Charles Francis Adams.

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

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not make suflicient allowance.

In the Education of Henry Adams the writer thus describes
and estimates his father:

Charies Francis Adams was singular for mental poise,

absence of self-assertion or self-consciousness, — the faculty
of standing apart without seeming aware that he was alone, —
a balance of mind and temper that neither challenged nor
avoided notice, nor admitted question of superiority or inferior-
ity, of jealousy, of personal motives, from any source, even
under great pressure. This unusual poise of judgment and tem-
per, ripened by age, became the more striking to his son Henry
as he learned to measure the mental faculties themselves, which
were in no way exceptional either for depth or range. Charies
Francis Adams's memory was hardly above the average; his

xxii Memorial Address

mind was not bold like his grandfather's or restless like his
father's, or imaginative or oratorical, — still less mathematical;
but it worked with singular perfection, admirable self-restraint,
and instinctive mastery of form. Within its range it was a


Upon one young man who had the privilege of knowing
Mr. Adams after his return from Europe, and to whom he
was very kind and considerate, he made precisely the im-
pression so admirably given in the sentences just quoted.
That impression was deepened by all the young man learned,
as he grew older, from the letters and history of the time. On
only one point would he now disagree. It is his opinion that
Mr. Adams's mental faculties were unusual in depth and
range when applied to any subject with which it was his duty
to deal as a public man and he thinks that this is abundantly
proved by his work as Minister to England and on the Ge-
neva Tribunal. But such qualities and such a temperament,
however much he loved and admired his father, did not ap-
peal to Charles Francis the younger so strongly as they did to
others. There was too much calmness and reserve, too much
acceptance of the existent and the traditional, too little "di-
vine discontent," too little of the spirit of general revolt, to
be wholly sympathetic. Hence the criticism, not without
foundation, of the lack of sports, games, and outdoor life in
his boyhood, and also upon another point with much less
reason. This last dissatisfaction was with the failure of
his father to send him to a boarding-school. He felt, quite
rightly, that association and attrition with other boys were
the best part of education and, not so rightly by any means,
that he could not and did not get them at the Public Latin
School of Boston whither he was sent with his elder brother

Memorial Address xxiii

and the rest of his contemporaries. It is not quite easy to
understand why he felt so strongly upon this point. The
boarding-schools of that day were by no means what they
have since become, and, judging from my own experience
and that of my contemporaries, there was an ample associ-
ation and attrition with other boys both in the public and
private Latin schools of Boston, if one chose to avail one's
self of them, as most boys did. If a boy did not find in these
schools the valuable education to be gained by contact with
his fellows, the difficulty, so far as my observation went, was
in the boy, not in the opportunity which seemed to be in all
ways sufficient to those who took advantage of it.

Charles Adams was in like manner dissatisfied with the
instruction given in the Boston Latin School. At that period
we had the old-fashioned classical curriculum, Latin, Greek,
mathematics, a little classical history and geography, and
exercises in declamation. The methods of teaching were
largely mechanical: learning by rote the Latin and Greek
grammars, which were reviewed every year, writing Latin
exercises, memorizing the Greek and Latin prosodies in order
to read and to recite Latin and Greek verse, and in those days
to make a false quantity in Latin was little short of a crime.
It was not the best method of learning languages, which
should be acquired as we acquire our own tongue by practice
and ear and then syntax and prosody can follow. But there
was nevertheless a real mental discipline in it and boys came
out of school with a considerable knowledge of Greek and
Latin. Since then the field of studies has been greatly ex-
tended and the methods of teaching in some directions no
doubt improved, but the net result seems to be that boys now
know less about more subjects than they did in the middle of

xxiv Memorial Address

the nineteenth century and it Is not apparent that they are
any better fitted to use, control, and apply their minds,
which Is after all the real purpose of education. But the nar-
row range of studies and the faulty methods of instruction
were a sore trial to Charles Adams and made him in later
years an effective and most valuable educational reformer.
At the moment they filled him with disgust and drove him
to revolt, so that at the end of three years In the Public Latin
School he persuaded his father to let him study with a tutor
and thus prepared he entered the class of 1856 at Harvard
in the sophomore year. To have thus omitted the freshman
year seemed to Charles Adams long afterwards to have been
a serious mistake, as it undoubtedly was. Yet his career in
college was a success and his college life a happy one in con-
trast to that of his much disliked and contemned school-
days, although the methods of teaching then In vogue at
Cambridge were not Ideal, and were certainly not suited to
Charles Adams. He was well on the way to being a good
Greek scholar, to the possession of the language, so that
through life It would always have been a pleasure and re-
source. Like others in similar cases, discouraged by the mode
of instruction, he let it go and again like others never ceased
to regret his loss. But there was large compensation in other
directions. He made friends and his friends were the best
men of a time when there were In Harvard many good men
destined to future effectiveness and success. Thus at last
he came Into contact with his kind In the way he had always
desired, and he felt, rightly no doubt, that it did him a world
of good. He became a member of the college societies and
took therein an active part, for his literary capacity was even
then easily recognized by his fellows. He did not seek rank

Memorial Address xxv

in scholarship and failed to rise above the middle of the class
list. This, however, was of no great consequence, for he read
much and widely, his mind expanded and intellectual growth
and development began. There is no greater satisfaction
than this sensation of growth and advance in mental power
and Charles Adams realized and appreciated it. Most im-
portant of all, what he modestly calls his "aptitude," what
others would term a natural gift and marked talent, now
found an opening and showed Itself forthwith. He began to
write. It was an inherited gift. He himself says that his
chief boyish recollection of his grandfather was that he was
always writing. So the inborn tendency to think and then to
seek expression for the thoughts broke forth at Harvard and
found easy opportunity in the societies, in the college maga-
zines, and presently in the newspapers. This it was, more
than anything else, which made his college career a success
and caused him to look back upon it with less severity of
criticism than that awarded to the preceding years. There
was much, no doubt, that was wrong in existing conditions,
in modes of instruction and the like ; there were, as he thought,
many mistakes and lost opportunities, due entirely to him-
self, the statistics of which he kept with great care, and yet
the general effect of the Harvard years was not only satis-
factory but happy. To the onlooker it seems as if there were
every reason why it should have been so. When a man at the
age of twenty has found something worth doing, which he
likes to do and can do well, as was the case with Charles
Adams's writing, he may be deemed to be fortunate In no
common degree. I believe Charles Adams realized the satis-
faction and happiness he had found In writing, but I do not
think that he regarded himself as particularly fortunate

xxvi Memorial Address

therein. The proverb is something musty, but one cannot
but recall the familiar Latin line, "O fortunatos nimium,
sua si bona norint."

Graduating in 1856, Charles Adams, deciding to be a law-
yer, as the obvious thing to do, did not go to the Law School,
which later he thought was a mistake, but entered as a stu-
dent the office of Dana & Parker, which was certainly a very
wise choice. That he learned much law there is not apparent,
but he was brought into close and daily contact with two
very unusual men, which was in itself an education. Richard
H. Dana, Jr., whose biography Charles Adams wrote many
years later, was a man of the finest character and an idealist
as well. His Two Years Before the Mast, so aptly called by
Mr. Adams "The Odyssey of the Pacific Coast," gave Mr.
Dana a permanent place in our literature. He was also one
of the leaders of the bar, distinguished alike in the law of
admiralty and as an international lawyer. Above all, he had
devoted himself to the anti-slavery cause and to the defense
of the fugitive slave, with a courage and disinterested zeal
which did him the utmost honor. His partner, Mr. Francis E.
Parker, did not take the position either in literature or public
life which would give him a place in history, but he was none
the less a remarkable man. An eminent lawyer, he was also
in the best way both cultivated and accomplished, a lover of
art and of literature, with a keen and penetrating wit, delight-
ful as a friend and companion, familiar with men and cities
and a wise judge of both. Charles Adams fully appreciated
and valued the two partners, and only a few days before his
death I talked with him about Mr. Parker and his opinion
of him fully coincided with that which I have just expressed.
From close association with such men he no doubt profited

Memorial Address xxvii

largely, but If we may trust his own account he did not learn
much of the law and he gave a good deal of time to the pleas-
ures of society, all very natural to his age and opportunities.
"Take thy fair hour, Laertes; time be thine." Who would
have age and experience speak otherwise to generous
youth? One would be a churl, indeed, to refuse to give
the kindly permission. None the less, within two years our
Laertes managed to pass the formal, easy examinations of
those days and was admitted to the bar by Chief Justice

Thus duly certified professionally he took an office, first
with his brother John and then by himself, and sat him down
to wait for clients. This Is a dreary, trying business at best
and was peculiarly so to Charles Adams, not merely from
temperament but because neither then nor later did he have
any real liking for the law. To become a la^vyer was an obvi-
ous thing to do, but the obvious was in this case wholly un-
suitable. If clients did not come, however, events did. The
storm of civil war was gathering, as we can see now, the po-
litical atmosphere was heavily charged and dark clouds were
beginning to drift across the sky. Mr. Charles Francis
Adams the elder was elected to Congress, the Boston home
was closed, and Charles Adams the younger found his way
to Washington to see his family. Politics and public ques-
tions were to him with his Inheritances a second nature.
Here there was no innate repulsion as with the law. They
attracted him and absorbed his thoughts, and the extracts
from his diary describing men and events in Washington are
deeply interesting. No one realized what was coming, no one
gauged the future correctly. It Is all so natural and yet so
tragic to see through the eyes of the young diarist the men of

xxviii Memorial Address

that day stumbling forward in the darkness to conclusions of
which they had no conception.

Then came i860 and the fateful election of that year.
Charles Adams had the good fortune to accompany his father
and Mr. Seward in the latter's wide-reaching campaign tour
in behalf of the Republican candidates. He saw the West for
the first time, a very different West from that of to-day,
which he also lived to see and which he helped to develop and
build up. The scenes of that journey, the travels by land and
water, the popular meetings and the public men he met, all
pass vividly before us in the pages of his diary. Then it was
that he saw Lincoln, who came to greet Seward, for the first
time. Here again was education, not to be found in law
books or offices, most valuable to the keen and eager mind of
the young observer. The teachings of those days remained
with him through life. In the Boston intervals the dull wait-
ing for clients went on, relieved only by the "aptitude"
which reasserted itself, found public expression in the news-
papers, and finally in an Atlantic article upon " King Cotton "
which had a marked success. The lurid campaign of i860
ended. The Republicans won. The Union began to drop to
pieces. The winter of 1860-61 dragged slowly by. Charles
Adams watched closely the rapid march of events, striving
hard to judge them as they passed and to guess the future
v/hich no one could fathom, which indeed men recoiled from
anticipating. Seward and his father, utterly declining to be-
lieve in war, in which it is now easy to see that they were
wrong, were laboring by every means of delay, by the con-
sideration of impossible compromises and hopeless arrange-
ments, to hold the Government together until the 4th of
March, and in this effort they were absolutely right, no

Memorial Address


matter what their view of the future might have been. At
last the day so longed for came, and Charles Adams saw
Lincob peacefully inaugurated. He, like all Republicans
and Union men, breathed a sigh of relief. They thought, or
tried to think, that the worst was over. The worst, of course,
was yet to come, but the first great danger had none the less
been passed. The Government at last was in loyal hands.
In the hands, too, of the greatest man of his time, although
this fact the men of that day did not and could not know.
Mr. Adams and his family returned to Boston. Every one
was hoping for the best, now that the change of administra-
tion had been safely accomplished. There came a few weeks
of anxiety, of hope, of fear, and then the storm broke. Sum-
ter fell and the war began.

The immediate impulse of Charles Adams was to throw
everything aside and go at once to the defense of the country.
Amid the universal unreadiness for war, in which the mass of
Americans could not believe until It was actually upon them,
Charles Adams was better prepared than most of those about
him. He was a member of the Fourth Battalion of the Massa-
chusetts Militia. On the 24th of April (1861) his battalion
was ordered to garrison duty at Fort Independence. There
he had five weeks of real service and learned much, more
perhaps than he realized. But he could not on the com-
pletion of this duty make up his mind simply and directly,
as so many of his friends did, to do that which above all
things he desired and which in reality he was certain to do
in the end. The strong Inheritance of Introspection asserted
itself and for five months he struggled with himself. It was
all so needless and yet for him so Inevitable. His patriotism,
his courage, his high spirit, all drove him forward irresistibly.

XXX Memorial Address

The cold fits, the arguments In which he never believed,
would come, would recur again and again, although each
time more weakly. But the glow of the right and natural
impulse burned ever stronger as the weeks passed, and at last
one clear October afternoon as he was riding the decision
came. "Why should I not go.?" he said to himself. The
negative vanished In the brilliant lights and gleaming colors
of that autumn evening. He applied for a captaincy in
the First Massachusetts Cavalry. On the 19th of Decem-
ber his name went in for a commission as First Lieutenant
and on December 28, 1861, he left Boston with his regi-

So far as the men who made up that regiment were con-
cerned, no better ever went to war. But to Charles Adams it
was an unlucky choice. He was unfortunate in his superior
officers, not merely in the two in chief command, but espe-
cially in the one to whom he was immediately subordinate.
No man ever went to the front with a clearer determination
to do his full duty to the best of his ability than Charles
Adams and no man ever kept better to his purpose. Yet he
was treated at the outset in a way which would have driven
many a man of good quality to desperation, to insubordina-
tion, to resignation, perhaps to ruin. The wrong and injus-
tice of It all were very bitter, very hard to bear. There were
recurring hours then and later when it seemed to him that
he had lacked manliness in submitting to what he bore and in
not breaking through everything, even leaving the service,
that he might preserve his self-respect. But he overcame the
temptation which was at once so natural and so strong, and
there is in his whole career no more convincing proof to be
found of the fineness and strength of his character and of the

Memorial Address xxxi

really noble conception of duty which throughout his life
underlay all his acts and thoughts.

The regiment went first to South Carolina and then to Vir-
ginia. In the autumn of 1862 he was promoted to Captain;
he was rid of the worst torment from his immediate superior
and light began to break. He saw constant service and was in
many actions, always and simply brave, cool, and efficient.
He was at Antietam and Chief of Squadron in the Gettys-
burg campaign, then separated from his regiment on special
duty at headquarters, and during the subsequent advance
upon Richmond. In the autumn of 1864 he was transferred
to the Fifth Massachusetts Cavalry, a colored regiment, as
Lieutenant-Colonel, joining his new command at Point Look-
out, Maryland. For some time he had been sufltering from
illness caused by hardship and malaria and now became so
much worse that in November he was ordered home. He
grew better, rejoined his regiment once more, grew much
worse, and was again ordered back to Boston. As the winter
drew to a close Colonel Russell resigned and the command
of the regiment was given to Adams. At the same time came
the offer of a place on General Humphreys' staflt as Inspector-
General. He esteemed Humphreys very highly and an impor-
tant staff appointment was what he had longed for above all
else. Nevertheless he refused the staff appointment from a
sense of duty and obligation and took command of the regi-
ment. He always felt that this was a grave mistake and bit-
terly regretted it. His decision certainly deprived him of
being present at the close of the war in the happiest manner
and in the way which above all others he desired. Yet as one
calmly considers his action fifty years later, while the mistake
from his point of view may be admitted, the thought of the

xxxii Memorial Address

self-sacrifice to the sense of duty rouses an admiration which
overshadows every other consideration.

He secured the mounting of his regiment, took it to the
front, and had the supreme satisfaction of riding at its head
into burning Richmond the day after the abandonment of
the city by Lee. A few weeks later he broke down again, this
time completely, was obliged to leave the regiment and
return to Boston reduced to a skeleton, a mere wreck from
fever, exposure, and hardship endured for four years. He
received the brevet of Brigadier-General, and in June, 1865,
was mustered out of the service. He had served his country
well in the field. He had been a good soldier, courageous and
self-sacrificing, active and earnest in the . performance of
every duty. It was a wonderful experience, educating, ex-
panding, strengthening, and as he grew older he seemed to
value it more and more. The memory never grew dim, the
teachings of that terrible struggle of the nation for life never
faded. His service in the war was to him a precious posses-
sion and such in truth it was to all who had fought through
the four years as he had done.

While absent on sick-leave during the winter of 1864-65,
he became engaged to Miss Ogden, the second daughter of
Edward Ogden, of New York, then living in Newport. There
he passed the summer of 1865 and there he was married in
November. Immediately after the wedding he went with his
wife to Europe. His father was still Minister to England and
he was able to rejoin his family in London. He travelled also
on the Continent, and the journey restored his shattered
strength. His opportunities in England were of course excep-
tional, but Charles Adams felt, as he was apt to feel, that he
did not make the most of them either there or elsewhere.

Memorial Address xxxiii

The condition of his health no doubt interfered, but it seems
probable that he made more of his opportunities at that time
than he was ever willing to admit and it is certain that he saw
and learned much.

In September, 1866, he returned to Boston and it is not
surprising that the prospect which he faced seemed at first
unpromising as well as uninviting. He came back to a world
and to conditions greatly changed from those which he had
left five years before. From a high military command, from
a position of responsibility and importance, he now returned
to the obscurity of civil life, to his abandoned profession for
which he had no love, and with no definite place, no settled
and necessary work ready to absorb his time and satisfy or
occupy his energies. He went back to his office and then,
facing with clear courage and good sense the indifferent world
about him, he set to work to establish himself, to make his
place and to find and do something worth doing.

He made a wise if quick choice by turning to the railroad
system, to use his own words, " as the most developing force
and largest field of the day." He started with an article upon
"Railroads" in the North American Review. Clients did not
come to his office, but articles upon railroads flowed out into
the magazines and reviews. Gradually the steady work be-
gan to tell, although it was not apparent as the days went by.
Slowly but surely he was awakening his public to the vast
importance of the railroad system growing and spreading
rankly over a continent without either regulation or control.
He made it apparent that this necessary servant upon which
the development of the country depended was becoming a
dangerous master. He demonstrated the need of action in the
public Interest. He became an authority upon his subject.

xxxiv Memorial Address

The patient labor told. The " aptitude '^ in writing had found
a field and brought in its harvest. In 1869 he delivered
a Fourth of July address before the Grand Army Post at
Quincy, which attracted much attention. In the same month
the law establishing a railroad commission in Massachusetts,
which he had been largely instrumental in passing, went into
elTect and he was appointed one of the commissioners. On
the first day of that same July, so memorable to him, ap-
peared his article entitled "A Chapter of Erie," which had
a widespread and deep political and economic effect at the
moment and without which the history of that time could not
now be properly written or thoroughly understood. There
had been a " railroad commission " in Rhode Island and " rail-
road commissioners" in New Hampshire since 1844 and sta-
tistical returns of railroads in Massachusetts since 1836, but
nothing had yet been accomplished in the direction of regu-
lation or control. The Massachusetts Railroad Commission
of 1869 was the first effective commission and was the foun-
dation of the system of railroad commissions with large
powers which spread to all the States and culminated in the
Interstate Commerce Commission of the United States. This
beginning of the great system of Government regulation of
railroads in the interest of the public was the work of Charles
Adams. The idea, the theory, the principles, were all his, and
the first practical demonstration, for he served ten years as
railroad commissioner, was his also. It is not going too far
to say that no single man produced by his own unaided
thought and effort so great an effect upon our economic
development, with all its attendant political manifestations,
so far as it was involved in transportation by rail, as did

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Online LibraryCharles Francis AdamsCharles Francis Adams, 1835-1915; an autobiography; → online text (page 2 of 21)