“All the steam in the world could not, like the Virgin, build Chartres.”
I discovered Henry Adams late in life and wish I had done so earlier. One can always tell when he is in the company of genius, and Adams is just such a one. Accordingly, I want to share some of my favorite thoughts from Adams’ autobiography, which he wrote in the third person and which is historically fascinating and philosophically provocative. Being the grandson and great-grandson of two American presidents would lead one to expect that Henry’s life would be eventful and in some ways it was. But he spent much of his life trying to determine what he was best suited to do and in many ways he felt out of step with the world around him. In spite of this, the man became a keen observer and one of the brightest minds of his day and his reflections still have the ring of truth today. For one thing, he was convinced that even after only 100 years the Constitution needed drastic revision, since, among other things, it gave the Senate too much power. With the large number of presidential appointments still awaiting Senate approval today, we can see the truth of what Adams had to say. And given the Supreme Court’s recent decision taking off all limits to political contributions, we can see that the Founders clearly ignored one aspect of power that has every sign of crippling their brain-child beyond recognition. The Constitution simply didn’t mention corporations, leaving the door open for all manner of bizarre judgments regarding their status in this polity. In future, we can expect the very rich to determine who runs for political office and what their agenda will be once they are elected — and no restraints on unbridled greed. Our democracy is in danger of being transformed into an oligarchy — though that ship has almost certainly already sailed. But let’s hear some of what Adams had to say in the middle of the nineteenth century.
Adams saw himself as one of many young men after the Civil War who awaited U.S. Grant’s arrival in Washington with great hope. Here was a man of action who would surely move quickly to revise and update the Constitution and make it more workable. But he was soon disappointed as Grant seemed unwilling to do much of anything, except to get himself involved in scandals. Adams described what he took to be the type:
“In time one came to recognize the type in other men, with differences and variations, as normal men whose energies were the greater, the less they wasted on thought; men who sprang from the soil to power, apt to be distrustful of themselves and others; shy, jealous; sometimes vindictive; more or less dull in outward appearance; and always needing stimulants, but for whom action was the highest stimulant — the instinct to fight.”
In general, Adams didn’t trust men in power and said several times that he worried that when one of his friends came into power “he was lost.” Power did, in fact, corrupt, as Adams saw it. With tongue firmly in his cheek, Adams tells us what political power did to U.S. Grant:
“That two thousand years after Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar, a man like Grant should be called the highest product of the most advanced evolution, made evolution ludicrous. One must be as common-place as Grant’s own common-places to maintain such an absurdity. The progress of evolution from President Washington to President Grant was alone evidence enough to upset Darwin.”
Like so many others, Adams placed his hope in the Supreme Court:
“Although step by step he had been driven, like the rest of the world, to admit that the American society had outgrown most of its institutions, he still clung to the Supreme Court, much as a churchman clings to his bishops, because they are his only symbol of unity; his last rag of Right. Between the Executive and the Legislative, citizens could have no rights; they were at the mercy of Power. They had created the Court to protect them from unlimited Power, and it was little enough protection at best. . . “
Unfortunately the founders simply didn’t foresee the power of corporations. Indeed, given the power of corporations today, the Supreme Court offers far too little protection as it happens! Adams was thoroughly disillusioned, as appears in the following observation:
“The political dilemma was as clear in 1870 as it was likely to be in 1970. The system of 1789 had broken down, and with it the eighteenth century fabric of moral principles. Politicians had tacitly given up. Grant’s administration marked the avowal. None-tenths of men’s political energies must henceforth be wasted on expedients to piece out — to patch — the political machine as often as it broke down. Such a system, or want of a system, might last for centuries if tempered by an occasional revolution or civil war; but as a machine it was, or soon would be, the poorest in the world — the clumsiest — the most inefficient.. . . . The [fore]fathers had intended to neutralize the energy of government and had succeeded, but their machine was never meant to do the work of a 20-million h.p. society in the twentieth century, where much work was needed to be quickly and efficiently done. The only defense of the system was that, as government did nothing well, it had best do nothing. . .”
Adams’ despair soon extended so far as to include most of his fellow citizens:
“The American character showed singular limitations which sometimes drove the student of civilized man to despair. Crushed by his own ignorance — lost in the darkness of his own gropings — the scholar finds himself jostled of a sudden by a crowd of men who seem to him ignorant that there is a thing called ignorance; who have forgotten how to amuse themselves; who cannot even understand that they are bored.”
In the end, Adams placed his hope in education:
“The object of education should be the [mind's] teaching itself how to react with vigor and economy. No doubt the world at large will always lag so far behind the active mind as to make a soft cushion of inertia to drop upon, as it did for Henry Adams; but education should try to lessen the obstacles, diminish the friction, invigorate the energy, and should train minds to react, not at haphazard but by choice, on the lines of force that attract their world. What one knows is, in youth, of little moment; they know enough who know how to learn. Throughout history the waste of mind has been appalling and, as this story is meant to show, society has conspired to promote it. No doubt the teacher is the criminal, but the world stands behind him and drags the student from his course. Only the most energetic, the most highly fitted, and the most favored have overcome the friction or the viscosity of inertia, and those were compelled to waste three-fourths of their energy in doing it.”
We can only hope that those few will somehow manage to resist society’s determination to force them into a mold of its making by turning them all into mindless robots, trained to do a job; that they will demand the best education available and continue to make the effort required to attain it. Otherwise, the democratic experiment in America will be judged a failure.