Charles Francis Adams

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Charles Francis Adams

An American diplomat and politician, Charles Francis Adams (1807-1886) was minister to England during the Civil War. By helping to preserve the neutrality of the British, he frustrated Confederate hopes for foreign aid and intervention in the war.

Charles Francis Adams was born in Boston on Aug. 18, 1807. He spent 8 of his first 10 years in Europe, where his father, John Quincy Adams, was a diplomat. After graduating from Harvard in 1825, the young Adams studied law and began to practice 4 years later. His deep interest in public affairs led him into political activity, and he served several terms in the Massachusetts Legislature during the 1840s. Never an abolitionist, although he believed slavery to be wrong, Adams worked with the Conscience Whigs and Free Soil party to prevent slavery's geographical extension. In 1848 he was the vice-presidential candidate of the Free Soilers. He became a Republican in the mid-fifties and was elected to Congress in 1858 and 1860. He advocated compromise with the South during the secession crisis of 1860-1861 to prevent civil war. His appointment by President Abraham Lincoln as minister to England in 1861 was a reward for his long career as an able advocate of Whig-Republican principles and moderate antislaveryism.

Adams's ministry was marked by a series of crises in Anglo-American relations resulting from the exigencies of the Civil War and from Confederate diplomatic maneuvers. He had to contend not only with the British, who disliked the disruption in trade caused by the war, but also with Confederate agents, who, believing that British aid to the South could assure its success, sought diplomatic recognition and material aid. Adams's main preoccupation, therefore, was to prevent British sympathy for the South from being translated into active support. A severe test of his diplomatic skills occurred in November 1861, when an American warship stopped the British ship Trent and removed two Confederate diplomats on board. Alarmed by angry British reaction to this event, Adams recommended the immediate release of the Confederates; the Lincoln administration finally agreed.

Adams's efforts met with general success, as the British remained officially neutral throughout the war. Occasionally, however, the Confederates were able to circumvent England's official policy, as when they purchased the warships Nashville, Florida, and Alabama from British shipbuilders. The evidence that Adams collected to demonstrate such violations of neutrality later enabled the United States to sue for damages. Furthermore, his persistent protests to the British government led to the detention of other ships being built for the Confederacy.

After a series of Confederate defeats in 1863, the diplomatic situation eased, and for the remainder of Adams's ministry he faced relatively minor problems. Following his resignation in 1868 and his return from England, he became active in politics again as an opponent of Radical Reconstruction. In 1872 the Liberal Republicans considered nominating him for president, and in 1876 the Massachusetts Democrats ran him for governor. Unsuccessful in both, Adams spent the remainder of his time in literary pursuits until his death in Boston in 1886.

Further Reading

The most complete biography is Martin B. Duberman's excellent Charles Francis Adams, 1807-1886 (1961). The background of Adams's work can be followed in the old but still useful Ephraim D. Adams, Great Britain and the American Civil War (2 vols., 1925).

Additional Sources

Adams, Charles Francis, Charles Francis Adams, New York:Chelsea House, 1980.

Shepherd, Jack, The Adams chronicles: four generations of greatness, Boston: Little, Brown, 1975. □

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Charles Francis Adams, 1807–86, American public official, minister to Great Britain (1861–68), b. Boston; son of John Quincy Adams. After a boyhood spent in various European capitals, he was graduated (1825) from Harvard and studied law under Daniel Webster. He practiced in Boston, looked after his father's business affairs, and wrote articles on American history for the North American Review. Adams served (1840–45) in both branches of the Massachusetts legislature. He founded and edited the Boston Whig and became a leader of the Conscience Whigs. In 1848 he was the Free-Soil party candidate for the vice presidency. He represented (1858–61) his father's old district in Congress and assumed prominence as a Republican leader.

On Seward's advice, Lincoln appointed Adams minister to Great Britain. In the face of English sympathy for the Confederacy, he maintained the Northern cause with wisdom and a bold dignity that won British respect, particularly in the serious Trent and Alabama incidents. He is credited with preventing British recognition of the Confederacy and with averting Britain's possible entry into the Civil War on the Confederate side, thus contributing much to the Union victory. He later represented the United States in the settlement of the Alabama claims. He published many political pamphlets and addresses and was an editor of the works (10 vol., 1850–56) of his grandfather, John Adams, and of his father's diary (12 vol., 1874–77).

See biography by M. B. Duberman (1961); W. C. Ford, ed., A Cycle of Adams Letters, 1861–1865 (1920); J. T. Adams, The Adams Family (1930); R. Brookhiser, America's First Dynasty: The Adamses, 1735–1918 (2002).

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Charles Francis Adams, 1866–1954, U.S. Secretary of the Navy (1929–33), b. Quincy, Mass.; grandson of Charles Francis Adams (1807–86). He practiced law for a brief period in Boston but for most of his life was connected with a wide variety of business enterprises in that city and elsewhere. Adams served in the cabinet of Herbert Hoover.