Brooks Adams


Born: June 24, 1848 in Massachusetts, United States

Died: February 13, 1927
Occupation: Historian

Source Database: Dictionary of American Biography


Adams, Brooks (June 24, 1848 - Feb. 13, 1927), historian, youngest son of Charles Francis Adams and Abigail Brown (Brooks) Adams, was born at Quincy, Mass. After some years in English schools he entered Harvard College, graduated in 1870, and after a year in the Law School accompanied his father to Geneva, serving as his secretary during the Alabama Claims Arbitration. On his return he opened a law office in Boston, but like his brothers soon turned to historical investigation. His first work, The Emancipation of Massachusetts (1887), by its vigorous assault upon the accepted manner of dealing with early New England history, attracted attention, caused retort, and served as a wholesome protest against a somewhat blind acceptance of ancestor-worship. He then turned to a study of trade-routes and their influence upon the history of peoples and nations and published the Law of Civilization and Decay (1895), a work of a high order as history which laid down the principle that human societies differed among themselves in proportion as they were endowed by nature with energy, a principle later developed by Henry Adams. Since he supported the side of silver when the question of the free coinage of that metal was dividing the country, the merits of the book as an economic study were overshadowed by its political aspects. Having announced his principle that civilization follows exchanges, or commercial growth and decay, he sought to apply it to modern history and conditions. Could success have been attained, a means of forecasting the march of empire might have been given to the student of social movement; but his generalizations, brilliant and far-reaching as they were, did not lead to a universal law or even a suggestion of one, such as he desired. The domination of the bankers and the approaching collapse of social institutions were ever present to him and this neutralized in great part the usefulness of his work. In a series of volumes he stated and restated the problem and carried his "law" into a new field of experience. In America's Economic Supremacy (1900) he predicted the moving of the center of empire to America; in The New Empire (1902) he set forth the supremacy of America and in Theory of Social Revolutions (1913) he pointed out the ineffectiveness of the capitalist class in the United States in matters of government.

Becoming a lecturer in the Boston University School of Law in 1904, for seven years he illustrated the legal aspects of his economic studies and wrote with force on trusts and railroads as public agents. Elected a member of the Massachusetts constitutional convention in 1917, he favored the initiative and referendum. After the beginning of the World War, in which he saw a fulfilment of his predictions of the collapse of modern civilizations, he returned to social studies in his "Revolt of Modern Democracy against Standards of Duty" (Proceedings of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, vol. IX). He then wrote an elaborate preface to Henry Adams's "Letter to American Teachers of History," and published both, with additional material, under the title, The Degradation of Democratic Dogma (1920). He received recognition abroad, and The Law of Civilization was translated into French and German, the Economic Supremacy into German, and The New Empire into German and Russian. In whatever he wrote he showed a gift for generalization with a tendency to carry it beyond reasonable bounds. His chapters have substance and show sound and wide research, his explanations of social movement and disturbance are suggestive. He never held public office, nor did he ever seek it. He was the last to occupy the Adams house at Quincy, which on his death was devoted to public service as a memorial of the Adams family. He married, Sept. 7, 1889, Evelyn Davis, daughter of Admiral Charles Henry Davis and Harriette Blake Mills. She died Dec. 14, 1926. He himself died, at Boston, less than two months later.

-- Worthington Chauncey Ford

[Memoir by W. C. Ford in Harvard Grads. Mag., June 1927; also memoir in Mass. Hist. Soc. Proc., LX, 345.]

Source Citation: "Brooks Adams."Dictionary of American Biography Base Set. American Council of Learned Societies, 1928-1936. Reproduced in History Resource Center. Farmington Hills, MI: Gale Group.