I became interested in reading Charles Francis Adams' autobiography after reading a largely unsympathetic portrayal of the man in a new book by Richard White, "Railroaded" which examines the building and managmement of the transcontinental railroads following the Civil War. Adams served for six years as President of the Union Pacific Railroad before its 1890 bankruptcy and acquired the reputation of a reformer, which White finds mostly undeserved. In reading White's book, I had the impression that there was more to Adams than White wanted to admit.
Charles Francis Adams (1835 -- 1915) was the great grandson of John Adams and the grandson of John Quincy Adams. His father and namesake was the United States Ambassador to Great Britain during the Civil War and played a pivotal role in keeping Britain out of the conflict and in maintaining peace. Charles Francis Adams was also a strong presidential contender in his own right. Adams' younger brother Henry became famous as a historian and of the author of his own autobiography, "The Education of Henry Adams".
Charles Francis Adams, Jr. was faced with the pressure of living up to his famous forbearers, and it showed. The pressure is apparent throughout his Autobiography which he wrote in 1913 for the Massachusetts Historical Society of which he had long served as president. The autobiography was published in 1916 following Adams' death together with a lengthy Memorial Address delivered by Henry Cabot Lodge.
Although it has fallen into obscurity, perhaps due to the inevitable comparison with his brother's great book, Charles Adams' Autobiography is worth knowing. Adams tries honestly to reflect on his own life. In part, Adams appears as the curmudgeonly class-conscious son of privilege portrayed in Richard White's study of the transcontinentals, but Adams is more. Adams reflects on his shortcomings as well as on his undoubted achievements and offers what he sees to be the sense of and result of his long life. Discussing the high accomplishments and Puritanical, driven characters of his two presidential ancestors and of his father, Adams concludes that he got more pleasure and enjoyment from life than did his forbearers. He concludes a lengthy discussion of this matter: "In other directions also, I have perhaps, accomplished nothing considerable, compared with what my three immediate ancestors accomplished; but on the other hand, I have done some things better than they ever did; and, what is more and most of all, I have had a much better time in life -- got more enjoyment out of it. In this respect I woould not change with any of them."
Adams' Autobiography has many of the components of a modern coming of age story as the author reflects throughout on what he wanted to do with his life and on his search for a calling. The book is in five chapters which describe, respectively, Adams early years and education through Harvard, his legal career and his observations of politics following the election of Lincoln, Adams' experiences in Washington, D.C. in 1861 before his father became Ambassador to Britain, Adams' Civil War experiences, in which he rose to the rank of Colonel, and finally, his lengthy and varied life following the Civil War. Each of these chapters are highly interesting and have a great deal to say about Adams and his era. It is valuable to hear Adams discuss his father who, when Adams was a child, took him fishing for one day while begrudging the time because it took him away from matters of importance. Adams discusses his unsuccessful legal career in which he labored for some years in a profession for which he was unsuited and which he hated. Adams discusses Civil War Washington and his reactions to people he knew including William Seward, Charles Sumner, and Andrew Johnson.
The Civil War and Harvard were the formative influences on Adams' life. The central portions of the Autobiography describe Adams' decision to enlist while most of the rest of his family was in Britain. The War, Adams writes, helped give him a sense of purpose. It gave him a sense of independence and comradeship and of nature all of which he lacked in his upbringing. Subsequent experiences and reading taught Adams about Darwinism and severely modified his Puritanism and religious beliefs. These experiences also taught him about his calling as a historian and as a writer.
Adams became a successful businessman in his work as a railroad executive and in other endeavors. He lived, as he acknowledged, as busy and varied life in which he combined his business interests with his scholarly interests. He felt, with some justification, that he had spread himself too thin. The Autobiography expresses his wish to earn a vast sum of money in business and then leave it to Harvard to encourage the growth of education and wisdom,
Unfortunately, the Autobiography has long been out of print. I am reading a copy of the 1916 edition and I can't vouch of the accuracy of the offprint which I am reviewing. It is worth knowing about Charles Francis Adams' Autobiography and the insights it offers into himself and into the Civil War Era and Gilded Age. The book will be of most value to readers with a serious interest in these periods of American history.
on January 5, 2006
Charles Francis Adams is best remembered as the ambassador to England during the Civil War who helped keep England (and France) from recognizing the Confederacy. His father was John Quincy Adams. He was a Boston Whig very much opposed to slavery, though like Lincoln, he was willing to concede smaller issues to protect the larger ones (mainly the spread of slavery to incoming states). Adams was an austere man; it was said that when he entered a stuffy room, the temperature dropped 10 degrees. The most interesting events dealt with in this biography, written by his son, include:
the 1848 Presidential election, where Adams had presided over the Buffalo Convention which formed the Free Soil Party and saw the nomination of Martin Van Buren as President and himself as Vice-President;
the war with Mexico, a war Adams thought unjust and only an excuse for slave states to gain new territory;
the Trent Affair in 1861, when two Confederate commissioners were arrested aboard the "Trent" on their way to England, which almost caused war with that country; and
the launching of the "Alabama" in Liverpool, a British privateer that Adams tried but failed to prevent from sailing, and then held the British government responsible for for the destruction of American property caused by the ship.
Adams, Jr., tells his father's story in a robust, very readable style. It's informative and authoritative, and even after 100 years has the feel of definitiveness about it. Highly recommended.