The Education of Henry Adams
WHILE the world that thought itself frivolous, and submitted meekly to hearing itself
decried as vain, fluttered through the Paris Exposition, jogging the futilities of St.
Gaudens, Rodin, and Besnard, the world that thought itself serious, and showed other
infallible marks of coming mental paroxysm, was engaged in weird doings at Peking and
elsewhere such as startled even itself. Of all branches of education, the science of
gauging people and events by their relative importance defies study most insolently. For
three or four generations, society has united in withering with contempt and opprobrium
the shameless futility of Mme. de Pompadour and Mme. du Barry; yet, if one bid at an
auction for some object that had been approved by the taste of either lady, one quickly
found that it were better to buy half-a-dozen Napoleons or Frederics, or Maria Theresas,
or all the philosophy and science of their time, than to bid for a cane-bottomed chair that
either of these two ladies had adorned. The same thing might be said, in a different sense,
of Voltaire; while, as every one knows, the money-value of any hand-stroke of Watteau
or Hogarth, Nattier or Sir Joshua, is out of all proportion to the importance of the men.
Society seemed to delight in talking with solemn conviction about serious values, and in
paying fantastic prices for nothing but the most futile. The drama acted at Peking, in the
summer of 1900, was, in the eyes of a student, the most serious that could be offered for
his study, since it brought him suddenly to the inevitable struggle for the control of
China, which, in his view, must decide the control of the world; yet, as a money-value,
the fall of China was chiefly studied in Paris and London as a calamity to Chinese
porcelain. The value of a Ming vase was more serious than universal war.
The drama of the Legations interested the public much as though it were a novel of
Alexandre Dumas, but the bearing of the drama on future history offered an interest
vastly greater. Adams knew no more about it than though he were the best-informed
statesman in Europe. Like them all, he took for granted that the Legations were
massacred, and that John Hay, who alone championed China's "administrative entity,"
would be massacred too, since he must henceforth look on, in impotence, while Russia
and Germany dismembered China, and shut up America at home. Nine statesmen out of
ten, in Europe, accepted this result in advance, seeing no way to prevent it. Adams saw
none, and laughed at Hay for his helplessness.
When Hay suddenly ignored European leadership, took the lead himself, rescued the
Legations and saved China, Adams looked on, as incredulous as Europe, though not quite
so stupid, since, on that branch of education, he knew enough for his purpose. Nothing so
meteoric had ever been done in American diplomacy. On returning to Washington,
January 30, 1901, he found most of the world as astonished as himself, but less stupid
than usual. For a moment, indeed, the world had been struck dumb at seeing Hay put
Europe aside and set the Washington Government at the head of civilization so quietly
that civilization submitted, by mere instinct of docility, to receive and obey his orders;
but, after the first shock of silence, society felt the force of the stroke through its fineness,
and burst into almost tumultuous applause. Instantly the diplomacy of the nineteenth