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HENRY ADAMS (1838–1918)
Henry Adams, son of Charles Francis Adams and grandson of John Quincy Adams, represented the literary side of this New England family, so remarkable in its varied influences upon American life. After his graduation at Harvard in 1858, he served for seven years as secretary of his father who was American minister at London, he was for a period of years a Professor of History at Harvard, and from 1870 to 1876 was editor of the North American Review. For a time he was connected with official life at Washington : few of any generation have had wider or richer contacts with the leaders of their era.
His publications were distinctive. Among them are lives of Albert Gallatin and John Randolph, and a history in nine volumes of the period covered by the administrations of Jefferson and Madison. His autobiography, first privately issued in 1907 and then published in 1918, bids fair to be his most important addition to American literature. In it, says Professor Foerster, "he retraced, with a sturdy honesty, his quest of the meaning and value of life. Combining both the modern critical temper-exemplified, among the poets, by Moody and E. A. Robinson—and a yeurning for mystical rapture that reminds one of Jonathan Edwards and Emerson, together with an clusive personality and a gift of eager penetrative speech, he wrote an autobiography that reflects the later nineteenth century as vividly as Franklin's autobiography reflects the century previous. Not even the absorbing tumult of the greatest war in history preventing it from rousing a sensation among thoughtful readers and attaining a place among the 'best sellers' of the day." To the student of the later nineteenth century the book is indispensable. An excellent introduction to it is Stuart P. Sherman's “Evolution in the Adams Family” in his book Amcricans, 1922.
education. To outsiders, immigrants, ad
venturers, it was easy, but the old Puritan A few months after the death of John nature rebelled against change. The reaQuincy Adams, a convention of anti- son it gave was forcible. The Puritan slavery delegates met at Buffalo to or- 5 thought his thought higher and his moral ganize a new party and named candidates standards better than those of his sucfor the general election in November : for cessors. So they were. He could not be President, Martin Van Buren; for Vice- convinced that moral standards had nothPresident, Charles Francis Adams.
ing to do with it, and that utilitarian For any American boy the fact that his to morality was good enough for him, as it father was running for office would have was for the graceless. Nature had given dwarfed for the time every other excite- to the boy Henry a character that, in any ment, but even apart from personal bias, previous century, would have led him into the year 1848, for a boy's road through the Church; he inherited dogma and a life, was decisive for twenty years to 15 priori thought from the beginning of time;
There was never a side-path of and he scarcely needed a violent reaction escape. The stamp of 1848 was almost as like anti-slavery politics to sweep him back indelible as the stamp of 1776, but in the into l'uritanism with a violence as great eighteenth or any earlier century, the as that of a religious war. stamp mattered less because it was stand- 30 Thus far he had nothing to do with it; ard, and every one bore it; while men his education was chiefly inheritance, and whose lives were to fall in the generation during the next five or six years, his father between 1865 and 1900 had, first of all,
alone counted for much. If he were to to get rid of it, and take the stamp that worry successfully through life's quickbelonged to their time. This was their 25 sands, he must depend chiefly on his
father's pilotage; but, for his father, the 1 This extract from The Education of Henry Adams is used by permission of, and by arrange.
channel lay clear, while for himself an ment with, Houghton Mifflin Company, the author.
unknown ocean lay beyond. His father's ized publishers.
business in life was to get past the dangers
of the slave-power, or to fix its bounds at much affected by the old clerical selileast. The task done, he might be con- respect which gave the Unitarian clergy tent to let his sons pay for the pilotage; unusual social charm. Dr. Channing, Mr. and it mattered little to his success Everett, Dr. Frothingham, Dr. Palfrey, whether they paid it with their lives 5 President Walker, R. W. Emerson, and wasted on battle-fields or in misdirected other Boston ministers of the same school, energies and lost opportunity. The gen- would have commanded distinction in any eration that lived from 1840 to 1870 could society; but the Adamses had little or no do very well with the old forms of educa- affinity with the pulpit, and still less with tion; that which had its work to do be- 10 its eccentric offshoots, like Theodore tween 1870 and 1900 needed something Parker, or Brook Farm, or the philosophy quite new.
of Concord. Besides its clergy, Boston His father's character was therefore the showed a literary group, led by Ticknor, larger part of his education, as far as any Prescott, Longfellow, Motley, O. W. single person affected it, and for that rea- 15 Holmes; but Mr. Adams was not one of son, if for no other, the son was always them; as a rule they were much too Weba much interested critic of his father's sterian. Even in science Boston could mind and temper.
Long after his death claim a certain eminence, especially in as an old man of eighty, his sons con- medicine, but Mr. Adams cared very little tinued to discuss this subject with a good 20 for science. He stood alone. He had no deal of difference in their points of view. master-hardly even his father. He had To his son Henry, the quality that dis- no scholars-hardly even his sons. tinguished his father from all the other Almost alone among his Boston configures in the family group, was that, in temporaries, he was not English in feelhis opinion, Charles Francis Adams pos- 25 ing or in sympathies. Perhaps a hundred sessed the only perfectly balanced_mind years of acute hostility to England had that ever existed in the name.
something to do with this family trait; hundred years, every newspaper scribbler but in his case it went further and became had, with more or less obvious excuse, de- indifference to social distinction. Never rided or abused the older Adamses for 3? once in forty years of intimacy did his son want of judgment. They abused Charles notice in him a trace of snobbishness. He Francis for his judgment. Naturally they was one of the exceedingly small number never attempted to assign values to either; of Americans to whom an English duke that was the children's affair; but the or duchess seemed to be indifferent, and traits were real. Clarles Francis Adams 35 royalty itself nothing more than a slightly was singular for mental poise-absence of inconvenient presence. This was, it is self-assertion self-consciousness—the true, rather the tone of English society faculty of standing apart without seeming in his time, but Americans were largely aware that he was alone-a balance of responsible for changing it, and Mr. mind and temper that neither challenged 40 Adams had every possible reason for afnor avoided notice, nor admitted question fecting the manner of a courtier even if of superiority or inferiority, of jealousy, he did not feel the sentiment. Never did of personal motives, from any source, even his son see him flatter or vilify, or show under great pressure. This unusual poise a sign of envy or jealousy; never a shade of judgment and temper, ripened by age, 45 of vanity or self-conceit. Never a tone became the more striking to his son Henry of arrogance! Never a gesture of pride! as he learned to measure the mental fac- The same thing might perhaps have ulties themselves, which were in no way been said of John Quincy Adams, but in exceptional either for depth or range. him his associates averred that it was acCharles Francis Adams's memory was so companied by mental restlessness and hardly above the average; his mind was often by lamentable want of judgment. not bold like his grandfather's or restless
ever charged Charles Francis like his father's, or imaginative or orator: Adams with this fault. The critics ical-still less mathematical; but it worked charged him with just the opposite defect. with singular perfection, admirable self- 55 They called him cold. No doubt, such restraint, and instinctive mastery of form. perfect poise—such intuitive self-adjustWithin its range it was a model.
ment—was not maintained by nature with. The standards of Boston were high, out a sacrifice of the qualities which would ,
have upset it. No doubt, too, that even might have said what his lifelong friend his restless-minded, introspective, self- William M. Evarts used to say: “I pride conscious children who knew him best myself on my success in doing not the were much too ignorant of the world and things I like to do, but the things I don't of human nature to suspect how rare and s like to do." Dana's ideal of life was to complete was the model before their eyes. be a great Englishman, with a seat on the A coarser instrument would have im- front benches of the House of Commons pressed them more. Average human na- until he should be promoted to the woolture is very coarse, and its ideals must sack; beyond all, with a social status that necessarily be average. The world never lo should place him above the scuffle of proloved perfect poise. What the world does vincial and unprofessional annoyances; love is commonly absence of poise, for it but he forced himself to take life as it has to be amused. Napoleons and Andrew came, and he suffocated his longings with Jacksons amuse it, but it is not amused grim self-discipline, by mere force of will. by perfect balance. Had Mr. Adams's na- 15 Of the four men, Dana was the most ture been cold, he would have followed marked. Without dogmatism or selfMr. Webster, Mr. Everett, Mr. Seward, assertion, he seemed always to be fully in and Mr. Winthrop in the lines of party sight, a figure that completely filled a welldiscipline and self-interest. Had it been defined space. He, too, talked well, and less balanced than it was, he would have a his mind worked close to its subject, as a gone with Mr. Garrison, Mr. Wendell lawyer's should; but disguise and silence Phillips, Mr. Edmund Quincy, and Theo- it as he liked, it was aristocratic to the dore Parker, into secession. Between the tenth generation. two paths he found an intermediate one, In that respect, and in that only, Charles distinctive and characteristic-he set up a 25 Sumner was like him, but Sumner, in alparty of his own.
most every other quality, was quite difThis political party became a chief in- ferent from his three associates-altogether fluence in the education of the boy Henry out of line. He, too, adored English in the six years 1848 to 1854, and standards, but his ambition led him to violently affected his character at the mo- 30 rival the career of Edmund Burke. No ment when character is plastic. The young Bostonian of his time had made so group of men with whom Mr. Adams as- brilliant a start, but rather in the steps sociated himself, and whose social centre of Edward Everett than of Daniel Webwas the house in Mount Vernon Street, ster. As an orator he had achieved a numbered only three: Dr. John G. Palfrey, 35 triumph by his oration against war; but Richard H. Dana, and Charles Sumner. Boston admired him chiefly for his social Dr. Palfrey was the oldest, and in spite success in England and on the Continent; of his clerical education, was to a boy success that gave to every Bostonian who often the most agreeable, for his talk was enjoyed it a halo never acquired by domeslighter and his range wider than that of 40 tic sanctity. Mr. Sumner, both by interest the others; he had wit, or humor, and the and instinct, felt the value of his Enggive-and-take of dinner-table exchange. lish connection, and cultivated it the more Born to be a man of the world, he forced as he became socially an outcast from himself to be clergyman, professor, or Boston society by the passions of politics. statesman, while, like every other true 45 He was rarely without a pocket-full of Bostonian, he yearned for the ease of the letters from duchesses or noblemen in Athenæum Club in Pall Mall or the Com- England. Having sacrificed to principle bination Room at Trinity. Dana at first his social position in America, he clung the suggested the opposite; he affected to be more closely to his foreign attachments. still before the mast, a direct, rather bluff, 50 The Free Soil Party fared ill in Beacon vigorous seaman, and only as one got to Street. The social arbiters of Bostonknow him better one found the man of George Ticknor and the rest—had to adrather excessive refinement trying with mit, however unwillingly, that the Free success to work like a day-laborer, de- Soil leaders could not mingle with the liberately hardening his skin to the burden, 55 friends and followers of Mr. Webster. as though he were still carrying hides at Sumner was socially ostracized, and so, Monterey. Undoubtedly he succeeded, for for that matter, were Palfrey, Dana, Rushis mind and will were robust, but he sell, Adams and all the other avowed antislavery leaders, but for them it mattered the newspapers, to try to be dull in some less, because they had houses and families different way from that of his greatof their own; while Sumner had neither grandfather. Yet the discussions in the wife nor household, and, though the most Boston Whig were carried on in much the socially ambitious of all, and the most 5 same style as those of John Adams and his hungry for what used to be called polite opponent, and appealed to much the same society, he could enter hardly half-a-dozen society and the same habit of mind. The houses in Boston. Longfellow stood by boy got as little education, fitting him for him in Cambridge, and even in Beacon his own time, from the one as from the Street he could always take refuge in the lo other, and he got no more from his conhouse of Mr. Lodge, but few days passed tact with the gentlemen themselves who when he did not pass some time in Mount were all types of the past. Vernon Street. Even with that, his soli- Down to 1850, and even later, New Eng. tude was glacial, and reacted on his cliar- land society was still directed by the proacter. He had nothing but himself to 15 fessions. Lawyers, physicians, profesthink about. His superiority was, indeed, sors, merchants were classes, and acted real and incontestable; he was the classi- not as individuals, but as though they were cal ornament of the anti-slavery party; clergymen and each profession were a their pride in him was unbounded, and church. In politics the system required their admiration outspoken.
20 competent expression; it was the old The boy Henry worshipped him, and if Ciceronian idea of government by the best he ever regarded any older man as a per- that produced the long line of New Engsonal friend, it was Mr. Sumner. The re- land statesmen. They chose men to reprelation of Mr. Sumner in the household was sent them because they wanted to be well far closer than any relation of blood. 25 represented, and they chose the best they None of the uncles approached such in
had. Thus Boston chose Daniel Webster, timacy. Sumner was the boy's ideal of
and Webster took, not as pay, but as hongreatness; the highest product of nature orarium, the cheques raised for him by and art. The only fault of such a model Peter Harvey from the Appletons, Perwas its superiority which defied imitation. 30 kinses, Amorys, Searses, Brookses, LawTo the twelve-year-old boy, his father, rences, and so on, who begged him to Dr. Palfrey, Mr. Dana, were men, more represent them. Edward Everett held the or less like what he himself might become; rank in regular succession to Webster. but Mr. Sumner was a different order- Robert C. Winthrop claimed succession to heroic.
35 Everett. Charles Sumner aspired to break As the boy grew up to be ten or twelve the succession, but not the system. The years old, his father gave him a writing
Adamses had never been, for any length talle in one of the alcoves of his Boston of time, a part of this State succession; library, and there, winter after winter, they had preferred the national service, Henry worked over his Latin Grammar 40 and had won all their distinction outside and listened to those four gentlemen dis
the State, but they too had required State cussing the course of anti-slavery politics. support and had commonly received it. The discussions were always serious; the The little group of men in Mount Vernon Free Soil Party took itself quite seriously;
Street were an offshoot of this system; and they were habitual because Mr. Adams 45 they were statesmen, not politicians; they had undertaken to edit a newspaper as
guided public opinion, but were little the organ of these gentlemen, who came guiled by it. to discuss its policy and expression. At
The boy naturally learned only one lesthe same time Mr. Adams was editing the
son from his saturation in such air. He "Works” of his grand father John Adams, 50 took for granted that this sort of world, and made the boy read texts for proof
more or less the same that had always correction. In after years his father
existed in Boston and Massachusetts Bay, sometimes complained that, as a reader of was the world which he was to fit. Had Novanglus and Massachusettensis, Henry he known Europe he would have learned had shown very little consciousness of 55 no better. The Paris of Louis Philippe, punctuation ; but the boy regarded this part Guizot, and de Tocqueville, as well as the of school life only as a warning, if he London of Robert Peel, Macaulay, and ever grew up to write dull discussions in John Stuart Mill, were but varieties of
the same upper-class bourgeoisie that felt trine, but taught, or tried to teach, the instinctive cousinship with the Boston of means of leading a virtuous, useful, unTicknor, Prescott, and Motley. Even the selfish life, which they held to be sufficient typical grumbler Carlyle, who cast doubts for salvation. For them, difficulties might on the real capacity of the middle class, 5 be ignored; doubts were waste of thought; and who at times thought himself ec- nothing exacted solution. Boston had centric, found friendship and alliances in solved the universe; or had offered and Boston-still more in Concord. The sys- realized the best solution yet tried. The tem had proved so successful that even problem was worked out. Germany wanted to try it, and Italy zo Of all the conditions of his youth which yearned for it. England's middle-class afterwards puzzled the grown-up man, government was the ideal of human pro- this disappearance of religion puzzled him gress.
most. The boy went to church twice Even the violent reaction after 1848, every Sunday; he was taught to read his and the return of all Europe to military 15 Bible, and he learned religious poetry by practices, never for a moment shook the heart; he believed in a mild deism; he true faith. No one, except Karl Marx, prayed; he went through all the forms; foresaw radical change. What announced but neither to him nor to his brothers or it? The world was producing sixty or sisters was religion real. Even the mild seventy million tons of coal, and might be 20 discipline of the Unitarian Church was so using nearly a million steam-horse-power, irksome that they all threw it off at the just beginning to make itself felt. All ex- first possible moment, and never afterperience since the creation of man, all war 's entered a church. The religious divine revelation of human science, con- instinct had vanished, and could not be spired to deceive and betray a twelve-year- 25 revived, although one made in later life old boy who took for granted that his many efforts to recover it. That the most ideas, which were alone respectable, would powerful emotion of man, next to the be alone respected.
sexual, should disappear, might be a perViewed from Mount Vernon Street, the sonal defect of his own; but that the most problem of life was as simple as it was 3o intelligent society, led by the most intelclassic. Politics offered no difficulties, for ligent clergy, in the most moral condithere the moral law was a sure guide, tions he ever knew, should have solved Social perfection was also sure, because all the problems of the universe so thorhuman nature worked for Good, and three oughly as to have quite ceased making instruments were all she asked-Suffrage, 35 itself anxious about past or future, and Common Schools, and Press. On these should have persuaded itself that all the points doubt was forbidden. Education problems which had convulsed human was divine, and man needed only a cor- thought from earliest recorded time, were rect knowledge of facts to reach perfec- not worth discussing, seemed to him the tion:
40 most curious social phenomenon he had to
account for in a long life. The faculty of "Were half the power that fills the world
turning away one's eyes as one approaches with terror,
a chasm is not unusual, and Boston showed, Were half the wealth bestowed on
under the lead of Mr. Webster, how succamps and courts,
45 cessfully it could be done in politics; but Given to redeem the human mind from
in politics a certain number of men did at error,
least protest. In religion and philosophy There were no need of arsenals nor
no one protested. Such protest as forts."
made took forms more simple than the
so silence, like the deism of Theodore Parker, Nothing quieted doubt so completely as and of the boy's own cousin Octavius the mental calm of the Unitarian clergy. Frothingham, who distressed his father In uniform excellence of life and char- and scandalized Beacon Street by avowing acter, moral and intellectual, the score of scepticism that seemed to solve no old Unitarian clergymen about Boston who 55 problems, and to raise many new controlled society and Harvard College, The less aggressive protest of Ralph were never excelled, They proclaimed as Waldo Emerson, was, from an old-world their merit that they insisted on no doc- point of view, less serious. It was naïf.