Charles Francis Adams was the son of a President and the grandson of another President. He was considered for the presidency himself, and was the Vice-Presidential nominee of the Free Soil Party in 1848. His greatest service to his nation was his service as Minister to the Court of St. James during the Civil War.
Charles Francis Adams grew up in Europe, accompanying his father, John Quincy Adams, to various diplomatic posts. At two years of age, he traveled to Russia where his father was serving as U.S. Minister to Russia. French was his first language, with English being a little used second language for him. He then lived in England, where his father served next as the U.S. Minister. At the age of ten, he returned to the United States, which seemed more foreign to him than had Europe.
After several years of study, he entered Harvard at the age of fourteen, in spite of a less than stellar academic record. He never liked schoolwork, and never made outstanding grades. He graduated from Harvard just as his father was starting his term as President. Charles and his brother served as Presidential secretaries for their father.
In the last year of his father’s term, Charles married Abigail Everett, daughter of Edward Everett who was also a future vice presidential candidate who lost. After studying law, Charles opened a law office in Boston, but did not enjoy being a lawyer. He managed his family’s business affairs, and began writing. Several times, he was offered the nomination for his district’s seat in the state legislature but declined.
In 1840, he finally accepted the nomination for the State House of Representatives, and won his race. At the end of his two-year term, he ran for and won a seat in the State Senate. It was in the state legislature that he made his political reputation by presenting various anti-slavery petitions. One notable petition contained over sixty thousand signatures. He also tried to have the legislature instruct the state’s senators to vote against Texas’ admission as a slave state, and continued to write articles on the Texas question. He also called for the formation of a northern free soil party.
In 1848, the Whig Party nominated a slave owner, Zachary Taylor, for the Presidency. Charles Francis Adams refused to support him, calling instead for support of the Free Soil Movement. In June, the Free Soil Party was formed, and nominated Martin Van Buren for President and Charles Adams for Vice President. They lost, winning no electoral votes. But they did win enough popular votes in New York to deny Cass, the Democratic candidate, a victory there, giving New York and with it the election to Zachary Taylor.
In 1852, Charles ran as the Free Soil candidate for Congress, and finished second out of four candidates. After that election, Charles Adams returned to writing, and edited his grandfather’s papers and wrote a biography of his grandfather as well. After that, he became interested in politics again, attacking the Dred Scott Decision in his articles.
Adams joined the new Republican Party, and was elected to Congress in 1858, and re-elected in 1860. He supported William Seward for the Presidential nomination in 1860, but Abraham Lincoln got the nomination instead. Seward suggested Charles Adams for Minister to England, a position that Adams’ father and grandfather had held.
Adams faced some serious problems when he arrived in London. The British seemed ready to recognize the Confederacy. They had already granted the South a belligerency status, and were taking active steps to support them militarily. Adams played up the slavery issue, which most Englishmen opposed. Still, most Englishmen thought the South would win the war, and were ready to help them.
There was also the issue of warships built in England for delivery to the South. The Southern raider Alabama had been built in England and sank or captured 64 Union ships before it was finally destroyed. Two iron-clad ships were under construction for the Confederate government, and Adams demanded the ships be seized. The British foreign minister replied that there was not enough evidence to warrant taking the ships. Adams threatened war unless the ships were seized. His stance, taken in light of recent victories at Gettysburg and Vicksburg, forced the British government to seize the ships before the Confederate agents could take delivery.
One strong incentive for England to support the South was their dependence on southern cotton. England was the world’s largest textile manufacturer, and the textile industry was England’s largest. They were dependent upon southern cotton to keep their textile mills running. The South had declared that King Cotton would assure English support for their cause.
Adams knew something more important than cotton. England was also an island that could not raise enough food to support its population. The English were even more dependent on northern wheat than they were on southern cotton. Adams used this threat effectively. British politicians facing re-election would not want to see a severe food shortage occur.
Adams’ ability, combining threats with appeals to the British people, brought just the right pressure to bear on the British government. The southern states never received recognition, and their military support eventually dwindled to almost nothing. Had England and France entered the war on the southern side, the results would have been very different. Because Adams’ work was behind the scenes, he received little credit for his accomplishments. But his work was arguably the greatest contribution to Union victory made by any individual in the war.
Some people did recognize his achievements. James Russell Lowell said, “None of our generals, nor Grant himself, did us better or more trying service than he in his forlorn outpost of London.”
Upon his return, he supported moderation towards the conquered southern states. This brought attacks by the Radical Republicans. His position was unpopular, and ended any major political ambitions he may have had.
Upon his return to the United States, he was offered the presidency of Harvard, which he declined. He later served as American arbitrator in Geneva to settle the damage claims against the British stemming from the Civil War.
He returned in 1872, in time for the presidential nominating conventions. A new group, the Liberal Republicans, opposed the corruption of the Grant Administration. At first, Adams was the front-runner, but Horace Greeley eventually won the nomination. Grant won a surprisingly close popular victory over the eccentric Greeley, which suggests that Adams may have actually had a chance had he won the nomination.
Adams returned to Geneva to finish the negotiations. He returned home after the successful conclusion of his mission, and retired. He never again held office. In his last years, his mind failed him. He died in 1886, barely aware of his surroundings, family, or friends.
Adams would have made an interesting President, and a most capable one in a time of mediocre candidates. Like his father and grandfather, he was more interested in doing what was right and not what was popular. Like his father and grandfather, he probably would have been a one-term President as a result.
A skilled diplomat, he was able to act independently and keep events in perspective. His service in the Civil War probably kept England from entering the war, helping keep the Union together. Not as exciting as battlefield exploits, his efforts did just as much to save the country.