Chapter XVI (The Education of Henry Adams)

The Press (1868)

AT ten o’clock of a July night, in heat that made the tropical
rain-shower simmer, the Adams family and the Motley family clambered
down the side of their Cunard steamer into the government tugboat,
which set them ashore in black darkness at the end of some North River
pier. Had they been Tyrian traders of the year B.C. 1000, landing from
a galley fresh from Gibraltar, they could hardly have been stranger on
the shore of a world, so changed from what it had been ten years
before. The historian of the Dutch, no longer historian but
diplomatist, started up an unknown street, in company with the private
secretary who had become private citizen, in search of carriages to
convey the two parties to the Brevoort House. The pursuit was
arduous but successful. Towards midnight they found shelter once
more in their native land.
How much its character had changed or was changing, they could
not wholly know, and they could but partly feel. For that matter,
the land itself knew no more than they. Society in America was
always trying, almost as blindly as an earthworm, to realize and
understand itself; to catch up with its own head, and to twist about
in search of its tail. Society offered the profile of a long,
straggling caravan, stretching loosely towards the prairies, its few
score of leaders far in advance and its millions of immigrants,
negroes, and Indians far in the rear, somewhere in archaic time. It
enjoyed the vast advantage over Europe that all seemed, for the
moment, to move in one direction, while Europe wasted most of its
energy in trying several contradictory movements at once; but whenever
Europe or Asia should be polarized or oriented towards the same point,
America might easily lose her lead. Meanwhile each newcomer needed
to slip into a place as near the head of the caravan as possible,
and needed most to know where the leaders could be found.
One could divine pretty nearly where the force lay, since the
last ten years had given to the great mechanical energies- coal, iron,
steam- a distinct superiority in power over the old industrial
elements- agriculture, handwork, and learning; but the result of
this revolution on a survivor from the fifties resembled the action of
the earthworm; he twisted about, in vain, to recover his
starting-point; he could no longer see his own trail; he had become an
estray; a flotsam or jetsam of wreckage; a belated reveller, or a
scholar-gipsy like Matthew Arnold’s. His world was dead. Not a
Polish Jew fresh from Warsaw or Cracow- not a furtive Yacoob or
Ysaac still reeking of the Ghetto, snarling a weird Yiddish to the
officers of the customs- but had a keener instinct, an intenser
energy, and a freer hand than he- American of Americans, with Heaven
knew how many Puritans and Patriots behind him, and an education
that had cost a civil war. He made no complaint and found no fault
with his time; he was no worse off than the Indians or the buffalo who
had been ejected from their heritage by his own people; but he
vehemently insisted that he was not himself at fault. The defeat was
not due to him, nor yet to any superiority of his rivals. He had
been unfairly forced out of the track, and must get back into it as
best he could.
One comfort he could enjoy to the full. Little as he might be
fitted for the work that was before him, he had only to look at his
father and Motley to see figures less fitted for it than he. All
were equally survivals from the forties- bric-a-brac from the time
of Louis Philippe; stylists; doctrinaires; ornaments that had been
more or less suited to the colonial architecture, but which never
had much value in Desbrosses Street or Fifth Avenue. They could
scarcely have earned five dollars a day in any modern industry. The
men who commanded high pay were as a rule not ornamental. Even
Commodore Vanderbilt and Jay Gould lacked social charm. Doubtless
the country needed ornament- needed it very badly indeed- but it
needed energy still more, and capital most of all, for its supply
was ridiculously out of proportion to its wants. On the new scale of
power, merely to make the continent habitable for civilized people
would require an immediate outlay that would have bankrupted the
world. As yet, no portion of the world except a few narrow stretches
of western Europe have ever been tolerably provided with the
essentials of comfort and convenience; to fit out an entire
continent with roads and the decencies of life would exhaust the
credit of the entire planet. Such an estimate seemed outrageous to a
Texan member of Congress who loved the simplicity of nature’s
noblemen; but the mere suggestion that a sun existed above him would
outrage the self-respect respect of a deep-sea fish that carried a
lantern on the end of its nose. From the moment that railways were
introduced, life took on extravagance.
{CH_XVI ^paragraph 5}
Thus the belated reveller who landed in the dark at the
Desbrosses Street ferry, found his energies exhausted in the effort to
see his own length. The new Americans, of whom he was to be one, must,
whether they were fit or unfit, create a world of their own, a
science, a society, a philosophy, a universe, where they had not yet
created a road or even learned to dig their own iron. They had no time
for thought; they saw, and could see, nothing beyond their day’s work;
their attitude to the universe outside them was that of the deep-sea
fish. Above all, they naturally and intensely disliked to be told what
to do, and how to do it, by men who took their ideas and their methods
from the abstract theories of history, philosophy or theology. They
knew enough to know that their world was one of energies quite new.
All this, the newcomer understood and accepted, since he could
not help himself and saw that the American could help himself as
little as the newcomer; but the fact remained that the more he knew,
the less he was educated. Society knew as much as this, and seemed
rather inclined to boast of it, at least on the stump; but the leaders
of industry betrayed no sentiment, popular or other. They used,
without qualm, whatever instruments they found at hand. They had
been obliged, in 1861, to turn aside and waste immense energy in
settling what had been settled a thousand years before, and should
never have been revived. At prodigious expense, by sheer force, they
broke resistance down, leaving everything but the mere fact of power
untouched, since nothing else had a solution. Race and thought were
beyond reach. Having cleared its path so far, society went back to its
work, and threw itself on that which stood first- its roads. The field
was vast; altogether beyond its power to control offhand; and
society dropped every thought of dealing with anything more than the
single fraction called a railway system. This relatively small part of
its task was still so big as to need the energies of a generation, for
it required all the new machinery to be created- capital, banks,
mines, furnaces, shops, power-houses, technical knowledge,
mechanical population, together with a steady remodelling of social
and political habits, ideas, and institutions to fit the new scale and
suit the new conditions. The generation between 1865 and 1895 was
already mortgaged to the railways, and no one knew it better than
the generation itself.
Whether Henry Adams knew it or not, he knew enough to act as though
he did. He reached Quincy once more, ready for the new start. His
brother Charles had determined to strike for the railroads; Henry
was to strike for the press; and they hoped to play into each
other’s hands. They had great need, for they found no one else to play
with. After discovering the worthlessness of a so-called education,
they had still to discover the worthlessness of so-called social
connection. No young man had a larger acquaintance and relationship
than Henry Adams, yet he knew no one who could help him. He was for
sale, in the open market. So were many of his friends. All the world
knew it, and knew too that they were cheap; to be bought at the
price of a mechanic. There was no concealment, no delicacy, and no
illusion about it. Neither he nor his friends complained; but he
felt sometimes a little surprised that, as far as he knew, no one,
seeking in the labor market, ever so much as inquired about their
fitness. The want of solidarity between old and young seemed American.
The young man was required to impose himself, by the usual business
methods, as a necessity on his elders, in order to compel them to
buy him as an investment. As Adams felt it, he was in a manner
expected to blackmail. Many a young man complained to him in after
life of the same experience, which became a matter of curious
reflection as he grew old. The labor market of good society was
Boston seemed to offer no market for educated labor. A peculiar and
perplexing amalgam Boston always was, and although it had changed much
in ten years, it was not less perplexing. One no longer dined at two
o’clock; one could no longer skate on Back Bay; one heard talk of
Bostonians worth five millions or more as something not incredible.
Yet the place seemed still simple, and less restless-minded than
ever before. In the line that Adams had chosen to follow, he needed
more than all else the help of the press, but any shadow of hope on
that side vanished instantly. The less one meddled with the Boston
press, the better. All the newspapermen were clear on that point.
The same was true of politics. Boston meant business. The Bostonians
were building railways. Adams would have liked to help in building
railways, but had no education. He was not fit.
He passed three or four months thus, visiting relations, renewing
friendships, and studying the situation. At thirty years old, the
man who has not yet got further than to study the situation, is
lost, or near it. He could see nothing in the situation that could
be of use to him. His friends had won no more from it than he. His
brother Charles, after three years of civil life, was no better off
than himself, except for being married and in greater need of
income. His brother John had become a brilliant political leader on
the wrong side. No one had yet regained the lost ground of the war.
{CH_XVI ^paragraph 10}
He went to Newport and tried to be fashionable, but even in the
simple life of 1868, he failed as fashion. All the style he had
learned so painfully in London was worse than useless in America where
every standard was different. Newport was charming, but it asked for
no education and gave none. What it gave was much gayer and
pleasanter, and one enjoyed it amazingly; but friendships in that
society were a kind of social partnership, like the classes at
college; not education but the subjects of education. All were doing
the same thing, and asking the same question of the future. None could
help. Society seemed founded on the law that all was for the best
New Yorkers in the best of Newports, and that all young people were
rich if they could waltz. It was a new version of the Ant and
At the end of three months, the only person, among the hundreds
he had met, who had offered him a word of encouragement or had shown a
sign of acquaintance with his doings, was Edward Atkinson. Boston
was cool towards sons, whether prodigals or other, and needed much
time to make up its mind what to do for them- time which Adams, at
thirty years old, could hardly spare. He had not the courage or
self-confidence to hire an office in State Street, as so many of his
friends did, and doze there alone, vacuity within and a snowstorm
outside, waiting for Fortune to knock at the door, or hoping to find
her asleep in the elevator; or on the staircase, since elevators; were
not yet in use. Whether this course would have offered his best chance
he never knew; it was one of the points in practical education which
most needed a clear understanding, and he could never reach it. His
father and mother would have been glad to see him stay with them and
begin reading Blackstone again, and he showed no very filial
tenderness by abruptly breaking the tie that had lasted so long. After
all, perhaps Beacon Street was as good as any other street for his
objects in life; possibly his easiest and surest path was from
Beacon Street to State Street and back again, all the days of his
years. Who could tell? Even after life was over, the doubt could not
be determined.
In thus sacrificing his heritage, he only followed the path that
had led him from the beginning. Boston was full of his brothers. He
had reckoned from childhood on outlawry as his peculiar birthright.
The mere thought of beginning life again in Mount Vernon Street
lowered the pulsations of his heart. This is a story of education- not
a mere lesson of life- and, with education, temperament has in
strictness nothing to do, although in practice they run close
together. Neither by temperament nor by education was he fitted for
Boston. He had drifted far away and behind his companions there; no
one trusted his temperament or education; he had to go.
Since no other path seemed to offer itself, he stuck to his plan of
joining the press, and selected Washington as the shortest road to New
York, but, in 1868, Washington stood outside the social pale. No
Bostonian had ever gone there. One announced one’s self as an
adventurer and an office-seeker, a person of deplorably bad
judgment, and the charges were true. The chances of ending in the
gutter were, at best, even. The risk was the greater in Adams’s
case, because he had no very clear idea what to do when he got
there. That he must educate himself over again, for objects quite new,
in an air altogether hostile to his old educations, was the only
certainty; but how he was to do it- how he was to convert the idler in
Rotten Row into the lobbyist of the Capital- he had not an idea, and
no one to teach him. The question of money is rarely serious for a
young American unless he is married, and money never troubled Adams
more than others; not because he had it, but because he could do
without it, like most people in Washington who all lived on the income
of bricklayers; but with or without money he met the difficulty
that, after getting to Washington in order to go on the press, it
was necessary to seek a press to go on. For large work he could
count on the North American Review, but this was scarcely a press. For
current discussion and correspondence, he could depend on the New York
Nation; but what he needed was a New York daily, and no New York daily
needed him. He lost his one chance by the death of Henry J. Raymond.
The Tribune under Horace Greeley was out of the question both for
political and personal reasons, and because Whitelaw Reid had
already undertaken that singularly venturesome position, amid
difficulties that would have swamped Adams in four-and-twenty hours.
Charles A. Dana had made the Sun a very successful as well as a very
amusing paper, but had hurt his own social position in doing it; and
Adams knew himself well enough to know that he could never please
himself and Dana too; with the best intentions, he must always fail as
a blackguard, and at that time a strong dash of blackguardism was life
to the Sun. As for the New York Herald, it was a despotic empire
admitting no personality but that of Bennett. Thus, for the moment,
the New York daily press offered no field except the free-trade Holy
Land of the Evening Post under William Cullen Bryant, while beside
it lay only the elevated plateau of the New Jerusalem occupied by
Godkin and the Nation. Much as Adams liked Godkin, and glad as he
was to creep under the shelter of the Evening Post and the Nation,
he was well aware that he should find there only the same circle of
readers that he reached in the North American Review.
The outlook was dim, but it was all he had, and at Washington,
except for the personal friendship of Mr. Evarts who was then Attorney
General and living there, he would stand in solitude much like that of
London in 1861. Evarts did what no one in Boston seemed to care for
doing; he held out a hand to the young man. Whether Boston, like
Salem, really shunned strangers, or whether Evarts was an exception
even in New York, he had the social instinct which Boston had not.
Generous by nature, prodigal in hospitality, fond of young people, and
a born man-of-the-world, Evarts gave and took liberally, without
scruple, and accepted the world without fearing or abusing it. His wit
was the least part of his social attraction. His talk was broad and
free. He laughed where he could; he joked if a joke was possible; he
was true to his friends, and never lost his temper or became
ill-natured. Like all New Yorkers he was decidedly not a Bostonian;
but he was what one might call a transplanted New Englander, like
General Sherman; a variety, grown in ranker soil. In the course of
life, and in widely different countries, Adams incurred heavy debts of
gratitude to persons on whom he had no claim and to whom he could
seldom make return; perhaps half-a-dozen such debts remained unpaid at
last, although six is a large number as lives go; but kindness
seldom came more happily than when Mr. Evarts took him to Washington
in October, 1868.
{CH_XVI ^paragraph 15}
Adams accepted the hospitality of the sleeper, with deep gratitude,
the more because his first struggle with a sleeping-car made him doubt
the value- to him- of a Pullman civilization; but he was even more
grateful for the shelter of Mr. Evarts’s house in H Street at the
corner of Fourteenth, where he abode in safety and content till he
found rooms in the roomless village. To him the village seemed
unchanged. Had he not known that a great war and eight years of
astonishing movement had passed over it, he would have noticed nothing
that betrayed growth. As of old, houses were few; rooms fewer; even
the men were the same. No one seemed to miss the usual comforts of
civilization, and Adams was glad to get rid of them, for his best
chance lay in the eighteenth century.
The first step, of course, was the making of acquaintance, and
the first acquaintance was naturally the President, to whom an
aspirant to the press officially paid respect. Evarts immediately took
him to the White House and presented him to President Andrew
Johnson. The interview was brief and consisted in the stock remark
common to monarchs and valets, that the young man looked even
younger than he was. The younger man felt even younger than he looked.
He never saw the President again, and never felt a wish to see him,
for Andrew Johnson was not the sort of man whom a young reformer of
thirty, with two or three foreign educations, was likely to see with
enthusiasm; yet, musing over the interview as a matter of education,
long years afterwards, he could not help recalling the President’s
figure with a distinctness that surprised him. The old-fashioned
Southern Senator and statesman sat in his chair at his desk with a
look of self-esteem that had its value. None doubted. All were great
men; some, no doubt, were greater than others; but all were
statesmen and all were supported, lifted, inspired by the moral
certainty of rightness. To them the universe was serious, even solemn,
but it was their universe, a Southern conception of right. Lamar
used to say that he never entertained a doubt of the soundness of
the Southern system until he found that slavery could not stand a war.
Slavery was only a part of the Southern system, and the life of it
all- the vigor- the poetry- was its moral certainty of self. The
Southerner could not doubt; and this self-assurance not only gave
Andrew Johnson the look of a true President, but actually made him
one. When Adams came to look back on it afterwards, he was surprised
to realize how strong the Executive was in 1868- perhaps the strongest
he was ever to see. Certainly he never again found himself so well
satisfied, or so much at home.
Seward was still Secretary of State. Hardly yet an old man,
though showing marks of time and violence, Mr. Seward seemed little
changed in these eight years. He was the same- with a difference.
Perhaps he- unlike Henry Adams- had at last got an education, and
all he wanted. Perhaps he had resigned himself to doing without it.
Whatever the reason, although his manner was as roughly kind as
ever, and his talk as free, he appeared to have closed his account
with the public; he no longer seemed to care; he asked nothing, gave
nothing, and invited no support; he talked little of himself or of
others, and waited only for his discharge. Adams was well pleased to
be near him in these last days of his power and fame, and went much to
his house in the evenings when he was sure to be at his whist. At
last, as the end drew near, wanting to feel that the great man- the
only chief he ever served even as a volunteer- recognized some
personal relation, he asked Mr. Seward to dine with him one evening in
his rooms, and play his game of whist there, as he did every night
in his own house. Mr. Seward came and had his whist, and Adams
remembered his rough parting speech: “A very sensible
entertainment!” It was the only favor he ever asked of Mr. Seward, and
the only one he ever accepted.
Thus, as a teacher of wisdom, after twenty years of example,
Governor Seward passed out of one’s life, and Adams lost what should
have been his firmest ally; but in truth the State Department had
ceased to be the centre of his interest, and the Treasury had taken
its place. The Secretary of the Treasury was a man new to politics-
Hugh McCulloch- not a person of much importance in the eyes of
practical politicians such as young members of the press meant
themselves to become, but they all liked Mr. McCulloch, though they
thought him a stop-gap rather than a force. Had they known what sort
of forces the Treasury was to offer them for support in the generation
to come, they might have reflected a long while on their estimate of
McCulloch. Adams was fated to watch the flittings of many more
Secretaries than he ever cared to know, and he rather came back in the
end to the idea that McCulloch was the best of them, although he
seemed to represent everything that one liked least. He was no
politician, he had no party, and no power. He was not fashionable or
decorative. He was a banker, and towards bankers Adams felt the narrow
prejudice which the serf feels to his overseer; for he knew he must
obey, and he knew that the helpless showed only their helplessness
when they tempered obedience by mockery. The world, after 1865, became
a bankers’ world, and no banker would ever trust one who had
deserted State Street, and had gone to Washington with purposes of
doubtful credit, or of no credit at all, for he could not have put
up enough collateral to borrow five thousand dollars of any bank in
America. The banker never would trust him, and he would never trust
the banker. To him, the banking mind was obnoxious; and this antipathy
caused him the more surprise at finding McCulloch the broadest, most
liberal, most genial, and most practical public man in Washington.
There could be no doubt of it. The burden of the Treasury at that
time was very great. The whole financial system was in chaos; every
part of it required reform; the utmost experience, tact, and skill
could not make the machine work smoothly. No one knew how well
McCulloch did it until his successor took it in charge, and tried to
correct his methods. Adams did not know enough to appreciate
McCulloch’s technical skill, but he was struck at his open and
generous treatment of young men. Of all rare qualities, this was, in
Adams’s experience, the rarest. As a rule, officials dread
interference. The strongest often resent it most. Any official who
admits equality in discussion of his official course, feels it to be
an act of virtue; after a few months or years he tires of the
effort. Every friend in power is a friend lost. This rule is so nearly
absolute that it may be taken in practice as admitting no exception.
Apparent exceptions exist, and McCulloch was one of them.
{CH_XVI ^paragraph 20}
McCulloch had been spared the gluttonous selfishness and
infantile jealousy which are the commoner results of early political
education. He had neither past nor future, and could afford to be
careless of his company. Adams found him surrounded by all the
active and intelligent young men in the country. Full of faith, greedy
for work, eager for reform, energetic, confident, capable, quick of
study, charmed with a fight, equally ready to defend or attack, they
were unselfish, and even- as young men went- honest. They came
mostly from the army, with the spirit of the volunteers. Frank Walker,
Frank Barlow, Frank Bartlett were types of the generation. Most of the
press, and much of the public, especially in the West, shared their
ideas. No one denied the need for reform. The whole government, from
top to bottom, was rotten with the senility of what was antiquated and
the instability of what was improvised. The currency was only one
example; the tariff was another; but the whole fabric required
reconstruction as much as in 1789, for the Constitution had become
as antiquated as the Confederation. Sooner or later a shock must come,
the more dangerous the longer postponed. The Civil War had made a
new system in fact; the country would have to reorganize the machinery
in practice and theory.
One might discuss indefinitely the question which branch of
government needed reform most urgently; all needed it enough, but no
one denied that the finances were a scandal, and a constant, universal
nuisance. The tariff was worse, though more interests upheld it.
McCulloch had the singular merit of facing reform with large
good-nature and willing sympathy- outside of parties, jobs,
bargains, corporations or intrigues- which Adams never was to meet
Chaos often breeds life, when order breeds habit. The Civil War had
bred life. The army bred courage. Young men of the volunteer type were
not always docile under control, but they were handy in a fight. Adams
was greatly pleased to be admitted as one of them. He found himself
much at home with them- more at home than he ever had been before,
or was ever to be again- in the atmosphere of the Treasury. He had
no strong party passion, and he felt as though he and his friends
owned this administration, which, in its dying days, had neither
friends nor future except in them.
These were not the only allies; the whole government in all its
branches was alive with them. Just at that moment the Supreme Court
was about to take up the Legal Tender cases where Judge Curtis had
been employed to argue against the constitutional power of the
Government to make an artificial standard of value in time of peace.
Evarts was anxious to fix on a line of argument that should have a
chance of standing up against that of Judge Curtis, and was puzzled to
do it. He did not know which foot to put forward. About to deal with
Judge Curtis, the last of the strong jurists of Marshall’s school,
he could risk no chances. In doubt, the quickest way to clear one’s
mind is to discuss, and Evarts deliberately forced discussion. Day
after day, driving, dining, walking he provoked Adams to dispute his
positions. He needed an anvil, he said, to hammer his ideas on.
Adams was flattered at being an anvil, which is, after all, more
solid than the hammer; and he did not feel called on to treat Mr.
Evarts’s arguments with more respect than Mr. Evarts himself expressed
for them; so he contradicted with freedom. Like most young men, he was
much of a doctrinaire, and the question was, in any event, rather
historical or political than legal. He could easily maintain, by way
of argument, that the required power had never been given, and that no
sound constitutional reason could possibly exist for authorizing the
Government to overthrow the standard of value without necessity, in
time of peace. The dispute itself had not much value for him, even
as education, but it led to his seeking light from the Chief Justice
himself. Following up the subject for his letters to the Nation and
his articles in the North American Review, Adams grew to be intimate
with the Chief Justice, who, as one of the oldest and strongest
leaders of the Free Soil Party, had claims to his personal regard; for
the old Free Soilers were becoming few. Like all strong-willed and
self-asserting men, Mr. Chase had the faults of his qualities. He
was never easy to drive in harness, or light in hand. He saw vividly
what was wrong, and did not always allow for what was relatively
right. He loved power as though he were still a Senator. His
position towards Legal Tender was awkward. As Secretary of the
Treasury he had been its author; as Chief Justice he became its enemy.
Legal Tender caused no great pleasure or pain in the sum of life to
a newspaper correspondent, but it served as a subject for letters, and
the Chief Justice was very willing to win an ally in the press who
would tell his story as he wished it to be read. The intimacy in Mr.
Chase’s house grew rapidly, and the alliance was no small help to
the comforts of a struggling newspaper adventurer in Washington. No
matter what one might think of his politics or temper, Mr. Chase was a
dramatic figure, of high senatorial rank, if also of certain
senatorial faults; a valuable ally.
{CH_XVI ^paragraph 25}
As was sure, sooner or later, to happen, Adams one day met
Charles Sumner on the street, and instantly stopped to greet him. As
though eight years of broken ties were the natural course of
friendship, Sumner at once, after an exclamation of surprise,
dropped back into the relation of hero to the school boy. Adams
enjoyed accepting it. He was then thirty years old and Sumner was
fifty-seven; he had seen more of the world than Sumner ever dreamed
of, and he felt a sort of amused curiosity to be treated once more
as a child. At best, the renewal of broken relations is a nervous
matter, and in this case it bristled with thorns, for Sumner’s quarrel
with Mr. Adams had not been the most delicate of his ruptured
relations, and he was liable to be sensitive in many ways that even
Bostonians could hardly keep in constant mind; yet it interested and
fascinated Henry Adams as a new study of political humanity. The
younger man knew that the meeting would have to come, and was ready
for it, if only as a newspaper need; but to Sumner it came as a
surprise and a disagreeable one, as Adams conceived. He learned
something- a piece of practical education worth the effort- by
watching Sumner’s behavior. He could see that many thoughts- mostly
unpleasant- were passing through his mind, since he made no inquiry
about any of Adams’s family, or allusion to any of his friends or
his residence abroad. He talked only of the present. To him, Adams
in Washington should have seemed more or less of a critic, perhaps a
spy, certainly an intriguer or adventurer like scores of others; a
politician without party; a writer without principles; an
office-seeker certain to beg for support. All this was, for his
purposes, true. Adams could do him no good, and would be likely to
do him all the harm in his power. Adams accepted it all; expected to
be kept at arm’s length; admitted that the reasons were just. He was
the more surprised to see that Sumner invited a renewal of old
relations. He found himself treated almost confidentially. Not only
was he asked to make a fourth at Sumner’s pleasant little dinners in
the house on La Fayette Square, but he found himself admitted to the
Senator’s study and informed of his views, policy and purposes,
which were sometimes even more astounding than his curious gaps or
lapses of omniscience.
On the whole, the relation was the queerest that Henry Adams ever
kept up. He liked and admired Sumner, but thought his mind a
pathological study. At times he inclined to think that Sumner felt his
solitude, and, in the political wilderness, craved educated society;
but this hardly told the whole story. Sumner’s mind had reached the
calm of water which receives and reflects images without absorbing
them; it contained nothing but itself. The images from without, the
objects mechanically perceived by the senses, existed by courtesy
until the mental surface was ruffled, but never became part of the
thought. Henry Adams roused no emotion; if he had roused a
disagreeable one, he would have ceased to exist. The mind would have
mechanically rejected, as it had mechanically admitted him. Not that
Sumner was more aggressively egoistic than other Senators- Conkling,
for instance- but that with him the disease had affected the whole
mind; it was chronic and absolute; while, with other Senators for
the most part, it was still acute.
Perhaps for this very reason, Sumner was the more valuable
acquaintance for a newspaper-man. Adams found him most useful; perhaps
quite the most useful of all these great authorities who were the
stock-in-trade of the newspaper business; the accumulated capital of a
Silurian age. A few months or years more, and they were gone. In 1868,
they were like the town itself, changing but not changed. La Fayette
Square was society. Within a few hundred yards of Mr. Clark Mills’s
nursery monument to the equestrian seat of Andrew Jackson, one found
all one’s acquaintance as well as hotels, banks, markets and
national government. Beyond the Square the country began. No rich or
fashionable stranger had yet discovered the town. No literary or
scientific man, no artist, no gentleman without office or
employment, had ever lived there. It was rural, and its society was
primitive. Scarcely a person in it had ever known life in a great
city. Mr. Evarts, Mr. Sam Hooper, of Boston, and perhaps one or two of
the diplomatists had alone mixed in that sort of world. The happy
village was innocent of a club. The one-horse tram on F Street to
the Capitol was ample for traffic. Every pleasant spring morning at
the Pennsylvania Station, society met to bid good-bye to its friends
going off on the single express. The State Department was lodged in an
infant asylum far out on Fourteenth Street while Mr. Mullett was
constructing his architectural infant asylum next the White House. The
value of real estate had not increased since 1800, and the pavements
were more impassable than the mud. All this favored a young man who
had come to make a name. In four-and-twenty hours he could know
everybody; in two days everybody knew him.
After seven years’ arduous and unsuccessful effort to explore the
outskirts of London society, the Washington world offered an easy
and delightful repose. When he looked round him, from the safe shelter
of Mr. Evarts’s roof, on the men he was to work with- or against- he
had to admit that nine-tenths of his acquired education was useless,
and the other tenth harmful. He would have to begin again from the
beginning. He must learn to talk to the Western Congressman, and to
hide his own antecedents. The task was amusing. He could see nothing
to prevent him from enjoying it, with immoral unconcern for all that
had gone before and for anything that might follow. The lobby
offered a spectacle almost picturesque. Few figures on the Paris stage
were more entertaining and dramatic than old Sam Ward, who knew more
of life than all the departments of the Government together, including
the Senate and the Smithsonian. Society had not much to give, but what
it had, it gave with an open hand. For the moment, politics had ceased
to disturb social relations. All parties were mixed up and jumbled
together in a sort of tidal slack-water. The Government resembled
Adams himself in the matter of education. All that had gone before was
useless, and some of it was worse.