Henry Adams and the Making of America

In This Review

Henry Adams and the Making of America

By Garry Wills
Houghton Miffin, 2005
448 pp. $30.00
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This is an unusual book; if it were a musical performance, one would call it a cover, a musician's take on a song made famous by someone else. In it, Wills follows the narrative and structure of Henry Adams' great works on the history of the Jefferson and Madison administrations, adding comments and reflections of his own. In drawing the attention of a new generation of readers to Adams' magisterial histories, Wills is performing a significant and important service. The Adams histories rank among the greatest historical works ever written in or on the United States. Wills draws an important and valid distinction between the patriotic and progressive Adams who wrote these histories and the disillusioned and depressed author of The Education of Henry Adams, and he argues convincingly against reading the "early Adams" from the perspective of the older man. Wills' case for Adams' genius as a scientific historian -- Wills cites Adams' expert use of archival materials, international perspective, synthesis of economic and diplomatic history, attention to culture and to the history of nonelites -- is a strong one. And Wills gets Adams exactly right on the main point: the two histories tell the paradoxical story of how a party of regionalists and states' rights advocates created a strong national government and national consciousness. Those unfamiliar with Adams' historical writings will find Wills a helpful and accessible guide; those who know Adams already will enjoy revisiting his histories with this knowledgeable and learned companion.