Summary and Analysis Chapter XVI



On a hot July night in 1868, the Adams family arrives in the States after seven years abroad. Henry is thirty years old. After a few months of relaxation and renewing friendships, he leaves Boston on October 12 to become a freelance journalist in Washington; en route to the nation's capital, he stops off in New York and arranges to do some work for the Nation as well as the Post. Henry's review of Sir Charles Lyell's latest edition of the Principles of Geology appears in the North American Review. United States Attorney General William M. Evarts hosts Henry in his home until the young man finds suitable housing. Seward is still Secretary of State but is of little practical help to Henry, an example of a favorite Adams aphorism that may seem odd considering his many advantages: "Every friend in power is a friend lost." Ulysses S. Grant wins the presidential election in November. Henry becomes interested in issues involving governmental control of the economy, especially "greenback" currency.


Adams does not allow a great deal of insight into his personal life, but certain matters here bear consideration. First, it is clear throughout the book that Henry is a child of privilege. He has unusually rich advantages; if he rarely recognizes this, perhaps it is because he has never known another life. When he arrives in Washington, he points out that the "first step of course, was the making of acquaintance, and the first acquaintance was naturally the President." He is not being ironic. For Henry, grandson of one President and great-grandson of another, it seems quite natural, of course, that the nation's Attorney General should take him to meet President Andrew Johnson. Nor is Henry strapped for funds, although he mentions having to make a living several times in the Education. In his adult life, Adams enjoys an increasing annual income, mostly from family and personal investments, of between $6,000 and $50,000, during a period of negligible taxes when a top professor at Harvard or a reasonably successful businessman may make $4,000. As a beginning assistant professor at Harvard, in 1870, he will earn $2,000 for the school year and spend about $30 per month for room and board. So Adams is more than comfortable whether he works or not. Remember, as Jean Gooder points out, that the Education was originally written for close friends, many of whom were significantly wealthier than Adams.

Adams's public personality is of interest. He was a small man, five feet three inches tall and slightly built; but he could be quite aggressive verbally. While he often was charming, he was known as a sardonic debater even in social situations. In London, he was not above challenging a casual observation by a hostess who said that she could always tell Americans on sight. He asked her to identify one American and one Englishman in a group of strangers and delighted in pointing out her errors. An acquaintance in Washington in December 1868, Moorfield Storey, reports in a memoir that Henry is an acerbic young man in a social setting, "laying down the law with a certain assumption;" in private, Adams was usually pleasant and friendly.

The issue of most interest to Henry in the late fall of 1868 is the constitutionality of the wartime greenback currency. For purposes of expediency during the war, the federal government issued paper money, which was not supported by gold, by passing the Legal Tender Act. Two cases come before the United States Supreme Court in early December 1868, challenging the constitutionality of the Act. Being a strict constructionist regarding the Constitution, and a supporter of "hard" money (backed by gold) at this point in his life, Henry journalistically takes the side opposed to the government. In an article published in the Nation on December 17, Adams argues that the Constitution is based on a "doctrine of limited powers;" regardless of the stress of the times, no government agency has the right to extend those powers. Issuing paper money without gold backing is, he concludes, unconstitutional. Adams even goes out of his way to attack, by name, his recent host, Attorney General Evarts, who has argued that "the safety of the state . . . in times of national peril" supersedes a literal interpretation of the Constitution. The Court initially finds that greenbacks are unconstitutional; soon after, with two new justices appointed by President Grant, it reverses itself and supports greenbacks as legal tender. (For a thorough discussion of the issue, see Ernest Samuels' The Young Henry Adams.) Evarts accepts Adams's aggressive attack as part of the business of journalism and continues to befriend the young reformer.


flotsam or jetsam odds and ends.

doctrinaire a person who dogmatically applies theory regardless of practical problems.

filial suitable to a son or daughter.