Charles Francis Adams.

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

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ing catastrophe. Something would surely happen to avert
it! We didn't know what — we couldn't even suggest a
"something"; but we clung to the childish belief all the
same. Consequently, neither as a whole nor as individuals
did we make any preparation. Perhaps it was just as well;
and yet there was the flag flying over Fort Sumter, with the
eyes of the whole country directed that way! Still, I cannot
now but wonder at my own purblindness; for I was at the
time in position to know fairly well what was going on, be-
ing in close contact with prominent men, and an interested
if not a keen observer. Of course I had no share in events or
influence over them — no one that I know of did. We were,
as I now see, drifting — drifting into an inevitable and close
impending war; but this we could not realize, and every day
brought with it reports, doubts, hopes and fears. My record
of that period was quite complete, what with diary and let-
ters, and has now an historical value of the lesser sort; for
it shows what the plan, so far as they had one, of Seward
and my father was, as they groped their way along. My

JVashingtorij 1861 7 3

father and Governor Seward had by this time been brought
into close cooperation. Their poHcy was simple, and, as I
still see it, eminently sensible — though based on an entire
misapprehension of the facts, and fore-doomed to failure.
Their scheme was to divide the South, by conciliating the
northern tier of Slave States, including Virginia especially;
and, holding them loyal until the tide of reaction, setting in,
should drive the seceding States into a false position from
which they would ultimately be compelled to recede. All
winter the immediate effort had been to gain time until the
Government had been transferred to the newly elected
Administration. This essential point had been practically
assured through the Virginia election. The peaceable inau-
guration of Lincoln was now practically certain; the next
question was as to the policy he would adopt when he be-
came President. The working theory of my father and of
Seward was that the less extreme Slave States — notably
Virginia — were in a condition of senseless panic from fear
of something terrible intended — some invasion of their
constitutional rights, they did not well know what; but. If
Lincoln could be safely inaugurated and his Administration
set quietly in motion without any overt act of force having
taken place on either side, it was not unreasonable to hope
this groundless fear would gradually subside, and a strong
and rising Union reaction could be anticipated. The ques-
tion would then settle itself, without bloodshed; and once
for all. Wholly mistaken, as the result showed, it was still,
at that stage of trouble-development, the only sound the-
ory to work on, at any rate until the possession of the
Government was secured. Meanwhile, Lincoln's attitude
was wholly unknown. His every movement was jealously

74 Charles Francis Adams

watched; his utterances closely followed. In Washington,
the Republican party was divided between the extremists
and coercionlsts — of whom Sumner and Chase were the
exponents ; and the conciliators and opportunists — of whom
Seward and my father were chief. With which side would
Lincoln be allied ? That, North and South, was the question.

That winter I saw in Washington a great deal of Seward,
and I still think he was then at his best — truly a statesman.
The secession movement had by its force, volume and in-
tensity taken him by surprise. Failing correctly to appre-
ciate conditions, he had shown that he was not a statesman
of the first order; but still his attitude, bearing and utter-
ances were statesmanlike. Awaiting final developments, he
was conciliatory, patient, and, outwardly, cool and confi-
dent. He had formulated a policy based on the careful
avoidance of a collision and bloodshed until there had been
ample time allowed for reflection and the saving second-
thought. The course of subsequent events showed that he
was wholly wrong in basing any hopes on this misconcep-
tion of the real attitude and feelings of the South; but, on
the other hand, they also showed that the day of compro-
mise was over, and that the attitude of conciliation, while it
might gain valuable time, endangered nothing.

In point of fact, as was found out in the following April,
Seward was laboring under a total misconception of the real
facts in the case and of the logic of events. If, however, he
had been endowed with the prophetic gift and read the fu-
ture as an open book, I do not now see that his policy or line
of conduct at this juncture would have been other than
they were in any essential aspect. It was a period of crys-
tallization. North and South; and any attempt at decisive

Washington^ 1861 75

action on either side would have been premature and dis-
astrous. A more far-seeing statesman would, perhaps, have
occupied himself, very quietly, in the work of preparation,
observing the course of events and — biding his time! But
this again was, practically, the course pursued; the Execu-
tive Government was still in the old hands — untransf erred;
Congress was composed largely of future Confederates ; and
whatever was done had to be done through the States. So,
even now, I cannot see any error or weakness in Seward's
attitude and policy. My father acted in close harmony with
him; totally misapprehending, he also, the nature of the sit-
uation, and wholly failing to realize the intensity of the forces
at work. Since the election, LincoLl had hitherto main-
tained a Sphinxlike silence. He was still at Springfield, while
Seward, understood to be the coming Secretary of State, had
found himself compelled to formulate such a policy as he
might, without any means of knowing the mind of his fu-
ture chief, or forecasting his policy and action.

Thus when, in February, 1861, 1 reached my father's house
there, the situation in Washington was about as chaotic
as was possible. I see it all now; then it was inscrutable
to the best informed or the wisest. The simple fact was that
the ship was drifting on the rocks of a lee shore; nothing
could save it; this, however, was something none of us could
bring ourselves to believe. We still clung to a delusive hope
that the coming change of commanders would alter the
whole aspect of the situation, and we would work clear.
Meanwhile, where and what sort of a man was the new com-
mander.? That conundrum was foremost in all minds. Abra-
ham Lincoln was an absolutely unknown quantity; and yet
he was the one possible Deus ex machina I

76 Charles Francis Adams

The President-elect had left Springfield on the nth. In
the interim his silence had been broken; he had been doing
a good deal of talking. The whole value of my record of
those days lies in its giving the spirit of the passing time,
the daily fluctuating hopes and fears of a critical and most
exciting period.

I reached Washington on the afternoon of Tuesday, the
19th of February. My father's house on K Street North-
west, near Pennsylvania Avenue, was full; so I was quar-
tered in lodgings at Jost's, on Pennsylvania Avenue — the
place, by the way, where Russell, of the London Times^ lived
shortly after, and from the windows of which he observed
the condition of Washington's main thoroughfare in the
days succeeding Bull Run. My brother Henry was acting
as secretary to my father, and he also was living at Jost's,
where he met me on my arrival. A little later on he wrote
his own contemporaneous account of these events; and this
account I, just fifty years later, communicated to the Massa-
chusetts Historical Society; ^ and what I there said fonns
part of the present record.

My own narrative, however, begins at my meeting him
on that Tuesday afternoon in February, 1861. It ran thus:
"I don't know why, but Henry's very presence seemed to
exercise a depressing influence on me. Hardly daring to
put to him a question, I prepared for dinner. We all sat down
[at my father's house] but, somehow or other, while the
talking was fast, all present were evidently blue as indigo.
Evil was in the air; and I felt it. I finally got a clue to the
trouble in a feminine outburst on the mention of our Presi-
dent-elect's name, and it became at once apparent that his

^ Proceedings, xliii. 656.

TVashingtorij 1861 77

recent peripatetic oratory on his route to Washington had
by no means serv^ed to elevate him in the estimation of the
Adams family circle. Little was said, however, until dinner
was over; when, at last, my father gave mouth. Temporarily,
it then appeared, the fat was all in the fire. He did not hesi-
tate to say that, ten days before, the whole game was in
Seward's hands; but now it was surrendered again to the
chapter of accidents. The difficulty was wholly owing to
Lincoln's folly in not consulting with his official advisers,
but saying whatever came into his head. Thus he was divid-
ing his party deplorably — destroying the chance of union
in action. Seward's position had thus been made lament-
able; for, with his strength exhausted, he was surrounded
by opponents, friends and foes; and here now was Lincoln,
without consultation or understanding with Seward, and
with no apparent regard for the policy indicated by him,
showing an ignorance as complete as lamentable of the posi-
tion of public affairs, fomenting dissensions and jealousies
already too formidable. Jeopardizing, in fact, the only hope
of the country's salvation. The present indications were
that the extremists — the Sumners and Greeleys — had
prevailed, and that Seward had been thrown overboard.
In which case, my father did not hesitate to say that he
expected war within sixty days."

His prophecy on the whole
Was fair enough as prophesyings go;
At fault a little in detail, but quite
Precise enough in the main; and hereupon
I pay due homage.

In point of fact, and as afterwards appeared, Seward was
not thrown over, and Lincoln had not joined the extremists ;

7 8 Charles Francis Adams

but we did have war In exactly fifty-three days from that
talking. My record then goes on: "Later in the evening I
had quite a long talk to the same effect. He [my father] told
me that a few days before Governor Hicks, of Maryland,
Andrew Johnson, and Cassius M. Clay had offered to an-
swer for their States on the basis of the propositions of the
Committee of Thirty- three; and that Mr. Rives, of the Vir-
ginia State Senate, had told him that, upon those proposi-
tions, they could carry every Virginia district in the spring
election; but, in consequence of the developments of the
last few days the whole aspect of affairs had changed, and
Seward was at that time more depressed than he had been
previously during the whole Winter — in fact no man In
Washington then knew where he was standing. I walked
home, blue enough. The very knowledge of the military
preparations going on all about gave me In the darkness a
feeling almost approaching fear. In my letters I had all
winter long noted the sudden and violent transitions from
extreme exultation to the depth of despair; but I had not
learnt from experience. I now felt as much In doubt as If
this had been my first experience of a panic, and asked
myself In vain — Where Is It all to end.? The Issue seemed
made up, and the result in the worst possible hands — those
of the Virginia Convention. We sat In Jost's discussing the
gloomy aspect of affairs until long after midnight; but,
though I felt that my nerves had received a considerable
shock, I did not notice that my night's sleep was troubled."
I had gone on to Washington In company with Arthur
Dexter of Boston (H. U. 1851), a grandson of Samuel Dexter,
Secretary of War In the Cabinet of John Adams, and then
on intimate terms with my family generally. Two days after

IVashingtoHj 1861 79

our arrival we went together to the Capitol, and I sent in
my cards to Mr. Sumner and Governor Seward, not having
seen the last since I left his house at Auburn, in the previous
October. "Sumner came out ahnost immediately, greeting
me most cordially, and at once invited us round to the cloak-
room. On the way we passed a rather tall, strongly built
man, with black hair and a swarthy complexion, who,
Sumner said, was Andrew Johnson, of Tennessee, and imme-
diately introduced me to him. Mr. Johnson shook hands
with me, and at once referred to the fact that he had formerly
sat next to my grandfather in the House of Representatives,
occupied his seat during his first illness, and seen him fall in
his last. Mr. Johnson's manners are quite gentle, though
slightly formal. He has a deep, black eye, and, with his
somewhat neat black clothes and clean-shaven face, looks,
physically and intellectually, like a strong man. While
talking with him, I turned round and my eyes fell on Seward,
just coming out of one of the side doors in the lobby. There
he was, the same small, thin, sallow man, with the pale,
wrinkled, strongly marked face — plain and imperturbable
— the thick, guttural voice and the everlasting cigar. Yet
it was immediately apparent that his winter's cares had told
on him, for he looked thin and worn, and ten years older
than when I had left him at Auburn. I went into the cloak-
room, and sat down with Sumner; but, seeing Wilkinson, of
Minnesota, in the Senate-chamber, I sent in for him. The
conversation soon turned on the one topic of the day, and
for the first time I realized that I was in Washington, and
how intense was the excitement and how bitter the feeling.
It was immediately apparent that all these men had been
brooding over the questions at issue and dwelling on them

8o Charles Francis Adams

till their minds had lost their tone, and become morbid.
They were in fact now the last men in the country to be
entrusted with responsibility. The conversation was long,
interesting and excited. Wilkinson was riding the high blood-
and-thunder horse; but, after uttering one or two excited
platitudes about Major Anderson and 'the traitors,' and
looking somewhat surprised when I remarked that ' all that
might do very well for the hustings but would n't go down
with me,' he subsided." I ought, by the way, to say here
that, while in the Northwest with Seward in September, I
had seen a great deal of Wilkinson, and quite intimately;
and had "sized him up." He was no grave or potent Senator
to me; and he knew it well enough. But to return to my
diary. Wilkinson subsided; but "not so Sumner. I had
heard that he was excited, but his manner and language
amazed me. He talked like a crazy man, orating, gesticu-
lating, rolling out deep periods in theatrical, whispered tones,
— repeating himself, and doing everything but reason. He
began by remarking in a deep, low voice and with earnest
gestures that 'the session was drawing to a close, and the
only question of real practical statesmanship before it had
not been touched and would not be touched — that was the
treatment to be accorded to the seceding States — the only
question of true statesmanship.' I suggested that this ques-
tion was not at all a new one; that secession was but another
name for revolution; and, accordingly, it was but the old
question of the treatment of revolution, and nothing more!
This Idea seemed rather to stagger him, and he passed on
to talk of what he called ' the compromisers ' — meaning
Seward and my father. In less than five minutes, however,
he was back on his old topic of ' the one true question of real

Tf^ashingtorij 1861 81

statesmanship'; and this he kept reiterating, each time more
excitedly until our conversation came to a close. I soon saw
that reason was out of the question, and the only course for
me was to hold my tongue, letting him run down. Still, I
could not resist the temptation now and again to put a spoke
in his wheel; but it was not possible to throw him off the
track, he merely gave a bump and a jerk, and went on fiercer
In his utter disregard of logic and policy. His attack was on
Seward and 'the compromisers'; 'he had thought of this
matter in the daytime, and lay awake over it whole nights;
it was all clear to him; to him, his path was as clear as day,'
and then he reverted with a jolt to 'the one question.'
'Seward,' he went on, 'did not realize the true position of
affairs; he had been demented all the session, and the film
had not yet cleared from his eyes. He was demoralizing the
North. If he had but held firmly to his position, and refused
all parley with secessionists, all would have been well. An
appeal should have been made to the loyal. Union-loving
feeling of the border Slave States, and all would have been
well.' 'Seward,' he said, 'had read to him his speech, and
to him only of the Senate,' and he then proceeded to orate;
with intense feeling and animated gesticulation, he described
how he 'had pleaded with him, he had prayed him, besought
him, implored him by his past record, his good name, his
memory hereafter' to omit certain passages. Had he done
so, ' assuming the pure ground of his party, the whole North
would have rallied to him; — but now — too late! — too
late ! ' Then he would reiterate : ' I am sure — I am certain —
I see my way so clearly; such a glorious victory was before
us; right was with us, God was with us — our success was
sure did we only hold firmly to our principles.' Once I lost

8 2 Charles Francis Adams

my patience, and attempted to stop the conversation as not
likely to lead to any good result; but at this he got angry,
and said that I was discussing, not he; that I began it; and
then he went straight on, for, evidently, he could think of
nothing else. It was very painful. The man talked so with-
out reason, and almost without connection; and yet he gave
me distinctly to understand that he alone could now guide
affairs; that Seward was a mere politician vainly trying to
deal with great issues. I was disgusted, shocked and morti-
fied; the more because of Dexter's presence, who entertains
for Sumner a pet aversion. Finally Seward came out; and
what a relief it was! Thin and pale, but calm, gentle and
patient, he was as philosophical as ever, as pleasant and
companionable; and I now realized his position. With a
formidable enemy in front and such allies around — foolish,
positive, angry — it was a general-of-division in battle, his
reserves used up and waiting for reinforcements — praying
for night or Bliicher. And meanwhile, Lincoln, his Bliicher,
was perambulating the country, kissing little girls and grow-
ing whiskers ! We talked for a few moments only, as he was
quite busy. He said that half the men there — indicating
the Senate-chamber — were intent on pulling the house
down, and he was merely trying to prevent them; that he
was very much occupied, for the women and children of the
whole South were writing to him, and looking to him for

"As we walked home, we passed the artillery. It was the
first time I had seen them. Washington is almost in a state
of siege. Every morning and evening I hear from my room
the bugles and drums of no less than three companies quar-
tered almost within a stone's throw of us."

JVashington^ 1861 83

Such is a copy made in 1900 of my contemporaneous
record of a very noticeable talk, and one the painful impres-
sion created by which at the time it took place is still vivid
in memory; for it was disillusioning. Even now I can see
Sumner's eyes gleaming with something distinctly suggestive
of insanity, as he rolled out his oratorical periods. He was
plainly off his balance, nor did I ever again feel towards him
as before. Of my record, made at the time, I forgot the
existence. The deluge of the Civil War had swept over my
recollection, obliterating every trace of it, until in 1900 I had
occasion to recur to it. It then threw additional light on a
subject I have twice had occasion to discuss — once in my
Lije of Dana, and again in that of my father. I shall have to
discuss it once more. In my Dana, I see, I gave to Mr. Dana
at the time an account of this conversation almost exactly
as I now find it in my diary. ^ Since doing so I have frequently
tried to make out some theory which would afford a reason-
able explanation of Sumner's attitude. What policy did he
propose.? What course of action was it that was so clear to
j^ij^? — that would result so immediately in a glorious vic-
tory? It is most unfortunate that when then in Washington
I was not a little older, and did not have a good deal more
tact and objectiveness. Had I been so blessed, I might have
learned and recorded — for I was industrious enough with
my pen, recording indeed at great length — many things now
of interest. Sumner's brain was at that time super-heated,
his nervous system over-loaded. When he got in that condi-
tion, and in February, 1861, he was so almost continuously,
he seemed surcharged with rhetoric. His voice vibrated with
a tremulous depth, he orated, he laid down the law. Had I

» Life 0} Richard Henry Dana, ii. 252.

84 Charles Francis Adams

only had the sense to invite him to do so, he would have dis-
closed the heart of his mystery. As it is I have had to piece
together a plausible hypothesis.

I understood the position of Wilkinson at that crisis. It
was as simple as it was senseless. He wanted to fight "the
traitors" then and there, regardless of conditions. That the
machinery of government was still in the hands of the old
regime, that we had neither army nor navy, that a precipi-
tate act would bring on a premature crisis — none of these
things did he take into account. He was just mad; and he
wanted to get at the "traitors." The course he suggested
was not sensible; but it could be understood. Not so Sumner.
What curious hallucination did he then have in his head?
What was he driving at when he orated and reiterated his
"one question of true statesmanship, which had not even
been touched"? What was that proposed mysterious treat-
ment of the seceding States ? This question has interested me,
because it was here that my father broke with Sumner, and
their intimacy ceased for good. After that, I never met him
again on the old footing. Either he had become perverted
or I had developed. Possibly both.

When I wrote the Lije of Dana this problem did not occur
to me. When Sumner discoursed to me in Washington,
Secession was in my thought simply Revolution; and, so, a
very simple thing. It, later, became such in Sumner's mind,
as in every one else's. But how was it with him at the earlier
period — the intensely interesting educational period which
immediately preceded the crisis? What did he have in mind
when declaiming to me and Dexter that morning in the
Senate ante-chamber? As the result of much puzzling and
piecing together I think I afterwards reached a correct so-

TVashinmn^ 1861 85

lution of the psychological puzzle. That Sumner was an
agitator, a rhetorician and a theorist — in a word, an ego-
tistical doctrinaire — is well understood. As such he was
devoid of hard common sense and true sagacity of insight.
He saw every situation through his feelings, often over-
excited, and he evolved his facts from his inner conscious-
ness. His mind had dwelt on the issues which now presented
themselves, waking and sleeping, until he had ceased to be
a reasoning being; and his friends at times feared for his
sanity.^ His mission was to denounce Seward, and, if possi-
ble, force him from public life. He openly declared Seward
ready to sell us out. In February, 1861, he was actually
haunted with fear of some compromise. In point of fact the
time for compromise was past; that any clear-sighted, well-
informed man should have seen, and ceased to concern him-
self with the thought of it. Sumner still regarded it as the
one great danger. The policy he had in mind — concerning
the results of which he felt such absolute certainty of con-
viction—was in reality based on an hallucination and a
complete misapprehension of the facts of the situation.

His idea was that the Republican party should take what
he called a lofty moral stand. Firm, absolutely unyielding, it
should use no word of conciliation, much less make any
suggestion of compromise. It should, on the contrary, go
straight forward in its course; and then came in his utter
inability to comprehend the slave-holding character and the
situation in the South. He fully believed that "firmness,"
as he called it, was all that was necessary; in Its presence
they would yield, like petulant, passionate children, prone

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Online LibraryCharles Francis AdamsCharles Francis Adams, 1835-1915; an autobiography; → online text (page 10 of 21)