Charles Francis Adams, Sr.

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Charles Francis Adams, Sr.
Charles Francis Adams.jpg
Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from Massachusetts's 3rd district
In office
March 4, 1859 – May 1, 1861
Preceded by William S. Damrell
Succeeded by Benjamin Thomas
United States Minister to the United Kingdom
In office
May 16, 1861 – May 13, 1868
President Abraham Lincoln
Andrew Johnson
Preceded by George M. Dallas
Succeeded by Reverdy Johnson
Personal details
Born (1807-08-18)August 18, 1807
Boston, Massachusetts, US
Died November 21, 1886(1886-11-21) (aged 79)
Boston, Massachusetts, US
Political party Whig, Free Soil, Republican
Spouse(s) Abigail Brown Brooks
Alma mater Harvard University
Profession Politician, Lawyer

Charles Francis Adams, Sr., (August 18, 1807 – November 21, 1886) was an American historical editor, politician and diplomat.[1] He was the son of President John Quincy Adams and grandson of President John Adams, of whom he wrote a major biography.

Adams served in the Massachusetts State Senate, before running unsuccessfully for Vice-President (Free Soil Party) in the election of 1848. During the Civil War, Adams was Abraham Lincoln's foreign minister in London, where he played a key role in keeping Britain neutral, while southern agents were trying to achieve official recognition of the Confederacy. This meant conducting dialogue with both sides, and monitoring the British connection in the supply of commerce raiders.

He became an overseer of Harvard University, and built Adams National Historical Park a library in honor of his father in Quincy, Massachusetts.

Early life[edit]

Van Buren/Adams campaign poster

He was born in Boston, and attended Boston Latin School and Harvard College, where he graduated in 1825. He then studied law with Daniel Webster, and practiced in Boston. He wrote numerous reviews of works about American and British history for the North American Review.

Charles Adams and his brothers John and George were all rivals for the same woman, their cousin Mary Catherine Hellen, who lived with the John Quincy Adams family after the death of her parents. In 1828 John married Mary Hellen at a ceremony in the White House, and both Charles and George refused to attend.[2]

Adams was elected to the Massachusetts House of Representatives in 1841, served in the state senate 1844–1845, purchased and edited the journal Boston Whig in 1846, and was the unsuccessful nominee of the Free Soil Party for Vice President of the United States in 1848.

Beginning in the 1840s, Adams became one of the finest historical editors of his era. He developed this expertise in part because of the example of his father, who in 1829 had turned from politics (after his defeated bid for a second presidential term in 1828) to history and biography. The senior Adams began a life of his father, John Adams, but only wrote a few chapters before he resumed his political career in 1830 with his election to the U.S. House of Representatives. The younger Adams, fresh from his edition of the letters of his grandmother, Abigail Adams, took up the project that his father had left uncompleted, and between 1850 and 1856 turned out not just the two volumes of the biography but eight further volumes presenting editions of John Adams's Diary and Autobiography, his major political writings, and a selection of letters and speeches. This edition, titled The Works of John Adams, Esq., Second President of the United States, was the only edition of John Adams's writings until the family donated the cache of Adams papers to the Massachusetts Historical Society in 1954 and authorized the creation of the Adams Papers project; the modern project had published accurate scholarly editions of John Adams's diary and autobiography, several volumes of Adams family correspondence, two volumes on the portraits of John and Abigail Adams and John Quincy and Louisa Catherine Adams, and the early years of the diary of Charles Francis Adams. Charles Francis Adams published a revised edition of the biography in 1871. He was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1857.[3]

Federal political career[edit]

As a Republican, Adams was elected to the United States House of Representatives in 1858, where he chaired the Committee on Manufactures. He resigned to become U.S. minister (ambassador) to the Court of St. James (Britain) from 1861 to 1868. Powerful Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner had wanted the position, and became alienated from Adams. Britain had already recognized Confederate belligerency, but Adams was instrumental in maintaining British neutrality and preventing British diplomatic recognition of the Confederacy during the American Civil War. Part of those duties included correspondence with British civilians including Karl Marx and the International Workingmen's Association.[4] Adams and his son, Henry Adams, who acted as his private secretary, also were kept busy monitoring Confederate diplomatic intrigues and the construction of rebel commerce raiders by British shipyards (like the hull N°290, launched as "Enrica" from Liverpool[5] but which was soon transformed near the Azores Islands into sloop-of-war CSS Alabama) .

Mr. and Mrs. Adams on the porch at Peacefield in Quincy
Adams lived on Mount Vernon Street, Beacon Hill, Boston, 1842–1886[6]
Portrait of Adams in 1867 by William Morris Hunt

Back in Boston, Adams declined the presidency of Harvard University, but became one of its overseers in 1869. In 1870 Charles Francis Adams built the first presidential library in the United States, to honor his father John Quincy Adams. The Stone Library includes over 14,000 books written in twelve languages. The library is located on the property of the "Old House" (also known as "Peacefield") at Adams National Historical Park in Quincy, Massachusetts.

During the 1876 electoral college controversy, Adams sided with Democrat Samuel J. Tilden over Republican Rutherford B. Hayes for the presidency.

Charles Francis Adams died in Boston on November 21, 1886, and was interred in Mount Wollaston Cemetery, Quincy.[7]

His children[8] with Abigail Brown Brooks included:

  • Louisa Catherine Adams (1831–1870) married Charles Kuhn
  • John Quincy Adams II (September 22, 1833 – August 14, 1894)
  • Charles Francis Adams, Jr. (May 27, 1835 – May 20, 1915)
  • Henry Brooks Adams (February 16, 1838 – March 27, 1918)
  • Arthur Adams (1841–1846)
  • Mary Gardiner Adams (1845–1928) married Dr. Henry Parker Quincy
  • Peter Chardon Brooks Adams (June 24, 1848 – February 13, 1927)



  1. ^ Chambers Biographical Dictionary, ISBN 0-550-18022-2, page 6
  2. ^ Paul C. Nagel, The Adams Women: Abigail and Louisa Adams, Their Sisters and Daughters, 1999, pages 236 to 238
  3. ^ "Book of Members, 1780–2010: Chapter A" (PDF). American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Retrieved 1 April 2011. 
  4. ^ "Address of the International Working Men's Association to Abraham Lincoln, President of the United States of America". January 28, 1865. Retrieved October 22, 2013. 
  5. ^ Appletons' annual cyclopaedia and register of important events of the year: 1862. New York: D. Appleton & Company. 1863. p. 381. 
  6. ^ State Street Trust Company. Forty of Boston's historic houses. 1912.
  7. ^ "Charles Francis Adams. The Aged Statement Gone To His Rest. Passing Quietly Away Surrounded By His Family.". New York Times. November 21, 1886. Retrieved 2008-06-17. Charles Francis Adams died at 1:57 o'clock this morning, at his residence, No. 57 Mount Vernon-street, in this city. He had not been well for some time and had suffered more or less for the past five years from some brain trouble, the result of overwork. 
  8. ^ Adams, Henry, Levenson, J. C., Massachusetts Historical Society, et al. The Letters of Henry Adams, Volumes 4 – 6, 1892–1918. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1989, pp. xxxvi.

Further reading[edit]

  • Butterfield, L. H. et al., eds., The Adams Papers (1961– ). Multivolume letterpress edition of all letters to and from major members of the Adams family, plus their diaries; still incomplete.
  • Duberman, Martin. Charles Francis Adams, 1807–1886 Stanford UP 1968
  • Donald, Aida Dipace and David Herbert, eds. Diary of Charles Francis Adams. Harvard University Press

External links[edit]

Party political offices
Preceded by
Free Soil Party vice presidential candidate
1848 (lost)
Succeeded by
George Washington Julian
Preceded by
Bourbon Democrat vice presidential candidate
1872 (lost)
Succeeded by
United States House of Representatives
Preceded by
William S. Damrell
Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from Massachusetts's 3rd congressional district

March 4, 1859 – May 1, 1861
Succeeded by
Benjamin Thomas
Diplomatic posts
Preceded by
George M. Dallas
U.S. Minister to Great Britain
1861 – 1868
Succeeded by
Reverdy Johnson