More on Wills

12 12 2006

Reader Will Keene does not buy what he sees as Garry Wills’ thesis that Adams’ History was “secretly” written to praise Jefferson.

My reading so far of Wills (I have not read the 9 volumes of Adams in question) says nothing of any “secret” writing, rather it states that the character of the histories is plain. In addition, Wills does not say that Adams is uncritical of Jefferson so much as he was very critical of the Federalists and judged the Jeffersonians a success, and his other writings seem to support this. Wills argues that what he sees as a misrepresentation of the histories is due to three factors:

Historian Richard Hofstadter, the most influential of the interpreters of the History, had only read the first six chapters of Volume I of the History and “accepted that as a description of the whole work”, and this interpetation is refuted by the final four chapters of the last volume;

Historians have accepted Hofstadter’s thesis that Adams was a defender of the legacy of his great grandfather John, while Adams’ writings in general do not defend the Federalists, nor the Adams family – “It is true that he criticizes some of Jefferson’s acts in the History; but he is never as scathing on them as he is on the Federalists, including his forbears. He thought the Jeffersonians’ presidencies highly successful (though in an unintended way) and the Adams presidencies a failure. Yet it is an article of faith in most who read the History that it is an expression of family animus”;

The pessimism of The Education of Henry Adams is thought to be characteristic of his whole life, while his earlier writings are clear that it is not. “Scholars have such a heavy investment in the pessimism of Henry Adams that, for them, an optimistic Adams cannot be the ‘real’ Adams”. “The theme of failure that runs through the Education bolsters an assumption that Adams is telling the story of a failure when he writes of the Jeffersonians. If the work itself says something else, people are unprepared to hear it. They know what Adams ought to be saying, and they make him say it.” But this is the quote that hit me hardest: “The principal work on Adams was written by…Ernest Samuels, whose three-volume biography traces a rising arc to the summit of a “Major Phase” in the final volume. All else is preparatory to that. All else is read backward from that [emphasis added]”.

Will has presented a divergent, if brief, view of the History. Not having read it myself, I’ll have to rely on the arguments of those who have. I invite anyone to comment.  Again, that’s what the comments feature is for.

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9 responses

12 12 2006
Will

Harry,

While I have read Adams’ work, I have not read Wills books. So perhaps it was wrong of me to comment as I did. What I had read were reviews of Wills’ book, and it was those reviews which gave me an idea of what Wills thesis is.

Feeling a need to be better informed, I stopped at the library this morning and picked up Wills book. I have only read the introduction so far, but that is where Wills levels his accusation against Hofstadter. I havent read Hofstader, but if Wills has evidence that Hofstadter has only read the first six chapters then let him present it. All Wills does is throw out an accusation in an attempt to dismiss Hofstadter’s charged that the Jeffersonian era was marked by “small-minded statescraft”. Seems to me that the bulk of Adams’ books give ample evidence to support Hofstadter’s description that the statescraft was “simple-minded”. I dont think Wills suceeds in makeing his point here.

One point where I think Wills is 100% correct is in challenging the “familiy fued” theory of Adams’ work. But, in my opinion, Wills then takes things too far. He claims that Adams “thought the Jeffersonians’ presidencies highly successful…and the Adams presidencies a failure.” Though Adams said quite critical things about the personal characters of his grand-father and great grand-father, Wills does not show that he ever wrote anything as critical of their presidencies compared to what he wrote about Jefferson.

In my previous post I was referring to Wills thesis that Adams thought Jefferson was highly successful as president. I dont think the Histories bear this out at all. WHat seems possible to me is that Wills is struggling to fit his own view of Jefferson onto Adams. In advancing his thesis he writes “If the work itself says something else, people are unprepared to hear it.” What the work says about Jefferson is that he was a failure as a president.* In the past, scholars who have been unprepared to accept this have dismissed Adams as engaged in a ‘family fued’. Wills knows thats not the case yet he seems still unable to accept the words of Adams on their face. Thus he argues that Adams was really saying what he feels “Adams ought to be saying”.

Just my take.

- Will

* From Chapter 10 of Volume 4, regarding the end of Jefferson’s presidency: “with but one exception the remark of John Randolph was destined to remain true, that ‘never has there been any administration which went out of office and left the nation in a state so deplorable and calamitous’.” and “not until the embargo and its memories faded from men’s minds did the mighty shadow of Jefferson’s Revolutionary name efface the ruin of his Presidency.”

12 12 2006
Harry Smeltzer

Will,

Do you make a distinction between the statement you provided regarding Jefferson’s presidency and Wills’ characterization of Adams’ assessment of the Jeffersonians?

12 12 2006
Will

Harry,

Of course. The quotes I provided are what Adams wrote about Jefferson’s presidency. Part of my point is that what Adams wrote is in contrast to what Wills claims about Adams.

12 12 2006
Harry Smeltzer

Will,

What I’ve read so far is only what Wills says Adams had to say about the Jeffersonians. I don’t know that I’ve come across what he thinks was Adams’ opinion of Jefferson’s presidency specifically.

Also, I’ve only read parts of Wills’ “The Negro President”, so I’m not sure what you mean by Wills’ “own view of Jefferson”.

12 12 2006
Will

Harry,

When Wills writes “the Jeffersonians’ presidencies” is he not writing of the presidency of Jefferson and the presidency of Madison?

I don’t have ‘Negro President’ handy to reference but my memory is that he goes out of his way in the prologue to declare his admiration for Jefferson out of a concern that the book will earn him an anti-Jefferson lable.

12 12 2006
Harry Smeltzer

“When Wills writes “the Jeffersonians’ presidencies” is he not writing of the presidency of Jefferson and the presidency of Madison?”

I would think yes – in fact, I cheated after my last comment and jumped ahead in the book. Wills believes Adams did indeed consider Madison’s administration a continuation of Jefferson’s. And it is apparently Wills’ interpretation that Adams judged the whole of the Jeffersonian presidency – all 16 years, not merely or even necessarily the 8 years of Jefferson – a success.

“I don’t have ‘Negro President’ handy to reference but my memory is that he goes out of his way in the prologue to declare his admiration for Jefferson out of a concern that the book will earn him an anti-Jefferson lable.”

It would appear from this that Wills did not let his personal admiration for Jefferson get in the way of the writing of “The Negro President” (otherwise why the disclaimer?), and might indicate that he would not then let it get in the way of his take on Adams and the History.

12 12 2006
Will

How generous of you in feeling that Wills doesnt let his personal admiration affect his writing. So what is your explanation for the disconnect between what Adams actually writes and what Wills claims that Adams means?

12 12 2006
Harry Smeltzer

Will,

First, I’m really glad you are taking the time to discuss this here. While I write this blog for myslef, I encourage input from readers.

I’m not really saying that Wills doesn’t let his admiration affect his writing – only one person can know whether or not that’s the case. What I’m saying is that, based on what you wrote about Wills’ concerns, he apparently felt that what he wrote in The Negro President would likely be interpreted to indicate that he did not admire Jefferson. If such is the case, and he really does admire Jefferson, then it would seem that he must have thought he had been more critical of him than would suit TJ groupies. To be honest, I think this disclaimer is better – though not great – evidence that Wills was not a slave to his admiration in The Negro President than is anything so far discussed here evidence that he was as you suggest a slave to it in Henry Adams and the Making of America.

Frankly Will, I don’t see the disconnect to which you refer, though you have clearly stated that one exists. While you have provided a quote from Adams that is damning of Jefferson’s presidency, I have yet to read any writing of Wills about Adams’ assessment of Jefferson’s eight year presidency in the History. And you have not provided any Adams quotes to show a disconnect between him and Wills regarding the sixteen year Jeffersonian presidencies. This seems like apples and oranges to me. Also, Wills does provide, throughout Henry Adams and the Making of America, numerous passages from Adams’ writings laudatory of Jefferson. Now, if you were to provide something from the History that casts the whole Jeffersonian period in the same light as that which you provided on the first half I might agree that you are on to something. Perhaps something from the last four chapters? I don’t have the “History” here, and as I said I have never read it.

BTW, I don’t think Wills is without fault. For one thing, he says “an historian”. That’s just plain wrong as any right thinking American knows.

But this is getting far afield from the more important point, which is that many historians and enthusiasts fail to view events in context of the time – that they inadvertently or stubbornly, consciously allow later events or facts not known at the time to color their analysis of actions and decisions that did not benefit from “remembering the future”. That’s where the title of my previous post comes in.

12 12 2006
Will

Harry,

Thank you for being so welcoming to this discussion.

Wills certainly felt the need to take pre-emptive action in ‘Negro President’ because of the expected reaction from TJ groupies. But that doesn’t resolve the issue of how his admiration of TJ affects his writing about TJ in that book. Anyway, I’m currently at a disadvantage regarding ‘Negro President’ because I don’t have it handy. Perhaps we can set that issue aside for now.

Wills seems hung up on the last four chapters of the ‘History’, but I don’t see in them what he claims is there. Those chapters contain a summary of the condition of the US in 1817. They function as a balance to the chapters at the very beginning of the work that present a summary of conditions in 1800. Adams describes change in population, wealth, technology, arts, and thought. But no linkage is made between these changes and the political leadership of Jefferson and Madison, excepting maybe in the negative such as the effect of Madison’s veto of the internal improvement bill or Jefferson’s as an inspiration for Washington Irving’s satirical writing.

In the six chapters preceding the final four, Adams does paint a positive picture of the end of the Madison presidency. In essence, the 9th volume of the ‘History’ is a triumphant resolution after eight volumes of failure. The final volume focuses on the peace negotiations, postwar prosperity, the political transition from Madison to Monroe, and the before mentioned final chapters which summarize conditions in the country. But I do not think this conclusion supports Wills’ spin. Adams attributes the positive turn of events to peace, the political practicality of Dallas and Monroe, Madison’s abandonment of Jeffersonian ideology, and the patience and ingenuity of the people. Jefferson is given no credit. Rather than a 16-year success, the ending represents a desperate save after 14 years of failure caused by Jefferson and Madison.

I agree with your point that “many historians and enthusiasts fail to view events in context of the time – that they inadvertently or stubbornly, consciously allow later events or facts not known at the time to color their analysis of actions and decisions that did not benefit from “remembering the future”.” My position is that Wills is one of those guilty of doing that.

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