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Das Langweilige ist interessant geworden, weil das Interessante angefangen hat langweilig zu werden. – Thomas Mann

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Thursday, December 07, 2006

adams again

In the 1868 presidential campaign, Grant’s election campaign spent an unprecedented amount of money – $250,000, twice as much as his Democrat opponent. The money came from the prosperous class that had benefited very largely from the Civil war: Vanderbilt, William Astor, Hamilton Fish, etc. The money that went into Grant’s election campaign signaled a change in the relationship between the elected and the moneyed, which was, in turn, a product of the changes wrought in the American economy by the Civil War.

This is where Henry Adams enters the picture. In my last post, LI might have puzzled readers by linking Adams to an article warning of the bust inside the commercial real estate bubble. Adams, however, was not merely a belle lettrist – he was a financial journalist too, one of the first of the breed in this country. He obviously benefited from acquaintance with Bagehot, but he also benefited from a sensibility sufficiently sensitive as to be shocked when he came home to the U.S. after being abroad during the Civil War – he served the government, under his father, in Britain – to remark on the massive changes he saw everywhere. As he puts it in the Education, he might as well have been a Tyrian trader from 100 B.C., landing on an unknown shore, so strange was his country to him when he came back in 1868. In one of the more famous anti-Semitic passages (Adams was afflicted with a sort of lyncathropic anti-semitism - in the turn of a phrase he suddenly grows fur and fangs, and the next moment they seem to vanish - however, always beware of a man who carelessly allows himself to become a werewolf) he wrote:

“One could divine pretty nearly where the force lay, since the
last ten years had given to the great mechanical energies --
coal, iron, steam -- a distinct superiority in power over the old
industrial elements -- agriculture, handwork, and learning; but
the result of this revolution on a survivor from the fifties
resembled the action of the earthworm; he twisted about, in vain,
to recover his starting-point; he could no longer see his own
trail; he had become an estray; a flotsam or jetsam of wreckage;
a belated reveller, or a scholar-gipsy like Matthew Arnold's. His
world was dead. Not a Polish Jew fresh from Warsaw or Cracow --
not a furtive Yacoob or Ysaac still reeking of the Ghetto,
snarling a weird Yiddish to the officers of the customs -- but
had a keener instinct, an intenser energy, and a freer hand than
he -- American of Americans, with Heaven knew how many Puritans
and Patriots behind him, and an education that had cost a civil
war.”

Adams came back the year Johnson was impeached and Grant made a successful play for the presidency. That Grant would become president seemed natural, although – of course – for an Adams, not wholly pleasant. Grant was like Washington, Andrew Jackson, William Tyler – a parade of generals who seemed to embody the military virtues of organization and forthrightness without having, at their backs, the threat of standing armies. Adams was, at the time, trying to introduce the kind of sophisticated reportage of politics that he had seen in England, and he stationed himself in D.C. to observe and write long thought pieces for the North American Review. At the same time, his brother Charles engaged in the newest of the new technologies – railroad companies. Charles’ worst business enemy was Jay Gould – and by family loyalty and temperament, he became Henry Adams’ too. This is how Adams decided, in 1870, to publish a revelatory account of Gould’s attempt to corner the gold market in 1869. Here’s how he puts it in the Education:

“Before he got back to Quincy, the summer was already half over,
and in another six weeks the effects of President Grant's
character showed themselves. They were startling -- astounding --
terrifying. The mystery that shrouded the famous, classical
attempt of Jay Gould to corner gold in September, 1869, has never
been cleared up -- at least so far as to make it intelligible to
Adams. Gould was led, by the change at Washington, into the
belief that he could safely corner gold without interference from
the Government. He took a number of precautions, which he
admitted; and he spent a large sum of money, as he also
testified, to obtain assurances which were not sufficient to have
satisfied so astute a gambler; yet he made the venture. Any
criminal lawyer must have begun investigation by insisting,
rigorously, that no such man, in such a position, could be
permitted to plead that he had taken, and pursued, such a course,
without assurances which did satisfy him. The plea was
professionally inadmissible.”

As always, with Adams, it is the pattern that comes first. The sample that defies the pattern calls for explanation; Adams problem was that, in the America of his thirties, the great Gilded Age, the aberrant samples multiplied, while the pattern of the republican order to which he was loyal as a family matter, diminished into a mere blind spot. The Gold conspiracy was part of that exile from the pattern that marked Adams self-consciousness about being American.

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