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Garry Wills springs to defense of Henry Adams' lengthy 'History'

Garry Wills, intellectual gadfly and winner of the Pulitzer Prize for his "Lincoln at Gettysburg," has stolen the march on other experts in American history. Wills claims, contrary to earlier sages, that Henry Adams' nine-volume work, "History of the United States of America During the Administrations of Thomas Jefferson" (four volumes) and "History of the United States of America During the Administrations of James Madison" (five volumes), is the "nonfiction prose masterpiece of the 19th century."

Wills says that "Because the 'History' is not generally read . . . It is a treat too many people deprive themselves of." This is just a wild guess, but reading nine volumes may be a little too much for anyone but the serious reader of American history.

For readers thinking about investing the time, "Henry Adams and the Making of America" has two parts: the first demonstrates the way Adams (1838-1918) became the kind of historian who could analyze the "intellectual, economic, diplomatic, and military concerns" that influenced the young nation. The second part illustrates the formative nature of Adams' own development. Wills makes it clear that one aspect "mirrors" the other.

The author claims that a reading of the "History" will wipe away the myth of the work being written to vindicate the Federalists. Instead, it shows the monumental work the Republican presidents were able to achieve. Wills says that Adams shows that "They alone . . . could have taken a sluggish, divided, backward-looking, intellectually stunted nation in 1800 and brought it, by 1817, to a state of union, energy, exploration, and progress."

Why is the "History" such a great piece of work? Wills says that it offers "archival research on an unprecedented scale in America and combines it with social and intellectual history." Wills claims that Adams offers a "surprising (almost scandalous) thesis -- that the Jeffersonians' four terms at the beginning of the 19th century created a national unity and internationalism far in advance of what preceded them." Jeffersonians themselves, Wills asserts, claimed to be opposed to such developments. "They assumed power to decrease power, to decentralize the government, to withdraw from international 'entanglements.' " On the first two counts, Jeffersonians sound like Reaganites of the 1980s.

Most readers will be familiar with Henry Adams' autobiographical "Education of Henry Adams," written when he was in his 60s. Wills acknowledges that this book, published in 1918 (11 years after it was privately distributed), shows Adams taking "a world-weary and pessimistic view of the nation and its politics." He doesn't see it as worth reading, compared to the earlier "History." He says that it does not contain the forward looking spirit of Adams, the grandson and great-grandson of U.S. presidents, at the peak of his powers in his 40s, when he wrote "History."

In his new book, Wills criticizes some of the best of 20th century American historians for faulty analysis. Apparently he feels required to do this, in order to justify his reading of Adams' "History." Richard Hofstadter, a Buffalo native who won the Pulitzer Prize; Henry Steele Commager; and other historians of impeccable reputation had a different reading of Adams's "History." But Hofstadter and Commager cannot answer Wills' charges from the grave.

What did Columbia University historian Hofstadter earlier write that so profoundly disturbs the author? Wills says that Hofstadter "claims that the misanthropic Adams actually chose a low and vile period of 16 years to cover in his 'History.' . . . The time of the Jeffersonians, says Hofstadter, was 'regarded by the author himself as dreary and unproductive, as an age of slack and derivative culture, of fumbling and small-minded statecraft, terrible parochial wrangling and treasonous schemes, climaxed by a ludicrous and unnecessary war." (One could be forgiven for reading this quote and thinking in the present tense.)

Wills pounces upon these premises. "Every point Hofstadter raises is manifestly wrong." Wills has great assurance as a writer and a masterly command of historical material that he has fashioned to his reading of "History." Wills carefully outlines and comments upon each of the "History's" nine volumes, dealing first with Jefferson's two terms, his successes, reaching out and centralizing the government, how he coped with foes: Talleyrand, Pitt and Marshall, and avoiding war with the British. He does an equally fine job summarizing Madison's two terms, including the war years, stressing what he calls the eighth volume's "blend of tragedy and hope" that chronicles the civil incompetence of the cabinet and Congress and "an upward surge of military glory." Chapter Nine describes the confluence of peace and nationalism and continued nation-building.

In his Epilogue, Wills has some interesting things to say about interpreting our Constitution, especially if people become, as some have, critical of its assumptions.

He makes the point that holding a belief in "pastism . . . the belief that the past is beyond our challenge or judgment," is not a fruitful endeavor. (One may note a playful parenthesis here, intended for some Supreme Court judges.)

Wills ends by saying that "There is much to be learned from the past -- but it is better learned from the pragmatists than from the ideologues."

Henry Adams and the Making of America

By Garry Wills

Houghton Mifflin

448 pages, $30

Michael D. Langan is a frequent News book reviewer.

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