Charles Francis Adams.

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

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to violence. He looked upon the whole slave-holding class as

^ Lije of Dana, 11. 258.

86 Charles Francis Adams

a combination of ruffianism and bluster, whiskey-drinking
and tobacco-chewing. In dealing with them "firmness" was
essential; by them, any word of concession would be con-
strued into an indication of fear or symptom of weakness,
and do infinite mischief. When, in June, 1861, Russell, of
the TimeSy got back to Washington from his trip through the
Confederacy he pronounced Mr. Sumner as " ignorant of the
whole condition of things below Mason and Dixon's line as
he was of the politics of Timbuctoo."^ So in February —
three months previous — he derived his confidence from the
wholly imaginary condition of affairs, evolved from his own
inner consciousness. As he implied in his talk with me, he
believed fully in the existence of a strong Union sentiment —
a really predominating sentiment — in all the border Slave
States. That sentiment he considered was "debauched," as
he expressed it, or, more properly, demoralized by any word
of conciliation. Those entertaining it "besought us" not so
to weaken them. If, on the contrary, the "slaveocracy" was
met with absolutely unyielding firmness the people now
cowed by it would assert themselves, and the "slaveocracy"
would yield. But how about the seceding States — those
below South Carolina and bordering on the Gulf.'* There was
where his question — " the only question " — of " true states-
manship" came in; and there was my cause of mystification.
He never intimated to me, but his solution of that difficulty
was "to let them go," he "would not lift a finger to retain
them." We would be well rid of them and their slavery.
This explanation of his theory never suggested itself to me
at the time of our conversation, and I only became aware of
it recently in reading Russell's Diary "^ and Yarnell's Recol-

^ My Diary, ii. 1 21. 2 j. go.

Washington J 1861 87

lections,^ but it accounts for all he said in the talk I have
narrated. His theory was that, in presence of a display of
absolute firmness at Washington, the border States would,
in the end, adhere to the Union, and the Gulf States, after a
sufficient exhibition of bluster and rhodomontade, resulting
in their secession, would come back into the Union on our
own terms. So, let them go; there need be no war. Only be
"firm" and it would in the near future be a complete and
glorious triumph; only Seward's and my father's weakness
now jeopardized it. No sillier figment ever gained footing
in agitator's imagination; that subsequent events demon-
strated to him. The supposed Union sentiment did not exist
in the border Slave States; it was both the intention and in
the power of the extreme Slave States to precipitate a conflict;
the possession of the National Capital would, as he well
knew, be in dispute. Such, however, was in February, 1861,
the policy which Charles Sumner felt absolutely certain
would afford a plain and easy way to glorious and permanent

As I look back on it — recalling those days of doubt and
pain — we were all wrong; a band of men — anxious, ex-
cited, blind or blind-folded — some passionate and vindic-
tive; ready, ripe for blows, all groping their way to a dreaded
result; but Sumner was the most wrong and the blindest of
the whole throng; though by all odds the most certain In his
own clearness of vision and knowledge of the facts. Seward
and my father were In his belief wrong; for they fixed their
eyes on the change of administration, and looked no further,
confidently believing that a reaction would then set In, and
reason reassert itself. Seward so told Russell, of the Times,

^ Yarnell, Recollections, 8.

8 8 Charles Francis Adams

speaking with perfect confidence only five days before
Sumter: " the States would come back at the rate of one a
month." ^ The "compromisers," as Sumner called them,
referring always to Seward and my father, but who in reality
were Crittenden and the supporters of his East-and-West
line project, were so very wrong as to call for no comment;
for the Southern extremists — let alone the Northern Re-
publicans — would not consider it, and were intent on a
separate, slave-holding nationality, and nothing short of
that. The day for compromise on that basis was wholly past.
On the other hand, the Northern extremists were wrong, for
they, after the manner of my friend, Wilkinson, wholly
underestimated their enemy. On the whole, therefore, up to
this point — the change of administration — Seward and
my father were the coolest and wisest counsellors. They
were wrong in their understanding of the ultimate and funda-
mental facts of the situation; but their error implied no con-
sequences. They proposed to get possession of the machinery
of the Government; that was absolutely essential. That
secured, they counted on a sullen but undemonstrative atti-
tude on the part of the seceded States, and a strong and
increasing reaction in the border States; and, if in this they
proved mistaken, a policy of another character must then be
shaped to meet events as they developed. In such case the
true course could not yet be foreseen. That was the only
statesmanship possible in the situation as it then was; and
the event fully justified it.

Unfortunately for Seward, following this wise policy until
the close of April, when he then at last found his hopes van-
ishing; when, plainly, no reaction in the border States was

* My Diary, i. 103; il. 113.

Washington^ 1861 89

to be longer hoped for, and the problem of the Southern forts
pressed for an immediate solution — could, indeed, no longer
be deferred — then, one day, Seward lost his head. He
found himself fairly beyond his depth; and he plunged! The
foreign-war panacea took possession of him; and he yielded
to it. Then, once for all, he showed himself unequal to the
great occasion; his limitations became apparent. The fact is,
as I now see him, Seward was an able, a specious and adroit,
and a very versatile man; but he escaped being really great!
He made a parade of philosophy, and by it I was very effec-
tually deceived; but it was not the genuine article. It was,
on the contrary, something else — stuff of a very flimsy tex-
ture. Seward was not well grounded either in learning or in
the facts surrounding him — did not have a strong, firm
grasp. He was, after all, as men instinctively felt, more of a
politician than a statesman. Perhaps my own impression
could best be conveyed — looking back on him now through
the perspective of forty years — by saying that he ^^as an
adroit politician and pseudostatesman, having in him a dash
of the philosopher. He was patient, good-tempered, tolerant,
and a great believer in his countrymen and their institutions.
Sumner, on the other hand, I knew better. He was a very
considerable historical figure— the most considerable in
Massachusetts during my time. As I have already said, a
theorist, agitator and rhetorician, a doctrinaire with no real
insight into men and conditions, Sumner was a tremendous
egotist and woefully lacking in plain common sense. Strange
to say, by no means a bad politician, he was no statesman.
Intolerant to the last degree when any issue he had at heart
was involved, he was as a Senator great, and, in many
respects, ideal. He was there essentially a round peg in a

90 Charles Francis Adams

round hole; and he filled the hole, also, though by no means
a small one.

To return, however, to myself and the narrative of 1861.
My father was more fortunate than Seward. Absolutely
right and wise in his course up to the change of administra-
tion, he then ceased to have any connection with the conduct
of home affairs. When the reaction he had so confidently
counted on failed to develop, and a new policy had to be
devised, he was wrong in his inclination; for he failed to see
that the time for action had at last come, and the issue must
be met. He favored the abandonment of Sumter. His horror
of civil war was such that I find myself at a loss to fix the
point at which he would have made a stand. I am not at all
sure he would not have concluded that a peaceable separation
was best. This, however, is and was a mere abstract proposi-
tion. A peaceable separation, involving as it did the border
States and the National Capital, was out of the question. Had
my father remained in public life in Washington, he would
have found his course marked out for him in his own despite,
as did the others. On one point, however, I am clear: he
never would have been a victim of Seward's foreign-war delu-
sion. No more so in Washington than he was in London.

I left off on the 21st of February. On the 22d, a dull,
murky day, Henry and I dined at Arlington, with the family
of General Lee. He was not there, and I never had even a
glance at him; though, possibly, I may have seen him one
day shortly after, as I was riding away from Arlington after
a morning call. If I did, he was going up the Avenue in a
carriage, just returned from Texas; and he looked at my
sister and myself from the window — curiously — a military,
handsome man, with a short, grey beard. The dinner at

Washington^ 1861 91

Arlington was Interesting, and I remember it well. One of
General Lee's sons ^ had been a classmate of Henry's at
Harvard. A daughter, Miss Agnes, I thought extremely-
attractive. We had some young officers of artillery there.
A few months later we were all arrayed against each other;
and I fancy there must have been fully half-a-dozen future
generals and colonels about the Arlington table that day.

The following evening I went to a reception at Mrs.
Eames's, then the salon of Washington. I there met J. J.
Crittenden and Governor Morehead, of Kentucky, both
in Washington in attendance on the time-consuming, but
otherwise futile. Peace Conference. "As good specimens of
the Kentucky gentleman as one often meets; large, with
white heads, stout, burly figures, and those elaborately
polite but very formal manners so common with Southern
gentlemen. I had more or less talk with both; and, I must
say, I was more impressed by their appearance than by what
they said. They seemed possessed with the Southern idea
that cotton is all in all; and they actually told me that the
South neither wished nor intended to be more prosperous
than now, or to produce anything but cotton; 'they were,
Sir, the most prosperous people on the face of the Globe, Sir,'
etc., etc. And this is much the sort of stuff now talked in
Washington by most Southern men."

On the 25th I was in the gallery of the House. The report
of the Committee of Thirty-three was under discussion. I
took a deep interest in the fate of the recommendations con-
tained in that report, being as purblind as all the rest in
regard to the small importance of all things then under dis-
cussion ; and those opposed to them were having recourse to
* William Henry Fitzhugh Lee (1837-1891).

92 Charles Francis Adams

dilatory tactics. So I recorded that I was made "almost
crazy by the indecision and lack of force of the old owl of a
Speaker [Pennington]. The fate of the country seemed hang-
ing in the balance, and the dolt had not force to drive busi-
ness ahead. As I iidgetted in the galleries, I groaned in
spirit: *0h! for one hour of Banks!' Finally, despairing of
action, I turned my steps homeward. On the way I saw
Governor Seward, and joining him, walked up the Avenue.
He was rather more neatly dressed than usual, and seemed
quite cheerful, as he walked along, holding his light bamboo
cane by both hands in front of him across his legs, watching
everything that went on in the Avenue, and talking inces-
santly. I left him at his door, going to dine 'with some
friends' at Willard's — of course, the President-elect."

During this visit to Washington I made my first acquaint-
ance with that Virginia country, with which I was destined
shortly after to become so drearily familiar. In fact, I never
approached such a knowledge of Massachusetts as, between
1862 and 1864, I acquired of Virginia from the Potomac to
the James. And now, on a cantering horse, I enjoyed greatly
scampering over the country, noting "its miserable popu-
lation, Its half-tilled farms and hardly passable roads; its
deserted houses, the benighted inhabitants of the houses not
deserted, and the wretched cultivation. I could not but
deplore the fact that so fine a portion of our heritage was
cursed with slavery."

The evening of the 28th I passed with Andrew Johnson,
whose acquaintance I had made In the Senate waiting-room
a few days before. Johnson was then at the highest point
of his reputation. A Southern Unionist, a "poor white " of
Eastern Tennessee, who, by native energy, had elevated

TVashington^ 1861 93

himself to the Senate, he was holding his own there against
Davis and all the representatives of Sumner's " Slaveocracy,"
who were trying in vain to dragoon him. It was not given us
to look into the future, and see Andrew Johnson as he later
on exhibited himself from the unfortunate altitude to which
Booth's pistol elevated him. In February, i86i, he bore
himself very gallantly in a most trying position. And so I
wisely called on him, with a view to better acquaintance. " I
found him at home in his hotel, stived up in one miserable
room, littered with folded speeches and copies of public docu-
ments, and otherwise containing a bed and some scanty
chamber furniture. He received me cordially, and introduced
me to his son, a by no means distinguished-looking specimen
of the young Tennesseean. As we talked, he paced slowly up
and down the room, or sat facing me, speaking slowly and
very carefully, with force though not with much feeling.
We first discussed a convention election which had just been
held in North Carolina, with the result of which he was
greatly elated, though to evince feeling one way or the other
is evidently no part of his philosophy. The great thing about
the man is evidently his nerve — his apparent force and cool-
ness in a position of danger. I spoke to him of his colleague,
Nicholson. 'I can't,' he said, 'speak with freedom of my
colleague because of our position; but when I became con-
vinced that this conspiracy existed, it seemed to me very
desirable that we should act together, and I consulted him.
But I soon found that he had been swept away in the general
current. When I spoke to him. Sir, there was dismay depicted
on that man's countenance.' 'But,' he went on to add,
'though I can't speak of him personally, I will make a general
remark, with no particular application : there are, you know.

94 Charles Francis Adams

some men of a nature so selfish and conceited that they can't
take a broad, generous view of any subject; and so mean
and cowardly that they dare not pursue it if they could.' Of
Sumner, he said that he knew him slightly — enough to
exchange ordinary civilities; but he seemed to him on the
present issues to be morbid and diseased, in fact, actually
crazy. The feeling towards him on the Democratic side of
the Senate he described as one of rather 'contempt' than
anything else. He talked freely of political questions, agree-
ing with me that no remark had ever been more ingeniously
misconstrued and misrepresented than Seward's 'irrepressi-
ble conflict'; and he admitted that slavery was, as an insti-
tution, opposed to the spirit of Christianity. The constitu-
tional amendment framed by my father [and which Lincoln
expressly approved in his inaugural of the following week]
he said was enough for him to go home on, and sustain
himself in Tennessee. He then went off on the secession con-
spiracy. He declared that nearly all the Senators from the
South were parties to it, and he was afraid that Breckenridge
and 'Joe' Lane were both of them in it. He was most amus-
ingly severe over the secession of Florida. 'There's that
Yulee,' he said, 'miserable little cuss! I remember him in
the House — the contemptible little Jew — standing there
and begging us — yes ! begging us to let Florida in as a State.
Well! we let her in, and took care of her, and fought her
Indians; and now that despicable little beggar stands up in
the Senate and talks about her rights.' Towards Jews, he
evidently felt a strong aversion; for, after finishing with
Yulee he began on Benjamin, exclaiming: 'There's another
Jew — that miserable Benjamin ! He looks on a country and
a government as he would on a suit of old clothes. He sold

IVashingtorij 1861 95

out the old one; and he would sell out the new if he could in
so doing make two or three millions.' The seceded States,
he said, must come back; the remote and northern portions
of the States would, he declared, pass other ordinances, and
bring them back. He denounced Wigfall, of Texas, as 'a
damned blackguard,' who had n't a cent ; and ' that's his way I
the strongest secessionists never owned the hair of a nigger.'
His conclusion was that somebody would be, and ought to
be, hanged for all this. I was with him about an hour and
a half, and left, considerably edified by Andrew Johnson."
On Sunday, March 3d, the day preceding Lincoln's inaugu-
ration, I called on the Sewards in the afternoon. "I found
them at dinner; but Governor Seward's son chanced to be in
the hall, and he urged me so strongly that I went in and
joined them at the dinner-table. There I found, much to my
gratification. General King, of Milwaukee [one of my travel-
ling companions during the trip of the previous summer], and
also General James Watson Webb, of the New York Courier
and Enquirer, besides some Auburn friends of Governor
Seward's. He was comparatively quiet, and seemed less ex-
uberant in spirit than usual; but almost the only thing he
did say caused with me a long breath of relief. Referring to
the coming inaugural, he remarked that he had been reading
it, and that while it would satisfy the whole country, it more
than covered all his [Seward's] heresies."

Seward at the same time made another remark which,
though I failed to note it down at the time, made an impres-
sion on me, and I have since often repeated it, and noticeably
in some remarks I made at the meeting of the Historical
Society in 1909, on the observance of Lincoln's Centennial.^

1 Proceedings, xlii. 145-54-

96 Charles Francis Adams

I there put on file my recollections of that mid-day Wash-
ington Sunday dinner of 1861. Seward then said, referring
to Lincoln and his intercourse with him: "The President has
a curious vein of sentiment running through his thought,
which is his most valuable mental attribute." Long subse-
quent events gave a noticeable significance to those words,
and caused me to bear them freshly in recollection. They
showed, in my opinion, not only considerable insight, but a
most creditable spirit of appreciation on Seward's part. Few
men in public life, then or now, would have noticed the
attribute at all ; and the few who did would, most of them,
have taken it as an element of weakness. It was one of not a
few casual remarks of Seward in those days which have
caused me to realize that, with all his "outs," he was after
all a man of finer fibre than the rest.

Lincoln's inauguration (Monday) came with a sudden
change of weather. The sun shone brightly, but a strong
wind carried on it clouds of that Washington dust, which,
then much more than now — for the streets were not yet
asphalted — was wont to render walking detestable on days
of early March. I wrote two accounts of what took place;
one in my diary, which, however, was rather short, as I also
wrote for publication a long descriptive letter, printed a few
days later in the Boston Transcript} It was dated March
4th. From the Senate gallery I saw Lincoln walk in, ann in
arm with Buchanan, and the two seated themselves in front
of the desk of the Vice-President. And, "in spite of the wry
neck and dubious eye, the outgoing President was," to my
mind, "undeniably the more presentable man of the two;
his tall, large figure, and white head, looked well beside Mr.

* March 7, over the signature of "Conciliator."

TVashington^ 1861 97

Lincoln's lank, angular fomi and hirsute face; and the dress
of the President-elect did not indicate that knowledge of the
proprieties of the place which was desirable." Then followed
the inaugural, delivered from "the miserable scaffold" on
the east front before "a vast sea, not exactly of upturned
human faces, but of hats and shirt-bosoms of all descrip-
tions." Of the inaugural, I did not hear one word; for I was
standing on a projection of the unfinished Senate wing of the
Capitol, watching the scene, and was thus too far removed.
But "Air. Lincoln's delivery struck me as good; for it was
quiet, with but little gesture and small pretence of oratory;
the audience did not strike me as very enthusiastic — not
such as they tell us hailed Jackson when he stood on the same
steps on the occasion of the first Invasion of Washington by
the hordes of the youthful West — but it was silent, atten-
tive, appreciative, and wonderfully respectable and orderly.
At length a louder and more prolonged cheer announced that
the inaugural was delivered. The Chief Justice administered
the oath of office, and the long, eager, anxious struggle was
over. A Republican President was safely Inaugurated.

"Not until the ceremony was over did the curious cease
to speculate as to the probabilities of 'a bead being drawn
on Mr. Lincoln,' and the chances of assassination; and the
question was curiously discussed whether the whole South
would not yet furnish one Ravaillac." Now the procession
was re-formed, and the new President was escorted to the
White House. I started for home. As I walked up by way of
F Street and the Patent Office, parallel with Pennsylvania
Avenue, the procession's route, I chanced to meet Mr.
Sumner, and joined him. "He seemed satisfied with the
inaugural, and remarked of it: 'I do not suppose Lincoln had

9 8 Charles Francis Adams

it in his mind, if indeed he ever heard of it; but the inaugural
seems to me best described by Napoleon's simile of "a hand
of iron and a velvet glove.'" At home, on the other hand,
I found my father in high glee over the endorsement that
same inaugural gave himi, and he was declaring the party
saved. I also met Winter Davis, who pronounced him.self as
ready to stand on the President's position." Thus, that day,
every one was, as Seward predicted they would be, "satisfied."
Returning to my walk home with Mr. Sumner; "all day
I had looked in vain for the tall, commanding figure of
General Scott; he was not in the procession; he was not in
the Senate. As I left the Capitol" and was walking home-
ward in company with Mr. Sumner, I came, at one of the
intersecting avenues where a view was obtained in several
directions, "upon a small carriage, drawn by a single horse
and surrounded by mounted staff officers and orderlies, the
whole the centre of a crowd of idlers. It was Scott's carriage,
and in it sat the old General himself, in full uniform, anxiously
observing the procession as it passed in the street beyond,
and holding himself ready for any emergency. What was
now dreaded was, of course, assassination followed by riot
and panic, and an immediate necessity for a display of force;
the fear of a coup de main was passed." Mr. Sumner stopped,
and exchanged greetings with Scott through the open win-
dow of his carriage. The old General shook hands with us,
and seemed in high spirits and greatly relieved, as he watched
intently the perfectly quiet progress of events below, on
Pennsylvania Avenue. In his staff were several officers
destined soon to have high rank and participate In great
movements ; they also were now in high spirits — satisfied
with themselves, and feeling that the situation was well in

JVashingtoHj 1861 99

hand. We walked in a street converging with the movement
of the procession, which, at length, "enveloped in its cloud
of dust, reached the White House, and I drew a long breath
when I saw Mr. Lincoln leave his carriage; and turned away
confident that the last danger was passed."

We all, the hope being father of the thought, had then
nursed ourselves into a feverish faith, and anxious rather
than real belief that, with a peaceful inauguration, the crisis
would be really in safety "passed," and I closed this letter
of mine in that spirit. "From this time," I wrote, "the
secession experiment, I believe, will die away, and the Union
feeling rise almost visibly, day by day, unless again the seces-

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Online LibraryCharles Francis AdamsCharles Francis Adams, 1835-1915; an autobiography; → online text (page 11 of 21)