With Hay's politics, at home or abroad, Adams had nothing whatever to do. Hay belonged to the New York school, like Abram Hewitt, Evarts, W. C. Whitney, Samuel J. Tilden — men who played the game for ambition or amusement, and played it, as a rule, much better than the professionals, but whose aims were considerably larger than those of the usual player, and who felt no great love for the cheap drudgery of the work. In return, the professionals felt no great love for them, and set them aside when they could. Only their control of money made them inevitable, and even this did not always carry their points. The story of Abram Hewitt would offer one type of this statesman series, and that of Hay another. President Cleveland set aside the one; President Harrison set aside the other. "There is no politics in it," was his comment on Hay's appointment to office. Hay held a different opinion and turned to McKinley whose judgment of men was finer than common in Presidents. Mr. McKinley brought to the problem of American government a solution which lay very far outside of Henry Adams's education, but which seemed to be at least practical and American. He undertook to pool interests in a general trust into which every interest should be taken, more or less at its own valuation, and whose mass should, under his management, create efficiency. He achieved very remarkable results. How much they cost was another matter; if the public is ever driven to its last resources and the usual remedies of chaos, the result will probably cost more.
Himself a marvellous manager of men, McKinley found several manipulators to help him, almost as remarkable as himself, one of whom was Hay; but unfortunately Hay's strength was weakest and his task hardest. At home, interests could be easily combined by simply paying their price; but abroad whatever helped on one side, hurt him on another. Hay thought England must be brought first into the combine; but at that time Germany, Russia, and France were all combining against England, and the Boer War helped them. For the moment Hay had no ally, abroad or at home, except Pauncefote, and Adams always maintained that Pauncefote alone pulled him through.
Yet the difficulty abroad was far less troublesome than the obstacles at home. The Senate had grown more and more unmanageable, even since the time of Andrew Johnson, and this was less the fault of the Senate than of the system. "A treaty of peace, in any normal state of things," said Hay, "ought to be ratified with unanimity in twenty-four hours. They wasted six weeks in wrangling over this one, and ratified it with one vote to spare. We have five or six matters now demanding settlement. I can settle them all, honorably and advantageously to our own side; and I am assured by leading men in the Senate that not one of these treaties, if negotiated, will pass the Senate. I should have a majority in every case, but a malcontent third would certainly dish every one of them. To such monstrous shape has the original mistake of the Constitution grown in the evolution of our politics. You must understand, it is not merely my solution the Senate will reject. They will reject, for instance, any treaty, whatever, on any subject, with England. I doubt if they would accept any treaty of consequence with Russia or Germany. The recalcitrant third would be differently composed, but it would be on hand. So that the real duties of a Secretary of State seem to be three: to fight claims upon us by other States; to press more or less fraudulent claims of our own citizens upon other countries; to find offices for the friends of Senators when there are none. Is it worth while — for me — to keep up this useless labor?"
To Adams, who, like Hay, had seen a dozen acquaintances struggling with the same enemies, the question had scarcely the interest of a new study. He had said all he had to say about it in a dozen or more volumes relating to the politics of a hundred years before. To him, the spectacle was so familiar as to be humorous. The intrigue was too open to be interesting. The interference of the German and Russian legations, and of the Clan-na-Gael, with the press and the Senate was innocently undisguised. The charming Russian Minister, Count Cassini, the ideal of diplomatic manners and training, let few days pass without appealing through the press to the public against the government. The German Minister, Von Holleben, more cautiously did the same thing, and of course every whisper of theirs was brought instantly to the Department. These three forces, acting with the regular opposition and the natural obstructionists, could always stop action in the Senate. The fathers had intended to neutralize the energy of government and had succeeded, but their machine was never meant to do the work of a twenty-million horse-power society in the twentieth century, where much work needed to be quickly and efficiently done. The only defence of the system was that, as Government did nothing well, it had best do nothing; but the Government, in truth, did perfectly well all it was given to do; and even if the charge were true, it applied equally to human society altogether, if one chose to treat mankind from that point of view. As a matter of mechanics, so much work must be done; bad machinery merely added to friction.
Always unselfish, generous, easy, patient, and loyal, Hay had treated the world as something to be taken in block without pulling it to pieces to get rid of its defects; he liked it all: he laughed and accepted; he had never known unhappiness and would have gladly lived his entire life over again exactly as it happened. In the whole New York school, one met a similar dash of humor and cynicism more or less pronounced but seldom bitter. Yet even the gayest of tempers succumbs at last to constant friction The old friend was rapidly fading. The habit remained, but the easy intimacy, the careless gaiety, the casual humor, the equality of indifference, were sinking into the routine of office; the mind lingered in the Department; the thought failed to react; the wit and humor shrank within the blank walls of politics, and the irritations multiplied. To a head of bureau, the result seemed ennobling.
Although, as education, this branch of study was more familiar and older than the twelfth century, the task of bringing the two periods into a common relation was new. Ignorance required that these political and social and scientific values of the twelfth and twentieth centuries should be correlated in some relation of movement that could be expressed in mathematics, nor did one care in the least that all the world said it could not be done, or that one knew not enough mathematics even to figure a formula beyond the schoolboy s = gt^2/2. If Kepler and Newton could take liberties with the sun and moon, an obscure person in a remote wilderness like La Fayette Square could take liberties with Congress, and venture to multiply half its attraction into the square of its time. He had only to find a value, even infinitesimal, for its attraction at any given time. A historical formula that should satisfy the conditions of the stellar universe weighed heavily on his mind; but a trifling matter like this was one in which he could look for no help from anybody — he could look only for derision at best.
All his associates in history condemned such an attempt as futile and almost immoral — certainly hostile to sound historical system. Adams tried it only because of its hostility to all that he had taught for history, since he started afresh from the new point that, whatever was right, all he had ever taught was wrong. He had pursued ignorance thus far with success, and had swept his mind clear of knowledge. In beginning again, from the starting-point of Sir Isaac Newton, he looked about him in vain for a teacher. Few men in Washington cared to overstep the school conventions, and the most distinguished of them, Simon Newcomb, was too sound a mathematician to treat such a scheme seriously. The greatest of Americans, judged by his rank in science, Willard Gibbs, never came to Washington, and Adams never enjoyed a chance to meet him. After Gibbs, one of the most distinguished was Langley, of the Smithsonian, who was more accessible, to whom Adams had been much in the habit of turning whenever he wanted an outlet for his vast reservoirs of ignorance. Langley listened with outward patience to his disputatious questionings; but he too nourished a scientific passion for doubt, and sentimental attachment for its avowal. He had the physicist's heinous fault of professing to know nothing between flashes of intense perception. Like so many other great observers, Langley was not a mathematician, and like most physicists, he believed in physics. Rigidly denying himself the amusement of philosophy, which consists chiefly in suggesting unintelligible answers to insoluble problems, he still knew the problems, and liked to wander past them in a courteous temper, even bowing to them distantly as though recognizing their existence, while doubting their respectability. He generously let others doubt what he felt obliged to affirm; and early put into Adams's hands the "Concepts of Modern Science," a volume by Judge Stallo, which had been treated for a dozen years by the schools with a conspiracy of silence such as inevitably meets every revolutionary work that upsets the stock and machinery of instruction. Adams read and failed to understand; then he asked questions and failed to get answers.
Probably this was education. Perhaps it was the only scientific education open to a student sixty-odd years old, who asked to be as ignorant as an astronomer. For him the details of science meant nothing: he wanted to know its mass. Solar heat was not enough, or was too much. Kinetic atoms led only to motion; never to direction or progress. History had no use for multiplicity; it needed unity; it could study only motion, direction, attraction, relation. Everything must be made to move together; one must seek new worlds to measure; and so, like Rasselas, Adams set out once more, and found himself on May 12 settled in rooms at the very door of the Trocadero.