Summary and Analysis
The narrator offers a detailed introduction of his father, Charles Francis Adams (1807-1886) and identifies his position on the predominant political issue of the day, slavery. In 1848, the newly formed Free Soil Party nominates Martin Van Buren to run for President and Charles Francis Adams as its Vice Presidential candidate. Henry's impressions of formal religion are as negative as his views toward formal education.
It is difficult for any son to evaluate his father objectively, but Henry Adams comes close. He justifiably describes Charles Francis as a man of balanced mind, even temper, and excellent judgment. He lacks John Adams's boldness and John Quincy's imagination and oratorical skills; his intellect and memory are not exceptional. But he is perceptive and clear-headed. He strongly opposes slavery.
The political context needs to be clarified. In 1834, United States Senators Daniel Webster of Massachusetts and Henry Clay of Kentucky had formed the Whig Party from the followers of John Quincy Adams and those opposed to Andrew Jackson. The Whigs were a coalition of western farmers, eastern capitalists, and, most significantly, southern slave owners. Charles Francis Adams could not stand with the slave owners, despite the family's former ties to the Whigs, and bolts the party to join in the formation of a new, anti-slavery party called the Free Soil. The party opposes allowing slavery in new states and territories; it also opposes the Fugitive Slave Law, which allows for the return of slaves captured in free states. Survival of the Union and opposition to slavery will dominate the lives of Charles Francis and Henry for the next twenty years. The narrator calls the Free Soil Party a "chief influence in the education of the boy Henry," affecting his character in formative years and preparing him for the issues, especially the issue of slavery, of the Civil War of 1861-1865.
It is important to notice that, during these years, Henry becomes disillusioned with formal religion. Initially attending church twice every Sunday, reading his Bible, and memorizing sacred poetry, he eventually comes to the conclusion that religion has no meaning for him. Even the moderate discipline of the Unitarian church is excessive. It especially bothers him that "the most intelligent society, led by the most intelligent clergy," turns its eyes away from the social and political problems of the day. Beyond the age of sixteen, formal religion will have no influence on Henry's education.
The boy continues to find formal education a waste or worse. He has a "passionate hatred of school methods." He is certain that studying at home with his father for an hour a day would surpass whatever the schools offer. Henry maintains that he could do well in life if he could master only four subjects: Mathematics, French, German, and Spanish. With typical self-effacement, Adams claims that he never managed to control any of them, but he was actually fluent in French and German. It is true that his later attempts to form a scientific theory of history suffered from his lack of education in advanced mathematics.
State Street here, the financial district of Boston, with ties to southern pro-slavery interests.
aver to declare to be true.
woolsack a cushion stuffed with wool, on which the British Lord Chancellor sits in the House of Lords.
Unitarian a person who denies the doctrine of the Trinity and the divinity of Jesus, maintaining that God is a single being.
naïf (French) naïve; unaffectedly, or sometimes foolishly, simple.
desultory disconnected; passing from one thing to another in an aimless way.