On March 19, 1861, Abraham Lincoln appointed Charles Francis Adams, Sr. United States Minister (ambassador) to the United Kingdom. Henry Adams accompanied him to London as his private secretary. Henry also became the anonymous London correspondent for the New York Times. The two Adamses were kept very busy, monitoring Confederate diplomatic intrigues, and trying to obstruct the construction of Confederate commerce raiders by British shipyards (see Alabama Claims). Henry's writings for the New York Times argued that Americans should be patient with the British. While in Britain, Adams befriended many noted men including Charles Lyell, Francis T. Palgrave, Richard Monckton Milnes, James Milnes Gaskell, and Charles Milnes Gaskell.
While in Britain, Henry read and was taken with the works of John Stuart Mill. For Adams, Mill's Consideration on Representative Government showed the necessity of an enlightened, moral, and intelligent elite to provide leadership to a government elected by the masses and subject to demagoguery, ignorance, and corruption. Henry wrote to his brother Charles that Mill demonstrated to him that "democracy is still capable of rewarding a conscientious servant." His years in London led Adams to conclude that he could best provide that knowledgeable and conscientious leadership by working as a correspondent and journalist.
In 1870, Adams was appointed Professor of Medieval History at Harvard, a position he held until his early retirement in 1877 at 39. As an academic historian, Adams is considered to have been the first (in 1874–1876) to conduct historical seminar work in the United States. Included among his students were Henry Cabot Lodge, who worked closely with Adams as a graduate student.
On June 27 1872, he and Clover Hooper were married in Boston, and spent their honeymoon in Europe. Upon their return, he went back to his position at Harvard and their home at 91 Marlborough Street, Boston , became a gathering place for a lively circle of intellectuals. In 1877, he and his wife moved to Washington, D.C., where their home on Lafayette Square, across from the White House, again became a dazzling and witty center of social life. He worked as a journalist and continued working as an historian.
Adams's The History of the United States of America (1801 to 1817) (9 vols., 1889–1891) has been called "a neglected masterpiece" by Garry Wills (Henry Adams and the Making of America (2005))
In the 1880s, Adams also wrote two novels. He is credited as the author of Democracy, which was published anonymously in 1880 and immediately became popular. (Only after Adams's death did his publisher reveal Adams's authorship.) His other novel, published under the nom de plume of Frances Snow Compton, was Esther, whose eponymous heroine was believed to be modeled after his wife.
Adams was a member of an exclusive club, a group of friends called the "Five of Hearts" that consisted of Henry, his wife Clover, mountaineer Clarence King, John Hay (assistant to Lincoln and later Secretary of State), and Hay's wife Clara. One of Adams's frequent travel companions was the artist John La Farge, with whom he journeyed to Japan and the South Seas. A long-time, intimate correspondent of Adams's was Elizabeth Cameron, wife of Senator J. Donald Cameron.
On December 6 1885, his wife, Clover, committed suicide. Following her death Adams took up a restless life as a globetrotter, traveling extensively, spending summers in Paris and winters in Washington, where he erected an elaborate memorial at her grave site in Rock Creek Cemetery.
In 1894, Adams was elected president of the American Historical Association. His address, entitled "The Tendency of History," was delivered in absentia. The essay predicted the development of a scientific approach to history, but was somewhat ambiguous as to what this achievement might mean.
In 1904, Adams privately published a copy of his "Mont Saint Michel and Chartres," a pastiche of history, travel, and poetry, that celebrated the unity of medieval society, especially as represented in the great cathedrals of France. Originally meant as a diversion for his nieces and "nieces-in-wish," it was publicly released in 1913 at the request of Ralph Adams Cram, an important American architect, and published with support of the American Institute of Architects.
He published The Education of Henry Adams in 1907, in a small private edition for selected friends, which curiously omitted the years 1872-'91 and his entire marriage. The work concerned the birth of forces Adams saw as replacing Christianity. For Adams, the Virgin Mary had shaped the old world, as the dynamo represented modernity. It was only following Adams's death that The Education was made available to the general public, in an edition issued by the Massachusetts Historical Society. It ranked first on the Modern Library's 1998 list of 100 Best Nonfiction Books and was named the best book of the twentieth century by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, a conservative organization that promotes classical education. It was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1919.
In 1912, Adams suffered a stroke, perhaps brought on by news of the sinking of the Titanic, for which he had return tickets to Europe. After the stroke, his scholarly output diminished, but he continued to travel, write letters, and host dignitaries and friends at his Washington, D.C., home. Henry Adams died at age 80 in Washington, D.C. He is interred beside his wife in Rock Creek Cemetery, Washington.
In his manuscript The Rule of Phase Applied to History, Adams attempted to use Maxwell's demon as an historical metaphor, though he seems to have misunderstood and misapplied the principle. Adams interpreted history as a process moving towards "equilibrium," but he saw militaristic nations (he felt Germany pre-eminent in this class) as tending to reverse this process, a "Maxwell's Demon of history."
Adams made many attempts to respond to the criticism of his formulation from his scientific colleagues, but the work remained incomplete at Adams' death in 1918. It was only published posthumously.
Adams's attitude towards Jews has been described as one of loathing. John Hay, remarking on Adams's antisemitism, said that when Adams "saw Vesuvius reddening... [he] searched for a Jew stoking the fire.
His writings "peppered with a variety of antisemitic remarks," according to historian Robert Michael, Adams wrote: "I detest [the Jews], and everything connected with them, and I live only and solely with the hope of seeing their demise, with all their accursed Judaism. I want to see all the lenders at interest taken out and executed."
Charles Francis Adams, Jr. (1835– 1915) fought with the Union in the Civil War, receiving in 1865 the brevet of brigadier-general in the regular army. He became an authority on railway management as the author of Railroads, Their Origin and Problems (1878), and as president of the Union Pacific Railroad from 1884 to 1890.
Brooks Adams (1848–1927), practiced law and became a writer. His books include The Law of Civilization and Decay (1895), America's Economic Supremacy (1900), and The New Empire (1902).