Keeping up with a changing world — Henry Adams

Henry Adams of Quincy, Mass., the grandson of John Quincy Adams, thought of himself as an eighteenth-century boy growing up in a rapidly-changing nineteenth-century world. He commented as a historian on the ever-accelerating changes he witnessed.

The Education of Henry Adams

The eighteenth-century Boy

In the opening chapter, Adams explained what he meant by "eighteenth-century boy" and identified the competing forces and factions of State Street [the business and financial side] versus Quincy and Beacon Hill [the government side] dominating the landscape.

He could under no circumstances have guessed what the next fifty years had in store, and no one could teach him; but sometimes, in his old age, he wondered—and could never decide—whether the most clear and certain knowledge would have helped him. Supposing he had seen a New York stock-list of 1900, and had studied the statistics of railways, telegraphs, coal, and steel—would he have quitted his eighteenth-century, his abstract ideals? The material advantages seemed to lie wholly in State Street.

What was the dispute between State Street and Quincy?

With the record of J. Q. Adams fresh in the popular memory, his son [Charles Adams, Henry’s father] and his only representative could not make terms with the slave-power, and the slave-power overshadowed all the great Boston interests.

In 1848 Charles Adams was nominated for Vice-President by a newly-formed anti-slavery party meeting in Buffalo. They nominated Martin Van Buren for President. As Charles’ son, Henry Adams held strongly anti-slavery views.

Henry inherited a New England Puritan sense of morality. This changed during his life:

Of all the conditions of his youth which afterwards puzzled the grown-up man, this disappearance of religion puzzled him most. The boy went to church twice every Sunday; he was taught to read his Bible, and he learned religious poetry by heart; he believed in a mild deism; he prayed; he went through all the forms; but neither to him nor to his brothers or sisters was religion real. Even the mild discipline of the Unitarian Church was so irksome that they all threw it off at the first possible moment, and never afterwards entered a church. The religious instinct had vanished, and could not be revived, although one made in later life many efforts to recover it.

As a rule boys could skate and swim and were sent to dancing-school; they played a rudimentary game of baseball, football, and hockey; a few could sail a boat; still fewer had been out with a gun to shoot yellow-legs or a stray wild duck; one or two may have learned something of natural history if they came from the neighborhood of Concord; none could ride across country, or knew what shooting with dogs meant. Sport as a pursuit was unknown. Boat-racing came after 1850. As far as happiness went, the happiest hours of the boy's education were passed in summer lying on a musty heap of Congressional Documents in the old farmhouse at Quincy, reading "Quentin Durward," "Ivanhoe," and “The Talisman" and raiding the garden at intervals for peaches and pears. On the whole he learned most then.

Not Prepared for the Changes

Only on looking back, fifty years later, at his own figure in 1854, and pondering on the needs of the twentieth century, he wondered whether, on the whole, the boy of 1854 stood nearer to the thought of 1904, or to that of the year 1. In the concepts of all science, except perhaps mathematics, the American boy of 1854 stood nearer the year 1 than to the year 1900. The education he had received bore little relation to the education he needed. Speaking as an American of 1900, he had is yet no education at all.

He knew not even where or how to begin.

Aware of the Advances of Science

Adams devotes chapter XV to a discussion of Darwinism. He understands Darwin’s theory as bringing uniformity, by which I think he means the unbroken sequence of evolution of species. Adams was introduced to Darwin’s principals by Charles Lyell, a friend of the American legation in London. Adams appreciated the importance given to Darwin’s theory but did not adopt scientific thinking himself.

End of the western frontier

Hunting out west with John Hay in the 1890s,

Compared with the Rockies of 1871, the sense of wilderness had vanished; one saw no possible adventures except to break one’s neck as in chasing an aniseed fox. Only the more intelligent ponies scented an occasional friendly and sociable bear.

Keeping up with the changing world

It occurred to Adams that the purpose of education is to help us align ourselves with the prevailing force fields populating the Earth:

The object of education, therefore, was changed. For many years it had lost itself in studying what the world had ceased to care for; if it were to begin again, it must try to find out what the mass of mankind did care for, and why. Religion, politics, statistics, travel had thus far led to nothing.

Chap XXII. Chicago (1893)

The Chicago exposition. Beginning of the age of technology. Adams had never talked through a telephone.

The new society: submission to capitalism.

Of all forms of society or government, this was the one he liked least, but his likes or dislikes were as antiquated as the rebel doctrine or States Rights.

Chap XXV. The Dynamo and the Virgin (1900)

Dynamo — the new industrial force. Represented in the Chicago Exposition, where Adams learned about the marvels of the Daimler automobile engine,

From 1850 to 1900 the amount of force controlled by society had enormously increased.

The Virgin — the forces of religion.

Adams never tired of quoting the supreme phrase of his Gibbon [The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire], standing before the Gothic cathedrals: "I darted a contemptuous look on the stately monuments of superstition."

All one’s life, one had struggled for unity, and unity had always won. . . the Darwinian evolutionists were triumphant over all the curates[clergy]; yet the greater the unity and the momentum, the worse became the complexity and the friction. The active geologists had mostly become specialists dealing with complexities far too technical for an amateur, but the old formulas still seemed to serve for beginners, as they had served when new.

Big Business

Roosevelt enjoyed a singularly direct nature and honest intent, but he lived naturally in restless agitation that would have worn out most tempers in a month. . . Roosevelts are born and never can be taught. [i.e. a force of nature]

Modern politics is, at bottom, a struggle not of men but of forces. The men become every year more and more creatures of force, massed about central power-houses.” [This touches on Teddy Roosevelt’s historic attempts to prevent big business from too gaining much power.]

The movement of New York had become planetary — beyond control — while the task of Washington, in 1900 as in 1800, was to control it. The success of Washington in the past century promised ill for its success in the next. The problem that Roosevelt took in hand seemed it would need at least another half-century to show results.


[On a train trip to St. Louis with John Hay] Adams thought the Secretary of State should have rushed to the platform at every station to ask who were the people; for the American of the prime seemed to be extinct with the Shawnee and the buffalo. Millions of Germans and Slavs, or whatever their race-names, who had overflowed these regions.

The New and the Old

The St. Louis Exposition [see Judy Garland movie] One saw there a third-rate town of half a million people without history. Threw away thirty or forty million dollars on a pageant. The world had never witnessed so marvelous a phantasm; long lines of white palaces, exquisitely lighted by thousands of electric candles. One enjoyed it not because of exhibits but rather because of their want. The power was wasted, the art indifferent, the economic failure complete.

June 5 found him in the town of Coutances, France, where the people of Normandy had built, towards the year 1250, an Exposition which architects still admired and tourists visited, for it was thought singularly expressive of force as well as grace in the Virgin. The scene was graceful.

Adams decided to buy an automobile. This was the form of force which Adams most abominated. [I wonder what John Quincy Adams would have thought, driving around the countryside of France in an automobile.] He had set aside the summer for study of the Virgin, not as a sentiment but as a motive power, which had left monuments widely scattered and not easily reached. The automobile alone could unite them in any reasonable sequence, although the force of the automobile, for the purposes of a commercial traveler, seemed to have no relation whatever to the force that inspired a Gothic cathedral. The Virgin led the automobile and its owner where she would, to her wonderful palaces and chateaux, from Chartres to Rouen, and thence to Amiens.

Her own age had no time measure, and if the automobile had one vitesse more useful than another, it was that of a century a minute; that of passing from one century to another without break. The centuries dropped like autumn leaves in one's road, and one was not fined for running over them too fast. When the thirteenth lost breath, the fourteenth caught on, and the sixteenth ran close ahead. France abounds in sixteenth-century glass. The neighborhood within fifty miles contains scores of churches where the student may still imagine himself three hundred years old.

One late afternoon, at midsummer, when he noticed one or two men looking at a bit of paper stuck in a window. Approaching, he read that M. de Plehve [head of the Tsar’s secret police] had been assassinated at St. Petersburg. The mad mixture of Russia and the Crusades. Martyrs, murderers, Caesars, saints and assassins— half in stained glass and half in telegram. Was assassination forever to be the last word of progress? The stupendous failure of Christianity tortured history. The old formulas had failed, and a new one had to be made, but after all, the object was not extravagant or eccentric. One sought no absolute truth. One sought only a spool on which to wind the thread of history without breaking it. Therefore, when the fogs and frosts stopped his slaughter of the centuries, and shut him up again in his garret, he sat down as though he were again a boy at school to shape after his own needs the values of a Dynamic Theory of History.

Chap XXXIV. A Law of Acceleration (1904)

The historian to measure some kinds of social movement; in the nineteenth century, society by common accord agreed in measuring its progress by the coal-output. The ratio of increase in the volume of coal power may serve as a dynamometer. Unless the calculator [prior meaning of calculator] was prepared to be instantly overwhelmed by the physical force and mental complexity, he must stop there.

[Progress in western Europe]

Behind [before] the year 1400, the process certainly went on, but the progress became so slight as to be hardly unmeasurable. An architect might detect a sequence between the Church of St. Peter’s at Rome, the Amiens Cathedral, the Duomo at Pisa, Sam Marco at Venice, Sancta Sofia at Constantinople, and the churches at Ravenna.

The law of progress, a law of acceleration. In every age man has bitterly and justly complained the Nature hurled and hustled him. Fifty years ago, science took it for granted that the rate of acceleration could not last.

Impossibilities no longer stood in the way. Before the boy was six years old, he had seen four possibilities made actual—the ocean-steamer, the railway, the electric telegraph, and the Daguerreotype.

The social mind now failed to respond to new force. So-called accidents with enormous destruction of property and life, laughing at man, who helplessly groaned and shrieked and shuddered, but never for a single instant could stop. The railways, automobiles and fire-arms ravaged society until an earthquake became almost a nervous relaxation.

Fortunately, a student of history, if he had, at times, felt serious differences with the American of the nineteenth century, he felt none with the American of the twentieth. For this new creation, born since 1900, a historian asked no longer to be teacher or even friend; he asked only to be a pupil, for he could see that the new American — the child of incalculable coal-power, chemical power, electric power, and radiating energy, as well as of new forces yet undetermined — must be a sort of God compared with any former creation of nature. 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 nineteenth century would stand on the same plain with the fourth — equally childlike — and would only wonder how both of them, knowing so little, and so weak in force, should have done so much. Perhaps even he might go back, in 1964, to sit with Gibbon on the steps of Ara Coeli [church in Rome].

The attempt of the American of 1800 to educate the American of 1900 had not often been surpassed for folly; the attempt of the American of 1900 to educate the American of 2000 must be even blinder.

The most elementary books of science betrayed the inadequacy of old implements of thought. Chapter after chapter closed with phrases such as one never met in order literature: "The cause of this phenomenon is not understood". . . Evidently the new American would need to think in contradictions. It would require a new social mind. Thus far, since five or ten thousand years, the mind had successfully reacted, and nothing yet proved that it would fail to react—but it would need to jump.

Chap XXXV. Modern Age (1905)

Nearly forty years had passed since the ex-private secretary landed at New York. As he came up the bay again, 1904, the outline of the city became frantic in its effort to explain something that defied meaning. Power seemed to have outgrown its servitude and to have asserted its freedom. The cylinder had exploded, and thrown great masses of stone and steam against the sky. All New York was demanding new men, and all the new forces, condensed into corporations, were demanding a new type of man — a man with ten times the endurance, energy, will and mind of the old type — for whom they were ready to pay millions at sight.

For the old one had plainly reached the end of his strength, and his failure had become catastrophic. The two-thousand-years failure of Christianity roared upward from Broadway, and no Constantine the Great was in sight.

The traveler went on to Washington. There Roosevelt was training Constantines and battling Trusts. The Trusts and Corporations stood for the larger part of the new power that had been created since 1840, and were obnoxious because of their vigorous and unscrupulous energy. They were revolutionary, troubling all the old conventions and values, as the screws of ocean steamers must trouble a school of herring. They tore society to pieces and trampled it under foot.

Roosevelt—the single problem before him was not so much to control the Trusts as to create the society that could manage the Trusts. Mechanical power had already wrenched the American mind into a crab-like process which Roosevelt was making heroic efforts to restore to even action. In that, a nineteenth-century education was as useless or misleading as an eighteenth-century education had been to the child of 1838.


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