The Adamses: Charles Francis Adams (1807-1886)

Charles Frances Adams was the third and youngest son of John Quincy and Louisa Catherine Adams. A politician, editor and diplomat, he is best known for two signature achievements: helping to secure the Union’s victory in the Civil War, and preserving the Adams legacy through his work editing the family’s papers.

Charles grew up in a household immersed in world affairs. From the time he was 2 until he was 8, he lived in St. Petersburg, where his father was U.S. minister to Russia. That period included Napoleon’s 1812 invasion of Russia, which ended with the retreating French Army being devastated by the harsh Russian winter. In 1815, while John Quincy was in Paris negotiating the Treaty of Ghent to end the War of 1812, Charles joined his mother on a winter journey from St. Petersburg to Paris, crossing some of the same terrain as Napoleon’s army.

Following family traditions

Returning to the U.S. in 1817, he attended Harvard, graduating with a law degree in 1825, the same year John Quincy Adams was elected president. Charles studied law with Daniel Webster, passed the bar in 1829, and opened a private law practice in Boston.

He soon turned his attention to politics, serving in the Massachusetts House of Representatives from 1840 to 1843 and the state Senate from 1843 to 1845. In 1848 Charles joined the short-lived Free Soil party, whose focus was on preventing the expansion of slavery. He was nominated for vice president on a ticket with former President Martin Van Buren, but they finished third behind the Whig candidate, Zachary Taylor, and Democrat Lewis Cass. Following this loss, Charles temporarily withdrew from elective politics and devoted his energies to editing the Boston Daily Whig.

Elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1858, Charles resigned in 1861 at the start of the Civil War, when Abraham Lincoln named him U.S. minister to Great Britain, a post that had been held by his father and grandfather during times of national crisis. True to their legacy, he was instrumental in shaping the outcome of the war by ensuring Britain remained neutral rather than joining on the side of the Confederacy. He also slowed the South from acquiring British-built war ships.

Preserving a written legacy

Though best known for his diplomatic service, Charles Francis Adams was also a gifted historical editor who helped make some the family’s most important writings available to the public. In 1840, he published a collection of his grandmother Abigail’s remarkable letters, which continue to inspire new works of literature and scholarship. From 1850 to 1856, he completed a project his father had started: 10 volumes of John Adams’s diaries, political writings, letters, and speeches. That work was the only available edition of his grandfather’s writings until the mid-1950s, when the family papers were donated to the Massachusetts Historical Society.

In 1870, Charles built what is considered to be the first presidential library in the U.S.: the Stone Library, which sits just yards from the family home, the Old House, in Quincy, Massachusetts. Built of stone so it would be fireproof, the library houses the books and papers of four generations. The majority of its 12,000 volumes belonged to John Quincy Adams.

Charles Francis spent his final years transforming the family home from a working farm into a country estate, which the family occupied until 1927, when the property became a historical site.