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Charles Francis Adams


THIS eminent diplomatist comes of an illustrious lineage. The only son of John Quincy Adams, sixth President of the Republic, who survived his father, and the grandson of John Adams, the second President of the United States, he inherits patriotic sentiments, and has done honor, in his public career, to some of the noblest names in our nation's past history.

CHARLES FRANCIS ADAMS was born in Boston, Massachusetts, August 18, 1807. At the age of two years, he was taken by his father to St. Petersburg, where he remained for the next six years, his father being United States Minister at the Russian Court. During his residence at the Russian capital, he learned to speak the Russian, German and French, as well as the English. In February, 1815, he made the perilous journey from St. Petersburg to Paris, with his mother, in a private carriage, to meet his father. The intrepidity of Mrs. Adams, in undertaking such a journey in midwinter, and when all Europe was in a state of commotion, gave evidence that the courage and daring which her son inherited, were not all due to the father's side.

John Quincy Adams was next appointed Minister to England, and during his residence there, he placed Charles at a boarding school, where, in accordance with the brutal practices in vogue in the English schools, he was obliged to fight his English schoolfellows in defence of the honor of America. But, young as he was, he was too plucky to be beaten, and maintained his country's cause with as much valor, though probably with less intelligence, than he has since been called to exercise in its behalf.

In 1817, his father was recalled to America, to become Secretary of State in President Monroe's administration, and young Adams, on his return, was placed in the Boston Latin school, from whence he entered Harvard College, in 1821, and graduated there with honor in 1825. 

His father was at this time President, and the son spent the next two years in Washington; but, in 1827, returned to Massachusetts, and commenced the study of the law in the office of Daniel Webster. He was admitted to the bar in 1828, but did not engage actively in practice.

In 1829, Mr. Adams married a daughter of Peter C. Brooks, an opulent merchant of Boston, another of whose daughters was the wife of Hon. Edward Everett. The first years of Mr. Adams' manhood were mostly passed with his books, and in literary and scientific pursuits. Though strongly averse to partizan politics and the petty squabbles for office and plunder, which then occupied the minds of the politicians of the day, it was impossible that, with his birthright and broad culture, he should not devote a considerable part of his studies to political science and statesmanship. He wrote able articles on topics involving a large knowledge of both, in the North American Review, and other periodicals, between 1830 and 1845. He also edited at this time the letters of Mrs. John Adams, and gathered the documents for the "Life and Works of John Adams, second President of the United States." He was nominated, in 1840, as Representative in the Massachusetts Legislature; but he had no political aspirations, and declined to be a candidate. At his father's request, however, he consented to be a candidate the next year, and was elected for three years successively, and was then chosen State Senator for two years. This period (1841–1846) was one of violent struggle, and eventually of disruption between the two wings of the Whig party, the time-serving or " Cotton Whigs," and the " Conscience Whigs," who subsequently, with large additions from the Democracy, formed the Republican party. Of the "Conscience Whigs," Mr. Adams was the acknowledged leader. Some of his reports, and his "Review of the Proceedings of the Legislature of 1843," were very remarkable for their breadth of view, their enunciation of great principles of statesmanship, and their clear and vigorous style. While he was a member of the Senate, the State of Massachusetts sent Judge Hoar to South Carolina, to endeavor, by peaceful measures, to put an end to the imprisonment of colored sailors from Massachusetts in South Carolinian jails, whenever they entered any of the ports of that state. Judge Hoar was treated with great indignity, and driven from the State by a mob. The Massachusetts Legislature hereupon appointed a joint committee, of which Mr. Adams was chairman, to draw up a "Declaration and Protest," to be forwarded to the President and the Governors of the respective States. This paper, prepared by Mr. Adams, is a document worthy of its occasion and its author, a masterly exposition of the legal and Constitutional aspects of the question, and a model of weighty and impressive eloquence. The opposition in Massachusetts, as well as in other Northern States, to the admission of Texas into the Union as a slave State, found a voice and a leader in Mr. Adams. In the winter of 1846, a committee, of which he was chairman, maintained a campaign paper called The Free State Rally, and sent on to Washington, from Massachusetts alone, remonstrances with nearly sixty thousand signatures, against the admission of Texas as a slave State. This act in reality severed the connection between Mr. Adams and the Cotton Whigs, and, late in 1846, he founded and conducted politically for some months, daily paper called the Boston Whig. The "Conscience Whigs, were bitterly maligned and abused by the pro-slavery men of the party, and the severance of the slight bonds which held the two together was beginning to be felt as a necessity. In the measures which resulted somewhat later, in the formation of the Free Soil Party, the Boston Whig did good service. The State Whig Convention of September, 1847, was the last in which Mr. Adams, Mr. Sumner, Judge Allen and other Conscience Whigs, attempted to take part in any so-called Whig Convention. The Free Soil party was organized in most of the Northern States in the spring of 1848, and in the summer of that year its Convention at Buffalo nominated Martin Van Buren for President, and Charles Francis Adams for Vice-President. The vote for these candidates was a protest, and a vigorous one, against Pro-Slavery aggression; it could be nothing more. In the five or six years which followed, there was a complete break-up of the Whig party, and the Free Soil party was in part swallowed up in the temporary but short-lived success of the "American " or "Know-Nothing" organization, but soon emerged in the "Republican party," which took shape and form early in 1855.

During the chaotic condition of parties, Mr. Adams had stood aloof from politics, sickened with the corruption of many of the party leaders, yet powerless, for the time, to check it, and it was not till the emergence of the new and purer party from the seething mass, that he again mingled in political circles. Meantime, he had devoted himself with great assiduity to the memoir of his grandfather and the careful editing of his works. This valuable contribution to the early history of our country is written with that elegant scholarship which marks all Mr. Adams' compositions, and is remarkably impartial in its details of the life of the venerable President. It occupies ten volumes. In the autumn of 1858, Mr. Adams was called from his literary pursuits to represent his district in Congress. His course there, on the eve of the rebellion, was worthy of the great name he bore and of his own previous history. Calm, dignified, yet tenacious in his adherence to the great principles of right, he was such a representative as it became Massachusetts to have at such a time. In the summer and autumn of 1860, he took part in the Presidential canvass, supporting Mr. Lincoln in many able speeches, in the Northwestern States. That he supported, both in committee and in his place in the House, the resolutions disavowing, on the part of the free States, any right, under the Constitution, to interfere with Slavery in States where it was already established, or to hinder by law the reclamation of fugitives, and the bill for the admission of New Mexico as a State, leaving its citizens at liberty in respect to a constitutional admission or prohibition of Slavery, is not to be denied. Looking at these questions in the light of the present, it seems astonishing that he could have made even such concessions as these to the Slave power; but that was the hour of darkness, and many Republicans, who afterwards stood up boldly for freedom, went much farther than Mr. Adams in their concessions at this time. Mr. Adams, unlike most of these, made these propositions his ultimatum, declaring war preferable, with all its horrors, to any further attempts at conciliation. But the Southern leaders were mad upon their idols; they would hear nothing of compromise, and in heart, if not in word, assented to Jefferson Davis's declaration, "That if the North would give him carte blanche to make such propositions as he would be satisfied with, he would reject the offer." So, happily and well for the North, all these offers of conciliation failed of success, and the war commenced. Mr. Adams was re-elected to the Thirty-seventh Congress; but, in the spring of 1861, Mr. Lincoln nominated him as minister to England, and he was promptly confirmed by the Senate, and in the first week of May he sailed from Boston to enter on his duties. He was now in the sphere for the exercise and manifestation of his rare qualities. They were illustrated by the great discouragements which he had to encounter. The armed rebellion had broken out. The ministry and the ruling classes of England were unfriendly. The Tory party could not but welcome the prospect of a downfall of the great republic, whose prosperity had so potently backed up the argument of English friends to free principles and free institutions. The Whig aristocracy, alarmed by the progressive radicalism of their own allies at home, were not unwilling that it should receive a check from the failure of the American experiment. Except the great names of the Duke of Argyll, Mr. Bright and Mr. Cobden, there were few in the first rank of English statesmen who looked favorably or justly on the rights or the prospects of this country. In the commercial circles in which, since the squirarchy has become more enlightened, the intensest burliness of John Bullism resides, the ruin of the great maritime power across the water was a welcome conclusion. The suffering that would fall on the laboring classes in consequence of the stoppage of the supply of cotton from America was apparent, and the decision with which, as it proved, they not only refrained from pressing their government into hostile measures, but pronounced their advocacy of that cause of freedom in America which they instinctively felt to be their own, showed a sense and magnanimity which it would nave seemed visionary to look for. The clergy, from Cornwall to the Tweed, rejoiced in the new demonstration that social order was only to be had under the shadow of a church-sustaining throne. The Carlton Club was elate. The Reform Club was bewildered and double-minded. Lord Palmerston, even beyond his wont, was flippant and cheerful.

Mr. Adams stepped into the circle collected, prepared, grave, dignified, self poised, with the port of one who felt that he had great rights to secure, that he knew how to vindicate them, and that he had a stout power behind him for their maintenance. The British ministry—not over-reluctant themselves—were pressed by solicitations from across the Channel, as well as by taunts and importunities at home, to espouse the cause of the insurgent States. Had they done so, it will not do to say that we should have failed to come victorious out of the contest, but without doubt we should have won our victory at immeasurably greater cost. That they were held to a neutrality, however imperfect, instead of proceeding to an active intervention, was largely due to the admirable temper and ability with which our diplomacy was conducted. A short time sufficed to make it appear that Mr. Adams was not to be bullied, or cajoled, or hoodwinked, or irritate 1 into an imprudence, and every day of his long residence near the British court brought its confirmation to that profitable lesson. Under provocations and assumptions the more offensive for being sheathed in soft diplomatic phrase, not a petulant word was to be had from the American minister, nor a word, on the other hand, indicative of a want of proud confidence in the claims and in the future of his country. A timid and yielding temper would have invited encroachments: a testy humor or discourteous address would have been seized upon as excuse for reserve or counter-irritation. Nor by the preparation of study was he less equal to the difficult occasion than by native qualities of mind and character, as was proved more than once when, Lord John having flattered himself that he had discovered some chink in our mail in some passage of our treatment of Spain and the South American republics, the pert diplomatist had to learn that it would be prudent for him to go into a more careful reading of the records of past American administrations. It is of less consequence to say that Mr. Adams' personal accomplishments, his familiarity with the usages of elegant society, his cultivated taste in art, his profound scholarship, and his acquaintance with the classical historians, orators and poets (a sort of attainment nowhere more considered than in England), added to the estimation which attached to him. Going to that country in circumstances of the extremest perplexity and trial, he left it, after seven years, the object of universal respect, and of an extent and earnestness of private regard seldom accorded, in any circumstances, to the representative of a foreign power. To maintain at once an inflexible and an inoffensive attitude, to assert, without a jot or title of abatement, a country's unconceded right, yet expose no coign of vantage to the aggressor by a rash advance, to enforce justice and tranquillize passion at the same time, is the consummate achievement, the last crowning grace, of diplomacy.

After Mr. Adams was recalled from England at his own request, as in former years, he lived in Boston in the winter, and in the summer months managed his extensive farm at Quincy, eight miles from town, where he occupied the ancient house which John Adams, attached to it by early recollections, purchased before his return from Europe in 1788. In a secure building which he lately erected on the estate, Mr. Adams arranged the voluminous manuscripts left by his grandfather and his father, and the large library of Mr. John Quincy Adams. It is understood that he has been occupied in preparing for publication, a selection from the writings of his illustrious father. In December, 1870, he came from his retirement to pronounce before the New York Historical Society, a discourse, which has since been published, containing a masterly exposition of the debt of the world to the American government for its persistent maintenance, from first to last, of the doctrine of the right of a nation to preserve its own neutrality ; in other words, the right of a nation to remain in peace when other nations go to war—a doctrine laid down by Mr. Wheaton as "incontestable," but which, in fact, was never valid, from the beginning of time till this new people asserted and established it.

In the summer of 1871, he was nominated by the President as the American Commissioner in the arbitration provided for by the Treaty of Washington, ratified in July, and has twice visited Geneva and Paris on that mission. No appointment could have been so fitting and appropriate.

Mr. Adams' name has often been mentioned in connection with the Presidency. We do not believe he desires it, and he is too eminent a statesman and too much of a gentleman and scholar, to be likely to be elected in a republic where mediocrity of talent and ability is preferred to genius, and a certain boorishness of manner is a surer passport to high political honors than refinement and culture. He has mingled but little in political matters since his return from England in 1868, but that he has his own decided opinions on the questions of the day, will be evident from the following letters. The first was written in reply to an invitation to visit Pittsburgh, and take part in the commemoration of Andrew Jackson's birthday:

"BOSTON, Jan. 6, 1871.'

"Malcolm Hay, Esq., Secretary of the Committee:

"DEAR SIR : By some accidental delay your letter of the 31st ultimo, reached me only this morning. I feel much honored in receiving the invitation to visit you at Pittsburgh. My engagements at home, however, prevent me from moving at this time.

"Neither am I much in the way of expressing sentiments on present political topics. The country has passed through a violent convulsion, and is now slowly, but steadily, recovering itself. The main object should be to restore harmony and spire mutual confidence among all the jarring members. Our government draws its life from the ready consent of the governed.

"When the distinguished hero, whose name your association bears, uttered those memorable words: `The Union shall be preserved!' he undoubtedly rested his faith upon the spontaneous co-operation of the great mass of the nation, responding to his call in the regular and legitimate channels prescribed by the organic law. He never contemplated the use of bayonets in controlling the forms of collecting the general suffrage.

"Our safety as a nation, lies in going back to the first principles, and forgetting that force has ever been resorted to as a painful necessity to preserve them. What was a bitter medicine should not be turned into daily food.

"Very truly yours,

The second letter was one addressed to Hon. David A. Wells, in reply to a request that he would become a candidate for nomination at the Cincinnati Convention:

BOSTON, April 18, 1872.

"MY DEAR MR. WELLS : I have received your letter, and will answer it frankly. I do not want the nomination, and could only be induced to consider it by the circumstances under which it might possibly be made. If the call upon me were an unequivocal one, based upon confidence in my character, earned in public life, and a belief that I would carry out in practice the principles which I professed, then indeed would come a test of my courage in an emergency; but if I am to be negotiated for. and have assurances given that I am honest, you will be so kind as to draw me out of that crowd. With regard to what I understand to be the declaration of principles, which has been made, it would seem ridiculous in me to stand haggling over them.

With a single exception of ambiguity, I see nothing which any honest Republican or Democrat would not accept. Indeed, I should wonder at any one who denied them. The difficulty is not in the professions. It lies everywhere only in the manner in which they are carried into practice. If I have succeeded in making myself understood, you will perceive that I can give no authority to any one to act or to speak for me in the premises. I never had a moment's belief that, when it came to the point, any one so entirely isolated as I am from all political associations of any kind, could be made acceptable as a candidate for public office; but I am so unlucky as to value that independence more highly than the elevation which is bought by a sacrifice of it. 

This is not inconsistent with the sense o' grateful recognition of the many flattering estimates made of my services in many and high quarters; but I cannot consent to peddle with them for power. If the good people who meet a to Cincinnati really believe that they need such an anomalous being as I am (which I do not), they must express it in a manner to convince me of it, or all their labor will be thrown away. 

I am, with great respect, yours, etc.,


"DAVID A. WELLS, Esq., Norwich, Conn."

At that Convention, held May 2d and 3d, 1872, Mr. Adams received 324 votes out of 715, being within 8 votes, on the original declaration of the sixth ballot, of Mr. Greeley, the successful candidate.

In person, Mr. Adams is rather below than above the middle height. His figure, as he advances in life, tends somewhat to fullness, as did those of his father and grandfather. His head and features, worthily represented in the fine portrait by Hunt, are strongly marked with the family likeness, and express the vigor, decision and repose of his mind and character.

Source: Source: Men of Our Day; or Biographical Sketches of Patriots, Orators, Statesmen, Generals, Reformers, Financiers and Merchants, Now on the state of Action: Including Those Who in Military, Political, Business and Social Life, are the Prominent Leaders of the Time in This Country, by L. P. Brockett, M. D., Published by Ziegler and McCurdy, Philadelphia Penna; Springfield, Mass; Cincinnati, Ohio; St. Louis, Mo., 1872   

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