"Probably no child, born in the year, held better cards than he," the narrator says of the birth of Henry Brooks Adams in Boston, Massachusetts, on February 16, 1838. Through a series of impressions, he introduces the reader to Henry's boyhood world. Winters in Boston are filled with restraint, rules, confinement, school, and a sense of order that is thrillingly interrupted by wild snowball fights. Summers at his paternal grandparents' home in nearby Quincy bring freedom, delight, hope, and a close relationship with Grandfather John Quincy Adams, formerly the sixth President of the United States. Henry is a child of privilege; that, as much as anything, shapes the outer direction of his life. But his world is rapidly changing, a theme that will affect Henry's education throughout the book. Social change comes first. A trip to Maryland, Virginia and Washington D. C., with his father in 1850, introduces Henry to life in the near South, its appealing informality contrasting with the horrors of slavery, which the Adams family is devoted to eradicating even though it will mean Civil War.
The style of the book affects the reader's understanding. The narrator is Henry in his late sixties; he speaks in the third person, treating the younger Henry objectively except for occasional insights into the boy's attitudes. The reader rarely sees Henry's emotions. Adams speaks of the key figure as a manikin and his education as the various costumes draped across it. The reader soon learns that Adams is using the term "education" in an unusual, broad sense. He has little use for formal schooling, including Harvard College where Henry, as told in the book, is an average student but a good writer and speaker, graduating in 1858 as the Class Orator.
During a two-year "Grand Tour" of Europe, Henry makes a lame effort at studying law but finds that his German is inadequate and ends up devoting a term to learning the language in a Berlin prep school. He returns to work as a private secretary to his father, a Congressman, in Washington during the winter of 1860-1861. Having published some travel letters in the Boston Daily Courier while in Europe, Henry becomes the part-time Washington correspondent for the Boston Daily Advertiser during the winter of political turmoil leading up to the secession of many of the slave states.
Henry continues to serve as his father's private secretary during Charles Francis Adams's tenure as Minister to England (1861-1868). Frail and small (5' 3" tall), perhaps as the result of a nearly fatal bout of scarlet fever as a child, Henry is not a likely warrior and completely misses the American Civil War (1861-1865). Nevertheless, the war years do contribute to Henry's education and are especially intriguing because his father's Legation (mission) deals with pro-Confederate sympathies in England, and he successfully struggles to keep Britain officially neutral.
Henry's writing career progresses despite some bumps. He is the secret London correspondent of the New York Times for several months even though he knows that exposure would embarrass his father and the American Legation; he resigns only after nearly being discovered. After Henry returns to the States in July 1868, he works as a freelance political journalist in Washington, earning a reputation as a reformer, especially in articles dealing with American finance and the New York gold conspiracy.
The most poignant passage of the book (in Chapter XIX) concerns the death of Henry's sister Louisa. While vacationing in Europe, Henry learns that she has been in a cab accident near her home in Italy. He rushes to her side, but tetanus has already set in; she suffers an excruciating death a few days later. Henry is despondent and seeks solace in a monastery in England. Soon he receives a letter from the president of Harvard, offering a position as assistant professor of history and editor of the prestigious North American Review. He accepts the offer.
Despite Adams's self-effacing claims to the contrary, Henry is an effective, innovative teacher and editor. He pioneers the use of the seminar system, advocates the study of American history, introduces graduate studies in history, and encourages student evaluations as well as the keeping of journals. During the summer after his first academic year (1870-1871), he meets Clarence King on a geological expedition in Estes Park; King becomes a lifelong friend.
The Education simply skips the next twenty years (1872-1892). Rarely at ease with emotion or personal matters, Adams apparently avoids discussing the period because of his marriage to Marian Hooper (1872) and her suicide on December 6, 1885, which he never even mentions in the book. He does say that his life has been cut in two; in his letters, he refers to the rest of his life as "posthumous." However, some of his best work remains. He is still interested in politics, advocating independence for Cuba and supporting his friend John Hay's "Open Door" policy in China. The Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres (1904) and The Education of Henry Adams (1907) are privately published as companion pieces, representing, in turn, the medieval Christian unity of the thirteenth century and the burgeoning modern multiplicity of the age of science. Adams works to develop his complex "Dynamic Theory of History," discussed in detail in Chapters XXXIII and XXXIV of the Education. The book ends in 1905, seven years before Adams's partially paralyzing stroke, which leads to his death on March 27, 1918.