Summary and Analysis
As Henry enters adolescence, he begins to notice the complications of life. The stereotypes of class distinction are less acceptable. A trip to Washington, D. C., alerts him to some of the realities of a slave culture. During a visit to George Washington's home at Mount Vernon, in the slave state of Virginia, he becomes aware of the fact that great men can sometimes be associated with wicked practices. He is further disillusioned by a political deal struck by the Free Soilers but is relieved that his father has nothing to do with it. Despite all of these experiences, he writes that, at the age of sixteen, Henry has "had as yet no education at all."
The narrator presents a series of experiences that cause young Henry to question the life of privilege that he has taken for granted. The first is a traditional snowball fight in Boston in which the rich West End kids, mostly students at the Latin School, take on the "blackguards from the slums led by a grisly terror called Conky Daniels." At the age of twelve, it has not yet occurred to Henry that his group may not be superior in every way. Not only did his paternal ancestors found the country, but his maternal grandfather (Peter Chardon Brooks, 1767-1849) died the wealthiest man in Boston. In the snowball fight, Henry's side prevails initially; but as the day wears on and the ranks thin, the slum kids attack. Outnumbered, the West Enders make a stand; a few flee. Henry is small and weak but stays because his older brother Charles stays. To their surprise, the "terrible" Conky Daniels honors their courage, salutes them with an oath, and sweeps on to chase the flyers. The "moral taught that blackguards were not so black as they were painted." It occurs to the older narrator that boys from both sides would die equally on the battle fields of Virginia and Maryland in the Civil War a dozen years later.
The narrator again employs contrast effectively as Henry's father takes him to visit (in May 1850) Henry's paternal grandmother, widowed and living in Washington. The trip, by rail and boat, takes Henry through his first slave state, Maryland, and later to another, Virginia, to see George Washington's home at Mount Vernon. The boy is struck by the opposing images of freedom and slavery. In the slave states, the countryside is lush and beautiful. There is an impression, even in the city, of an absence of barriers, a relaxed indolence, an open spirit. This contrasts shockingly with the reality of slavery: "it was a nightmare; a horror; a crime; the sum of all wickedness! Contact made it only more repulsive." He wants to escape, along with the blacks, to free soil. While Mount Vernon itself is lovely, it represents the Virginia white owners' profits from slavery. Henry can't fathom the contradiction. How could the father of his country be associated with such evil? He respectfully tries to fall back on the "simple elementary fact that George Washington stood alone." His education has not prepared him to go beyond that.
A political deal struck by some of the Free Soil Party leaders further disillusions the boy. They negotiate a bargain to support a pro-slavery democrat for the office of Governor of Massachusetts in exchange for democratic support of the Free Soil candidate for United States Senator. This is Henry's "first lesson in practical politics" and a shocking one. His one consolation is that his father will have no part of it.
Despite all of these experiences, the narrator ends the chapter by telling the reader that Henry has not yet received any real education at all. In fact, he says, Henry does not even know where or how to begin to look for one. He will next try formal education at one of the most respected colleges in the land — with dubious results.
blackguard scoundrel, villain.
immolation sacrifice, destruction.
John Marshall (1755-1835) Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court (1801-1835), developing the court's role as interpreter of the Constitution.
cant special words or phrases used by those in a particular occupation.
casuistry the application of general principles of ethics to specific issues.
conclave a private or secret meeting.