sent to Dickens.)

. . .

Failing towards Freedom : Brooks Adams, 2

All this appreciably before Max Weber or Oswald Spengler.... It's tempting to say Brooks Adams was ahead of his time, except he hits anyone's time on his face.

Despite its recent crisis, the 1895 American elite wasn't in the mood for anti-imperialist pessimism. And neither were Marxists, really; although Adams thought capitalism incapable of avoiding civilization-shattering crises, he also thought humanity incapable of avoiding capitalism. We weren't heading for the dictatorship of the proletariat. We were heading for anarchy and subjection by fresher capitalists.

After the Great War, Spengler's race-mysticism was found more interesting than Adams's materialism. As late as 1944, the New English Weekly could complain that "the emphasis it lays on the economic factor" conflicted with "Otto Sieck's thesis that character changes are brought about by miscegenation."

But although Adams claimed wealth determined which representatives of which races ended up on top, he still expressed himself in racial reifications. This account of globalization is likely to be found distasteful by most fans of Hardt & Negri:

First, inventions from the East facilitated trade; then, the perfection of weapons of attack made police possible, and individual bravery unnecessary; on this followed the abasement of the martial and exaltation of the economic type; and finally that intense acceleration of movement by machinery supervened, which, in annihilating space, has destroyed the protection that the costly races long enjoyed against the competition of simpler organisms. [...] For nearly a century the inventions of Hargreaves, of Crompton, of Cartwright, and of Watt, enabled Lancashire to supply Bombay and Calcutta with fabrics, as, in the seventeenth century, Surat and Calicut had supplied London, and this superiority appeared assured until Orientals should acquire the momentum necessary for machinery. One effect in Europe was the rapid increase of a population congregated in towns, and bearing a marked resemblance to the "humiliores" of Rome in their disinclination for war. True to their instincts, the adventurers ever quickened their movements, ever extended the sphere of their enterprises, and, finally, just as the Second Empire verged upon its fall, they opened the Suez Canal in 1869. The consequences of this great engineering triumph have probably equalled in gravity the establishment of the gold standard, but the two phenomena had this marked difference. The producers saw their danger and resisted to the utmost the contraction of the currency, whereas the Canal was a case of suicide. Thenceforward grain, raised by the most enduring labour of the world, could be thrown without limit on the European market, and, agricultural competition once established, industrial could only be a question of time.

Even on its own terms the book's a mess, unable to resist a good torture scene anytime or anywhere, and digressing spectacularly into the vices of the Tudors.

Its own terms are what interest me.

... to be continued ...


Character changes are brought about by miscegnation. Also by adherence to racial-purity laws. Also by celibacy. Also by promiscuity. Also by tedious list-making. The character of those changes may be more of an issue.

"The character of" as in "The nature of" or as in "The person effected by"? If the latter, I agree. The characters of the miscegnator or tedious list-maker may be changed by their experiences, but not the characters of their descendents.

Oh but of course. Though cast in more subtle light than our dull gross vision has power to see. You mean predictable intentional change I think. Everything works changes on everything else. The glockenspiel effects the timpani, in its way, though we'll never hear it, still it does.

. . .

Failing towards Freedom : Brooks Adams, 3

Early Darwinian historians simply swapped Nature's will in for God's: Nature evolved homo sapiens, and then Nature evolved late nineteenth-century Anglo-Americans, and now it's just a matter of mopping up the kitchen.

Brooks Adams knew better. Biological evolution describes a process, not a project; by analogy, any rules governing human culture would continue to grind through the Gilded Age. Anyone who thought they'd reached the end of history hadn't understood history.

Relinquishing the throne of creation freed Adams to found a different lineage of errors.

Take, for example, his assumption that biology and culture conserve a constant quantifiable "energy" which is divvied out across each generation. Or his asides about a force of history which can no more be argued with than gravitational acceleration. In both cases, he seems to misunderstand evolution as (singular) survival of the (winner-take-all) fittest under a (singular) law rather than as an intention-free account of species diversification. He mistakes Darwin for Newton.

He's hardly alone. Because technology depends on reliably replicable results, non-scientists tend to picture science as a matter of finding trustworthy laws and formulas. But that doesn't cover even all laboratory sciences: Medical and psychological journals describe barely distinguishable correlations rather than universally valid laws, and the pressures of research funding encourage flexibility in what's considered significant. In the twentieth century, physics itself became probabilistic.

Most drastically, the characterization doesn't cover historical science. Historical sciences such as geology and evolutionary biology study contingencies, not eternal verities. What makes them scientific are the materiality of their problems, their evidence, and their suggested explanations.

Darwin's problem was the appearance of new species over time. His solution was divergent descent driven by material means.

What's the historian's problem? It doesn't seem to be divergence. Like later scientizing historians, Adams rummaged through the polymorphic transtemporal promiscuity of human culture and found cycles. But evolution isn't cyclical.

Biologists in the tradition of Darwin should not speak of the coming into effect of selection if:

1. Already disappeared characters suddenly re-appear in subsequent generations (= false negative selection).
2. Characters which seem to have been positively “selected” during ontogeny never re-appear in subsequent generations (= false positive selection).

Usually, genes, genomes, characters, individuals, populations, and species never do come back once they have been negatively selected, and that is eliminated by Darwinian selection. This is the very simple, but fundamental essence of Darwin’s idea of “natural selection” which, in that respect, was a clearly materialist one....

The situation in operant learning – and, by the way, also in conceptual change in science and culture – is even more revealing. Cases 1 and 2 are in this view not rare exceptional cases, but rather they constitute more or less the rule.

- Adolf Heschl

And the problem's certainly not species. Although biological taxonomy may be fuzzy in spots, it's brick solid compared to what we grasp and mold from the blooming buzzing muck of human chronicles. So far as history is conceived as anything but a chronological collation of citations from unreliable sources, history is nothing but variations on observer bias, and misanthopic pessimism isn't enough to correct our myopia.

After only 110 years, Adams's biases seem sharp, and his (to him) clean abstractions seem (to us) to morph and merge. His towering account is stabilized by the shiftiness of its foundations. Even the line between "civilization" and "barbarism" is blurred by his fascination with torture.

Living where and when he did, Adams restricts the purview of his general law of "civilizations" to Western Europe and, occasionally, their colonies. The barbaric Crusaders contacted the Saracens at the peak of their civilization but what laws governed that civilization? China, Japan, Persia they were out there, we suppose; unchanging, decadent....

Living where and when he did, Adams's idea of "economy" focused on the movement of precious metals. But the "money" of contemporary wealth is as imaginary, as reliant on the power of orthodoxy and law, as any kingship or priesthood: a shared nightmare from which we're afraid to wake up.

Living where and when he did, Adams pictured religion and finance as opposite extremes. Protestantism had won because conscience is cheaper than icons. Taking what would seem and would continue to seem, among the elite, for some decades the natural next step, Henry Adams pointed out that "Atheism is still cheaper than reformed religion."

But then again Henry also pointed out that the leaders of the Catholic church appear to have accumulated more wealth than Luther, Calvin, and Fox. And then again, Brooks represents the Anglican capitalists who consolidated lands and lowered the value of productive labor as more economically evolved than the Puritan farmers who were thereby forced into exile. And then again, as the economic power of those exiles grew...?

Well, living where and when we do, none of it makes sense. If capitalism and religious faith were ever in conflict, they made up by the time of the Spanish Civil War. For those of us who've survived into the 21st century, it's hard to picture them as anything but allies. The age of expensive miracles isn't past. It's just that the expensive miracle cures consist of selfish murdering assholes getting to feel good about themselves. Taking the long view, though, is that really so novel?

And then there are his easy personifications of "race" and "breed". In their rush to scientize, even skeptics like Brooks and Henry Adams stayed blind to the flaws of these selectively weighted non-random outliers-scrubbed sample sets. They knew many more WASP millionaires than they knew Jewish bankers Jay Gould was as American as apples with razor blades. But that hardly registered, they'd known so few Jews who weren't bankers.

Maybe it wouldn't have mattered if they had. Young Louis Zukofsky's stubborn refusal of either "all you Jews" or "unlike most Jews" gambits rolled off Adams fan Ezra Pound with as little effect as every other non-artifactual experience. I'm-rubber-you're-glue is a hard game to lose.

* * *

The reader may wonder why I feel compelled to exhume and whump the peaceful corpse of Brooks Adams.

The point isn't he was an idiot. While he was alive he was smarter than me, possibly even as smart as you.

But now that he's dead, we have a bit of an edge. And I think this is a fairly common pattern.

Adams couldn't escape his time and place. That's not a mistake we've grown out of.

... to be concluded ...


misanthopic trees never bloom

. . .

Failing towards Freedom : Brooks Adams, 4

But simply because it is possible to model a process in Darwinian or quasi-Darwinian terms does not necessarily imply that it is useful to do so. Darwin himself invoked natural selection to explain the existence of adaptation in nature – a phenomenon which cries out for scientific explanation and was conspicuously lacking one until Darwin’s own theory. But in many of the recent attempts to discern Darwinian processes at work in other domains, for example, in the realm of human culture, there is no comparable phenomenon which clearly requires, but totally lacks, a proper causal explanation.
- Samir Okasha
We feel as though we ought to be able to tell the "story" of anything that changes over time like America, or the vertebrates. But the things about which we can tell stories must either possess individuality, or they must be prepared to have individuality and all it entails like ontogeny and closure imposed upon them by the force of narrative.
- Bob O'Hara
That may be, but it's all pretty unsatisfactory.
- Nora Charles

Given how blatantly history and culture don't map the concerns of evolutionary biology, what attracts humanists to the rhetoric of evolutionary biology?

Darwinian evolution proposed to solve an otherwise unexplained mystery. In contrast, human history has too many explanations.

Somehow, though, on close inspection, they always seem to dissolve into a mist of unknowables, tautologies, unlikelihoods, and impossibilities.

Miasma in, miasma out. History amalgamates human actions into a reasonable narrative; human actions aren't rational. We intuit causality and teleology from our own experience of agency. But, fast talker though it is, human agency never quite finishes explaining things. Its story doesn't hang together.

In response, we might cook the books: haute cuisine chefs such as Objectivists and behaviorists eviscerate, blanch, bone, shred, filter, and pipe experience into occasional lever pushes by a mascaraed Gary Cooper.

Or we might find some supplemental force to fill the gaps of decision: gods, God, demons, spells, universal dialectic, conflicting drives, false consciousness, interfering modules, the selfish genes of our extinct ancestors.... But in describing them as "forces", we've only shifted the burden of teleological paradox on to where we hope it can't be questioned further, like a subpoenaed CEO's The Girl.

The principled skeptical historian, like the English professor who's sick of literature, would like to sweep the tainted debris of personality out of sight. "Evolution" appeals as a magically unliftable materialist carpet. But its magic material is Emperor's New Cloth. The explanations offered by evolutionary biologists are usually presented as not-disproven; the explanations offered by historians usually aren't presented in disprovable terms. The carpet can't be lifted because there's nothing there. Nothing except that same irritating multiplying dust-bunny.

Satisfaction will not be received. The scratch is just the itch's way of making another itch.

... what startles me in these paragraphs is the self-satisfied assumption of the finality of my conclusions. I posit, as a fact not to be controverted, that our universe is an expression of an universal law, which the nineteenth century had discovered and could formulate.

During the past thirty years I have given this subject my best attention, and now I am so far from assenting to this proposition that my mind tends in the opposite direction. Each day I live I am less able to withstand the suspicion that the universe, far from being an expression of law originating in a single primary cause, is a chaos which admits of reaching no equilibrium, and with which man is doomed eternally and hopelessly to contend.

- "Preface to New Edition" of
The Emancipation of Massachussetts: The Dream and the Reality
by Brooks Adams (1919)


We (or our claustrophobia-enducing tiny little comment box) seem to have finally driven this dedicated reader round the bend:

This is fine and good mindwork. Excellent. It seems important for reasons I can't get my fingers on to recognize everything Darwinian movement happens to is already there. The growth medium having its own day in court, sort of thing.

And speaking of our comment box and evolution, today marks this primitive email-based response system's first instance of bot spam:

[Link removed] would any guy here do anything sexual with a girl in front of your friend Like your best friend? I don't know if I can do anything like that.
That evolution happens to stuff, that what is evolving is stuff that's been here since either:
a. an origin only describable by dogmatic mumbo-jumbo and requiring blind faith e.g. bigbang superstring fries-with-that; or,
b. It's always been here. If it's always been here, the room for conjecture as to further and as-yet unobserved attributes is very great.

Scott McLemee commented:

Come to think of it, the whole idea that each society consists of a certain mass of energy seems awfully Herbert Spencer-ish, and I'd bet the ranch that is where he got it. It takes some doing now, really, to grasp just how gigantic a figure Spencer was at the time.

Oddly, though, Spencer doesn't really show up in the Adams material I've read. (Henry Adams mentions him once in a late letter as an English affliction to match the German Kant and French Comte.) For whatever guesses are worth, I'd guess that the two brothers thought of him more as symptom of the times than as personal inspiration -- which, of course, doesn't rule out unacknowledged influence....

. . .

Charles Francis Adams, Jr. : Most Annoying Adams Ever?

(Unless otherwise specified, all quotes are from Charles Francis Adams by his son Charles Francis Adams, published in 1900 as part of the American Statesmen series.)

The story is not lacking in interest; but it has already in main been told both by Henry Wilson, himself an actor in it, and by Edward L. Pierce, not only an actor in it, but subsequently an untiring investigator of it. Upon it Mr. Adams’s contemporaneous record throws much additional light. The period was, too, not only important, but, as revealed in his papers, extremely interesting. It has its distinctly humorous, as well as tragic, side. [...] It is absorbing, as well as impressive; but the narrative attains almost the dimensions of a history, and will not be compressed into a sketch. Its salient features only can here be referred to.
The as yet unwritten history of this gathering can here be no more than alluded to, though it still has an interest, and, at the moment, was of great historical significance.
The manner in which the wily and really good-natured Prime Minister, acting after his wont in such cases through the skillful cooperation of Lady Palmerston, subsequently, when he thought desirable so to do, renewed social relations, was interesting and eminently characteristic; but to recount it is beyond the scope of the present sketch.
The episode of the Howell-Zerman letter now occurred. Altogether a very entertaining and characteristic incident, the letter referred to caused at the moment great commotion, and for a brief space threatened gravely to compromise Mr. Adams; but the affair soon passed over, leaving no trace behind. Reference only can be made to it here.
Meanwhile a new contingency arose, and, to his own great surprise, Mr. Adams suddenly found himself a prominent candidate for a presidential nomination. The history of the movement which culminated in the Cincinnati convention of May, 1872, and the nomination of Horace Greeley as the opposing candidate to President Grant in the canvass of that year, is curious, and not without its humorous as well as interesting features. It can, however, here only be alluded to.

I'm glad the author was at least willing to share the curious and eminently characteristic reaction, not without continuing interest, of the London Times to the Emancipation Proclamation:

If the blacks are to obtain the freedom he promises them, it must be by their own hands. They must rise upon a more numerous, more intelligent, better-armed, and braver community of whites, and exterminate them, their wives and children, by fire and sword. The President of the United States may summon them to this act, but he is powerless to assist them in its execution. Nay, this is the very reason why they are summoned.... Mr. Lincoln bases his act on military necessity, and invokes the considerate judgment of mankind and the judgment of Almighty God. He has characterized his own act; mankind will be slow to believe that an act avowedly the result of military considerations has been dictated by a sincere desire for the benefit of those who, under the semblance of emancipation, are thus marked out for destruction, and He who made man in His own image can scarcely, we may presume to think, look with approbation on a measure which, under the pretense of emancipation, intends to reduce the South to the frightful condition of St. Domingo.... In the midst of violent party divisions, in ostentatious contempt of the Constitution, with the most signal ill success in war, he is persisting in the attempt to conquer a nation, to escape whose victorious arms is the only triumph which his generals seem capable of gaining. Every consideration of patriotism and policy calls upon him to put an end to the hopeless contest, but he considers the ruin is not deep enough, and so he calls to his aid the execrable expedient of a servile insurrection. Egypt is destroyed; but his heart is hardened, and he will not let the people go.
* * *

To be fair, Charles's fashionably obese prose was never built to carry conflicting emotions. He was bound to wheeze under the load.

Charles Francis Adams, Sr., had four sons, but the eldest, John, wrote nothing ever (and seems to have been by far the happiest):

As I look back upon the Uncles, I see them as always writing Uncle Charles in a nice square house just below his own on President's Hill, which he had bought to provide space for his books and to insure him peace from the distractions of a growing family, and which he called the "Annex." Uncle Henry when he was in Quincy commanded undisputed possession of the Stone Library, while Uncle Brooks reigned in John Adams's study on the second floor of the Old House. It used to puzzle me what they all found to write about, for my father never seemed to write at all but when I asked him about it, he said "I suppose it amuses them!"

[...] Uncle Brooks often told me how jealous he had always been of my father for possessing those social qualities of charm and conviviality which he himself so painfully lacked, adding in the same breath that John was far too lazy ever to make effective use of them.

- Education by Uncles by Abigail Adams Homans

The three writing brothers described their relative charmlessness as something passed through the Y chromosome, an unamiable rectitude which both determined and curtailed the social utility and historic importance of each generation's males. Charles Junior, in particular, associated this cursed inheritance with the familial habit of diary-keeping, a compulsion friendlier to future historians than to siblings and children. Here, for example, he writes about Charles Senior's earliest discernible achievement, publishing a life-and-letters of his grandmother Abigail:

Deeply gratified as he was at the success of this his first literary venture, Mr. Adams would have been more gratified yet could he have read his father's contemporaneous diary record; for J. Q. Adams was not a demonstrative man, and rarely, except when communing with himself, gave expression to his inmost feelings. So now, on Sunday, September 27, 1840, he wrote that, attending, as was his wont, divine service in the afternoon, whereat a certain Mr. Motte preached upon the evidences of Christianity from the text, John xx. 31, “my attention and thoughts were too much absorbed by the volume of my Mother's Letters which my son has published, and of which he sent me this morning a copy. An admirable Memoir of her life written by him is prefixed to the Letters, and the reading of it affected me till the tears streamed down my face.”

And Charles Junior, in particular, associated it with their father:

The sympathies of the aristocracy were distinctly on the side of the slaveocracy of the South, as against the democracy of the North; and this the American minister had been caused to feel with a distinctness almost peculiar to London, where the shades and phases of social coldness and incivility have long since been perfected into a science. Fortunately, Mr. Adams, by nature and bearing, was in this respect exactly the man the occasion called for. When the Englishman was cold and reserved, Mr. Adams was a little colder and a little more reserved than the Englishman. He thus played well the game to which he found himself called, for the very good reason that the game was natural to him.

Charles Junior only wrote the biography because John T. Morse, the editor of the American Statesmen series, asked him to, and because like the rest of the family he thought his father's Civil War diplomacy, which against very long odds stopped England from recognizing the Confederacy as an independent nation, had been unjustly forgotten by the ingrate Union. In his writing, however, this shared resentment had to contend with his own Adams-ish righteousness and with his more peculiarly Charles-ish resentments, both displayed in the letter he wrote to his brother Henry in the project's early stages:

I may respect the young man, as a young man; but I neither admire nor like him. The first thing I notice is the absence of anything large, human or sympathetic.... He took to diary writing early, and he took to it bad; and the disease grew in him as he grew older. It was just the thing he ought not to have done. Naturally reserved and self-centred, his nature required when young,— that is for its full development,— active contact with the world and social life; but at 22 he became a married hermit with a diary for his confidant and familiar friend. He wanted no other. Actually, he never was educated. This might not have been so bad, had there been the elements of warmth, humor, imagination in his intellectual make-up,— the geniality and friendliness among persons or the sympathy with nature,— which insensibly make what some persons write worth writing for themselves or worth reading to others. In his diaries there is nothing of the sort,— not a touch of humor, no power of description, no eye to the dramatic, no love of gossip, no touches of sympathy or fun....
- Charles to Henry, 15 April 1895

On paper, it would have made more sense for Morse to ask Henry, who held the unique advantage of having been present on their father's English mission, while Charles Junior had stayed home and joined the Union Army.

Off paper, Morse had rejected Henry's submission of an Aaron Burr biography fourteen years earlier, and would not have expected forgiveness or forgetfulness. And on Henry's side, after Clover Hooper Adams's suicide and the cheerless delivery of his contractual obligations, he considered himself done with American history and, so far as possible, with any public life whatsoever. When Charles asked him to serve as backup biographer, his answer was clear:

If you fail to carry out your plan for our father’s biography, do you think much loss will result? I do not know; but if you depend upon me to redeem your failure, I fear that you will make about as bad a miscalculation as you ever set to the score of the uncalculable. I should never touch it. Sad as this collapse may be, I am by no means sure that our honored parent might not be a greater figure for the shadows that would be left about his name.
- Henry to Charles, 26 April 1895

But Henry otherwise approved of the commission, and tried to talk Charles into a more lenient mood:

In the remote atmosphere which surrounds me, this debased and degraded race seems to care about us or our friends as little as they do for a Periplaneta Orientalis; and, to judge from the supreme indifference of this generation, that insignificant coleopter will be far more important than we, to the generations which may follow the present. Nevertheless I suppose we are bound to behave as though the universe were really made to glorify our works, so I heartily approve your proceedings. Pray make any use of me that you like, just as though I were real.

As for the governor, the world has little use for him, now that he is dead, and not much more, while he lived. Judging from the intolerable dulness ofthe various Lives already published: Seward, Chase, Sumner, Motley, Longfellow, &c—in fact, of all, except Lincoln and the Generals—I should say that the less we insisted on exhibiting our papa, the better. He stands on the merits of his course and speech in one session of Congress, and his diplomatic papers and conduct. For those two results, his character, mind and training were admirably fitted. His defects and limitations were as important, and as valuable, to him, as his qualities, within the range of those fields. Had there been a little more, or a little less of him, he would have been less perfect. As he stands, he stands alone. No other public man of his time begins to compare with him, within the range of his action. He is almost like a classical gem. From the moment he appeared anywhere—at Washington, London, Geneva—his place was never questioned, much less disputed. Russell, Palmerston, Disraeli, Bright, Cobden, Gladstone, Seward, and all the Americans, were bunglers in work compared with him, as his state-papers show. [...]

Of course you cannot expressly say all this, but this is really all that the public wants to know, and your business is to make them feel it. Sons are not the proper persons to do such work, but I know of no one better suited, so we may as well try.

- Henry to Charles, 16 April 1895

While the older brother worked at his old-school history, Henry became increasingly engaged by younger brother Brooks's more novel attempt to scientize history on a firm intellectual foundation of economics and antisemitism. His later replies to Charles were terse.

Still, Charles must have been eager to hear his opinion of the finished book. Henry certainly had one, and expressed it in a couple of diary-like letters:

Charles’ Life of his father, in the statesman series, is out, and I am making myself a martyr trying to read it. Thank my miserable cowardice that I did not write it! [...] At any rate, I have, at awful cost, learned to hold my tongue, except in letters, and am getting nervous even about them. No man that ever lived can talk or write incessantly without wearying or annoying his hearers if they have to take it in a lump. Thanks entirely to our family habit of writing, we exist in the public mind only as a typical expression of disagreeable qualities.
- Henry to Brooks, 4 March 1900
I’ve been trying to read my brother Charles’s Life of our father, and it makes me sick. Now I understand why I refused so obstinately to do it myself. These biographies are murder, and in this case, to me, would be both patricide and suicide. They belittle the victim and the assassin equally. They are like bad photographs and distorted perspectives. Luckily no one knows the difference, and the modern public is as dead to the feeling of historical atmosphere as it is to the color of the Chartres windows. I have sinned myself, and deeply, and am no more worthy to be called anything, but, thank my diseased and dyspeptic nervous wreck, I did not assassinate my father. I have also read Robert Louis Stevenson’s Letters with much the same effect on my mind. Cabot Lodge thinks them the best letters ever written. To me they rouse again the mystery of the hippopotamus and the dinner; they never leave enough for us. They exaggerate all one’s bigness, brutality and coarseness; they perpetuate all one’s mistakes, blunders and carelessnesses. No one can talk or write letters all the time without the effect of egotism and error. They are like a portrait by Sargent; they betray one’s besetting vices in youth, and one’s worst selfishness in middle-life, and one’s senility in Joe Choate.
- Henry to Elizabeth Cameron, 5 March 1900

(Despite his gift for irony, his frequent claims to mad senile laughter, and his generally successful attempts to circumnavigate despair in front of the children, Henry Adams never seems to have felt the power of deflationary comedy, or to have realized that something more than disillusionment might result when the virtue ethics of traditional history confront mere shared humanity.)

He wasn't so forthcoming with Charles himself. The excellent editors of Henry Adams's letters briskly summarize:

CFA2 and his family had been staying in Washington for the winter. On Feb. 28, after dining with HA, he noted in his diary that “not by word, look or line has he recognized the existence of my ‘Life.’” On March 25, after again dining with HA, he recorded the evening as “pretty dull and very restrained,—not a reference even to the ‘Life.’” On April 8 he recorded his “farewell call on Henry,—to the last dumb as an oyster on the ‘Life’” (CFA2 Diary, MHi).

Charles, Jr., never expressed pleasure in the labor of this biography, and no one was clamoring for more. And so, with true Adams doggedness, he immediately, and for most of the rest of his life, began working on a massive expansion which would, as a matter of course for a completely objective historian like himself, sadly necessitate many more acknowledgments of his father's inadequacies.

The youngest Adams sibling, sister Mary, saw some of the work in progress, asked the author to reconsider, and called on Brooks and Henry for backup. Both demurred, claiming (reasonably enough) that interference would only make Charles more determined. But it's likely that Henry also preferred to maintain the "don't ask, don't tell" status quo. So far as I can gather from published records, the only opinion he ever offered his brother was the extremely indirect one of The Education of Henry Adams in 1907:

Please bear in mind that I don’t mean any harm. The motive of the first part is to acquit my conscience about my father. That of the second part is to acquit my conscience about Hay.
- Henry to Mary Cadwalader Jones, 11 April 1907,
sent with a copy of the book

Nine years later, Charles had the last (indirect) word with his posthumously published Autobiography, a long purge of regrets ("Few things do I envy the possession of in others more than the faculty of remembering faces or placing names") and recriminations: He wasn't given a bicycle. Harvard hadn't offered a course in chess. A hastily assembled mix of slaves and freemen given a few weeks of ten-foot-pole's-length cavalry training had failed to establish him as a brilliant military leader. And, most startling, and possibly unique in the annals of filial resentment, a complaint that his parents did not ship him away to a bullycratic boarding school: "I would so much have enjoyed it.... It might have made me 'a good fellow.'"

He gives his father credit for one good decision, though:

The common schools my father did not care to send his children to; and I have always been glad of it. I don’t associate with the laborers on my place, nor would the association be agreeable to either of us. Their customs, language, habits and conventionalities differ from mine; as do those of their children. I believe in school life; and I believe in the equality of men before the law; but social equality, whether for man or child, is altogether another thing. My father, at least, didn’t force that on us.

Detached from the manner of its telling, as Charles himself admits at the end, it would seem like a reasonably pleasant and successful life. Accompanied and sometimes overwhelmed by its drone of frets, chafes, and carps, it's a reasonably recognizable one. A dull book; a human document.

Oh, and to answer my initial question:

On paper, when writing about himself or his father or the pristine white manliness of Robert E. Lee, Charles Junior is hard to beat. But off paper everyone agrees that Brooks Adams was the most annoying by far even Brooks:

He used to say, plaintively, "As soon as I join a group of people they all melt away and disappear," which was all only too true.
- Education by Uncles by Abigail Adams Homans


"Curious" is the word. Shades of Ogdred Weary.


Copyright to contributed work and quoted correspondence remains with the original authors.
Public domain work remains in the public domain.
All other material: Copyright 2015 Ray Davis.