The Education of Henry Adams By Henry Adams Summary and Analysis Chapter X - Political Morality

Summary

As the war worsens for the Union, the diplomatic situation in London grows more tense. British Foreign Secretary Lord Russell admits that the cruiser Alabama, which the Confederacy had built in England, should not have been allowed to set sail until a decision could be made regarding its legality. Increasingly, the affair seems to Henry to be a matter of intent rather than error. He wonders whether any politician can be trusted. With the aid of biographical publications, the narrator later examines the events of 1862 concerning a possible British recognition of the Confederacy.

Analysis

Continuing with the premise of the education of Henry Adams, the narrator considers the question of whether the young secretary should simply take for granted the bad faith of anyone involved in politics. Looking at events of 1862 from the vantage point of the early 1900s, with the help of various publications concerning the careers of the principal figures, he discovers that matters were more complicated than he knew at the time.

Recall that, in 1862, it has been less than a century since the United States became a nation, liberating itself from English control. Adams acknowledges Great Britain's financial interests in the Confederacy; but he also strongly suspects a lingering resentment, a desire to diminish the power of a country that declared its independence in 1776. In addition, since the beginning of the Civil War, there has been a concern among the British that should the United States lose the South, they may turn toward Canada for expansion. Additional troops have even been sent to fortify British-Canadian garrisons along the border. A further complication is that Napoleon III, emperor (1852-1871) of France, has an interest in taking Mexico and would welcome a weakened United States. Entering the autumn of 1862, England apparently maintains a position of neutrality toward the Civil War. But things are not going well for the Union. Rebel General Robert E. Lee has entered Maryland in early September. It may be that Washington could fall.

Within this context, the question of political trust is educational. The South appears to be on the brink of chasing President Lincoln from the Union capital. On September 14, Prime Minister Palmerston writes to the British Foreign Secretary, Lord Russell, and asks, "If this should happen, would it not be time for us to consider whether . . . England and France might not address the contending parties and recommend . . . separation?" Three days later, Russell responds even more strongly: "Whether the Federal army is destroyed or not," he says, the time has come to intervene and recognize the Southern states as a separate nation. Surprisingly, Palmerston proves the more prudent; he urges waiting for a military result before recognition. Other cabinet members support Palmerston. The Union army rallies, driving the rebels out of Maryland. Despite this reversal, William Ewart Gladstone, Chancellor of the Exchequer (and later Prime Minister), on October 7 makes a remarkable speech asserting that Jefferson Davis and the Confederacy "have made an army; they are making, it appears, a navy; and they have made, what is more than either, they have made a nation." Russell calls for a meeting of the Cabinet on October 23, hoping for diplomatic intervention, which would support the Confederacy. On the same day, he assures Minister Adams that the policy of the British government is to "adhere to a strict neutrality" and to allow the confrontation in America to settle itself. Palmerston opposes intervention; impressed by the Union's recent military success, the majority of the Cabinet joins him. Yet another crisis is barely averted.

The effect of all this for the narrator is to conclude that young Henry has learned absolutely nothing by 1862. Henry trusts Russell and judges him to be more prudent than Palmerston, whom he distrusts. His father and others at the Legation may not share Henry's ingenuousness; but even they have no idea, until years later, of the extent to which they are misled. The lesson, the narrator concludes, is that politicians deceive as a matter of practicality. Even the most trusted would say one thing but do another if they saw such deceit as being in their, or their country's, best interests. If the decisions ultimately prove successful, they are statesmen and heroes. If they are wrong, they are liars and cads. It may be a shock to young Henry, but this is all part of practical politics. A crisis is survived in London primarily because the Union has won its military battle in Maryland.

Glossary

indurate to make hard or callous.

Thurlow Weed (1797-1882) publisher of the Albany Journal; a leading anti-slavery editor.

abstruse hard to understand.

The Emancipation Proclamation Revealed by Lincoln to his Cabinet on September 22, 1862, and taking effect on January 1, 1863, it frees the slaves in all states and territories at war with the Union.

superfluous excessive, more than is needed.

turpitude depravity, baseness.

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