Given how many references there are to history in, for example, the Federalist Papers, and considering how Madison prepared for the constitutional convention, I think your thesis is a bit off. The most thoughtful founders studied history because they knew you could learn much about human nature and political matters from it. It was in large part this knowledge that allowed them to create a political system that the world had never seen before. Given that history springs from human beings and human action springs from something many call human nature, there will always be a mixture of continuity and variability in history. How, and how much, that mixture can be shaped by humans beings is the interesting thing. Regarding Henry Adams, I think German historicism threw him for a loop; as it has been doing to many American intellectuals, in one form or another, ever since. (Your comments of Adams’ alienation made me think of Steele’s recent piece on President Obama in the Wall Street Journal.) Fortunately, there is another intellectual tradition in the United States that preceded historicism (e.g., founders, Lincoln) and has resisted its influence to the present day.
Great post. I’m a young man just out of college (I actually shopped your class last year), and I read Henry Adams this summer, hoping to discover how one goes about receiving an education after leaving school. Reading him was an occasion for jealousy- I couldn’t believe how well-traveled and well-read he was, as an American in the 19th century.
What do you think of his treatment of science in The Education? As a 21st century reader, I couldn’t help feeling amused when he started going on about geology and fossils. He had this great humanities education, but when he started to think about science he was just incredibly naive. He tries to wield these boldface concepts, like Darwin or that fossil fish, the Pterapsis, as though they were theories of history.
I suppose it’s charming in its own way- scholars in the humanities don’t try and learn basic science anymore. Today when people want to wield a scientific argument, they try to apply relativity or quantum mechanics to history.
What do you think? Do you try to make anything of science these days?
You note that Henry Ford was a notorious anti-semite. Unfortunately, so too was Henry Adams, much unlike his great grandfather.