Henry Adams and the American Scene, Part II

In London, at Harvard, in Washington and during his extensive world travels, Henry Adams elaborated his penetrating views on the nature of history and of the American experience. By John Raymond.

From Rome, in the summer of 1860, Henry Adams, aged twenty, made his way towards Washington, to act as his father’s private secretary. This was his introduction to the political capitol, and he ran the gauntlet between Senators Seward and Sumner, “trying to buzz admiration into the ears of each, and unaware that each would impatiently slap him from belonging to the other?” Private secretaries, as he later noted, are servants of a rather lower degree, whose business is to serve the sources of power.

William Henry Seward (1801-1872), Lincoln’s Secretary of State, is the first among the gallery of political portraits that Adams sketched with such a tender and tentative ferocity in the pages of his Education:

...A slouching, slender figure; a head like a wise macaw; a beaked nose; shaggy eyebrows; unorderly hair and clothes; hoarse voice; offhand manner; free talk, and perpetual cigar, offered a new type—of western New York—to fathom; a type in one way simple because it was only double —political and personal; but complex because the political had become nature, and no one could tell which was the mask and which the features. At table, among friends, Mr. Seward threw off restraint, or seemed to throw it off, in reality, while in the world he threw it off, like a politician, for effect. In both cases he chose to appear as a free talker, who loathed pomposity and enjoyed a joke; but how much was nature and how much was mask, he was himself too deep a nature to know.

...Mr. Seward was never petty or personal; his talk was large; he generalized; he never seemed to pose for statesmanship; he did not require an attitude of prayer. What was more unusual—almost singular and quite eccentric— he had some means, unknown to the other Senators, of producing the effect of unselfishness.

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