See biography by A. Nevins (1968).
Born in Brooklyn, New York, Adams took his bachelor's degree from the Polytechnic Institute of Brooklyn in 1898, and a masters from Yale University in 1900. Thereafter, he entered investment banking, being in the employ of a New York Stock Exchange member firm until 1912.
In 1917, he served with Colonel House on President Wilson's commission to prepare data for the Paris Peace Conference. By 1918, he was a Captain in the Military Intelligence division of the General Staff, US Army. By late 1918, he was selected for the US delegation to the Paris Peace Conference.
It is not clear how Adams supported himself after the war except by writing.
During his life he was a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters serving as both chancellor and treasurer of that organization. He was also a member of the National Institute of Arts and Letters, the Massachusetts Historical Society, American Antiquarian Society, American Historical Association, and the American Philosophical Society. Among British societies he was honored as a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature.
It is believed that Adams coined the term "American Dream" in his 1931 book The Epic of America. But Truslow's coinage of the phrase had an entirely different (and much broader) meaning than what it has come to mean today.
The American Dream is "that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement. It is a difficult dream for the European upper classes to interpret adequately, and too many of us ourselves have grown weary and mistrustful of it. It is not a dream of motor cars and high wages merely, but a dream of social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position."
A quote from one of Adams' essays "There are obviously two educations. One should teach us how to make a living and the other how to live" is widely mis-attributed to John Adams. The quote is part of an essay by Adams entitled ‘To “Be” or to “Do”: A Note on American Education’ which appeared in the June, 1929 issue of Forum. The essay is very critical of American education, both in school and at the university level, and explores the role of American culture and class-consciousness in forming that system of education.
In a more complete version of that quote,Adams says: ""There are obviously two educations. One should teach us how to make a living and the other how to live. Surely these should never be confused in the mind of any man who has the slightest inkling of what culture is. For most of us it is essential that we should make a living...In the complications of modern life and with our increased accumulation of knowledge, it doubtless helps greatly to compress some years of experience into far fewer years by studying for a particular trace or profession in an institution; but that fact should not blind us to another—namely, that in so doing we are learning a trade or a profession, but are not getting a liberal education as human beings." Adams lived in Southport, Connecticut, and died May 18, 1949.
He wrote 21 monographs between 1916 and 1945. He was also editor in chief of the Dictionary of American History, The Atlas of American History, and other volumes.