Charles Francis Adams.

Charles Francis Adams, 1835-1915; an autobiography; online

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daring — physically, on the contrary, inclined to be shrink-
ing — having a positive inaptitude for games and athletic
exercises, disposed to be studious in a way, I grew up as a
child during the period of my grandfather's greatest politi-
cal prominence; and its light was reflected on me at school.
I was the grandson of John Quincy Adams; and not quite
as other boys. This I felt. There was therefore in me a dan-
gerous tendency, which needed correction sadly, and which
a boarding-school life would have strongly tended to cor-
rect. Moreover, I would so much have enjoyed it; just as
I enjoyed the mere taste I had of it at Hingham. It might
have made me "a good fellow." At any rate, it would
have taken me away from home, and home influences and

1 8 Charles Francis Adams

surroundings; and these, in my case were bad, or, rather, not
what I needed. But I never did go to boarding-school, and
the plastic period was passed in immediate contact with
home and amid a most miscellaneous collection of books,
in which I sedulously hunted up everything that was perni-
cious, as well as much that was good. Here was educational
mistake number four 1

In my boyhood nothing whatever was done to amuse chil-
dren. They might amuse themselves, or go unamused; that
was their affair! That was before the day of games and sports;
and at Quincy we had few horses, and no boats. I did not
realize it at the time, but my vacations and intervals of
leisure were dreariness personified. We bathed in Black's
Creek, and that was all; and, curiously enough, bathing —
diving and swimming — is the one activity which has stood
by me ever since. It has been my delight; and in it I have
excelled. That, I did acquire when young; and the pleasure
I have had in that one out-of-doors sport has caused me to
realize how infinite, how irreparable has been my loss in
not acquiring other muscular aptitudes while so doing was
possible. And there I struck a natural defect which a differ-
ent education would have strongly tended to counteract.
I am inclined to be what is kno\\Ti as muscle-slow — that
is my muscular system is not elastic. I think I have some-
where remarked in writing on this; and when learning to
ride a bicycle, at over sixty, an appreciation of the fact first
dawned on me. This ought to have been corrected in my
youth by practice at all sorts of games — skating, fencing,
boxing, riding. Unfortunately — most unfortunately, for
me — my father did not at all believe in that sort of training.
Sports and games he held in horror; almost as much as for

Totith and Education 1 9

young men just out of college he held Europe in horror, be-
cause a classmate of his — Alleyne Otis — after graduation
chanced to go to Europe, and came home an ass, and
remained an ass all the long continuing days of life. My
father did n't realize that Alleyne Otis was born an ass; and
was, though as yet not effusively so developed, an ass when
he went to Europe, as well as when he came home. So he
failed to discriminate between individuals; and, laying down
one rule for all, his theory was that the proper thing for
every young man was to get to work as soon as he could
scrabble through college, begin to make a living, marry, and
become, as he would express it, "a useful member of soci-
ety." Any exceptionalism or individuality he regarded with
aversion. It was a snare and delusion; so, in my case, he
uniformly, and, in fact, all through life, diagnosed wrongly,
and took a mistaken course. He meant well; but he wa$
neither s}mipathetic nor observant. With him boys were
alike, and one hat fitted them all; while Europe was merely
another term for demoralization. As I look back on his course
towards me, well as he meant it and thoroughly conscien-
tious as he was, I should now respect myself a great deal more
if I had then rebelled and run away from home, to sea or
the Devil. Indeed, if I had had in me any element of real
badness, or even recklessness of temperament, it would have
been fatally developed. But I was n't bad or a dare-devil;
and I was born with a decided sense of obligation to myself
and to others.

But, in looking back on that early home and school edu-
cational period since I began this writing, and considering
the light that period throws on the man's subsequent life, I
confess to a sense of bepuzzlement. I find myself observing

2 Charles Francis Adams

and studying myself at a distance of nearly seventy years,
and trying to make myself out. My observation in life
leads me to believe that nearly every human being has
an aptitude; that is, there is something that he or she can
do better than all other things. One in a hundred, again,
has a remarkable aptitude; and, in one in a thousand, this
aptitude is developed into something extraordinary. It
then amounts to natural insight, and constitutes genius.
Now a perfect system of education, if it could be devised,
would be one w^hich, while developing to the fullest extent
all the faculties, would allow free play to the special apti-
tude. But this is just what our American school system fails
to do, and does not aim at. In that system a child is — a
child ! and all children are cast in the same matrix. Thus the
average child gets along with a tolerable degree of comfort;
but the child with an individuality experiences much the
fate a child with large feet would undergo if all children's
shoes were made on one last.

In my case, it so chanced that I was individual without
any specially pronounced aptitude or exceptional capacity.
In reading one of Montaigne's Essays the other day I came
across the following, which seemed very applicable to me.
He was writing of his own childhood, and he said: "I had a
slow wit, that would go no faster than it was led; a tardy
understanding, a languishing invention, and, above all, in-
eradicable defect of memory; so that it is no wonder if, from
all these, nothing considerable could be extracted." For me,
as I now see it, the absolutely ideal training would have
been that described in School Days at Rugby. I ought to have
been sent away from home and been rubbed into shape
among other boys; I should have been made to undergo a

Touth and Education


severe all-around discipline; I should have been forced to
participate in all sorts of athletic games; I ought to have
been rounded into shape as much like other boys as a school
life could round me. The radical error in my case was that
I was kept at home, and brought up in an uncongenial day-
school. I do not hesitate to say that these mistakes of child-
hood have gravely prejudiced my entire life.

At ten years of age I did have the good fortune to be sent
to a private day-school kept by a Mr. David B. Tower. He
was a very portly, good-natured man, coming from the
Cohasset family of that name, and a good teacher. For some
reason, Tower saw, or thought he saw, something in me; and
to him I am, to this day, under great obligation. He en-
couraged me; and did all a man could to cure my lament-
able want of capacity for verbal memorization. At his school
I rapidly gained in confidence, and began to feel some faith
in myself. Unfortunately, it was a day school, kept in a room
in the Park Street church-building, and I was at home in
the evenings and Sundays; and such play as I had was in
the streets of Boston. I needed the atmosphere of boarding-
school life.

Instead of getting it, I was, at the age of thirteen, sent to
the Boston Latin School. Of this institution my father had
a very exalted opinion. He had gone to it himself, when
brought home from Europe in 1818, and been under Master
Gould. For some reason, it suited him; perhaps in contrast
to the school he went to in England, and the antiquated
systems of teaching to which he had there been subjected —
systems about as absurd and illogical as those pursued in a
State's prison. In any event, however, the Latin School —
the "famous Boston Latin School," as it was then, and has

2 2 Charles Francis Adams

since been, called — became a kind of fetish with my father,
and to it in due time all his sons were destined to go, as a
matter of course.

It may have worked well with my father under Dr. Gould,
but it did n't work well with his sons under Mr. Dix^vell
— that I can assert with confidence. The school building
was then in Bedford Street — a street has since been laid
out over its site. The school building was a cold, dreary,
granite edifice, of the stone-mason style of architecture in
vogue about 1840. It was pulled dowTi about thirty years
ago; and I rejoiced to see it go! It effaced to a degree a hate-
ful memory. I was at the Latin School three years; my
brother John was at it five. I loathed it, and John loathed
it worse than I. Not one single cheerful or satisfactory mem-
ory is with me associated therewith. Its methods were bad,
its standards low, its rooms unspeakably gloomy. It was a
dull, traditional, lifeless day-academy, in which a conven-
tional, commonplace, platoon-front, educational drill was
carried on. I absolutely languished there, and, for that rea-
son, my judgments might be deemed harsh; but one day,
only a few years ago, I found myself seated at table next
David P. Kimball, who was always at the Latin School at
the head of the class before mine, and who, subsequently,
was first scholar in my class at Harvard. I got talking with
him of schools, for he had in life been a successful man, and
our relations were kindly. So I said to him: "Well, David,
I hardly need ask you, I suppose your sons all went to the
Latin School." He turned on me, and vindictively snapped
out, "Latin School! I wouldn't send a dog to the Latin
School!" I certainly felt that way; but I never got on there,
and always gravitated towards the foot of the class; David

Touth and Education 2 3

Kimball, on the contrary, was at the head, and a favorite
prize-taker. All the same, on that subject we were one. My
single pleasant association with the Boston Latin School
was — leaving it ! Under the system there in vogue in the
days of Di-Tvvell and Gardner, I don't see how any good
results, as respects scholarship, individuality or character,
were reasonably to be expected. It was a conventional, me-
chanical, low-standard day-school and classical grind-mill.
I left it sixty years ago, and I think of the period I spent
there still as the dreariest, the most depressing and the most
thoroughly worse than profitless of my life. I have not a
good word to say of it; and like John Randolph and the sheep,
I would go a long distance out of my way to give it a kick.

Sending me to the Boston Latin School was educational
mistake number five: and a far-reaching one!

Then came in rapid succession mistakes numbers six and
seven — serious both, very serious! As I plainly did n't get
on at the Boston Latin School, my father, in 185 1, concluded
to take me away. I ought then to have gone to Exeter or
Andover, been there fitted for college, and gone in the regular
way. Instead of that, largely at my own solicitation, my
father put me under the charge of Francis W. Palfrey, the
son of his old friend Dr. John G. Palfrey, whom, in reality,
he wanted to aid. The intention was good; the choice bad
— absurd. Frank Palfrey graduated that year, and, with
me, he was far more of a companion than a preceptor. With
quick faculties he was a fair scholar; but he greatly lacked
judgment and sobriety, and his and my thoughts were far
more intent on parties, social life and dissipation than on
our studies. It was a singularly unfortunate arrangement.

Alore unfortunately still, I liked it; and, for some unac-

2 4 Charles Francis Adams

countable reason, instead of entering college at the regular-
time and in the usual way, I stayed out a year, and entered
sophomore, in 1853. It was a great blunder; and I have
never ceased to regret it. Had I been really fortunate, I
would, in 1853, have failed to pass my examinations for the
advanced standing, and been thrown back on the class of
1857. A severe mortification and disappointment at the
moment, this would, in reality, have been for me a piece of
great good luck; for the class of '57 was a remarkable class
in many ways, and especially for its class feeling and spirit.
It contained, too, an unusual number of agreeable and in^
teresting men, many of whom have since attained distinc-
tion, and with whom I grew to hold close relations; while,
on the other hand, the class of '56 was noticeably lacking in
all these respects. It was as a class distinctly unnoticeable
— a low average; and, in subsequent years, the chief dis-
tinction it achieved was contributing two inmates to the
State's prison.

None the less, my college life I look back on with pleasure,
and a moderate satisfaction. I blundered through in a way,
committing, I may fairly say, as I see it now, about as many
mistakes as I easily could ; but, after all — studied from a
distance in time — it was the period of freedom and germi-
nation. I was boyish and silly, but I did begin to develop.
Acting on tradition, and influenced by my brother John's
example, I did not live in the buildings and in the full at-
mosphere of college life; and, during the two last and best
years, I had my brother Henry to room with me, though he
was two classes after me. This was bad for both of us ; but
I did learn by experience, and preserved him subsequently
from the mistakes into which I had fallen. When I gradu-

Youth and Education 2 5

ated, I persuaded him to live in the buildings, and by so
doing, having a chum of his own class, to identify himself
absolutely with college life and the associations of Hol-
worthy. He did so, and it saved his college course.

It was at Harvard that my aptitude, such as it was, be-
gan to develop; and to that I owed most of the satisfaction
I derived from college life. I had always been a reader; and
I now began to take to writing. Every man of any intellec-
tual activity has, I presume, been conscious of certain pe-
riods of germination — times of receptivity. If a book then
chances into his hands, he reads it in a way which there-
after acts as a milestone on the road of life. He has devel-
oped a new sense; the seed has fallen in soil ready to germi-
nate and make it bear fruit. I perfectly well remember in
the winter of 1848 my father returning from a journey to
Washington, and bringing in his hand a paper-bound copy
of Harper Bros.' cheap reprint of the first volume of Macau-
lay's England, then just out. I was thirteen; and of Ma-
caulay I had never even heard the name. Boy-like, I picked
the book up, and began to turn over its pages. I can see the
room and the day now — the dining-room in the Mt. Ver-
non Street house, the fire in the grate, the hair-covered
rocking-chair in which I sat, the table, set for dinner. I took
the book up, and almost instantly got absorbed in it. Though
I did not the least in the world realize it, I then and there
quickened, my aptitude asserted itself. The only trouble
afterwards was that, being a mere aptitude and not an over-
powering call, this tendency, or inclination, never domi-
nated me to the exclusion of all else. It was just the ordinary
case of a facility In a certain direction, existent, but not
strong enough to dictate a line of life action.

2 6 Charles Francis Adams

Nevertheless, in college the tendency developed, and I
was one of the recognized litterateurs of my time and class.
In the Pudding Club, I was Secretary, Poet and Odist, and
my success as such was marked. I knew it, and felt it. I
wrote for the Magazine; there the articles — on Whittier,
Hawthorne, Charles Reade, etc. — - are yet, bound in my
voluminous Miscellanies. This was the one great and grati-
fying feature of my college life, the sense of growth. For
the rest, it was very, very pleasant; but it did n't amount
to much. A great miscellaneous reader, I was no student,
and had no "call." I got through my course without any
trouble; securing no rank, but avoiding all difficulties. I
was not wise in my selection of studies; but I had no sort of
encouragement to wisdom. For instance, I had rather a
fancy for Greek. With no aptitude for language of any sort,
I was conscientious; and, in my own way, studiously in-
clined. Those were the days of Professors Felton and Soph-
ocles, and the methods of instruction in Greek at Harvard
were simply beneath contempt. It was taught in thorough
school-boy fashion — neither philosophically nor elegantly;
we were not made grammarians, and we were not initiated
into a charming literature. We blundered along in class-
readers, a parcel of half-taught school-boys. I came within
an ace of being a fair Greek scholar. The slightest encour-
agement or assistance would have made one of me. But
Felton and Sophocles threw me off the track; and they were,
both of them, admirably calculated so to do. In my sopho-
more year, merely as a self-imposed task, I read the Iliad
through, from the first line to the last. I got so that I could
read it at sight — a hundred lines an hour. A very little
more, and I would have acquired the faculty of reading

Youth and Education 2 7

Greek as a living language — as I read French and German.
The methods of instruction in use killed the possibility.
Absolutely without inducement to keep on, I weakly de-
sisted; and, to my infinite and lasting subsequent regret, the
half-acquired faculty fell into disuse; and now I can't even
read the Greek characters. Again, with a faint aptitude, I
had neither call nor encouragement. It has been so with me
all through life.

In those years I kept a diary. So doing was enjoined on
me by my father; and I kept it from my Latin School days
until the time I went into the army, in my twenty-fifth
year. Later on I kept the volumes sealed up in a package,
with directions that they should be destroyed in the event
of my death. A few years ago — some ten or twelve — I
opened the parcel, and looked through the volumes. I did
this during my Sundays, passed in the house at Quincy
while living in Boston — very charming Sundays they were,
too; pleasant to pass, pleasant to look back on. That was in
my busy, Union-Pacific period. Starting early, before the
family were down, I used to walk out to Quincy — always by
the old Plymouth road and over Milton Hill — and pass the
quiet, delightful morning hours, reading undisturbed, in my
sun-lighted library. Then as the day grew old and the light
failed, I would start back, and walk home to Boston, through
Neponset and by Massachusetts Avenue. Those were the
pleasantest days I then had in my whole winter life. Those,
I would like to re-live.

During those days I exhumed the sealed package, and,
thirty years later, read over that old diary. The revela-
tion of myself to myself was positively shocking. Then and
there I was disillusioned. Up to that time — and I was then

2 8 Charles Francis Adams

about fifty-five — I had indulged In the pleasing delusion that
it was In me, under proper conditions of time, place and occa-
sion, to do, or be, something rather noticeable. I have never
thought so since. Seeing myself face to face through fifty
years cured me of that deception. I felt that no human being
who, between fifteen and twenty-five, so pictured himself
from day to day could, by any possibility, develop into any-
thing really considerable. It was n't that the thing was bad
or that my record was discreditable; it was worse! It was
silly. That it was crude, goes without saying. That I did n't
mind! But I did blush and groan and swear over Its unmis-
takable, unconscious Immaturity and ineptitude, its con-
ceit, its weakness and Its cant. I saw myself in a looking-
glass, and I said — "Can that Indeed be I!" and, reflecting,
I then realized that the child was father of the man ! It was
with difficulty I forced myself to read through that dread-
ful record; and, as I finished each volume, It went into the
fire; and I stood over It until the last leaf was ashes. It was
a tough lesson ; but a useful one. I had seen myself as others
had seen me. I have never felt the same about myself since.
I now humbly thank fortune that I have almost got through
life without making a conspicuous ass of myself.

But to go back to college days. "Tell me who your friends
are, and I will tell you who you are." That is an unfailing
test; and, going back, I must confess that my college friends
were of a very miscellaneous character. One thing I can,
however, surely say of them, that, edifying or otherwise as
influences — Idle or studious, sedate or dissipated — and I
was intimate with all kinds — they were the brightest and
most attractive men In the Cambridge of my time. Stephen
G. Perkins was, perhaps, the closest of my friends. He was

Youth and Education 2 9

afterwards killed at the battle of Cedar Mountain, in the
summer of 1862 — a lieutenant of the gallant Second Mas-
sachusetts Infantry; and I say of him now, nearly forty
years after his death, what General F. C. Barlow, of the
class of '55, said of him to me many years ago — Stephen
Perkins was, on the whole, the man of "the choicest mind
I ever knew." He was manly, simple, refined; and he had
withal fine perceptions and a delicate humor. He always
impressed me with a sense of my own inferiority, and his
friendship was a compliment. He loved to talk; but in a
quiet, reflective and observant way. He was mature and
self-respecting; one who thought much, and looked quite
through the acts of men. I read of his death one day when
in camp at Hilton Head, and I felt I had lost something
never to be replaced — a friend of college days. He lies
buried, I believe, in the Georgetown cemetery; and "green
be the turf above him!"

I cannot spare time to run over the names of the others.
Some of them were from the South; and they also, most of
them, died in the war. Not a few were very dissipated in
college, and their dissipation ended them. Others were the
exact opposite; and not a few achieved eminence — Phillips
Brooks, Frank Barlow, Edward Dalton, H. H. Furness.
Taken altogether, it was a goodly company, and it almost
reconciles me to the image I saw of myself in my diary, that
it was given me to walk as an equal in such a throng.

Meanwhile, I was not popular in my college days; nor,
Indeed, have I ever been so since. My brother John was.
He had a very charming, ingratiating presence and manner,
when in the mood, and a far greater social aptitude. He was
essentially "a good fellow," as the term went, and a charm-

3 o Charles Francis Adams

ing companion. I wanted to be; but It was n't quite in me.
Never quiet and natural, I was inclined to be always acting
a part; and I did not act it well. Moreover, gauche, I was
singularly lacking in what is known as tact. I had almost a
faculty for doing or saying the wrong thing at any given
time; and I was always painfully self-conscious. This made
me shy; and the world, as usual, set my shyness to the ac-
count of pride. Not a bad fellow — indeed, at heart, a very
good fellow, anxious to be friends with all the world and liked
of every one — I never could overcome my pre-natal man-
ner, and learn to do and say gracious things in a gracious
way. It was so in college; it has been so ever since. It
was congenital — hereditary and in the blood; or, as James
Russell Lowell remarked in some familiar letter of his printed
by one in long subsequent years a greatly prized friend
of mine' — Charles Eliot Norton — "the Adamses have a
genius for saying even a gracious thing in an ungracious
way!" I well remember Norton's aspect of unconcealed
embarrassment when I referred with keen appreciation to
this passage in the volume he had edited, and expressed my
sincere gladness that he had not editorially omitted it. It
was so keen and true!

Yet, recurring to college days, at Cambridge, I was not
actually unpopular. I belonged, and belonged easily and of
right, to all the clubs and all the societies, literary and social;
my difficulty, I suppose, was that I was always thinking
too much of myself, and not enough of others. Certainly,
the first impression I made on people was not altogether a
favorable one. And, here again, the child was father of the

As to my college course, and what I then did, I have never

Touth and Education 3 1

quite been able to make up my mind. I was studious in a
way, for I followed my aptitudes and inclinations, and they
led me to infinite reading and much writing. Was this bet-

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Online LibraryCharles Francis AdamsCharles Francis Adams, 1835-1915; an autobiography; → online text (page 6 of 21)