Posted on March 5, 2013
I’m having enormous fun with a book called The Five of Hearts by Patricia O’Toole. It’s about five friends who meet in Washington, D.C., in 1880: Henry and Marian ‘Clover’ Adams, John and Clara Hay, and Clarence King.
Henry Adams was the great-grandson of John Adams, the grandson of John Quincy Adams, and the son of Charles Francis Adams, who was nearly president and who, as ambassador to Great Britain, famously kept that country from forming an alliance with the Confederacy during the Civil War.
John Hay was one of Abraham Lincoln’s secretaries and was later secretary of state under McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt. Clara Stone Hay was the heiress of railroad baron Amasa Stone.
Clarence King was a geologist who surveyed the 40th parallel in advance of the transcontinental railroad and became famous for exposing the Great Diamond Hoax of 1872. He later founded, and headed up, the U.S. Geological Survey. He also had four children with an African-American woman in New York, who knew him as James Todd.
The five of them used to meet at Henry and Clover’s house in Washington just across LaFayette Square from the White House, and they were all accused, at one time or another (except for Clara, who was the listener), of being the author of Democracy, an anonymous bestseller on both sides of the Atlantic which exposed the rampant corruption in American politics and was a favorite of English Prime Minister William Gladstone and the Prince of Wales.
They became such close friends that they named their little circle “The Five of Hearts,” and even had their own stationery.
I find this book delightful for five reasons: 1) each of the characters is fascinating in his or her own right; 2) it gives the reader remarkable insights into the period of history which Mark Twain labeled “The Gilded Age”; 3) the five “hearts” were so fond of one another, and shared an exquisite sense of humor that comes across in their correspondence throughout their lives; 4) O’Toole achieves such a high level of scholarship, sifting through countless volumes of sources and presenting the essence; and finally, 5) O’Toole is a great writer.
Of course the suicide of Clover Adams shatters the happiness of the hearts, but I find it an inspiration to see how they cope with the tragedy. And this book has also given me new insight into the life and character of Henry Adams, whom I had always regarded as a stodgy old coot. Turns out he was a firebrand in his youth who exposed corruption in politics until he found that nobody really cared. Then he took solace in writing history and other intellectual pursuits.
And there’s a very telling episode later in the book where he’s meeting with Cuban revolutionaries in Washington. Spain, as I learned, had brutally suppressed dissent in Cuba, herding hundreds of thousands of people into concentration camps, where more than 400,000 people died. The Cuban revolutionaries were in Washington trying to awaken the conscience of the American people to support their efforts at liberation.
Based on his experience, Henry saw that this was not the percentage play, and instead he worked to convince American capitalists that there was money to be made in Cuba once they got rid of the Spaniards. There was no trouble justifying this. After all, his grandfather John Quincy Adams was the author of the Monroe Doctrine.
As history shows, this was a truly insightful way of harnessing greed for a humanitarian purpose. And the people of Cuba were definitely better off after the war.
Henry could not have foreseen that the US would hang on to the Philippines and slaughter 100,000 people there.