The grandson of President John Adams and the son of President John Quincy Adams, Charles Francis Adams (August 18, 1807-November 21, 1886) was a two-term congressman from Massachusetts, minister to the Court of St. James during the Civil War, and a candidate for both the vice presidency in 1848 and the presidency in 1872. Like many in his family, Adams was expected to enter public service. Those expectations proved burdensome but not enough to offset the advantages inherent in his paternity. Though Adams would have to shoulder all that being an Adams entailed throughout his life, in doing so he followed the path prescribed for him creditably.
Groomed as a statesman and a historian, possessed of a reputation for probity and discretion, and connected within Republican circles, Adams nevertheless was situated poorly to serve Abraham Lincoln in 1861. Though he had campaigned throughout Wisconsin for Lincoln, Adams's choice for president had been New York senator William Seward. Seward's prominence within the party, even as Lincoln's rival for the nomination, gave him a strong claim to be in Lincoln's cabinet. Adams had no such claim, and his role, if any, in the administration was dependent on Seward's influence.
Though discussed for Treasury secretary and considered as New England's geographical contribution to the cabinet, Adams lost out to Salmon Chase and Gideon Welles. Seward next recommended Adams for a plum diplomatic mission. But Lincoln preferred John Frémont and William Dayton, the party's presidential and vice presidential candidates from 1856, as ministers (or ambassadors) to France and Great Britain. In response, Seward lobbied against Frémont's appointment and was able to persuade the president to consider Adams in his plans (thereby shifting Dayton from Great Britain to France). Adams, however, was uncertain if he wanted to be so included. Although he desired the position, his appointment resulted in marital tension and furthered a rift with Sen. Charles Sumner, who coveted the post as well.
After his confirmation by the Senate but before he traveled to London, Adams met with Lincoln. The interview was short and unsettling for Adams—the informal, rough-hewn western president dispatched the formal, polished easterner with nary a word, too busy pondering other appointments, apparently, to say more. Lincoln had left no question that it was Seward to whom Adams owed his position. Yet nothing the president said or left unsaid precluded the development of a sound working relationship with the principal members of his foreign policy team, a fact that was lost on Adams at the time and later.
Though instructions were not forthcoming immediately, Adams learned quickly that Lincoln would provide tactical directives when necessary. Upon arriving in London, Adams found that not only was much of elite society hostile to the Union, but Queen Victoria's government had already recognized the Confederacy as a belligerent. That action was in line with international law and followed from the Union blockade. Thus the administration would have to walk a fine line—keeping the British as neutral as possible, under the threat of war if Britain recognized the Confederacy, while not actually precipitating another war. Seward, in the role of saber rattler, nearly went too far, but with Sumner's advice Lincoln directed his minister to maintain the threat of war while not appearing provocative. Stepping into his role, Adams continually offset and defused with sober assurance the disquieting reports received in London from Britain's minister to the United States, Baron Richard Lyons.
Lincoln's policy was tested most severely during the Trent crisis, the successful denouement of which would require his team to fulfill their roles perfectly, in the winter of 1861–1862. When a British ship steaming between Cuba and St. Thomas was intercepted by the U.S. Navy, two Confederate diplomats were detained. The incident caused an international crisis by impinging on British honor. War would ultimately be averted when the Lincoln administration released the captives and paid reparations for damages. Adams, however, delivered no official apology.
The Trent crisis had been handled effectively, but its resolution was not enough to eliminate the tension between the Union and Great Britain. Nor could Lincoln's policy do more than seek to avoid another such crisis, while quarantining the Confederacy; prospects for rolling back the British declaration of belligerency seemed slim. Adams improved Lincoln's policy through his suggestion that the Union no longer purchase military equipment from Great Britain, hoping by this shift to achieve consistency in the U.S. argument while discouraging sales to the Confederates. Until the Alabama crisis in summer 1862, British neutrality was maintained, if not buttressed. But when the British government allowed the Confederacy, via a loophole in Britain's laws, to purchase rams meant to disrupt the Union blockade, the United States formally protested and again threatened war, ultimately winning reparations for damages from the British in an international tribunal (at which Adams represented the United States) ten years later.
With success on the battlefield and the Emancipation Proclamation, events swung British public opinion behind the Union, guaranteeing the success of Lincoln's policy and making Adams's role much easier. Adams's assessments were not always correct. He would criticize Lincoln's presidency in 1873, while lionizing Seward, giving Seward more credit than he deserved for the administration's policies and censuring Lincoln for being too involved in patronage. Adams also misread the level of support in the British cabinet for intervention: Earl John Russell was less friendly to the Union, while Viscount Henry Palmerston was friendlier. But Adams's assessments had been of use. More important, Lincoln's policy held, his team served him ably, and Adams followed the path Lincoln prescribed for him creditably.
See also Seward, William
- Charles Francis Adams. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1900.
- The Education of Henry Adams. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1918. .
- Charles Francis Adams, 1807–1886. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1960.
- Union in Peril: The Crisis over British Intervention in the Civil War. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1992. .
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