‘The Last American Aristocrat: The Brilliant Life and Improbable Education of Henry Adams,’ by David S. Brown: An Excerpt

In the Education’s double-edged opening pages, Adams recalls a golden nativity: “Probably no child, born in the year, held better cards than he.” From there, the narrative, interested in the price of privilege, moves on to an involved, ironic discussion surveying the special burdens of belonging to a pedigree of presidents. Henry knew well each hurdle before him. Raised, as he put it, in the long shadows cast by “the First Church, the Boston State House, Beacon Hill, John Hancock and John Adams,” he internalized past glories, old prejudices, and dying traditions. This demanding ancestor worship, as stifling as a posh sarcophagus, led eventually to a self-imposed Washington exile where, in the nation’s capital city, he produced a vast nine-volume history of the early American republic, in whose final book he dedicated an epitaphic chapter to the “decline of Massachusetts.” An efficient autopsy of the Bay State’s imminent eclipse before the combined might of the slaveholding South and the democratic West, it might be said to have served as spadework for the one puzzling question never far from his thoughts: How did the prized child, the holder of so many “better cards,” come to lose the hand?

To answer that query, it is necessary to dig a bit deeper into the circumstances, influences, and environments of Adams’s youth. That will require at least a passing familiarity with family history and family homes.

In 1836, seven years into a marriage that united politics and money, Charles Francis Adams and Abigail Brown Brooks, Henry’s parents, built a tidy six-bedroom colonial on Goffe Street in Quincy. Colloquially known as The House on the Hill or The New House, it featured oak floors and an arched entryway and sat within easy walking distance of the rambling Old House (“the President’s place”), then occupied by Henry’s grandparents, John Quincy and Louisa Catherine Adams. It was here, in the Goffe Street structure, that Charles Francis’s growing family spent long summers, typically from the middle of May to the end of October. Winters were endured in Boston in a house on Mount Vernon Street purchased by Abigail’s wealthy father, Peter Chardon Brooks, who kept its title and paid its taxes. Reported at the time of his death to be “the richest man in New England,” Brooks, whose people arrived in the Bay Colony in 1631, possessed a parentage as deeply rooted in Massachusetts’s soil as any Adams. For several generations it could claim no particular influence, but this changed with the swift financial ascendancy of the unusually industrious Peter Chardon. Apprenticed out in 1781 upon the death of his minister father, Brooks took up the business of marine insurance in 1789 and soon acquired a fortune. Following a brief retirement, he then assumed the presidency of the New England Insurance Company and accrued a second windfall. With characteristic dryness, Charles Francis once remarked that his father-in-law had “made enough money to turn any man’s head.”

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Peter Chardon’s youngest daughter, Abigail (Abby), raven-haired and round-faced, married Charles Francis in 1829. Their union produced seven children, six of whom survived into adulthood. Louisa Catherine, perhaps Henry’s favorite sibling, was the eldest (1831), followed by John Quincy Adams II (1833), and Charles Francis Adams Jr. (1835). These three constituted a distinct cluster unto themselves, connected not merely by age but by the fact that all were named in honor of previous Adamses: Louisa after her grandmother, John for his grandfather, and Charles for his father. With typical asperity Henry, the middle child, followed by Arthur, Mary, and Brooks, later described himself as “being of less account” in the order of extraction, and thus “was in a way given to his mother, who named him Henry Brooks, after a favorite brother just lost.”

This maternal tie took on added significance for Henry as the years passed. Taxed by a nervous, fretting temperament, Abigail found some vinegary satisfaction in sharing her many miseries with a captive household. As her son Charles once evenly observed, “My mother . . . took a constitutional and sincere pleasure in the forecast of evil. She delighted in the dark side of anticipation; she did not really think so; but liked to think, and say, she thought so. She indulged in the luxury of woe!” As Abigail aged and her anxieties grew more acute, Charles and his siblings became adept at managing their mother’s up-and-down emotions, what someone in the family called her “unmeaning and loud nonsense.” Henry in particular proved to be an attentive and supportive son—out of genuine affection, though also in some service to his father, who recognized his calming influence on Abigail.

Charles Francis, by contrast, appeared to be almost forbiddingly placid. He knowingly called himself “grave, sober, formal, precise and reserved”—the retiring product of a famous family. In a memoir, Charles Jr. described his father as emotionally limited, a bland tutor blind to his children’s juvenescence: “To us, it would . . . have made all the difference conceivable had he loved the woods and the water,—walked and rode and sailed a boat; been, in short, our companion as well as our instructor. The Puritan was in him, and he didn’t know how!” In a sign of respect—though perhaps with a certain chilly remove—the brothers took to calling their father “the Governor” and “the Chief.” Preternaturally mature and something of a quiet island in a large and boisterous brood, Henry was the favorite of both parents.

Of course it was an even older generation that established the terms upon which these Adams siblings would long live. At the births of their grandchildren, John Quincy and Peter Chardon offered gifts to the infants symbolic of themselves: Bibles were handed out in chaste Quincy, silver mugs emerged from commercial Boston. On the respective deaths of these old men in the twin winters of 1848 and 1849, this process, in a sense, repeated itself. Peter Chardon’s will left Abigail and Charles Francis approximately $300,000, a genuine fortune in antebellum America and equal in current dollars to something near $9 million. Such a sum, complemented by generous separate coming-of-age inheritances, secured the financial independence of their children. John Quincy, by contrast, most obviously assigned to his male heirs the singular cross of occupational expectation. Henry’s brother Charles remembers their grandfather as “an old man, absorbed in work and public life. He seemed to be always writing—as, indeed he was. . . . A very old-looking gentleman, with a bald head and white fringe of hair—writing, writing—with a perpetual inkstain on the fore-finger and thumb of the right hand.” A president and the son of a president, he fairly radiated the implication that certainly his sons—and grandsons—might one day lead the republic as well.

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Weaned on such assurances, Henry lazily took his supposed fate for granted. He recalled in the Education being seated in Quincy’s United First Parish Church “behind a President grandfather” and “read[ing] over his head the tablet in memory of a President great-grandfather, who had ‘pledged his life, his fortune, and his sacred honor’ to secure the independence of his country and so forth.” This singular memory, or perhaps the hazy accumulation of numerous Sunday sittings, he paired with the surprising dig of “the Irish gardener” who dared to question the eternal order of the Adams universe: “You’ll be thinkin’ you’ll be President too!” In just those few puncturing words lay shaken Henry’s innocent faith in an assured future: “The casuality of the remark made so strong an impression on his mind that he never forgot it. He could not remember ever to have thought on the subject; to him, that there should be doubt of his being President was a new idea. What had been would continue to be.”

Keeping in view Henry’s impressionable youth, one must consider his unfortunate contraction of scarlet fever shortly before turning four. He later saw the illness as a definite turning point, writing, “This fever . . .took greater and greater importance in his eyes . . . the longer he lived.” The infection, Adams came to believe, had stunted his growth, damaged his nerves, and destroyed his chances of turning a schoolyard fight into schoolboy glory. In a word, the fever had rendered him “delicate.” Accordingly, he referred to his robust brothers as a coveted “type” while dismissing himself as a pallid “variation,” by which he meant slightly framed and excessively intellectual.

But this dichotomy emerged from an older man’s mind; while still a summer child in Quincy, Adams lovingly indulged in the monastic practice of browsing the accumulated clutter of books and bric-à-brac, coin collections and memorials lodged in the Old House’s grandly shabby study. These frail and yellowing artifacts filled the boy with a sense of destiny, connecting family history with the pivotal history of the Atlantic World during the Age of Revolutions. Here is where, in the heart of his youth, Henry saw great men gather, where he helped to organize generations of family papers, and where, on the sun-lit second floor, in the weathered house’s most inviting room, he enjoyed access to the eighteen thousand volumes that lined its hidden walls. This was Henry’s real education, at least in his susceptible adolescence, and one uniquely supplemented by the stories, annals, and archives of his ancestors’ various foreign service stays in England, France, the Netherlands, and Russia.

More formally, Henry attended a succession of schools; these included a small academy of sorts in the cold basement of the Park Street Church close to his Boston (winter) home and later the private Latin School on Boylston Place, where he studied Greek, Latin, history, composition, geography, declamation, and mathematics—essentially a curriculum to accommodate neighboring Harvard’s entrance exams. These were important and formative experiences to be sure, but certainly no classroom could supplant for impact the Old House’s study. Its association with generations of Adamses made an impression both deep and indelible on the boy; it seemed to invite a rich mental life to take root.

Much like the family library, Quincy assumed a sacred status in Henry’s youth. He identified Boston with a host of lesser associations—“Town was restraint, law, unity”—that paled beside the native inducements of his summer home; “Country . . . was liberty, diversity, outlawry.” In scale and aspiration Boston exuded a metropolitan, sophisticated, and, for its time, heavily peopled atmosphere; the 1840 census counted some ninety-three thousand Bostonians, making it the nation’s fifth-largest urban area. Quincy, by contrast, contained fewer than thirty-five hundred souls. Situated barely ten miles below the erstwhile Puritan city, it seemed remarkably untouched by its great neighbor to the north. Charles Jr. recalled that “as late as 1850 Quincy was practically what it had always been—a quiet, steady-going, rural Massachusetts community, with its monotonous main thoroughfares . . . and by-ways lined with wooden houses, wholly innocent of any attempts at architecture, and all painted white with window blinds of green.” Farming still commanded much of the local economy, with artisans making shoes and boots in extensions built on existing homes. Not until Henry’s eighth birthday did the railroad invade its environs.

The philosopher and novelist George Santayana (1863–1952), for several years a member of nearby Harvard’s faculty, believed the civic-minded Adamses congenitally unfit for the big city, which he negatively associated with wealth-making:

In Boston, in the middle of the nineteenth century, no one who was ambitious, energetic, or even rich thought of anything but making a fortune; the glamour was all in that direction. The Adamses were not, and always said they were not, Bostonians; and the orators, clergymen and historians of the day, as well as the poet, though respected and admired, never dominated the community: they were ornaments and perhaps dangers.

As a child Henry unabashedly embraced, even embellished upon Quincy’s simple ways. Though the Old House creaked with colonial inconveniences, lacking the bathrooms, furnaces, and indoor plumbing found in Grandfather Brooks’s Boston brownstone, he extolled its “ethical” superiority. “Quincy,” he once swore, “had always been right, for Quincy represented a moral principle,—the principle of resistance to Boston.” Looking ahead to the Education’s striking historical duality, pitting the powerful modern industrial dynamo against the seraphic pre-industrial Virgin, it is difficult to escape the suspicion that its origin lies, to some imperative degree, in its author’s youthful impressions of town and country. These recollections remained vivid and living memories, guiding Adams long after he had last basked in the Old House’s familiar golden summer glow.

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