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The Education of Henry Adams

The Perfection Of Human Society (1864)
MINISTER ADAMS'S success in stopping the rebel rams fixed his position once for all
in English society. From that moment he could afford to drop the character of
diplomatist, and assume what, for an American Minister in London, was an exclusive
diplomatic advantage, the character of a kind of American Peer of the Realm. The British
never did things by halves. Once they recognized a man's right to social privileges, they
accepted him as one of themselves. Much as Lord Derby and Mr. Disraeli were accepted
as leaders of Her Majesty's domestic Opposition, Minister Adams had a rank of his own
as a kind of leader of Her Majesty's American Opposition. Even the Times conceded it.
The years of struggle were over, and Minister Adams rapidly gained a position which
would have caused his father or grandfather to stare with incredulous envy.
This Anglo-American form of diplomacy was chiefly undiplomatic, and had the peculiar
effect of teaching a habit of diplomacy useless or mischievous everywhere but in London.
Nowhere else in the world could one expect to figure in a role so unprofessional. The
young man knew no longer what character he bore. Private secretary in the morning, son
in the afternoon, young man about town in the evening, the only character he never bore
was that of diplomatist, except when he wanted a card to some great function. His
diplomatic education was at an end; he seldom met a diplomat, and never had business
with one; he could be of no use to them, or they to him; but he drifted inevitably into
society, and, do what he might, his next education must be one of English social life.
Tossed between the horns of successive dilemmas, he reached his twenty-sixth birthday
without the power of earning five dollars in any occupation. His friends in the army were
almost as badly off, but even army life ruined a young man less fatally than London
society. Had he been rich, this form of ruin would have mattered nothing; but the young
men of 1865 were none of them rich; all had to earn a living; yet they had reached high
positions of responsibility and power in camps and Courts, without a dollar of their own
and with no tenure of office.
Henry Adams had failed to acquire any useful education; he should at least have
acquired social experience. Curiously enough, he failed here also. From the European or
English point of view, he had no social experience, and never got it. Minister Adams
happened on a political interregnum owing to Lord Palmerston's personal influence from
1860 to 1865; but this political interregnum was less marked than the social still-stand
during the same years. The Prince Consort was dead; the Queen had retired; the Prince of
Wales was still a boy. In its best days, Victorian society had never been "smart." During
the forties, under the influence of Louis Philippe, Courts affected to be simple, serious
and middle class; and they succeeded. The taste of Louis Philippe was bourgeois beyond
any taste except that of Queen Victoria. Style lingered in the background with the
powdered footman behind the yellow chariot, but speaking socially the Queen had no
style save what she inherited. Balmoral was a startling revelation of royal taste. Nothing
could be worse than the toilettes at Court unless it were the way they were worn. One's
eyes might be dazzled by jewels, but they were heirlooms, and if any lady appeared well
dressed, she was either a foreigner or "fast." Fashion was not fashionable in London until
 
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