Henry Adams: The Last American Aristocrat

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The Last American Aristocrat: The Brilliant Life and Improbable Education of Henry Adams by David S. Brown is published by Scribner, which is part of Simon and Schuster Publishing.

Henry Adams is a name that is inescapable in studies of American history. Getting past the name and the innumerable references to him has not been an easy task for me. The question is whether the fault lies with Mr. Adams, with me, or with the education I received.

Adams was the grandson and great-grandson of the sixth and second Presidents. His recent ancestors both suffered defeats at the polls in their efforts to win re-elections, but both had careers of such accomplishments that their Presidencies can be slightly overlooked like a few bad dreams.

Neither John nor John Quincy have ever struck me as people I would want to go back in time to share an evening with. Stuffy, arrogant, uppity, and certainly aristocratic, neither exemplified the traits I would find enjoyable. They were not good ole boys of Southern upbringing.

At the same time that I might personally feel distant from the Adams family, I am continually impressed by the education, moral character, and work ethic of the two Presidents. David McCullough’s biography of John Adams convinced me against my druthers of what a man of character he was.

The pedigree carried clout. Henry’s father, Charles Francis Adams, served as ambassador to Britain under President Lincoln. At a later time, his name was tossed around as a Presidential candidate. But the changes in American campaign politics didn’t provide a venue for the Adams’ style.

Henry Adams became best known as an author and historian. The book that is most often mentioned or quoted in American history contexts is The Education of Henry Adams. After hearing about it for years, I read this somewhat autobiographical account of Adams’ life from the really fine Library of America volume. It was named by the Modern Library as the best English-language non-fiction book of the 20th century.

While the book was enjoyable in places, I found myself continually puzzled by Adams’ cynical, whining, and self-deprecating attitudes and observations. This man had a treasured heritage and upbringing. He was part of the American elite, the heir of a honored name and title, a part of the Boston brahmin class, a definitive WASP, and as the biography labels him, an aristocrat–in a democratic society.

He was able to work alongside his London-based father during the Civil War, which certainly beat having to slog along the roads with Grant’s army. The doors to the best of education were all open to him, but he seemed to disdain the discipline or culture of those settings. Washington, Boston, London, and other parts of Europe were open to him.

Certainly, there were plenty of things for the social critic to fault during his lifetime, but his own personal experiences exceeded those of 99.9 percent of American, and he was a complainer.

Or maybe I just didn’t understand The Education of Henry Adams. For that reason, I welcomed the opportunity to read this biography, The Last American Aristocrat. One can’t help but be impressed by the circles, contacts, and events in the life of Adams. He was well educated and cultured, at home with political leaders, sought after by prominent people, financially able to live the best of lives, but once again, he came across in the book as a dissatisfied, complaining, and unappreciative man.

He was a faithful husband in a challenging marriage. His wife had numerous health and mental problems. He was a successful author. He wrote several novels, usually anonymously. I took it upon myself to read the one titled Democracy, which is also found in the Library of America series. It was a surprisingly good story of the inner workings of Washington politics.

He became best known for multi-volumes on the histories of the administrations of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. (I was puzzled as to why he didn’t write about his own forefathers’ administrations.) These works gave him recognition as one of the premier historians of his day. And, having never been assigned any of the older historians’ works in my studies, I began reading his History of the Administration of Thomas Jefferson. Other events have stalled out that venture, but from the portion I finished, I was once again struck by his abilities.

I believe David Brown’s biography is a good one. I also believe that whatever problem I have with Henry Adams lies deeper than trying to find out about his life or gather a few insights into his literary labors. I would welcome professional or amateur historians to explain to me what I am missing when I try to place Adams in the roll call of great or influential Americans.

Perhaps it is that I am suffering from not having read Mont Saint Mihel and Chartes, which was inspired by his visits to cathedrals in France. My journey, with its unpleasantness and irritations with Henry Adams, is not quite over.

The Last American Aristocrat
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The Pastor: His Call, His Character, and Work

image of the book The Pastor by Faculty and Friends of old princeton

The Pastor: His Call, Character, and Work by Faculty and Friends of “Old” Princeton is published by Banner of Truth.

Predictable! Delightfully so. That is how I would characterize this collection of sermons and talks given back in the day at Old Princeton.

Princeton Theological Seminary was the moral compass, the lodestone, the North Star, the pillar and ground of theological and Biblical truth in the 19th century. Under such theologians as Archibald Alexander, Samuel Miller, Charles Hodge, and others, the seminary dug its heels in and refused to budge when confronted with the flurry of theological heresies, social currents, and societal upheavals of the day.

Princeton Theological Seminary was not a cultural backwater, however. The men who taught there were students of the latest discoveries in theological and linguistic research. They kept abreast of the scientific advances and challenges of the time. They interacted with the political events.

But Princeton Seminary had one primary goal. It sought to train men to be faithful pastors. Of course, this entailed language studies. It also took students through the depths of theology, homiletics, and Scriptural exegesis. Such were the expected tools and steps for those who wanted to be Presbyterian pastors. There was no place for the illiterate man who be converted one Sunday and feel compelled to start preaching the next Sunday. Rather, one had to study hard and deep and be grounded in the Word of God and able to faithfully communicate it.

The gist of the nine addresses in this book is not on academic or scholarly attainments. Rather, the focus was on the pastor’s heart. Godly, pious, faithful men were the only ones who were apt to be ministers. Each pastoral leader in these essays exhorts his hearers to be faithful and focused in following Christ.

That is why I said that this book is predictable. There are no surprise heresies lurking between the lines of some speculations regarding Scripture. This book would not satisfy the one who was looking for seeds of deviation from the Scriptural and Westminster-based norms. These were sound men exhorting the next generation to remain sound.

As such, these essays are good devotional reading. One wanting to explore theological issues would need to look at other Princeton works, such as Charles Hodge’s Systematic Theology or the works of Benjamin Warfield. The amazing thing is that while it was the mind that the seminary was filling and expanding, it was the heart that was the central concern. As a former pastor, I could feel the need to hear these kinds of words and exhortations again and again.

For those who want to know more about the work and legacy of Princeton Seminary, I will mention the following books, which are also Banner of Truth titles:

cover image for the Princeton Seminary Set

David Calhoun has written a definitive history in two volumes of the seminary and the men who served there. This is an outstanding historical study. Volume 1 covers the years 1812 (the beginning) to 1868 and volume 2 takes the story up to 1929. The later stages of the seminary’s history are rather sad because of the death of Benjamin Warfield and the internal battles over theological liberalism.

Princeton and the Work of the Christian Ministry Cover Image

Princeton and the Work of Christian Ministry is a two volume set from which The Pastor was taken. The 255 pages of this shorter work can easily whet the appetite for the 1500 pages of the larger set.

Pastor-Teachers of Old Princeton

Pastor-Teachers of Old Princeton is subtitled “MEMORIAL ADDRESSES FOR THE FACULTY OF PRINCETON THEOLOGICAL SEMINARY 1812-1921.” Once again, source materials are ready at hand for readers in our day to be reminded and grounded in the historic teachings of Reformed Christianity.

Finally, Banner of Truth and other publishers have printed a number of works by such men as Charles Hodge, A. A. Hodge, Archibald Alexander, Samuel Miller, Benjamin Warfield, J. Gresham Machen, and others who were pastors/scholars/teachers/students of the old Princeton tradition.

These works do have relevance as historical documents, but their greatest value is in the true and sound theology they contain and remind us of. We are living in a Christian Renaissance. We not only have many good and faithful preachers and teachers in our day, but thanks to works like the book reviewed here, we have the wealth of the past at our fingertips.

image of the book The Pastor by Faculty and Friends of old princeton

Calhoun: American Heretic

Calhoun

Calhoun: American Heretic by Robert Elder is published by Basic Books.

Robert Elder has written an outstanding biography of an essential man in 19th century American history. The book, the man, and the issues are primary and critical for any students, would-be-scholars, and teachers of American history. I would commend any college professor who assigns or at least strongly recommends this study.

With decades of teaching and reading American history, I found huge gaps in my own understanding of history helped by my study of this work. All of that being said, I do have some reservations, indeed disagreements, with the author’s perspective that I will comment on later.

The Great Triumvirate : Webster, Clay, and Calhoun by Merrill D. Peterson

There were three men, sometimes referred to a “the Great Triumvirate” of the U. S. Senate, who held powerful positions in the antebellum government from the War of 1812 up to the Compromise of 1850. They were Daniel Webster, Henry Clay, and John C. Calhoun. It is interesting that none of them made it to the Presidency, yet all of them individually outshone quite a few of the Presidents of those years. All three were Secretaries of State at one time or another (and that office was the stepping stone to the Presidency). All three battled the key issues of the day, often in opposition to one or the other amongst themselves. All three have been ranked as being among the greatest leaders in the Senate for all of American history.

Of the three, it is Calhoun who has often been praised or blamed for being an original and profound political thinker. While he grappled with the political conflicts of his time, and while he sometimes had views that morphed from one stance to another to fit circumstances, and while he was a skilled a wily politician rather than a marble statesman, he actually carved out time to write A Disquisition on Government. This work, which like too many source materials is mentioned sometimes and read almost never, grapples with the issues of how a minority (the Southern states in Calhoun’s situation) can coexist with a ruling majority.

For Calhoun, political thought was not an academic ivory tower escape. He was generally in the thick of the political controversies of his time. He came near to being a Presidential contender on several occasions. Oddly enough, he served as Vice President twice under two men who were Presidential rivals (John Q. Adams and Andrew Jackson). Not surprising, Calhoun’s principles and convictions would put in alliances with others at points, while later producing political enmity. His conflicts with Andrew Jackson were both political and personal. Jackson regretted not hanging Calhoun, although he had no legal grounds to do so (which would have been only a slight impediment to Old Hickory).

The political drive, unrelenting convictions, and untiring work that Calhoun devoted to his and South Carolina’s and the South’s and the United States’ are astounding. Much of what labored to achieve fell into obscurity, or occupies a few paragraphs of most government texts, or is discredited in our day.

There is no understanding of pre-Civil War America without some serious time devoted to Calhoun. For that reason, this book is quite important, readable, and well done.

But notice the title: Calhoun: American Heretic. Robert Elder deals forcefully with the terrible institution of slavery in Calhoun’s time. Like so many other leaders of his era, Calhoun was a slave owner. Unlike many of them, he did not flinch or apologize or seek to minimize the bad effects of slavery. In our time, we have, thankfully, gotten past praising our leaders of the early republic as though they were all pillars of truth and exemplars of all virtue. Hagiography has no place in historical studies. But we still have to reckon with the fact that people from the past live in a foreign land that differs from our own. Criticizing and fault finding is inescapable, but there a need for trying to get inside the mindset of a previous era whose sins and follies differ from our own.

Calhoun is a pariah today. His name, statues of him, and his legacy are part of the great airbrushing of history due to our own sensitivities, political correctness, and desire to rewrite the past. I found Dr. Elder’s last section of the book unsatisfying. In it, he heaped up his criticisms of Calhoun, his dismissal of his political thought, and his willingness to push him off the stage. Maybe Elder is right. Calhoun said and thought many things I don’t want to defend.

For me, I find myself now wanting to read Calhoun’s writings, particularly his Disquisition on Government. I also am ready to dig into the works of such scholars as Lee Cheek and Clyde Wilson who have much more favorable assessments of the man. That is, I suppose, what historical studies are all about.

Whether you like Calhoun or despise him, whether this would be one of many reads on the man or your first venture into his thought, Robert Elder has written a challenging, readable, and worthy book.

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Blood and Treasure: Daniel Boone and the Fight for America’s First Frontier

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Blood and Treasure: Daniel Boone and the Fight for America’s First Frontier by Bob Drury and Tom Clavin is published by St. Martin’s Press

To put it quite simply, I was wrong about both Daniel Boone and this book. I opened it up, expecting a fairly interesting read about a man who is both legend and historical. What I didn’t know was how incredible and intertwined in historical events the man was.

This book was one of the most enjoyable, terrifying, and informative reads I have experienced in a long time. Enjoyable because the book was well written and the events were fast paced like a thriller or mystery novel. Terrifying because life on the American frontier was almost non-stop dangers, threats, and hardships, with death coming at the settlers every moment from every angle. Informative because the events in this book, which took place in the just-being-settled “dark and bloody ground” known as Kentucky were part of the American War for Independence.

I grew up with hearing bits and pieces of the story of Daniel Boone. I often got him confused with Davy Crockett. That was not surprising since actor Fess Parker played the part of Crockett for the Disney movie and the role of Boone for the television series. Both were supposedly coon skin cap wearing pre-western cowboy heroes. They lived by wits and weapons, battled Indians, bad guys, and elements, and made American history.

Boone preceded Crockett by a generation or so. Boone was a part of the Scotch-Irish folk who filled in the gaps between the coastal areas of the original colonies and the unsettled (by whites) regions of the country. While people moved to the frontier with the intention of clearing land and farming. But Boone was a restless spirit. Not for him were a team of oxen or mules pulling a plow and clearing a field for crops.

Daniel Boone was a hunter. Always in search of new ground, woodlands and clearing, he, along with a few companions, would kill, dress, and gather an immense amount of meat and hides. These adventures generally put him in Indian territory, and that often meant skirmishes.

Among the interesting facts I came across was this: Boone, and his distant cousin and future general Daniel Morgan, and later British General Thomas Gage, was on the ill-fated Braddock expedition. He was rubbing shoulders with another American legend, George Washington.

Along with seeing the sheer fight, grit, danger, and risks of settling the frontier, this book includes all manner of choice details, such as the following:

“Thirteen years had done little to dull the Irishman John Findley’s beaming countenance. ┬áHe wore the grin of a man who killed weasels with his teeth. “

I reckon that the history of American settlement of the frontier is chocked through with myths and exaggerations. But this book made me realize that the story itself is quite incredible.