Chapter XI (The Education of Henry Adams)

The Battle of the Rams (1863)

MINISTER ADAMS troubled himself little about what he did not see of
an enemy. His son, a nervous animal, made life a terror by seeing
too much. Minister Adams played his hand as it came, and seldom
credited his opponents with greater intelligence than his own. Earl
Russell suited him; perhaps a certain personal sympathy united them;
and indeed Henry Adams never saw Russell without being amused by his
droll likeness to John Quincy Adams. Apart from this shadowy
personal relation, no doubt the Minister was diplomatically right;
he had nothing to lose and everything to gain by making a friend of
the Foreign Secretary, and whether Russell were true or false mattered
less, because, in either case, the American Legation could act only as
though he were false. Had the Minister known Russell’s determined
effort to betray and ruin him in October, 1862, he could have scarcely
used stronger expressions than he did in 1863. Russell must have
been greatly annoyed by Sir Robert Collier’s hint of collusion with
the rebel agents in the Alabama Case, but he hardened himself to
hear the same innuendo repeated in nearly every note from the
Legation. As time went on, Russell was compelled, though slowly, to
treat the American Minister as serious. He admitted nothing so
unwillingly, for the nullity or fatuity of the Washington Government
was his idee fixe; but after the failure of his last effort for
joint intervention on November 12, 1862, only one week elapsed
before he received a note from Minister Adams repeating his charges
about the Alabama, and asking in very plain language for redress.
Perhaps Russell’s mind was naturally slow to understand the force of
sudden attack, or perhaps age had affected it; this was one of the
points that greatly interested a student, but young men have a passion
for regarding their elders as senile, which was only in part warranted
in this instance by observing that Russell’s generation were mostly
senile from youth. They had never got beyond 1815. Both Palmerston and
Russell were in this case. Their senility was congenital, like
Gladstone’s Oxford training and High Church illusions, which caused
wild eccentricities in his judgment. Russell could not conceive that
he had misunderstood and mismanaged Minister Adams from the start, and
when, after November 12, he found himself on the defensive, with Mr.
Adams taking daily a stronger tone, he showed mere confusion and
Thus, whatever the theory, the action of diplomacy had to be the
same. Minister Adams was obliged to imply collusion between Russell
and the rebels. He could not even stop at criminal negligence. If,
by an access of courtesy, the Minister were civil enough to admit that
the escape of the Alabama had been due to criminal negligence, he
could make no such concession in regard to the ironclad rams which the
Lairds were building; for no one could be so simple as to believe that
two armored ships-of-war could be built publicly, under the eyes of
the Government, and go to sea like the Alabama, without active and
incessant collusion. The longer Earl Russell kept on his mask of
assumed ignorance, the more violently in the end, the Minister would
have to tear it off. Whatever Mr. Adams might personally think of Earl
Russell, he must take the greatest possible diplomatic liberties
with him if this crisis were allowed to arrive.
As the spring of 1863 drew on, the vast field cleared itself for
action. A campaign more beautiful- better suited for training the mind
of a youth eager for training- has not often unrolled itself for
study, from the beginning, before a young man perched in so commanding
a position. Very slowly, indeed, after two years of solitude, one
began to feel the first faint flush of new imperial life. One was
twenty-five years old, and quite ready to assert it; some of one’s
friends were wearing stars on their collars; some had won stars of a
more enduring kind. At moments one’s breath came quick. One began to
dream the sensation of wielding unmeasured power. The sense came, like
vertigo, for an instant, and passed, leaving the brain a little dazed,
doubtful, shy. With an intensity more painful than that of any
Shakespearean drama, men’s eyes were fastened on the armies in the
field. Little by little, at first only as a shadowy chance of what
might be, if things could be rightly done, one began to feel that,
somewhere behind the chaos in Washington power was taking shape;
that it was massed and guided as it had not been before. Men seemed to
have learned their business- at a cost that ruined- and perhaps too
late. A private secretary knew better than most people how much of the
new power was to be swung in London, and almost exactly when; but
the diplomatic campaign had to wait for the military campaign to lead.
The student could only study.
Life never could know more than a single such climax. In that form,
education reached its limits. As the first great blows began to
fall, one curled up in bed in the silence of night, to listen with
incredulous hope. As the huge masses struck, one after another, with
the precision of machinery, the opposing mass, the world shivered.
Such development of power was unknown. The magnificent resistance
and the return shocks heightened the suspense. During the July days
Londoners were stupid with unbelief. They were learning from the
Yankees how to fight.
{CH_XI ^paragraph 5}
An American saw in a flash what all this meant to England, for
one’s mind was working with the acceleration of the machine at home;
but Englishmen were not quick to see their blunders. One had ample
time to watch the process, and had even a little time to gloat over
the repayment of old scores. News of Vicksburg and Gettysburg
reached London one Sunday afternoon, and it happened that Henry
Adams was asked for that evening to some small reception at the
house of Monckton Milnes. He went early in order to exchange a word or
two of congratulation before the rooms should fill, and on arriving he
found only the ladies in the drawing-room; the gentlemen were still
sitting over their wine. Presently they came in, and, as luck would
have it, Delane of the Times came first. When Milnes caught sight of
his young American friend, with a whoop of triumph he rushed to
throw both arms about his neck and kiss him on both cheeks. Men of
later birth who knew too little to realize the passions of 1863-
backed by those of 1813- and reenforced by those of 1763- might
conceive that such publicity embarrassed a private secretary who
came from Boston and called himself shy; but that evening, for the
first time in his life, he happened not to be thinking of himself.
He was thinking of Delane, whose eye caught his, at the moment of
Milnes’s embrace. Delane probably regarded it as a piece of Milnes’s
foolery; he had never heard of young Adams, and never dreamed of his
resentment at being ridiculed in the Times; he had no suspicion of the
thought floating in the mind of the American Minister’s son, for the
British mind is the slowest of all minds, as the files of the Times
proved, and the capture of Vicksburg had not yet penetrated Delane’s
thick cortex of fixed ideas. Even if he had read Adams’s thought he
would have felt for it only the usual amused British contempt for
all that he had not been taught at school. It needed a whole
generation for the Times to reach Milnes’s standpoint.
Had the Minister’s son carried out the thought, he would surely
have sought an introduction to Delane on the spot, and assured him
that he regarded his own personal score as cleared off- sufficiently
settled, then and there- because his father had assumed the debt,
and was going to deal with Mr. Delane himself. “You come next!”
would have been the friendly warning. For nearly a year the private
secretary had watched the board arranging itself for the collision
between the Legation and Delane who stood behind the Palmerston
Ministry. Mr. Adams had been steadily strengthened and reenforced from
Washington in view of the final struggle. The situation had changed
since the Trent Affair. The work was efficiently done; the
organization was fairly complete. No doubt, the Legation itself was
still as weakly manned and had as poor an outfit as the Legations of
Guatemala or Portugal. Congress was always jealous of its diplomatic
service, and the Chairman of the Committee of Foreign Relations was
not likely to press assistance on the Minister to England. For the
Legation not an additional clerk was offered or asked. The
Secretary, the Assistant Secretary, and the private secretary did
all the work that the Minister did not do. A clerk at five dollars a
week would have done the work as well or better, but the Minister
could trust no clerk; without express authority he could admit no
one into the Legation; he strained a point already by admitting his
son. Congress and its committees were the proper judges of what was
best for the public service, and if the arrangement seemed good to
them, it was satisfactory to a private secretary who profited by it
more than they did. A great staff would have suppressed him. The whole
Legation was a sort of improvised, volunteer service, and he was a
volunteer with the rest. He was rather better off than the rest,
because he was invisible and unknown. Better or worse, he did his work
with the others, and if the secretaries made any remarks about
Congress, they made no complaints, and knew that none would have
received a moment’s attention.
If they were not satisfied with Congress, they were satisfied
with Secretary Seward. Without appropriations for the regular service,
he had done great things for its support. If the Minister had no
secretaries, he had a staff of active consuls; he had a well-organized
press; efficient legal support; and a swarm of social allies
permeating all classes. All he needed was a victory in the field,
and Secretary Stanton undertook that part of diplomacy. Vicksburg
and Gettysburg cleared the board, and, at the end of July, 1863,
Minister Adams was ready to deal with Earl Russell or Lord
Palmerston or Mr. Gladstone or Mr. Delane, or any one else who stood
in his way; and by the necessity of the case, was obliged to deal with
all of them shortly.
Even before the military climax at Vicksburg and Gettysburg, the
Minister had been compelled to begin his attack; but this was history,
and had nothing to do with education. The private secretary copied the
notes into his private books, and that was all the share he had in the
matter, except to talk in private.
No more volunteer services were needed; the volunteers were in a
manner sent to the rear; the movement was too serious for skirmishing.
All that a secretary could hope to gain from the affair was experience
and knowledge of politics. He had a chance to measure the motive
forces of men; their qualities of character; their foresight; their
tenacity of purpose.
{CH_XI ^paragraph 10}
In the Legation no great confidence was felt in stopping the
rams. Whatever the reason, Russell seemed immovable. Had his efforts
for intervention in September, 1862, been known to the Legation in
September, 1863, the Minister must surely have admitted that Russell
had, from the first, meant to force his plan of intervention on his
colleagues. Every separate step since April, 1861, led to this final
coercion. Although Russell’s hostile activity of 1862 was still
secret- and remained secret for some five-and-twenty years- his animus
seemed to be made clear by his steady refusal to stop the rebel
armaments. Little by little, Minister Adams lost hope. With loss of
hope came the raising of tone, until at last, after stripping
Russell of every rag of defence and excuse, he closed by leaving him
loaded with connivance in the rebel armaments, and ended by the famous
sentence: “It would be superfluous in me to point out to your lordship
that this is war!”
What the Minister meant by this remark was his own affair; what the
private secretary understood by it, was a part of his education. Had
his father ordered him to draft an explanatory paragraph to expand the
idea as he grasped it, he would have continued thus:-
“It would be superfluous: 1st. Because Earl Russell not only
knows it already, but has meant it from the start. 2d. Because it is
the only logical and necessary consequence of his unvarying action.
3d. Because Mr. Adams is not pointing out to him that ‘this is war,’
but is pointing it out to the world, to complete the record.”
This would have been the matter-of-fact sense in which the
private secretary copied into his books the matter-of-fact statement
with which, without passion or excitement, the Minister announced that
a state of war existed. To his copying eye, as clerk, the words,
though on the extreme verge of diplomatic propriety, merely stated a
fact, without novelty, fancy, or rhetoric. The fact had to be stated
in order to make clear the issue. The war was Russell’s war- Adams
only accepted it.
Russell’s reply to this note of September 5 reached the Legation on
September 8, announcing at last to the anxious secretaries that
“instructions have been issued which will prevent the departure of the
two ironclad vessels from Liverpool.” The members of the modest
Legation in Portland Place accepted it as Grant had accepted the
capitulation of Vicksburg. The private secretary conceived that, as
Secretary Stanton had struck and crushed by superior weight the
rebel left on the Mississippi, so Secretary Seward had struck and
crushed the rebel right in England, and he never felt a doubt as to
the nature of the battle. Though Minister Adams should stay in
office till he were ninety, he would never fight another campaign of
life and death like this; and though the private secretary should
covet and attain every office in the gift of President or people, he
would never again find education to compare with the life-and-death
alternative of this two-year-and-a-half struggle in London, as it
had racked and thumb-screwed him in its shifting phases; but its
practical value as education turned on his correctness of judgment
in measuring the men and their forces. He felt respect for Russell
as for Palmerston because they represented traditional England and
an English policy, respectable enough in itself, but which, for four
generations, every Adams had fought and exploited as the chief
source of his political fortunes. As he understood it, Russell had
followed this policy steadily, ably, even vigorously, and had
brought it to the moment of execution. Then he had met wills
stronger than his own, and, after persevering to the last possible
instant, had been beaten. Lord North and George Canning had a like
{CH_XI ^paragraph 15}
This was only the idea of a boy, but, as far as he ever knew, it
was also the idea of his Government. For once, the volunteer secretary
was satisfied with his Government. Commonly the self-respect of a
secretary, private or public, depends on, and is proportional to,
the severity of his criticism, but in this case the English campaign
seemed to him as creditable to the State Department as the Vicksburg
campaign to the War Department, and more decisive. It was well
planned, well prepared, and well executed. He could never discover a
mistake in it. Possibly he was biassed by personal interest, but his
chief reason for trusting his own judgment was that he thought himself
to be one of only half a dozen persons who knew something about it.
When others criticised Mr. Seward, he was rather indifferent to
their opinions because he thought they hardly knew what they were
talking about, and could not be taught without living over again the
London life of 1862. To him Secretary Seward seemed immensely strong
and steady in leadership; but this was no discredit to Russell or
Palmerston or Gladstone. They, too, had shown power, patience and
steadiness of purpose. They had persisted for two years and a half
in their plan for breaking up the Union, and had yielded at last
only in the jaws of war. After a long and desperate struggle, the
American Minister had trumped their best card and won the game.
Again and again, in after life, he went back over the ground to see
whether he could detect error on either side. He found none. At
every stage the steps were both probable and proved. All the more he
was disconcerted that Russell should indignantly and with growing
energy, to his dying day, deny and resent the axiom of Adams’s whole
contention, that from the first he meant to break up the Union.
Russell affirmed that he meant nothing of the sort; that he had
meant nothing at all; that he meant to do right; that he did not
know what he meant. Driven from one defence after another, he
pleaded at last, like Gladstone, that he had no defence. Concealing
all he could conceal- burying in profound secrecy his attempt to break
up the Union in the autumn of 1862- he affirmed the louder his
scrupulous good faith. What was worse for the private secretary, to
the total derision and despair of the lifelong effort for education,
as the final result of combined practice, experience, and theory- he
proved it.
Henry Adams had, as he thought, suffered too much from Russell to
admit any plea in his favor; but he came to doubt whether this
admission really favored him. Not until long after Earl Russell’s
death was the question reopened. Russell had quitted office in 1866;
he died in 1878; the biography was published in 1889. During the
Alabama controversy and the Geneva Conference in 1872, his course as
Foreign Secretary had been sharply criticised, and he had been
compelled to see England pay more than L3,000,000 penalty for his
errors. On the other hand, he brought forward- or his biographer for
him- evidence tending to prove that he was not consciously
dishonest, and that he had, in spite of appearances, acted without
collusion, agreement, plan, or policy, as far as concerned the rebels.
He had stood alone, as was his nature. Like Gladstone, he had
thought himself right.
In the end, Russell entangled himself in a hopeless ball of
admissions, denials, contradictions, and resentments which led even
his old colleagues to drop his defence, as they dropped Gladstone’s;
but this was not enough for the student of diplomacy who had made a
certain theory his law of life, and wanted to hold Russell up
against himself; to show that he had foresight and persistence of
which he was unaware. The effort became hopeless when the biography in
1889 published papers which upset all that Henry Adams had taken for
diplomatic education; yet he sat down once more, when past sixty years
old, to see whether he could unravel the skein.
Of the obstinate effort to bring about an armed intervention, on
the lines marked out by Russell’s letter to Palmerston from Gotha,
17 September, 1862, nothing could be said beyond Gladstone’s plea in
excuse for his speech in pursuance of the same effort, that it was
“the most singular and palpable error,” “the least excusable,” “a
mistake of incredible grossness,” which passed defence; but while
Gladstone threw himself on the mercy of the public for his speech,
he attempted no excuse for Lord Russell who led him into the
“incredible grossness” of announcing the Foreign Secretary’s intent.
Gladstone’s offence, “singular and palpable,” was not the speech
alone, but its cause- the policy that inspired the speech. “I weakly
supposed… I really, though most strangely, believed that it was an
act of friendliness.” Whatever absurdity Gladstone supposed, Russell
supposed nothing of the sort. Neither he nor Palmerston “most
strangely believed” in any proposition so obviously and palpably
absurd, nor did Napoleon delude himself with philanthropy.
Gladstone, even in his confession, mixed up policy, speech, motives,
and persons, as though he were trying to confuse chiefly himself.
{CH_XI ^paragraph 20}
There Gladstone’s activity seems to have stopped. He did not
reappear in the matter of the rams. The rebel influence shrank in
1863, as far as is known, to Lord Russell alone, who wrote on
September 1 that he could not interfere in any way with those vessels,
and thereby brought on himself Mr. Adams’s declaration of war on
September 5. A student held that, in this refusal, he was merely
following his policy of September, 1862, and of every step he had
taken since 1861.
The student was wrong. Russell proved that he had been feeble,
timid, mistaken, senile, but not dishonest. The evidence is
convincing. The Lairds had built these ships in reliance on the
known opinion of the law officers that the statute did not apply,
and a jury would not convict. Minister Adams replied that, in this
case, the statute should be amended, or the ships stopped by
exercise of the political power. Bethell rejoined that this would be a
violation of neutrality; one must preserve the status quo. Tacitly
Russell connived with Laird, and, had he meant to interfere, he was
bound to warn Laird that the defect of the statute would no longer
protect him, but he allowed the builders to go on till the ships
were ready for sea. Then, on September 3, two days before Mr.
Adams’s “superfluous” letter, he wrote to Lord Palmerston begging
for help; “The conduct of the gentlemen who have contracted for the
two ironclads at Birkenhead is so very suspicious,”- he began, and
this he actually wrote in good faith and deep confidence to Lord
Palmerston, his chief, calling “the conduct” of the rebel agents
“suspicious” when no one else in Europe or America felt any
suspicion about it, because the whole question turned not on the rams,
but on the technical scope of the Foreign Enlistment Act,- “that I
have thought it necessary to direct that they should be detained,”
not, of course, under the statute, but on the ground urged by the
American Minister, of international obligation above the statute. “The
Solicitor General has been consulted and concurs in the measure as one
of policy though not of strict law. We shall thus test the law, and,
if we have to pay damages, we have satisfied the opinion which
prevails here as well as in America that that kind of neutral
hostility should not be allowed to go on without some attempt to
stop it.”
For naivete that would be unusual in an unpaid attache of Legation,
this sudden leap from his own to his opponent’s ground, after two
years and a half of dogged resistance, might have roused Palmerston to
inhuman scorn, but instead of derision, well earned by Russell’s old
attacks on himself, Palmerston met the appeal with wonderful
loyalty. “On consulting the law officers he found that there was no
lawful ground for meddling with the ironclads,” or, in
unprofessional language, that he could trust neither his law
officers nor a Liverpool jury; and therefore he suggested buying the
ships for the British Navy. As proof of “criminal negligence” in the
past, this suggestion seemed decisive, but Russell, by this time,
was floundering in other troubles of negligence, for he had
neglected to notify the American Minister. He should have done so at
once, on September 3. Instead he waited till September 4, and then
merely said that the matter was under “serious and anxious
consideration.” This note did not reach the Legation till three
o’clock on the afternoon of September 5- after the “superfluous”
declaration of war had been sent. Thus, Lord Russell had sacrificed
the Lairds: had cost his Ministry the price of two ironclads,
besides the Alabama Claims- say, in round numbers, twenty million
dollars- and had put himself in the position of appearing to yield
only to a threat of war. Finally he wrote to the Admiralty a letter
which, from the American point of view, would have sounded youthful
from an Eton schoolboy:-

September 14, 1863.
{CH_XI ^paragraph 25}
It is of the utmost importance and urgency that the ironclads
building at Birkenhead should not go to America to break the blockade.
They belong to Monsieur Bravay of Paris. If you will offer to buy them
on the part of the Admiralty you will get money’s worth if he
accepts your offer; and if he does not, it will be presumptive proof
that they are already bought by the Confederates. I should state
that we have suggested to the Turkish Government to buy them; but
you can easily settle that matter with the Turks….

The hilarity of the secretaries in Portland Place would have been
loud had they seen this letter and realized the muddle of difficulties
into which Earl Russell had at last thrown himself under the impulse
of the American Minister; but, nevertheless, these letters upset
from top to bottom the results of the private secretary’s diplomatic
education forty years after he had supposed it complete. They made a
picture different from anything he had conceived and rendered
worthless his whole painful diplomatic experience.
To reconstruct, when past sixty, an education useful for any
practical purpose, is no practical problem, and Adams saw no use in
attacking it as only theoretical. He no longer cared whether he
understood human nature or not; he understood quite as much of it as
he wanted; but he found in the “Life of Gladstone” (II, 464) a
remark several times repeated that gave him matter for curious
thought. “I always hold,” said Mr. Gladstone, “that politicians are
the men whom, as a rule, it is most difficult to comprehend”; and he
added, by way of strengthening it: “For my own part, I never have thus
understood, or thought I understood, above one or two.”
{CH_XI ^paragraph 30}
Earl Russell was certainly not one of the two.
Henry Adams thought he also had understood one or two; but the
American type was more familiar. Perhaps this was the sufficient
result of his diplomatic education; it seemed to be the whole.