James Truslow Adams

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James Truslow Adams (October 18, 1878 in Brooklyn, N.Y. - May 18, 1949 in Southport, Conn.) was an American historian. He was not related to the famous Adams family (though he wrote a book about the family in 1930). He was not an academic, but a freelance author, and his three volume history of New England is well regarded by scholars.

Life and work

James Truslow Adams started an international living career, so to speak, shortly after his birth, when his parents decided to live for some time in Paris, France. Adams visited different schools in New York and took his bachelor's degree from the Brooklyn Polytechnic Institute in 1898, and a M.A. degree from Yale University in 1900, though he was diasappointed from Yale University. Probably around 1898/99, he entered the Wall Street company his father was working for. He changed to a railway company, the Central of Georgia, thereby earning more money and learning much about investment business. In 1900 he undertook a grand tour through Europe, spending three weeks in London and visiting the world's fair in Paris, which left him unimpressed. He lived with his parents and his sister Amy in Summit, New Jersey. Reluctantly, he accepted the offer by a friend and entered again the investment banking firm of Henderson, Lindley and Co., a New York Stock Exchange member, becoming a partner of the company in December 1908. His mother died in 1911.

In 1912, he considered his savings so extensive, that he finally could enter a long thought about career as a writer. In autumn 1912 he purchased a strip of land on the Southern coast of Long Island at Bridgehampton, where he built a house, though he continued living together with his father and his sister. At that time, he developed a strong interest in local history, on which he published some works.

In 1917, he served with Colonel House on the President's commission to prepare data for the Paris Peace Conference. By 1918, he was a Captain in the Military Intelligence Division of the General Staff, US Army. From January to May 1919, he was a member of the US delegation to the Paris Peace Conference, where his main task consisted in the provision of maps and the selection of plans and atlases, which should be acquired by the War College, the American Geographical Society, and the Library of Congress.

In 1923, his father died. After an appendectomy in the same year, he became acquainted with Kathryn Seely, a nurse. In 1926, Adams sold his house in Bridgehampton and lived in an apartment in Brooklyn until 1928. In January 1927 he married Kathryn Seely, honeymooning for five months in Europe. From 1928 to 1936, they lived in London. Because of the war threat in Europe, they returned to the United States, where they lived in Southport, Conn. James Truslow Adams died in spring 1949 after a heart attack.

Aside from his savings, J. T. Adams had to earn his and his wife's livelihood by his writings. Therefore, after his New England trilogy and his Provincial Society, 1690-1763, he wrote mainly 'popular' accounts. His Epic of America was an international bestseller. He was also the editor of a still interesting, multi-volume Dictionary of American History.[1]

In 1930, Adams was elected a member of the prestigious American Academy of Arts and Letters serving, since 1941, 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.

The American dream

Adams was the first to identfy and name "the American dream" in terms of the full realization of human potential:

The 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.[2]


  1. 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). According to Nevins, James Truslow Adams, 100 and 306, there was a Supplement 1940-1960, ed. by J. G. E. Hopkins and Wayne Andrews (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1961) as well as a compliation in one volume, Concise Dictionary of American History, ed. by Wayne Andrews and Thomas C. Cochran (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1962). J. T. Adams was also the editor, again together with Roy V. Coleman as managing editor, of the two following: 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), with a fifth volume, Index, ed. by J. G. E. Hopkins (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1949); revised edition in 5 vols. (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1961).
  2. Adams, Epic of America (1931) p.214-215


For works by Adams, see the Works subpage.
For secondary sources about Adams, see the Bibliography subpage.