Charles Francis Adams.

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

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come to a turning-point In life. That, instinctively, if some-
what unadvisedly and blindly, I followed the path thus
unexpectedly opened has been to me ever since cause of
gratitude to Weymouth. For thirty years it has led me
through pastures green and pleasant places. But at the
moment, so little did I know of the earlier history of Mas-
sachusetts, I was not aware that any settlement had been

1 8 2 Charles Francis Adams

effected hereabouts immediately after that at Plymouth, or
that the first name of the place was Wessagusset; nor,
finally, that Thomas Morton had, at about the same time,
erected the famous May-pole at Merrymount, on the hill
opposite where I dwelt. Thus the field into which I was
invited was one wholly new to me, and unwittingly I entered
on it; but, for once, fortune builded for me better than I
knew. I began on a study which has since lasted continu-

I prepared that Address, and delivered it on King-Oak
Hill on the Fourth of July, 1874. The morning of that day
was propitious, and the meeting, an open-air one, passed off
well enough. Taken by surprise, I had to convert what was
meant for a discourse from manuscript into an oral ex tempore
address, but I acquitted myself fairly; and, after the thing
was over, went home without attending the other features
of the occasion. I felt tired, and a storm was plainly gather-
ing; that afternoon how it did rain! The flood-gates were
opened. That, and the afternoon rain of the third day at
Gettysburg, well do I recall them.

But returning once more to the 1874 performance, the
historical investigation preliminary thereto interested me;
and though a somewhat crude and 'prentice-like piece of
historical work, the address itself brought me a certain de-
gree of notice as well as credit, leading among other things
to my election in the following year (1875) as a member
of the Massachusetts Historical Society. Step by step, as
leisure and occasion offered and called, I was led further
and yet further in the investigation upon which I then
entered, and it occupied me, on and off, twenty years. It
was not until November, 1892, that, in my Three Episodes

Public Service and History 1 8 3

0/ Massachusetts History, I finished and published the story
I first got acquainted with while preparing my Address of
June, 1874.

Returning to my narrative, the year before this for me
epochal episode — that is, in 1873 — I was concerned in
the earliest of the many outside commissions to which I
have first and last been appointed, and upon which I have
done some of the work I shall ever do of most lasting value.
My father-in-law, Edward Ogden, had died in Paris, in
June, 1872, and his wife — one of the most lovable characters
I ever knew, affectionate, unselfish and immensely capable —
had followed her husband suddenly, dying of heart disease
in the railroad station at Lyons, while on her way from
Geneva to Paris, in November following. Her three daugh-
ters had remained in Europe. I thought of going out, to
arrange certain business matters and bring them home, when
Governor Washburn suddenly appointed me chairman of a
commission provided for by the Massachusetts Legislature
to attend the Vienna Exposition and report thereon. I went
out in April, and returned in September. My experience was
pleasant enough, and in a way instructive; though I was
generally quite unqualified for the task. Of course, as I al-
ways have, I failed fully to avail myself of my opportunities,
and the experience left on my own mind a distinct sense of
self-insufficiency; but, passing all that, it was my supreme
good fortune on this occasion to have associated with me
Frank D. Millet, who was appointed Secretary of the Com-
mission, and met me as such in Vienna. He and I, at a*ny
rate, were sympathetic. Coming together at once, we re-
mained together ever after; and until his terrible death
in the frightful Titanic disaster of April, 19 12. I then gave

184 Charles Francis Adams

public expression ^ to the value I put upon his friendship,
and the more than esteem I felt for him. He was a very rare
character, and his unaffected friendship I held more than
the equivalent of a diploma — ■ it was a decoration. Through
nearly forty years correspondents, we were also in the earlier
and the better period companions in numerous vacation
trips. I have had more days on the water with him, in close
touch with Nature — days of good companionship and keen
yachting enjoyment, days a delight to look back upon —
than with all other persons I have ever met put together;
for Millet was incomparably the most perfect holiday com-
panion it was ever my fortune to encounter. So I reckon his
and my chance association that Vienna summer, one of the
bits of supreme good fortune which in all my life have come
my way. Millet was one of perhaps a half-dozen In all whose
going left for me a void and permanent sense of loss not
again to be made good — and the void and sense of loss thus
in his case left were the largest and most sensible of all.

In 1877, I think it was, I was again appointed a member
of a special conamission created to report a plan for utilizing
the Troy & Greenfield Railroad — that Hoosac Tunnel ele-
phant then a problem on the hands of the Commonwealth;
and I prepared its report. Nothing came of it immediately;
but that report foreshadowed the course subsequently pur-

Once more, in 1878, I was made the Chairman of the
Board of Government Directors of the Union Pacific Rail-
road Company, and, for the first time, visited the Pacific
Coast. This was through the influence of Carl Schurz, then
Secretary of the Interior in the Hayes Cabinet. I prepared
» Art and Progress^ vol. in, no. 9, July, 1912.

Public Service and History 1 8 5

the report; but, though at the time it was merely put in the
Department files, much to me a little later on resulted from
that experience.

In 1892 I was appointed chairman of the preliminary and
advisory commission provided for by the Legislature of
Massachusetts to devise a system of Parks and Public Res-
erv^ations in the vicinity of Boston; and, a year later, when,
to my utter surprise, our recommendations had been ap-
proved and adopted, I became chairman of the permanent
commission organized to carry the system we had outlined
and recommended into effect. I served on this Board until
June, 1895. I then resigned, feeling that my task was accom-
plished, and I had best quit betimes. Wholly opposed to the
policy of rapid growth and what I could not but regard as
premature development, I found myself powerless to check
it. I was, in fact, frightened at our success in the work we
had to do, and the expenditure step by step Involved in It.
A few years later, however, I again served (1903) as chairman
of a special commission appointed to apportion the cost of
maintenance of the system of reservations among the several
cities and towns responsible therefor. Eleven years had
elapsed since I first got concerned in the development. My
connection with it then at last ceased. And yet I greatly
doubt whether at any period of my life, or in any way, I
have done work more useful or so permanent in character,
as that I did in this connection; for I was largely instru-
mental in saving to the people of Massachusetts the Blue
Hills and the Middlesex Fells. In one more year the for-
mer, at least, would have been gone beyond the possibility
of redemption. The granite-quarry man had obtained a
footing in It, and the work of exploitation was actually in

1 86 Charles Francis Adams

process. The Blue Hills were, so to speak, in my special baili-
wick — the region of my Three Episodes. To their inclusion
in the Reservation I especially devoted my efforts. Thus I
may also not unfairly claim the Blue Hill Park Reservation
as in part my monument.

In 1897 I was appointed chairman of a Massachusetts
commission provided to inquire into the relations between
street railways and municipalities. In this connection I
visited Europe, inquiring into systems in use there; and,
subsequently, prepared the report of that commission also,
which became the basis of comprehensive general legislation.

On all these commissions my relations with my colleagues
and associates were perfectly harmonious, and generally
more than merely friendly. Never in any case was there se-
rious friction in any one of them, or any considerable differ-
ence in our conclusions and recommendations. Uniformly the
drawing-up of the reports was entrusted to me. It has, there-
fore, always been a rather curious subject of reflection in my
mind, how it chanced that in the early days of my army expe-
rience alone — the period and position in which harmonious
relations with my superiors were most important — I found
myself in an utterly impossible position. Still vaguely im-
pressed with the idea that it must have been largely my fault,
in subsequent relations of life I have never proved a person
difficult to get on with. I am, therefore, forced to the con-
clusion that it was simply a case of infernal bad luck. The
fault was mine in no respect; and the only possible alterna-
tive to the course I took would have been an unseemly
regimental quarrel, followed by my resignation. I could not
but have come out of the affair irremediably discredited.
It was better as it was. And yet, looking at it in all coolness

Public Service and History 1 8 7

through the vista of fifty years, I am not sure I would not
now feel better satisfied had I shown myself a fighting man
of the old duelling school.

Again, however, returning to my narrative, apart from
these minor public functions, my trouble all my recent life —
that is, since I got my foot firmly on the rungs of the ladder
in July, 1869 — has been a too active mind. I have con-
tinually attempted too much — always had too many irons
in the fire. Besides my official and my literary life, for over
forty years I led a very active business life. I managed a
variety of considerable interests; was concerned in many
enterprises. There is an old saying that the unsuccessful
man is he who is wrong three times out of five; the successful
man, he who is right in the same proportion. As I now look
back on experiences stretching through more than a gen-
eration, my respect for my own judgment is the reverse of
inflated. I have throughout dealt with large affairs; several
times, I have made decided successes; but, as a rule, the
fallibility of my judgment has been noticeable. A few suc-
cesses, however, more than made good, in my case, almost
innumerable blunders, the very thought of which is now
most unpleasant to dwell upon. One great business success
I did achieve; and it is the only one on which I can fairly
plume myself. Going into it at its inception, in 1869, I have
for over forty years been at the head of the Kansas City
Stock Yards Company, directing its policy and development.
When I became President, it was a concern of ^100,000 cap-
ital, earning, perhaps, ^20,000 a year gross. From this I
stage by stage have built it up, always its President, until
to-day it is capitalized at above ten millions, and earns
annually over ^1,200,000 gross. The second largest institu-

1 8 8 Charles Francis Adams

tion of the kind in the world in all these years it has missed
but a single quarterly dividend; and that owing to a cata-
clysm — the Kaw Valley flood of 1903, which in three days
swept away at least ^600,000 of the values of enterprises of
which I was the originator, and in which I was personally
most largely interested. Financially, it was for me as a brick
falling on the head as I walked along a familiar street. The
loss was never recouped. Managed in a broad, liberal spirit,
the Kansas City yards have been a great public benefit as
well as a considerable commercial success. The success of
the company drew down on it, of course, a populistic political
attack of the most dangerous character about 1907; and
this too it survived. I take much pride in its record; and
feel I have a right so to do. That, I did.

I also early foresaw the future commercial importance, and
consequent rapid growth, of Kansas City, arguing the propo-
sition out fairly and from first principles; and I acted on
my convictions, making there large purchases of real estate.
Here I reasoned soundly, and acted boldly and with judg-
ment. One of the enterprises I there organized and had a
large interest in made in one year twelve dividends of ten
per cent each (1886), has divided over four hundred per
cent Qn its capital, and is now (191 2) being closed out.
Another investment there, long since having reimbursed its
entire outlay several times over, represents still several-fold
what I put into it.

While, therefore, in view of the opportunities I have had
— the chances that have fallen in my way, not less numerous
than superb — I have little to pride myself on on the score
of sagacity or business judgment; yet, considering that my
real thought has all the time been occupied in other direc-

Public Service and History 1 8 9

tions, I cannot accuse myself of any glaring lack of discern-
ment. The result speaks in a way for itself. In 1878, when
I had been engaged in my operations for eight years and
carr}^ing what was for me a heavy load incident to the
financial collapse of 1873, my liabilities exceeded my as-
sets, as I then figured their value, by about fifteen thousand
dollars. In 1879, with the return of the country to a gold
basis, the tide turned. That thereafter for a season I was
simply floating with the stream — a piece of flotsam borne
along by the flooding tide — I realized at the time; but that
I had in a degree foreseen the tide, and the channel in which
it would flow, should to a certain extent be put down to my
credit. On the other hand, I in no degree foresaw the almost
unprecedented readjustment of values involved in the de-
monetization of silver, and the subsequent increase in the
output of gold; and I further plead guilty to the fact that
I allowed my head to be turned by the rush of my own
prosperity. The mistakes I then made affected markedly
the whole tenor as well as ease of my subsequent life — that
after fifty-five. They turned the current awry.

On the other hand, looking back, I wonder at my own
lack of insight and foresight. It seems to have required a
certain degree of skill on my part to escape the opportunities,
the great opportunities, fortune flung in my way; as, also,
a certain perverseness seems to have been necessary to cause
me to wallow, as it were, into the misadventures in which I
from time to time involved myself. For instance, a partici-
pation in the great success of the Calumet and Hecla — the
bonanza mine on record — was in 1868 almost thrust upon
me; but I preferred to "invest" in some wretched Michigan
lumber railroads, which I long ago dropped as hopeless.

iQo Charles Francis Adams

None the less, however, I did get through; and got through
better than I had any right to expect — indeed, successfully,
as success in such things goes. That, in place of my suffering
financial shipwreck, it so fell out was the result partly of
persistence, partly of judgment, largely of luck.

Indeed, as I approach the end, I am more than a little
puzzled to account for the instances I have seen of business
success — • money-getting. It comes from a rather low In-
stinct. Certainly, so far as my observation goes, it is rarely
met with in combination with the finer or more interesting
traits of character. I have known, and known tolerably well,
a good many "successful" men — "big" financially — men
famous during the last half-century; and a less interesting
crowd I do not care to encounter. Not one that I have ever
known would I care to meet again, either in this w^orld or
the next; nor is one of them associated in my mind with the
idea of humor, thought or refinement. A set of mere money-
/ getters and traders, they were essentially unattractive and
uninteresting. The fact is that money-getting, like every-
thing else, calls for a special aptitude and great concentra-
tion; and for it, I did not have the first in any marked degree,
while to it I never gave the last. So, in now summing up, I
may account myself fortunate in having got out of my
ventures as well as I did. Running at times great risks, I
emerged, not ruined.

Taken as a whole, my life has not been the success it
ought to have been. Where did the fault come in.? I think
I can put my finger on it. I began with a scheme of life;
nor was it a bad one. It was to establish myself at fifty; so
that, after fifty, I would be free to exert myself in such way
as I might then desire. Life, also, I regarded as a sequence

Public Service and History 191

— one thing, accident apart, leading to another. I followed
this scheme rather successfully, and for a long time. I got
well under way in 1869, being then thirty-four. I had been
through my early experiences, nor had they been lacking in
variety. I had enjoyed college and society, and got a glimpse
of early professional life; a glimpse of that sufficed! Then
came the army, an exceptional break. After that, I was
married at thirty, and, by the time I was thirty-four, I had
caught the step. At forty-four, I resigned from the railroad
commissionership, having achieved a success, to become,
first, the Chairman of the Board of Arbitration of the Trunk
Line Railroads, and then, immediately afterwards, the Presi-
dent of the Union Pacific. These were both natural sequences
from what had preceded. The Trunk Line Arbitration was
not a success. The time for it had clearly not come. Just
the right man in the position held by me might possibly
have worked out very considerable results; but I doubt;
and, certainly, I was not the man to do it. The whole thing
depended on Colonel Albert Fink. I was merely his instru-
ment; and I gravely question whether conditions were at
that time ripe for a successful development on the lines
Colonel Fink contemplated. Nevertheless, that I was ten-
dered, and for three years held the position I then did, w^as
a sufficient proof of the standing I had attained. Uncon-
sciously I had now come to the parting of the ways. I knew
it, thoughtfully pondered it — and took the wrong road!

In 1882 I became a member of the Board of Direction of
the Union Pacific Railroad Company, and, in the spring of
1884, that company found itself in financial trouble. I went
out to Omaha, with F. L. Ames, to look into its aflfairs;
and they certainly were then in a shocking bad way. The

1 9 2 Charles Francis Adams

concern was threatened with summary proceedings on behalf
of the United States Government, its service was demoral-
ized, it had just backed down before its employees in face
of a threatened strike, and it was on the verge of bankruptcy,
with a heavy floating debt. Sidney Dillon, then its presi-
dent, was old, and had lost his nerve. He was involved with
the company, and alarmed lest he should be compelled to
suspend. He insisted, therefore, on being relieved. Every-
thing pointed to me as the person to succeed him. I was at
once sent on to Washington to avert the threatened action
of the Government, which would have sent the company
into the hands of a receiver; and then and there I had my
first experience in the most hopeless and repulsive work in
which I ever was engaged — transacting business with the
United States Government, and trying to accomplish some-
thing through Congressional action. My initial episode was
with a prominent member of the United States Senate. This
Senator is still (19 12) alive, though long retired; he has a
great reputation for ability, and a certain reputation, some-
what fly-blown, it is true, for rugged honesty. I can only say
that I found him an ill-mannered bully, and by all odds
the most covertly and dangerously corrupt man I ever had
opportunity and occasion carefully to observe in public life.
His grudge against the Union Pacific was that it had not
retained him — he was not, as a counsel, in its pay. While
he took excellent care of those competing concerns which
had been wiser in this respect, he never lost an opportunity
of posing as the fearless antagonist of corporations when the
Union Pacific came to the front. For that man, on good and
sufiicient grounds, I entertained a deep dislike. He was dis-
tinctly dishonest — a senatorial bribe-taker.

Public Service and History 193

However, when I went to Washington in May, 1884, to
look after the Union Pacific interests, I succeeded, after a
fashion, in effecting a settlement; and, when I got back to
New York, I was duly made President of the company in
place of Dillon, resigned. I remained its President sLx and
a half years, until November, 1890, and of my experience
in that position, and its outcome, I do not propose to say
much. I took the position advisedly, and from purely selfish
considerations. I was then only forty-nine, and ambitious.
With a good deal of natural confidence in myself, I looked
upon assuming the management of a great railway system,
and correctly enough, as the legitimate outcome of what had,
in my case, gone before. I was simply playing my game to
a finish. I was not yet fifty, and I did not want to break
off, and go into retirement, in mid-career. So I assumed
charge of the Union Pacific, quite regardless of the fact that,
in so doing, I took the chances heavily against myself; for
the concern was in bad repute, heavily loaded with obliga-
tions, odious in the territory it served; and, moreover,
though I had no realizing sense of the fact, a day of general
financial reckoning was at hand.

And yet, with all these chances against me, my scheme,
so far as my future was concerned, was, as I now see, well-
conceived, entirely practicable, and even it justified itself in
the result. Unfortunately for myself, I lacked the clean-cut
firmness to adhere to it. Had I only done so, I should have
achieved a great success, and been reputed among the ablest
men of my time. The trouble was — and a very common
trouble it is — I did not know when to lay down my hand,
and leave the game. My original plan was perfectly defined.
It was to retain the railroad presidency for five years, and

194 Charles Francis Adams

then to retire, being at that time fifty-four. My first five
years in control of the affairs of the company were most
successful. I got its finances in order; greatly improved the
service; reestablished its credit; paid off the whole of its
floating debt; improved its relations with the communities
it served. I did not, however, succeed in effecting a settle-
ment between it and the United States Government. Thus,
when I ought, upon every possible consideration, to have
resigned the presidency and retired from active manage-
ment — for I was tired of it and had grown to long for other
pursuits and more congenial associates — I went lumbering
on, chasing the ignis fatuus of a government settlement; and,
at last, absolutely a victim to the duty delusion, laboring
under the foolish idea that I owed some sort of obligation
to my company, and that my services could not well be
spared. I paid the penalty!

During the last eighteen months of my connection with
the Union Pacific I was — there is no use denying it, or
attempting to explain it away — wholly demoralized. I
hated my position and its duties, and yearned to be free of
it and from them. My office had become a prison-house.
Loathing it, I was anxious, involved, hopeless. I had ac-
cordingly become a plunger; rapidly getting beyond my
depth. I have nothing to say in extenuation. I displayed
indecision and weakness — almost as much as Napoleon
showed in his Russian campaign. Comparing little things
with big, and a small man with a great one, the one situation
had become as impossible for me as was the other for him.
I simply now rode for a fall; nor did I really care when or
how I got it. Taken altogether, this was, I think, my least
creditable experience; and certainly that upon which I look

Public Service and History 195

back with the most dissatisfaction. Though ultimately I
purchased my freedom at a great price, it was worth to me
all it cost; and though I have deeply regretted the folly and
lack of will-power which got me into such a wretched posi-
tion, I have never for a moment grudged the price exacted
of me in leaving it. In the course of my railroad experiences
I made no friends, apart from those in the Boston direction;

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Online LibraryCharles Francis AdamsCharles Francis Adams, 1835-1915; an autobiography; → online text (page 18 of 21)