Charles Francis Adams.

Charles Francis Adams, 1835-1915; an autobiography; online

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Charles Francis Adams

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Charles Francis Adams

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Charles Francis Adams

An Autobiography


delivered November 17, 1915, by

Henry Cabot Lodge

Houghton Mifflin Company

The Riverside Press, Cambridge


Published March jgib

w&R 20 1916

©CI.A4 28J84


In 191 3 Mr. Adams sent to the Massachusetts Historical
Society a sealed package, containing, as he expressed it,
"an autobiographical sketch," to serv^e as material for a me-
moir to be prepared for publication in the Proceedings of the
Society, when the occasion should arise. Full authority
was given to the Editor of the Society to make such use of
this "sketch" as seemed to him proper. Of the contempo-
raries of Mr. Adams no one remained qualified, by knowl-
edge or sympathy, to prepare a memoir, and the autobio-
graphical sketch, on examination, made a search for a
biographer unnecessary. It is full and characteristic of
the writer.

The Memorial Address by Mr. Lodge was delivered in
the First Church in Boston, on the afternoon of Wednesday,
November 17, 191 5, at a public meeting of the Society in
commemoration of Mr. Adams. The proceedings were
marked by great simplicity and deep feeling. The invocation
was made by the Rev. George Angier Gordon; and the bene-
diction given by the Rev. Charles Edwards Park.

W. C. F.






in. WASHINGTON, 1861 7^




Memorial Address

No man who reflects, certainly no one who gives rein to his
imagination, can approach even the slightest attempt to tell
the story of a man's life upon earth, whether it be his own or
another's, without feeling that he is doing so in obedience to
one of the overruling impulses, one of the deep-seated in-
stincts of humanity. He cannot escape the vision of the suc-
cessive generations of men as they pass by in long procession
recounting, each in its turn, the lives and deeds of those who
have gone before.

The form remains; the function never dies.

We fain would learn where the function and the form began
and when they issued from the darkness. There comes no
answer to our questioning. We cannot know, we can only

In those dim, mysterious regions of the past, about which
conjecture alone is possible, we may nevertheless be sure
that, as soon as men secured command of language, the first
use to which they put it, after passing beyond the base needs
of daily communication, was to talk of themselves and of
each other. When Browning's Eurydice cries to Orpheus:
No Past is mine, no Future; Look at me!

we listen to the passionate voice of an old, sophisticated and
complex civilization. Primitive man was the very reverse of
this. He clung to the past and grasped blindly at the future.
A little speck in the vast spaces of time and eternity, his

Memorial Address

overwhelming spiritual need, the craving hunger of his soul
was to bind himself to those who had gone before and strive
to clutch that which was still to come, so that he might in his
ignorance rescue himself from the loneliness In which he wan-
dered, helpless and unaided. Memory and Imagination were
his sole resources; so he turned to the singers, the reciters, the
ballad-makers, the minstrels, and the rhapsodists to tell him
of his past, of the heaven-bom heroes from whom he liked to
think that he was descended, of the wars, the deeds of arms,
the conflict with forces of nature, of light and darkness, of the
vague traditions and legends which were to him unchanging
and unquestioned truths. This to him was history, and he
sought the future In the prophecies and predictions of his
sibyls and priests and soothsayers, in the signs of the heavens,
in the flight of birds, and among the entrails of animals.

When some great genius, when more than one, perhaps,
like him to whom the Greeks gave the name of Cadmus, dis-
covered a method of expressing language by certain arbitrary
signs, men began to carve those signs on stones, paint them
on walls, bake them on bricks, and finally to write them on
papyrus, on skins, on bark, and on parchment. Thus they
recorded events which seemed to them memorable, facts
began to rear their hard, unfeeling heads, and imagination
slowly withdrew from a world In which It had once reigned
supreme. One form of these records was the epitaph, the
attempt to tell upon the tombstone something of the life of
the dead who lay beneath, of the ancestor to whom primitive
man had always clung in the wide wastes of the universe,
which he could not understand, and to whom he had given
his worship. Thus biography began, and, as Carlyle says,
"History is the essence of innumerable biographies." Com-

Memorial Address xi

pared to the untold myriads of human beings who have lived
and died, the number of biographies, of epitaphs, of bare
mention even, in lists or catalogues, is trifling, and yet each
one of the countless and unnoted millions had his trials and
sorrows and joys, his virtues and his crimes, his soul history,
deeply interesting if truly narrated and rightly considered.
But we can only deal with what we have, and from what
we possess must infer the rest, for that alone is permitted
to us. The inference thus drawn is history, which is not a
science, for it can never be exact, which is at best an ap-
proximation to truth. From it we can learn greatly, but it
is as barren as a table of statistics unless informed by im-
agination and presented with the finest skill of which lit-
erature is capable. Moreover, the biographies, the recorded
lives of men, whether brief or copious, whether resting on a
few allusions or filling volumes of minute detail, are not only
the material of history, but are each and all the picture of a
human being, of a human soul, in its short and troublous pil-
grimage from the cradle to the grave. If we look upon them
with considerate eyes, there is nothing of equal interest and
importance in the whole range of the great literature of knowl-
edge. I have no intention of embarking upon this vast ocean
of inquiry or of attempting to examine the development of
the written lives of men and women. I would merely note
here one fact: that not only from the time when men scrawled
the names of their fellow-men on stones, but from the much
earlier day of the history preserved in the trained memory of
those who recited poetry and ballads, we almost always find
an effort at least to tell the names, if nothing more, of the
father and mother, perhaps of the more remote ancestors, of
the hero whose deeds the minstrel chanted, or even of the un-

xii Memorial Address

sung dead lying in perpetual calm beneath the carved stone.
The impulse which gave rise to this habit was wholly natural.
The desire to define the man or woman who had gone, for
the benefit of the generations yet unborn, would be quite
sufficient to account for it. Yet one cannot help feeling that
there was a vague idea working in the minds of these remote
people, dim shadows as they are, in the dawn of recorded
history, that ancestry not only defined but explained. At
all events, certain it is that the primeval habit continued,
and also expanded and developed as civilization advanced,
so that by its influence and pressure a great literature came
into being. In all the historical writings of Greece and Rome,
wherever an account is given of any man something almost
always is said of his parents, often of his ancestors. This
was the custom from the days of Herodotus to those of
Plutarch, whose biographies, so sweepingly condemned by
Macaulay, have none the less delighted succeeding genera-
tions of readers, who cared naught for the writer's political
principles, but rejoiced in the stories which he told. Thus
has the practice passed on through the centuries until it has
reached the days of the evolutionists, of Darwin and Mendel
and the modern biologists. Now parentage and ancestry are
no longer in biography merely a means of definition, the
creators of the atmosphere and the influences amid which
the hero or heroine of the tale grew to maturity and achieve-
ment. They have become scientific necessities, preliminaries
absolutely essential to any just comprehension of the human
being whose life and work arrest our attention and invoke
our consideration. In simpler phrase heredity is now not
only an inseparable but an indispensable part of the task of
the biographer, whether he tells his own story or that of some

Memorial Address xiii

other man, whether the life so written fills volumes or is but
the merest outline and suggestion. We no longer smile at
Dr. Holmes's remark that a man's education should begin
one hundred and fifty years before his birth, for the saying
involves a great scientific truth which Dr. Holmes foresaw,
as he did much else for which he did not receive due credit,
in the wide regions of thought and speculation.

In Charles Francis Adams, second of the name, whose life
and character, whose manifold activities and public services
we seek fittingly to commemorate to-day, the hereditary ele-
ment of biography is marked and conspicuous in an unequalled
degree. I say "unequalled," which is a perilous word, for a
universal affirmative, if not as impossible as a universal nega-
tive, is almost as dangerous. Yet I think the word is justi-
fied. It would be difficult to find in history another case of
four successive generations of intellectual distinction and the
highest public serv'ice equal to that sho^\^l by the Adams
family during the past century and a half. In some of the
long royal dynasties instances of great ability are no doubt
found, but they are as a rule isolated and the high position
itself is inherited, not won. Among the Plantagenets even,
the dynasty more productive of remarkable men than any
other of modem times at least, the highest ability came at
intervals and the union of ability and character only at very
protracted intervals. The house of Orange-Nassau in Wil-
liam the Silent, his two sons and later his great-grandson,
William III, presents a very famous case of inherited abil-
ity; but there again the great opportunity and the high
position were a birthright.

There have also been many instances of long descent where
the same family has held through centuries the same titles

xiv Memorial Address

and estates, but this means little because the titles and
estates usually sustain their possessors instead of the pos-
sessors upholding and adding glory to the honors and prop-
erty won by the hard-handed, hard-headed founder of the
line. No doubt from these distinguished families, both in
England and on the Continent, have sprung some great
men as well as many men of strong abilities ; but the men
of mark have been sporadic and not in close succession dur-
ing four generations. Frequently there has been only too
much justification for Pope's oft quoted lines:

What can ennoble sots or slaves or cowards?
Alas! not all the blood of all the Howards.

Very rarely does one find a case like that of the family of La
Tremoille in France, where a strain of vigorous ability com-
bined with energy, force, and character runs in varying de-
grees through several generations; but the Tremoilles never
touched the summit in either political or military life and the
favoring opportunity was a birthright. We have, of course,
the famous instance of the elder and the younger Pitt who
both reached the zenith of power, but then came the end, as
it did in the less conspicuous case of Lord Burleigh and the
Earl of Salisbury, after whom the line waited two hundred
and fifty years before it again shone forth in the high places.
But in our American family, with no adventitious aid of
titles or estates, without the lucky chance which Lord Thur-
low described as "the accident of an accident," the first two
of the line by their own ability, their own energy and force,
their own strong, fine characters, rose to the highest pinnacle
of public service and public distinction. Each, in the words
of the son, fulfilled his aspiration that he might be permitted,
"By the people's unbought grace to rule his native land."

Memorial Address xv

To the third, to the grandson, was given the opportunity
in the darkest hour of his country's trial to perform the great-
est service rendered by any civilian except Lincoln himself,
with whom none other can be compared. He took the
"Master of human destmies " by the hand and gave the great
service in full measure. To follow even in the most meagre
outline the careers or to endeavor to describe in the most
superficial way the characters and achievements of John
Adams, John Quincy Adams, and Charles Francis Adams,
would be to review the civil and diplomatic history of the
Thirteen Colonies and of the United States during more
than a hundred years. I shall not attempt to do this, for
time and space forbid, and my sole purpose is to speak of one
of the fourth generation who were born heirs to this family

It was a great inheritance, and unless we realize something
of what it meant in all its aspects, we cannot justly appreci-
ate him in whose honor we gather here to-day. It was an
inheritance of which the possessors, unless false to all that is
best in human nature, could not fail to be proud, one which
any man might justly envy and desire; so pervading in its
influences that a biographer of any one of the fourth genera-
tion might well make his theme a study in heredity. Yet at
the same time it must not be forgotten that this remarkable
heritage brought to those who received it burdens as well as
honor. The famous ancestor, still more immediate ancestors
of the highest distinction in successive generations bring to
their descendants with an unrelenting insistence, from which
the average man is free, Carlyle's question, "What then have
you done.^" The effort, not unfamiliar, by which a man of
independent spirit strives to show that he has merits of his

xvi Memorial Address

own, stands on his own feet and refuses to be simply "the son
of his father," is a severe one. How much more severe the or-
deal when a man is forced to demonstrate that he is not only
something more and other than the "son of his father," but
also more and other than the "grandson of his grandfather,"
and the "great-grandson of his great-grandfather." If the
possessor of such a heritage is a man of strong nature and vig-
orous mind, the determination to assert himself, to do work
which the world will recognize as his own, to prove that he is
an independent, individual entity and not simply a descend-
ant, becomes a dominant factor in his whole growth and
development. Moreover, the fact of such continued success
and celebrity in one family for over a century implies neces-
sarily a stock of unusual robustness, physical, mental, and
moral, as well as strong qualities of mind and character which
become more emphasized by each transmission and which
pass into and govern, almost like the hand of fate, those who
inherit them. In the Education of Henry Adams weight Is
given to the Introduction of another strain from beyond the
New England borders by the marriage of John Quincy
Adams. But, to the dispassionate observer, the Southern
blood thus brought in seems to have had a sentimental rather
than a real effect. The Mendelian law of the dominant and
recessive qualities would appear to apply. The dominant
qualities reassert themselves; the recessive, although still
existent and with the possibility of reappearance, fade away,
especially after only a single crossing, to a dimness which In
human beings Is a practical effacement. This one Infusion
from without could not overcome or even affect materially
the qualities and tendencies of a strong Puritan stock carried
in three generations to the highest power by unusual abilities

Memorial Address


and exceptional force of character. The heirs of the quahties
thus fostered and developed could not escape them, they were
life companions and controlling influences. They brought
their o^\'n exceeding great reward, but by the doctrine of
compensation they also brought their penalties. As an exam-
ple the independence of thought in John Adams developed in
John Quincy Adams both mental solitude and minute intro-
spection which passed on to his descendants with no waning
force. The peril involved in excessive introspection is obvi-
ous, for,

Thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o'er with the pale cast of thought;
And enterprises of great pith and moment,
With this regard their currents turn awry,
And lose the name of action.

That the third and fourth generations not only avoided
this danger, but conquered the tendency which so strongly
gripped them, is abundant witness of their mental and moral
strength as well as of their vigorous intellectual honesty.

To such an inheritance Charles Francis Adams, second of
the name, son of Charles Francis and Abigail Brooks Adams,
was bom on May 27, 1835, in a house on Hancock Avenue,
then and now, although upon the brink of change, a nar-
row lane for foot passengers only which runs by the State
House grounds from Beacon to Mount Vernon Street. In
Boston and Quincy his boyhood was passed, and he had
as a birthright all that was best in the community into
which he was bom. An unprejudiced outsider would justly
have said that in home, parentage, and associations he
was exceptionally fortunate, and this judgment, broadly
speakmg, would be true. But human nature both m boy

xviii Memorial Address

and man Is so constituted that the good things of Ufe are
taken as a matter of course, while the spots on the sun or
the flies in the ointment loom large. With some tempera-
ments the things disliked are pushed aside and the pleas-
ant aspects prevail both at the time and in memory. With
other temperaments the exact reverse occurs. In the case of
Charles Francis Adams, as with many other boys similarly
situated between the years 1835 and 1865, Boston was inex-
tricably associated with winter, short days, cold, snow, and
schools, while the summer home, in his case Quincy, meant
the long days, warmth, sunlight, out-of-door life, and a pleas-
ing absence of lessons. Boston, therefore, he earnestly dis-
liked and Quincy he regarded with distinct although not
exaggerated approval. Upon him, again as with other boys
of like condition, the lingering forms of Puritanism, the seri-
ous Sundays, burdened with much church-going and ample
Biblical instruction, weighed heavily. Most boys took this
ancestral bequest as the work of a malignant fate, tried with
a strict economy of truth to evade it so far as possible, and
bore what they could not escape with the odd philosophy
characteristic of boys when they meet the inevitable. Charles
Francis Adams, however, was not an average boy, and he not
only hated the Boston winters and the solemn dreary Sun-
days, but actively resented them, and found no philosophy,
odd or otherwise, which would save him from kicking against
the pricks. The spirit of the reformer was strong within him
even in those earliest days although he was no doubt uncon-
scious of its influence. In the brief autobiography which he
bequeathed to the Historical Society, he not only vents his
feelings in regard to these conditions of boyhood, which were
common to the time, but he also dwells upon two additional

Memorial Address xix

grievances, one of which was, I think, exceptional, while the
other was largely shared by his contemporaries, who for the
most part did not regard it as a misfortune or indeed with
any hostile feeling. The first of these grievances concerned
outdoor sports and exercises. He learned to swim, but this
he says was the only athletic accomplishment he had oppor-
tunity to acquire. He unquestionably learned to skate, al-
though he puts it down as one of the things he missed, to-
gether with boxing, fencing, and riding, in which boys ten or
fifteen years younger were certainly instructed and which
they all enjoyed. Nor did he have apparently in the usual
ample measure the games and sports common to boys of
that time or a little later. His brother, in the Education oj
Henry Adams, says that there were no trout streams on the
Cape. This shows that the youth of the family did not wan-
der far afield as sportsmen, for there are trout streams in
that region even now, some carefully preserved; and in the
"forties" of the nineteenth century they were more numer-
ous and full of fish. I printed not long ago a letter from
Webster to my grandfather, who was also an expert in
the gentle art, describing a day's trout fishing in Plymouth
County and giving the weight of his spoils which he sent to
his correspondent. There was no lack, then, of trout streams,
nor of deep-sea fishing, and there was an abundance of shoot-
ing along the coast, for the shore birds, now departed, were in
those days plentiful. The boys of my time had all the shoot-
ing and fishing they could reasonably desire, but it is clear
that the atmosphere in which Charles Adams found himself
was not favorable to sports and outdoor life, a situation no
doubt to be regretted in the case of any vigorous boy. Charles
Adams felt it as a grave misfortune and in his autobiography

XX Memorial Address

attributes this mischance to his father. There were many
boys of those days who managed to get their fill of sports
and exercise without any especial paternal sympathy, so that
the failure in this phase of boy life cannot in this case be
charged wholly to the shortcomings of the head of the house.
At the same time it is clear that the elder Charles Francis
was not one who would stimulate or actively encourage in
his sons the athletic side of life or the love of outdoor sports.
His own childhood had been passed in Europe during his fa-
ther's long diplomatic service. He had never suffered from or
enjoyed in the usual measure the education or habits of the
ordinary boy. His education, varied as it had been, was un-
doubtedly better than that of most American boys, but by
the very circumstances of his life abroad he lost much in the
way of boyish associations, sports, and mischief. He was not
likely, therefore, to appreciate the value of these things to his
sons. Charles Adams in his autobiography quotes from his
father's diary where the writer speaks of a morning, passed
with his boys fishing for smelts, as a day wasted, and the son
makes the very reasonable comment that no time was less
wasted than that. But Charles Adams made too little allow-
ance for the difference of temperament. In his father the
Puritan strain was very strong, the New England conscience
which insists that unattractiveness is a powerful evidence of
duty was extremely vigorous. The traditions of race and fam-
ily were with him commanding. To the country, to public af-
fairs, to the care of his family and estate, to work of all sorts,
with pen and voice, but always to work, he felt that all his
energy and all his time should be devoted. As independent
in thought, as determined and fearless in warfare against a
public wrong like slavery as any who ever bore the name, in

Memorial Address


the lesser matters, in literature, in science, in manners and
modes of life and standards of conduct, the elder Charles
Francis Adams was conservative. He was not wholly free
from the influences and thought of the eighteenth century
which were still potent during the iirst thirty years of the
nineteenth. That particular frame of mind seems a hundred
years later not without charm, but the charm does not appear
to have been felt by Mr. Adams's son who came into the
world just as the eighteenth century really passed away with
the coming of the railroad and the departure of the stage-

The son Charles says of himself as a boy that he was not
original, but that he was individual. He was by no means
destitute of originality, but he was certainly indiiidual,
and his normal, instinctive attitude was one of questioning
and even of revolt against anything existent, established, and
accepted. Here he differed from his father, as I have just
said, in temperament, and because of this difference he did

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Online LibraryCharles Francis AdamsCharles Francis Adams, 1835-1915; an autobiography; → online text (page 1 of 21)