Chapter XIX (The Education of Henry Adams)

Chaos (1870)

ONE fine May afternoon in 1870 Adams drove again up St. James’s
Street wondering more than ever at the marvels of life. Nine years had
passed since the historic entrance of May, 1861. Outwardly London
was the same. Outwardly Europe showed no great change. Palmerston
and Russell were forgotten; but Disraeli and Gladstone were still much
alive. One’s friends were more than ever prominent. John Bright was in
the Cabinet; W. E. Forster was about to enter it; reform ran riot.
Never had the sun of progress shone so fair. Evolution from lower to
higher raged like an epidemic. Darwin was the greatest of prophets
in the most evolutionary of worlds. Gladstone had overthrown the Irish
Church; was overthrowing the Irish landlords; was trying to pass an
Education Act. Improvement, prosperity, power, were leaping and
bounding over every country road, Even America, with her Erie scandals
and Alabama Claims, hardly made a discordant note.
At the Legation, Motley ruled; the long Adams reign was
forgotten; the rebellion had passed into history. In society no one
cared to recall the years before the Prince of Wales. The smart set
had come to their own. Half the houses that Adams had frequented, from
1861 to 1865, were closed or closing in 1870. Death had ravaged
one’s circle of friends. Mrs. Milnes Gaskell and her sister Miss
Charlotte Wynn were both dead, and Mr. James Milnes Gaskell was no
longer in Parliament. That field of education seemed closed too.
One found one’s self in a singular frame of mind- more
eighteenth-century than ever- almost rococo- and unable to catch
anywhere the cog-wheels of evolution. Experience ceased to educate.
London taught less freely than of old. That one bad style was
leading to another- that the older men were more amusing than the
younger- that Lord Houghton’s breakfast-table showed gaps hard to
fill- that there were fewer men one wanted to meet- these, and a
hundred more such remarks, helped little towards a quicker and more
intelligent activity. For English reforms, Adams cared nothing. The
reforms were themselves mediaeval. The Education Bill of his friend W.
E. Forster seemed to him a guaranty against all education he had use
for. He resented change. He would have kept the Pope in the Vatican
and the Queen at Windsor Castle as historical monuments. He did not
care to Americanize Europe. The Bastille or the Ghetto was a curiosity
worth a great deal of money, if preserved; and so was a Bishop; so was
Napoleon III. The tourist was the great conservative who hated novelty
and adored dirt. Adams came back to London without a thought of
revolution or restlessness or reform. He wanted amusement, quiet,
and gaiety.
Had he not been born in 1838 under the shadow of Boston State
House, and been brought up in the Early Victorian epoch, he would have
cast off his old skin, and made his court to Marlborough House, in
partnership with the American woman and the Jew banker. Common-sense
dictated it; but Adams and his friends were unfashionable by some
law of Anglo-Saxon custom- some innate atrophy of mind. Figuring
himself as already a man of action, and rather far up towards the
front, he had no idea of making a new effort or catching up with a new
world. He saw nothing ahead of him. The world was never more calm.
He wanted to talk with Ministers about the Alabama Claims, because
he looked on the Claims as his own special creation, discussed between
him and his father long before they had been discussed by
Government; he wanted to make notes for his next year’s articles;
but he had not a thought that, within three months, his world was to
be upset, and he under it. Frank Palgrave came one day, more
contentious, contemptuous, and paradoxical than ever, because Napoleon
III seemed to be threatening war with Germany. Palgrave said that
“Germany would beat France into scraps” if there was war. Adams
thought not. The chances were always against catastrophes. No one else
expected great changes in Europe. Palgrave was always extreme; his
language was incautious- violent!
{CH_XIX ^paragraph 5}
In this year of all years, Adams lost sight of education. Things
began smoothly, and London glowed with the pleasant sense of
familiarity and dinners. He sniffed with voluptuous delight the
coal-smoke of Cheapside and revelled in the architecture of Oxford
Street. May Fair never shone so fair to Arthur Pendennis as it did
to the returned American. The country never smiled its velvet smile of
trained and easy hostess as it did when he was so lucky as to be asked
on a country visit. He loved it all- everything- had always loved
it! He felt almost attached to the Royal Exchange. He thought he owned
the St. James’s Club. He patronized the Legation.
The first shock came lightly, as though Nature were playing
tricks on her spoiled child, though she had thus far not exerted
herself to spoil him. Reeve refused the Gold Conspiracy. Adams had
become used to the idea that he was free of the Quarterlies, and
that his writing would be printed of course; but he was stunned by the
reason of refusal. Reeve said it would bring half-a-dozen libel
suits on him. One knew that the power of Erie was almost as great in
England as in America, but one was hardly prepared to find it
controlling the Quarterlies. The English press professed to be shocked
in 1870 by the Erie scandal, as it had professed in 1860 to be shocked
by the scandal of slavery, but when invited to support those who
were trying to abate these scandals, the English press said it was
afraid. To Adams, Reeve’s refusal seemed portentous. He and his
brother and the North American Review were running greater risks every
day, and no one thought of fear. That a notorious story, taken
bodily from an official document, should scare the Edinburgh Review
into silence for fear of Jay Gould and Jim Fisk, passed even Adams’s
experience of English eccentricity, though it was large.
He gladly set down Reeve’s refusal of the Gold Conspiracy to
respectability and editorial law, but when he sent the manuscript on
to the Quarterly, the editor of the Quarterly also refused it. The
literary standard of the two Quarterlies was not so high as to suggest
that the article was illiterate beyond the power of an active and
willing editor to redeem it. Adams had no choice but to realize that
he had to deal in 1870 with the same old English character of 1860,
and the same inability in himself to understand it. As usual, when
an ally was needed, the American was driven into the arms of the
radicals. Respectability, everywhere and always, turned its back the
moment one asked to do it a favor. Called suddenly away from
England, he despatched the article, at the last moment, to the
Westminster Review and heard no more about it for nearly six months.
He had been some weeks in London when he received a telegram from
his brother-in-law at the Bagni di Lucca telling him that his sister
had been thrown from a cab and injured, and that he had better come
on. He started that night, and reached the Bagni di Lucca on the
second day. Tetanus had already set in.
The last lesson- the sum and term of education- began then. He
had passed through thirty years of rather varied experience without
having once felt the shell of custom broken. He had never seen Nature-
only her surface- the sugar-coating that she shows to youth. Flung
suddenly in his face, with the harsh brutality of chance, the terror
of the blow stayed by him thenceforth for life, until repetition
made it more than the will could struggle with; more than he could
call on himself to bear. He found his sister, a woman of forty, as gay
and brilliant in the terrors of lockjaw as she had been in the
careless fun of 1859, lying in bed in consequence of a miserable
cab-accident that had bruised her foot. Hour by hour the muscles
grew rigid, while the mind remained bright, until after ten days of
fiendish torture she died in convulsions.
{CH_XIX ^paragraph 10}
One had heard and read a great deal about death, and even seen a
little of it, and knew by heart the thousand commonplaces of
religion and poetry which seemed to deaden one’s senses and veil the
horror. Society being immortal, could put on immortality at will.
Adams being mortal, felt only the mortality. Death took features
altogether new to him, in these rich and sensuous surroundings. Nature
enjoyed it, played with it, the horror added to her charm, she liked
the torture, and smothered her victim with caresses. Never had one
seen her so winning. The hot Italian summer brooded outside, over
the market-place and the picturesque peasants, and, in the singular
color of the Tuscan atmosphere, the hills and vineyards of the
Apennines seemed bursting with mid-summer blood. The sick-room
itself glowed with the Italian joy of life; friends filled it; no
harsh northern lights pierced the soft shadows; even the dying woman
shared the sense of the Italian summer, the soft, velvet air, the
humor, the courage, the sensual fulness of Nature and man. She faced
death, as women mostly do, bravely and even gaily, racked slowly to
unconsciousness, but yielding only to violence, as a soldier sabred in
battle. For many thousands of years, on these hills and plains, Nature
had gone on sabring men and women with the same air of sensual
Impressions like these are not reasoned or catalogued in the
mind; they are felt as part of violent emotion; and the mind that
feels them is a different one from that which reasons; it is thought
of a different power and a different person. The first serious
consciousness of Nature’s gesture- her attitude towards life- took
form then as a phantasm, a nightmare, an insanity of force. For the
first time, the stage-scenery of the senses collapsed; the human
mind felt itself stripped naked, vibrating in a void of shapeless
energies, with resistless mass, colliding, crushing, wasting, and
destroying what these same energies had created and labored from
eternity to perfect. Society became fantastic, a vision of pantomime
with a mechanical motion; and its so-called thought merged in the mere
sense of life, and pleasure in the sense. The usual anodynes of social
medicine became evident artifice. Stoicism was perhaps the best;
religion was the most human; but the idea that any personal deity
could find pleasure or profit in torturing a poor woman, by
accident, with a fiendish cruelty known to man only in perverted and
insane temperaments, could not be held for a moment. For pure
blasphemy, it made pure atheism a comfort. God might be, as the Church
said, a Substance, but He could not be a Person.
With nerves strained for the first time beyond their power of
tension, he slowly travelled northwards with his friends, and
stopped for a few days at Ouchy to recover his balance in a new world;
for the fantastic mystery of coincidences had made the world, which he
thought real, mimic and reproduce the distorted nightmare of his
personal horror. He did not yet know it, and he was twenty years in
finding it out; but he had need of all the beauty of the Lake below
and of the Alps above, to restore the finite to its place. For the
first time in his life, Mont Blanc for a moment looked to him what
it was- a chaos of anarchic and purposeless forces- and he needed days
of repose to see it clothe itself again with the illusions of his
senses, the white purity of its snows, the splendor of its light,
and the infinity of its heavenly peace. Nature was kind; Lake Geneva
was beautiful beyond itself, and the Alps put on charms real as
terrors; but man became chaotic, and before the illusions of Nature
were wholly restored, the illusions of Europe suddenly vanished,
leaving a new world to learn.
On July 4, all Europe had been in peace; on July 14, Europe was
in full chaos of war. One felt helpless and ignorant, but one might
have been king or kaiser without feeling stronger to deal with the
chaos. Mr. Gladstone was as much astounded as Adams; the Emperor
Napoleon was nearly as stupefied as either, and Bismarck himself
hardly knew how he did it. As education, the outbreak of the war was
wholly lost on a man dealing with death hand-to-hand, who could not
throw it aside to look at it across the Rhine. Only when he got up
to Paris, he began to feel the approach of catastrophe. Providence set
up no affiches to announce the tragedy. Under one’s eyes France cut
herself adrift, and floated off, on an unknown stream, towards a
less known ocean. Standing on the curb of the Boulevard, one could see
as much as though one stood by the side of the Emperor or in command
of an army corps. The effect was lurid. The public seemed to look on
the war, as it had looked on the wars of Louis XIV and Francis I, as a
branch of decorative art. The French, like true artists, always
regarded war as one of the fine arts. Louis XIV practised it; Napoleon
I perfected it; and Napoleon III had till then pursued it in the
same spirit with singular success. In Paris, in July, 1870, the war
was brought out like an opera of Meyerbeer. One felt one’s self a
supernumerary hired to fill the scene. Every evening at the theatre
the comedy was interrupted by order, and one stood up by order, to
join in singing of the Marseillaise to order. For nearly twenty
years one had been forbidden to sing the Marseillaise under any
circumstances, but at last regiment after regiment marched through the
streets shouting “Marchons!” while the bystanders cared not enough
to join. Patriotism seemed to have been brought out of the
Government stores, and distributed by grammes per capita. One had seen
one’s own people dragged unwillingly into a war, and had watched one’s
own regiments march to the front without sign of enthusiasm; on the
contrary, most serious, anxious, and conscious of the whole weight
of the crisis; but in Paris every one conspired to ignore the
crisis, which every one felt at hand. Here was education for the
million, but the lesson was intricate. Superficially Napoleon and
his Ministers and marshals were playing a game against Thiers and
Gambetta. A bystander knew almost as little as they did about the
result. How could Adams prophesy that in another year or two, when
he spoke of his Paris and its tastes, people would smile at his
As soon as he could, he fled to England and once more took refuge
in the profound peace of Wenlock Abbey. Only the few remaining
monks, undisturbed by the brutalities of Henry VIII- three or four
young Englishmen- survived there, with Milnes Gaskell acting as Prior.
The August sun was warm; the calm of the Abbey was ten times
secular; not a discordant sound- hardly a sound of any sort except the
cawing of the ancient rookery at sunset- broke the stillness; and,
after the excitement of the last month, one felt a palpable haze of
peace brooding over the Edge and the Welsh Marches. Since the reign of
Pteraspis, nothing had greatly changed; nothing except the monks.
Lying on the turf, the ground littered with newspapers, the monks
studied the war correspondence. In one respect Adams had succeeded
in educating himself; he had learned to follow a campaign.
{CH_XIX ^paragraph 15}
While at Wenlock, he received a letter from President Eliot
inviting him to take an Assistant Professorship of History, to be
created shortly at Harvard College. After waiting ten or a dozen years
for some one to show consciousness of his existence, even a
Terebratula would be pleased and grateful for a compliment which
implied that the new President of Harvard College wanted his help; but
Adams knew nothing about history, and much less about teaching,
while he knew more than enough about Harvard College; and wrote at
once to thank President Eliot, with much regret that the honor
should be above his powers. His mind was full of other matters. The
summer, from which he had expected only amusement and social relations
with new people, had ended in the most intimate personal tragedy,
and the most terrific political convulsion he had ever known or was
likely to know. He had failed in every object of his trip. The
Quarterlies had refused his best essay. He had made no acquaintances
and hardly picked up the old ones. He sailed from Liverpool, on
September 1, to begin again where he had started two years before, but
with no longer a hope of attaching himself to a President or a party
or a press. He was a free lance and no other career stood in sight
or mind. To that point education had brought him.
Yet he found, on reaching home, that he had not done quite so badly
as he feared. His article on the Session in the July North American
had made a success. Though he could not quite see what partisan object
it served, he heard with flattered astonishment that it had been
reprinted by the Democratic National Committee and circulated as a
campaign document by the hundred thousand copies. He was henceforth in
opposition, do what he might; and a Massachusetts Democrat, say what
he pleased; while his only reward or return for this partisan
service consisted in being formally answered by Senator Timothy
Howe, of Wisconsin, in a Republican campaign document, presumed to
be also freely circulated, in which the Senator, besides refuting
his opinions, did him the honor- most unusual and picturesque in a
Senator’s rhetoric- of likening him to a begonia.
The begonia is, or then was, a plant of such senatorial qualities
as to make the simile, in intention, most flattering. Far from
charming in its refinement, the begonia was remarkable for curious and
showy foliage; it was conspicuous; it seemed to have no useful
purpose; and it insisted on standing always in the most prominent
positions. Adams would have greatly liked to be a begonia in
Washington, for this was rather his ideal of the successful statesman,
and he thought about it still more when the Westminster Review for
October brought him his article on the Gold Conspiracy, which was also
instantly pirated on a great scale. Piratical he was himself
henceforth driven to be, and he asked only to be pirated, for he was
sure not to be paid; but the honors of piracy resemble the colors of
the begonia; they are showy but not useful. Here was a tour de force
he had never dreamed himself equal to performing: two long, dry,
quarterly, thirty or forty page articles, appearing in quick
succession, and pirated for audiences running well into the hundred
thousands; and not one person, man or woman, offering him so much as a
congratulation, except to call him a begonia.
Had this been all, life might have gone on very happily as
before, but the ways of America to a young person of literary and
political tastes were such as the so-called evolution of civilized man
had not before evolved. No sooner had Adams made at Washington what he
modestly hoped was a sufficient success, than his whole family set
on him to drag him away. For the first time since 1861 his father
interposed; his mother entreated; and his brother Charles argued and
urged that he should come to Harvard College. Charles had views of
further joint operations in a new field. He said that Henry had done
at Washington all he could possibly do; that his position there wanted
solidity; that he was, after all, an adventurer; that a few years in
Cambridge would give him personal weight; that his chief function
was not to be that of teacher, but that of editing the North
American Review which was to be coupled with the professorship, and
would lead to the daily press. In short, that he needed the university
more than the university needed him.
Henry knew the university well enough to know that the department
of history was controlled by one of the most astute and ideal
administrators in the world- Professor Gurney- and that it was
Gurney who had established the new professorship, and had cast his net
over Adams to carry the double load of mediaeval history and the
Review. He could see no relation whatever between himself and a
professorship. He sought education; he did not sell it. He knew no
history; he knew only a few historians; his ignorance was
mischievous because it was literary, accidental, indifferent. On the
other hand he knew Gurney, and felt much influenced by his advice. One
cannot take one’s self quite seriously in such matters; it could not
much affect the sum of solar energies whether one went on dancing with
girls in Washington, or began talking to boys at Cambridge. The good
people who thought it did matter had a sort of right to guide. One
could not reject their advice; still less disregard their wishes.
{CH_XIX ^paragraph 20}
The sum of the matter was that Henry went out to Cambridge and
had a few words with President Eliot which seemed to him almost as
American as the talk about diplomacy with his father ten years before.
“But, Mr. President,” urged Adams, “I know nothing about Mediaeval
History.” With the courteous manner and bland smile so familiar for
the next generation of Americans, Mr. Eliot mildly but firmly replied,
“If you will point out to me any one who knows more, Mr. Adams, I will
appoint him.” The answer was neither logical nor convincing, but Adams
could not meet it without overstepping his privileges. He could not
say that, under the circumstances, the appointment of any professor at
all seemed to him unnecessary.
So, at twenty-four hours’ notice, he broke his life in halves again
in order to begin a new education, on lines he had not chosen, in
subjects for which he cared less than nothing; in a place he did not
love, and before a future which repelled. Thousands of men have to
do the same thing, but his case was peculiar because he had no need to
do it. He did it because his best and wisest friends urged it, and
he never could make up his mind whether they were right or not. To him
this kind of education was always false. For himself he had no doubts.
He thought it a mistake; but his opinion did not prove that it was
one, since, in all probability, whatever he did would be more or
less a mistake. He had reached cross-roads of education which all
led astray. What he could gain at Harvard College he did not know, but
in any case it was nothing he wanted. What he lost at Washington he
could partly see, but in any case it was not fortune. Grant’s
administration wrecked men by thousands, but profited few. Perhaps Mr.
Fish was the solitary exception. One might search the whole list of
Congress, Judiciary, and Executive during the twenty-five years 1870
to 1895, and find little but damaged reputation. The period was poor
in purpose and barren in results.
Henry Adams, if not the rose, lived as near it as any politician,
and knew, more or less, all the men in any way prominent at
Washington, or knew all about them. Among them, in his opinion, the
best equipped, the most active-minded, and most industrious was
Abram Hewitt, who sat in Congress for a dozen years, between 1874
and 1886, sometimes leading the House and always wielding influence
second to none. With nobody did Adams form closer or longer
relations than with Mr. Hewitt, whom he regarded as the most useful
public man in Washington; and he was the more struck by Hewitt’s
saying, at the end of his laborious career as legislator, that he left
behind him no permanent result except the Act consolidating the
Surveys. Adams knew no other man who had done so much, unless Mr.
Sherman’s legislation is accepted as an instance of success.
Hewitt’s nearest rival would probably have been Senator Pendleton
who stood father to civil service reform in 1882, an attempt to
correct a vice that should never have been allowed to be born. These
were the men who succeeded.
The press stood in much the same light. No editor, no political
writer, and no public administrator achieved enough good reputation to
preserve his memory for twenty years. A number of them achieved bad
reputations, or damaged good ones that had been gained in the Civil
War. On the whole, even for Senators, diplomats, and Cabinet officers,
the period was wearisome and stale.
None of Adams’s generation profited by public activity unless it
were William C. Whitney, and even he could not be induced to return to
it. Such ambitions as these were out of one’s reach, but supposing one
tried for what was feasible, attached one’s self closely to the
Garfields, Arthurs, Frelinghuysens, Blaines, Bayards, or Whitneys, who
happened to hold office; and supposing one asked for the mission to
Belgium or Portugal, and obtained it; supposing one served a term as
Assistant Secretary or Chief of Bureau; or, finally, supposing one had
gone as sub-editor on the New York Tribune or Times- how much more
education would one have gained than by going to Harvard College?
These questions seemed better worth an answer than most of the
questions on examination papers at college or in the civil service;
all the more because one never found an answer to them, then or
afterwards, and because, to his mind, the value of American society
altogether was mixed up with the value of Washington.
{CH_XIX ^paragraph 25}
At first, the simple beginner, struggling with principles, wanted
to throw off responsibility on the American people, whose bare and
toiling shoulders had to carry the load of every social or political
stupidity; but the American people had no more to do with it than with
the customs of Peking. American character might perhaps account for
it, but what accounted for American character? All Boston, all New
England, and all respectable New York, including Charles Francis Adams
the father and Charles Francis Adams the son, agreed that Washington
was no place for a respectable young man. All Washington, including
Presidents, Cabinet officers, Judiciary, Senators, Congressmen, and
clerks, expressed the same opinion, and conspired to drive away
every young man who happened to be there, or tried to approach. Not
one young man of promise remained in the Government service. All
drifted into opposition. The Government did not want them in
Washington. Adams’s case was perhaps the strongest because he
thought he had done well. He was forced to guess it, since he knew
no one who would have risked so extravagant a step as that of
encouraging a young man in a literary career, or even in a political
one; society forbade it, as well as residence in a political
capital; but Harvard College must have seen some hope for him, since
it made him professor against his will; even the publishers and
editors of the North American Review must have felt a certain amount
of confidence in him, since they put the Review in his hands. After
all, the Review was the first literary power in America, even though
it paid almost as little in gold as the United States Treasury. The
degree of Harvard College might bear a value as ephemeral as the
commission of a President of the United States; but the government
of the college, measured by money alone, and patronage, was a matter
of more importance than that of some branches of the national service.
In social position, the college was the superior of them all put
together. In knowledge, she could assert no superiority, since the
Government made no claims, and prided itself on ignorance. The service
of Harvard College was distinctly honorable; perhaps the most
honorable in America; and if Harvard College thought Henry Adams worth
employing at four dollars a day, why should Washington decline his
services when he asked nothing? Why should he be dragged from a career
he liked in a place he loved, into a career he detested, in a place
and climate he shunned? Was it enough to satisfy him, that all America
should call Washington barren and dangerous? What made Washington more
dangerous than New York?
The American character showed singular limitations which
sometimes drove the student of civilized man to despair. Crushed by
his own ignorance- lost in the darkness of his own gropings- the
scholar finds himself jostled of a sudden by a crowd of men who seem
to him ignorant that there is a thing called ignorance; who have
forgotten how to amuse themselves; who cannot even understand that
they are bored. The American thought of himself as a restless,
pushing, energetic, ingenious person, always awake and trying to get
ahead of his neighbors. Perhaps this idea of the national character
might be correct for New York or Chicago; it was not correct for
Washington. There the American showed himself, four times in five,
as a quiet, peaceful, shy figure, rather in the mould of Abraham
Lincoln, somewhat sad, sometimes pathetic, once tragic; or like Grant,
inarticulate, uncertain, distrustful of himself, still more
distrustful of others, and awed by money. That the American, by
temperament, worked to excess, was true; work and whiskey were his
stimulants; work was a form of vice; but he never cared much for money
or power after he earned them. The amusement of the pursuit was all
the amusement he got from it; he had no use for wealth. Jim Fisk alone
seemed to know what he wanted; Jay Gould never did. At Washington
one met mostly such true Americans, but if one wanted to know them
better, one went to study them in Europe. Bored, patient, helpless;
pathetically dependent on his wife and daughters; indulgent to excess;
mostly a modest, decent, excellent, valuable citizen; the American was
to be met at every railway station in Europe, carefully explaining
to every listener that the happiest day of his life would be the day
he should land on the pier at New York. He was ashamed to be amused;
his mind no longer answered to the stimulus of variety; he could not
face a new thought. All his immense strength, his intense nervous
energy, his keen analytic perceptions, were oriented in one direction,
and he could not change it. Congress was full of such men; in the
Senate, Sumner was almost the only exception; in the Executive,
Grant and Boutwell were varieties of the type- political specimens-
pathetic in their helplessness to do anything with power when it
came to them. They knew not how to amuse themselves; they could not
conceive how other people were amused. Work, whiskey, and cards were
life. The atmosphere of political Washington was theirs- or was
supposed by the outside world to be in their control- and this was the
reason why the outside world judged that Washington was fatal even for
a young man of thirty-two, who had passed through the whole variety of
temptations, in every capital of Europe, for a dozen years; who
never played cards, and who loathed whiskey.