James Truslow Adams

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James Truslow Adams
James Truslow Adams.jpg
Born(1878-10-18)October 18, 1878
Brooklyn, New York
DiedMay 18, 1949(1949-05-18) (aged 70)
Southport, Connecticut
Nationality American
EducationBachelor's degree, MA degree
Alma mater New York University (then Polytechnic Institute of Brooklyn) (Bachelor's) Yale University (MA)
SubjectHistory, biographies
Notable works The March of Democracy
Notable awards Pulitzer Prize for History
1921 The Founding of New England

James Truslow Adams (October 18, 1878 – May 18, 1949) [1] was an American writer and historian. He was a freelance author who helped to popularize the latest scholarship about American history and his three-volume history of New England is well regarded by scholars. [2] He coined the phrase "American Dream" in his 1931 book The Epic of America .


Early life

Adams was born in Brooklyn, New York, to a wealthy family, the son of Elizabeth Harper (née Truslow) and William Newton Adams Jr. [3]

His father had been born in Caracas, Venezuela. His paternal grandfather William Newton Adams Sr. was American of English descent with roots in Virginia and his paternal grandmother Carmen Michelena de Salias was a Venezuelan of Spanish descent back to Gipuzkoa and Seville in the eighteenth century. [4] The earliest paternal ancestor was Francis Adams from England, an indentured servant who settled in the Province of Maryland in 1638. [5] [6] [7] [8]

Adams took his bachelor's degree from the New York University Tandon School of Engineering (then Polytechnic Institute of Brooklyn) in 1898, and a MA degree from Yale University in 1900. He entered investment banking, rising to partner in a New York Stock Exchange member firm. [3] In 1912, he considered his savings ample enough to switch to a career as a writer.

In 1917, he served with Colonel House on President Wilson's commission, "The Inquiry", to prepare data for the Paris Peace Conference. [3] By 1918, he was a captain in the Military Intelligence Division of the General Staff of the U.S. Army. [3] By late 1918, he was selected for the U.S. delegation to the Paris Peace Conference. [3] His main task consisted in the provision of maps and the selection of plans and atlases that should be acquired by the War College, the American Geographical Society, and the Library of Congress.


Adams gained national attention with his trilogy on the history of New England (1921–26), winning the Pulitzer Prize for the first volume. Scholars welcomed his social history of the colonial era, Provincial Society, 1690–1763 (1927). He wrote popular books and magazine articles in a steady stream. His Epic of America was an international bestseller, and was included in Life Magazine's list of the 100 outstanding books of 1924–1944. [9] He was also the editor of a scholarly multi-volume Dictionary of American History. [10] Adams was the editor, with Roy V. Coleman as managing editor, of The Atlas of American History (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1943), and The Album of American History, 4 vols. (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1944). [11]

American Dream

Adams coined the term "American Dream" in his 1931 book The Epic of America . [12] [13] His American Dream is "that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement. It is a difficult dream for the European upper classes to interpret adequately, and too many of us ourselves have grown weary and mistrustful of it. It is not a dream of motor cars and high wages merely, but a dream of social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position." [14]

However, Adams felt the American Dream was in peril during the 1920s and 30s. He complained that "money making and material improvements . . . mere extensions of the material basis of existence", had gained ascendancy, becoming "goods in themselves . . . [mimicking] the aspects of moral virtues." The original American Dream had always been about "quality and spiritual values": "The American dream that has lured tens of millions of all nations to our shores in the past century has not been a dream of merely material plenty, although that has doubtless counted heavily. It has been much more than that." He warned that "in our struggle to 'make a living'" we were neglecting "to live". The Epic of America was his attempt save a "priceless heritage", and sustain the distinctly American understanding of progress in humane and moral terms. The true American Dream was of "a genuine individual search and striving for the abiding values of life", and for the "common man to rise to full stature" in the free realms of "communal spiritual and intellectual life." [15]

Two educations

A quote from one of Adams' essays "There are obviously two educations. One should teach us how to make a living and the other how to live" is widely misattributed to John Adams. The quote is part of an essay by Adams entitled "To 'Be' or to 'Do': A Note on American Education" which appeared in the June, 1929 issue of Forum. The essay is very critical of American education, both in school and at the university level, and explores the role of American culture and class-consciousness in forming that system of education.

In a more complete version of that quote, Adams says:

There are obviously two educations. One should teach us how to make a living and the other how to live. Surely these should never be confused in the mind of any man who has the slightest inkling of what culture is. For most of us it is essential that we should make a living ... In the complications of modern life and with our increased accumulation of knowledge, it doubtless helps greatly to compress some years of experience into far fewer years by studying for a particular trade or profession in an institution; but that fact should not blind us to another—namely, that in so doing we are learning a trade or a profession, but are not getting a liberal education as human beings.


Adams lived in Southport, Connecticut, where he died of a heart attack. [3]


After 1930, Adams was active in the American Academy of Arts and Letters [16] serving as both chancellor and treasurer of that organization. He was also a member of the National Institute of Arts and Letters, the Massachusetts Historical Society, American Antiquarian Society, American Historical Association, and the American Philosophical Society. Among British societies, he was honored as a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. [17]


Adams wrote 21 monographs between 1916 and 1945. He was also editor in chief of the Dictionary of American History, The Atlas of American History, and other volumes.

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  1. Brennan, Elizabeth A.; Clarage, Elizabeth C. (1999-01-01). Who's who of Pulitzer Prize Winners. Greenwood Publishing Group. ISBN   9781573561112.
  2. Clyde N. Wilson, Twentieth-Century American Historians (Gale: 1983, Dictionary of Literary Biography, volume 17) pp 3-8
  3. 1 2 3 4 5 6 Who Was Who in American History – the Military. Chicago: Marquis Who's Who. 1975. p. 2. ISBN   0837932017.
  4. Nevins, Allan (5 July 2017). James Truslow Adams: Select Correspondence. ISBN   9781351511186 . Retrieved January 8, 2020.
  5. Nevins, Allan (5 July 2017). James Truslow Adams: Select Correspondence. ISBN   9781351511186 . Retrieved January 8, 2020.
  6. Nevins, Allan (1968). "James Truslow Adams: historian of the American dream – Allan Nevins – Google Books". Books.google.ca. Retrieved January 8, 2020.
  7. Morgan, Stewart S.; Thomas, William Henry (1938). "Opinions and attitudes in the twentieth century – Google Books". Books.google.ca. Retrieved 2012-11-26.
  8. "The New England Historical and Genealogical Register – Google Books". Books.google.ca. 1949. Retrieved 2012-11-26.
  9. Canby, Henry Seidel. '"The 100 Outstanding Books of 1924–1944". Life, 14 August 1944. Chosen in collaboration with the magazine's editors.
  10. James Truslow Adams, ed., and Roy V. Coleman, managing ed., Dictionary of American History, 5 vols. (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1940); 2nd, revised edition in 6 vols. (1942).
  11. Clyde N. Wilson, Twentieth-Century American Historians (Gale: 1983, Dictionary of Literary Biography, volume 17) pp. 3–8
  12. Adams, James Truslow (2012-05-01). The Epic of America. Transaction Publishers. p. xii. ISBN   9781412847018.
  13. Wills, Matthew (May 18, 2015). "James Truslow Adams: Dreaming up the American Dream". JSTOR Daily. Retrieved March 29, 2019.
  14. Cullen, Jim (2004-01-01). The American Dream: A Short History of an Idea that Shaped a Nation. Oxford University Press. ISBN   9780195173253.
  15. James Truslow Adams, The Epic of America (1931; repr., New York: Blue Ribbon Books, 1941), 405, 406, 412, 415 (italics in original). For a discussion of Adams as the originator of the term American Dream, see James Cullen, The American Dream: A Short History of an Idea That Shaped a Nation (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003), 7, 191. See also Benjamin Hunnicutt, Free Time: The Forgotten American Dream, (Philadelphia, Temple Press, 2013).
  16. Fischer, Heinz Dietrich; Fischer, Erika J. (2002-01-01). Complete Biographical Encyclopedia of Pulitzer Prize Winners, 1917-2000: Journalists, Writers and Composers on Their Ways to the Coveted Awards. Walter de Gruyter. p. 2. ISBN   9783598301865.
  17. Adams, James Truslow (2012-06-01). James Truslow Adams: Select Correspondence. Transaction Publishers. p. 65. ISBN   9781412846974.
  18. James Truslow Adams (1949-01-01). The Founding Of New England. An Atlantic Monthly Press Book.
  19. Adams, James Truslow (1927-01-01). Revolutionary New England, 1691-1776. Boston : Little, Brown.
  20. Adams, James Truslow (1926-01-01). New England in the republic, 1776-1850. Little, Brown, and Company.
  21. Crane, Verner W. (1929-01-01). "Review of Provincial Society, 1690-1763., ; A History of American Life: Volume III Provincial Society, 1690-1763". Political Science Quarterly. 44 (4): 621–623. doi:10.2307/2143031. JSTOR   2143031.
  22. Adams, James Truslow (1929-01-01). Our business civilization; some aspects of American culture. New York: A. & C. Boni.
  23. Adams, James Truslow (2005-01-01). The Adams Family. Kessinger Publishing. ISBN   9780766197749.
  24. Adams, James Truslow (1932-01-01). The march of democracy . C. Scribner's Sons.
  25. Adams, James Truslow (1933-01-01). Henry Adams. A. & C. Boni, inc. ISBN   9781125146606.
  26. Adams, James Truslow (1938-01-01). Building The British Empire: To The End Of The First Empire (First ed.). Charles Scribner's Sons. ISBN   9781125808375.