The Education of Henry Adams


By Ray Greenblatt

Henry Adams (1838-1918) lived through a very important period in the history of the world, from the American Civil War to the outbreak of WWI. He was a man with the most impressive social credentials: two relatives were John Adams and John Quincy Adams (his great-grandfather and grandfather). Henry is fascinating to me because he was very bright, educated, but shy throughout his life. He preferred to remain on the sidelines and mostly observe, as many writers do. As primarily an historian, Adams searched his entire life for a cohesive view of events in the development of humankind. He called this mental journey his “Education.”

I – Steps to Learning

Henry Adams “would have been astounded by his own luck. Probably no child, born in the year, held better cards than he. Whether life was an honest game of chance, or whether the cards were marked and forced, he could not refuse to play his excellent hand.” (4) However, he felt that Bostonians, he no different, had an attitude. “Resistance to something was the law of New England nature; the boy looked out on the world with the instinct of resistance; for numberless generations his predecessors had viewed the world chiefly as a thing to be reformed, filled with evil forces to be abolished.” (7)

Henry did not feel comfortable with religion. “Nothing quieted doubt so completely as the mental calm of the Unitarian clergy. In uniform excellence of life and character, moral and intellectual, the score of Unitarian clergymen about Boston, who controlled society and Harvard College, were never excelled. They proclaimed as their merit that they insisted on no doctrine, but taught, or tried to teach, the means of learning a virtuous, useful, unselfish life, which they held to be sufficient for salvation. For them, difficulties might be ignored; doubts were waste of thought; nothing exacted solution.” (34)

He did not like school either. “His memory was slow, and the effort painful. For him to conceive that his memory could compete for school prizes with machines of two or three times its power, was to prove himself wanting. Not only in memory, but flagrantly in mind. He thought his mind a good enough machine, if it were given time to act, but it acted wrong if hurried. Schoolmasters never gave time.” (37) We shall later see that Adams as a professor tried to correct that approach in teaching  his students.

At Harvard College he enjoyed fellow classmates. “Distrustful of themselves, but little disposed to trust any one else; with not much humor of their own, but full of readiness to enjoy the humor of others; negative to a degree that in the long run became positive and triumphant. Not harsh in manners or judgment, rather liberal and open-minded, they were still as a body most formidable critics one would care to meet.” (56)

He chose to go to graduate school in Germany but learned its limitations. “The professor mumbled his comments; the students made, or seemed to make, notes; they could have learned from books or discussion in a day more than they could learn from him in a month, but they must pay his fees, follow his course, and be his scholars, if they wanted a degree.” (75)

However, on vacation in Rome with his parents, he met a great man Garibaldi, who helped to unite Italy in 1867.  “Adams had the chance to look this sphinx in the eyes, and, for five minutes, to watch him like a wild animal, at the moment of his greatest achievement and most splendid action. One saw a quiet-featured, quiet-voiced man in a red flannel shirt; absolutely impervious; a type of which Adams knew nothing. Sympathetic it was, and one felt that it was simple; one suspected even that it might be childlike, but could form no guess of its intelligence.” (94) As the years passed, Adams met many “great” men whose influences varied greatly.

II – Being a Diplomat

Henry greatly admired his father. “Charles Francis Adams was singular for mental poise—absence of self-assertion or self-consciousness—the faculty of standing apart without seeming aware that he was alone—a balance of mind and temper that neither challenged or avoided notice, nor admitted questions of superiority or inferiority, of jealousy, of personal motives, from any source, even under great pressure.” (27)

When his father was appointed Minster to England, Henry went along as a private secretary. “The very name of Grosvenor struck a note of grandeur. The long suite of lofty, gilded rooms with their golden furniture; the portraits; the terraces; the gardens, the landscape; the sense of superiority in the England of the fifties, actually set the rich noblemen apart, above Americans and shopkeepers. Aristocracy was real. So was the England of Dickens. Oliver Twist and Little Nell lurked in every churchyard shadow, not as shadow but alive.” (72) Henry was always strongly literary in interest and ability.

Henry learned what diplomacy really was. “The Governments and society of Europe, for a year at least, regarded the Washington Government as dead, and its Ministers as nullities. Minister Adams was better received than most nullities because he made no noise. Little by little, in private, society took the habit of accepting him.” (123) The initial stumbling block in 1860 was that England unofficially backed the Southern states.

Henry also learned the social side of diplomacy at soirees. “The people one met there were never smart and seldom young; they were largely diplomatic, and diplomats are commonly dull; they were largely political, and politicians rarely decorate or beautify an evening; they were sprinkled with literary people, who are notoriously unfashionable; the women were of course ill-dressed and middle-aged; the men looked mostly bored or out of place.” (134)

Representing the American government in England during the Civil War, Adams was shocked at the secessionists and deemed them treasonous. “The Southern secessionists were certainly unbalanced in mind—fit for medical treatment, like other victims of hallucination—haunted by suspicion, by idees fixes, by violent morbid excitement; but this was not all. They were stupendously ignorant of the world. As a class, the cotton-planters were mentally one-sided, ill-balanced, and provincial to a degree rarely known. They were a close society on whom the new fountain of power had poured a stream of wealth and slaves that acted like oil on flame. They showed a young student his first object-lesson of the way in which excess of power worked when held by inadequate hands.” (100)

Some Englishmen like Monckton Milnes, who supported American policies, he found noble. “Challenging ridicule with the indifference of one who knew himself to be the first wit in London, and a maker of men—of a great many men. A word from him went far. An invitation to his breakfast-table went farther. Behind his almost Falstaffian mask and laugh of Silenus, he carried a fine, broad, and high intelligence which no one questioned.’” (124)

Adams even met literary geniuses like the poet Algernon Swinburne. “Wildly eccentric, astonishingly gifted, and convulsingly droll, the Secretary could see; but what more he was even Milnes hardly dared say. They could not believe his incredible memory and knowledge of literature, classic, medieval, and modern; his faculty of reciting a play of Sophocles or a play of Shakespeare, forward or backwards, from end to beginning.” (140) A man like this, to Adams, was more stimulating than a score of politicians.

III – Living in D.C.

Some years after the Civil War, Henry Adams returned home to live in Washington and work as a journalist. The town was still quite primitive. “The want of barriers, of pavements, of forms; the looseness, the laziness; the indolent Southern drawl; the pigs in the streets; the negro babies and their mothers with bandanas; the freedom, openness, swagger, of nature and man.” (45) And dominant in that environment were the senators. “The type of Senator in 1850 was rather charming at its best, and the Senate, when in good temper, was an agreeable body . . . Southern pomposity, when not arrogant, was genial and sympathetic, almost quaint and childlike in its simple- mindedness.” (45)

On the sidelines at many high level meetings, Adams made observations. Massachusetts politicians had their problems. “New England standards were various, scarcely reconcilable with each other, and constantly multiplying in number, until balance between them threatened to become impossible. The old ones were quite difficult enough—State Street and the banks exacted one stamp; the old Congregational clergy another; Harvard College, poor in votes, but rich in social influence, a third; the foreign element, especially the Irish, held aloof.” (419)

However, Pennsylvanian politicians were a special breed. “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 . . .When one summed up the results of Pennsylvanian influence, one inclined to think that Pennsylvanians 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.” (333)

Adams observed William Seward, who was Lincoln’s Secretary of State and now U.S. Grant’s. “A slouching, slender figure; a head like a wise macaw; a beaked nose; shaggy eyebrows; unorderly hair and clothes; hoarse voice; offhand manner; free talk, and perpetual cigar; offered a new type—of Western New York—to fathom; a type in one way simple because it was only double—political and personal; but complex because the political had become nature, and no one could tell which was the mask and which the features.” (104)

Then there was the mighty President Grant. “Men whose energies were the greater, the less they wasted on thought; men who sprang from the soil to power; apt to be distrustful of themselves and of others; shy; jealous; sometimes vindictive; more or less dull in outward appearance; always needing stimulants; but for whom action was the highest stimulant—the instinct of fight.” (265) But his administration was mired in corruption. “Society is immoral and immortal; it can afford to commit any kind of folly, and indulge in any sort of vice; it cannot be killed, and the fragments that survive can always laugh at the dead; but a young man has only one chance, and brief time to seize it. Any one in power above him can extinguish the chance. He is terribly at the mercy of fools and cowards.” (273)

What was Henry Adams final learning of Americans before he left Washington. “The American thought of himself as a restless, pushing, energetic, ingenious person, always awake and trying to get ahead of his neighbors . . .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.” (297)

IV – Professor and Historian

Henry Adams’ memoir skips twenty-one years (1871-1892). Tragedies befell him that he did not want to talk about let alone write. His beloved wife Clover, a superb photographer, committed suicide from a bipolar disorder. The most he would write was a description of her elaborate tomb. “His first step, on returning to Washington, took him out to the cemetery known as Rock Creek, to see the bronze figure which St. Gaudens had made for him in his absence. Naturally every detail interested him; every line; every touch of the artist; every change of light and shade; every point of relation; every possible doubt of St. Gaudens’s correctness of taste or feeling; so that as the spring approached, he was apt to stop there often to see what the figure had to tell him that was new; but, in all that it had to say, he never once thought of questioning what it meant.” (329)

His beloved sister Louisa had also died in Europe. “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 fullness 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.” (288)

And yet for several years Adams successfully taught history at Harvard. He tossed out rote learning of places and dates. Instead he concentrated his class on one specific area; his progressive theory of education is employed today. “The students read what they pleased and compared their results. As pedagogy, nothing could be more triumphant. The boys worked like rabbits, and dug holes all over the field of archaic society; no difficulty stopped them; unknown languages yielded before their attack, and customary law became familiar as the police court.” (303) Adams’ acute mind touched on the areas of psychiatry and even atomic power, although he didn’t quite know what to call it.

He was one of the few historians to tour Russia before their revolution. ”From the car window one seemed to float past undulations of nomad life—herders deserted by their leaders and herds—wandering waves stopped in their wanderings—waiting for their winds or warriors to return and lead them westward . . . Their country acted as a sink of energy like the Caspian Sea, and its surface kept the uniformity of ice and snow. One Russian peasant kissing an icon on a saint’s day, in the Kremlin, served for a hundred million.” (409)

For him the world was going through a cataclysmic phase. “For him, alone, the old universe was thrown into the ash heap and a new one created. He and his eighteenth century, troglodytic Boston were suddenly cut apart—separated forever—in act if not in sentiment by the opening of the Boston and Albany Railroad; the appearance of the first Cunard steamers in the Bay; and the telegraphic messages which carried from Baltimore to Washington.” (5) These were the elements that first signaled to him vast changes coming.

For him the Virgin, representing women, had been the driving Force since the Middle Ages. He quotes Thomas Aquinas: “Christ and the Mother are one force—Love—simple, single, and sufficient for all human wants; but Love is a human interest which acts even on man so partially that you and I, as philosophers, need expect no share in it. Therefore we turn to Christ and the Schools who represent all other force.” (428) Adams seems to be touching on the idea of the women’s movement that wanted full equality with men in his era.

Adams continues. “Passing from one century to another without break. The centuries dropped like autumn leaves in one’s road, and one was not fined for running over them too fast. When the thirteenth lost breath, the fourteenth caught on, and the sixteenth ran close ahead. The hunt for the Virgin’s glass opened rich reserves.” (470) Adams claims that through the power of the Virgin the church created powers that stimulated: architecture, art, sculpture, poetry, printing, exploration, even war and science like astronomy.

Now this age depends on what Adams calls the Dynamo (what would soon be known as atomic energy). “This huge wheel, revolving within arm’s-length at some vertiginous speed, and barely murmuring—scarcely humming an audible warning to stand a hair’s-breadth further for respect of power—while it would not wake the baby lying close against its frame. Before the end, one began to pray to it; inherited instinct taught the natural expression of man before silent and infinite force.” (380)

Teddy Roosevelt was the human equivalent of this power. “Power when wielded by abnormal energy is the most serious of facts, and all Roosevelt’s friends know that his restless and combative energy was more than abnormal. Roosevelt, more than any other living within the range of notoriety, showed the singular primitive quality that belongs to ultimate matter—the quality that medieval theology assigned to God—he was pure act.” (417)

Numerous times throughout his book , Henry Adams humbly claimed that he learned nothing., because history was always so unpredictable.  His final statement was: “Every man with self-respect enough to become effective, if only as a machine, has had to account to himself somehow, and to invent a formula of his own for his universe, if the standard formula failed. There, whether finished or not, education stopped.” (472)

In my book reviews I usually attempt to find “poetics” in prose works, ranging from novels to memoirs. In The Education I noticed some other things that were just as fascinating: Henry Adams had the ability to comment trenchantly on outstanding people and events. His diffidence toward life often muted his insights; I hope I have highlighted them.

You can find the book here:

Ray Greenblatt is an editor on the Schuylkill Valley Journal. His book reviews have been published by a variety of periodicals: BookMark Quarterly, Joseph Conrad Today, English Journal, the Dylan Thomas Society, and the John Updike Society. His new book of poetry, Nocturne & Aubades, is newly available from Parnilis Press, 2018. Ray Greenblatt has two books out for 2020: UNTIL THE FIRST LIGHT (Parnilis Media) and MAN IN A CROW SUIT (BookArts Press).

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