Henry Adams, whose grandfather and great-grandfather were both U.S. presidents, is best remembered today for writing The Education of Henry Adams, a fascinating, unusual and very selective account of his life. Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Garry Wills believes, however, that Adams' multi-volume History of the United States During the Administrations of Thomas Jefferson and History of the United States During the Administrations of James Madison, published between 1889 and 1891, "is the non-fiction prose masterpiece of the nineteenth century in America." Adams devoted more years of his life to these volumes than to any other project.
In Henry Adams and the Making of America, Wills pays tribute to Adams and his work, enlightening readers with abundant detail and quoting generously from the histories. The books were revolutionary in their time for their use of extensive archival research here and abroad, and for their portrayal of diplomatic, military, political and economic history in a worldwide context. Although written in a consistently insightful, lively and engaging style, these volumes have been overlooked or misinterpreted by some of our most distinguished historians. Contrary to previous interpretations, Wills demonstrates that Adams did not use the volumes to praise the Federalists or his prominent forebears, John Adams and John Quincy Adams. Henry Adams criticized all politicians, including those he especially admired, such as Jefferson and Albert Gallatin, when he thought they were wrong. With a remarkable cast of historical figures, including Touissant l'Ouverture and Tecumseh, Adams brilliantly brought the crucial early years of the country to life. With this latest book, Garry Wills now helps us rediscover a little-read American treasure. Roger Bishop is a Nashville bookseller and a frequent contributor to BookPage.