Chapter XXII (The Education of Henry Adams)

Chicago (1893)

DRIFTING in the dead-water of the fin-de-siecle- and during last
decade every one talked, and seemed to feel fin-de-siecle- where not a
breath stirred the idle air of education or fretted the mental
torpor of self-content, one lived alone. Adams had long ceased going
into society. For years he had not dined out of his own house, and
in public his face was as unknown as that of an extinct statesman.
He had often noticed that six months’ oblivion amounts to
newspaper-death, and that resurrection is rare. Nothing is easier,
if a man wants it, than rest, profound as the grave.
His friends sometimes took pity on him, and came to share a meal or
pass a night on their passage south or northwards, but existence
was, on the whole, exceedingly solitary, or seemed so to him. Of the
society favorites who made the life of every dinner-table and of the
halls of Congress- Tom Reed, Bourke Cockran, Edward Wolcott- he knew
not one. Although Calvin Brice was his next neighbor for six years,
entertaining lavishly as no one had ever entertained before in
Washington, Adams never entered his house. W. C. Whitney rivalled
Senator Brice in hospitality, and was besides an old acquaintance of
the reforming era, but Adams saw him as little as he saw his chief,
President Cleveland, or President Harrison or Secretary Bayard or
Blaine or Olney. One has no choice but to go everywhere or nowhere. No
one may pick and choose between houses, or accept hospitality
without returning it. He loved solitude as little as others did; but
he was unfit for social work, and he sank under the surface.
Luckily for such helpless animals as solitary men, the world is not
only good-natured but even friendly and generous; it loves to pardon
if pardon is not demanded as a right. Adams’s social offences were
many, and no one was more sensitive to it than himself; but a few
houses always remained which he could enter without being asked, and
quit without being noticed. One was John Hay’s; another was Cabot
Lodge’s; a third led to an intimacy which had the singular effect of
educating him in knowledge of the very class of American politician
who had done most to block his intended path in life. Senator
Cameron of Pennsylvania had married in 1880 a young niece of Senator
John Sherman of Ohio, thus making an alliance of dynastic importance
in politics, and in society a reign of sixteen years, during which
Mrs. Cameron and Mrs. Lodge led a career, without precedent and
without succession, as the dispensers of sunshine over Washington.
Both of them had been kind to Adams, and a dozen years of this
intimacy had made him one of their habitual household, as he was of
Hay’s. In a small society, such ties between houses become political
and social force. Without intention or consciousness, they fix one’s
status in the world. Whatever one’s preferences in politics might
be, one’s house was bound to the Republican interest when sandwiched
between Senator Cameron, John Hay, and Cabot Lodge, with Theodore
Roosevelt equally at home in them all, and Cecil Spring-Rice to
unite them by impartial variety. The relation was daily, and the
alliance undisturbed by power or patronage, since Mr. Harrison, in
those respects, showed little more taste than Mr. Cleveland for the
society and interests of this particular band of followers, whose
relations with the White House were sometimes comic, but never
In February, 1893, Senator Cameron took his family to South
Carolina, where he had bought an old plantation at Coffin’s Point on
St. Helena Island, and Adams, as one of the family, was taken, with
the rest, to open the new experience. From there he went on to Havana,
and came back to Coffin’s Point to linger till near April. In May
the Senator took his family to Chicago to see the Exposition, and
Adams went with them. Early in June, all sailed for England
together, and at last, in the middle of July, all found themselves
in Switzerland, at Prangins, Chamounix, and Zermatt. On July 22 they
drove across the Furka Pass and went down by rail to Lucerne.
{CH_XXII ^paragraph 5}
Months of close contact teach character, if character has interest;
and to Adams the Cameron type had keen interest, ever since it had
shipwrecked his career in the person of President Grant. Perhaps it
owed life to Scotch blood; perhaps to the blood of Adam and Eve, the
primitive strain of man; perhaps only to the blood of the cottager
working against the blood of the townsman; but whatever it was, one
liked it for its simplicity. The Pennsylvania mind, as minds go, was
not complex; it reasoned little and never talked; but in practical
matters it was the steadiest of all American types; perhaps the most
efficient; certainly the safest.
Adams had printed as much as this in his books, but had never
been able to find a type to describe, the two great historical
Pennsylvanians having been, as every one had so often heard,
Benjamin Franklin of Boston and Albert Gallatin of Geneva. Of Albert
Gallatin, indeed, he had made a voluminous study and an elaborate
picture, only to show that he was, if American at all, a New Yorker,
with a Calvinistic strain- rather Connecticut than Pennsylvanian.
The true Pennsylvanian was a narrower type; as narrow as the kirk;
as shy of other people’s narrowness as a Yankee; as self-limited as
a Puritan farmer. To him, none but Pennsylvanians were white.
Chinaman, negro, Dago, Italian, Englishman, Yankee- all was one in the
depths of Pennsylvanian consciousness. The mental machine could run
only on what it took for American lines. This was familiar, ever since
one’s study of President Grant in 1869; but in 1893, as then, the type
was admirably strong and useful if one wanted only to run on the
same lines. Practically the Pennsylvanian forgot his prejudices when
he allied his interests. He then became supple in action and large
in motive, whatever he thought of his colleagues. When he happened
to be right- which was, of course, whenever one agreed with him- he
was the strongest American in America. As an ally he was worth all the
rest, because he understood his own class, who were always a majority;
and knew how to deal with them as no New Englander could. If one
wanted work done in Congress, one did wisely to avoid asking a New
Englander to do it. A Pennsylvanian not only could do it, but did it
willingly, practically, and intelligently.
Never in the range of human possibilities had a Cameron believed in
an Adams- or an Adams in a Cameron- but they had, curiously enough,
almost always worked together. The Camerons had what the Adamses
thought the political vice of reaching their objects without much
regard to their methods. The loftiest virtue of the Pennsylvania
machine had never been its scrupulous purity or sparkling professions.
The machine worked by coarse means on coarse interests; but its
practical success had been the most curious subject of study in
American history. When one summed up the results of Pennsylvanian
influence, one inclined to think that Pennsylvania set up the
Government in 1789; saved it in 1861; created the American system;
developed its iron and coal power; and invented its great railways.
Following up the same line, in his studies of American character,
Adams reached the result- to him altogether paradoxical- that
Cameron’s qualities and defects united in equal share to make him
the most useful member of the Senate.
In the interest of studying, at last, a perfect and favorable
specimen of this American type which had so persistently suppressed
his own, Adams was slow to notice that Cameron strongly influenced
him, but he could not see a trace of any influence which he
exercised on Cameron. Not an opinion or a view of his on any subject
was ever reflected back on him from Cameron’s mind; not even an
expression or a fact. Yet the difference in age was trifling, and in
education slight. On the other hand, Cameron made deep impression on
Adams, and in nothing so much as on the great subject of discussion
that year- the question of silver.
Adams had taken no interest in the matter, and knew nothing about
it, except as a very tedious hobby of his friend Dana Horton; but
inevitably, from the moment he was forced to choose sides, he was sure
to choose silver. Every political idea and personal prejudice he
ever dallied with held him to the silver standard, and made a
barrier between him and gold. He knew well enough all that was to be
said for the gold standard as economy, but he had never in his life
taken politics for a pursuit of economy. One might have a political or
an economical policy; one could not have both at the same time. This
was heresy in the English school, but it had always been law in the
American. Equally he knew all that was to be said on the moral side of
the question, and he admitted that his interests were, as Boston
maintained, wholly on the side of gold; but, had they been ten times
as great as they were, he could not have helped his bankers or
croupiers to load the dice and pack the cards to make sure his winning
the stakes. At least he was bound to profess disapproval- or thought
he was. From early childhood his moral principles had struggled
blindly with his interests, but he was certain of one law that ruled
all others- masses of men invariably follow interests in deciding
morals. Morality is a private and costly luxury. The morality of the
silver or gold standards was to be decided by popular vote, and the
popular vote would be decided by interests; but on which side lay
the larger interest? To him the interest was political; he thought
it probably his last chance of standing up for his
eighteenth-century principles, strict construction, limited powers,
George Washington, John Adams, and the rest. He had, in a half-hearted
way, struggled all his life against State Street, banks, capitalism
altogether, as he knew it in old England or new England, and he was
fated to make his last resistance behind the silver standard.
{CH_XXII ^paragraph 10}
For him this result was clear, and if he erred, he erred in company
with nine men out of ten in Washington, for there was little
difference on the merits. Adams was sure to learn backwards, but the
case seemed entirely different with Cameron, a typical
Pennsylvanian, a practical politician, whom all the reformers,
including all the Adamses, had abused for a lifetime for
subservience to moneyed interests and political jobbery. He was sure
to go with the banks and corporations which had made and sustained
him. On the contrary, he stood out obstinately as the leading champion
of silver in the East. The reformers, represented by the Evening
Post and Godkin, whose personal interests lay with the gold
standard, at once assumed that Senator Cameron had a personal interest
in silver, and denounced his corruption as hotly as though he had been
convicted of taking a bribe.
More than silver and gold, the moral standard interested Adams. His
own interests were with gold, but he supported silver; the Evening
Post’s and Godkin’s interests were with gold, and they frankly said
so, yet they avowedly pursued their interests even into politics;
Cameron’s interests had always been with the corporations, yet he
supported silver. Thus morality required that Adams should be
condemned for going against his interests; that Godkin was virtuous in
following his interests; and that Cameron was a scoundrel whatever
he did.
Granting that one of the three was a moral idiot, which was it:-
Adams or Godkin or Cameron? Until a Council or a Pope or a Congress or
the newspapers or a popular election has decided a question of
doubtful morality, individuals are apt to err, especially when putting
money into their own pockets; but in democracies, the majority alone
gives law. To any one who knew the relative popularity of Cameron
and Godkin, the idea of a popular vote between them seemed excessively
humorous; yet the popular vote in the end did decide against
Cameron, for Godkin.
The Boston moralist and reformer went on, as always, like Dr.
Johnson, impatiently stamping his foot and following his interests, or
his antipathies; but the true American, slow to grasp new and
complicated ideas, groped in the dark to discover where his greater
interest lay. As usual, the banks taught him. In the course of fifty
years the banks taught one many wise lessons for which an insect had
to be grateful whether it liked them or not; but of all the lessons
Adams learned from them, none compared in dramatic effect with that of
July 22, 1893, when, after talking silver all the morning with Senator
Cameron on the top of their travelling-carriage crossing the Furka
Pass, they reached Lucerne in the afternoon, where Adams found letters
from his brothers requesting his immediate return to Boston because
the community was bankrupt and he was probably a beggar.
If he wanted education, he knew no quicker mode of learning a
lesson than that of being struck on the head by it; and yet he was
himself surprised at his own slowness to understand what had struck
him. For several years a sufferer from insomnia, his first thought was
of beggary of nerves, and he made ready to face a sleepless night, but
although his mind tried to wrestle with the problem how any man
could be ruined who had, months before, paid off every dollar of
debt he knew himself to owe, he gave up that insoluble riddle in order
to fall back on the larger principle that beggary could be no more for
him than it was for others who were more valuable members of
society, and, with that, he went to sleep like a good citizen, and the
next day started for Quincy where he arrived August 7.
{CH_XXII ^paragraph 15}
As a starting-point for a new education at fifty-five years old,
the shock of finding one’s self suspended, for several months, over
the edge of bankruptcy, without knowing how one got there, or how to
get away, is to be strongly recommended. By slow degrees the situation
dawned on him that the banks had lent him, among others, some money-
thousands of millions were- as bankruptcy- the same- for which he,
among others, was responsible and of which he knew no more than
they. The humor of this situation seemed to him so much more pointed
than the terror, as to make him laugh at himself with a sincerity he
had been long strange to. As far as he could comprehend, he had
nothing to lose that he cared about, but the banks stood to lose their
existence. Money mattered as little to him as to anybody, but money
was their life. For the first time he had the banks in his power; he
could afford to laugh; and the whole community was in the same
position, though few laughed. All sat down on the banks and asked what
the banks were going to do about it. To Adams the situation seemed
farcical, but the more he saw of it, the less he understood it. He was
quite sure that nobody understood it much better. Blindly some very
powerful energy was at work, doing something that nobody wanted
done. When Adams went to his bank to draw a hundred dollars of his own
money on deposit, the cashier refused to let him have more than fifty,
and Adams accepted the fifty without complaint because he was
himself refusing to let the banks have some hundreds or thousands that
belonged to them. Each wanted to help the other, yet both refused to
pay their debts, and he could find no answer to the question which was
responsible for getting the other into the situation, since lenders
and borrowers were the same interest and socially the same person.
Evidently the force was one; its operation was mechanical; its
effect must be proportional to its power; but no one knew what it
meant, and most people dismissed it as an emotion- a panic- that meant
Men died like flies under the strain, and Boston grew suddenly old,
haggard, and thin. Adams alone waxed fat and was happy, for at last he
had got hold of his world and could finish his education,
interrupted for twenty years. He cared not whether it were worth
finishing, if only it amused; but he seemed, for the first time
since 1870, to feel that something new and curious was about to happen
to the world. Great changes had taken place since 1870 in the forces
at work; the old machine ran far behind its duty; somewhere-
somehow- it was bound to break down, and if it happened to break
precisely over one’s head, it gave the better chance for study.
For the first time in several years he saw much of his brother
Brooks in Quincy, and was surprised to find him absorbed in the same
perplexities. Brooks was then a man of forty-five years old; a
strong writer and a vigorous thinker who irritated too many Boston
conventions ever to suit the atmosphere; but the two brothers could
talk to each other without atmosphere and were used to audiences of
one. Brooks had discovered or developed a law of history that
civilization followed the exchanges, and having worked it out for
the Mediterranean was working it out for the Atlantic. Everything
American, as well as most things European and Asiatic, became unstable
by this law, seeking new equilibrium and compelled to find it.
Loving paradox, Brooks, with the advantages of ten years’ study, had
swept away much rubbish in the effort to build up a new line of
thought for himself, but he found that no paradox compared with that
of daily events. The facts were constantly outrunning his thoughts.
The instability was greater than he calculated; the speed of
acceleration passed bounds. Among other general rules he laid down the
paradox that, in the social disequilibrium between capital and
labor, the logical outcome was not collectivism, but anarchism; and
Henry made note of it for study.
By the time he got back to Washington on September 19, the storm
having partly blown over, life had taken on a new face, and one so
interesting that he set off to Chicago to study the Exposition
again, and stayed there a fortnight absorbed in it. He found matter of
study to fill a hundred years, and his education spread over chaos.
Indeed, it seemed to him as though, this year, education went mad. The
silver question, thorny as it was, fell into relations as simple as
words of one syllable, compared with the problems of credit and
exchange that came to complicate it; and when one sought rest at
Chicago, educational game started like rabbits from every building,
and ran out of sight among thousands of its kind before one could mark
its burrow. The Exposition itself defied philosophy. One might find
fault till the last gate closed, one could still explain nothing
that needed explanation. As a scenic display, Paris had never
approached it, but the inconceivable scenic display consisted in its
being there at all- more surprising, as it was, than anything else
on the continent, Niagara Falls, the Yellowstone Geysers, and the
whole railway system thrown in, since these were all natural
products in their place; while, since Noah’s Ark, no such Babel of
loose and ill-joined, such vague and ill-defined and unrelated
thoughts and half-thoughts and experimental outcries as the
Exposition, had ever ruffled the surface of the Lakes.
The first astonishment became greater every day. That the
Exposition should be a natural growth and product of the Northwest
offered a step in evolution to startle Darwin; but that it should be
anything else seemed an idea more startling still; and even granting
it were not- admitting it to be a sort of industrial, speculative
growth and product of the Beaux Arts artistically induced to pass
the summer on the shore of Lake Michigan- could it be made to seem
at home there? Was the American made to seem at home in it?
Honestly, he had the air of enjoying it as though it were all his own;
he felt it was good; he was proud of it; for the most part, he acted
as though he had passed his life in landscape gardening and
architectural decoration. If he had not done it himself, he had
known how to get it done to suit him, as he knew how to get his
wives and daughters dressed at Worth’s or Paquin’s. Perhaps he could
not do it again; the next time he would want to do it himself and
would show his own faults; but for the moment he seemed to have leaped
directly from Corinth and Syracuse and Venice, over the heads of
London and New York, to impose classical standards on plastic Chicago.
Critics had no trouble in criticising the classicism, but all
trading cities had always shown traders’ taste, and, to the stern
purist of religious faith, no art was thinner than Venetian Gothic.
All trader’s taste smelt of bric-a-brac; Chicago tried at least to
give her taste a look of unity.
{CH_XXII ^paragraph 20}
One sat down to ponder on the steps beneath Richard Hunt’s dome
almost as deeply as on the steps of Ara Coeli, and much to the same
purpose. Here was a breach of continuity- a rupture in historical
sequence! Was it real, or only apparent? One’s personal universe
hung on the answer, for, if the rupture was real and the new
American world could take this sharp and conscious twist towards
ideals, one’s personal friends would come in, at last, as winners in
the great American chariot-race for fame. If the people of the
Northwest actually knew what was good when they saw it, they would
some day talk about Hunt and Richardson, La Farge and St. Gaudens,
Burnham and McKim, and Stanford White when their politicians and
millionaires were otherwise forgotten. The artists and architects
who had done the work offered little encouragement to hope it; they
talked freely enough, but not in terms that one cared to quote; and to
them the Northwest refused to look artistic. They talked as though
they worked only for themselves; as though art, to the Western people,
was a stage decoration; a diamond shirt-stud; a paper collar; but
possibly the architects of Paestum and Girgenti had talked in the same
way, and the Greek had said the same thing of Semitic Carthage two
thousand years ago.
Jostled by these hopes and doubts, one turned to the exhibits for
help, and found it. The industrial schools tried to teach so much
and so quickly that the instruction ran to waste. Some millions of
other people felt the same helplessness, but few of them were
seeking education, and to them helplessness seemed natural and normal,
for they had grown up in the habit of thinking a steam-engine or a
dynamo as natural as the sun, and expected to understand one as little
as the other. For the historian alone the Exposition made a serious
effort. Historical exhibits were common, but they never went far
enough; none were thoroughly worked out. One of the best was that of
the Cunard steamers, but still a student hungry for results found
himself obliged to waste a pencil and several sheets of paper trying
to calculate exactly when, according to the given increase of power,
tonnage, and speed, the growth of the ocean steamer would reach its
limits. His figures brought him, he thought, to the year 1927; another
generation to spare before force, space, and time should meet. The
ocean steamer ran the surest line of triangulation into the future,
because it was the nearest of man’s products to a unity; railroads
taught less because they seemed already finished except for mere
increase in number; explosives taught most, but needed a tribe of
chemists, physicists, and mathematicians to explain; the dynamo taught
least because it had barely reached infancy, and, if its progress
was to be constant at the rate of the last ten years, it would
result in infinite costly energy within a generation. One lingered
long among the dynamos, for they were new, and they gave to history
a new phase. Men of science could never understand the ignorance and
naivete of the historian, who, when he came suddenly on a new power,
asked naturally what it was; did it pull or did it push? Was it a
screw or thrust? Did it flow or vibrate? Was it a wire or a
mathematical fine? And a score of such questions to which he
expected answers and was astonished to get none.
Education ran riot at Chicago, at least for retarded minds which
had never faced in concrete form so many matters of which they were
ignorant. Men who knew nothing whatever- who had never run a
steam-engine, the simplest of forces- who had never put their hands on
a lever- had never touched an electric battery- never talked through a
telephone, and had not the shadow of a notion what amount of force was
meant by a watt or an ampere or an erg, or any other term of
measurement introduced within a hundred years- had no choice but to
sit down on the steps and brood as they had never brooded on the
benches of Harvard College, either as student or professor, aghast
at what they had said and done in all these years, and still more
ashamed of the childlike ignorance and babbling futility of the
society that let them say and do it. The historical mind can think
only in historical processes, and probably this was the first time
since historians existed, that any of them had sat down helpless
before a mechanical sequence. Before a metaphysical or a theological
or a political sequence, most historians had felt helpless, but the
single clue to which they had hitherto trusted was the unity of
natural force.
Did he himself quite know what he meant? Certainly not! If he had
known enough to state his problem, his education would have been
complete at once. Chicago asked in 1893 for the first time the
question whether the American people knew where they were driving.
Adams answered, for one, that he did not know, but would try to find
out. On reflecting sufficiently deeply, under the shadow of Richard
Hunt’s architecture, he decided that the American people probably knew
no more than he did; but that they might still be driving or
drifting unconsciously to some point in thought, as their solar system
was said to be drifting towards some point in space; and that,
possibly, if relations enough could be observed, this point might be
fixed. Chicago was the first expression of American thought as a
unity; one must start there.
Washington was the second. When he got back there, he fell headlong
into the extra session of Congress called to repeal the Silver Act.
The silver minority made an obstinate attempt to prevent it, and
most of the majority had little heart in the creation of a single gold
standard. The banks alone, and the dealers in exchange, insisted
upon it; the political parties divided according to capitalistic
geographical lines, Senator Cameron offering almost the only
exception; but they mixed with unusual good-temper, and made liberal
allowance for each others’ actions and motives. The struggle was
rather less irritable than such struggles generally were, and it ended
like a comedy. On the evening of the final vote, Senator Cameron
came back from the Capitol with Senator Brice, Senator Jones,
Senator Lodge, and Moreton Frewen, all in the gayest of humors as
though they were rid of a heavy responsibility. Adams, too, in a
bystander’s spirit, felt light in mind. He had stood up for his
eighteenth century, his Constitution of 1789, his George Washington,
his Harvard College, his Quincy, and his Plymouth Pilgrims, as long as
any one would stand up with him. He had said it was hopeless twenty
years before, but he had kept on, in the same old attitude, by habit
and taste, until he found himself altogether alone. He had hugged
his antiquated dislike of bankers and capitalistic society until he
had become little better than a crank. He had known for years that
he must accept the regime, but he had known a great many other
disagreeable certainties- like age, senility, and death- against which
one made what little resistance one could. The matter was settled at
last by the people. For a hundred years, between 1793 and 1893, the
American people had hesitated, vacillated, swayed forward and back,
between two forces, one simply industrial, the other capitalistic,
centralizing, and mechanical. In 1893, the issue came on the single
gold standard, and the majority at last declared itself, once for all,
in favor of the capitalistic system with all its necessary
machinery. All one’s friends, all one’s best citizens, reformers,
churches, colleges, educated classes, had joined the banks to force
submission to capitalism; a submission long foreseen by the mere law
of mass. Of all forms of society or government, this was the one he
liked least, but his likes or dislikes were as antiquated as the rebel
doctrine of State rights. A capitalistic system had been adopted,
and if it were to be run at all, it must be run by capital and by
capitalistic methods; for nothing could surpass the nonsensity of
trying to run so complex and so concentrated a machine by Southern and
Western farmers in grotesque alliance with city day-laborers, as had
been tried in 1800 and 1828, and had failed even under simple
{CH_XXII ^paragraph 25}
There, education in domestic politics stopped. The rest was
question of gear; of running machinery; of economy; and involved no
disputed principle. Once admitted that the machine must be
efficient, society might dispute in what social interest it should
be run, but in any case it must work concentration. Such great
revolutions commonly leave some bitterness behind, but nothing in
politics ever surprised Henry Adams more than the ease with which he
and his silver friends slipped across the chasm. and alighted on the
single gold standard and the capitalistic system with its methods; the
protective tariff; the corporations and trusts; the trades-unions
and socialistic paternalism which necessarily made their complement;
the whole mechanical consolidation of force, which ruthlessly
stamped out the life of the class into which Adams was born, but
created monopolies capable of controlling the new energies that
America adored.
Society rested, after sweeping into the ash-heap these cinders of a
misdirected education. After this vigorous impulse, nothing remained
for a historian but to ask- how long and how far!