At Large December 2002

Third Person Singular

Having an ear bent by Henry Adams, the prototype of the modern thinker

I was looking for an old quotation, something to the effect of "Political office should be held only by men who don't want it." I thought this was from The Education of Henry Adams, which I remembered as being a trenchant criticism of politics, as pertinent today as when it was written, in 1905. I got out my copy, unopened since college—and maybe unopened then, if Monarch Notes were available. ("Trenchant criticism ... as pertinent today ..." certainly sounds like Monarch Notes.) I began to skim, became fascinated, and actually read the thing.

The Education of Henry Adams is not so much a criticism of politics as a catalogue of political feelings. Adams had a lot of them. Adams shared his feelings. He honored his feelings. He cared. Pertinent today, indeed, Adams's politics were as deeply felt as those of the deepest and most feeling of contemporary persons who feel things deeply. (Phil Donahue comes to mind.)

During the Civil War the author's father, Charles Francis Adams, was Lincoln's Minister to England. Charles Francis made a brilliant, long-fought, and ultimately successful effort to prevent British intervention on the Confederate side. Henry was his dad's private secretary, went to dinner parties with London's pro-Southern bon ton, and made an effort of his own—"the effort of facing a hostile society ... when one is exasperated, furious, bitter and choking with tears over the blunders and incapacity of one's Government." So strong were Adams's emotions that when news of Gettysburg arrived in London and Adams was publicly hugged by a Union supporter, he was not embarrassed although he was from Boston. "That evening, for the first time in his life, he happened not to be thinking of himself."

The Education of Henry Adams is written in the third person, a voice that gives dignity to that character, much in vogue these days, the self. It recounts sixty years of Henry Adams's being frustrated—and aren't we all?—with politics. The book begins with boyhood frustrations at Boston State House intrigues. "Politics ... had always been the systematic organization of hatreds, and Massachusetts politics had been as harsh as the climate." It climaxes with frustration at everyone. "Had the Czar and the Kaiser and the Mikado turned schoolmasters ... he would still have known nothing. They knew nothing themselves."

Set at the end of the volume are three chapters on a theory of history impenetrable enough for a current graduate seminar. Adams estimated that history would end approximately now, in time for Francis Fukuyama—although he didn't believe that the final credits would roll over a protracted romantic kiss. (But maybe Fukuyama doesn't believe this either anymore.) And, also pertinent today, Adams claimed that "every American who lived into the year 2000 would know how to control unlimited power." I checked my stock portfolio of two years ago and found that Adams had been exactly right. My broker swears Adams will be right again.

I had gone to consult an antique censor of political ills and had discovered the prototype of the modern thinker.

Henry Adams thought many of the good thoughts that good moderns think today. He was willing to put aside the fact that he was a rich man to make bold attacks on business: "The Trusts and Corporations ... were obnoxious because of their vigorous and unscrupulous energy." He belittled material progress: "Prosperity never before imagined ... had made the world irritable, nervous, querulous, unreasonable and afraid." His notions of economics had a fuzzy modernism. He went, guided by his feelings, from the idea that the value of money should be based on gold to the idea that it should be based on silver (the fully modern idea that the value of money should be based on nothing not yet having occurred to anyone). And Adams thought that the high-tech revolution would change everything: "Wireless telegraphy or airships might require the reconstruction of society."

In the early 1900s Adams wrote to his closest friend, John Hay, then the Secretary of State, "I incline now to anti-imperialism, and very strongly to anti-militarism." Adams believed that the right people could make a difference in government. He said, in The Education, "As for Adams, all his hopes of success in life turned on his finding an administration to support." The Administration on which all his hopes had once turned was President Ulysses S. Grant's.

Henry Adams lived a hundred years ago. He was not a perfectly modern thinker. He was prematurely postfeminist and wrote that woman's "axis of rotation had been the cradle and the family," adding that "if her force were to be diverted from its axis, it must find a new field, and the family must pay for it." In a letter to a friend expressing support for Third World self-determination, Adams's language lacked sensitivity: "As I rather prefer niggers to whites ... I incline to make the most of the tropics while the white is still tolerated there." Adams loathed trade unions. However, if we recall how the good thinkers felt about union members who voted for Ronald Reagan, we won't be hard on him for that. And Adams was an anti-Semite. He wrote to his friend Elizabeth Cameron, "The Jew has got into the soul. I see him—or her—now everywhere, and wherever he—or she—goes, there must remain a taint in the blood forever." But maybe even the virtuous moderns of today have gross prejudices to which they are as yet blind.

What truly makes Henry Adams the prototype of the modern thinker is that he was the first thoroughly educated, widely read, highly intelligent American who didn't know what to think. He moved from theory to theory. "By rights," Adams wrote of himself, "he should have been also a Marxist, but some narrow trait of the New England nature seemed to blight socialism, and he tried in vain to make himself a convert. He did the next best thing; he became a Comteist." Auguste Comte was the man who invented sociology.

Adams gave ample space in The Education to his struggle with the philosophical question of whether the universe was an organic whole—a rational totality guided by purpose—or just a mess. Life, Time, People—were they a "unity," or were they a "multiplicity," or were they unwisely merged with America Online, causing a stock-market disaster and wrecking everybody's 401(k)? The philosophy departments at today's universities have gone far beyond this in exquisite refinements of puzzled thought. But with Henry Adams we see the moment when the pronouncements of philosophers ceased to be greeted with forehead slaps of recognition or shouts of "Heretic!" and began to be met with mumbles of "Oh, shut up."

Adams searched for an equation that would explain the whole world—when he believed in that world. "Except as reflected in himself," he said, "man has no reason for assuming ... an ultimate substance." Two years before Einstein published his special theory of relativity, Adams wrote, "Motion seems to be Matter and Matter seems to be Motion." But then he went on to write, "The motion of thought had the same value as the motion of a cannonball seen approaching the observer on a direct line through the air." One would rather be struck by a thought—even a very bad thought, such as "I'll bet my wife would like a leaf blower for our anniversary."

Jump to comments
Presented by
Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

A Technicolor Time-Lapse of Alaska's Northern Lights

The beauty of aurora borealis, as seen from America's last frontier

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus


A Time-Lapse of Alaska's Northern Lights

The beauty of aurora borealis, as seen from America's last frontier


What Do You Wish You Learned in College?

Ivy League academics reveal their undergrad regrets


Famous Movies, Reimagined

From Apocalypse Now to The Lord of the Rings, this clever video puts a new spin on Hollywood's greatest hits.


What Is a City?

Cities are like nothing else on Earth.


CrossFit Versus Yoga: Choose a Side

How a workout becomes a social identity


In Online Dating, Everyone's a Little Bit Racist

The co-founder of OKCupid shares findings from his analysis of millions of users' data.



More in National

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In