Charles Francis Adams.

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

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nor among those I met was there any man whose acquaint-
ance I valued. They were a coarse, realistic, bargaining
crowd.

Railroads, and the railroad connection, thus occupied over
twenty years of my life; and, when at last, in December,
1890, 1 got rid of them, it was with a consciousness of failure,
but a deep breath of relief. I was emancipated; and, from
that day to this, I have eschewed the subject. I had a sur-
feit; and the surfeit super-induced disgust. The equivalent
to a professional life on my part ended, therefore, in Decem-
ber, 1890; it was then as if, being a lawyer, I had left my
office, and closed my connection forever with legal affairs
or problems. But, in my case, that meant merely an appli-
cation to what had all along been those activities and pur-
suits which appealed to me — for which I felt a call, and in
which I found my pleasure. Except when at the head of
the Union Pacific I had never wholly given them up; and
even then only at times. I must admit they were rather
multifarious, those activities, and it does not speak highly
for my judgment and controlling good sense that I allowed
myself to be drawn off in so many directions. The fact is, as
I have just said, not understanding well myself or my own
limitations, I was cursed with a dangerous mental activity;
and, physically, I was not less mobile. Accordingly for



196 Charles Francis Adams

twenty years and more I was travelling incessantly; a large
proportion of my nights were passed in sleeping-cars — and,
curiously enough, I slept more soundly there than at home
and in my own bed; while, on the intellectual side, an array
of bound volumes — ten in number — and two volumes of
occasional newspaper contributions, bear evidence to my
intellectual restlessness. Creditable in a way, they constitute
a record in which it is not possible for a man to take any
considerable or real satisfaction; for it is a record of dissi-
pation and of quantity rather than one of quality and con-
centration. But the fact is I worked in the way natural to
me; and I did take pleasure in my activity. Undoubtedly I
overdid it at times, and life was made temporarily some-
what of a burden; but the thing never ran Into a dangerous
excess.

The two forms of activity, the professional and the extra-
professional, that which I carried on for the enjoyment and
satisfaction, or interest, I got out of it or felt in it, ran along
side by side. The professional life began in July, 1869, and
ended, abruptly, in December, 1890. The extra-professional
life — business, political, educational and literary — began
earlier — about 1868 — and is not yet (1912) closed. It ran
in many directions, naturally, under the circumstances, ac-
complishing large results in none. My Chapter of Erie was
published in July, 1869. In the years that immediately fol-
lowed I got interested In historical and educational work, as
my Weymouth Address (1874) and my papers on the Quincy
School System bore evidence. In 1875, I was elected a mem-
ber of the Massachusetts Historical Society, a recognition
which I at the time took somewhat lightly, but which after-
wards implied much. All through those years I was, in-



Public Service and History 197

stinctively but unconsciously, gravitating to my vocation;
for I was engaged at odd moments — as a recreation and
because I liked it — in historical research. The local records
and traditions of the region in which I lived had an attrac-
tion for me, I found a real and great fascination in re-creat-
ing the past — the Wessagusset settlement at Weymouth,
"Tom" Morton and his May-pole, at Merrymount, John
Wheelwright and his Chapel of Ease, in Braintree, the early
settlement and church, the highways, the training-field, the
town-meetings and the schools. Out of this I got enjoyment;
and, now, I feel a sense of satisfaction in having put on
permanent record the past of that region. That, I did; and
the record is there, and will remain. It may not be great,
and certainly has not, nor will it obtain a recognized place
in general literature; but, locally, it is a classic; and, when
you come to classics, "local" and "world" are relative
terms. The great reading public never took note of my
Three Episodes; but in the Quincy community, it will be
more read as time goes on. Even two centuries hence it will
there be referred to and quoted. In 1880 this work was
practically completed. Between that year and 1884, I was
very active. It was a period of intermission. I delivered the
Phi Beta Kappa oration — A College Fetich; I edited the
New English Canaan; I wrote the Sir Christopher Gardiner.
I was on the verge of my vocation. It was a fruitful and
satisfactory period. My privately printed volume, Episodes
in New England History, bears the date 1883; and I recall
the enjoyment with which, in the comparative leisure and
quiet repose of Quincy, I then put those pages through the
press. Nearly seven years of waste followed — the years
devoted to the Union Pacific — and, during them, I had



198 Charles Francis Adams

small leisure for historical investigation. Those years I
passed in my office, largely in the society of stenographers.
But in June, 1882, I was chosen one of the Board of Over-
seers of Harvard University, and on that Board, and a very
active worker on it, continued through four terms of six
years each; and my papers and reports on the English De-
partment, representing a really large amount of work, were
not without results of a more or less permanent character.

In 1890 I was at last thrown forcibly out of the utterly
false position from which, I am obliged to confess, I did not
have the will-power to extricate myself. Ejected by Jay
Gould from the presidency of the Union Pacific, I at last,
and instantly, fell back on my proper vocation. I was then
fifty-five; but it was not too late. Though forced back into
it by a kindly Providence, my scheme of life was being
carried out with a greater degree of consistency than is
usual with life-schemes. In spite of myself, I was working a
way out. Disgust and discontent for and with my position
had already produced results; and, for more than a year
previous to my railroad downfall, I had been occupied with
my biography of R. H. Dana. When the blessed crisis came,
and the catastrophe occurred, the book was ready for pub-
lication. Somewhere in my Memorabilia I remember philoso-
phizing over the fact — it was literally on two successive
days that I ceased to be a railroad man and appeared as
an author. A case of out of the darkness and into the light
— it could not have been better arranged !

Finding my calling in December, 1890, I should then
have been in good time to achieve such results in it as I was
capable of, had it not been for the awful and inexcusable
plunging of which I had been guilty during my final period



Public Service and History \ 9 9

of demoralization, towards the close of my business activity.
I only just escaped utter shipwreck. It was in May, 1893,
that the long-impending, plainly gathering financial storm
broke — the most deep-seated and far-reaching in the his-
tory of the countr>\ That I, placed as I then was, could
have avoided it, would not have been possible. My whole
scheme of life, and theory of the material situation and
course of development of the country made it impossible.
It was something of which I had no preconception — a re-
adjustment necessitated by a change in the measures of
value, a change such as had never occurred before. One
of the precious metals was demonetized. For anything so
world-wide and far-reaching, I was not prepared. I had
always looked forward to a depreciation of values, especially
in real estate; and for that I had made some degree of prepa-
ration; but I had not expected to see the bottom tumble
out, and values become purely nominal. This, however, was
what happened. As the spokesman of Tennyson's Maud
expressed it, "a vast speculation had fail'd," and I had
excellent cause to "mutter" and "madden" as the "flying
gold" of a series of autumns "drove thro' the air." When
in those June days of 1893 the collapse came, I was then
carrying a large amount of sail — far more than was pru-
dent; for, my head turned by long and considerable success,
I had become reckless. But, after my sudden railroad de-
thronement, to reduce sail was impossible; and, at the same
time, I had to assume hea\y additional burdens on account
of liabilities I had incautiously entered upon on account of
the Union Pacific; but which now I had to shoulder myself.
Thus, with much canvas spread, I was loaded down with a
cargo I had never intended to take on.



2 00 Charles Francis Adams

The storm broke! There was the misadventure of my life.
I was fifty-eight when the crash came. The fury of the
gale was weathered; but its results were felt continuously
through five long, precious years. They were for me years
of simple Hell — years during which I had to throw every-
thing aside, and devote myself to rehabilitating a wreck.
It made no sort of diff"erence that the wreck was the result
of my own improvidence; there it was right under me, and
the question of again reaching a port was the only one to
consider. The dislocation this event caused — coming just
when it did — • shattered my whole scheme of life. Breaking
in upon it, it broke it up. I was sixty-three years old, and
a tired man, when at last the effects of the 1893 convulsion
wore themselves out, and my mind was once more at ease
so that I could return to my calling.

The mercury in the financial barometer touched its lowest
point in the spring and summer of 1897 — the dead ebb of
a tide steadily receding through four entire years. That
winter we had passed at Florence, living, not unpleasantly,
in a villa there — the Boutilene — I immersed in my father's
diary and papers, and a very elaborate report I was drawing
up as head of a committee of Overseers on written English
at Harvard. I had an immense mass of material on this
topic to work up; and I fear it was to a large extent a dis-
sipation of force. At any rate, I cannot now — fifteen years
later — see that any perceptible effect was produced —
nothing appreciable; but I suppose it all went into the grand
result, and is present somewhere. The University, however,
I must say I found a hard and distinctly ungrateful subject
on which to expend force. I was at it, on and off, and with
a fair degree of steadiness, through twenty-five years, and



Public Service and History 201

I might, I now think, have been more profitably employed.
However, on that point I am on record; for, when my fourth
term as Overseer came to a close in 1906, I said my say in
the Columbia Phi Beta Kappa address Some Modern College
Tendencies, and, so far as I am concerned, that tells the
story. The world is very full of institutions calling loudly
for a readjustment to bring about conformity with changed
conditions — changed socially, morally, politically, finan-
cially, materially and, above all, educationally — and, of
these institutions Harvard College — and, note — I say
College and not University — is, to my mind, distinctly
one. Indeed, I would say of it as Hamlet of Denmark, the
world's a prison — "a goodly one, in which there are many
confines, wards and dungeons; Harvard being one o' the
worst." Like Gertrude's married life, it, in my judgment,
needs to be reformed altogether. But this is a digression.
My evidence as respects Harv-ard is on record in the little
volume entitled Three Phi Beta Kappa Addresses (pp. 134-
47) ; and I refer to the matter now only in connection with
what was for me an episode occupying much time and
thought on my part through twenty-five years.

Recurring to 1897, the tide, as I have said, then turned;
the young flood began to make its influence felt. But it
was still a very anxious period; the movement was slow,
and I had reached the climacteric — I was in my 63 d year.
So, as my record shortly after (1900) made still tells, I took
up the broken thread, conning to myself as I did so the
lines from Tennyson's Ulysses, since college days a favorite
among poems :

Tho' much is taken, much abides; and tho'
We are not now that strength which in old days



2 o 2 Charles Francis Adams

Moved earth and heaven; that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

That, and these other lines from Browning's Paracelsus,
since 1853 a favorite:

I will fight the battle out; a little spent
Perhaps, but still an able combatant.

Meanwhile the great disturbance of that long and troubled
period had been productive of two memorable changes in
my way of life. I left Quincy and gave up my winter resi-
dence in Boston; in the closing days of 1893 I moved from
Quincy to Lincoln, there thenceforth making my home, and
a dozen years later (1905) I bought a house in Washington
and fixed our winter abiding-place. In both cases, at the
time of making it a wrench and a severe one, each proved a
blessing in the end. The worst wrench, and by far the most
painful one, was in the case of Quincy. That was awful!
Quincy was bone of my bone — flesh of the Adams flesh.
There I had lived vicariously or in person since 1640; there
on my return from the war I had made my home, and
later (1870) built my house; there I had fought my fight,
not unsuccessfully, through the best years of life; there my
children were bom; in fact, I felt as if I owned the town,
for every part of it was familiar to me, and it was I who had
recounted its history. I felt about it exactly as Hawthorne
felt about Salem. In his inimitable introductory chapter to
the Scarlet Letter, he says: "This old town — my native
place [I, by the way, was born not in Quincy but in Boston;
but Quincy, none the less, ought to have been my birthplace,
as it was my race-place] though I have dwelt much away



Public Service and History 203

from it, both in boyhood and mature years — possesses, or
did possess, a hold on my affections, the force of which I
have never reaUzed during my seasons of actual residence
there. ... It is now nearly two centuries and a quarter since
the original Briton, the earliest emigrant of my name, made
his appearance in the wild and forest-bordered settlement,
which has since become a city. And here his descendants
have been born and died, and have mingled their earthy
substance with the soil; until no small portion of it must
necessarily be akin to the mortal frame wherewith, for a
little while, I walk the streets. In part, therefore, the at-
tachment which I speak of is the mere sensuous sympathy
of dust for dust. ... So has it been in my case. I felt it
almost as a destiny to make Salem my home. . . . Never-
theless, this very sentiment is evidence that the connection,
which has become an unhealthy one, should at least be sev-
ered. Human nature will not flourish, any more than a po-
tato, if it be planted and replanted, for too long a series of
generations, in the same worn-out soil."

It was in my case much as Hawthorne here describes in
his; and so it came about that the storm and stress of 1893
— and it was an awful storm, and a period for me as for
many others of severest stress — the storm and stress of
1893, I say, in the matter of my continuing at Quincy,
only precipitated the inevitable. It simply had to come;
nor had I failed to realize the fact.

During the spring of 1893 I had accordingly taken the
preliminary steps, and, when the financial troubles broke
out, what had been before merely contemplated became a
condition to be immediately dealt with. In May, just before
the 1893 crisis came, by great good luck I had committed



2 04 Charles Francis Adams

myself to the purchase of the place at Lincoln where I have
since lived, intending to occupy it at some indefinite, if not
remote, future time when Quincy should have become im-
possible. Then came the crash, necessitating immediate
action; and this I took. Early one Monday morning in the
latter part of November, 1893, I mounted my horse at the
door of my house on the hill at Quincy — the sun being
hardly above the horizon of the distant sea-line in the nip-
ping atmosphere — and rode over to Lincoln. I have not
passed a night at Quincy since.

As things resulted, the change was timely and most for-
tunate. I have never seen occasion to regret it; and, long
since, the place on President's Hill, on which I dwelt, and
the development of which between the years 1870 and 1893
was one of the leading interests of my life, passed into other
hands. It has been cut up, and "improved," as the expres-
sion goes, by the building of well-nigh innumerable houses.
I have never set foot on President's Hill since 1895, when I
parted with the property. I never mean to again. The
Quincy I knew has ceased to exist; and, with the present
Quincy, I have neither ties nor sympathy. In fact, I never
now go there without, as I come away, drawing a breath of
deep relief. When I enter it, I seem going into a tomb ; when
I leave it, getting back to Lincoln, it is a return to the sun-
light and living air.

As to Boston, as a place in which to live and have one's
being, it is much the same. There, however, I passed my
winters from '84 to '96, building and occupying the house
at the corner of Gloucester Street and Commonwealth
Avenue. As a place for social life, long before I parted with
my house in 1896 the resources were exhausted. When I



Public Service and History 205



first went back to Boston as a winter residence in 1884, It
was enjoyable enough, and made more so by my official
connection with the Massachusetts Historical Society. As
time passed, however, I was made to realize that my whole
Boston social existence consisted of the annual exchange of
dinners with a rather narrow circle, rapidly changing and
perceptibly contracting. This is the trouble with Boston —
it Is provincial. Including Cambridge, one finds there what
might be called a very good society stock company — an
exceptional number, In fact, of agreeable people, Intimate
acquaintance with whom Is rarely formed except in youth,
unless subsequently by chance encounter in Europe. When
thus casually met, they are apt to emerge from their social
shells In curiously attractive shapes and phases. Socially,
however, the trouble with Boston Is that there is no current
of fresh outside life everlastingly flowing In and passing out.
It is, so to speak, stationary — a world, a Boston world,
unto Itself; and, like all things stationary, there Is In it, as
the years pass, a very perceptible lack of that variety and
change which are the essence and spice of life; It tends to
stagnate. I, accordingly, rate It as one of the fortunate ac-
cidents of my life that the long and disheartening financial
depression which followed the crisis of 1893 finally decided
me. If Indeed It did not seem to compel me, to dispose of my
Conmionwealth Avenue house, and sever my residence con-
nection with Boston. The winter climate of Boston Is dis-
tinctly Arctic, and society life, from sympathy, perhaps,
seems then to pass through a long period of cold storage.

Nevertheless, the change of life, whether from summers at
Quincy or winters in Boston, has seriously aff"ected continu-
ous and successful application to the task I for years have



2o6 Charles Francis Adams

had In hand. That is the working up of raw material of
history — of the papers, etc., of my father. My plan of a
magnum opus was to write what would have been a diplo-
matic history of the Civil War. A rough draft of this I com-
pleted some ten years ago (1890), and since then it has re-
mained unfinished. During the intervening time I have been
absorbed in other things, largely correspondence, and the
preparation of numerous papers for the Historical Society,
all of which appear in its Proceedings. Incidentally, the work
thus done at times related to incidents and episodes con-
nected with my chief subject. These, however, though pre-
liminary " Studies," have never been worked up into a con-
tinuous narrative. In the mean time what in this way I
have been able to do has undergone incessant interruption,
through literary forays and excursions — demands on me to
prepare "occasional" addresses, etc., etc. Of work of this
sort I have done altogether too much; and, looking back on
It, it seems to have been singularly resultless and barren.
Indeed, of all these performances, involving an immense
amount of labor, there is but one I recall with pure gratifi-
cation. This was the address entitled Lee''s Centennial^ de-
livered before the Washington and Lee University at Lex-
ington, Virginia, on the 19th of January, 1907. In every
way satisfactory, that occasion and effort left no bitter
after-taste lurking in the mouth. I had then been in Europe,
and it was on my return that I received the invitation. My
selection was, for obvious reasons which at once suggest
themselves, a very pronounced compliment, due to the
memory, on the part of those composing the faculty of
Washington and Lee, of an address I had delivered five years
previously, before the Phi Beta Kappa Society of the Uni-



Public Service and History 207

versity of Chicago — an address entitled Shall Cromwell
have a Statue ? The eadier address can be found in the little
volume published by me in 1907, entitled Three Phi Beta
Kappa Addresses — the other two being A College Fetich,
delivered before the Harvard chapter in 1883, and that to
which I have just referred, entitled Some Modern College
Tendencies before the Columbia chapter in 1906. The ad-
dress I am now referring \.o~ Lee's Centennial — msiy be
found printed in its final form, in the volume of my Studies:
Military and Diplomatic, published in 191 1.

As I have just said, t\iQ Lee's Centennial is my one effort in
that line which I now regard as having been somewhat
better than a mere waste of time and force. Indeed, from
the literary point of view, I should put it in the forefront
of anything I may have done. When I first received the
invitation, I gave it scant consideration. As respects General
Lee, the risk incurred by an acceptance loomed in my case
large. I at once, therefore, wrote, stating that it would not
be in my power to accept. Shortly after, I received another
and more urgent letter from President Denny, of Washington
and Lee, begging me to reconsider my determination, and
expressing in warm language the desire of all concerned that
I should undertake the task, and the disappointment that
would be felt should I decline so to do. I then, with great
reluctance, came to the conclusion that for me, with my
family connection with Massachusetts, and the relations
Massachusetts and Virginia had from first to last borne
with each other — for me, I say, to decline a second time an
mvitation thus emphasized, would be distinctly ungracious.
I felt I had to accept, and do the best I could; and take my
chances. I accordingly did so. And that I did so has ever



2o8 Charles Francis Adams

since been for me one of the pleasant things in Hfe to look
back on. I went to Virginia, accompanied by my friend
F. D. Millet, in the following January, and there, on Satur-
day, the 19th of the month, delivered my address, standing
on the platform of the College Chapel with Lee's tomb, and
recumbent image upon it, directly behind me. As I have
said, the occasion was in every way a success, and consti-
tuted a very grateful incident in life — good and altogether
pleasant to look back on. It was not marred, as I after-
wards realized, by a single untoward incident. The weather
was perfect; my audience was packed and sympathetic; and
what I offered was received with a warmth of applause
which I have never elsewhere or on any other occasion had
equalled. Most of all, I gratified a large number of most
excellent people. Altogether pleasant at the time, it was in
retrospect an occasion yet more pleasant.

The story of my life is told — here and in the pages of my
Memorabilia. I became a Vice-President of the Massachu-
setts Historical Society in April, 1890, with a view to succeed-
ing old George E. Ellis in the Presidency. My consent was
not asked; nor did I think it a matter of sufficient importance
to decline the position. I just drifted. In 1895 I became its
President, and am so still (19 12).

Finally, I want to say that preparing this resume has been
for me a decidedly profitable use of time. It has caused me


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Online LibraryCharles Francis AdamsCharles Francis Adams, 1835-1915; an autobiography; → online text (page 19 of 21)