Review- Adams, “The Emancipation of Massachusetts”


Brooks Adams, “The Emancipation of Massachusetts” (1886) – Another read courtesy of Project Gutenberg while temping, and another from the fourth generation of prominent Adamses. Brooks was the younger brother of Henry Adams (whose “Education” I reread a little bit ago in similar circumstances), grandson of John Quincy Adams, etc. Brooks was a historian and a social theorist, and is probably best known as a foreign policy advisor to Theodore Roosevelt. TR admired him but saw him as eccentric- he seems to have played a vaguely Gorka-like role, more of a big picture/theoretical guy than anything else. Among other things, by that time Brooks was a theorist of mass race/geopolitical war, using concepts somewhat similar to those Henry applied in the cultural realm — often misappropriations of then-newish physics concepts about energy and entropy — to argue that the US was doomed to destruction it couldn’t build an empire that could prevent its degeneracy (and probably doomed anyway), etc.

But in 1886, Brooks Adams was much more optimistic, but still combative. He took aim at the filiopietistic New England historians that had, for some time, been singing hymns to their Puritan forefathers as the originators of freedom in the land. He has a grand old time pillorying Cotton Mather and the various other pious bigots who ran things in the Puritan theocracy (who could hardly complain, being great fans of the pillory themselves). Adams also did a lot of that trick beloved in the early days of the historical profession and drowning the reader in pages and pages of direct quotes from his sources (in their barely-legible period English). Like his brother Henry, Brooks had imbibed deeply of the much more critical German tradition of historiography. The seed of “free institutions” (free for who, of course he doesn’t ask) might have laid dormant in the good Puritan stock, Adams argues, but it was foiled for decades by the theocracy. The titular emancipation was the loosing of the theocracy, the true fulfillment of the Reformation as allowing every man freedom of conscience, etc.

Nobody really does history like this anymore, and for a lot of good reasons. It interests me, though, what people got out of it and how they made use of it to construct their worlds. The Adamses were not above a certain ancestor-worship themselves, but always insisted on associating their line with national American institutions, not Massachusetts or New England ones (Henry Adams had a LOT to say about the treachery of the New England elites during the war of 1812, etc). Along with flexing his historiographical muscles, I think Adams was making a claim for a certain sort of political actor — men of the world, shrewd, pragmatic but principled (the profile the Adamses, at least before Brooks’s generation fell into neurosis and political irrelevance, like to cut) — as the central actors in the drama of progress.

All of which is undercut before it even begins, at least when I read it! There’s actually a pretty batty preface in the online edition I found, written over thirty years later in 1919, after Adams had gone full cultural pessimist, saying he was basically wrong about progress and that massive conflict between races and nations was inevitable, using a protracted exegesis on the Book of Exodus to prove it. So… elite social thought was always a weird critter, and from Brooks Adams’s day to Gorka’s (and let’s not forget that weirdo Cass Sunstein, lest anyone think I’m picking on republicans), intellectuals who get access to leaders typically do so more for extraneous factors than for the profundity of their insights. **

Review- Adams, “The Emancipation of Massachusetts”

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