Home / General / Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 699

Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 699


This is the grave of Charles Francis Adams, Jr.

Born in 1835 to Boston, Adams grew up in America’s most elite family. Of course, his great-grandfather was John Adams, his grandfather John Quincy Adams, and his father Charles Francis Adams, Sr., who played the most critical role in keeping the British from recognizing the Confederacy during the Civil War. Adams followed his forefathers to Harvard, graduating in 1856. He joined the Union Army early in the Civil War, becoming a lieutenant in the 1st Massachusetts Volunteer Cavalry in December 1861. He was promoted to captain in late 1862 and fought very well at Gettysburg, where the troops under his command were heavily engaged. His division was mustered out in 1864, but he rejoined the military a week later as lieutenant colonel of the 5th Massachusetts Cavalry, which was a Black regiment, but with white officers as was the norm during this time. In March 1865, he was promoted to colonel and given full command over the regiment. But being a racist, he felt that Black troops were ill-suited for combat and took them out of the charge into Richmond, even though he personally really liked combat. He later regretted this decision, more for the lost opportunity for himself than really rethinking his racism.

In the aftermath of the war, Adams went into the railroad business, that hive of villainy and scum where increasingly rich men attempted to screw each other repeatedly while holding themselves up as paragons of virtue who had the nation’s interests at heart. In doing so, they repeatedly torpedoed the economy. When you are Jay Cooke and believe that your interests in profit are literally the interests of the nation, this is what leads to plunge the nation into the Panic of 1873 and then pillage the Freedmens’ Bank.

Now, this was not Adams’ way. He was old money. He came to the railroad business from a different social strata than many of the people who came to dominate it. He was certainly far less corrupt than these people. But he was also a bit overmatched, even if he gave comfort to the nation’s leaders that the railroads were at least marginally in capable hands. He was appointed to the Massachusetts Railroad Commission and there tried to get the railroads to work together in a spirit of cooperation rather than engage in their constant cutthroat wars. The purpose of the Commission was rather naive–that by exposing the corruption in the railroad industry, the capitalists would be shamed into reforming their ways. This was a pretty typical strategy of Gilded Age reformers and it proved hopelessly worthless, as we know that one cannot shame a capitalist. Moreover, for Adams, who did support some levels of regulation, the purpose of that regulation was to protect the investor, not the consumer, necessarily limiting its effectiveness.

Adams was certainly not unaware of the problems of the industry and could be a trenchant analyst of the issue. In 1875, he wrote an influential essay explaining the Grange movement sweeping rural America and how the railroads had caused it. In 1878, he wrote a book titled Railroads, Their Origin and Problems, which laid out his ideas on how to fix the system.

Adams’ respectable reformist bit got Congress to force the incredibly corrupt Union Pacific to hire Adams as its president in 1884. But he was really in over his head in managing such a messy operation surrounded by so many bad operators who disliked Adams and that was mutually returned. Adams, in his posthumously published autobiography, had this to say about railroad capitalists:

I have known tolerably well, a good many “successful” men–“big” financially–men famous during the last half-century, and a less interesting crowd I do not care to encounter. Not one that I have ever known would I care to meet again, either in this world or the next; nor is one of them associated in my mind with the idea of humor, thought or refinement. A set of mere money-getters and traders, they were essentially unattractive and uninteresting.

Obviously, you can feel the snobbery seeping through. But he’s not really wrong. These were tremendously boring and awful people. But they were also people he had to work with. And this did not please, say, Jay Gould. It also did not please the workers on the UP. The Rock Springs Massacre resulted in part from Adams’ anti-union policies. When he demanded members of the Knights of Labor work longer hours, they refused. He then had Chinese workers imported and the white workers engaged in a genocidal murder frenzy against them. Race and class can’t be separated when analyzing this nation and men like Adams were happy to play those tensions for their advantage.

Adams was also just not an effective administrator. He certainly thought of himself that way, giving talks at Harvard about his brilliant work, but in fact while he perhaps correctly saw the future as one dominated by competent middle managers instead of large headed capitalists, those middle managers didn’t exactly exist yet. If anything, the managers he hired were even greater thieves than the CEOs themselves, leading Adams to bitterly complain. But hey, everyone has to get their piece when they can in an economy based upon robbing the public blind. He wasn’t wrong about his analysis of the railroads and wasn’t the only one who realized the government needed to engage in some level of regulation to stop the ruinous competition and wars that could bring the whole economy down. But this meant he basically supported trusts that constrained investor actions in order to ensure profits. Monopoly was the solution. Finally, Gould had him forced out in 1890 when Adams’ own leadership lead the UP to the edge of collapse by engaging in many of the same sketchy capitalist schemes that Adams had criticized.

Adams was already a sort of gentlemen CEO who didn’t spend all that much time on the railroad. After all, he was a man of leisure lowering himself into the capitalist world, unlike his brother Henry who would write the most famous book about the wealthy being unable to deal with the new capitalist world. He was really more interested in history and literature. He was a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and member of the American Antiquarian Society. He became president of the Massachusetts Historical Society in 1895 and was president of the American Historical Association in 1901 after writing a few books on early Massachusetts history. You can read his AHA presidential address here. He engaged in philanthropy and helped created the Blue Hills Reservation and the Middlesex Falls Reservation to preserve green space from development. He also continued with his reformist politics, announcing his support for Henry George‘s Single Tax idea in 1900. This seems fitting, as this sort of one-off fix that would repair the capitalist system people so wanted to believe in was exactly the sort of thing to appeal to Adams.

Charles Francis Adams, Jr. died in 1915. He is buried in Mount Wollaston Cemetery, Quincy, Massachusetts.

If you would like this series to visit more presidents of the American Historical Association, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Henry Charles Lea, the medievalist who led the AHA in 1903, is in Philadelphia, while Simeon Eben Baldwin, who led the AHA in 1906 and later become governor of Connecticut, is in New Haven. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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