Charles Francis Adams.

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

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ter than to have studied for college rank? — for of that I
had none. I was not even in the first half of the class. On
the whole, in my case, I think the course I pursued was best.
I broadened. The nutriment, and there was lots of it, passed
into my system all the same — it entered into the grand, in
the sense of final, result. I at least did not idle away my
time. As contrasted with my father, my awful college diary
compared with his of the same period of life — all of which I
have been over — shows that I then was not half the man he
was at the same age ; but, a better fellow, I had much the more
enjoyable time. The mistake in my case lay in not under-
standing myself, and cultivating persistence in some plan.
As it was I just browsed about as fancy led. As I have said,
the simple fact was, that, an ordinary man, I had no strongly
pronounced aptitude; and, accordingly, felt no distinct call.
Still, I look back on my Harvard days with pleasure, as a
period of rapid development and much enjoyment. It com-
pares brightly with what went before; and, educationally,
was second in importance and value only to my subsequent
army experience.

It came to its predestined end in 1856, just as I attained
my majority. That was the year of the Buchanan-Fremont
campaign, the year in which the Republican party assumed
national proportions. I had been brought up in an atmos-
phere of politics. My earliest recollections were associated
with my grandfather's triumphs in the conflicts of the
House of Representatives, and I was impressed in imagina-
tion by the circumstances of his death and the outburst of

3 2 Charles Francis Adams

popular feeling elicited by it. I remember now most vividly
his funeral on that March day in Quincy, the eloquence and
impressiveness of Dr. Lunt's funeral discourse, with the
coffin lying before him, the solemn appearance of the fa-
miliar and crowded church, and the booming of the minute-
guns from the hill, on which I afterwards lived, as the body
was slowly borne from tabernacle to tomb. I also remem-
bered In a vague way the bitter disappointment of the election
of 1844, and the war with Mexico which followed. In the
canvass of 1848 my father took me with him when he went
to Buffalo; and, while the Convention was in session, Charles
Sumner, who was there but not a delegate, took me to Niagara,
where, a few days later, my father joined us. He had then
been nominated for Vice-President, on the ticket with Van
Buren. In those days we saw a great deal of Mr. Sumner,
and I felt for him an admiration closely verging on affection.
He was very kind and considerate to us children, taking a
deep interest In us, and being very companionable. He was
at that time thirty-seven, and certainly a striking and most
attractive personality. The world was all before him; he
was kindly, earnest, enthusiastic and very genial. A con-
stant guest at my father's house, he exercised a great influ-
ence over me, and one very elevating. To him, as he was at
that period and later, I feel under deep obligation.

Those were the days of the Free Soil party; but I threw
my first vote in 1856, and as a Republican. Thus I was from
childhood a part of the anti-slavery agitation. I grew up
in the atmosphere of it; and always at school I was in the
small minority, my schoolmates being almost without ex-
ception the sons of Whigs, and as a rule devoted adherents
of Daniel Webster, between whom and my grandfather it

To tub and Education 3 3

was tacitly recognized there was no love lost. The very
name of my grandfather was to the Webster Whig gall and
wormwood. It is strange how tense enmities endure and
are handed down. Even now, well on in a new century, the
tradition of the bitter controversies which marked the com-
mencement of the last century prevent the public recogni-
tion of those of my name. Their prominence and the great
character of the service they rendered, no one pretends to
deny; no memorial thereof exists.

But politics, and why I never found my way into political
life, will come up naturally later on and in other connec-
tions. I must first dispose of Harvard, and college life. The
course I ought to have pursued at Harvard is now plain to
me; and I almost wholly missed it. I should have followed
Greek and Latin as literatures; taking the almost wholly
worthless prescribed courses under the dead-alive methods
of instruction then in use, but acquiring the faculty of sight
reading by chamber practice. This I now see I was on the
point of doing, and could easily have done. It would have
been a most useful training for the practical work of after
life; unfortunately, as I have said, I met with no one to in-
cite me to that educational line, and I had not sufficient
force to strike out a path for myself. I should then, next,
have compelled myself to take some of the more elemen-
tary mathematical courses, simply for the mental discipline
they aff"ord. Having no mathematical aptitude whatever, I
never could have attained any rank in those courses, or fig-
ured otherwise than as a dolt in the recitation room; but
that would in the desired result have "cut no ice," as the
expression goes. What I needed was the regular mental
gymnastics — the daily practice of following a line of sus-

34 Charles Francis Adams

tained thought out to exact results, more or less remote.
Such an intellectual discipline I needed above all else; and,
moreover, I could easily have acquired it; for, in subsequent
life, I have more than once puzzled myself and somewhat
surprised associates by reasoning out abstract formulas on
general principles applicable to all cases of a similar charac-
ter. Had I in college been trained, or trained myself on these
lines, so doing would have contributed materially to my
eifectiveness in practical life. Finally, I should have settled
myself systematically down on the development of my apti-
tude — the art of literary expression, and would naturally
have done so. In this last respect, however, I was not
wholly wanting; it came about by gravitation.

This subject is one which has since interested me greatly,
especially of late years; and I have reached some conclu-
sions peculiarly my own. At Harvard there was quite a
sufficiency of elective courses in my tune; and, since then,
they have been multiplied out of all reason. And yet what
would for me have been the most valuable of electives for
purposes of mental training has never been proposed — a
course in chess! Gravely to suggest it even would give rise
to a look of surprise — probably a smile. Yet what is it
but the German kriegspiel adapted to civil life vocations ?
In playing chess, you must have a defined plan of campaign
and follow it up intelligently and consecutively; you must
watch your opponent and understand and meet his play.
You must measure yourself against him. All this I have
been doing after a fashion throughout my life; yet I never
went through any special training in preparation for it. A
course in chess would have been for me — kriegspiel! So, also,
for others. Why not sometimes educate through amusement?

Youth and Education 3 5

Beyond all that, however, the difficulty then lay, as it
still lies, with the Harvard system. It was and is, in my
judgment, radically wrong; and the more satisfactory re-
sults can never be secured until an organic change is worked
in it. Without knowing what the matter was, I suffered
under the system still in vogue in the middle of the last cen-
tury as a student; and now (1912), well advanced in another
century, I distinctly saw it as a member of one of the gov-
erning boards to as late a period as 1906. I then set forth
my experience and conclusions drawn therefrom in a Phi
Beta Kappa Address — my parting word as an Overseer
— delivered before the Columbia Chapter. That address
is in print, and I still (1912) adhere to the conclusions
therein set forth. In one word : the educational trouble with
Harvard in my time was the total absence of touch and
direct personal influence as between student and instructor.
The academic, schoolmaster system prevailed; and, out-
side of the recitation room, it was not good form — it was
contrary to usage — for the instructors and the instructed
to hold personal relations. Our professors in the Har\^ard of
"the fifties" were a set of rather eminent scholars and highly
respectable men. They attended to their duties with com-
mendable assiduity, and drudged along in a dreary hum-
drum sort of a way in a stereotyped method of classroom
instruction. But as for giving direction to, in the sense of
shaping, the individual minds of young men in their most
plastic stage, so far as I know nothing of the kind was even
dreamed of; it never entered into the professorial mind. This
was what I needed, and all I needed — an intelligent, in-
spiring direction; and I never got it, nor a suggestion of it.
I was left absolutely without guidance. I might blunder

36 Charles Francis Adams

through, and, doubtless, somehow would blunder through,
just as I did; but if I could n't work my problem out for
myself, it would remain unsolved. And that was the Har-
vard system. It remains in essence the system still — the old,
outgrown, pedagogic relation of the large class-recitation
room. The only variation has been through Eliot's effort
to replace it by the yet more pernicious system of premature
specialization. This is a confusion of the college and the uni-
versity functions, and constitutes a distinct menace to all
true higher education. The function of the college is an
all-round development, as a basis for university speciali-
zations. Eliot never grasped that fundamental fact; and so
he undertook to turn Harvard College into a German
university — specializing the student at eighteen. He thus
made still worse what was in my time bad enough. He in-
stituted a system of one-sided contact in place of a system
based on no contact at all. It is devoutly to be hoped that,
some day, a glimmer of true light will effect an entrance into
the professional educator's head. It certainly had n't done
so up to 1906.

A better considered and more intelligent system will
doubtless in due time evolve itself; but when, or how, re-
mains to be seen. I only now know that so far as producing
the ideal results on individual minds standing in crying
need of direction, the system in use was very bad fifty years
ago, and I have every reason to believe that the system now
in use is yet worse. In my time, its methods were mechani-
cal; it turned out nothing Individually artistic. I see now
that I was myself a very fair bit of clay for the wheel had the
potter had an eye and a hand for his work. I might have
been shaped into something rather good. As it was, I was

Youth and Education 3 7

tumbled into the common hopper, to emerge therefrom as
God willed. No instructor produced, or endeavored to pro-
duce, the slightest impression on me; no spark of enthu-
siasm was sought to be infused into me. In that line, I
owed far more to Charles Sumner than to all of the Harvard
professors put together. And it was exactly the same with
my father before me. From the recitation room I got as
nearly as I can now see almost nothing at all; from the col-
lege atmosphere and the close contact with a generation of
generous young fellows containing then, as the result showed,
infinite possibilities I got much of all that I have ever had
of quickening and good. So, after all, I owe a great debt to

Leaving Harvard for good and all in June, 1856, I was, as
all well-disposed young men of narrow vision and common-
sense direction from outside then were, full of the idea of
"getting to work," as the cant term went. Some of my
friends, including Stephen Perkins, went to Europe. Per-
haps I should have done well to go with them; but on that
point I am not clear. Indeed, I doubt. I was not a mature
young fellow, with a native sense of dignity and responsi-
bility. I did not have the social faculty; I failed to impress
others with a sense of my being "a young man of promise."
So, if I had then gone abroad, apart from a pleasant experi-
ence and a stock of memories, I doubt if I should have
brought much back with me. I was not only young, but



But now came educational blunder number seven; and
another bad one. Having no particular sense of a special
vocation, I almost as a matter of course turned to the law.
It went without saying. Doing so, I ought to have entered
the Harvard Law School; passed through the full course
there; and then gone into the office of some law firm in active
practice. Cambridge was, however, associated in my mind
with dissipation and literary idleness, and I was "full of
high purpose" — I wanted to buckle down to real work!
So, through my father and his political associations, I got
myself taken into the office of Dana and Parker; and there
I reported myself as a student in September, after my grad-
uation in June. I made a mistake in not going to the Law
School, and taking hold of the profession I meant to follow
in a thoughtful, sensible way; but, if I was going into any
office at all, I made no mistake in selecting that of R. H.
Dana and F. E. Parker. They were two men with whom
personal contact was in itself an education. That Mr. Dana
impressed himself deeply upon me, I long afterwards showed
by becoming his biographer; and, in my Life of Dana ^ I set
forth my opinion of F. E. Parker. His classmate, T. W.
Higginson, has also spoken of him In his volume entitled
Cheerful Yesterdays; and, though Higginson and I were very
differently constituted, we set much the same estimate on
Parker. On the whole, as I never could have been a lawyer

* II. chap. 2.

Law and Politics 3 9

and must, under any circumstances, have drifted out of
what was to me a most unattractive calling, perhaps it was
quite as well that I passed that educational period not at
Cambridge, but in Court Street. I was at least in daily con-
tact with active life, and rubbing up against men of high
character and marked ability.

During these years my brother John and I lived at home,
and were a great deal in society, that is, as young men of
the party-going, dancing set. Of Boston society, as it then
was and, I believe, still is, I can say little that is pleasant.
It was a boy-and-girl institution, the outgrowth of ten gen-
erations of colonial and provincial life, about as senseless,
unmeaning and frivolous as could by any possibility be
imagined. It was essentially a Sanuny and Billy, a Sallie
and Nellie affair; very pleasant and jolly for young people;
but, so far as the world and its ways were concerned, little
more than a big village development. In fact, I may say
that in the course of my life I have tried Boston socially on
all sides : I have summered it and wintered it, tried it drunk
and tried it sober; and, drunk or sober, there's nothing in
it — save Boston ! The trouble with Boston socially is that
it is an eddy, so to speak, in the great world-current. With
powerful formative traditions it has a keen self-appreciation.
For strangers, well introduced, it is a delightful city; for a
life-long resident it is curiously conventional and home.
Not only are the social circles sharply divided, but the ages
do not mix. The old people and the young stand apart; and
Billy and Bobby and Sue do not feel at home in company
with outsiders of distinction, or their domestic elders. It
has always been so. In Boston, the salon has ever proved
impossible. We go to formal dinners, and we pass our even-

40 Charles Francis Adams

ings at home. The young people frolic and dance; the old
retire, or are retired — shelved! And so, of my early Boston
social life I have little to say save that it was not improving;
but still I had a very good time — a time brought to an abrupt
close in 1861, when I was swept away by the torrent of war.
My great friends during those years were my brother
John — with whom my relations were the closest possible,
for we lived together — my former tutor, Frank Palfrey,
and Arthur Dexter. Both of these latter were men of abil-
ity; but the former had a curiously frivolous vein running
through his composition, which interfered greatly with his
success and standing; while Dexter, though really a man of
superior order, was, for himself, most unhappily compounded.
There ran all through him a false strain. In many respects
brilliant, he lacked persistence and character. He perpetu-
ally rang false. I knew him intimately for many years; but
our ways gradually parted. He died early in 1897; we had
long before become almost strangers. But at this period
(1856-1861) we saw a great deal of each other; and, on the
whole, I derived benefit from him. In the summer, my
brother John and I lived at Quincy, where we began to take
great interest in tree-planting, and he, then and later, for-
ested Mt. Wollaston. Meanwhile, my aptitude was show-
ing how little real force there was to it, for it was lying
almost wholly dormant. I wrote continually — diaries, let-
ters, abstracts of books I read, and, now and then, an at-
tempt at a review article; but there was no systematic effort;
and I really did not in any degree realize what careful, thor-
ough, painstaking work was. The fact is, I was simply slow
in maturing. At last, in the early months of 1861 — dur-
ing the winter which followed the election of Lincoln — I

Law and Politics 4. i

braced up, and, one day, went out to see Russell Lowell,
then a professor at Harvard and editor of the Atlantic, and
asked him if he would let me write an article for that maga-
zine on a semi-political topic. He was then living, with his
wife, at IVIrs. Upham's lodging-house. He received me very
cordially — for he was then a man of only about forty —
and I lunched with the two, talking very fast, and, I am
afraid, airing my views somewhat ingenuously. He encour-
aged me to make the attempt; and so I set to work and wrote
my first well-considered, carefully prepared and laboriously
copied-out magazine paper. I have written many such
since, but that one — "The Reign of King Cotton" in the
Atlantic for April, 1861 — marked in me a distinct stage of
development. I was getting my bearings. It proved quite a
success. It caused me to be recognized as a young man of
somewhat nebulous promise.

Aleanwhile, as a lawyer I was not proving myself a success.
I showed just what I was by getting myself admitted to the
bar after about twenty months of desultory reading, and
decently prepared for practice in my own eyes only. George
T. Bigelow was then Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of
the Commonwealth; or became so shortly after. I knew
Judge Bigelow well, we being neighbors at Quincy, and I
was on terms of intimacy with his family. One day, without
consulting any one, I took it into my head that I would be
examined for entrance at the bar; and, what followed shows
the loose way in which admissions were then granted. I
asked Bigelow to examine me. He ought to have asked me
a few questions as to my length of study, etc., and then, in
a good-natured, friendly way advised me to wait a while
longer. Instead of that, however, he told me to come at a

42 Charles Francis Adams

certain time Into the Supreme Court room, where he was
then holding court; and he would examine me. I did so, and
the clerk of the court at his direction handed me a list of
questions, covering, perhaps, one sheet of letter paper. I
then sat down at the clerk's desk, and wrote out answers to
such of them as I could. I remember well that on several
of the subjects in question I knew absolutely nothing. A
few days later I met the Judge on the platform of the Quincy
station, and he told me I might come up to the court room
and be sworn in. I did so; and became a member of the bar.
I was no more fit to be admitted than a child. The whole
thing illustrated my supreme Incompetence, and the utterly
Irregular way in which admission to the bar was then ob-
tained. At the same time I rather imagine that Bigelow's
personal knowledge of me had something to do with it. He
had confidence in my coming out all right; if he did, he cer-
tainly acted on his faith.

This must have been somewhere In 1858. Anyhow, I at
once left Dana and Parker, taking with me not much law
but many pleasant memories; and I have often since, with
some sense of humiliation, tried to imagine what the keen-
sighted, incisive Parker thought of me and my proceedings.
I would even now like to know; for In my whole life I have
since met no man who saw Into the true inwardness of per-
sons and things as It was given to Francis E. Parker to see.
In my case, however, it made not much difference. I was
not cast for a lawyer; and I rather Imagine Parker fully took
the fact in. I never took to the law; and I am sure the law
never came my way. However, I tried, establishing myself
first with my brother John, and later In a gloomy, dirty den
in my father's building, 23 Court Street; and there I sat for

Law and Politics 43

the next year and a half, trying to think that I was going
through an apprenticeship. I did n't reaHze it, but I was a
round peg trying to get into a square hole. Still, my father
was satisfied. He, now, was in Congress, and the home had
been broken up; much to my satisfaction. I liked the irre-
sponsible, Bohemian life; though I didn't know it, I was
tired of conventional Boston. My father saw it all, however,
in a wholly different light. In his eyes I was passing through
a very critical period in a way which promised much; I
would soon acquire steady business habits, and settle down
into a respectable and useful member of society. But now,
great events were immediately impending.

In '59, I think it was, we had the^" Concord muster." All
of us young men were then in the militia ; and a most useful
preliminary training it afterguards proved. We were drilling
the whole time. I was a member of the City Guard; and
then adjutant of the First Regiment of Infantry; and then
a private in the Fourth Battalion. In this way I picked up
the manual, and learned how to march. Moreover, after
my father went to Washington in the autumn of '59, I went
on there to pay him a visit, and I saw something of the
Washington world, and the great movement of events. I
was now twenty-four, and began to get a little Into the
touch of society. I by no means lacked self-confidence; but
I was also self-conscious, and lamentably deficient In that
nice social faculty which, In a place like Washington, so
tides a young man along. None the less, I availed myself to
a certain extent of my opportunities.

I remember very well the Senate and House of that time.
Neither body impressed me. The House was a national
bear-garden; for that was, much more than now, a period

44 Charles Francis Adams

of the unpicturesque frontiersman and the overseer. Sec-
tional feeling ran high, and bad manners were conspicu-
ously in evidence; whiskey, expectoration and bowie-knives
were the order of that day. They were, indeed, the only kind
of "order" observed in the House, over which poor old Pen-
nington, of New Jersey, had as a last recourse been chosen
to preside, probably the most wholly and all-round incom-
petent Speaker the House ever had. It was altogether in-
describable, and I remember my father laughing until he
had to wipe the tears from his eyes over an account I gave
of the usual procedure of the body of which he was a mem-
ber, in a letter I wrote to the Milford Ga'Lette, a paper in his
district. I had then the cacoeihes scribendi, and it found a
rather injudicious and somewhat risky vent in newspaper
correspondence; but I redeemed my lack of judgment by a
strong sense of boyish humor. " It is n't very respectful,"
said my father, "but it's dreadfully true." "Of all the dis-
orderly bodies I ever saw," I wrote, "the present House of
Representatives, under its efhcient presiding officer, is by
many degrees the most disorderly. When nothing of interest
is before the House, it is simply a general hubbub. W'hen
anything of interest is going on, the performances usually
resolve themselves into a concerted piece by any six mem-
bers at once, with at intervals a general chorus of the whole
House. Then, indeed, confusion does become confounded, and
Speaker Pennington rides upon the storm; not, indeed, direct-
ing, but, with uplifted voice and gavel, acting rather as maestro,
or grand conductor, to this thundering song of the nation."

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Online LibraryCharles Francis AdamsCharles Francis Adams, 1835-1915; an autobiography; → online text (page 7 of 21)