Illustration of a portrait of Henry Adams

The Education of Henry Adams

by Henry Brooks Adams

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2271

Mrs. Louisa Catherine Adams Despite Abigail’s disapproval, Louisa was an ideal wife for John Quincy while they lived within the circle of European and American elite; as a wife of a Bostonian, Louisa fails miserably.

Mrs. Abigail Adams Abigail Adams, wife of John Adams, is the ideal eighteenth-century woman. Abigail’s disapproval of Louisa (Johnson) as a suitable match for her son, John Quincy, provides insight into Adams’ idea of women. He says that this moment of disapproval teaches the correctness of women’s judgment.

Brooks Adams While Adams teaches at Harvard, he rooms in the same house as his brother, Brooks, who was attending law school. Brooks, younger by a decade, influences Adams’ thinking about history. Brooks ‘‘taught [Adams] that the relation between civilizations was that of trade.’’ Due to Brooks’ influence, Adams searches the ancient trading routes for ‘‘a city of thought’’ but does not find one.

Henry Brooks Adams The main character of the story attempts to discuss what parts of education are useful according to his own experiences. His search for knowledge also imitates other spiritual odysseys like Dante’s or that of John Bunyan’s Christian. He gained little from structured educational experiences. Whether grade school or Harvard College, education by discipline is a large waste of time in his mind. Stubbornly, Adams sticks to the idea that four tools are necessary to any successful education. They are knowledge of German, Spanish, French, and a facility with mathematics. Those are the building blocks. Otherwise, he highlights certain lessons in his own life but does not come up with any kind of educational program.

Mrs. Abigail Brown Adams Abigail Brown, daughter of Peter Brooks and wife of Charles Francis, proved to be a great asset to the American legation in London because she excelled in British custom. Adams realizes that his mother’s success stems from her ability to assimilate.

Mr. Charles Francis Adams Adams’ father, Charles Francis, served as America’s minister to the Court of St. James during the American Civil War. His diplomatic success in preventing the British from openly siding with the Southern Confederacy is a highpoint of Adams’ education, though it disqualified him for a political career. Adams looks to his father as his first role model.

Adams realizes that his father’s concern with national politics stems from a principled refusal to take part in the corruption of state politics. He also admires his father’s mind as it interacts with allies in the parlor of the Quincy home. Adams judges his father’s mind to be ‘‘the only perfectly balanced mind that ever existed in the name.’’ This did not mean it was a brilliant mind but that it ‘‘worked with singular perfection’’ so that Charles Francis ‘‘stood alone’’—without master. A motivating force for this mind was a staunch conviction of Puritan thought that prevented Charles Francis from compromising his abolitionist stance.

President John Quincy Adams Adams holds up his grandfather, John Quincy, as an exemplar man of power who can coerce others into following a proper path. While a boy, Adams once attempted to avoid going to school by throwing a tantrum against his mother. This ended when ‘‘the President’’ silently ushered him all the way to his school desk. ‘‘The President . . . had shown no temper, no irritation, no personal feeling, and had made no display of force. Above all, he had held his tongue.’’ The remarkable thing for Adams about this experience was the impact; the president acted so correctly that Adams felt no ‘‘rancor’’ but just the opposite, he admired where before he had been ‘‘paralyzed by awe.’’ The episode is just...

(This entire section contains 2271 words.)

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one of many moments in the book when Adams reflects on the proper use of power.

George Sewall Boutwell Boutwell’s appointment to secretary of the treasury by President Grant suggests that the Grant administration, in Adams’ terms, will be victimized by ‘‘inertia.’’ Boutwell’s incompetence encouraged the notorious robber baron, Jay Gould, to attempt to corner the gold market. A nationwide panic ensued. Sadly, Boutwell represents the type of politician ‘‘pathetic in their helplessness to do anything with power when it came to them.’’

John Bright Orators like John Bright, one of the most eloquent orators of nineteenth-century Britain, succeed in politics not only as a result of having ‘‘the courage of a prize-fighter’’ but because ‘‘Bright knew his Englishmen better than England did.’’ Consequently, Bright ‘‘knew what amount of violence in language was necessary to drive an idea into a Lancashire or Yorkshire head.’’ Bright’s professional success bolsters Adams repertoire of lessons in national difference. Adams knows that Bright’s methods would not work anywhere but amongst the English. Adams also sees that Bright’s verbal violence combines with other qualities. Bright ‘‘betrayed no one, and he never advanced an opinion in practical matters that did not prove to be practical.’’

Peter Chardon Brooks Adams’ ‘‘other grandfather,’’ Peter Brooks, was a wealthy banker whose fortune at his death was the largest in Boston. Brooks’ estate was divided amongst the children and thus the Adams family increased in wealth through Abigail Brown’s share.

Senator James Donald Cameron Senator Cameron of Pennsylvania ‘‘had shipwrecked his career in the person of President Grant.’’ Adams sees Cameron as a Pennsylvanian in the mold of Benjamin Franklin. For Adams, the Pennsylvanian puts aside his prejudices against the world once his interests are allied with those of others. Accordingly, Cameron was a member of Adams’ circle as he was an ally of Hay, Lodge, and Roosevelt.

George Douglas Campbell See Duke of Argyll

Duke of Argyll One of Charles Francis’ most valuable friends during his service at the Court of St. James was the duke of Argyll. The duke believed in Russell’s honesty and Charles Francis follows him. Their gullibility amazes Adams.

Charles William Eliot Adams had a brief career as a professor at the request of the president of Harvard College, Charles Eliot. After seven years, Adams views collegiate education, even under Eliot’s reformed system, as costly and wasteful. Eliot ‘‘hinted that Adams’s services merited recognition.’’

William Maxwell Evarts Upon his return from London, Adams found welcome in the home of William Evarts, President Johnson’s attorney general. They had long discussions about legal tender as Evarts sought to defend the president’s position, although, Evarts had opposed it in the past.

William Edward Forster One of the British statesmen who helps Charles Francis and the cause of the Union was the talented young radical, William Edward Forster. According to Adams, Forster was ‘‘pure gold’’ even when he eventually became part of the establishment as he rose to the rank of cabinet minister.

William Evart Gladstone Gladstone’s confession of 1896 causes Adams to rethink his education as private secretary to his father. In 1905, Adams learns that Gladstone considered it a mistake on his part to have thought that Jefferson Davis had actually formed a nation—a gross mistake that nearly led to war—but still a mistake. Dumbfounded by the passage, Adams re- flects that ‘‘he had seen nothing correctly at the time. His whole theory of conspiracy . . . resolved itself into [Gladstone’s] ‘incredible grossness.’’’ However, as with his grandfather, Adams feels no rancor because he believes that nothing about an individual’s psychology can impact an historical event.

John Hay As a reward for his support of McKinley’s Republican campaign for the presidency, Hay was appointed the American ambassador to England. However, when William R. Day left to finalize the outcome of the Spanish-American War in Paris, Hay was recalled to serve as secretary of state. He stayed in this position.

Hay is the ideal American for Adams in part because he brings to fruition the political machinations of Adams’ forebears. Hay studies John Quincy’s work closely and he seeks advice from Adams on a regular basis. In Hay’s successful foreign policy, Adams sees ‘‘the family work of a hundred and fifty years fell at once into the grand perspective of true empire building.’’

Ebenezer Rockwood Hoar Adams’ continuing hopes for a political position are dashed when he finds himself in disagreement with his friend, Ebenezer Hoar, President Grant’s attorney general. Adams writes an article in favor of the Supreme Court in the matter of the Legal Tender Cases. Hoar, as Grant’s point man, favors the government’s right to print paper specie. The Supreme Court decided against this in 1870 but after Grant appointed two more justices, the Court found in favor of the government when it revisited the question. As a result of the political fights, Hoar was driven from office.

Lord Houghton See Richard Monckton Milnes

Clarence King As the first head of the Geological Survey, Clarence King was a remarkable combination of hardy adventurer and scientist. The occupation and exploitation of the continent was made possible due to men like King. For Adams, King is larger than life—a scientist but also a man who can survive in the wilderness. However, King’s abilities do not prevent his tragic end. Losing his fortune in the crash of 1893, King dies alone and forgotten in a hotel in the Southwest.

Mrs. Louisa Catherine Kuhn Firstborn child to Charles Francis and Abigail Brown, Louisa ‘‘was one of the most sparkling creatures [Adams] met in a long and varied experience of bright women.’’ Louisa married Charles Kuhn and invited Adams to join them on a European tour. Adams happily accepts an excuse to leave Germany. This experience reminds Adams of the superiority of nineteenth-century American women— especially those of the Adams family—and his preference for being in their control.

Though Italy proved to be a wonderful influence on Adams, the death of Louisa becomes a powerful lesson; ‘‘he had never seen Nature—only her surface—the sugar-coating that she shows to youth.’’ This was the first time Adams had watched someone die. Louisa had been thrown from a cab and bruised her foot. Tetanus had set in and ‘‘hour by hour the muscles grew rigid, while the mind remained bright, until after ten days of fiendish torture she died in convulsions.’’ The ‘‘harsh brutality of chance’’ was not soon forgotten.

Mrs. Anna Cabot Mills Lodge Along with Mrs. Cameron, Anna Lodge was a ‘‘dispenser of sunshine over Washington.’’ Adams views Anna in a light usually reserved only for the women of his family. Mirroring the role of Louisa, Anna takes command of Adams. In 1895, when all the world seemed just simply too confusing to Adams, Anna gives him the busy task of serving as traveling companion and tutor to the Lodges and their two sons.

Henry Cabot Lodge One of Adam’s students at Harvard was Henry Lodge. Adams regarded Lodge as a younger brother or nephew and a source of solace toward the end of his life.

James Russell Lowell Adams finds classes at Harvard a bore until he begins to take advantage of the German method of private readings used by James Russell Lowell. ‘‘Education was not serious’’ but Adams found Lowell to be a good conversationalist.

Richard Monckton Milnes Richard Milnes epitomizes the ‘‘gargantuan type,’’ the sort of man who is larger than life and whose grasp seems universal. Milnes was a member of the upper class whose breakfasts were so famous that nobody dared turn down an invitation but died to attend. He knew everyone and excelled in his literary and artistic tastes. As one of the pro-Union faction, he often provided refuge to Charles Francis at his home in Fryston.

Viscount Palmerston When the Adams family journeys to the Court of St. James on behalf of the United States government in 1861, they find the British prime minister to be Palmerston. Known for his fiery defense of ‘‘British Interest,’’ Adams likens his family to Christians showing up in Rome during the time of Emperor Tiberius when martyring Christians was good sport. Palmerston represents the despotic ruler who sacrifices others on a whim.

Earl John Russell A study in British politicians is found in Palmerson’s betise, John Russell. Of all the pro- Confederacy members of the British government, Russell’s call for recognition of the American rebels is the loudest. In the end, his scheming falls apart and he must bow to Charles Francis and international law by finding new buyers for the deadly ironclads that he wanted to send against the Union Navy.

Governor William Henry Seward William Seward was secretary of state to President Lincoln and friend of the Adams family since the days of the Free Soil Party.

Augustus St. Gaudens Throughout the text, Adams lists Augustus St. Gaudens among the great artists of his day. In passing, Adams comments on his aesthetic reaction to the memorial Adams commissioned for Mrs. Henry Adams at Rock Creek Cemetery in Washington, D.C. The statue, in the text, is simply the virgin, the symbol of femininity, opposing the dynamo.

Charles Sumner Until he disapproves of Charles Francis’ appointment to head the legation to St. James Court in London, Charles Sumner stood fast as a friend of the family and a role model to young Adams. While still pursuing their unpopular abolitionist crusade as members of the Free Soil Party in Boston, Sumner stood out amongst Charles Francis’ friends as ‘‘heroic.’’ Sumner stood alone—he was without family and his political position made many doors closed to him. His lack of Boston allies outside the Adams’ circle caused Sumner to cultivate his European connections. For this reason, he is one of the few American leaders during the Civil War of which the British think well.

Henry John Temple See Viscount Palmerston




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