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The Education of Henry Adams

Quincy (1838-1848)
UNDER the shadow of Boston State House, turning its back on the house of John
Hancock, the little passage called Hancock Avenue runs, or ran, from Beacon Street,
skirting the State House grounds, to Mount Vernon Street, on the summit of Beacon Hill;
and there, in the third house below Mount Vernon Place, February 16, 1838, a child was
born, and christened later by his uncle, the minister of the First Church after the tenets of
Boston Unitarianism, as Henry Brooks Adams.
Had he been born in Jerusalem under the shadow of the Temple and circumcised in the
Synagogue by his uncle the high priest, under the name of Israel Cohen, he would
scarcely have been more distinctly branded, and not much more heavily handicapped in
the races of the coming century, in running for such stakes as the century was to offer;
but, on the other hand, the ordinary traveller, who does not enter the field of racing, finds
advantage in being, so to speak, ticketed through life, with the safeguards of an old,
established traffic. Safeguards are often irksome, but sometimes convenient, and if one
needs them at all, one is apt to need them badly. A hundred years earlier, such safeguards
as his would have secured any young man's success; and although in 1838 their value was
not very great compared with what they would have had in 1738, yet the mere accident of
starting a twentieth-century career from a nest of associations so colonial, -- so
troglodytic -- as the First Church, the Boston State House, Beacon Hill, John Hancock
and John Adams, Mount Vernon Street and Quincy, all crowding on ten pounds of
unconscious babyhood, was so queer as to offer a subject of curious speculation to the
baby long after he had witnessed the solution. What could become of such a child of the
seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, when he should wake up to find himself required to
play the game of the twentieth? Had he been consulted, would he have cared to play the
game at all, holding such cards as he held, and suspecting that the game was to be one of
which neither he nor any one else back to the beginning of time knew the rules or the
risks or the stakes? He was not consulted and was not responsible, but had he been taken
into the confidence of his parents, he would certainly have told them to change nothing as
far as concerned him. He 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.
He could never make the usual plea of irresponsibility. He accepted the situation as
though he had been a party to it, and under the same circumstances would do it again, the
more readily for knowing the exact values. To his life as a whole he was a consenting,
contracting party and partner from the moment he was born to the moment he died. Only
with that understanding -- as a consciously assenting member in full partnership with the
society of his age -- had his education an interest to himself or to others.
As it happened, he never got to the point of playing the game at all; he lost himself in
the study of it, watching the errors of the players; but this is the only interest in the story,
which otherwise has no moral and little incident. A story of education -- seventy years of
it -- the practical value remains to the end in doubt, like other values about which men
have disputed since the birth of Cain and Abel; but the practical value of the universe has
 
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