The Education of Henry Adams By Henry Adams Summary and Analysis Chapter XXVI-XXVII - Twilight and Teufelsdröckh


Adams considers the achievements of his friend John Hay, Secretary of State (to Presidents McKinley and then Theodore Roosevelt) from 1898 until his death in 1905. Hay's participation in the Open Door Policy regarding China, the quelling of the Boxer Rebellion, and the planning of the Panama Canal are of particular interest. While Henry does not always agree with Hay, he admires the leadership that his friend gives the country. The contrast between unity and multiplicity takes on added meaning for Henry. He attempts to place the concepts within the Hegelian dialect of contradiction.


Writing initially for a circle of relatively close friends, the narrator continues his habit of fleetingly mentioning events as if the reader is thoroughly familiar with them. Here, they have to do with John Hay's tenure as Secretary of State. Under President McKinley, Hay established an Open Door policy (begun in 1899) in China. This was designed to guarantee equal trade opportunities for all interested countries. Adams is concerned that his friend is taking too great a risk because of China's defensive posture toward its traditionally hostile neighbor Japan and toward the West. Hay succeeds in gaining support from the major powers. Germany, Russia, France, and Japan, for example, all have interests in expanded trade with China. Britain has secretly been advocating its own "open" policy. The problem is that the Chinese themselves are not so enthusiastic. Adams writes a long, sardonic letter to Hay warning that the "Open Door" may be off its hinges and Hay left with nowhere to turn. But Hay persists.

A secret organization of Chinese, called the Righteous and Harmonious Fists (thus referred to as Boxers by Westerners) begins to terrorize Christian missionaries whom the Boxers see as representing Western efforts to exploit the nation. In June of 1900, the Dowager Empress officially supports the Boxers and orders that all foreigners be killed. The Legations in Peking (now called Beijing), the Chinese capital, are filled with refugees. Rumors spread that the Boxers have massacred countless refugees, stirring talk of revenge around the world. Through diplomatic channels, Hay manages to spread the word that the Legations are safe. A relief expedition consisting of troops from the major powers occupies Peking on August 14, forcing China to agree to peace terms. Hay insists on the territorial and administrative integrity of China. China is forced to pay damages, but Hay sees to it that the United States uses its share to provide scholarships to Chinese students who want to study in America. He writes Adams that he feels it is worth all the risks to be a part of the opening of China, an issue that will still be controversial more than a century later.

McKinley is assassinated in September 1901, a few months into his second term. His vice president, Theodore Roosevelt, takes the oath of office on September 14. Under the administrations of McKinley and Roosevelt, with the leadership of Hay, the United States becomes a prestigious international power. In 1901, Hay also negotiates the Hay-Pauncefote Treaty, opening the way for the construction of the Panama Canal.

Adams sees that the science and technology of his youth are in their twilight and accepts the dawn of the age of electricity with mixed feelings. He continues his early efforts to formulate a new understanding of history. He sees unity in medieval Christianity. God is one: The cross, the chalice, the Gothic cathedral and the Virgin all are one. In the new science, he sees multiplicity. Education in the new era tends toward complexity, even confusion, which he sees as necessary and positive. The opposite of confusion is not clarity but ignorance. Henry looks to the German philosopher Hegel (1770-1831) and his theory of historical development. Put simply, Hegel maintains that development begins with a thesis. In opposition to it is an antithesis. This conflict results in a synthesis, which serves as the future thesis, to be confronted in the next step. According to the Hegelian approach, the old thesis here is unity. The new antithesis is multiplicity. Henry cannot see what the future synthesis will be; to him, in 1901, it appears to be chaos: "He admitted that, for the moment, the darkness was dense. He could not affirm with confidence, even to himself, that his 'largest synthesis' would certainly turn out to be chaos, since he would be equally obliged to deny the chaos." If Adams seems confusing as the reader struggles to understand, keep in mind that he, too, is struggling and confused. He begins by saying that the answer he seeks probably does not exist. The approach is filled with paradox: Learning results in ignorance; ignorance is wisdom; order leads to chaos. Adams would not be disappointed if his readers came away with the conclusion that the only truth is that there is no truth. At this point, perhaps it all amounts to Teufelsdröckh. But Adams has not finished his search for a theory of history. Indeed, he has barely begun.


Teufelsdröckh (German) devil's dung. The central character in Thomas Carlyle's Sartor Resartus (1836).

paroxysm a sudden attack, as of a disease or a sudden outburst, as of laughter.

opprobrium the disgrace or infamy attached to shameful conduct.

culbute (French) somersault; downfall.

ontologist one who studies ontology, the branch of metaphysics dealing with the nature of being or reality.

orthodox conforming to the usual beliefs or established doctrines.

Götterdämmerung (German) twilight of the Gods; the total, usually violent, collapse of a society, regime, or institution.

philistine a person regarded as smugly narrow and conventional in views and taste.

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