Born in Boston into one of the country's most prominent families -- both his great-grandfather and his grandfather had been Presidents of the United States -- , Adams, after his graduation from Harvard in 1858, embarked on a Grand Tour of Europe, during which he also attended lectures in civil law at the University of Berlin.
In 1861 his father, Charles Francis Adams, was appointed minister to England by Lincoln, and Henry Adams accompanied him as his private secretary. In 1868 he returned to the United States and settled down in Washington, D.C, where he started working as a journalist. Adams saw himself as a traditionalist longing for the democratic ideal of the 17th and 18th centuries. Accordingly, he was keen on exposing political corruption in his journalistic pieces.
In 1870 Adams was appointed Professor of Mediaeval History at Harvard, a position he held until his early retirement in 1877, aged only 39. That year he returned to Washington, where he continued working as a historian. In the 1880s Adams also wrote two novels: Democracy was published anonymously in 1880 and immediately became popular. (Only after Adams's death did his publisher reveal Adams's authorship.) His other novel, published under the nom de plume of Frances Snow Compton, was Esther (1884).
In 1885 Marian Adams, his wife, committed suicide. Upon her death Adams took up a restless life as a globetrotter, travelling extensively and, for years, spending summers in Paris and winters in Washington. In 1907 he published his Pulitzer Prize winning autobiography, The Education of Henry Adams.
In 1912 Adams suffered a disabling stroke; in 1918 he died at his home in Washington, D.C.
As a historian, Adams is considered to have been the first (in 1874 -1876) to conduct historical seminary work in the United States. His magnum opus is his History of the United States (1801 to 1817) (9 vols., 1889-1891). It is particularly notable for its account of the diplomatic relations of the United States during this period, and for its essential impartiality. Adams also published Life of Albert Gallatin (1879), John Randolph (1882), and Historical Essays (1891), besides editing The Writings of Albert Gallatin (3 volumes, 1879) and, in collaboration with H. C. Lodge, Ernest Young and J. L. Laughlin, Essays in Anglo-Saxon Law (1876).
Henry Adams's brothers are also notable: