Chapter XVII (The Education of Henry Adams)

President Grant (1869)

THE first effect of this leap into the unknown was a fit of low
spirits new to the young man’s education; due in part to the
overpowering beauty and sweetness of the Maryland autumn, almost
unendurable for its strain on one who had toned his life down to the
November grays and browns of northern Europe. Life could not go on
so beautiful and so sad. Luckily, no one else felt it or knew it. He
bore it as well as he could, and when he picked himself up, winter had
come, and he was settled in bachelor’s quarters, as modest as those of
a clerk in the Departments, far out on G Street, towards Georgetown,
where an old Finn named Dohna, who had come out with the Russian
Minister Stoeckel long before, had bought or built a new house.
Congress had met. Two or three months remained to the old
administration, but all interest centered in the new one. The town
began to swarm with office-seekers, among whom a young writer was
lost. He drifted among them, unnoticed, glad to learn his work under
cover of the confusion. He never aspired to become a regular reporter;
he knew he should fail in trying a career so ambitious and
energetic; but he picked up friends on the press- Nordhoff, Murat
Halstead, Henry Watterson, Sam Bowles- all reformers, and all mixed
and jumbled together in a tidal wave of expectation, waiting for
General Grant to give orders. No one seemed to know much about it.
Even Senators had nothing to say. One could only make notes and
study finance.
In waiting, he amused himself as he could. In the amusements of
Washington, education had no part, but the simplicity of the
amusements proved the simplicity of everything else, ambitions,
interests, thoughts, and knowledge. Proverbially Washington was a poor
place for education, and of course young diplomats avoided or disliked
it, but, as a rule, diplomats disliked every place except Paris, and
the world contained only one Paris. They abused London more
violently than Washington; they praised no post under the sun; and
they were merely describing three-fourths of their stations when
they complained that there were no theatres, no restaurants, no monde,
no demi-monde, no drives, no splendor, and, as Mme. de Struve used
to say, no grandezza. This was all true; Washington was a mere
political camp, as transient and temporary as a camp-meeting for
religious revival, but the diplomats had least reason to complain,
since they were more sought for there than they would ever be
elsewhere. For young men Washington was in one way paradise, since
they were few, and greatly in demand. After watching the abject
unimportance of the young diplomat in London society, Adams found
himself a young duke in Washington. He had ten years of youth to
make up, and a ravenous appetite. Washington was the easiest society
he had ever seen, and even the Bostonian became simple,
good-natured, almost genial, in the softness of a Washington spring.
Society went on excellently well without houses, or carriages, or
jewels, or toilettes, or pavements, or shops, or grandezza of any
sort; and the market was excellent as well as cheap. One could not
stay there a month without loving the shabby town. Even the Washington
girl, who was neither rich nor well-dressed nor well-educated nor
clever, had singular charm, and used it. According to Mr. Adams the
father, this charm dated back as far as Monroe’s administration, to
his personal knowledge.
Therefore, behind all the processes of political or financial or
newspaper training, the social side of Washington was to be taken
for granted as three-fourths of existence. Its details matter nothing.
Life ceased to be strenuous, and the victim thanked God for it.
Politics and reform became the detail, and waltzing the profession.
Adams was not alone. Senator Sumner had as private secretary a young
man named Moorfield Storey, who became a dangerous example of
frivolity. The new Attorney-General, E. R. Hoar, brought with him from
Concord a son, Sam Hoar, whose example rivalled that of Storey.
Another impenitent was named Dewey, a young naval officer. Adams
came far down in the list. He wished he had been higher. He could have
spared a world of superannuated history, science, or politics, to have
reversed better in waltzing.
He had no adequate notion how little he knew, especially of
women, and Washington offered no standard of comparison. All were
profoundly ignorant together, and as indifferent as children to
education. No one needed knowledge. Washington was happier without
style. Certainly Adams was happier without it; happier than he had
ever been before; happier than any one in the harsh world of
strenuousness could dream of. This must be taken as background for
such little education as he gained; but the life belonged to the
eighteenth century, and in no way concerned education for the
{CH_XVII ^paragraph 5}
In such an atmosphere, one made no great pretence of hard work.
If the world wants hard work, the world must pay for it; and, if it
will not pay, it has no fault to find with the worker. Thus far, no
one had made a suggestion of pay for any work that Adams had done or
could do; if he worked at all, it was for social consideration, and
social pleasure was his pay. For this he was willing to go on working,
as an artist goes on painting when no one buys his pictures. Artists
have done it from the beginning of time, and will do it after time has
expired, since they cannot help themselves, and they find their return
in the pride of their social superiority as they feel it. Society
commonly abets them and encourages their attitude of contempt. The
society of Washington was too simple and Southern as yet, to feel
anarchistic longings, and it never read or saw what artists produced
elsewhere, but it good-naturedly abetted them when it had the
chance, and respected itself the more for the frailty. Adams found
even the Government at his service, and every one willing to answer
his questions. He worked, after a fashion; not very hard, but as
much as the Government would have required of him for nine hundred
dollars a year; and his work defied frivolity. He got more pleasure
from writing than the world ever got from reading him, for his work
was not amusing, nor was he. One must not try to amuse money-lenders
or investors, and this was the class to which he began by appealing.
He gave three months to an article on the finances of the United
States, just then a subject greatly needing treatment; and when he had
finished it, he sent it to London to his friend Henry Reeve, the
ponderous editor of the Edinburgh Review. Reeve probably thought it
good; at all events, he said so; and he printed it in April. Of course
it was reprinted in America, but in England such articles were still
anonymous, and the author remained unknown.
The author was not then asking for advertisement, and made no claim
for credit. His object was literary. He wanted to win a place on the
staff of the Edinburgh Review, under the vast shadow of Lord Macaulay;
and, to a young American in 1868, such rank seemed colossal- the
highest in the literary world- as it had been only five-and-twenty
years before. Time and tide had flowed since then, but the position
still flattered vanity, though it brought no other flattery or
reward except the regular thirty pounds of pay- fifty dollars a month,
measured in time and labor.
The Edinburgh article finished, he set himself to work on a
scheme for the North American Review. In England, Lord Robert Cecil
had invented for the London Quarterly an annual review of politics
which he called the “Session.” Adams stole the idea and the name- he
thought he had been enough in Lord Robert’s house, in days of his
struggle with adversity, to excuse the theft- and began what he
meant for a permanent series of annual political reviews which he
hoped to make, in time, a political authority. With his sources of
information, and his social intimacies at Washington, he could not
help saying something that would command attention. He had the field
to himself, and he meant to give himself a free hand, as he went on.
Whether the newspapers liked it or not, they would have to reckon with
him; for such a power, once established, was more effective than all
the speeches in Congress or reports to the President that could be
crammed into the Government presses.
The first of these “Sessions” appeared in April, but it could not
be condensed into a single article, and had to be supplemented in
October by another which bore the title of “Civil Service Reform,” and
was really a part of the same review. A good deal of authentic history
slipped into these papers. Whether any one except his press associates
ever read them, he never knew and never greatly cared. The
difference is slight, to the influence of an author, whether he is
read by five hundred readers, or by five hundred thousand: if he can
select the five hundred, he reaches the five hundred thousand. The
fateful year 1870 was near at hand, which was to mark the close of the
literary epoch, when quarterlies gave way to monthlies; letter-press
to illustration; volumes to pages. The outburst was brilliant. Bret
Harte led, and Robert Louis Stevenson followed. Guy de Maupassant
and Rudyard Kipling brought up the rear, and dazzled the world. As
usual, Adams found himself fifty years behind his time, but a number
of belated wanderers kept him company, and they produced on each other
the effect or illusion of a public opinion. They straggled apart, at
longer and longer intervals, through the procession, but they were
still within hearing distance of each other. The drift was still
superficially conservative. Just as the Church spoke with apparent
authority, so the quarterlies laid down an apparent law, and no one
could surely say where the real authority, or the real law, lay.
Science did not know. Truths a priori held their own against truths
purely relative. According to Lowell, Right was forever on the
Scaffold, Wrong was forever on the Throne; and most people still
thought they believed it. Adams was not the only relic of the
eighteenth century, and he could still depend on a certain number of
listeners- mostly respectable, and some rich.
Want of audience did not trouble him; he was well enough off in
that respect, and would have succeeded in all his calculations if this
had been his only hazard. Where he broke down was at a point where
he always suffered wreck and where nine adventurers out of ten make
their errors. One may be more or less certain of organized forces; one
can never be certain of men. He belonged to the eighteenth century,
and the eighteenth century upset all his plans. For the moment,
America was more eighteenth century than himself; it reverted to the
stone age.
{CH_XVII ^paragraph 10}
As education- of a certain sort- the story had probably a certain
value, though he could never see it. One seldom can see much education
in the buck of a broncho; even less in the kick of a mule. The
lesson it teaches is only that of getting out of the animal’s way.
This was the lesson that Henry Adams had learned over and over again
in politics since 1860.
At least four-fifths of the American people- Adams among the
rest- had united in the election of General Grant to the Presidency,
and probably had been more or less affected in their choice by the
parallel they felt between Grant and Washington. Nothing could be more
obvious. Grant represented order. He was a great soldier, and the
soldier always represented order. He might be as partisan as he
pleased, but a general who had organized and commanded half a
million or a million men in the field, must know how to administer.
Even Washington, who was, in education and experience, a mere
cave-dweller, had known how to organize a government, and had found
Jeffersons and Hamiltons to organize his departments. The task of
bringing the Government back to regular practices, and of restoring
moral and mechanical order to administration, was not very
difficult; it was ready to do it itself, with a little
encouragement. No doubt the confusion, especially in the old slave
States and in the currency, was considerable, but the general
disposition was good, and every one had echoed the famous phrase: “Let
us have peace.”
Adams was young and easily deceived, in spite of his diplomatic
adventures, but even at twice his age he could not see that this
reliance on Grant was unreasonable. Had Grant been a Congressman one
would have been on one’s guard, for one knew the type. One never
expected from a Congressman more than good intentions and public
spirit. Newspaper-men as a rule had no great respect for the lower
House; Senators had less; and Cabinet officers had none at all.
Indeed, one day when Adams was pleading with a Cabinet officer for
patience and tact in dealing with Representatives, the Secretary
impatiently broke out: “You can’t use tact with a Congressman! A
Congressman is a hog! You must take a stick and hit him on the snout!”
Adams knew far too little, compared with the Secretary, to
contradict him, though he thought the phrase somewhat harsh even as
applied to the average Congressman of 1869- he saw little or nothing
of later ones- but he knew a shorter way of silencing criticism. He
had but to ask: “If a Congressman is a hog, what is a Senator?” This
innocent question, put in a candid spirit, petrified any executive
officer that ever sat a week in his office. Even Adams admitted that
Senators passed belief. The comic side of their egotism partly
disguised its extravagance, but faction had gone so far under Andrew
Johnson that at times the whole Senate seemed to catch hysterics of
nervous bucking without apparent reason. Great leaders, like Sumner
and Conkling, could not be burlesqued; they were more grotesque than
ridicule could make them; even Grant, who rarely sparkled in
epigram, became witty on their account; but their egotism and
factiousness were no laughing matter. They did permanent and
terrible mischief, as Garfield and Blaine, and even McKinley and
John Hay, were to feel. The most troublesome task of a reform
President was that of bringing the Senate back to decency.
Therefore no one, and Henry Adams less than most, felt hope that
any President chosen from the ranks of politics or politicians would
raise the character of government; and by instinct if not by reason,
all the world united on Grant. The Senate understood what the world
expected, and waited in silence for a struggle with Grant more serious
than that with Andrew Johnson. Newspaper-men were alive with eagerness
to support the President against the Senate. The newspaper-man is,
more than most men, a double personality; and his person feels best
satisfied in its double instincts when writing in one sense and
thinking in another. All newspaper-men, whatever they wrote, felt
alike about the Senate. Adams floated with the stream. He was eager to
join in the fight which he foresaw as sooner or later inevitable. He
meant to support the executive in attacking the Senate and taking away
its two-thirds vote and power of confirmation, nor did he much care
how it should be done, for he thought it safer to effect the
revolution in 1870 than to wait till 1920.
With this thought in mind, he went to the Capitol to hear the names
announced which should reveal the carefully guarded secret of
Grant’s Cabinet. To the end of his life, he wondered at the suddenness
of the revolution which actually, within five minutes, changed his
intended future into an absurdity so laughable as to make him
ashamed of it. He was to hear a long list of Cabinet announcements not
much weaker or more futile than that of Grant, and none of them made
him blush, while Grant’s nominations had the singular effect of making
the hearer ashamed, not so much of Grant, as of himself. He had made
another total misconception of life- another inconceivable false
start. Yet, unlikely as it seemed, he had missed his motive
narrowly, and his intention had been more than sound, for the Senators
made no secret of saying with senatorial frankness that Grant’s
nominations betrayed his intent as plainly as they betrayed his
incompetence. A great soldier might be a baby politician.
{CH_XVII ^paragraph 15}
Adams left the Capitol, much in the same misty mental condition
that he recalled as marking his railway journey to London on May 13,
1861; he felt in himself what Gladstone bewailed so sadly, “the
incapacity of viewing things all round.” He knew, without absolutely
saying it, that Grant had cut short the life which Adams had laid
out for himself in the future. After such a miscarriage, no thought of
effectual reform could revive for at least one generation, and he
had no fancy for ineffectual politics. What course could he sail next?
He had tried so many, and society had barred them all! For the moment,
he saw no hope but in following the stream on which he had launched
himself. The new Cabinet, as individuals, were not hostile.
Subsequently Grant made changes in the list which were mostly
welcome to a Bostonian- or should have been- although fatal to
Adams. The name of Hamilton Fish, as Secretary of State, suggested
extreme conservatism and probable deference to Sumner. The name of
George S. Boutwell, as Secretary of the Treasury, suggested only a
somewhat lugubrious joke; Mr. Boutwell could be described only as
the opposite of Mr. McCulloch, and meant inertia; or, in plain
words, total extinction for any one resembling Henry Adams. On the
other hand, the name of Jacob D. Cox, as Secretary of the Interior,
suggested help and comfort; while that of Judge Hoar, as
Attorney-General, promised friendship. On the whole, the personal
outlook, merely for literary purposes, seemed fairly cheerful, and the
political outlook, though hazy, still depended on Grant himself. No
one doubted that Grant’s intention had been one of reform; that his
aim had been to place his administration above politics; and until
he should actually drive his supporters away, one might hope to
support him. One’s little lantern must therefore be turned on Grant.
One seemed to know him so well, and really knew so little.
By chance it happened that Adam Badeau took the lower suite of
rooms at Dohna’s, and, as it was convenient to have one table, the two
men dined together and became intimate. Badeau was exceedingly social,
though not in appearance imposing. He was stout; his face was red, and
his habits were regularly irregular; but he was very intelligent, a
good newspaper-man, and an excellent military historian. His life of
Grant was no ordinary book. Unlike most newspaper-men, he was a
friendly critic of Grant, as suited an officer who had been on the
General’s staff. As a rule, the newspaper correspondents in Washington
were unfriendly, and the lobby sceptical. From that side one heard
tales that made one’s hair stand on end, and the old West Point army
officers were no more flattering. All described him as vicious,
narrow, dull, and vindictive. Badeau, who had come to Washington for a
consulate which was slow to reach him, resorted more or less to
whiskey for encouragement, and became irritable, besides being
loquacious. He talked much about Grant, and showed a certain
artistic feeling for analysis of character, as a true literary
critic would naturally do. Loyal to Grant, and still more so to Mrs.
Grant, who acted as his patroness, he said nothing, even when far
gone, that was offensive about either, but he held that no one
except himself and Rawlins understood the General. To him, Grant
appeared as an intermittent energy, immensely powerful when awake, but
passive and plastic in repose. He said that neither he nor the rest of
the staff knew why Grant succeeded; they believed in him because of
his success. For stretches of time, his mind seemed torpid. Rawlins
and the others would systematically talk their ideas into it, for
weeks, not directly, but by discussion among themselves, in his
presence. In the end, he would announce the idea as his own, without
seeming conscious of the discussion; and would give the orders to
carry it out with all the energy that belonged to his nature. They
could never measure his character or be sure when he would act. They
could never follow a mental process in his thought. They were not sure
that he did think.
In all this, Adams took deep interest, for although he was not,
like Badeau, waiting for Mrs. Grant’s power of suggestion to act on
the General’s mind in order to germinate in a consulate or a legation,
his portrait gallery of great men was becoming large, and it amused
him to add an authentic likeness of the greatest general the world had
seen since Napoleon. Badeau’s analysis was rather delicate; infinitely
superior to that of Sam Ward or Charles Nordhoff.
Badeau took Adams to the White House one evening and introduced him
to the President and Mrs. Grant. First and last, he saw a dozen
Presidents at the White House, and the most famous were by no means
the most agreeable, but he found Grant the most curious object of
study among them all. About no one did opinions differ so widely.
Adams had no opinion, or occasion to make one. A single word with
Grant satisfied him that, for his own good, the fewer words he risked,
the better. Thus far in life he had met with but one man of the same
intellectual or unintellectual type- Garibaldi. Of the two,
Garibaldi seemed to him a trifle the more intellectual, but, in
both, the intellect counted for nothing; only the energy counted.
The type was pre-intellectual, archaic, and would have seemed so
even to the cave-dwellers. Adam, according to legend, was such a man.
In time one came to recognize the type in other men, with
differences and variations, as normal; men whose energies were the
greater, the less they wasted on thought; men who sprang from the soil
to power; apt to be distrustful of themselves and of others; shy;
jealous; sometimes vindictive; more or less dull in outward
appearance; always needing stimulants; but for whom action was the
highest stimulant- the instinct of fight. Such men were forces of
nature, energies of the prime, like the Pteraspis, but they made short
work of scholars. They had commanded thousands of such and saw no more
in them than in others. The fact was certain; it crushed argument
and intellect at once.
{CH_XVII ^paragraph 20}
Adams did not feel Grant as a hostile force; like Badeau he saw
only an uncertain one. When in action he was superb and safe to
follow; only when torpid he was dangerous. To deal with him one must
stand near, like Rawlins, and practice more or less sympathetic
habits. Simple-minded beyond the experience of Wall Street or State
Street, he resorted, like most men of the same intellectual calibre,
to commonplaces when at a loss for expression: “Let us have peace!”
or, “The best way to treat a bad law is to execute it”; or a score
of such reversible sentences generally to be gauged by their
sententiousness; but sometimes he made one doubt his good faith; as
when he seriously remarked to a particularly bright young woman that
Venice would be a fine city if it were drained. In Mark Twain, this
suggestion would have taken rank among his best witticisms; in Grant
it was a measure of simplicity not singular. Robert E. Lee betrayed
the same intellectual commonplace, in a Virginian form, not to the
same degree, but quite distinctly enough for one who knew the
American. What worried Adams was not the commonplace; it was, as
usual, his own education. Grant fretted and irritated him, like the
Terebratula, as a defiance of first principles. He had no right to
exist. He should have been extinct for ages. The idea that, as society
grew older, it grew one-sided, upset evolution, and made of
education a fraud. That, two thousand years after Alexander the
Great and Julius Caesar, a man like Grant should be called- and should
actually and truly be- the highest product of the most advanced
evolution, made evolution ludicrous. One must be as commonplace as
Grant’s own commonplaces to maintain such an absurdity. The progress
of evolution from President Washington to President Grant, was alone
evidence enough to upset Darwin.
Education became more perplexing at every phase. No theory was
worth the pen that wrote it. America had no use for Adams because he
was eighteenth-century, and yet it worshipped Grant because he was
archaic and should have lived in a cave and worn skins. Darwinists
ought to conclude that America was reverting to the stone age, but the
theory of reversion was more absurd than that of evolution. Grant’s
administration reverted to nothing. One could not catch a trait of the
past, still less of the future. It was not even sensibly American. Not
an official in it, except perhaps Rawlins whom Adams never met, and
who died in September, suggested an American idea.
Yet this administration, which upset Adams’s whole life, was not
unfriendly; it was made up largely of friends. Secretary Fish was
almost kind; he kept the tradition of New York social values; he was
human and took no pleasure in giving pain. Adams felt no prejudice
whatever in his favor, and he had nothing in mind or person to attract
regard; his social gifts were not remarkable; he was not in the
least magnetic; he was far from young; but he won confidence from
the start and remained a friend to the finish. As far as concerned Mr.
Fish, one felt rather happily suited, and one was still better off
in the Interior Department with J. D. Cox. Indeed, if Cox had been
in the Treasury and Boutwell in the Interior, one would have been
quite satisfied as far as personal relations went, while, in the
Attorney-General’s Office, Judge Hoar seemed to fill every possible
ideal, both personal and political.
The difficulty was not the want of friends, and had the whole
government been filled with them, it would have helped little
without the President and the Treasury. Grant avowed from the start
a policy of drift; and a policy of drift attaches only barnacles. At
thirty, one has no interest in becoming a barnacle, but even in that
character Henry Adams would have been ill-seen. His friends were
reformers, critics, doubtful in party allegiance, and he was himself
an object of suspicion. Grant had no objects, wanted no help, wished
for no champions. The Executive asked only to be let alone. This was
his meaning when he said: “Let us have peace!”
No one wanted to go into opposition. As for Adams, all his hopes of
success in life turned on his finding an administration to support. He
knew well enough the rules of self-interest. He was for sale. He
wanted to be bought. His price was excessively cheap, for he did not
even ask an office, and had his eye, not on the Government, but on New
York. All he wanted was something to support; something that would let
itself be supported. Luck went dead against him. For once, he was
fifty years in advance of his time.