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The Education of Henry Adams

by Henry Brooks Adams

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In his late sixties, the American historian Henry Brooks Adams wrote The Education of Henry Adams as an exploration of the meaning of his own life. Adams was the great-grandson of one U.S. president (John Adams) and the grandson of another (John Quincy Adams). His father, Charles Francis Adams, was an important figure in antislavery politics and an early leader of the Republican Party in the years before the Civil War. As a child, Adams tells the reader, he simply assumed that one day he himself would be president of the United States. Yet the family attitudes that encouraged that belief also taught him that, as an Adams and a New England aristocrat, he had an obligation to meet the highest standards, both moral and intellectual, in private as well as public life. Almost from the beginning, Adams was troubled by a conflict between ambition and a strong sense of ethical responsibility.

Presented in chapters that are dated and arranged by strict chronology, the book divides into two main parts with a twenty-year gap between them. The first tells of Adams’ childhood, his formal education, and the period up to the age of thirty-three, during which he was searching for a career in public affairs. Having been graduated from Harvard University and having spent two years in Europe, Adams went to England as private secretary to his father, who held the critically important post of U.S. minister to Great Britain throughout the American Civil War. Observing the attempts of British leaders to aid the Confederacy while pretending to a strict neutrality, Henry Adams had his first disillusioning experience with the ruthlessness and duplicity of contemporary politics. Returning to the United States in 1868, Adams was dismayed by the corruption and reckless speculation that accompanied industrial growth in the years following the Civil War. The central theme of this first half of the book is Adams’ wry complaint that his background as an Adams—as well as his formal education at Harvard and in Germany—left him particularly unsuited for the rough-and-tumble world of nineteenth century public affairs.

The last two hundred pages of the book deal with the years between 1892 and 1905. Having long since abandoned any thought of participating in government, Adams devoted himself during this period to observing current public affairs and attempting to understand their relation to the broad sweep of history. Through his close friendship with John Hay, the secretary of state under President Theodore Roosevelt, he was made aware of the intimate details of American foreign policy during the period after the Spanish-American War. At the same time, convinced that the natural sciences were the most advanced areas of human thought at the time, he tried to borrow from physics the basic concepts of inertia, force, and acceleration and to apply them to interpreting human history in the long term.

Historical Context

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Reform Era A new spirit of civic awareness by members of the middle class who identified themselves as Progressives launched the Reform Era in the 1890s. Progressives believed that the rampant development of the economy had led to wasted resources, lives, and health. In response, Progressives applied a belief in maximum efficiency to every facet of life. Their goal was to make America a more effi- cient society and, in the end, more prosperous. The Progressives also applied new ideas about the individual. They replaced social Darwinism with environmentalism: good environments made good citizens. Thus, an improvement of society’s environment (namely cities) would improve the citizenry. Both tenants were mixed with a fervent belief in the ‘‘Social Gospel’’ or a secularizing of the Christian gospels....

(This entire section contains 725 words.)

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Progressives, in other words, sought to make real the messages of ‘‘love of neighbor’’ that they believed Christ taught.

During the Reform Era, slums were cleared, houses built, and municipal services begun: sewage and water systems were installed and garbage pickup became customary. Political reform also made some headway as the corrupt political machines fell to the onslaught of Progressives and Populists. Labor movements seemed ascendant in the same era that Robber Barons ruled corporations whose annual profits dwarfed those of the entire U.S. tax revenue. Socialist parties were viable entities and would soon count mayors and governors. At the same time, the federal government regularly leant its troops to corporations engaged in battles with striking workers.

Progressives gradually looked to the federal government to increase its powers and control the reign of the Robber Barons. To this end, the Roosevelt administration began utilizing the Sherman Antitrust Act (1890) that led to the dissolution of the Northern Securities Company under order of the Supreme Court in 1904. Real progress against monopolies would not be made, however, until the Taft Administration’s victory over the American Tobacco Company and the Standard Oil Company (both in 1911). The Reform Era ended with World War I.

Panic of 1907 The gross national product (GNP) in the United States increased from $18.7 billion in 1900 to $35.3 billion in 1910. Along the way, serious doubts were cast on the economy by the crisis of 1907, and the stock market collapse of 1893 (which affected the Adams family fortunes negatively) was never far from the minds of investors. Early warning signs accompanied the dawn of the new century: runaway global economic growth combined with an increase in government security issues fueled stock speculation that met a credit supply that had been decreasing since 1900. Countries responded by increasing their interest rates. Banks in Tokyo began to fail in early 1907 and were soon followed by banks in Europe and South America. Stock prices began to fall as a consequence but F. Augustus Heinze’s attempt to corner the copper market almost destroyed the American financial market.

America Becomes a World Power Responsibility for the emergence of the United States as a world power, normally attributed to Roosevelt, lies with Secretary of State John Hay. The most precious advantage Hay gained for this coming out was the roping in of European powers into an American system of peace in the Atlantic. Guided by conversations with Henry Adams, Hay made the United States appear benevolent toward other nations in the name of open markets and free trade. This rule set the pace for American Foreign Policy of the twentieth century.

Hay’s diplomacy had the backing of American victories. A military defeat of Spain in the Spanish- American War thrust America onto the world stage. This was accompanied by a display of force and technical ability through a circumnavigation of the globe by the U.S. Navy. Furthermore, successful construction of the long dreamed of Panama Canal, where the French had failed, crowned America’s claim as an industrial power. These successes were unambiguous. However, the accomplishment of the ‘‘Open Door Policy’’ in China, paternalism in Latin America and the Philippines were less admirable.

The United States appeared to be a non-aggressor in the European race for colonies. Appearances aside, the United States agreed to allow European aggression so long as it respected the Monroe Doctrine (allowing the United States governance of the American hemisphere). This arrangement allowed the United States to violently put down the Filipino revolt and annex Hawaii. In all matters concerning the hemisphere, the American government took a stance favorable to multinational corporations.

Literary Style

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Autobiography Adams uses his life story to illustrate his views of society, history, and education. However, his employment of the third person point of view serves to distance himself and the reader from the intimacy normally associated with the autobiographical form. As he confesses in his preface, the character of Henry Adams is a manikin—a figure adapted to the author’s wants. In this case, the character of Adams becomes adapted to the larger purpose of exploring the theme of education that is a series of disillusionment with his ‘‘real’’ life, the promises of education, the United States as a nation, and women.

Other clues in the Preface and allusions scattered throughout the text technically support the conscientious illusion of autobiography and the admitted attempt at spiritual autobiography. In the preface, the figures of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and St. Augustine are invoked. Adams imitates their works to some extent in that he attempts to embody the fate of the nation. Later he will conjure Rasselas, Odysseus, and Dante. Like their works, his is a story of a journey toward knowledge. The fact that he never arrives at knowledge displays the impossibility of the quest. In other words, Adams’ narrative device supports his theme of failure in order to operate as a reality check on those grandiose narratives of Western man.

Symbolism and Metaphor Adams marks the break up of unity into chaos with various signs. Adams identifies these symbols and metaphors as such in the text. Due to the selfconscious discussion of symbols, they act as rational signposts for the larger theory of the work instead of romantic allusions. Adams consistently interrupts unified pictures with inhuman forces. One of the ways in which these two techniques work is exemplified in the death of his sister. His sister, symbolizing the unity of femininity and youth, has an accident that leads to an excruciating death. As Adams witnesses this, he identifies the entrance of nature into his text as a force of chaos that will forever disrupt attempts by humans to form unity.

Every time Adams mentions Quincy, the eighteenth century, or Boston, he evokes a string of nostalgia for a happier, quiet, almost Edenic time. Simultaneously, technologic representatives enter to ensure disruption and multiplicity. For Adams, a garden of bliss and rest is impossible for whenever a woman makes it likely, technology or other forces like a capricious nature, interrupt. The event of his sister’s death encapsulates this construction, but the formula presents itself very early in the work. For example:

he and his eighteenth-century troglodytic Boston were suddenly cut apart—separated forever—in act if not in sentiment, by the opening of the Boston and Albany Railroad; the appearance of the first Cunard steamers in the bay; and the telegraphic messages which carried [news] from Baltimore to Washington.

Motif Thinking that a number of perplexing problems with a scientific approach to history can be cleared up through an understanding of evolution, Adams seeks out the ultimate parent. Sir Charles Lyell introduces him to the Pteraspis. The fish happens to be the first vertebrate but its existence clarifies nothing about evolution. The fish simply enables him to prove change. In terms of the evolutionary chart, before the fish is nothing and after the fish is everything. From this point on, Pteraspis serves as a shorthand for those men or machines that appear in history with profound effect but no obvious ancestry.

Another motif is Adams’ actual or virtual sitting on the steps of the Church of Santa Maria di Ara Coeli in Rome. The first time he sits there, he explains the significance of his act; his guidebook told him it was the place where Edward Gibbon had sat when he conceived the idea of writing Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Mention, therefore, of the Ara Coeli invokes Gibbon, Rome, and the historiographic fact that despite Gibbon’s monumental history on Rome, the mystery of the fall of Roman Civilization remains just as provocative. Both Ara Coeli and Pteraspis repeatedly show Adams the futility of his quest for ultimate education. The motifs declare that Adams will fail in his attempt to clearly trace a line of progress from the Middle Ages to the present

ObfuscationThe Education of Henry Adams does not faithfully represent historical events. Rather, Adams selects episodes when it suits his purpose for exploring themes. Certain events left out of the narrative lend support to the idea that part of the intent of the work was to mystify the elite of the United States. For example, Adams glosses over the fact that as capitalist industrialists moved toward full mass production, the skills of their workers dwindled, as one worker would insert a pin, another tighten a bolt, etc. Trained craftsmen were being replaced by unskilled laborers as technology became more prevalent. Adams does not hint at the embarrassing fate that befell his hero, Charles Sumner on the floor of the U.S. Senate Chamber when he was beaten with a cane. Violent outbursts with canes on the Senate floor were not unknown but Sumner spent the next three years recovering from the assault. Nor does Adams mention that Clarence King, under the name John Todd, had maintained a family with Ada Copeland, an African American—despite his proud recollection of his family’s anti-slavery position.

Compare and Contrast

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1907: Reginald Aubrey Fessenden ushers in the year with the second broadcasted radio program on New Year’s Eve, 1906. Due to atmospheric conditions, the broadcast reaches the West Indies from its origination at Brant Rock, Massachusetts.

Today: The internet continues to accelerate communications and media dissemination through worldwide fiber optic and satellite networks.

1907: Robert Baden-Powell returns from leading a camping trip of twenty-five boys on Brownsea Island to establish the Boy Scouts.

Today: The proud tradition of the Boy Scouts of America is under a cloud today due to its intolerance of openly gay scout masters.

1907: Utilizing a right recently given by the U.S. Congress to bar non-U.S.-passport bearing people from the country, President Roosevelt refuses entry of Japanese workers to the United States from Canada, Hawaii, and Mexico.

Today: The United States remains reluctant to welcome immigrants except in the case of Cubans or high-tech professionals.

1907: President Roosevelt withheld antitrust action against U.S. Steel so that J. P. Morgan could prop up the American market.

Today: The U.S. economy’s incredible market pivots on one man, secretary of the Federal Reserve Board, Alan Greenspan.

1900s: Department stores exist several decades before the first shopping centers are built. In 1907, one of the first such centers opens outside Baltimore, Roland Park Shopping Center. It lacks the intense planning and rationalization that would come to mark shopping center development. The first integrated mall is built outside Kansas City, Missouri, in 1922. It is called the Country Club Plaza.

Today: Minnesota, which hosted the first twostory mall in 1956 (Southdale Mall), has become home to the mother of all shopping malls—the Mall of America (1992). The gigantism, which marks malls today, testifies to their central place in American culture.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Sources Banta, Martha, ‘‘Being a ‘Begonia’ in a Man’s World,’’ in New Essays on ‘‘The Education of Henry Adams,’’ edited by John Carlos Rowe, Cambridge University Press, 1996, pp. 49–86.

Blackmur, Richard P., The Expense of Greatness, Arrow Editions, 1942.

Diamond, Jared, Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies, W. W. Norton & Company, 1997.

Hicks, Granville, ‘‘Struggle and Flight,’’ in The Great Tradition: An Interpretation of American Literature Since the Civil War, rev. ed., Macmillan Publishing Company, 1935, pp. 131–63.

Ihde, Don, Technology and the Lifeworld: From Garden to Earth, Indiana Series in the Philosophy of Technology, Indiana University Press, 1990.

Jordy, William H., Henry Adams, Scientific Historian, Yale University Press, 1952.

Mitcham, Carl, Thinking through Technology: The Path between Engineering and Philosopher, University of Chicago Press, 1994.

Roelofs, Gerrit H., ‘‘Henry Adams: Pessimism and the Intelligent Use of Doom,’’ in Journal of English Literary History, Vol. 17, 1950, pp. 214–39.

Rowe, John Carlos, ‘‘The Education of Henry Adams and the American Empire,’’ in Literary Culture and U.S. Imperialism, Oxford University Press, 2000, pp. 165–94.

Wasser, Henry, The Scientific Thought of Henry Adams, Thessaloniki, 1956.

Wasserstrom, William, The Ironies of Progress: Henry Adams and the American Dream, Southern Illinois University Press, 1984.

Further Reading Geddes, Patrick, Cities in Evolution: An Introduction to the Town Planning Movement and to the Study of Civics, Benn, 1968. Beginning with an application of recent developments in cell theory, Geddes applies the notions of biology to urban planning. In this framework, the entire city with its people and industry form an organism within an ecology. Proper care of this system will evolve healthy, happy people.

Hays, Samuel P., The Response to Industrialism: 1885–1914, University of Chicago Press, 1957. Hays briefly delineates the events and ideas composing the Reform Era in the United States.

Highman, John, ‘‘Anti-Semitism in the Gilded Age: A Reinterpretation,’’ in Mississippi Valley Historical Review, Vol. 43, No. 4, March 1957, 559–78. Highman’s look at anti-Semitic themes of late nineteenth- century literature includes a discussion of Adams’ work.

Lyon, Melvin, Symbol and Idea in Henry Adams, University of Nebraska Press, 1970. Lyon’s book is a schematic breakdown of the themes and techniques Adams uses throughout his writing. The intent of the work is to show how those themes and techniques reveal Adams’s ‘‘program for improving society.’’

Mumford, Lewis, ‘‘The Nucleation of Power,’’ in The Myth of the Machine: the Pentagon of Power, Columbia University Press, 1964, pp. 230–62. Lewis Mumford argues that the advance of civilization depends upon the organization of humans into veritable construction machines. For Mumford, the complexity of human organization is more important than technological innovation.

Spring, Joel, Education and the Rise of the Global Economy, Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1998. Spring’s work serves as a starting point for reflecting on the inadequacies of twentieth-century education systems to prepare people for the demands of a digital age.


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Dusinberre, William. Henry Adams: The Myth of Failure. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1980. Argues that Adams’ literary career should not be judged from The Education of Henry Adams alone, and relates the book to Adams’ other historical writings to show that his negative assessment of them is misleading.

Jordy, William H. Henry Adams: Scientific Historian. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1952. Evaluates Adams’ claims that he was writing a “scientific” history. Demonstrates the weaknesses of the scientific arguments that Adams advanced.

Levenson, J. C. The Mind and Art of Henry Adams. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1957. One of the first important studies to consider Adams’ thought in its entirety. Contains an analysis of how The Education of Henry Adams fits in the writing life of its author.

O’Toole, Patricia. The Five of Hearts: An Intimate Portrait of Henry Adams and His Friends, 1880-1918. New York: Clarkson N. Potter, 1990. An engaging narrative about Adams and his closest associates. Provides good insights into the events and emotions that lay behind the writing of The Education of Henry Adams. The most accessible of the books on Adams.

Samuels, Ernest. Henry Adams. Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1989. The best one-volume biography of Adams, with an excellent discussion of the writing of The Education of Henry Adams that links the book well to the events of Adams’ life.


Critical Essays


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