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 graduated from Harvard in 1858. He travelled extensively, spending many years in Europe. His novel Democracy was published anonymously in 1880 and immediately became popular. However, only after Adams's death did his publisher reveal Adams's authorship.
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).