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Henry Carter Adams
The Michigan Alumnus 520-524


(31ST DECEMBER, 1851—11TH AUGUST, 1921)

The following memorial to the late
 Professor Henry C. Adams was present
ed to the University Senate at a recent
 meeting. It was prepared by a commit
tee of which R. M. Wenley; Professor of 
Philosophy was the chairman. The other 
members were S. Lawrence Bigelow, 
 Professor of Chemistry and I. Leo 
Sharfman, Professor of Economics. 

An obvious drawback of academic life is 
that titles tend to obscure persons: and when, 
as with our colleague Henry Carter Adams, 
 the man dwarfs the title, liability to misjudge
 or overlook becomes serious. Not till too
 late, death prompting inquiry or reflection, do
 we grow aware of the true reasons for the
 magnitude of our gain and loss. Even so, 
 when we attempt a fit Memorial, the Odyssey
 of the spirit is all too apt to evade our tardy 
heed. The career of Professor Adams furn
ishes a typical case in point. 

Henry Carter Adams was born at Daven
port, Iowa, December 31, 1851. He came of
 old New England stock; his forebears had
 made the great adventure oversea in 1623. His
 mother, Elizabeth Douglass, and his father, 
 Ephraim Adams, were a like-minded pair, 
 representative of the soundest traditions of 
New England character and nurture. Ephraim 
Adams, one of a small band of missionaries
 from Andover Theological Seminary who for
sook everything for Christ's sake, arrived on 
the open prairies of Iowa in 1842—the goal
 of three weeks' hard journey from Albany, New York. Their mission it was to kindle 
and tend the torch, not merely of religion, but
 also of education, among the far-flung pioneers. 
 Consequently, it is impossible to understand
 why Henry Adams was what he was, became
 what he became, unless one can evoke sympa
thetic appreciation of the temper, which de
termined his upbringing. For example, it may
 well astonish us to learn that his nineteenth 
birthday was but a few months off ere he
 received his first formal instruction. The
 reasons thereof may astonish us even more. 
 The child had been sickly always, physicians 
informing the parents that he could not survive the age of fourteen. The "open prairies" 
proved his physical salvation. Given a cause 
and a gun, the boy roamed free, passing from
 missionary home to missionary home, some-
times bearing parental messages to the scat
tered preachers. In this way he outgrew 
debility and, better still, acquired a love for
 nature, and an intimacy with our average 
citizenry, never lost. Meanwhile, the elder
 Adams taught him Greek, Latin, and He brew
 as occasion permitted. At length, in 1869, he
entered Denmark Academy whence, after a
 single year, he was able to proceed to Iowa
 College, Grinnell, where he graduated in 1874. During these five years, the man whom we 
knew started to shape himself.

In the home and the wider circle of friends, the impressionable days of childhood had been 
moulded by Puritanism. God's providence, 
the responsibility of man, the absolute distinc
tion between right and wrong, with all result-
ant duties and prohibitions, set the perspective. 
Fortunately, the characteristic Yankee interest 
in education—in intelligence rather than learn
ing—contributed a vital element. An active
 mind enlarged the atmosphere of the soul. De-
spite its straight limitations as some reckon 
them; here was a real culture, giving men in
ner harmony with self-secure from disturbance
 by the baser passions. As we are aware 
now, disturbance came otherwise. To quote
 Adams' own words, he was "plagued by doc
trines" from the time he went to the Academy. 
 The spiritual impress of the New England
 home never left him; it had been etched upon 
his very being. But, thus early, Calvinistic 
dogma aroused misgivings, because its sheer 
profundity bred high doubt. As a matter of 
course, Ephraim Adams expected his son to 
follow the Christian ministry, and Henry him
self foresaw no other calling meantime. Hence, when scepticism assailed him, he was destined
 to a terrible, heart-searching experience, the
 worse that domestic affection drew him one
 way, mental integrity another. His first years 
at Grinnell were bootless; the prescribed stud
ies held no attraction and, likely enough, sick
ness had left certain lethargy. But, when 
he came to history, philosophy, and social
 questions, he felt a new appeal. His Junior
 and Senior years, eager interest stimulating, 
profited him much. Still dubious, he taught
 for a year after graduation at Nashua, Iowa. Then, bowing to paternal prayer and maternal 
hope, he entered Andover Theological Semi-
nary, not to prepare for the ministry, however, 
 but "to try himself out"—to discover whether 
preaching were possible for him. In the Spring 
of 1876, he had decided irrevocably that it was 
not. Adams' "first" education—education by
 the natal group—ended here. It had guaran
teed him the grace which is the issue of 
moral habit, had wedded him to the convic
tion that justice is truth in action. For, al-
though he abandoned certain theological for
mulae, the footfall of spiritual things ever 
echoed through hrs character. The union of 
winsome gentleness with stern devotion to 
humanitarian ideals, so distinctive of Professor Adams, rooted in the persistent influ
ence of the New England conscience. 

The Second Education

Turning to the "second" education, destined 
to enroll our colleague among economic lead
ers, it is necessary to recall once again conditions almost forgotten now. When, forty-five
 years ago, an academy and college-bred lad, 
 destined for the ministry, found it necessary 
to desist, he was indeed "all at sea." For 
facilities, offered on every hand today by the
 Graduate Schools of the great universities, 
 did not exist. The youth might drift—into 
journalism, teaching, or what not. But drift
ing was not on Adams' programme. He wrote 
to his parents who, tragically enough, could 
not understand him, "I must obtain another 
cultural training." His mind had dwelt al-
ready upon social, political, and economic prob
lems: therefore, the "second" education must
 be non-theological. Whither could he look? At this crisis his course was set by one of 
those small accidents, which, strange to tell, 
 play a decisive part in many lives. By mere
 chance, he came upon a catalogue of Johns
 Hopkins University, so late in the day, more-
over, that his application for a fellowship, 
 with an essay enclosed as evidence of fitness, 
arrived just within time limits. Adams was 
chosen one of ten Fellows from a list of more 
than three hundred candidates, and to Balti
more he went in the fall of 1876. His letters
 attest that the new, ampler opportunities at
tracted him strongly. He availed himself of 
concerts, for music always moved him. Here 
he heard the classics for the first time. Hither-
to he had known only sacred music. Sometimes 
he played in church and, as records show, he
 sang in our Choral Union while a young pro
fessor. We find, too, that he served as assistant in the Johns Hopkins library, not for 
the extravagant salary, as he remarks humor
ously, but on account of access to books—"I
 am reading myself full." His summers were
 spent in his native State, working in the fields. 
 In 1878 he received the doctorate, the first 
conferred by the young and unique university.

Study in Europe

The day after graduation President Oilman
 sent for him, and told him, "You must go to
 Europe." The reply was typical—"I can't, I 
haven't a cent." Oilman continued, ''I shall
 see what can be done," with the result that the benefactor to whom Adams dedicated his 
first book found the requisite funds. Brief
 stays at Oxford and Paris, lengthier at Berlin
 and Heidelberg, filled the next fourteen
 months. The journalistic bee still buzzing in 
his head, Adams had visited Godkin before
 leaving for Europe, to discuss the constructive
 political journalism he had in mind. Godkin 
received him kindly, but as Adams dryly re-
marks, had a long way to travel ere he could
 understand. In the summer of 1878, President
 Andrew D. White, of Cornell, traveling in 
Germany, summoned Adams, to discuss a 
vacancy in this university. To Adams' huge
 diappointment, as the interview developed, it
 became apparent that White, with a nonchalance some of us remember well, had mistaken H. C. Adams, the budding economist, 
 for H. B. Adams, the budding historian. The
 vacancy was in history, not in political science 
or economics. Expectation vanished in thin 
air. But Adams was not done with. Return
ing to his pension, he sat up all night to draft 
the outline of a course of lectures which, as
 he bluntly put it, "Cornell needed." Next day 
he sought President White again who, being
 half persuaded by Adams' verbal exposition, 
 kept the document, saying he would communicate with Cornell, requesting that a place be
 made for the course if possible. Writing from
 Saratoga, in September 1879, Adams tells his 
mother that all is off at Cornell, that he must
 abandon his career and buckle down to earn
ing a livelihood. A lapse of ten days trans
formed the scene. The Cornell appointment
 had been arranged, and he went to Ithaca 
forthwith. So meagre were the facilities then 
offered in the general field of the social sci
ences that Adams gave one semester, at Cornell and Johns Hopkins respectively, to these
 subjects in the year 1879-80. The same ar
rangement continued till 1886, Michigan be
ing substituted for Johns Hopkins in 1881. As 
older men recall, Dr. Angell taught economics, 
 in addition to international law, till the time
 of his transfer to Pekin as Minister to China. 
 At this juncture, Adams joined us, forming a 
life-long association. He himself says that he
 "gave up three careers, —preaching, journalism, 
 and reform—to devote himself to teaching"
 where he believed his mission lay. 

Dismissal from Cornell

There is no better index to the enormous 
change that has overtaken the usual approach
 to social questions than the circumstances
, which caused Adams' expulsion from Cornell
 University. The Scientific American Supple
ment (p. 8861) of date August 21st, 1886, con
tains the substance of an address, "The Labor 
Problem." We quote Adams' comments, inscribed beside the clipping in his personal

"This is the article that caused my dismissal 
from Cornell. This article was given on the
 spur of the moment. Professor Thurston had 
invited a man from New York to address the
 engineering students, but the lecturer failed
 to come. I was asked to come in and say a
 few words on the Gould Strike. It was said 
to me that other members of the Faculty 
would speak, and that I might present my
 views as an advocate. 

"The room was crowded for, besides the 
engineering society, my own students, getting 
word of it, came over to the Physical Laboratory room where the addresses of the society
 were given. A more inspiring audience no 
man could have, and I spoke with ease, with
 pleasure and, from the way my words were 
received, with effect. The New York papers 
reported what I said and, three days after, Mr. 
Henry Sage, than whom I know no more 
honest hypocrite or unchristian a Christian, 
 came into the President's office and, taking
 the clipping from The New York Times out
 of his pocket said, "This man must go, he is 
sapping the foundations of our society." It
 was not until then that I thought of putting
 what I said into print, but I then did it, fol
lowing as nearly as possible what I said and
 the way I said it.

"The effect of this episode upon myself was 
to learn that what I said might possibly be of
 some importance. 

"Of course, there is a good deal of secret 
history connected with the matter, but I am 
not likely to forget that."

This echo of old, far-off, unhappy things is 
most suggestive, because more than any other
 man, perhaps, Adams mediated the vast, silent 
change marking these last thirty-five years. 
 As has been aptly said, "he had a most roman
tic intellectual career."

Appointment at Michigan

In 1887, he was appointed to the Michigan
 chair, which he greatly graced till death. At
 this time, too, on the urgent request of his
 close friend, Judge Thomas M. Cooley, then
 Chairman, he joined the Interstate Commerce
 Commission, much against his own inclination. 
 When he founded the Statistical Department, 
 he had the assistance of a single clerk; when
 he resigned, in 1911, the personnel numbered 
two hundred and fifty. Mutatis mutandis, a
 parallel expansion overtook our Department
 of Economics under his leadership. 

It must suffice merely to mention his ser-
vices with the Eleventh Census, the Michigan
 Tax Commission, and the Chinese Republic, 
 pointing out that such positions come only to
 men of high distinction and proven authority. 
 More than a quarter of a century has elapsed
 since his election to the Presidency of the
 American Economic Association, which he
 helped to found; nearly as long since he was
 presiding officer of the American Statistical
 Association. In short, he ranked among the
 most important and influential leaders in his
 chosen field. His Alma Mater honored her-
self in honoring him with the degree of LL.D 
twenty-three years ago; Wisconsin followed suit in 1903; Johns Hopkins in 1915. Needless 
to say, he had many offers, some most tempt
ing, to leave Michigan. But, entertaining pro-
found confidence in the State University, be
lieving that it was destined to be instrumental 
in the diffusion of those opportunities in high
er education indispensable to a free democracy, 
he refused to move. In attachment to this
 University, like not a few men whom she has 
imported, he outdid many alumni. 

His Original Work

Naturally, Adams produced a mass of orig
inal work. Upon two fields of economic investigation, particularly—public finance and
 public control—he imposed a durable imprint. 
His interest in public finance dated from his 
doctoral dissertation, Taxation in the United
 States, 1789-1816. In Public Debts, an Essay 
in the Science of Finance, later translated into
 Japanese, and in The Science of Finance, an 
Investigation of Public Expenditures and Pub
lic Revenues, he not only manifested wide
 economic grasp and remarkable power of an
alysis, but exhibited the principles of public 
finance as a scientific unity, in their manifold 
relations to social, political, and economic progress. His memorable essay, The Relation of the State to Industrial Action, marked his initial, and most significant, contribution in the 
field of public control. He subjected the preva
lent doctrine of laissez-faire to searching analysis, and, with profound appreciation of the
 demands of a dynamic world, formulated basic 
principles for the guidance of industrial leg
islation. His emphasis on the function of the
 State in moulding the plans of competitive ac
tion, in realizing for society the benefits of
 monopolistic control, and in restoring condi
tions of social harmony to the economic order, 
 fore-shadowed much of the theoretical dis
cussion and practical reorganization of a later 
day. His subsequent achievements in the de
velopment of public control, especially over 
railroad transportation, are incorporated in the 
accounts and classifications which he slowly 
evolved as statistician of the Interstate Com
merce Commission. The universal acceptance 
today of statuted accounting and statistical 
practice as an indispensable instrument for the 
effective regulation of railroads and public
 utilities remains a lasting monument to the 
intelligence and validity of his pioneering ef
forts. It is a distinct loss to economic scholarship and to historical tradition that his Ameri
can Railway Accounting published seven years
 after his resignation from the Interstate Com
merce Commission, was but a commentary on 
these accounts and classifications rather than 
that graphic picture of their origin and de
velopment such as he alone was competent to

The Social Philosopher

Throughout life, Adams' intellectual ap
proach was that of a social philosopher rather 
than of a technical economist. This is plain 
throughout his published work. Intuitive yearn
ing for social justice, prompted by a Puritan
 conscience, stimulated by an analytical intel
lect, colored all his writings. Human rela
tions uniformly served as his point of depar
ture, and humane amelioration was ever the 
horizon toward which he moved. Such was
 the spirit of his Relation of the State to In
dustrial Action, and of his fundamental stud
ies in public finance. His papers on the social
 movements of our time, and on the social 
ministry of wealth, contributed to The Inter-
national Journal of Uthics; his discussions, in 
the economic journals, of economics and jur
isprudence, publicity and corporate abuses, and 
of many of the more technical aspects of rail-
road taxation; of the developments of the
 Trust movement, budget reform, and foreign 
investments as a crucial element in international maladjustments, were moulded by a similar
 insight into primary human relations, and by 
a like desire to contribute to the realization of 
human betterment.

Accordingly, it was the more remarkable
 that Professor Adams proved himself so ef
fective a public servant in the formulation of 
practical and concrete machinery for the regulation of transportation agencies, in this 
country and in China. The reason for this 
success is to be found in his consistent adher
ence to the conception of accounts and sta
tistics as mere instruments of social control 
rather than as fields of inquiry for their own
 sake. From first to last, then, he remained the
 social philosopher. His plans for the future 
promised a return to the synthetic intellectual
 activity of his early career. Death overtook 
him with his labors unfinished, but the direc
tion of his interests was clear and unmistak

In sum, then, remarkable as was the career, 
 formative as were its results, the personality 
overtopped all else, mainly because Adams'
 austere judgment of self, his nigh innocent 
attitude toward his great attainments, won
 upon others. Indeed, no one would have been
 more surprised than he at the words we have 
addressed to you this evening, —partly on ac-
count of his innate modesty, partly thanks to 
his very reticence, which prevented us from making known to him how we esteemed his
 deep, pervasive glow. 



R. M. WENLEY, Chairman