Henry Adams (1838-1918) was the grandson of a US President and great grandson of another. He is a famed historian and is perhaps most well known today as the author of The Education of Henry Adams, which is widely considered to be the greatest autobiography ever written and was the winner of the 1919 Pulitzer Prize.
Henry Adams was born in Boston, Massachusetts on February 16, 1838. To say that he was born into the American aristocracy is an understatement; as stated before, he was a direct descendent of two presidents and his father, Charles Francis Adams, was also involved in politics, serving the crucial role as American ambassador to Britain during the Civil War. He was schooled privately and in the 1850s attended Harvard University, from where he graduated in 1858 with a degree in history.
After this, he traveled abroad for two years to Germany and Italy. By this time he was already keeping detailed journals, which he would draw upon later in his masterwork. After two years of traveling, he took on the role as private secretary to his father as the elder Charles Adams served as the ambassador to Great Britain during the United States Civil War. He served as his father's secretary from 1860 to 1868.
In late 1868, perturbed by the political changing of the guard in Washington, D.C., he left his position as his father's secretary and became a teacher. He was an assistant professor of history at Harvard University from 1869 to 1876. During this time, he introduced the seminar system of instruction (still widely used today in academia). He also served as the editor of the periodical North American Review during this period, staying on the masthead as editor from 1870 to 1876.
At the end of his tenure at Harvard University, Adams spent much of the rest of his life traveling, conducting historical research, and writing. His first notable work was a biography of Albert Gallatin, published in 1879.
Perhaps his most intriguing written work (and my personal favorite of the lot, except for perhaps his autobiography) was his novel Democracy, published in 1880. As a member of a proud political family, Adams had been deeply bothered by the moral and political corruption of the Ulysses S. Grant administration (1868-1876) and in this novel, a political parody of the Grant administration, he skewers it quite coldly, portraying the president as a bumbling fool in a sea of political sharks. It's quite an enjoyable read, even today. He would later dabble in fiction again, producing the novel Esther in 1884, which is basically a lightly-covered commentary on New York high society.
His most important nonfictional work may have been his nine volume History of the United States of America During the Administrations of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, published from 1889 to 1891. It is a thorough look at the presidency of these two men. It also delves into more of an opinionated slant, as Adams contends that the decisions and policies of the period from 1801 to 1817 shaped the main course of subsequent American political development.
In his later years, he took to writing more and more, and some of his most interesting work comes from the years near the end of his life. In 1904, he privately printed Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres, a study of medieval culture that is a very interesting read (it was posthumously reprinted widely). In 1906, he again privately published the book he is most remembered for, The Education of Henry Adams. The book is deeply engrossing as it follows his education and then discusses how it failed him in his later years. The book ends up coming off as much an indictment of the educational system of the day as it does an autobiography, which is perhaps part of its appeal. It was not widely published until after his death, and for it Adams received the 1919 Pulitzer Prize posthumously. Interestingly enough, Adams himself thought that these books were quite poor; that's why he self-published them for his own interest and for distribution mostly to friends and close acquaintances.
His final work is also quite interesting and influential; it was also published posthumously. Degradation of the Democratic Dogma came out in 1919, consisting of three essays on the philosophy of history. Interestingly, the essays revolve around the application of the second law of thermodynamics to the study of history. It maintains that mechanical energy is constantly dissipating; Adams' theory is that human history is much the same, devoid of purpose in the end. It is a very interesting perspective, especially when taken in light of his other writings. Henry Adams passed away on March 27, 1918.
Henry Adams had a great deal of influence on America in a number of ways. He contributed greatly to the study of history and the philosophy of history. He also served greatly as his father's secretary at a greatly crucial time in America's history. Yet, his greatest contribution may be for the high-water mark he set for autobiographies, a book that one can still find in print today. If you're interested in much more detail, as well as a deft condemnation of the educational system in America in the 19th century, The Education of Henry Adams is a fantastic autobiography.