The Protestant Mind of Young Henry Adams

Ernest Samuel’s Pulitzer-winning biography of Henry Adams remains one of the great biographies of the Twentieth Century. The three part work covered the life of the American writer and the middle volume, Henry Adams: The Middle Years, won major history and literature prizes. The first volume, The Young Henry Adams, is the volume that passes most authentically as an intellectual biography, and Samuels’ chapter on Henry Adams’ years at Harvard in the early 1850s show the major intellectual influences on not just Adams, but other elite American men at the time. Harvard in the 1850s taught not only New Englanders, but southerners as well. Robert E. Lee’s son Fitzhugh ran in social circles adjacent to that of Adams.   

Despite the growth of Unitarianism in the early Nineteenth Century and Harvard’s long accommodation of and identification with Unitarian intellectuals, the Harvard education of the mid Nineteenth Century was still demonstrably Protestant and even conservative. Samuels listed several major influences on Henry Adams. They included Henry W. Torrey, who taught ancient history and the history of the United States Constitution. Torrey’s philosophy of history rested on Calvinist-influenced notions of providential moving in human history. His philosophy of history, “the relation of nation to nation, of period to period, and of all to the mighty scheme of Providence which he saw working through all time,” deeply affected young Henry Adams. [1]

The sciences at Harvard in the 1850s enjoyed the addition of Louis Agassiz. The Swiss-American scientist represented conservative scientific opinion in an era when the writings of Charles Darwin, who became a bête noire for Agassiz, increasingly made their way in to the public eye. Agassiz hardly represented fundamentalist religion. A cosmopolitan and liberal Protestant, he nonetheless challenged Darwin whenever and wherever he could after the publication of On the Origin of Species in 1859. Adams, and his peers, could not help but be taken with Agassiz’s passionate unwillingness to separate science and religion. The scientist saw no reason to dismiss God from science, even if he did not want to treat the Bible as a scientific account of human origin or creation in general. Agassiz’ chief biographer in the Twenty-First Century noted that Agassiz lost his battle to Darwin, but it seems worth noting that he didn’t lose his influence over his students. [2]

The last influence on Adams came in the form of a text from Torrey’s course on the Constitution. The latter assigned as his major text François Guizot’s History of the Origins of Representative Government in Europe. The Huguenot statesman and one-time prime minister of France represented the major strain of liberal-conservative thought in France and in Europe for nearly four decades. His “great generalizations were of a sort to delight the philosophical statesmen of the Adams school.” The Adams school wedded liberal commitments on liberty to conservative beliefs on the body politic, especially regarding the necessity of religion as foundation for civil society.[3]

For all the changes that occurred at Harvard in the Nineteenth Century, its curriculum remained deeply Protestant in its origins and pedagogy. Henry Adams’ historical and literary imagination was formed on a distinctly Protestant intellectual foundation. His histories and his two major novels present a mind that was still essentially Protestant, and conservative, and a mind that offered one of the great American literary legacies.

[1] William Everett, “Henry Warren Torrey.” Proceedings of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences 29 (1893): 448–51.

[2] Christopher Irmscher, Louis Agassiz: Creator of American Science (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2013), 4.

[3] Ernest Samuels, The Young Henry Adams (Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1965), 24.


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