The Education of Henry Adams and the Microcosm for 19th Century America

The 19th century was a time of rapid growth and development in a multitude of ways economically and socially. The United States of America was developing from a union of states into a worldwide political power. This movement included western and imperial expansion, worldwide marketing, a rapid industrial revolution, mass movement into cities, immigration from all over the world, and huge economic advancement. The United States of America had changed from a newly-formed, idealistic republic into an imperial giant, and the individuals within America had to come to terms with this change. Although Henry Adams, the author of his autobiographical work Education of Henry Adams, had received extensive formal education, he was left unprepared for the changing world, just as much of society was. In this way, he found himself a microcosm of a society facing rapid change, simply trying to react and take control of their personal lives in order to protect themselves. In the autobiography, Adams writes in third person in order to understand his own life and reflect upon the world changing around him, focusing on how his formal education had left him unprepared due to its focus on reaction rather than applying one’s own forces to the world, which justified the different reactions of the many groups throughout the chaos of the expansion.

Henry Adams was born with a great chance at success, writing that “probably no child, born in the year, held better cards than he.” This great opportunity in comparison with the outcome showed just how unprepared his formal education, which should have in theory opened doors for him, left him in the face of the changing 19th century. He was born into an extremely successful and aristocratic family. His grandfather and great-great-grandfather were both presidents of the United States. His father was successful as well, and Adams commented on his having a balanced mind. He was educated in the manner in which aristocrats were educated during this time, but developed a “passionate hatred of school methods” because their focus was on memorization and theoretical problems rather than preparation for the real world as he first saw and realized through George Washington. He saw the juxtaposition between Washington’s good morality and his keeping of slaves, which Adams viewed as “the sum of all wickedness.” He then attended Harvard University, but his opinion of formal education did not change. He found the lecture style used to be useless as it was the same as he had experienced back home, over a wide variety of topics. His expectations were continually contradicted as he moved to London, England in order to help his father during the American Civil War. He had expected the states to unify against the apparent injustice of the slavery of humans, but was disappointed when the country broke apart to fight each other, one of the reasons of which was to keep slaves. The new life in England also were not to his expectations as he was regarded without respect, despite his status as an aristocrat. The politicians in England often moved out of personal interest instead of the good of the country, such as when the prime minister, Palmerston, pushed for recognition of the South as a separate entity for his own economic reasons, rendering the advice of Adams’ father useless. Again Henry Adams had his expectations contradicted in reality, as he thought politicians worked for the good of their country above all else. Upon his return to America, he found that his aristocratic influence was diminishing. He had no voice or control in either the paperback policy or the Gold scandal of 1869, so he turned to freelance journalism in order to have a voice.

In this time, professional American journalism was just starting, and anyone could write. There were few legal rules, and people published whatever they could that they knew the public might read. A few years later in 1871, his sister died, and he wrote a piece which juxtaposed the joy of life and his last visit to her almost ten years prior with the reality of death, depicting her ten day torture ending in her dying of convulsions. He realized further that reality, especially in times of great change and turmoil, were not order but were instead chaos. He worked to help with the Silver Act, which would make money more available, but saw its rejection as the sign of the adoption of a capitalistic system, leaving those below the capitalists, to whom “helplessness seemed natural and normal,” to fit into the new way of life. In 1900, Adams moved back to Europe to Paris. He discovered philosophy here, written by scientist-philosophers such as Francis Bacon, but this stage of philosophy was focused on new scientific pursuits and less on unity and God as it had been in the past. One now saw “lines of force all around him, where he had always seen lines of will”, and Adams began to re-draw history by this premise, the premise that man simply has been attracted to certain external forces that shape his reality. He then accepted that his education had not prepared him for reality, but that man is formed by what happens to him rather than by how man shapes the world around him. Because of this, he changed his focus and began to look to see how reality shaped man.

Since Francis Bacon was focused on scientific pursuits, Adams, inspired by Bacon, attempted to pursue a more scientific explanation of the world around in order to make sense of the facts that nothing happened as he wished for it to, he was losing power, and especially that his education did not prepare him for the rapidly changing world, as man would enter reality with a priori notions. He thus concluded that those who had this old knowledge “knew nothing themselves.” He felt it necessary to begin studying what was around him rather than trying to take action against what was around him. Bacon “urged society to lay aside the idea of evolving the universe from a thought, and to try evolving thought from the universe.” His education became adapting to the world around him. History was simply a study of what force attracted man during that time, not a study of what pursuits man embarked upon. Before this, philosophy had centered around finding some objective truth or the ethics of what society should be, but Bacon turned philosophy into a study of the patterns of nature and the universe and how one can best react to them. The forces “would continue to educate, and the mind would continue to react. All the teacher could hope was to teach it reaction.” Adams found, through this, that he could not expect success in life due to his status. This was a microcosm for the way poor whites and blacks were treated in the Reconstruction. Despite the fact that Abraham Lincoln, according to Paul Johnson’s History of the American People, “thought that blacks should be treated as equals,” they were not given the freedom of self-determinism. They faced segregation and violent, poor whites such as the KKK who attempted to redraw lines between the two groups whose power in society had merged. The blacks learned to survive as equality was not yet an action, and activists such as Booker T. Washington pushed the blacks to learn valuable skills to find work rather than fighting for it. Both of these groups reacted to situations which they had been placed in out of their control.

The new Americans were educated by the circumstances around them, not necessarily formal education, and worked to control their freedom and the society around them. In the Gilded Age, the nation pursued expansion, economic progress, and machinery. This replaced the pursuit of individualism and morality. Social darwinism was a huge problem at this time, and was used as an excuse to steal Native American lands for the country. The Dawes Act is an example of this ideology. Economic progress left the industrial working class with only the freedom to work. They were underpaid and overworked as immigration kept positions competitive, and it was better to be in severe conditions than without a job. Henry Ford eventually helped this cause, but there was a long period of time during which workers had little true freedom due to their working conditions. The Westward expansion was also coming to a halt during this time, so Americans no longer had an “out”. Before, they had the idea that they could at least go west if things got too bad, but even that idea of freedom was taken from them. Despite these hardships, people attempted to take control of their own little universes. Native-born citizens formed the AFL (American Federation of Labor), which promised to not engage in worker strikes in return for better pay and more manageable working hours, but limited its members to only those who were born in the United States, giving them an advantage over the immigrants. Women’s suffrage also began to rise during this time as women wondered why immigrants were given more rights than they were. They fought for the right to vote within their country. In these ways, new Americans were looking at their poor circumstances and fighting against them.

Adam’s book The Education of Henry Adams shows that the formal education he received was not useful in his experience, but that instead, his and other Americans’ true education was from the changing circumstances around him. He found that he had to react to the external forces rather than attempt to apply his own forces on the world as he lost status and power due to the chaos which ensued within the 19th century. America’s opportunities were drying up as wages were low and work was competitive, and the Western front had been settled. It was now a land of fierce competition between immigrants and native borns and poor whites against “free” blacks. Adam’s education was a microcosm for this new world as he saw that he had to forge his own path and the old ways must be updated, just as the rest of society saw.