cover image Henry Adams and the Making of America

Henry Adams and the Making of America

Garry Wills, . . Houghton Mifflin, $30 (467pp) ISBN 978-0-618-13430-4

Wills nimbly dusts off the nine volumes of Henry Adams's little-studied history of the United States from 1800 to 1817 and proclaims it to be both "a prose masterpiece" and a model for how to research and write history. Adams, he insists, helped to revolutionize the study of history by conducting actual archival research, not just in U.S. repositories but abroad, in London, Paris and Madrid. And at a time when provincial history was the norm, Adams adopted a broad international scope, placing the fledgling nation on the broad canvas of the Napoleonic Wars. Wills has little time for scholars who have dismissed the History as pessimistic or defensive of Adams's ancestors ("Can these people not read?" Wills cries). In contrast, Wills finds Adams's work to be optimistic about the much-needed nationalization that occurred in this period, even though it took the ill-conceived and disastrous War of 1812 to get there. He also notes that Adams could be harshly critical of his own presidential ancestors, particularly John Quincy, in favor of the bold accomplishments of Jefferson and, to a lesser extent, Madison. In all, Adams's history traces "how a nation stagnating at the end of Federalist rule shook itself awake and struck off boldly in new directions." With its revisionist stance, felicitous prose and compelling argument, Wills's book charts new directions as well. (Sept. 14)