Following the American Civil War Sesquicentennial with day by day writings of the time, currently 1863.

Post image for “Our own position here does not change.”–Adams Family Letters, Henry Adams, private secretary of the US Minister to the UK, to his brother, Charles.

“Our own position here does not change.”–Adams Family Letters, Henry Adams, private secretary of the US Minister to the UK, to his brother, Charles.

May 1, 2013

Adams Family Civil War letters; US Minister to the UK and his sons.

London, May 1, 1863

And so two years have passed over and gone, and still I am abroad and still you are a Captain of cavalry. You meanwhile are near twenty-eight years old. I shall never on this earth see my twenty-fifth birthday again. Does not this fact suggest certain ideas to you? Can a man at your time of life be a cavalry captain and remain a briefless solicitor? Can a man of my general appearance pass five years in Europe and remain a candidate for the bar? In short, have we both wholly lost our reckonings and are we driven at random by fate, or have we still a course that we are steering though it is not quite the same as our old one? By the Apostle Paul, I know not. Only one fact I feel sure of. We are both no longer able to protect ourselves with the convenient fiction of the law. Let us quit that now useless shelter, and steer if possible for whatever it may have been that once lay beyond it. Neither you nor I can ever do anything at the bar….

You don’t catch me entering the army now. It would be like entering college Freshman when all one’s friends were Seniors. I have a trick worth twenty of that. My friend General Zerman, who has been the means of kicking up such a row around us here, and who is an old Dugald Dalgetty; a midshipman under the French at Trafalgar; a sous-officier at Waterloo; a captain at Navarino; a Russian admiral; a Turkish admiral; a Carbonaro; a companion of Silvio Pellico in the prisons of Spielberg; a South American officer by land and sea; and lately a general in the army of the United States; now a Major General in the Mexican service; and I’ve no doubt a damned old villain, though a perfectly jovial old sinner of seventy odd; this distinguished individual offers to take me on his staff with the rank of major to Mexico. Would n’t I like to go! The chances are a thousand to one that my bones would bleach there, but for all that the chance is worth having, for it would be a great step for a young man to secure for himself a control even to a small extent over our Mexican relations. But such magnificent dreams, worthy of the daring of those heroes, Porthos, Athos, Aramis and D’Artagnan, are not for me. By the by, though, what a good Porthos Ben Crowny would make; you could do D’Artagnan, I would put in for Aramis, and no doubt you could hunt up some one that might pass equally badly for Athos. Then we could all go to Mexico together….

I left off by sending you the debate of last Friday night which contained Earl Russell’s brilliant remarks on the celebrated letter of our Minister to Admiral Dupont. In those remarks Earl Russell was indignant at the idea of his speaking to Mr. Adams about it. No! No! He should go straight to Washington! But my Lord, having thus pledged himself in order to please the English copper-heads, to go straight to Washington, amused himself the next morning by sending straight to Mr. Adams. Of course I know nothing of the conversation that followed. That is all a secret with Mr. Seward. But I think it is not difficult to guess. It had suited Lord Russell to yield a little to the copper-head pressure on Thursday night; it suited him to allow Mr. Adams to triumphantly purge himself of misdemeanor on Friday morning. It suited him to make the American Minister think that he (Lord R.) thought him to be in the wrong — moderately. It also suited him to make the British public think that Mr. Adams had confessed his error and contrition and had received pardon. English statesmanship consists in this sort of juggling and huckstering between interests.

Such was the position when I wrote to you, or rather, immediately after I wrote to you. Since then nothing has been heard of complaining at Washington. But now see the resources of a British Minister. Last Tuesday morning the City Article, what we call the money article, of the Times, in which most of the attack has been directed, contained the following paragraph:

“The public will be glad to learn that the difficulties occasioned by the recent issue by Mr. Adams of the certificate or pass to Messrs. Howell and Zerman, are likely to be smoothed down. It is reported that Mr. Adams is conscious of having acted in the matter upon imperfect representations and with undue haste, and that consequently he raises no pretensions such as would necessitate any absolute protest from one Government to the other on the subject. It is therefore believed that the relations between our Cabinet and the United States Legation in London will continue on a friendly footing — a result which in a personal sense will afford unmixed satisfaction, since the individual and historical claims of Mr. Adams to respect and esteem have never been disputed in any quarter.”

Now, is not this a remarkable State Paper? Did you ever see a case in which the butter was laid on so curiously over the interstices of the bread? The real fact is that you should read “Earl Russell” instead of “Mr. Adams” in the fifth line. That would be the correct thing. But this statement has received universal currency and is accepted as a conclusion of the difficulty. It now remains for Lord Russell to make the explanation which no doubt Mr. Adams must demand, at some time when the whole affair shall be forgotten, and then I hope this curious chapter will be closed….

Our own position here does not change. We lead a quiet and not unpleasant life, and I pass my intervals from official work, in studying De Tocqueville and John Stuart Mill, the two high priests of our faith. So I jump from International Law to our foreign history, and am led by that to study the philosophic standing of our republic, which brings me to reflection over the advance of the democratic principle in European civilization, and so I go on till some new question of law starts me again on the circle. But I have learned to think De Tocqueville my model, and I study his life and works as the Gospel of my private religion. The great principle of democracy is still capable of rewarding a conscientious servant. And I doubt me much whether the advance of years will increase my toleration of its faults. Hence I think I see in the distance a vague and unsteady light in the direction towards which I needs must gravitate, so soon as the present disturbing influences are removed.

We are surrounded by assistants. Mr. Aspinwall, Mr. J. M. Forbes, Mr. Robert J. Walker and Mr. Evarts are all here.

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