At the end of three months, the only person, among the hundreds he had met, who had offered him a word of encouragement or had shown a sign of acquaintance with his doings, was Edward Atkinson. Boston was cool towards sons, whether prodigals or other, and needed much time to make up its mind what to do for them — time which Adams, at thirty years old, could hardly spare. He had not the courage or self-confidence to hire an office in State Street, as so many of his friends did, and doze there alone, vacuity within and a snowstorm outside, waiting for Fortune to knock at the door, or hoping to find her asleep in the elevator; or on the staircase, since elevators were not yet in use. Whether this course would have offered his best chance he never knew; it was one of the points in practical education which most needed a clear understanding, and he could never reach it. His father and mother would have been glad to see him stay with them and begin reading Blackstone again, and he showed no very filial tenderness by abruptly breaking the tie that had lasted so long. After all, perhaps Beacon Street was as good as any other street for his objects in life; possibly his easiest and surest path was from Beacon Street to State Street and back again, all the days of his years. Who could tell? Even after life was over, the doubt could not be determined.
In thus sacrificing his heritage, he only followed the path that had led him from the beginning. Boston was full of his brothers. He had reckoned from childhood on outlawry as his peculiar birthright. The mere thought of beginning life again in Mount Vernon Street lowered the pulsations of his heart. This is a story of education — not a mere lesson of life — and, with education, temperament has in strictness nothing to do, although in practice they run close together. Neither by temperament nor by education was he fitted for Boston. He had drifted far away and behind his companions there; no one trusted his temperament or education; he had to go.
Since no other path seemed to offer itself, he stuck to his plan of joining the press, and selected Washington as the shortest road to New York, but, in 1868, Washington stood outside the social pale. No Bostonian had ever gone there. One announced one's self as an adventurer and an office-seeker, a person of deplorably bad judgment, and the charges were true. The chances of ending in the gutter were, at best, even. The risk was the greater in Adams's case, because he had no very clear idea what to do when he got there. That he must educate himself over again, for objects quite new, in an air altogether hostile to his old educations, was the only certainty; but how he was to do it — how he was to convert the idler in Rotten Row into the lobbyist of the Capital — he had not an idea, and no one to teach him. The question of money is rarely serious for a young American unless he is married, and money never troubled Adams more than others; not because he had it, but because he could do without it, like most people in Washington who all lived on the income of bricklayers; but with or without money he met the difficulty that, after getting to Washington in order to go on the press, it was necessary to seek a press to go on. For large work he could count on the North American Review, but this was scarcely a press. For current discussion and correspondence, he could depend on the New York Nation; but what he needed was a New York daily, and no New York daily needed him. He lost his one chance by the death of Henry J. Raymond. The Tribune under Horace Greeley was out of the question both for political and personal reasons, and because Whitelaw Reid had already undertaken that singularly venturesome position, amid difficulties that would have swamped Adams in four-and-twenty hours. Charles A. Dana had made the Sun a very successful as well as a very amusing paper, but had hurt his own social position in doing it; and Adams knew himself well enough to know that he could never please himself and Dana too; with the best intentions, he must always fail as a blackguard, and at that time a strong dash of blackguardism was life to the Sun. As for the New York Herald, it was a despotic empire admitting no personality but that of Bennett. Thus, for the moment, the New York daily press offered no field except the free-trade Holy Land of the Evening Post under William Cullen Bryant, while beside it lay only the elevated plateau of the New Jerusalem occupied by Godkin and the Nation. Much as Adams liked Godkin, and glad as he was to creep under the shelter of the Evening Post and the Nation, he was well aware that he should find there only the same circle of readers that he reached in the North American Review.
The outlook was dim, but it was all he had, and at Washington, except for the personal friendship of Mr. Evarts who was then Attorney General and living there, he would stand in solitude much like that of London in 1861. Evarts did what no one in Boston seemed to care for doing; he held out a hand to the young man. Whether Boston, like Salem, really shunned strangers, or whether Evarts was an exception even in New York, he had the social instinct which Boston had not. Generous by nature, prodigal in hospitality, fond of young people, and a born man-of-the-world, Evarts gave and took liberally, without scruple, and accepted the world without fearing or abusing it. His wit was the least part of his social attraction. His talk was broad and free. He laughed where he could; he joked if a joke was possible; he was true to his friends, and never lost his temper or became ill-natured. Like all New Yorkers he was decidedly not a Bostonian; but he was what one might call a transplanted New Englander, like General Sherman; a variety, grown in ranker soil. In the course of life, and in widely different countries, Adams incurred heavy debts of gratitude to persons on whom he had no claim and to whom he could seldom make return; perhaps half-a-dozen such debts remained unpaid at last, although six is a large number as lives go; but kindness seldom came more happily than when Mr. Evarts took him to Washington in October, 1868.
Adams accepted the hospitality of the sleeper, with deep gratitude, the more because his first struggle with a sleeping-car made him doubt the value — to him — of a Pullman civilization; but he was even more grateful for the shelter of Mr. Evarts's house in H Street at the corner of Fourteenth, where he abode in safety and content till he found rooms in the roomless village. To him the village seemed unchanged. Had he not known that a great war and eight years of astonishing movement had passed over it, he would have noticed nothing that betrayed growth. As of old, houses were few; rooms fewer; even the men were the same. No one seemed to miss the usual comforts of civilization, and Adams was glad to get rid of them, for his best chance lay in the eighteenth century.
The first step, of course, was the making of acquaintance, and the first acquaintance was naturally the President, to whom an aspirant to the press officially paid respect. Evarts immediately took him to the White House and presented him to President Andrew Johnson. The interview was brief and consisted in the stock remark common to monarchs and valets, that the young man looked even younger than he was. The younger man felt even younger than he looked. He never saw the President again, and never felt a wish to see him, for Andrew Johnson was not the sort of man whom a young reformer of thirty, with two or three foreign educations, was likely to see with enthusiasm; yet, musing over the interview as a matter of education, long years afterwards, he could not help recalling the President's figure with a distinctness that surprised him. The old-fashioned Southern Senator and statesman sat in his chair at his desk with a look of self-esteem that had its value. None doubted. All were great men; some, no doubt, were greater than others; but all were statesmen and all were supported, lifted, inspired by the moral certainty of rightness. To them the universe was serious, even solemn, but it was their universe, a Southern conception of right. Lamar used to say that he never entertained a doubt of the soundness of the Southern system until he found that slavery could not stand a war. Slavery was only a part of the Southern system, and the life of it all — the vigor — the poetry — was its moral certainty of self. The Southerner could not doubt; and this self-assurance not only gave Andrew Johnson the look of a true President, but actually made him one. When Adams came to look back on it afterwards, he was surprised to realize how strong the Executive was in 1868 — perhaps the strongest he was ever to see. Certainly he never again found himself so well satisfied, or so much at home.