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The Education of Henry Adams

Treason (1860-1861)
WHEN, forty years afterwards, Henry Adams looked back over his adventures in search
of knowledge, he asked himself whether fortune or fate had ever dealt its cards quite so
wildly to any of his known antecessors as when it led him to begin the study of law and
to vote for Abraham Lincoln on the same day.
He dropped back on Quincy like a lump of lead; he rebounded like a football, tossed
into space by an unknown energy which played with all his generation as a cat plays with
mice. The simile is none too strong. Not one man in America wanted the Civil War, or
expected or intended it. A small minority wanted secession. The vast majority wanted to
go on with their occupations in peace. Not one, however clever or learned, guessed what
happened. Possibly a few Southern loyalists in despair might dream it as an impossible
chance; but none planned it.
As for Henry Adams, fresh from Europe and chaos of another sort, he plunged at once
into a lurid atmosphere of politics, quite heedless of any education or forethought. His
past melted away. The prodigal was welcomed home, but not even his father asked a
malicious question about the Pandects. At the utmost, he hinted at some shade of
prodigality by quietly inviting his son to act as private secretary during the winter in
Washington, as though any young man who could afford to throw away two winters on
the Civil Law could afford to read Blackstone for another winter without a master. The
young man was beyond satire, and asked only a pretext for throwing all education to the
east wind. November at best is sad, and November at Quincy had been from earliest
childhood the least gay of seasons. Nowhere else does the uncharitable autumn wreak its
spite so harshly on the frail wreck of the grasshopper summer; yet even a Quincy
November seemed temperate before the chill of a Boston January.
This was saying much, for the November of 1860 at Quincy stood apart from other
memories as lurid beyond description. Although no one believed in civil war, the air
reeked of it, and the Republicans organized their clubs and parades as Wide-Awakes in a
form military in all things except weapons. Henry reached home in time to see the last of
these processions, stretching in ranks of torches along the hillside, file down through the
November night; to the Old House, where Mr. Adams, their Member of Congress,
received them, and, let them pretend what they liked, their air was not that of innocence.
Profoundly ignorant, anxious, and curious, the young man packed his modest trunk
again, which had not yet time to be unpacked, and started for Washington with his
family. Ten years had passed since his last visit, but very little had changed. As in 1800
and 1850, so in 1860, the same rude colony was camped in the same forest, with the same
unfinished Greek temples for work rooms, and sloughs for roads. The Government had
an air of social instability and incompleteness that went far to support the right of
secession in theory as in fact; but right or wrong, secession was likely to be easy where
there was so little to secede from. The Union was a sentiment, but not much more, and in
December, 1860, the sentiment about the Capitol was chiefly hostile, so far as it made
 
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