"Fat Tuesday," if you're fortunate enough to live in Louisiana -- or wherever Mardi Gras is celebrated. Today, I'm thinking about two men born on this date, both of whom were in Abraham Lincoln's orbit. Both also made their reputations in Massachusetts -- and both were named Henry. Yet, they were as different as men could be.
Henry Wilson was born into grinding poverty and succeeded in the highest levels of government. Henry Adams, a child of fame and privilege, flamed out in Washington and retreated to a protected sinecure in academia. The former -- the once-influential Henry -- is forgotten today. The latter -- the one who failed upward -- is still widely acclaimed. But as another New England politician noted, who said life was fair?
Henry Wilson's boyhood, the U.S. Senate's official historian has observed, "resembled a Dickens novel." Born on Feb. 16, 1812, in New Hampshire, his indolent father named the child Jeremiah Jones Colbath after a wealthy neighbor in hopes of ingratiating himself with the man, a bachelor. The scheme failed and the Colbath family's suffering continued.
"Want sat by my cradle," he wrote later. "I know what it is to ask a mother for bread when she has none to give."
When he was 10 years, his father apprenticed the boy to a family on another New England farm, where he worked until he turned 21. By then our hero had acquired a self-education -- he read every book in the farmhouse -- a lifelong commitment to abstinence from alcohol, and a new name he chose himself: Henry Wilson.
Newly liberated, he set out for Boston, walking 100 miles before settling in Natick, where he took up shoemaking. Within three years, he had saved enough money to travel to Washington, D.C., drawn by the possibility of service to his country. Instead of being inspired, by the time he arrived in the capital he was appalled. He'd seen enslaved people working in the fields of Maryland and witnessed slave auctions within sight of the U.S. Capitol. On the spot, he formed a determination to devote himself to the cause of emancipation.
Returning to the Boston area, Wilson turned his small cobbler's business into a lucrative factory, joined the Whig Party, and participated in the Natick Debating Society. Soon the Whigs were running him for office in the state legislature. There, Wilson developed an antipathy toward the snooty Brahmins who controlled Massachusetts politics. But his deeper opprobrium was reserved for Southern planters and their Democratic Party apologists. "Freedom and slavery are now arrayed against each other," he wrote. "We must destroy slavery, or it will destroy liberty."
He invested in an abolitionist newspaper, which he edited from 1848 to 1851, joined the fledging Republican Party, and raised and commanded a local militia unit.
By the time the Civil War arrived, "Gen. Wilson" was in the U.S. Senate, serving alongside fellow abolitionist firebrand Charles Sumner. Wilson was among those who rode out to Manassas in a carriage to witness the first set-piece battle of the war. After Union soldiers were routed from the field, Henry Wilson returned to Massachusetts, raised a real militia this time, with himself as its colonel, and returned with his unit to Washington. Despite his desires, Sen. Wilson had neither the training nor aptitude for actual soldiering -- he could barely ride a horse --so he resigned his commission and assumed the post in which he could best help Abraham Lincoln and Gen. Ulysses Grant: chairman of the Senate Committee on Military Affairs.
After the war, he became President Grant's second-term running mate. Henry Wilson's ambitions were not yet quenched, and he might have become the 19th U.S. president instead of Rutherford B. Hayes, but his health failed him. He didn't live long enough to finish out his term and was soon forgotten.
Henry Adams' entire life was a different story. Born on Feb. 16, 1838, to wealth and status -- he was the grandson of John Quincy Adams and the great-grandson of John Adams -- he seemed destined for greatness, at least in his own mind. According to the leading lights of American letters, he achieved it.
After serving as secretary to his father, Charles Francis Adams, who was Lincoln's ambassador to Great Britain during the Civil War, he returned to the States and made his name as a journalist and scholar. His nine-volume "History of the United States and America During the Administrations of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison" was highly praised and is still considered a masterpiece by historians I respect. Under an assumed name, Adams wrote a riveting novel titled "Democracy," and his posthumously published memoir, "The Education of Henry Adams," won a Pulitzer Prize and the honor of being named by the parent company of Random House as the best English-language nonfiction book of the 20th century. It's well- written, but all this is errant nonsense.
Henry Adams, for all his literary gifts, never grasped the basics of the profession he was drawn to and that denied him a foothold. For this, he blamed Ulysses Grant, although the fault was all his own. Adams was not only acerbic and petty, which alienated those he was trying to influence, but he viewed every difference of opinion or tactics as a matter of principle. Anyone who didn't agree with him was corrupt, in his telling. Ostensibly, his dispute with the famous general-turned-president is that Grant populated his administration with party hacks, many of whom came recommended by Republicans in Congress. Adams' view, which he couched as an argument over separation of powers, was that political patronage jobs should be solely based on merit. Here, Adams harked back to George Washington, a paragon of nonpartisanship, to be sure (but also a man who found Henry Adams grandfather exasperating for exhibiting the same undiplomatic and graceless compulsions). As usual, Henry Adams resorted to ad hominem insults to make his argument. One of them is famous to this day: "The progress of evolution from President Washington to President Grant was alone evidence to upset Darwin."
The hypocrisy here seems self-evident, at least to me. Among those Grant bypassed when filling his Cabinet were allies of Henry Adams -- and Adams himself, which is why he left the rough-and-tumble of Washington for the safety of Harvard's faculty. Henry Adams conceded as much to his brother Charles. "I have always considered that Grant wrecked my own life," he wrote in a 1911 letter. Earlier, he'd written a sort of confession of class resentment about what Grant's political ascension meant to him personally: "My family is buried politically."
Grant certainly would have seen nothing wrong with such a result. Although he didn't like Henry Adams enough to hate him -- Grant wasn't much of a hater -- he did write once that the Adams clan "did not possess one noble trait of character that I ever heard of."
In the end, Henry Adams got his revenge: His scathing review of the Grant administration is the primary reason Americans prefer to think of Ulysses Grant as a general and would like to forget he was ever president. Unfair, as John F. Kennedy would have said, but hardly unique, and perhaps predictable. As Henry Adams himself explained, in words that still resonate today: Politics, in practice, "has always been the systematic organizations of hatreds."
Carl M. Cannon is the Washington bureau chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.