Charles Francis Adams.

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

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sion feeling is revived by some sort of strange folly on the
part of the Administration. Within the last few days I have
conversed with many men from the South, including even
South Carolina, and all announce a better, kinder state of
feeling, needing only gentleness and conciliation to ripen into
Union." The one fact to which we then pinned our faith in
an ultimate peaceful solution was in the avoidance as yet of
any act of overt violence resulting in the shedding of blood.
Until this should actually occur we nourished a hope, amount-
ing almost to a faith, that, somehow or other, it was fated
not to occur. Yet all the time we were conscious that we
were drifting with neither guidance nor control. It was a
period of anxious suspense; a fading reliance on " something."

A few days later, I attended the new President's first
evening levee. "A pretty business it was. Such a crush was,
I imagine, never seen in the White House before, on a similar,
or any other, occasion. After two vain attempts to get into
the reception room. Dexter and I resolutely set ourselves in
the main current, and were pushed and squeezed along. It

loo Charles Francis Adams

was a motley crowd. There they were — the sovereigns;
some in evening dress, others in morning suits ; with gloves
and without gloves; clean and dirty; all pressing in the same
direction, and all behaving with perfect propriety. There
was no ill temper; no \Tilgarityor noise; no rudeness; in spite
of the crowd and discomfort, everything was respectful and
decorous. The sight was one not pleasant to see, and even
less pleasant to participate in; but still good of its kind.
Here, as everywhere, the people governed themselves. At
last, after the breath was nearly out of our bodies. Dexter
and I came in sight of the President — the tall, rapidly
bobbing head of the good 'Abe,' as he shook hands with his
guests, and quickly passed them along. The vastly greater
number he hurried by him; but, when any one he knew came
along, he bent himself down to the necessary level, and
seemed to whisper a few words in the ear, in pleasant, homely
fashion; though not exactly in one becoming our President.
I hurried by as quickly as I could, and retreated into the
rear of the room, there to observe. I stayed about an hour
and a half, meeting Mr. Sumner, Mr. and Mrs. S. A. Douglas
and others, and subsequently, leaving by the south front,
reached home with 'tir'd eye-lids upon tir'd eyes.' "

The following Sunday it accidentally fell in my way to do
an excellent turn to Dr. John G. Palfrey, than whom I may
now say I have never in my life known a more truly esti-
mable character. I do not think it is possible for a man to
live more consistently up to conscientious ideals than Dr.
Palfrey did through his whole life. He was almost morbidly
victim to the terrible New England conscience. No man had
sacrificed more than he in his advocacy of the anti-slavery
cause; but wholly unimaginative, he was not sympathetic in

TVashington^ 1861


the human way and altogether the reverse of magnetic.
Kindly, he was of conscience all compact. Very sensitive, he
was in no way self-assertive; and the popular movement had
passed him by. In the day of triumph, he seemed likely to go
unrewarded; buried there at Cambridge, immersed in his
histor}^ of New England, but needy and craving recognition.
I had talked with both Sumner and my father about him,
and had written home to ascertain what sort of an appoint-
ment would be agreeable to him. As yet, we had been unable
to fix on anything. Sunday, the loth, I called to see Mr.
Sumner at his lodgings — a sitting- and bed-room on F Street,
I think. Presently, after some office-seekers had betaken
themselves away, we began to discuss Dr. Palfrey's case. He
alluded to a letter he had received from him [Palfrey] on the
subject, in which he had spoken of what he would like, but
nothing definite seemed to come out of It all; and then "he
[Sumner] suddenly turned to me, saying: 'By the way, I have
drawn an elephant, and don't know what to do with It.
Yesterday I was at the Post-Ofiice Department, and Mr.
Blair [the Postmaster-General] informed me that the Boston
Post-Ofiice belonged to me, as a Senator living In that city;
and I'm sure I don't know what to do with it.' It seemed
that the postmastership In the place of his residence was a
bit of patronage conceded as a perquisite to a Senator,
though Mr. Sumner was not even aware of the fact, having
always been In opposition. I at once hesitatingly suggested
Dr. Palfrey for the appointment; and, finding It not unfavor-
ably received, pressed the Idea hard upon him. Feeling that
I had made an impression, I got him to promise to dine with
us." This was a happy stroke on my part; for it had been
Sumner's habit to take his Sunday dinner in a perfectly

I o 2 Charles Francis Adams

informal way at my father's. He came uninvited, but with
absolute regularity, and was always very welcome. When,
however, my father had, during the winter, shown indica-
tions of a conciliatory bearing towards the South, Sumner
had discontinued his Sunday dinner practice. So doing was
intensely characteristic. A difference of opinion even on a
question of policy in a man's manners and bearing in the
conduct of the issue on slavery, he then classed with moral
delinquencies. His friendship and family Intimacy my
father and mother then valued highly, their personal regard
was almost traditional; and seeing him in a kindly mood, I
now struck in as a conciliator. I knew, also, that my advo-
cacy of Dr. Palfrey would be potently seconded by my father.
So I hurried home, and apprised my father of the state of the
case. Presently Sumner came, and that was the last time he
ever sat at my father's table — he who, for over a dozen
years, had been the guest most constant at it. It was, and
to my mind, still is a great pity; and there was no sufficient
reason for a break. However, Intent on Palfrey's case, that
day I got Mr. Sumner there once more, and, as it proved, for
the last time. "He was in great feather. Such a wonderful
change I never saw in mortal man. The excitement and other
peculiarities, which had so disgusted me in our previous inter-
views during this visit to Washington, had disappeared.
They had vanished wholly under the soothing influence of
success, and beneath the calm dignity of the chairmanship of
the Senate Committee on Foreign Affairs. He now aired his
new importance; and, in place of his former fierceness, he
roared as gently as a sucking dove. The pleasant way in
which he looked upon propositions, which, only the week
before, were * compromises ' with Hell, was, indeed, beautiful

JVashington^ 1861 103

to behold. Today he was great! He talked of Seward and
the diplomatic corps; and told us all the secrets of the Cabi-
net, so far as he knew them; how Mrs. Lincoln wanted to
make a Collector of the Port of Boston, on account of her son
*Bobby,' and had made a naval officer; how disgusted the
diplomatic corps was at the possible nomination of Schurz
to Turin; how Lincoln and Seward had a conversation about
Schurz, in which Seward convinced Lincoln that Schurz
ought not to be sent, and Lincoln sent him to Seward, for
them to fight the matter out together; how the Western
barbarians had invaded the White House, and Mr. Lincoln
was meddling with every office in the gift of the Executive.
Finally, he began on Palfrey, so I took myself off, leaving
him in my father's hands."

That evening I went to the reception at Mrs. Eames's.
"If the President caught it at dinner, his wife caught it at
the reception. All manner of stories about her were flying
around; she wanted to do the right thing, but, not knowing
how, was too weak and proud to ask; she was going to put the
White House on an economical basis, and, to that end, was
about to dismiss 'the help,' as she called the servants; some
of whom, it was asserted, had already left because ' they must
live with gentlefolks'; she had got hold of newspaper report-
ers and railroad conductors, as the best persons to go to for
advice and direction. Numberless stories of this sort were
current; and, while Mrs. Lincoln was in a stew, it was obvi-
ous that her friends, the Illinoisans, were in a rumpus. Much
fun is brewing in Washington." It was now the dead season
in Washington, or rather, that year, the season of lull before
the fierce bursting of the storm. Congress had dispersed;
and expectancy was in the air, with greedy office-seekers

1 04 Charles Francis Adams

thronging streets and corridors. And such streets and such
corridors ! The unheroic was much in evidence.

We all left Washington on the 13th. Two evenings before
Seward dined with us. He was now Secretary of State, and
just two weeks later Russell, of the Times, reached Wash-
ington and had those conversations with him of which he
has in his My Diary given such a vivid, picturesque resume.
By the loth of the month the Cabinet complications, which
reached a climax three weeks later, had begun to develop.
The question of mastery was yet to be settled. The President
was an absolutely unknown quantity; so much so that a
little later, as subsequently appeared, Seward invited him
practically to abdicate, delegating full authority to himself.
We, of my father's house, were all ardent Sewardites. We
thought that in him, and the pursuance of the policy he
either had devised, or at the proper time would devise, lay
the single chance of peace and the preser\^atIon of the Union.
As I now see It, his usefulness was, however, in fact then over.
He had been of great service, during the interim period, hold-
ing things together and tiding over dangerous shoals. This
he had done; but he had done it under an entire misapprehen-
sion of the real facts of the situation and with an absolutely
impossible result in view. As I have said, he believed In the
existence of a strong underlying Union sentiment in the
South ; he looked forward with confidence to a sharp reaction
of sentiment there, as soon as the people of those States
realized that no harm was intended them; and he nourished
the delusive belief that a recourse to force could be avoided;
that, If it was avoided or postponed, the secession movement
would languish, and gradually die out. Thus he was now
exerting all his influence, greater by far than that of any

JVashington^ 1861 105

other one man, In a wrong direction. The possession of the
Government having been secured, the true policy to be pur-
sued, it is now obvious, was to let events take their course,
inducing or compelling the seceded States to put themselves
in the wrong by assuming the initiative, striking the first
blow. A statesman equal to the occasion and grasping the
situation in Its full scope, would undoubtedly have pursued
this course. Gathering his resources, he would have bided his
time, perhaps covertly provoking the blow. But Seward was
no Bismarck, and this was just the course Seward did not
wish to have pursued.

That evening, the nth, he talked freely, and the next day
I incorporated the substance of all he said In a letter printed
shortly after in the Boston Transcript} It Is before me now,
pasted in my Scrap-book, and is supplemented by passages
in my diary. Talking in his off-hand way, Seward then
expressed to us, as four weeks later he did to Mr. Russell,^
"the fullest confidence that things were coming out right;
but he at the same time admitted that, three months before,
it was in no way Impossible that Jefferson Davis might, at
the time he was speaking to us, have been in possession of
Washington. 'Ever since Congress met,' he said, Sve have
been on a lee shore. The sails have been flapping, and more
than once we have thugged on the bottom; but we have been
making offing all the time, and are now getting safely off shore
and into deep water.' " As Russell the moment he got into
the Confederacy afterwards became satisfied, Seward knew
nothing of the real state of feeling in the South.^ He derived
what little knowledge he had from local and unreliable, or
misinformed, sources. So, this evening, he did not hesitate

» March 15. 2 My Diary, i. 88, 103. « lb., i. 168.

io6 Charles Francis Adams

to assert that "the fever of secession" was "fast disappear-
ing, before the strong reaction for Union. The poHtical
traitors of that region," he said — "the Hunters, Masons,
Wises, CHngmans and Garnetts — are trembling for their
Hves, and their only chance, and they know it, of retaining
their power, lies in the revival of the excitement." The
abandonment of Fort Sumter, he argued, would therefore
not be taken by the South as a sign of weakness, but, on the
contrary, would give "a new and tremendous emphasis to
the now rapidly reviving Union spirit. The true men of
Virginia will, at the close of the coming April, sweep every
representative, even suspected of treason, from the National
Congress, and forewarn the chuckle-headed Mason and
sophistical Hunter of their impending fate; and Virginia
would but set an example to other States. To hold Fort
Sumter longer" was, therefore, "to stop the mouth and palsy
the arm of every Union man, and there are many of them,
throughout the seceded States, for no important end." The
abandonment of Sumter he considered, therefore, "a mere
question of time. It might be done then, and made the basis
of a claim of gratitude by the Administration; or it might be
done thirty days hence as a matter of necessity, and no credit
gained. If we set out to reinforce it, we must join battle
at our weakest point, and the enemy's strongest; our loss
might be heavy, while our gain could not be great." Hence,
I argued in the Transcript, the abandormient was decided
upon, and might be looked for any day. Thus at this stage
of the development of affairs — with a crisis immediately
impending — Seward was pursuing an impossible result in
pursuance of a policy devised under an entire misapprehen-
sion of facts. Meanwhile, to abandon the Tortugas or Fort

Washington^ 1861 107

Pickens was no part of Mr. Seward's plan. Those could be
held and defended; what he had in mind was to avoid a
collision at a point where we could not hope to escape defeat.
Accompanied by his family, my father left Washington,
and returned home, all of us nourishing this delusive hope
of peace and a restored Union. Once in Boston, we heard
nothing. On the 19th came the telegraphic announcement
of my father's nomination to the English Mission. "It fell
on our breakfast-table like a veritable bomb-shell, scattering
confusion and dismay. It had been much discussed in
Washington, but Seward had encountered so much difficulty,
and the President had seemed so intent on the nomination of
Dayton, that the news finally came on us like a thunderbolt.
My mother at once fell into tears and deep agitation; fore-
seeing all sorts of evil consequences, and absolutely refusing
to be comforted; while my father looked dismayed. The
younger members of the household were astonished and con-
founded." Such was my diary record. It is droll to look back
on; very characteristic and Bostonese. My father and mother
had lived there steadily for nearly thirty years. They had
grown into a rut, and begun to entertain a species of religious
cult on that head. My mother, in some respects remarkably
calculated for social life, took a constitutional and sincere
pleasure in the forecast of evil. She delighted in the dark
side of anticipation; she did not really think so; but liked to
think, and say, she thought so. She indulged in the luxury of
woe! So now, I remember well how she nursed herself into
a passing belief that somehow she was very much to be com-
passioned, and something not far removed from disgrace had
fallen upon us and upon her; and when she went out people
would look at her, and say, "Poor woman," etc., etc. It

I o 8 Charles Francis Adams

seemed to give her quite a new view of the matter, when pres-
ently every one she met, instead of avoiding a painful subject
or commiserating her, offered her congratulations or expres-
sions of envy. So she cheered up amazingly. As to my father,
he had then lived so long in the atmosphere of Boston, that
I really think the great opportunity of his life when suddenly
thrust upon him caused a sincere feeling of consternation.
He really felt that he was being called on to make a great
personal and political sacrifice.

As for me, I now went back to my office. Presently my
father was summoned on to Washington to confer with the
Secretary. He was there during the closing days of March,
getting home on the ist of April. I well remember his re-
turn. It then lacked only four days of a full month since the
inauguration of Lincoln, and there were no visible signs of
that reaction in the sentiment of the South which Seward
had looked for with such confidence. On the contrary,
though the new Administration did not threaten to resort
to coercion, the Confederacy seemed to be fast consolidat-
ing. Nor in the border States did the aspect of afi"airs im-
prove; on the contrary, it day by day grew unmistakably
menacing. My diary read as follows: "My father, summ.oned
by Seward to Washington a week ago, got home last night.
For several days, now, I have been conscious of a vague pre-
sentiment that things were not going well. Instead of right-
ing itself and coming up into the wind as soon as it was free
of the incubus of a Democratic Administration — as I all
along had so confidently hoped and predicted — the ship
seemed, on the contrary, to be steadily and helplessly drifting
upon the rocks, Secession and Reconstruction. So strongly
had this feeling got a hold on me, that, when my father came

Washington y i86i 109

into the breakfast-room, I feared to ask him any question on
the subject. I did at last; and, at first, he seemed to deny
that any change for the worse was apparent. Yet a few more
inquiries were enough. It was at once apparent that my
apprehensions were not only well founded, but that the real
truth was worse than I supposed. We are drifting; and drift-
ing fearfully. Our last card has proved a low one; the card
on which we relied for everything. It is not the ace of trumps,
but only the deuce; if, indeed, it be a trump card at all."

Whether my father then still clung to the hope of a peace-
able solution of the troubles, I cannot say. On that point
I never satisfied myself. In immediate presence of the inevit-
able, I think we were all, and he especially. In a state ap-
proaching m.ental bewildennent; we would not acknowledge
that of which we could not help being inwardly conscious.
We were, in fact, exactly in the position of people, passengers
and landsmen, on some battered hulk drifting slowly but
surely on the reefs that outlined a menacing lee shore. The
ship had not yet struck, but we waited breathlessly to hear
and feel her strike. Seward had in Washington evidently still
talked to my father in the old, optimistic, hopeful vein; just
as, a week later, he still talked in it to Russell. That, how-
ever, would not longer pass current; and for myself, I can
only say that, from the moment I saw my father after he got
back, I ceased to hope. War, I felt, confronted us. As I
wrote, it was a bitter day — "without, a furious snow-stomi
raging; within, for me at least, doubt, hesitation and gloom."
The only consolation I had was in the nomination of Dr.
Palfrey as Postmaster of Boston; a result I had been instru-
mental in bringing about, "a long deferred act of political
justice," for which Dr. Palfrey, by a note written immedi-

I lO

Charles Francis Adams

ately after receiving the news of his appointment, signified
his sense of obligation to me individually. Three days later
I wrote: "Fast day! and never did this country stand in
greater need of aid from above than now. Still drifting —
drifting — drifting! Our case resembles nothing so much as
that of a ship, w^hich, close on a lee shore, has only just
weathered a violent storm. Morning has broken, not fresh
and bright, but murky and sullen. The wind has died away,
but a strong under-tow is bearing us imperceptibly nearer
and nearer those rocks over which tremendous seas are
dashing. Unless God helps us, we shall in a few moments be
in the breakers." Then follow the usual weak observations
and objurgations over the absence of a guiding hand at the
helm, useless to repeat now, though natural enough then.
Ten days afterwards, on the 14th, I wrote: "The war has
begun! Fort Sumter is taken! Two bad announcements
together. Yet strangely enough no drop of blood has yet
been shed; or rather no life has been lost. Still, the first gun
in civil war is fired, and its echoes will reverberate through

I continued to keep a sort of intermittent diary — making
entries sometimes every day, but more usually once a week
or so — for the next year and a half, the last record being
written on the transport steamer which brought my regi-
ment up from Hilton Head to Fortress Monroe, at the time
of Pope's ignominious Virginia campaign, in August, 1862.
This portion of my diary had, however, little, if any, value.
I find I rarely recorded what I saw, or noted conversations;
and, living in a provincial city, I had no special sources of
information, nor did I often meet persons of any particular
note. It was the dreary, commonplace existence of a young

W^ashingtoHj 1861


man, wasting his time in a professional life for which he,
correctly enough, believed himself most illy adapted, in an
out-of-the-way region but during a curiously exciting but
most critical crisis in public affairs. Thus my diary naturally
became almost wholly introspective; my worse than useless
introspections being diversified by lengthy lucubrations over
the varying aspects of the situation.

I did find in my diary before destroying it a few passages
worth transcribing, having reference to incidents which
occurred during those memorable eight mionths, April to
December, 1861. It was on the 13th of April that the Con-
federate whip came down across the Northern face; and my
father sailed for Europe on the ist of May. Nominated on
the 1 8th of March and at once confirmed, he did not reach
his London post until the 13 th of May — exactly eight weeks,
or fifty-six days, later. Such a delay, at such a crisis, seems
inexplicable, as it was, In fact, inexcusable. Considering the
extremely critical state of affairs and the possible conse-
quences delay might entail, the newly appointed minister
should have left on the steamer first following his appoint-
ment, his instructions, If necessary, follo^vving him. He should
have been in London at least a month earlier than my
father got there. As it was, the Southern Commissioners
were on the ground first, and scored the apparently great
success of a recognition of belligerency before he arrived.
For reasons I have set forth In my Lije of Charles Francis
Adams, this turned out in the sequel of events a most fortu-
nate occurrence;^ that it did so turn out was, however, a bit
of good luck saving the country from the consequence of
a piece of unpardonable laches. There is a secret history

' Life, 173-


Charles Francis Adams

attached to the incident, and I, then and later, came into
possession of it.

One day, I think it was during the third year of the Civil
War, when I chanced to be in Washington, Seward, then
Secretary of State, remarked to me in his off-hand but conse-
quential way: "The greatest misfortune that ever happened
to the United States was that the marriage of your brother
occurred on the 29th of April, 1861." We had been talking
of the rebel rams, and the attitude of Great Britain towards
this country, then very uncertain and menacing. I knew
what he meant. At the time my father was appointed to the
English Amission — a month before Sumter — my brother
John was about to be married. The date was fixed for April
29th. My father wanted to be present; and, when, immedi-
ately after his confirmation, he went on to Washington, he
intimated that he would defer his sailing until the ist of
May, if no exigency was thought to exist requiring an earlier
departure. Seward assented, whether reluctantly or against
his better judgment, I do not know; but at that time he was
still dwelling in his "Southern Unionist" dream-land, and
apparently had no realizing sense of the extremely critical
state of aifairs, In Europe as well as at home. He quite a
time afterwards prepared in a leisurely way the memorable

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Online LibraryCharles Francis AdamsCharles Francis Adams, 1835-1915; an autobiography; → online text (page 12 of 21)