The Education of Henry Adams by Henry Adams

Henry Adams was the great-grandson of John Adams and the grandson of John Quincy Adams. His father was ambassador to the United Kingdom and later a congressman. Henry was brought up as a member of the political, social and intellectual elite. He served as private secretary to his father during the Civil War and laterย became a journalist, historian and novelist.ย He lived most of his life in Washington but traveled extensively throughout the world. At the age of 70, he privately circulated a book of memoirs,ย The Education of Henry Adams. When it was finally published after his death, itย won the 1919 Pulitzer Prize for non-fiction. In 1998, the Modern Library named it the best non-fiction book of the 20th century.

The book is offered as an account of Henry Adams’s education, but it’s really the story of his life, with some major gaps. For example, he skips forward 20 years at one point, never mentioning his marriage during those years or the fact that his wife committed suicide: “This is a story of education, not of adventure! It is meant to help young men — or such as have intelligence enough to seek help — not to amuse them. What one did — or did not do — with one’s education, after getting it, need trouble the inquirer in no way; it is a personal matter only which would confuse him”.

Adams writes of himself in the third person throughout. He is often sarcastic and cynical about himself and others. I often had trouble understanding him. He discusses various 19th century political controversies and politicians in great detail. He also expounds a view of historical progress as the accumulation of “force”, for example, the forces unleashed by the production of coal and the construction of the railroads. Many of his observations are worth reading, however, and worth reading more than once. He reminds us that human nature and politics haven’t changed much (or at all?) since the 19th century. Here is an example, from chapter 7,”Treason (1860-61)”:

“Adams found himself seeking education in a world that seemed to him both unwise and ignorant. The Southern secessionists were certainly unbalanced in mind — fit for medical treatment, like other victims of hallucination — haunted by suspicion, by idรฉes fixes, by violent morbid excitement, but this was not all. They were stupendously ignorant of the world. As a class, the cotton-planters were mentally one-sided, ill-balanced, and provincial to a degree rarely known. They were a close [sic] society on whom the new fountains of power had poured a stream of wealth and slaves that acted like oil on flame. They showed a young student his first object-lesson of the way in which excess of power worked when held by inadequate hands”. ย (12/26/12)

Unbalanced and Ignorant, Even Today

Henry Adams was an historian and journalist, the grandson of John Quincy Adams and the great-grandson of John Adams. Forty years after the Civil War, he wrote an autobiography in the third-person: The Education of Henry Adams.

This is an excerpt from chapter 7, “Treason (1860-61)”:

“Adams found himself seeking education in a world that seemed to him both unwise and ignorant. The Southern secessionists were certainly unbalanced in mind — fit for medical treatment, like other victims of hallucination — haunted by suspicion, by idรฉes fixes, by violent morbid excitement, but this was not all. They were stupendously ignorant of the world. As a class, the cotton-planters were mentally one-sided, ill-balanced, and provincial to a degree rarely known. They were a close [sic] society on whom the new fountains of power had poured a stream of wealth and slaves that acted like oil on flame. They showed a young student his first object-lesson of the way in which excess of power worked when held by inadequate hands”.

This description reminds me of certain players on the contemporary political scene, many of whom live in the South even today.ย 

The Prediction of Henry Adams

The historian Henry Adams, grandson of John Adams,ย wrote this around 1905, looking back over his life:

“Science now lay in a plane where scarcely one hundred or two hundred minds in the world could follow its mathematical processes; but bombs educate vigorously, and even wireless telegraphy and air-ships might require the reconstruction of society…. At the rate of progress since 1800, every American who lived into the year 2000 would know how to control unlimited power. He would think in complexities unimaginable to an earlier mind. He would deal with problems altogether beyond the range of earlier society. To him the 19th century would stand on the same plane as the 4th — equally childlike”ย (Chapter 34,ย The Education of Henry Adams).

It’s remarkable how the future always turns out to be stranger than we could imagine in some ways and not so different in other ways.