The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

August 27, 2014

REFERENCE DESK
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Adams, Brooks
Stephen Tonsor - 06/28/12
Lifespan: (1848–1927)

Brooks Adams was the son of Charles Francis Adams and Abigail Brown Brooks. His father was ambassador to the Court of St. James during the American Civil War and did as much as anyone to save the Union by persuading Britain not to intervene on the side of the Confederacy. His grandfather, John Quincy Adams, was an ambassador, president, and member of the House of Representatives, and his great-grandfather, John Adams, was a founding father, ambassador, and second president of the United States. Brooks Adams was christened Peter Chadron Brooks Adams in honor of his maternal grandfather, Peter Chadron Brooks, Boston’s first multimillionaire.

In background and temperament Brooks Adams was a conservative. Like his ancestors he mistrusted political change and anticipated the early demise of the republic. Like them he feared the power of the moneyed interest and speculative enterprise, or what he and his brother Henry called the power of the “Gold Bugs.” These intellectual tendencies were never articulated into an integrated conservative philosophy. Brooks Adams became a “man of the Right” rather than a conservative. He was much influenced by European ideas of fin de siècle pessimism and decadence. And he was an intellectual eccentric. In fact, it is not short of the mark to describe many of his ideas as half-baked. His thought was not, however, “proto-fascist,” as his biographer Arthur F. Beringause suggests.

Brooks Adams lived in the intellectual shadow of his brother Henry, who was ten years his senior. Even though he never achieved the acclaim and distinction of his brother, Brooks, as Charles A. Beard was the first to demonstrate in his introduction to The Law of Civilization and Decay (1895), exerted a profound influence on Henry’s historical theories. It was Brooks who edited and provided a long introduction to Henry’s collected essays on the theory of history, The Degradation of the Democratic Dogma (1919). Through Henry, the spread and influence of Brooks’s thought was greatly facilitated. Though Brooks wrote and published throughout his lifetime, his Law of Civilization and Decay, first published in 1895, was his most important contribution to the development of conservative thought.

Darwin and the methodology of natural science were decisive influences on Brooks’s historical thought. Throughout his life he was preoccupied with the problem of the nature and meaning of historical experience. His pessimism was rooted in his inability, try as he might, to accept religious belief. He believed that the course of history was governed by causal law, that history was determined, and that free will and human choice had little or no impact on the turn of events. Darwinism provided the basis for his antidemocratic views. He was the first American to attempt a developmental explanation of the whole of human history. He saw the pattern of history as cyclical and oscillating “between barbarism and civilization,” or moving “from a condition of physical dispersion to one of concentration.” The resulting law of force and energy as a phase of cosmic dynamics has universal application. The early stages of concentration (civilization) produce mental types embodied in religious, military, and artistic men. However, “fear yields to greed and the economic organization tends to supersede the emotional and the martial.” When economic man becomes dominant, the course of decline is already well under way. The decline of Rome provides the great example. The capitalist and the “suction of the usurer” bring about the destruction of civilization. In many respects, The Law of Civilization and Decay should be seen as a belated partisan tract in the campaign against gold.

Further Reading
  • Adams, Brooks. The New Empire. New York: Macmillan, 1902.
  • ———. The Theory of Social Revolutions. New York: Macmillan, 1913.
  • Beringause, Arthur F. Brooks Adams: A Biography. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1955.
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