Southern Man

Another installment looking into The Education of Henry Adams. The author makes no bones about his opinion of the Southern mind. Sixty years before Neil Young’s song, Henry Adams does a take-down of the Southern Man and lays waste to the South all over again.

The Education of Henry Adams

Chap IV Harvard College (1854-58)

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.

Chap VII Treason (1860-61)

The Southern secessionists were victims of hallucination—haunted by suspicion, by idées fixes, by violent morbid excitement; but this was not all. They were stupendously ignorant of the world. As a class, the cotton-planters were mentally one-sided, ill-balanced, and provincial to a degree rarely known. They were a close society on whom the new fountains of power had poured a stream of wealth and slaves that acted like oil on flame. They showed a young student his first object-lesson of the way in which excess of power worked when held by inadequate hands.

No one learned a useful lesson from the Confederate school except to keep away from it.

The cotton-planters, from whom one could learn nothing but bad temper, bad manners, poker, and treason. Charles Sumner was then fifty years old. His election as Senator. After his Brooks injuries [On May 22, 1856, in the United States Congress, South Carolina Representative Preston Brooks attacked Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner with his walking cane in retaliation for a speech given by Sumner two days earlier], his nervous system never quite recovered its tone.

At this moment, he [Henry Adams] was looking at hundreds of Southern gentlemen who believed themselves singularly honest, but who seemed to him engaged in the plainest breach of faith and the blackest secret conspiracy.


Henry Adams was immersed in the political world of the United States. Is it surprising that in his opinions of the Southern mind, he would have strong feelings?

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