The Education of Henry Adams By Henry Adams Summary and Analysis Chapter XVII - President Grant

Summary

Initially optimistic about Grant's first term in office, Henry soon becomes disillusioned. Because of Grant's success during the Civil War, Henry assumes that the new President will at least be an effective administrator, as George Washington was, and have the wisdom to select top men for his Cabinet. The Cabinet announcements are disappointing to Henry because they indicate political inertia rather than reform. Adams prefers limited control for the federal government, a laissez-faire policy; but he does hope that Grant will restore power to the Constitution and get rid of "greenback" currency, which is not supported by gold. A visit to the White House is discouraging. Henry sees only a diminishing future for himself in Washington. As a writer, however, he has some success. The British Edinburgh Review publishes his "American Finance, 1865-1869" in April, editor Henry Reeve praising it with such enthusiasm that Henry includes the evaluation in a letter to his brother Charles. The North American Review carries two of his articles on the political situation in Washington; the Nation runs two on inside information, such as "A Peep into Cabinet Windows," in December.

Analysis

As an educational experience, the first Grant administration is a disappointment; as career advancement for Henry, he feels it is even worse. A reform journalist, Henry has high hopes for Grant's leadership. He is disappointed almost immediately. Grant's popularity is based on his achievements as a military leader in the Civil War; considering this, Henry expects the new executive to be at least an able administrator. "Grant represented order," the narrator says; but young Henry hopes for intellectual vitality and strengthening of the Constitution as well. These hopes are dashed with the first Cabinet announcements, which include choices that support the status quo. An example is the unimaginative George S. Boutwell for Secretary of the Treasury. In an area in which Henry has some expertise, he had hoped for the selection of David A. Wells, a man he considers brilliant and sympathetic to Henry's position. Henry still supports the gold standard and also seeks lower tariffs to broaden America's economy; by March, Henry has pretty well given up. As he says to a friend, there is virtually no hope for change. A visit to the White House is not encouraging. He finds Grant to be an "unintellectual . . . pre-intellectual" type, a man in whom only energy counts, a force of nature who may respond well to a fight but is all action and no thought. Henry is sure that Grant is not being ironic when he states, "Venice would be a fine city if it were drained." More important, Grant doesn't seem to care to be bothered with the problems of the government. When accepting the nomination for the Presidency on May 29, 1868, Grant had famously stated, "Let us have Peace." Henry now takes this to mean that the President simply wants to be left alone! Instead of changing bad laws, Grant maintains that they should be enforced so the people will be outraged and change the laws themselves. Rather than taking the lead, Grants seems to prefer to do nothing. His is a policy of drift; and drift, Adams avers, attracts only barnacles. In an intentionally silly interpretation of Darwin, Adams now wonders how Grant could have evolved from Washington.

Henry's writing is more rewarding. After spending the better part of three months on his financial piece for the Edinburgh Review, he is pleased that it is well received. The down side is that such articles are still printed anonymously in England so the essay, which is reprinted in American journals, is not widely attributed to the author. Henry is equally pleased with his work in the North American Review, advocating civil service reform, among other changes. Henry argues against patronage in the civil service; he wants to see an elite corps of career professionals. Henry's reputation as a writer is on the rise. Still, he is concerned about his career as a reformer in the stagnant political atmosphere of the Grant administration.

Glossary

demimonde (French) the class of women who have lost social standing due to sexual promiscuity; prostitutes.

abject of the lowest degree; miserable; wretched.

abet to incite, sanction, or help, especially in wrongdoing.

a priori (Latin) from cause to effect; from a generalization to particular instances.

lugubrious sad or mournful, especially in an exaggerated or ridiculous way.

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