William Howard Adams


On Luxury: A Cautionary Tale
A short history of luxury from ancient times to the modern era

Gouverneur Morris
Gouverneur Morris: An Independent Life
A fresh, new portrait of the man who wrote the Constitution

Jefferson’s Monticello
The definitive study of the second most famous house in America

The Paris Years of Thomas Jefferson
Five years in France that changed the Virginian’s life

The Eye of Thomas Jefferson
The third president’s esthetic life

Jefferson and the Arts: An Extended View
A collection of essays by seven Jefferson scholars

Gardens through History: Nature Perfected also Nature Perfected, a film based on the book

The French Garden: 1500-1800
300 years of French garden art

Grounds for Change
Major gardens of the 20th century

The Unnatural Art of the Garden
Survey of Roberto Burle Marx’s work
in MoMA exhibition

Denatured Visions
Landscape and culture in the 20th century

Atget’s Gardens
Atget’s incomparable and unknown photographs of great French gardens and parks around Paris

A Proust Souvenir 
Paul Nadar’s photographic portraits
of Proust’s circle

About the Author
Historian, Writer, Lecturer,
Curator, Filmmaker

Senior Fellow
Dumbarton Oaks Research Library (Harvard University)
Washington, DC

International Center for Jefferson Studies
Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation
Charlottesville, Virginia

The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History

Forthcoming, October 2012
On Luxury: A Cautionary Tale
A short history of luxury from ancient times to the modern era
Potomac Books

Luxury cover

For more than twenty-five hundred years, until the modern era, the notion of luxury represented one of the most important and pervasive restraining principles to organized society in the West. Before it was “de-moralized” with the advent of capitalism and the consumer revolution, it was always identified as dangerous and subversive. Its dodgy reputation as an expression of vice or sin arose from the perception that it was both a cause and a symptom of evil—counterposed with the virtues of limits and restraint. Beginning with the Greeks, public and private virtue were both summed up by “moderation,” luxury’s antonym.
   Over the centuries the concept of luxury as a moral issue grew increasingly influential, complex, and contentious as opposing sides in matters of politics, religion, and economics used it to identify those things they feared and distrusted. By the eighteenth century it became pivotal in the Anglo-American and Continental controversies brought on by all the changes we now see as the beginning of modernity. In this tense hinge moment, the notion and the word undergo a radical transformation and are eventually reduced to a banal marketing tool of the new capitalist era. All this is expressed in the title of the book's first chapter, “A Word of Warning.”
   The growing public concern over the excesses of our economic and cultural life—and their grave consequences—reflected in daily headlines makes On Luxury: A Cautionary Tale a timely, ground-breaking work that provides a much-needed historical perspective to these events.

Praise for On Luxury

This is a delightful reflection on luxury and excess—from the "pernicious cash" that the ancient Romans believed sapped their moral fibre to the gold-plated yachts and vast ranches of the modern super-rich. Adams offers some well-timed warnings here, but with a lively elegance, and without preaching.

—Mary Beard, professor of classics, Cambridge University

In On Luxury: A Cautionary Tale, Adams gives us the most comprehensive and accessible history to date of luxury and Western culture's ongoing engagement of it. Together, his conversational style and impeccable scholarship make this volume a treasure for every thinking American.

—Phyllis Tickle, author, Greed: The Seven Deadly Sins

Adams's On Luxury is an intellectual and insightful study of what luxury is: its history, its evolution….A must read for anyone who wants to understand our consumer society today.

—Dana Thomas, author, Deluxe: How Luxury Lost Its Luster

Some today lust for luxury. Others snicker at it. In a world of outrageously concentrated wealth and dwindling natural resources, William Howard Adams helps us understand, both these responses doom us to dangerous dead ends. His insightful—and eminently readable—history offers up a far better path.

—Sam Pizzigati, author, The Rich Don’t Always Win, and editor,
Too Much, an online weekly on excess and inequality

Gouverneur Morris: An Independent Life
Yale University Press, 2003
334 pages, 20 illustrations

Alexander Hamilton called Gouverneur Morris (1752-1816) an “exotic genius.” The authors of The Age of Federalism called him “a connoisseur of games people play with each other.” To the moralists among historians, he is the central casting “aristocrat.” An admitted patrician who loved life, he remains an enigma among the founding generation. This first comprehensive biography in more than one hundred years intends to set the record straight. Morris’s record is, in fact, astonishing:
   A defender of civil liberties throughout his life, Morris was an outspoken enemy of slavery in New York’s first constitutional convention and more importantly in the national constitutional convention of 1787. Speaking more on the key issues than any other member in Philadelphia, he would draft the final version of the Constitution beginning with his Preamble “We the People of the united States.”
   As Washington’s first minister to Paris, he was the only diplomat to remain at his post through the Terror. With his cool perspective on the ultimate course of those tragic events he would become America’s most effective representative in France. His diary remains one of the important records of the French Revolution. This engaging book recreates in word and illustration the atmosphere and personalities of pre-Revolutionary Paris and reveals the profound impact they had on one of America’s first transatlantic citizens.
   Morris’s remarkable grasp of public finance anticipated the policies that would later be advanced by Hamilton. Drafting the charter of the first national bank in America, he would become a partner of the “Financier” Robert Morris in managing the office of finance to pay for the Revolution.

   Above all, Morris was a cosmopolitan man of the future. Growing up in New York, Philadelphia, and later in Paris, London and other European cities, Morris’s career as a diplomat and successful businessman sets him apart from most of the founding generation by his frank embrace of city life as a creative center of civilization. His central role in the building of the Erie Canal and his laying out the urban grid plan of Manhattan attests to the bold, imaginative scale of Morris’s achievements.

“At last, Gouverneur Morris has found a biographer capable of capturing his sassy mixture of irreverence, energy, and wisdom. William Howard Adams has painted a brilliant full-length portrait of the only peg-legged genius in American history.”
—Joseph J. Ellis, author of Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation

© 2003 William Howard Adams