Adams Jr., Charles Francis (1835-1915)
Charles Francis Adams Jr. (1835-1915)
Railroad commissioner and executive
An Adams and the Railroads. Charles Francis Adams Jr. was born in patrician circumstances, into a line that stretched back to two presidents: his grandfather was John Quincy Adams and his great-grandfather John Adams. Yet for Charles’s generation, the responsibilities of leadership and public service would be not only heavy burdens, but vexing challenges. Charles Francis Adams took on an especially daunting task when, well into his career, he set out to reform the most dynamic force in American business at the time: the railroads.
Youth and Early Career. Adams spent his early years ensconced in elite Boston circles, attending the Boston Public Latin School, then Harvard, and, upon graduating, reading law at the prominent Boston firm of Dana and Parker. For several years after passing the bar Adams practiced in Boston, but half-heartedly—a purpose in life, he felt, was eluding him. When the Civil War broke out, things took an exhilarating turn. Adams promptly enlisted in the Union army, leading a black regiment, seeing action at Antietam and Gettysburg, and rising to the rank of colonel. With the coming of peace, he determined to fashion a public career for himself by developing an expertise in railroad policy.
Essayist. He first made his mark, in true Adams style, with his pen, publishing articles on the railroads beginning in 1867. Early general essays such as the “The Railroad System,” published in the North American Review, gained him some notice, but Adams’s most effective and popular piece was “A Chapter of Erie,” which chronicled the outrageous and politically corrupt antics of Cornelius Vanderbilt, Jay Gould, Daniel Drew, and Jim Fisk as they contested for financial control of the Erie Railroad. By the time Adams started this piece, he had become convinced that the proper way to exert public regulatory control over the railroads was by means of commissions—expert, apolitical bodies armed with general mandates to represent the public interest. Adams lobbied hard for the creation of a Massachusetts commission, and in 1869 these efforts bore fruit when the state legislature established the Massachusetts Board of Railroad Commissioners and the governor appointed Adams to one of its three seats. Adams spent the next ten years running the commission, de facto until he became chairman in 1872.
Commissioner. Armed with a brief but broad charge, the commission suited Adams’s initial instinct to effect change by, on the one hand, educating the public about the business of running railroads and, on the other, persuading the railroads to act responsibly in the public interest. The commission enjoyed prestige among both the public and the Massachusetts railroads, and little effective power. Early commission accomplishments included arbitrating labor disagreements, investigating accidents and promulgating safety recommendations (including the use of telegraphs to coordinate traffic and prevent accidents), and codifying existing railroad regulations. Adams grew increasingly frustrated with the limits of the commission and its lack of enforcement powers, however, and in 1878 he left.
Executive. The following year, Adams crossed over, in effect, to the ranks of railroad executives. From 1879 to 1884 he served in Albert Fink’s Eastern Trunk Line Association, which the railroads themselves had set up in an effort to end the crippling rate wars that were breaking out between competing lines. The experience dampened Adams’s enthusiasm for interrailroad cooperation, as the lines more often than not ignored their association’s agreements and judgements. In 1884 Adams assumed the presidency of the Union Pacific, which was reeling under the weight of heavy debt and public censure because of its involvement in the Crédit Mobilier scandal. If Adams’s unimpeachable public reputation lent the troubled railroad some measure of respectability, though, he proved ill-suited to day-to-day railroad management. The Union Pacific paid off its debt but then embarked on an ill-advised campaign of expansion. In 1890 Adams was forced out when Gould (whom Adams had deftly castigated in Erie reportage) secured financial power. Adams spent his remaining years much as he had begun his career: in writing, public advocacy, and travel.
Edward Chase Kirkland, Charles Francis Adams, Jr., 1835-1915: The Patrician at Bay (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1965);
Thomas K. McCraw, Prophets of Regulation: Charles Francis Adams, Louis D. Brandeis, James M. Landis, Alfred E. Kahn (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1984).