The prescience of Henry Adams

Henry Adams (1838 – 1918) was the great-grandson of John Adams, the American revolutionary and second President of the United States. His grandfather, John Quincy Adams, was the sixth President of the United States. His father, Charles Francis Adams, Sr., was Lincoln’s ambassador in London. Henry Adams served as his father’s private secretary in London. In 1862 he wrote the following in a letter to his elder brother, Charles Francis Adams, Jr.:

I firmly believe that before many centuries more, science will be the master of men. The engines he will have invented will be beyond his strength to control. Someday science may have the existence of mankind in its power, and the human race commit suicide, by blowing up the world.

Two more of his observations that resonate in our own troubled times:

Modern politics is, at bottom, a struggle not of men but of forces. The men become every year more and more creatures of force, massed about central power-houses. The conflict is no longer between the men, but between the motors that drive the men, and the men tend to succumb to their own motive forces. . . .

The Trusts and Corporations stood for the larger part of the new power that had been created since 1840, and were obnoxious because of their vigorous and unscrupulous energy. They were revolutionary, troubling all the old conventions and values, as the screws of ocean steamers must trouble a school of herring. They tore society to pieces and trampled it under foot.

The Education of Henry Adams (1907)


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