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Adams, Charles Francislocked

(27 May 1835–20 March 1915)
  • John F. Stover

Charles Francis Adams, Jr.

During his Civil War service.

Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-B8171-7390).

Adams, Charles Francis (27 May 1835–20 March 1915), railroad official, civic leader, and historian, was born in Boston, Massachusetts, the son of Charles Francis Adams (1807–1886), a diplomat and politician, and Abigail Brown Brooks. He was the grandson of John Quincy Adams (1767–1848) and great-grandson of John Adams (1735–1826). His father, as minister to England from 1861 to 1868, succeeded in keeping that country neutral during the Civil War. Throughout his life the Adams name opened many doors for Charles Francis, Jr., but he found that being an insider often created envy. Adams spent his early years both in Boston and Quincy but considered Quincy his home. He left private schools at the age of thirteen to attend the Boston Latin School. He did not like the traditional curriculum of the institution, however, and left in 1851. He entered Harvard as a sophomore in 1853 and graduated in 1856. Adams finished in the lower half of his class, having concentrated on extracurricular activities. Following graduation he read law in the office of two leading Boston lawyers, Richard Henry Dana, Jr., and Francis E. Parker. He was admitted to the bar in 1858 but found that he had little interest in his new profession. His first article, “The Reign of King Cotton,” appeared in the Atlantic Monthly in the spring of 1861.

In December 1861 Adams received a commission as first lieutenant in the First Massachusetts Cavalry and soon left with his regiment for Hilton Head and Beaufort, South Carolina. Later his regiment fought at Antietam and Gettysburg. In July 1864 Adams was given a lieutenant colonel’s commission in the Fifth Massachusetts Cavalry, a Negro regiment that was stationed in Maryland. He was promoted to colonel early in 1865, and when he left the service in the summer of 1865, he had been breveted a brigadier general. Suffering from dysentery, jaundice, and malaria during 1864, he had not fully recovered at war’s end. Adams felt that his war service had made a man of him, and he also believed that it had given him a new faith in democracy and mankind. In November 1865 he married Mary Hone Ogden; they had five children.

After a recuperative visit to Europe in 1865–1866, Adams returned home with his health improved but with no employment or occupation. He had no desire to return to the law, but he had recently become intrigued with American railroads. In the early postwar years the line to the Pacific was completed, railroad mileage doubled by 1873, and Wall Street speculators were busy building rail empires. Adams felt he might use his writing skills to establish himself as an advocate of railroad reform. He wrote “The Railroad System” for the North American Review (Apr. 1867), which was an effort to convince the American public that the expanding railways of the nation needed regulation. Later “A Chapter of Erie” (North American Review [July 1869]) covered in colorful detail the fight between Jay Gould and Commodore Vanderbilt for control of the Erie Railroad. When Massachusetts established a board of railroad commissioners in 1869, Adams was selected as one of the three members. He became chairman of the board in 1872 and retained that position until he left the commission in 1879. Under his leadership the commission recommended standard accounting rules for the railroads of the state and stressed measures to increase passenger safety. Rail problems in Massachusetts were quite different from those in the Midwest, and the board did not consider a “Granger” type of regulation for rail rates. The success of rail regulation in Massachusetts in the 1870s was such that other states soon sought to copy it. Advocating a railroad regulation that was moderate and not excessive, Adams was often unhappy with actions of the Interstate Commerce Commission in the 1890s. He was a member of the Board of Arbitration of the Trunk Line Association from 1879 to 1884.

In 1884 Adams was elected president of the Union Pacific Railroad. In his six years as president he faced growing labor and financial problems and a continuing dispute with Congress over the large debt that the railroad owed the government. Adams’s inability to pick good subordinates, his lack of practical railroad experience, and the growing hostility of Jay Gould all contributed to his failure as a railroad president. When Gould regained control of the Union Pacific in 1890, Adams was forced to resign the presidency. During the 1870s and 1880s he wrote more than a dozen books, pamphlets, and essays on the problems and challenges facing railroads. He also found time to make extensive investments in iron and silver mines as well as railroads. He owned stock in the Union Pacific, the Burlington, the Santa Fe, and the Denver & Rio Grande. He made investments in real estate in Kansas City, Salt Lake City, Portland, and Seattle. Most of his investments were profitable, and by 1890 he had acquired a modest fortune.

Adams was an active civic leader. He and his older brother, John Quincy Adams, for twenty years served as moderators for Quincy town meetings. Charles, as a member of the school committee, initiated reforms that included a greater emphasis on reading, writing, and arithmetic plus a greater use of blackboards and more individual instruction. Known as the “Quincy System,” it was widely imitated throughout the country. In 1892 Adams was appointed to a state commission to create a system of parks and open spaces for the Boston area. In 1893, when Adams moved from Quincy to Lincoln, a suburban town west of Boston, he continued his interest in town government. As a member of the Board of Overseers of Harvard University from 1882 to 1907, Adams played a leading role in reforming the college curriculum that he had earlier found distasteful. In general he favored the “elective system” introduced by Harvard president Charles W. Eliot.

Adams’s interest in history was first noted when as a youth of thirteen he became absorbed in the first volume of Macauley’s England. His career as a historian began in 1874 when the people of Weymouth, Massachusetts, invited him to present a paper on the 250th anniversary of its founding. For the next forty years Adams was a prolific historian. Much of his early writing was on the history of his own state and region. Many of these articles were published by the Massachusetts Historical Society, to which he was elected in 1875. Adams became a vice president of the society in 1890 and served as president from 1895 until his death. He wrote two major biographies, one on Richard Henry Dana, in 1890, and a second on his father, in 1900. In his last years he wrote a number of papers on the diplomatic history of the Civil War. His autobiography was published in 1916. Unlike the writing of his two younger brothers, Henry Adams and Brooks Adams, the writing of Charles Francis Adams was not pessimistic. The concluding lines of his autobiography show that he was quite content with his life.

Adams first voted as a Republican but often voted as an independent. Like several “Mugwumps,” he favored civil service reform and free trade and later was opposed to the Spanish-American War and the annexation of the Philippines. He believed that most traditional practices of society and government could be improved. While often progressive in thought, he was generally conservative in action. Though his life was filled with controversy, no one questioned the honesty of Adams’s convictions. He died in Washington, D.C.


Materials relating to Adams are in the Union Pacific Railroad Company Collection, Nebraska State Museum and Archives, Lincoln, and in the Charles Adams, Jr., Papers, Massachusetts Historical Society, Boston. He reviews his own life in Charles Francis Adams, 1835–1915: An Autobiography (1916) but devotes three-quarters of the book to the first thirty years of his life. The volume also includes a 1915 memorial address by Henry Cabot Lodge. An excellent review of Adams’s entire career is Edward Chase Kirkland, Charles Francis Adams, Jr., 1835–1915: The Patrician at Bay (1965). Both Maury Klein, Union Pacific, Birth of a Railroad: 1862–1893 (1987), and Charles Edgar Ames, Pioneering the Union Pacific (1969), give full accounts of Adams’s years with the Union Pacific.