Henry Adams at Harvard

The Vales in Now, Voyager and their Boston social set automatically sent their sons to Harvard. Seeing life from the same exalted level in society, Henry Adams of Quincy, Mass., the grandson of John Quincy Adams, takes for granted things that most of us would take as a big deal if they happened to us: going to Harvard, being named class valedictorian. Although it took place in the years 1854-58 rather than 1930, Adams' story sheds light on what Windy Vale, scion of the Vale family, might have experienced.

The Education of Henry Adams

Chap IV Harvard College (1854-58)

One day in June, 1854, young Adams walked for the last time down the steps of Mr. Dixwell's school in Boylston Place, and felt no sensation but one of unqualified joy that this experience was ended.

An intolerable bore.

The next regular step was Harvard College. He was more than glad to go. For generation after generation, Adamses and Brookses and Boylstons and Gorhams had gone to Harvard College, and although none of them, as far as known, had ever done any good there, or thought himself the better for it, custom, social ties, convenience, and above all economy, kept each generation in the track. Any other education would have required a serious effort, but no one took Harvard College seriously. All went there because their friends went there, and the College was their ideal of social self-respect. The Unitarian clergy had given to the college a character of moderation, balance, judgment, restraint, what the French called mesure. What caused the boy most disappointment was the little he got from his mates. As help towards education, he got nothing whatever from them or they from him until long after they had left college. Accident accounts for much in companionship as in marriage. Life offers perhaps only a score of possible companions, and it is mere chance whether they meet as early as school or college, but it is more than a chance that boys brought up together under like conditions have nothing to give each other.

The Class of 1858—Not harsh in manners or judgment, rather liberal and open-minded, they were still as a body the most formidable critics one would care to meet, in a long life exposed to criticism. They never flattered, seldom praised. Their judgment beyond appeal, not an act either of intellect or emotion or of will, but a sort of gravitation.

Into this medium came a trio of Virginians. One of them was the son of Colonel Robert E. Lee; the two others seemed instinctively to form a staff for Lee. For the first time Adams's education brought him in contact new types and taught him their values. Lee, known through life as "Roony," was a Virginian of the eighteenth century, much as Henry Adams was a Bostonian of the same age. Roony Lee had changed little from the type of his grandfather, Light Horse Harry. Tall, largely built, handsome, genial, with liberal Virginian openness towards all he liked, he had the habit of command and took leadership as his natural habit. No one cared to contest it. For a year, at least, Lee was the most popular and prominent young man in his class, but then seemed slowly to drop into the background. The habit of command was not enough, and the Virginian had little else.

He was simple beyond analysis. No one knew enough to know how ignorant he was; how childlike; how helpless before the relative complexity of a school. Strictly, the Southerner had no mind; he had temperament. He was not a scholar; he had no intellectual training; he could not analyze an idea, and he could not even conceive of admitting two; but in life one could get along very well without ideas, if one had only the social instinct. Dozens of eminent statesmen were men of Lee's type, and maintained themselves well enough in the legislature, but college was a sharper test.

At a moment when the immediate future posed no problem in education so vital as the relative energy and endurance of North and South, this momentary contact with Southern character was a sort of education. The self-esteem of the Yankee was flattered by gaining the slow conviction that the Southerner, with his slave-owning limitations, was as little fit to succeed in the struggle of modern life as though he were still a maker of stone axes, living in caves.

The four years passed at college were, for his purposes, wasted. Harvard College was a good school, but at bottom what the boy disliked most was any school at all. Long afterwards the devious path of life led him back to teach in his turn what no student naturally cared or needed to know. [For a time Adams taught medieval history at Harvard]

Harvard College slowly weakened the violent political bias of childhood, not by putting interests in its place, but by mental habits which had no bias at all. Literary bias: the climate kept him to desultory and useless reading, till he had run through libraries of volumes which he forgot even to their title-pages. He turned to writing, and his professors or tutors occasionally gave his English composition a hesitating approval.

He never knew what other students thought of it, or what they thought they gained from it; from the first, he wanted to be done with it, and stood watching vaguely for a path and a direction.

James Russell Lowell, on succeeding Longfellow as professor of Belles-Lettres, had duly gone to Germany. The literary world then agreed that truth survived in Germany alone. They turned to Germany.

German thought, method, honesty, and even taste, became the standards of scholarship. Goethe was raised to the rank of Shakespeare.

Lowell had followed the rest, not very enthusiastically. Singularly circuitous and excessively wasteful of energy the path proved to be, but the student could never see what other was open to him.

Adams was exposed to Ralph Waldo Emerson — the Concord school of revolutionary thought.

Harvard College — the education was not serious, but in truth hardly any Boston student took it seriously, and none of them seemed sure that President Walker himself, or President Felton after him, took it more seriously than the students. For them all, the college offered chiefly advantages vulgarly called social, rather than mental.

Unluckily for this particular boy, social advantages were his only capital in life. He made no acquaintance in college which proved to have the smallest use in after life. All his Boston friends he knew before, or would have known in any case, and contact of Bostonian with Bostonian was the last education these young men needed.

Cordial and intimate as their college relations were, they all flew off in different directions the moment they took their degrees. Harvard college remained a tie, indeed, but a tie little stronger than Beacon Street and not so strong as State Street. A student like H. H. Richardson, who came from far away New Orleans, . . . Adams made no acquaintance there that he valued in after life so much as Richardson. Adams knew only that he would have felt himself on a more equal footing with them had he been less ignorant, and had he not thrown away ten years of early life in acquiring what he might have acquired in one.

The habit in looking at life as a social relation—an affair of society—did no good. The Bostonian educated at Harvard College remained a collegian, if he stuck only to what the college gave him. If parents went on, generation after generation, sending their children to Harvard College for the sake of its social advantages, they perpetuated quite an inferior social type, quite as ill-fitted as the Oxford type for success in the next generation.

Luckily the old social standard of the college, as President Walker or James Russell Lowell still showed it, was admirable, and if it had little practical value or personal influence on the mass of students, at least it preserved the tradition for those who liked it. So Henry Adams betook himself to the last remnant of the old Unitarian supremacy. He took to the pen. He wrote.

The College Magazine printed his work. He found that he had very little to say at best. At that time the ambition of the literary student was that of being chosen as the representative of his class — the Class Orator — at the close of their course. This was political as well as literary success, and precisely the sort of eighteenth-century combination that fascinated an eighteenth-century boy.

At last, to his own great astonishment, he found himself a candidate. The habits of the college permitted no active candidacy; he was never even consulted on the subject; he was not present at any of the proceedings, and how it happened he never could quite divine, but it did happen, that one evening on returning from Boston he received notice of his election, after a very close contest, as Class Orator over the head of the first scholar.

All the same, the choice was flattering; it was to be the only flattery of the sort he was ever to receive. The function of Class Day was, in the eyes of nine-tenths of the students, altogether the most important of the college, and the figure of the Orator was the most conspicuous in the function. Unlike the Orators at regular Commencements, the Class Day Orator stood alone, or had only the Poet for rival. Crowded into the large church, the students, their families, friends, aunts, uncles and chaperones, attended all the girls of sixteen or twenty who wanted to show their summer dresses or fresh complexions, and there, for an hour or two, in a heat that might have melted bronze, they listened to an Orator and a Poet in clergyman's gowns, reciting such platitudes as their own experience and their mild censors permitted them to utter.

What Henry Adams said in his Class Oration of 1858 he soon forgot, but he naturally remembered what was said of it. He remembered especially one of his eminent uncles or relations remarking that, as the work of so young a man, the oration was singularly wanting in enthusiasm. This absence of enthusiasm was all that Harvard College taught. One of the elderly gentlemen noticed the orator's "perfect self-possession." Self-possession indeed! If Harvard College gave nothing else, it gave calm. Henry Adams was ready to stand up before any audience in America or Europe with nerves rather steadier for the excitement, but whether he should ever have anything to say, remained to be proved.


When talking about the son of Robert E. Lee in this chapter, Adams shows his opinion of the Southern mind. He goes further discussing the Southern mindset in a later chapter called "Treason". So Henry Adams has strong feelings about something, even if he feels blasé and "wanting in enthusiasm" about his time at Harvard.

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