Chapter XII (The Education of Henry Adams)


CHAPTER XII Eccentricity (1863)

KNOWLEDGE of human nature is the beginning and end of political
education, but several years of arduous study in the neighborhood of
Westminster led Henry Adams to think that knowledge of English human
nature had little or no value outside of England. In Paris, such a
habit stood in one’s way; in America, it roused all the instincts of
native jealousy. The English mind was one-sided eccentric,
systematically unsystematic, and logically illogical. The less one
knew of it, the better.

This heresy, which scarcely would have been allowed to penetrate
a Boston mind- it would, indeed, have been shut out by instinct as a
rather foolish exaggeration- rested on an experience which Henry Adams
gravely thought he had a right to think conclusive- for him. That it
should be conclusive for any one else never occurred to him, since
he had no thought of educating anybody else. For him- alone- the
less English education he got, the better!

For several years, under the keenest incitement to watchfulness, he
observed the English mind in contact with itself and other minds.
Especially with the American the contact was interesting because the
limits and defects of the American mind were one of the favorite
topics of the European. From the old-world point of view, the American
had no mind; he had an economic thinking-machine which could work only
on a fixed line. The American mind exasperated the European as a
buzz-saw might exasperate a pine forest. The English mind disliked the
French mind because it was antagonistic, unreasonable, perhaps
hostile, but recognized it as at least a thought. The American mind
was not a thought at all; it was a convention, superficial, narrow,
and ignorant; a mere cutting instrument, practical, economical, sharp,
and direct.

The English themselves hardly conceived that their mind was
either economical, sharp, or direct; but the defect that most struck
an American was its enormous waste in eccentricity. Americans needed
and used their whole energy, and applied it with close economy; but
English society was eccentric by law and for sake of the
eccentricity itself.

{CH_XII ^paragraph 5}

The commonest phrase overheard at an English club or dinner-table
was that So-and-So “is quite mad.” It was no offence to So-and-So;
it hardly distinguished him from his fellows; and when applied to a
public man, like Gladstone, it was qualified by epithets much more
forcible. Eccentricity was so general as to become hereditary
distinction. It made the chief charm of English society as well as its
chief terror.

The American delighted in Thackeray as a satirist, but Thackeray
quite justly maintained that he was not a satirist at all, and that
his pictures of English society were exact and good-natured. The
American, who could not believe it, fell back on Dickens, who, at
all events, had the vice of exaggeration to extravagance, but
Dickens’s English audience thought the exaggeration rather in manner
or style, than in types. Mr. Gladstone himself went to see Sothern act
Dundreary, and laughed till his face was distorted- not because
Dundreary was exaggerated, but because he was ridiculously like the
types that Gladstone had seen- or might have seen- in any club in Pall
Mall. Society swarmed with exaggerated characters; it contained little

Often this eccentricity bore all the marks of strength; perhaps
it was actual exuberance of force, a birthmark of genius. Boston
thought so. The Bostonian called it national character- native
vigor- robustness- honesty- courage. He respected and feared it.
British self-assertion, bluff, brutal, blunt as it was, seemed to
him a better and nobler thing than the acuteness of the Yankee or
the polish of the Parisian. Perhaps he was right. These questions of
taste, of feeling, of inheritance, need no settlement. Every one
carries his own inch-rule of taste, and amuses himself by applying it,
triumphantly, wherever he travels. Whatever others thought, the
cleverest Englishmen held that the national eccentricity needed
correction, and were beginning to correct it. The savage satires of
Dickens and the gentler ridicule of Matthew Arnold against the British
middle class were but a part of the rebellion, for the middle class
were no worse than their neighbors in the eyes of an American in 1863;
they were even a very little better in the sense that one could appeal
to their interests, while a university man, like Gladstone, stood
outside of argument. From none of them could a young American afford
to borrow ideas.

The private secretary, like every other Bostonian, began by
regarding British eccentricity as a force. Contact with it, in the
shape of Palmerston, Russell, and Gladstone, made him hesitate; he saw
his own national type- his father, Weed, Evarts, for instance- deal
with the British, and show itself certainly not the weaker;
certainly sometimes the stronger. Biassed though he were, he could
hardly be biassed to such a degree as to mistake the effects of
force on others, and while- labor as he might- Earl Russell and his
state papers seemed weak to a secretary, he could not see that they
seemed strong to Russell’s own followers. Russell might be dishonest
or he might be merely obtuse- the English type might be brutal or
might be only stupid- but strong, in either case, it was not, nor
did it seem strong to Englishmen.

Eccentricity was not always a force; Americans were deeply
interested in deciding whether it was always a weakness. Evidently, on
the hustings or in Parliament, among eccentricities, eccentricity
was at home; but in private society the question was not easy to
answer. That English society was infinitely more amusing because of
its eccentricities, no one denied. Barring the atrocious insolence and
brutality which Englishmen and especially Englishwomen showed to
each other- very rarely, indeed, to foreigners- English society was
much more easy and tolerant than American. One must expect to be
treated with exquisite courtesy this week and be totally forgotten the
next, but this was the way of the world, and education consisted in
learning to turn one’s back on others with the same unconscious
indifference that others showed among themselves. The smart of wounded
vanity lasted no long time with a young man about town who had
little vanity to smart, and who, in his own country, would have
found himself in no better position. He had nothing to complain of. No
one was ever brutal to him. On the contrary, he was much better
treated than ever he was likely to be in Boston- let alone New York or
Washington- and if his reception varied inconceivably between
extreme courtesy and extreme neglect, it merely proved that he had
become, or was becoming, at home. Not from a sense of personal
griefs or disappointments did he labor over this part of the social
problem, but only because his education was becoming English, and
the further it went, the less it promised.

{CH_XII ^paragraph 10}

By natural affinity the social eccentrics commonly sympathized with
political eccentricity. The English mind took naturally to
rebellion- when foreign- and it felt particular confidence in the
Southern Confederacy because of its combined attributes- foreign
rebellion of English blood- which came nearer ideal eccentricity
than could be reached by Poles, Hungarians, Italians or Frenchmen. All
the English eccentrics rushed into the ranks of rebel sympathizers,
leaving few but well-balanced minds to attach themselves to the
cause of the Union. None of the English leaders on the Northern side
were marked eccentrics. William E. Forster was a practical,
hard-headed Yorkshireman, whose chief ideals in politics took shape as
working arrangements on an economical base. Cobden, considering the
one-sided conditions of his life, was remarkably well balanced. John
Bright was stronger in his expressions than either of them, but with
all his self-assertion he stuck to his point, and his point was
practical. He did not, like Gladstone, box the compass of thought;
“furiously earnest,” as Monckton Milnes said, “on both sides of
every question”; he was rather, on the whole, a consistent
conservative of the old Commonwealth type, and seldom had to defend
inconsistencies. Monckton Milnes himself was regarded as an eccentric,
chiefly by those who did not know him, but his fancies and hobbies
were only ideas a little in advance of the time; his manner was
eccentric, but not his mind, as any one could see who read a page of
his poetry. None of them, except Milnes, was a university man. As a
rule, the Legation was troubled very little, if at all, by
indiscretions, extravagances, or contradictions among its English
friends. Their work was largely judicious, practical, well considered,
and almost too cautious. The “cranks” were all rebels, and the list
was portentous. Perhaps it might be headed by old Lord Brougham, who
had the audacity to appear at a July 4th reception at the Legation,
led by Joe Parkes, and claim his old credit as “Attorney General to
Mr. Madison.” The Church was rebel, but the dissenters were mostly
with the Union. The universities were rebel, but the university men
who enjoyed most public confidence- like Lord Granville, Sir George
Cornewall Lewis, Lord Stanley, Sir George Grey- took infinite pains to
be neutral for fear of being thought eccentric. To most observers,
as well as to the Times, the Morning Post, and the Standard, a vast
majority of the English people seemed to follow the professional
eccentrics; even the emotional philanthropists took that direction;
Lord Shaftesbury and Carlyle, Fowell Buxton, and Gladstone, threw
their sympathies on the side which they should naturally have opposed,
and did so for no reason except their eccentricity; but the “canny”
Scots and Yorkshiremen were cautious.

This eccentricity did not mean strength. The proof of it was the
mismanagement of the rebel interests. No doubt the first cause of this
trouble lay in the Richmond Government itself. No one understood why
Jefferson Davis chose Mr. Mason as his agent for London at the same
time that he made so good a choice as Mr. Slidell for Paris. The
Confederacy had plenty of excellent men to send to London, but few who
were less fitted than Mason. Possibly Mason had a certain amount of
common sense, but he seemed to have nothing else, and in London
society he counted merely as one eccentric more. He enjoyed a great
opportunity; he might even have figured as a new Benjamin Franklin
with all society at his feet; he might have roared as lion of the
season and made the social path of the American Minister almost
impassable; but Mr. Adams had his usual luck in enemies, who were
always his most valuable allies if his friends only let them alone.
Mason was his greatest diplomatic triumph. He had his collision with
Palmerston; he drove Russell off the field; he swept the board
before Cockburn; he overbore Slidell; but he never lifted a finger
against Mason, who became his bulwark of defence.

Possibly Jefferson Davis and Mr. Mason shared two defects in common
which might have led them into this serious mistake. Neither could
have had much knowledge of the world, and both must have been
unconscious of humor. Yet at the same time with Mason, President Davis
sent out Slidell to France and Mr. Lamar to Russia. Some twenty
years later, in the shifting search for the education he never
found, Adams became closely intimate at Washington with Lamar, then
Senator from Mississippi, who had grown to be one of the calmest, most
reasonable and most amiable Union men in the United States, and
quite unusual in social charm. In 1860 he passed for the worst of
Southern fire-eaters, but he was an eccentric by environment, not by
nature; above all his Southern eccentricities, he had tact and
humor; and perhaps this was a reason why Mr. Davis sent him abroad
with the others, on a futile mission to St. Petersburg. He would
have done better in London, in place of Mason. London society would
have delighted in him; his stories would have won success; his manners
would have made him loved; his oratory would have swept every
audience; even Monckton Milnes could never have resisted the
temptation of having him to breakfast between Lord Shaftesbury and the
Bishop of Oxford.

Lamar liked to talk of his brief career in diplomacy, but he
never spoke of Mason. He never alluded to Confederate management or
criticised Jefferson Davis’s administration. The subject that amused
him was his English allies. At that moment- the early summer of
1863- the rebel party in England were full of confidence, and felt
strong enough to challenge the American Legation to a show of power.
They knew better than the Legation what they could depend upon; that
the law officers and commissioners of customs at Liverpool dared not
prosecute the ironclad ships; that Palmerston, Russell, and
Gladstone were ready to recognize the Confederacy; that the Emperor
Napoleon would offer them every inducement to do it. In a manner
they owned Liverpool and especially the firm of Laird who were
building their ships. The political member of the Laird firm was
Lindsay, about whom the whole web of rebel interests clung- rams,
cruisers, munitions, and Confederate loan; social introductions and
parliamentary tactics. The firm of Laird, with a certain dignity,
claimed to be champion of England’s navy; and public opinion, in the
summer of 1863, still inclined towards them.

Never was there a moment when eccentricity, if it were a force,
should have had more value to the rebel interest; and the managers
must have thought so, for they adopted or accepted as their champion
an eccentric of eccentrics; a type of 1820; a sort of Brougham of
Sheffield, notorious for poor judgment and worse temper. Mr. Roebuck
had been a tribune of the people, and, like tribunes of most other
peoples, in growing old, had grown fatuous. He was regarded by the
friends of the Union as rather a comical personage- a favorite subject
for Punch to laugh at- with a bitter tongue and a mind enfeebled
even more than common by the political epidemic of egotism. In all
England they could have found no opponent better fitted to give away
his own case. No American man of business would have paid him
attention; yet the Lairds, who certainly knew their own affairs
best, let Roebuck represent them and take charge of their interests.

{CH_XII ^paragraph 15}

With Roebuck’s doings, the private secretary had no concern
except that the Minister sent him down to the House of Commons on June
30, 1863, to report the result of Roebuck’s motion to recognize the
Southern Confederacy. The Legation felt no anxiety, having Vicksburg
already in its pocket, and Bright and Forster to say so; but the
private secretary went down and was admitted under the gallery on
the left, to listen, with great content, while John Bright, with
astonishing force, caught and shook and tossed Roebuck, as a big
mastiff shakes a wiry, ill-conditioned, toothless, bad-tempered
Yorkshire terrier. The private secretary felt an artistic sympathy
with Roebuck, for, from time to time, by way of practice, Bright in
a friendly way was apt to shake him too, and he knew how it was
done. The manner counted for more than the words. The scene was
interesting, but the result was not in doubt.

All the more sharply he was excited, near the year 1879, in
Washington, by hearing Lamar begin a story after dinner, which, little
by little, became dramatic, recalling the scene in the House of
Commons. The story, as well as one remembered, began with Lamar’s
failure to reach St. Petersburg at all, and his consequent detention
in Paris waiting instructions. The motion to recognize the Confederacy
was about to be made, and, in prospect of the debate, Mr. Lindsay
collected a party at his villa on the Thames to bring the rebel agents
into relations with Roebuck. Lamar was sent for, and came. After
much conversation of a general sort, such as is the usual object or
resource of the English Sunday, finding himself alone with Roebuck,
Lamar, by way of showing interest, bethought himself of John Bright
and asked Roebuck whether he expected Bright to take part in the
debate: “No, sir!” said Roebuck sententiously; “Bright and I have
met before. It was the old story- the story of the sword-fish and
the whale! No, sir! Mr. Bright will not cross swords with me again!”

Thus assured, Lamar went with the more confidence to the House on
the appointed evening, and was placed under the gallery, on the right,
where he listened to Roebuck and followed the debate with such
enjoyment as an experienced debater feels in these contests, until, as
he said, he became aware that a man, with a singularly rich voice
and imposing manner, had taken the floor, and was giving Roebuck the
most deliberate and tremendous pounding he ever witnessed, “until at
last,” concluded Lamar, “it dawned on my mind that the sword-fish
was getting the worst of it.”

Lamar told the story in the spirit of a joke against himself rather
than against Roebuck; but such jokes must have been unpleasantly
common in the experience of the rebel agents. They were surrounded
by cranks of the worst English species, who distorted their natural
eccentricities and perverted their judgment. Roebuck may have been
an extreme case, since he was actually in his dotage, yet this did not
prevent the Lairds from accepting his lead, or the House from taking
him seriously. Extreme eccentricity was no bar, in England, to extreme
confidence; sometimes it seemed a recommendation; and unless it caused
financial loss, it rather helped popularity.

The question whether British eccentricity was ever strength weighed
heavily in the balance of education. That Roebuck should mislead the
rebel agents on so strange a point as that of Bright’s courage was
doubly characteristic because the Southern people themselves had
this same barbaric weakness of attributing want of courage to
opponents, and owed their ruin chiefly to such ignorance of the world.
Bright’s courage was almost as irrational as that of the rebels
themselves. Every one knew that he had the courage of a prize-fighter.
He struck, in succession, pretty nearly every man in England that
could be reached by a blow, and when he could not reach the individual
he struck the class, or when the class was too small for him, the
whole people of England. At times he had the whole country on his
back. He could not act on the defensive; his mind required attack.
Even among friends at the dinner-table he talked as though he were
denouncing them, or some one else, on a platform; he measured his
phrases, built his sentences, cumulated his effects, and pounded his
opponents, real or imagined. His humor was glow, like iron at dull
heat; his blow was elementary, like the thrash of a whale.

{CH_XII ^paragraph 20}

One day in early spring, March 26, 1863, the Minister requested his
private secretary to attend a Trades-Union Meeting at St. James’s
Hall, which was the result of Professor Beesly’s patient efforts to
unite Bright and the Trades-Unions on an American platform. The
secretary went to the meeting and made a report which reposes
somewhere on file in the State Department to this day, as harmless
as such reports should be; but it contained no mention of what
interested young Adams most- Bright’s psychology. With singular
skill and oratorical power, Bright managed at the outset, in his
opening paragraph, to insult or outrage every class of Englishman
commonly considered respectable, and, for fear of any escaping, he
insulted them repeatedly under consecutive heads. The rhetorical
effect was tremendous: “Privilege thinks it has a great interest in
the American contest,” he began in his massive, deliberate tones; “and
every morning with blatant voice, it comes into our streets and curses
the American Republic. Privilege has beheld an afflicting spectacle
for many years past. It has beheld thirty million of men happy and
prosperous, without emperors- without king (cheers)- without the
surroundings of a court (renewed cheers)- without nobles, except
such as are made by eminence in intellect and virtue- without State
bishops and State priests, those vendors of the love that works
salvation (cheers)- without great armies and great navies- without a
great debt and great taxes- and Privilege has shuddered at what
might happen to old Europe if this great experiment should succeed.”

An ingenious man, with an inventive mind, might have managed, in
the same number of lines, to offend more Englishmen than Bright struck
in this sentence; but he must have betrayed artifice and hurt his
oratory. The audience cheered furiously, and the private secretary
felt peace in his much troubled mind, for he knew how careful the
Ministry would be, once they saw Bright talk republican principles
before Trades-Unions; but, while he did not, like Roebuck, see
reason to doubt the courage of a man who, after quarrelling with the
Trades-Unions, quarreled with all the world outside the Trades-Unions,
he did feel a doubt whether to class Bright as eccentric or
conventional. Every one called Bright “un-English,” from Lord
Palmerston to William E. Forster; but to an American he seemed more
English than any of his critics. He was a liberal hater, and what he
hated he reviled after the manner of Milton, but he was afraid of no
one. He was almost the only man in England, or, for that matter, in
Europe, who hated Palmerston and was not afraid of him, or of the
press or the pulpit, the clubs or the bench, that stood behind him. He
loathed the whole fabric of sham religion, sham loyalty, sham
aristocracy, and sham socialism. He had the British weakness of
believing only in himself and his own conventions. In all this, an
American saw, if one may make the distinction, much racial
eccentricity, but little that was personal. Bright was singularly well
poised; but he used singularly strong language.

Long afterwards, in 1880, Adams happened to be living again in
London for a season, when James Russell Lowell was transferred there
as Minister; and as Adams’s relations with Lowell had become closer
and more intimate with years, he wanted the new Minister to know
some of his old friends. Bright was then in the Cabinet, and no longer
the most radical member even there, but he was still a rare figure
in society. He came to dinner, along with Sir Francis Doyle and Sir
Robert Cunliffe, and as usual did most of the talking. As usual
also, he talked of the things most on his mind. Apparently it must
have been some reform of the criminal law which the Judges opposed,
that excited him, for at the end of dinner, over the wine, he took
possession of the table in his old way, and ended with a superb
denunciation of the Bench, spoken in his massive manner, as though
every word were a hammer, smashing what it struck:-

“For two hundred years, the Judges of England sat on the Bench,
condemning to the penalty of death every man, woman, and child who
stole property to the value of five shillings; and, during all that
time, not one Judge ever remonstrated against the law. We English
are a nation of brutes, and ought to be exterminated to the last man.”

As the party rose from table and passed into the drawing-room,
Adams said to Lowell that Bright was very fine. “Yes!” replied Lowell;
“but too violent!”

{CH_XII ^paragraph 25}

Precisely this was the point that Adams doubted. Bright knew his
Englishmen better than Lowell did- better than England did. He knew
what amount of violence in language was necessary to drive an idea
into a Lancashire or Yorkshire head. He knew that no violence was
enough to affect a Somersetshire or Wiltshire peasant. Bright kept his
own head cool and clear. He was not excited; he never betrayed
excitement. As for his denunciation of the English Bench, it was a
very old story, not original with him. That the English were a
nation of brutes was a commonplace generally admitted by Englishmen
and universally accepted by foreigners; while the matter of their
extermination could be treated only as unpractical, on their
deserts, because they were probably not very much worse than their
neighbors. Had Bright said that the French, Spaniards, Germans, or
Russians were a nation of brutes and ought to be exterminated, no
one would have found fault; the whole human race, according to the
highest authority, has been exterminated once already for the same
reason, and only the rainbow protects them from a repetition of it.
What shocked Lowell was that he denounced his own people.

Adams felt no moral obligation to defend Judges, who, as far as
he knew, were the only class of society specially adapted to defend
themselves; but he was curious- even anxious- as a point of education,
to decide for himself whether Bright’s language was violent for its
purpose. He thought not. Perhaps Cobden did better by persuasion,
but that was another matter. Of course, even Englishmen sometimes
complained of being so constantly told that they were brutes and
hypocrites, although they were told little else by their censors,
and bore it, on the whole, meekly; but the fact that it was true in
the main troubled the ten-pound voter much less than it troubled
Newman, Gladstone, Ruskin, Carlyle, and Matthew Arnold. Bright was
personally disliked by his victims, but not distrusted. They never
doubted what he would do next, as they did with John Russell,
Gladstone, and Disraeli. He betrayed no one, and he never advanced
an opinion in practical matters which did not prove to be practical.

The class of Englishmen who set out to be the intellectual
opposites of Bright, seemed to an American bystander the weakest and
most eccentric of all. These were the trimmers, the political
economists, the anti-slavery and doctrinaire class, the followers of
de Tocqueville, and of John Stuart Mill. As a class, they were
timid-with good reason- and timidity, which is high wisdom in
philosophy, sicklies the whole cast of thought in action. Numbers of
these men haunted London society, all tending to free thinking, but
never venturing much freedom of thought. Like the anti-slavery
doctrinaires of the forties and fifties, they became mute and
useless when slavery struck them in the face. For type of these
eccentrics, literature seems to have chosen Henry Reeve, at least to
the extent of biography. He was a bulky figure in society, always
friendly, good-natured, obliging, and useful; almost as universal as
Milnes and more busy. As editor of the Edinburgh Review he had
authority and even power, although the Review and the whole Whig
doctrinaire school had begun- as the French say- to date; and of
course the literary and artistic sharp shooters of 1867- like Frank
Palgrave- frothed and foamed at the mere mention of Reeve’s name.
Three-fourths of their fury was due only to his ponderous manner.
London society abused its rights of personal criticism by fixing on
every too conspicuous figure some word or phrase that stuck to it.
Every one had heard of Mrs. Grote as “the origin of the word
grotesque.” Every one had laughed at the story of Reeve approaching
Mrs. Grote, with his usual somewhat florid manner, asking in his
literary dialect how her husband the historian was: “And how is the
learned Grotius?” “Pretty well, thank you, Puffendorf!” One winced
at the word, as though it were a drawing of Forain.

No one would have been more shocked than Reeve had he been
charged with want of moral courage. He proved his courage afterwards
by publishing the “Greville Memoirs,” braving the displeasure of the
Queen. Yet the Edinburgh Review and its editor avoided taking sides
except where sides were already fixed. Americanism would have been bad
form in the liberal Edinburgh Review; it would have seemed eccentric
even for a Scotchman, and Reeve was a Saxon of Saxons. To an
American this attitude of oscillating reserve seemed more eccentric
than the reckless hostility of Brougham or Carlyle, and more
mischievous, for he never could be sure what preposterous
commonplace it might encourage.

The sum of these experiences in 1863 left the conviction that
eccentricity was weakness. The young American who should adopt English
thought was lost. From the facts, the conclusion was correct, yet,
as usual, the conclusion was wrong. The years of Palmerston’s last
Cabinet, 1859 to 1865, were avowedly years of truce- of arrested
development. The British system like the French, was in its last stage
of decomposition. Never had the British mind shown itself so
decousu- so unravelled, at sea, floundering in every sort of
historical shipwreck. Eccentricities had a free field.
Contradictions swarmed in State and Church. England devoted thirty
years of arduous labor to clearing away only a part of the debris. A
young American in 1863 could see little or nothing of the future. He
might dream, but he could not foretell, the suddenness with which
the old Europe, with England in its wake, was to vanish in 1870. He
was in dead-water, and the parti-colored, fantastic cranks swam
about his boat, as though he were the ancient mariner, and they
saurians of the prime.