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The Education of Henry Adams

Berlin (1858-1859)
A FOURTH child has the strength of his weakness. Being of no great value, he may
throw himself away if he likes, and never be missed. Charles Francis Adams, the father,
felt no love for Europe, which, as he and all the world agreed, unfitted Americans for
America. A captious critic might have replied that all the success he or his father or his
grandfather achieved was chiefly due to the field that Europe gave them, and it was more
than likely that without the help of Europe they would have all remained local politicians
or lawyers, like their neighbors, to the end. Strictly followed, the rule would have obliged
them never to quit Quincy; and, in fact, so much more timid are parents for their children
than for themselves, that Mr. and Mrs. Adams would have been content to see their
children remain forever in Mount Vernon Street, unexposed to the temptations of Europe,
could they have relied on the moral influences of Boston itself. Although the parents little
knew what took place under their eyes, even the mothers saw enough to make them
uneasy. Perhaps their dread of vice, haunting past and present, worried them less than
their dread of daughters-in-law or sons-in-law who might not fit into the somewhat
narrow quarters of home. On all sides were risks. Every year some young person alarmed
the parental heart even in Boston, and although the temptations of Europe were
irresistible, removal from the temptations of Boston might be imperative. The boy Henry
wanted to go to Europe; he seemed well behaved, when any one was looking at him; he
observed conventions, when he could not escape them; he was never quarrelsome,
towards a superior; his morals were apparently good, and his moral principles, if he had
any, were not known to be bad. Above all, he was timid and showed a certain sense of
self-respect, when in public view. What he was at heart, no one could say; least of all
himself; but he was probably human, and no worse than some others. Therefore, when he
presented to an exceedingly indulgent father and mother his request to begin at a German
university the study of the Civil Law -- although neither he nor they knew what the Civil
Law was, or any reason for his studying it -- the parents dutifully consented, and walked
with him down to the railway-station at Quincy to bid him good-bye, with a smile which
he almost thought a tear.
Whether the boy deserved such indulgence, or was worth it, he knew no more than they,
or than a professor at Harvard College; but whether worthy or not, he began his third or
fourth attempt at education in November, 1858, by sailing on the steamer Persia, the
pride of Captain Judkins and the Cunard Line; the newest, largest and fastest steamship
afloat. He was not alone. Several of his college companions sailed with him, and the
world looked cheerful enough until, on the third day, the world -- as far as concerned the
young man -- ran into a heavy storm. He learned then a lesson that stood by him better
than any university teaching ever did -- the meaning of a November gale on the mid-
Atlantic -- which, for mere physical misery, passed endurance. The subject offered him
material for none but serious treatment; he could never see the humor of sea-sickness; but
it united itself with a great variety of other impressions which made the first month of
travel altogether the rapidest school of education he had yet found. The stride in
knowledge seemed gigantic. One began a to see that a great many impressions were