Summary and Analysis
Henry returns to Quincy in October 1860. On November 6, he casts his vote for the Republican candidate for President of the United States, Abraham Lincoln; that same day, Henry begins the study of law at the office of Judge Horace A. Gray. Again, the effort is short-lived. By the beginning of December, young Adams is in Washington, D. C., where he assumes duties as private secretary to his father, a member of the House of Representatives. Henry will also serve anonymously as the Washington correspondent for the Boston Daily Advertiser. The major political issue that winter is the possible secession of the Southern, pro-slavery states, made more likely by the election of Lincoln. On March 20, 1861, the new Secretary of State, William Henry Seward, commissions Henry's father, Charles Francis Adams, Minister to England. Henry is to serve there as the minister's private secretary.
The historical setting of what Adams calls "the great secession winter" (in an essay ultimately published by the Massachusetts Historical Society, 1909-1910) is paramount. The Adamses have aligned themselves with the new Republican Party, which took a stand in 1856 to oppose the extension of slavery into the territories or new states. As a moderate Republican, Charles Francis Adams backs William H. Seward in an attempt to preserve the Union and the Constitution through compromise. Above all, Henry's father does not want the North to force Civil War. His position is that the war, if it comes, must be precipitated by the slave-owning states and become their act of treason. South Carolina has already announced that it would secede if Lincoln were elected. Senator Charles Sumner leads the radical "Ultras," Republicans who wish to force the issue with the South. Although Sumner has been a longtime friend of the Adams family, dining with them weekly, the friendship ends over this political breach. Lincoln is sworn in on March 4, 1861. On April 12, Confederate troops fire on Fort Sumter in the harbor of Charleston, South Carolina, the first shots of the Civil War. Although his brother Charles will serve in the war, Henry will be a private secretary to his father, in England, for the duration. Henry's oldest brother, John, will stay home to tend to family business.
Henry's career as a writer develops further as he is appointed Washington correspondent for the Republican Boston Daily Advertiser. From December 7, 1860, through February 11, 1861, he publishes a series of unsigned letters supporting Seward's and his father's moderate approach to what he privately recognizes as inevitable secession. The series ends when the newspaper's editor, Charles Hale, appoints himself Washington correspondent. The editor does praise Henry's work, which is noticeably more mature and perceptive than were his letters from Europe. On the delicate issue of secession, for example, Henry's second letter (December 10) attempts to calm his father's constituents by suggesting that "mere temporary secession" would not necessarily mean disunion. The moderate Republicans hope to buy time until Lincoln's inaugural, and Henry's "Letters from Washington" do help. In the end, the moderates achieve their goal: If war must come, let the Confederates start it.
prodigal exceedingly or recklessly wasteful; generous to a fault.
lurid vivid in a harsh or shocking way.
Quantula . . . regitur! (Latin) With how little wisdom the world is regulated!
paradox a statement or situation that seems contradictory but may be true.
bouffée (French) puff, gust, bombast.