The Education of Henry Adams (1905) is an odd book. It’s an autobiography in which the Henry Adams (1838-1918) refers to himself as “Adams” and discusses what “Adams” learned and observed–as if he was writing not about himself, but about a different person.
Adams was a direct descendant of two US presidents–great-grandson of John Adams and the grandson of John Quincy Adams–and thus moved in high levels of society and politics all his life. In many ways, the book is more about looking back at the 19th century from the vantage point of the early 20th century. For example, as an “autobiography” the book has some notable gaps. At one point the author–that is, Adams–skips over 20 years of Adams’s life, a period when he published a nine‐volume History of the Jefferson and Madison Administrations, along with biographies of Albert Gallatin and John Randolph and two novels. As we approach another Election Day here in in the United States, here are some characteristically pithy comments from Adams on how the drive for political power can corrupt judgement.
Those who seek education in the paths of duty are always deceived by the illusion that power in the hands of friends is an advantage to them. As far as Adams could teach experience, he was bound to warn them that he had found it an invariable disaster. Power is poison. Its effect on Presidents had been always tragic, chiefly as an almost insane excitement at first, and a worse reaction afterwards; but also because no mind is so well balanced as to bear the strain of seizing unlimited force without habit or knowledge of it; and finding it disputed with him by hungry packs of wolves and hounds whose lives depend on snatching the carrion. [Theodore] Roosevelt enjoyed a singularly direct nature and honest intent, but he lived naturally in restless agitation that would have worn out most tempers in a month, and his first year of Presidency showed chronic excitement that made a friend tremble. The effect of unlimited power on limited mind is worth noting in Presidents because it must represent the same process in society, and the power of self-control must have limit somewhere in face of the control of the infinite. …
The effect of power and publicity on all men is the aggravation of self, a sort of tumor that ends by killing the victim’s sympathies; a diseased appetite, like a passion for drink or perverted tastes; one can scarcely use expressions too strong to describe the violence of egotism it stimulates.
Positions of power, authority, and prominence can generate extreme egotism. It’s true in the private sector, when a successful business executive starts believing that his or her opinions on all subjects–politics, healthy habits, the meaning of life–must also be true. It’s true for some prominent athletes, movie stars, and musicians. It’s true for some prominent academics. It’s also true for successful politicians, who have a tendency to believe that being elected validates their past and future judgements and their lofty human value in a profound way, rather than just meaning that in choice between flawed alternatives, they were favored by 50% plus one.