Not a member?     Existing members login below:

The Education of Henry Adams

Diplomacy (1861)
HARDLY a week passed when the newspapers announced that President Lincoln had
selected Charles Francis Adams as his Minister to England. Once more, silently, Henry
put Blackstone back on its shelf. As Friar Bacon's head sententiously announced many
centuries before: Time had passed! The Civil Law lasted a brief day; the Common Law
prolonged its shadowy existence for a week. The law, altogether, as path of education,
vanished in April, 1861, leaving a million young men planted in the mud of a lawless
world, to begin a new life without education at all. They asked few questions, but if they
had asked millions they would have got no answers. No one could help. Looking back on
this moment of crisis, nearly fifty years afterwards, one could only shake one's white
beard in silent horror. Mr. Adams once more intimated that he thought himself entitled to
the services of one of his sons, and he indicated Henry as the only one who could be
spared from more serious duties. Henry packed his trunk again without a word. He could
offer no protest. Ridiculous as he knew himself about to be in his new role, he was less
ridiculous than his betters. He was at least no public official, like the thousands of
improvised secretaries and generals who crowded their jealousies and intrigues on the
President. He was not a vulture of carrion -- patronage. He knew that his father's
appointment was the result of Governor Seward's personal friendship; he did not then
know that Senator Sumner had opposed it, or the reasons which Sumner alleged for
thinking it unfit; but he could have supplied proofs enough had Sumner asked for them,
the strongest and most decisive being that, in his opinion, Mr. Adams had chosen a
private secretary far more unfit than his chief. That Mr. Adams was unfit might well be,
since it was hard to find a fit appointment in the list of possible candidates, except Mr.
Sumner himself; and no one knew so well as this experienced Senator that the weakest of
all Mr. Adams's proofs of fitness was his consent to quit a safe seat in Congress for an
exceedingly unsafe seat in London with no better support than Senator Sumner, at the
head of the Foreign Relations Committee, was likely to give him. In the family history,
its members had taken many a dangerous risk, but never before had they taken one so
The private secretary troubled himself not at all about the unfitness of any one; he knew
too little; and, in fact, no one, except perhaps Mr. Sumner, knew more. The President and
Secretary of State knew least of all. As Secretary of Legation the Executive appointed the
editor of a Chicago newspaper who had applied for the Chicago Post-Office; a good
fellow, universally known as Charley Wilson, who had not a thought of staying in the
post, or of helping the Minister. The Assistant Secretary was inherited from Buchanan's
time, a hard worker, but socially useless. Mr. Adams made no effort to find efficient help;
perhaps he knew no name to suggest; perhaps he knew too much of Washington, but he
could hardly have hoped to find a staff of strength in his son.
The private secretary was more passive than his father, for he knew not where to turn.
Sumner alone could have smoothed his path by giving him letters of introduction, but if
Sumner wrote letters, it was not with the effect of smoothing paths. No one, at that
moment, was engaged in smoothing either paths or people. The private secretary was no