Charles Francis Adams.

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

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Charles Adams when he brought about the establishment of

Memorial Address


the Massachusetts Railroad Commission and through the
practical work of the Commission, as well as by his writings,
educated the public to a belief in Government regulation
and supervision of the vast system of railroads which was
growing up in the United States.

The " Chapter of Erie " was the crowning stroke in the work
which he had been doing by his writings for nearly three
years. It is difficult now even to imagine such a situation as
is depicted In this remarkable article. Physical violence, cor-
ruption of legislatures, corruption of courts, stock-gambling,
robbery of the public and the stockholders, set off against a'
background of vulgar display and coarse vice, all these foul
things were there, not concealed but flaunted openly and fla-
grantly, with a cynical disregard of public morals and public
opinion. The people had looked on, disgusted and helpless.
They saw the various villainies as they passed one by one, but
they neither understood nor appreciated what it all meant
until the isolated events were knit together Into a single con-
nected story powerfully and skilfully told by Charles Adams.
Then they knew what had happened, then they realized the
danger which threatened them, then and there the revolt
against railroad domination began. The foresight displayed
m these articles is as remarkable as the grasp of facts and
principles. But even their author could not foresee how far
the movement, so beneficial, so necessary in Itself, and as he
conceived It, would travel in the next fifty years. From being
a peril and a corrupting force in politics, the railroads have
now become the helpless subjects of Government commis-
sions and too often their victims. The general result has been
of the utmost value politically and in a less degree economi-
cally. Many evils have been cured, many wrongs redressed.

xxxvi Memorial Address

much good has been accomplished, while serious harm has
also been done by the crude and violent methods pursued in
certain instances. The unfortunate stockholders have suf-
fered under both systems. As in all revolutions — and the
movement begun by Charles Adams in 1867 was nothing less
— the achievement of great good, the reform of grave abuses
brings with it suffering to guilty and innocent alike and the
final expiation is often vicarious. Two meaner and more in-
jurious tyrants than Louis XIV and Louis XV it would be
difficult to find. They both had exceptionally long reigns and
died quietly in their beds. For their sins Louis XVI, harm-
less, dull, and kindly, went to the guillotine. Those who
rightly feel that the treatment of our railroads by law, by
Congress, by legislatures and commissions, is often harsh
and unjust will do well to read the Chapters of Erie and con-
sider the doings of Gould and Fisk. They may not find there
an abstract justification of all the mistakes and extreme
measures of the present day directed against the railroads,
but they will certainly discover an ample explanation of how
those measures came to pass.

Just at this time, when he was bringing the labors of nearly
three years to practical fruition by the establishment of the
Massachusetts Railroad Commission, Charles Adams left
Boston and made his home in the ancestral town of Quincy.
He had been absorbed in a great state and national question,
the transportation system of the United States, and he con-
tinued that work for many years to come. But he now added
to it the affairs of the town in which he lived, affairs as purely
local as one could conceive, but which he contrived, before
he was done with them, to carry in their influence not only
outside the bounds of the township, but far beyond the bor-
ders of Massachusetts.

Memorial Address xxxvii

With his elder brother, John Quincy Adams, who was not
only a man of marked ability, but an accomplished speaker
and personally very popular, he entered upon the field of
town affairs. The general condition of the town was not
good and there was ample opportunity for reforms in various
directions. Alany were effected, and for twenty years the
two brothers not only led but largely managed the town.
The methods of doing business in town meeting were wholly
reformed and became a model. The debt was extinguished
and the tax rate kept at a moderate figure by wise, economi-
cal, and effective expenditure. During these twenty years
Charles Adams was a member of the school committee, a
trustee of the public library, a park commissioner, and a
commissioner of the sinking fund. He was constantly active
in town work and never defeated when a candidate for ofiice.
The best-known part of that work was the reform of the
methods of teaching and administration in the public schools
which he started and carried through. The result became
famous as the "Quincy System," which was studied and In-
vestigated by teachers and educators everywhere. It was
largely followed and imitated and in this way had a wide
influence upon education in the United States. Hardly less
important, although less generally known, was the result of
his work as trustee of the public library and as park commis-
sioner. With entire justice he says in his autobiography that
the public library given by Thomas Crane and the Merry-
mount Park which he himself gave to the to^vn are permanent
memorials of his work in the affairs of Quincy. No man could
ask for better records of disinterested and unpaid public
service than these. He also left a full account of his labors
in Quincy In the last of his Three Episodes of Massachusetts

xxxviii Memorial Address

History. And yet perhaps his best monument, quite impal-
pable and incorporeal, is the demonstration which he and his
brother gave of the fine results which can be obtained by
men of energy, ability, and public spirit working through the
direct democracy of the town meeting, properly applied to
suitable purposes, when the same energy, ability, and hon-
esty exerted through the forms of city government so com-
monly end in failure and so rarely achieve more than a
partial and often merely evanescent success.

During these years of life in Quincy the work as railroad
commissioner went on steadily and Mr. Adams's reports,
including that which he prepared as special commissioner on
the Troy and Greenfield road, were all important contribu-
tions toward the solution of the general transportation prob-
lem. The most interesting and far-reaching of these reports
was that of 1877, as courageous as it was able, which dealt
with the grave questions raised by the prolonged strike of
the engineers on the Boston & Maine Railroad. Air. Adams
advocated investigation and publicity as against compulsory
arbitration, and it is interesting to note that the very able
Roosevelt Commission, called into being by the great coal
strike more than twenty years later, adopted and enforced
his views. In publicity and investigation, as the best method
of dealing with the most serious troubles of this character,
Charles Adams never lost faith.

The work on the Massachusetts Railroad Commission,
together with his writings, inevitably led to wider fields. In
1878 he became chairman of the Government Directors of
the Union Pacific and after going over the lines drew the
report. In 1879 he resigned from the Massachusetts Com-
mission and became chairman of the Board of Arbitration

Memorial Address xxxix

of the Trunk Lines. In 1882 he was chosen a director of the
Union Pacific, and two years later was elected president of
the company. This was a most responsible position and as
burdensome and trying as it was important. The company
was involved with the Government, the worst of all possible
handicaps; it was unpopular in the territory it served and in
very bad financial condition. During the first five years of
his presidency Mr. Adams did much for the road. He put
the finances in order, improved alike the service and credit
of the road, and paid off" the floating debt. But he could not
bring the relations with the Government to a settlement and
that was the most serious obstacle to complete success. He
had proved himself efficient and capable and if he had gone
out at the end of five years all would have been well for him.
But, as he himself says, he made the serious mistake of re-
maining a year and a half longer, struggling in vain for the
Government settlement which always fled as he approached
it. During those fateful eighteen months the clouds in the
business world which culminated in the great panic of 1893,
were gathering darkly upon the horizon. At that time Charles
Adams was deeply involved in other and extensive enter-
prises of his own, and as conditions constantly grew worse
both the road and its president suffered from them. At last,
in 1890, he wrenched himself free, not without large personal
sacrifice, and his twenty years of railroad work came to an
end, leaving with him at the time a bitter sense of failure.
But the failure, if it was such, was in reality confined to the
last year and a half in the Union Pacific, when the general
financial situation, continually growing worse, brought ruin
to many men and many enterprises. The eighteen preceding
years were a success in the largest sense, because during those

xl Memorial Address

years he did a work toward the solution of the vast railroad
question, informing and educating public opinion, which
stands out conspicuous in the history of the time and which
was one of his best and most enduring achievements.

Yet the work in Quincy, the labors as railroad commis-
sioner, then as a member of the Arbitration Board, as direc-
tor and president of the Union Pacific, together with large
business affairs in which he was privately engaged, although
they would seem beyond the strength of any one man, by no
means comprised all the public service rendered at that period
and later by Charles Adams. In 1872 he went at the head of
a commission authorized by the Massachusetts Legislature
to visit the Vienna Exposition and drew the report of the
commissioners. In 1892 he was appointed chairman of the
preliminary and advisory commission to prepare a plan of
parks and public reservations for Boston and its vicinity.
The result was a scheme for a park system probably un-
equalled in extent and In far-sighted conception by any great
city of modem times. Greatly to the surprise of Mr. Adams
the report was accepted and he was made chairman of the
commission created to carry the plans into effect. He served
until 1895, and then, feeling that his work in this direction
was completed, he resigned. The preservation of the Blue
Hills and of the Middlesex Fells by Including them In reser-
vations was largely due to his efforts, and he justly felt that
he had accomplished much in saving those regions of re-
markable natural beauty not only for the public of his own
day, but for the generations yet unborn. Those, who in the
long days to come will find enjoyment and happiness In the
regions thus preserved from the ravages of the spoiler, may
not know to whose hand they owe the precious gift, but none

Memorial Address xH

the less the hills and woods and lakes thus saved are a great
and lasting memorial to the man whose disinterested and
far-seeing labors made them a permanent possession of the
people of Massachusetts.

In 1897 Charles Adams was appointed chairman of a
Massachusetts commission to investigate the relations be-
tween street railways and municipalities. For this purpose
he visited Europe to inquire into the different systems in
operation there and in Great Britain, and on his return he
drew the report upon which general legislation was based
and enacted. In 1903 he served as chairman of a special
commission to apportion the cost of maintenance of the
parks and reservations among the several cities and towns
included in the system.

During this entire period he was also active in another and
very different field. In 1882 he was chosen an overseer of
Hari-ard College and served there four terms of six years
each with an interval of one year in 1895. His deep interest
as an educational reformer, so strikingly shown in the schools
of Quincy, he now turned to the methods and modes of teach-
ing in the great university. In 1883 he delivered the Phi
Beta Kappa address entitled "A College Fetish," which was
directed against the classics, and not only attracted much
attention, but excited abundant criticism and discussion
which Charles Adams always enjoyed. From that time for-
ward, for nearly a quarter of a century, he was most active
m all the affairs of Harvard, concluding his many years of
service by an elaborate report on the English Department
which was followed by Important changes in the English
courses of the university.
As one comes to the end of this long list of activities in

xlii Memorial Address

public service and with public results, supplemented by busi-
ness interests enough in themselves to absorb the entire men-
tal and physical strength of a man of more than average vigor
of mind and body, one pauses in surprise at the force, energy,
and capacity for work which made it all possible, and yet
even this was not everything. Through all there ran the
"aptitude" for expression in writing, and not content with
the articles in magazines and newspapers or the elaborate
reports dealing with the educational, economic, and railroad
reforms upon which he was engaged, the "aptitude" reached
out and turned to the inviting fields of history and biography,
subjects for which Charles Adams, quite unknown to himself
at first, possessed another strong gift which was his both by
nature and inheritance. In 1874 he was asked to deliver an
historical address at the celebration of the two hundred and
fiftieth anniversary of the settlement of the towTi of Wey-
mouth, next neighbor to Quincy. He knew but little of
Weymouth; nothing of its history. After a brief hesitation he
accepted and delivered the address on the 4th of July, 1874.
His work as an historian had begun. The Weymouth address
was followed by his election as a member of the Massachu-
setts Historical Society, lightly accepted at the moment, but
which was destined to mean so much to him in a future then
long distant. The Weymouth address, however, did much
more than this. It led him insensibly into the pleasant
paths of historical study and investigation. He came, per-
haps without realizing it, well equipped for the new pursuit.
From the earliest beginnings in the days of the college and
the law office he wrote easily and well. He seems never to
have passed through the severe struggle necessary to most
men when learning to express themselves in writing with

Memorial Address xliii

force and lucidity. Yet the old saying that easy writing
makes hard reading does not apply in his case. All that
Charles Adams wrote is eminently readable. He had no faith
in the elaborate, no patience with what was dry or obscure.
He was strongly of Alartial's opinion:

Non scribit, cujus carmina nemo legit.

One might agree or disagree with his opinions, but no one
found difficulty in either reading or understanding what he
wrote. Rarely rhetorical, his style was always clear and
effective. The humor of a situation when he described it
did not escape him if it was anywhere present, nor did he
ever fail to see the pathos or the tragedy when either existed
or the remote results of the events of history or of the deeds
of men. He had also another quality in a high degree of
excellence which is very essential to the historian. This was
the power of developing and weaving together a closely con-
nected and interesting narrative from a mass of complicated
and disorderly facts and of intricate, widely scattered details.
In the Chapters of Erie, which were the first of his writmgs
to attain to book form, in a volume of essays by himself and
his brother Henry, this power is made very manifest. The
literary quality in this respect is as admirable as the sub-
stance of the attack upon the infamies of the Erie Railroad
management. From a wilderness of details, from masses of
testimony, judicial orders, and newspaper reports, he drew
forth a clear, succinct, coherent, easily understood, and also
keenly interesting story. The ability to do this implies not
only patient and untiring industry, but skill and proficiency
in the difficult arts of selection, compression, and omission.
To the work of the historian Charles Adams brought this

xl i V Memorial Address

ability, and the thoroughness of research and the mastery of
details were as conspicuous as the easy and vivacious man-
ner in which the results of his labors were finally stated upon
the printed page. Following the lead of the Weymouth
address, he extricated from the confused and too often
broken records of the seventeenth century, the story of the
earliest English settlements of Massachusetts Bay, which
was first printed privately in 1883 as Episodes in New Eng-
land History, and later, in 1892, in two volumes entitled
Three Episodes of Massachusetts History. There is much in
the records of those times which seems petty if carelessly
regarded. The figures on the scene are for the most part
obscure men, moving dimly on the edge of a vast, untrodden
wilderness. Yet when looked at, as Charles Adams looked
at them, with a discerning gaze, it is apparent that adven-
ture and romance were both present and, when they are, the
names and importance of the heroes are of secondary conse-
quence, for romance and adventure do not depend upon the
worldly position of the actors in making their appeal to hu-
man imagination and human interest. Isolated and alone
these early wanderers to the New England coast might well
have had no other charm than this, but as it happened they
were also founders of a State, beginners of great things, fac-
tors in world events, and their connection with the larger
history of their own time and of the future was brought out
by Charles Adams in a way which makes the deeper meanings
of these Pilgrims and adventurers clear and emphatic to all
who read their story as he told it.

This work went with Charles Adams through all the period
of railroad and business activity and was a resource and com-
fort in the disappointments and trials which came with the

Memorial Address xlv

successes in practical affairs. During the last months of his
■presidency of the Union Pacific, when all the many anxieties
of the road and of his own business interests were culminat-
ing, he none the less managed in some way, not easily com-
prehensible, to write the biography of his old friend Richard
H. Dana, in whose office he had studied law. Just as he left
the railroad and regained once more the ■'"reedom from the
care and responsibility which the presidency of the road had
brought upon him, the book was published. There is nothing
in its pages to suggest the wearing conditions under which it
was composed, an indication of a rare capacity for self-ab-
straction and for applying the mind to the subject which the
will commands. It is a wholly admirable piece of work, vivid,
interesting, one of the very best of American biographies.
It merits more than the credit of an important contribution
to our history; it is also an addition to our literature.

From this time forward the "aptitude," finding its truest
field in history, gave to Charles Adams his principal interest
and his chief occupation, one which was entirely congenial.
There were five hard years to be passed through while he
dealt with the burdens which the railroad and his own affairs,
involved in the great business depression between 1893 and
1897, brought upon him. He gave up Boston and Quincy
and established himself upon a large estate at Lincoln.
There his time at last became his own and he turned to his-
tory and historical studies, where, in the midst of other and
very different labors, he had already done so much.

During the twenty-five years which followed his retire-
ment from the presidency of the Union Pacific, he published,
in addition to many noticeable and much noticed addresses,
historical and otherwise. The Life of R. II. Dana and The

xlvi Memorial Address

Three Episodes oj Massachusetts History, already mentioned;
Massachusetts; Its Historians and History, in 1 893 ; a memoir,
all too brief, of his father, in 1900; a volume of Studies: Mili-
tary and Diplomatic, in 191 1, and in 1913, in book form, the
lectures delivered at Oxford and later at Johns Hopkins Uni-
versity entitled Transatlantic Historical Solidarity. This last
volume represented part of the study he was making with his
usual thoroughness and industry of the diplomatic history
of our Civil War. He had gathered an immense mass of orig-
inal material for this purpose and was constantly accumu-
lating more, upon which he was occupied at the time of his

In addition to all this original production, with its wide
historical research, he found time to edit for the Prince So-
ciety in 1883, during the railroad period, Thomas Morton's
New English Canaan, in 1894 the Winthrop-Weld tract on
Antinomianism in New England, and later gave much assist-
ance in the preparation of the Historical Society's monu-
mental edition of Bradford's History of Plymouth Plantation,
which appeared in 19 12. This edition of Bradford, suggested
by Mr. Adams in 1 898, was but one of many things that he did
for the Society which filled a large place in his life for twenty
years. He was chosen a vice-president in 1890 when he left
the Union Pacific, and in 1895 he was elected president to
succeed Dr. Ellis. He came to his new duties, as he had come
to all the positions he had ever filled, with an abundance of
fresh ideas and in the spirit of the reformer. He not only
worked for and helped the Society in every possible way, he
not only brought to it and expended In Its service unbounded
energy and enthusiasm, but he enlarged Its field, increased
its usefulness, and made it more of a power In history, lltera-

Memorial Address xl


ture, and In the community, than it had ever been before.
The bane of all learned societies, historical, antiquarian, or
scientific, is the tendency to see only the trees and not the
forest, the houses and not the city. They are too apt to forget
that one fact is gossip and that two related facts are history.
All persons of healthy minds love gossip, whether oral or
written, if It is clever, humorous, and suggestive. That is an
attribute of human nature and is due to the fact that good
gossip has the quality of the story, the touch of romance, the
appeal to the imagination. But it is a perilous mistake to
suppose that all gossip, good or bad, dull or amusing, that all
facts, simply as facts, are of value. The result of this error
when indulged in is the heaping up of unread pages of facts
of no value at the time of their existence or at any subsequent
period. Mere age does not give a fact importance. Some-
thing more is needed, and the tenderness which we all feel
for that which the centuries have spared should not blind us
to its intrinsic worth or worthlessness, which is the only real
question to be determined. Diamonds and pearls are no
doubt to be found now and then on the rubbish-heaps of the
past, but the mounds are none the less rubbish as they were
from the beginnmg, and their final resting-place should be
not the printed, gently preserving page, but the fire or the
dust-bin, even If a precious stone, happily rescued, should
have once glittered among them.

With this vice of collecting valueless facts purely because
they were old, and then encumbering not only shelves but
the limited time of finite humanity with endless volumes of
printed paper, Charles Adams was very familiar and equally
unsympathetic. This in itself made him peculiarly fit for the
president's place In an historical society. But he did much

xlviii Memorial Address

more. He carried the work of the Society out of the Colonial
Period, the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, where it
had been too much and too long confined, and brought the
nineteenth century, and especially the period of the Civil
War, within the scope of its communications, investigations,
and monthly consideration. Not content with this extension
he led the Society into still wider fields of history by his own
addresses and essays, which ranged from the battle of Salamis
to the current events of the day and which greatly enlivened

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Online LibraryCharles Francis AdamsCharles Francis Adams, 1835-1915; an autobiography; → online text (page 3 of 21)