Charles Francis Adams.

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

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Europe was a wise move, for it enabled me to recover my
health. The process was a slow one, for my system was per-
meated by disease. I had slowly to work the poison out. I
much fear I was far from an amiable or considerate husband
during those twelve months; more especially as I was weighed
down by the ever-present consciousness that I was now to go
back to civil life, and, somehow, while earning a living, work
out my destiny. The outlook was indeed dreary.

Still, I did enjoy Europe — after a fashion ! That I failed,
and failed woefully, to avail myself of my opportunities, goes
without saying; for it was I! My father was then American
Minister to Great Britain, and, had I possessed the happy,
ingratiating, social faculty only in a moderate degree, I could
have seen much I never saw of things, and met many men I
now have only heard of. It was not so, and I have little to
record; for at that period I kept no diary. On the Continent,
it was the same; I failed to avail myself of my opportunities.
But those were at least the days of the temporal dominion
of the Pope, and Rome was mediaeval and unique. It had
not yet been at once modernized and vulgarized. It was old
Rome, under the Papacy. When we left it, we left it by car-

Public Service and History 1 6 9

riage, driving to Perugia. We also drove from Genoa to Nice
along the famous Cornice Road. France and Paris were very-
different in 1866 from what they now (19 12) are. It was in
the days of the Empire; the battle of Sadowa, ominous of the
fate of Napoleon III, was fought while we were at Paris. I
am free to confess that, for a foreigner, France of the Sec-
ond Empire was an infinitely more attractive country than
France of the Republic. It may have been all sham and tin-
sel; but Paris was then undeniably brilliant, gay and clean.
' It is now a cheap caravansary — cheap in everything but its
prices. It has since grown common. Even the boulevards,
the theatres, the "gargons," and the police have deteriorated.
But on this head I expressed myself in full in my Memoir of
Robert C. Winthrop.i Mutato nomine, etc.

We got back to America late in September, 1866, and I
confronted the world, so to speak, face to face. It bore a far
from inviting aspect. I had been away nearly five entire
years, and both I and the conditions were greatly changed.
Married, and thirty years of age, I was to begin anew; and
at the foot of the ladder. The change was something terrific;
nor did those around appreciate, I think, how great it was.
I had been a full colonel, in command of a regiment. Within
the beat of his sentries there is no one on earth more of
a despot than a colonel commanding a regiment. He is
supreme; he breathes a constant atmosphere of deference
and subordination. This I had been thoroughly accustomed
to; and, now, I found myself an office-boy — a mere tender-
out— a confessed applicant for — something ! People, I
knew well enough and felt keenly, looked at me, half curi-
ously, half sympathetically, waiting to see what I would find

' 2 Mass. Hist. Soc. Proceedings, xx. 186-89.

1 7 o Charles Francis Adams

to do. It was more, far more than merely discouraging — it
was humiliating.

I must do myself the justice to say that under these cir-
cumstances I addressed myself to the ordeal before me, not
only with a good deal of courage, but promptly and in a large
way, evincing withal a somewhat surprising degree of good
sense. Nominally, I found I had to go back to a law office.
I had no choice. I had to do something; but I did it with a
sinking heart. I felt I had no aptitude that way. In my case
people have always been over-ready to talk of "family
influence" and all that sort of thing in an owlish way, so
accounting for about everything I ever accomplished. So
far as I have ever been able to see, however, "family influ-
ence" never was of any assistance to me; and, in those ordeal
days, never I am sure was put forth in the faintest in my
behalf. Paraphrasing Pistol, the world was my oyster then,
which I with pen did open; and I did it, unaided.

But, curiously enough, I had meanwhile worked out my
problem in advance; and worked it out correctly. Surveying
the whole field — instinctively recognizing my unfitness for
the law — I fixed on the railroad system as the most develop-
ing force and largest field of the day, and determined to
attach myself to it. I now stand amazed at my own inexperi-
ence and audacity; but, having made up my mind, within a
fortnight of my dreary home-coming, and, in perfect good
faith, evolving my facts from my inner consciousness, I pro-
ceeded to write an article on "Railroads" for the North
American Review I James Russell Lowell and Charles E.
Norton were then editing that periodical — trying to in-
fuse new life into its aged system; for it was being slowly
but surely crowded out of existence by the newer and more

Public Service and History 171

superficial, but also more readable swarm of monthlies then
coming into vogue. Norton was kind enough to accept my
suggestion of an article; and, even now, I retain a profoundly
grateful feeling towards him for that helping hand in an
hour of submerged distress. I wrote the article — currente
calamo — at Newport, while wondering what I was going to
do for a winter shelter; and I hardly consulted a book, while,
certainly, I knew nothing of my subject. As I think of it, I
must say I decidedly admire my own energy and directness;
even if I have to confess to a considerable degree of simple-
minded assurance. The article appeared — •"judiciously
edited," I am glad to say, by Norton — in the North Ameri-
can for April, 1867, and it helped me much. I have not read
it for over forty years; and I should be somewhat afraid to
read it now; but then it was a first step; undeniably ill-
considered and rash, it showed life.

Meanwhile, trying somehow to catch on to the railroad
interest, I did make an honest effort at the law. It simply
would not go! There was something inherently unsympa-
thetic — antipatica — between it and me. Not only did I
feel it, but I was conscious, or thought I was conscious of
the fact, that, somehow, every one else realized it also. I
never had, to my recollection, a hona-fide client. The whole
experience was to the last degree humiliating; it may have
been healthy, but it certainly was not agreeable.

Again, time, patience and persistent pegging away worked
a salvation. Fortunately, I had enough to live on in a small
but sufficiently comfortable way, and the dreary clientless
months crept on. But my pen was always busy; I wrote
article on article, almost always on railroads, or railroad law,
for the North American or the magazines, law and other, and

1 7 2 Charles Francis Adams

in that way Identified my name with railroads ; but It was a
discouraging process. I never seemed to get anywhere; the
outlook did not brighten. Then, as is wont to be the case,
day suddenly broke. Up to that time, Massachusetts had
no department of government specially connected with Its
growing but still wholly unregulated railroad system. I fixed
my mind on the great probability of such a department
being soon created, and determined to try for a place In It.
In this, I succeeded; nor, as things go In life, did I have long
to wait.

It was In October, 1866, that I began operations; In July,
1869, my purpose was accomplished. An act creating a State
Board of Railroad Commissioners was passed by the Legis-
lature, In the spring of 1869, largely through my Instrumen-
tality; and, making a strike for the position, I was appointed
the third member of it. I had worked my problem success-
fully out In two years and nine months; a very creditable

Again, as in February, 1865, everything, so to speak, flow-
ered simultaneously, all my long efforts seemed to mature
together, wholly changing my position at once and perma-
nently. I at last had my foot firmly on the lower rung of
the ladder, and was on the way up. My father had returned
from London In the spring of 1868. Leaving his house in
Boston, which until then I had occupied, we, In the autumn
of 1868, established ourselves on the Neponset turnpike, in
Quincy. It was a wise thing to do; though, at the time, I did
not so consider it. I went there most reluctantly; but in
Quincy I was known. There, during that Winter, I with
Infinite pains, sparing no labor, wrote my Chapter of Erie.
That showed progress ; it was really a careful piece of llterar}^

Public Service and History 1 7 3

work. In the spring also I was invited by the Grand Army
Post, at Quincy, to deliver a Fourth of July Address. I
agreed to do it; and on that, also, I spared no pains. I actu-
ally memorized it; a thing I could not possibly now do.
When July came, my nomination as Railroad Commissioner,
my Fourth of July Address, and the Chapter of Erie all came
at once, and together. Careful preparation told. The suc-
cess of each effort was considerable; my chance was secure.
That Fourth of July, 1869, was, distinctly, one of my life's
red-letter days. It stands out in memory as such. The pre-
liminary struggle at last was over; the way was open before
me. At last I had worked myself into my proper position
and an environment natural to me.

I served on the Massachusetts Board of Railroad Com-
missioners exactly ten years, from July, 1869, to July, 1879;
for seven of the ten, I was chairman, and for the whole ten
by common consent the controlling mind of the Board. In
1879, my fourth commission expired, and I declined a re-
nomination. I had done all I could do in the position; and,
so far as I personally was concerned, I had got out of it all
it had to give. It was time I left, and looked elsewhere. But
certainly, those ten were prosperous, active, useful years for
j^e — years good to live, good to look back on. My two
colleagues on the original commission were very ordinary
men; both much older than I. But, all the same, they let
me do nearly all the work of the Board, and write all the
reports, and the reports were thought well of. When,
through the chapter of accidents, those two associates were
retired, I came to the chairmanship, and then my two col-
leagues — Mr. Briggs, of Springheld, and Mr. Johnson, of
Newton — were, as associates, all I could ask for. It was a

174 Charles Francis Adams

really excellent board, as good as such a board well could be,
able, honest, perfectly harmonious. It was a very pleasant
official life; and, as the initial Railroad Commission, the
success of the Board was pronounced and generally recog-

As for myself, looking back, I think, all things considered,
I did well. I made some mistakes of judgment, and bad
mistakes. Frequently, I proved unequal to the occasion.
More than once, I now see, I was lacking in firmness, and
even in courage. I did not take the position I should have
taken. On the other hand, on the one great occasion which
offered I did prove fully equal to It, and my success then
more than counterbalanced all my shortcomings elsewhere.
I refer to our action and report on the strike of engineers on
the Boston & Maine Railroad, in February, 1877. On that
occasion our Board rendered a really considerable public
service, putting a sharp stop to a rapidly increasing epidemic,
and courageously laying down some very salutary doctrines
which were productive of lasting effects. That was twenty-
three years ago (1900) ; and there has not since been a strike
of railroad train operatives In New England. I wrote the
whole of the report, at Quincy, during the evening which
followed the hearings. My associates adopted my draft the
next day, without the change of a word; It was immediately
published; and, as a leading member of the Legislature — •
General Cogswell, of Ipswich — afterwards remarked to me:
"It cleared the air like a thunderclap." On the action then
taken, I now (191 2) pride myself. In my judgment great
and unnecessary friction would have been since avoided and
Industrial results of the utmost Importance secured had the
precedent there established been since generally followed.

Public Service and History 1 7 5

The appeal in industrial difficulties was to an enlightened
public opinion, based on facts elicited by a fair-minded
public investigation. As labor conflicts have since occurred,
I have repeatedly called attention to that experience and
precedent; but it was a voice crying in the wilderness. Our
people as a community do not share in my faith in publicity;
but, all the same, public opinion and patience are the best
possible agents for successfully solving industrial, social and
economical problems. Twenty-five years subsequently (1902)
I told the story in a paper entitled Investigation and Publicity
as opposed to Compulsory Arbitration, read before the Ameri-
can Civic Federation, and then printed by me in pamphlet
form. The Roosevelt Commission on the Pittsburg Anthra-
cite Coal Strike of that year formally adopted my views,
and recommended accordingly; but nothing came of it.
That action and report of 1877, however, I still hold to have
been as creditable a piece of work as I ever did ; it was also
courageous. Perhaps I ought to have followed it up; made
in fact the following of it up my work in life. Who knows t
It is a supremely wise man who recognizes his mission when
the call comes and occasion offers. I certainly have in life
not been over-wise, much less supremely so.

On the other hand, not impossibly my turn of thought
Is too philosophical for practical, every-day purposes; and,
being so, it fails to make proper allowance for the natural in
human nature — the desire of the man in the street to get
things done and, as he imagines, once-and-for-all disposed
of. Hence, as I see it, the growing tendency to excessive legis-
lation — to the everlasting issuing of new legislative edicts
in which the supposed popular will is crystallized and penal-
ized. For myself, I don't believe in it. I never have believed

17 6 Charles Francis Adams

in it; and for this reason, perhaps, have failed to be in sym-
pathy with the sturdy champions of the "Dear Peepul."
But, after all, such are but the old-time courtier, the syco-
phant and the parasite of the Tudor and Stuart periods
thinly disguised and in a slightly different role; and the lot
of the man who talks of Reason, Publicity and Patience now
diifers not greatly from the lot of him who three centuries
ago questioned Divine Right, or gave open expression to a
doubt as to the infallibility of the British Solomon. And so
it goes! The potter's wheel has turned; the clay and the
potter remain the same.

So, as Chairman of the Massachusetts Board of Railroad
Commissioners, I for ten years consistently and persistently
preached my doctrine. It, too, proved in the outcome a
mere phase in a process of development along the old lines.
A stronger diet is called for; mine is pronounced a Milk-and-
Water Dispensation. Unquestionably the late Thomas Car-
lyle would have so denominated and denounced it. Fortu-
nately, however, the Strong-Arm Policy is restricted in its
application to the domain of Politics and cannot reach out
into those of Science, Art, Literature or Medicine. Hence,
the world does get on ; but, for all I see, industrial contro-
versies still remain in the old chaotic stage, or a little more
so; while, as to the so-called transportation abuses, if any
real progress to more satisfactory conditions has been made,
a knowledge of the fact has not reached me. Whatever im-
provement has been secured has been through the operation
of natural influences and not as a result of legislative edict.

But my activity during those ten years (i 869-1 879) was
by no means confined to railroads, or my official duties as a
commissioner. In other fields I did a great deal of work; and

Public Service and History 1 7 7

in my work I took pleasure. I was In every way prosperous;
successful in business, I was happy at home. They were
good years — those with me between thirty-four and forty-
four. I had, in 1870, found myself so well off in a worldly
way that I projected, and built, on land my father gave me,
the house on President's Hill in Quincy; where we lived from
1 87 1 to 1893. Four of my five children were born in that
house; and in it no death occurred during our occupancy.
We moved into it, a new house, when my wife was twenty-
nine and I was thirty-six; we moved out of it, when Quincy,
ceasing in the way already described to be a town, had
been metamorphosed into a most commonplace suburban
municipality; and, as such, was to me no longer bearable.
We then by a most fortunate cast in the dice of life, changed
environments, moving into a far better abode in much more
congenial surroundings.

Still, in Quincy, for more than a score of years I was very
active as a worker, and was an influential citizen. My record
too was creditable. I left a mark on the town government —
on its schools, on its Public Library, on its Park system.
I have told the whole story, always leaving out my own
name and carefully suppressing reference to myself, in the
third of my Three Episodes of Massachusetts History. So far
as the producing of results was concerned, I was, also, be-
tween 1870 and 1890, most fortunately placed. I worked
with and through my brother, J. Q. Adams. I never was
sympathetic or popular; he, somehow, was. He was in close
touch with the people of Quincy; me, they were disposed to
look at a bit askance. But he and I, In town matters,
always acted together. I was much the more active-minded;
he was inclined to indolence. But, when set in motion, pro-

1 7 8 Charles Francis Adams

vided he did not encounter too much opposition, he had a
really remarkable faculty of accomplishing results. He was,
however, by nature prone to be too easily discouraged. We
both delighted in town-meeting. Its atmosphere — in the
olfactory way pretty bad at times — came naturally to us;
we were bone of their bone, flesh of their flesh; and the mass
of those there knew it and felt it; and, for twenty years, we
together practically managed Quincy affairs. It was also
Quincy's golden age. The town-meetings were reduced from
a mob to a model; the finances were straightened out; the
school system was reorganized and made famous; the Public
Library building was erected and endowed; a system of
Parks was devised and developed; and, finally, Quincy was
actually freed from debt. The last fact stated is significant
• — eloquent even. That was under a town government, and in
largest extent because of my steady urgency. The levy then
was ten dollars in the thousand of valuation. Now (1912),
twenty years later under a city government, Quincy has a
debt of two million dollars and is considering an annual
levy of twenty-five dollars on the thousand ! Judging by the
balance-sheets of the respective periods, my brother John
and I certainly exercised a not unsalutary Influence.

I have told the story in my Three Episodes, carefully, as
I have said, suppressing all claim for personal credit. But
the historic fact is that whatever was then accomplished our
town owed wholly and exclusively to us ; and, moreover, I do
not hesitate here to add that, in so far as I was not, as in
the cases of the Library and Parks, the Immediately active
force, I was the stimulating spirit. That record of local and
municipal activity and usefulness is one pleasant to look
back on. During those twenty years, I was a member of

Public Service and History 179

the School Committee, of the Trustees of the PubUc Library,
a Park Commissioner, and a Conunissioner of the Sinking
Fund. There never was a time when I was not actively
engaged in town work; nor was I ever defeated when a can-
didate for office. I never before reviewed that record; to do
it now (191 2), after a lapse of twenty years, affords me sat-
isfaction. It was eminently creditable — far more so than
I supposed. Out of pure public spirit I did a great deal of
work, and I did it well; and, though it nowhere so appears,
the Thomas Crane Library building and the Merrymount
Park remain in Quincy permanent memorials of that fact.

In my life I seem to be able to put my finger on two acci-
dental epoch-marking incidents. One was the coming across
a certain book at a crucial period of mental development;
the other was being invited to deliver an occasional address.
When in England in November, 1865, shortly after my mar-
riage, I one day chanced upon a copy of John Stuart Mill's
essay on Auguste Comte, at that time just published. My
intellectual faculties had then been lying fallow for nearly
four years, and I was in a most recipient condition; and that
essay of Mill's revolutionized in a single morning my whole
mental attitude. I emerged from the theological stage, in
which I had been nurtured, and passed Into the scientific.
I had up to that time never even heard of Darwin. Inter
arma, etc. From reading that compact little volume of
Mill's at Brighton In November, 1865, I date a changed
intellectual and moral being.

The other individually epochal incident occurred eight
years afterwards. It was curious, and, though commonplace
enough at the moment, In remote consequences in its way
dramatic. Wholly unconsciously on my part and with no

1 8o Charles Francis Adams

sense of volition, I entered on a path which led far — for me
very far! Indeed, I then found my vocation — a call had
come! The incident occurred in 1874, and thirty years later
I gave in another address ^ delivered at Weymouth a some-
what autobiographical account of it. It is only needful to
premise that the James Humphrey referred to was typical of
the old New England stock. A man then advanced in life,
plain in dress and aspect, he was very lame — walking always
with the aid of two canes, one in each hand; but his whole
presence was somehow suggestive of honest shrewdness.
The "Judge" was a man of a stamp common enough for-
merly, but now rarely found within a radius of twenty miles
of Boston, if not indeed in that region extinct. For example,
since I went to Lincoln to live in 1893, the type, then fa-
miiliar enough there, has disappeared — it was the going of
the Massachusetts village squire, the town-meeting stand-by,
the traditional moderator and selectman.

Getting back to my story, the 1904 account of the incident
was as follows: "Just thirty years ago last spring, on a day
in April, if my memory serves me right, your old-time select-
man, James Humphrey — ^ remembered by you as 'Judge'
Humphrey — called at my office, then in Pemberton Square,
Boston. Taking a chair by my desk, he next occasioned
wide-eyed surprise on my part by inviting me, on behalf of
a committee of the town of Weymouth, to deliver an his-
torical address at the coming two hundred and fiftieth anni-
versary of the permanent settlement of the place. Recently re-
turned to civil life from four years of active military service,
and nominally a lawyer, I was at that time, as chairman of

^ Weymouth Thirty Years Later, Weymouth Historical Society, no. 3, 115-

Public Service and History 1 8 1

the State Board of Railroad Commissioners, devoting my
attention to questions connected with the growth and de-
velopment of transportation. To independent historical in-
vestigation I had never given a thought. As to Weymouth,
I very honestly confess I hardly knew where the town so
called was, much less anything of its story; having a some-
what vague impression only that my great-grandmother,
Parson William Smith's daughter, Abigail, had been born
there, and there lived her girlhood. Such was my surprise,
I remember, that I suggested to Mr. Humphrey he must be
acting under a misapprehension, intending to invite some
other member of my family, possibly my father. He, how-
ever, at once assured me such was not the case, satisfying
me finally that, a man sober and in his right mind, he knew
what he was about, and whom he was talking to. Subse-
quently, I learned that he did Indeed act as the representa-
tive of a committee appointed at the last annual Weymouth
town-meeting; for an explanation of the choice appeared —
as 'a great-grandson of Abigail (Smith) Adams, a native of
We3miouth,' I had been selected for the task. Overcoming
my surprise, I told Mr. Humphrey I would take the matter
under consideration. Doing so, I finally concluded to ac-
cept. Though I had not the faintest Idea of it at the time,
that acceptance marked for me an epoch; I had. In fact,

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Online LibraryCharles Francis AdamsCharles Francis Adams, 1835-1915; an autobiography; → online text (page 17 of 21)