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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,634


This is the grave of Charles Francis Adams III.

Born in Quincy, Massachusetts in 1866, Adams grew up in the nation’s most august and elite family. We have covered more of this family in the grave series than any other family. There’s his distant presidential ancestors, John and Abigail Adams, and then John Quincy and Louisa Adams. There’s Samuel Adams too of course. Later there is Henry Adams, chronicler of the Gilded Age and Brooks Adams, the important early historian. There’s Charles Francis Adams, the ambassador to Britain during the Civil War. Then there’s Charles Francis Adams, Jr., Charles Francis III’s uncle who was a railroad executive and involved in a lot of the sketchier side of Gilded Age railroad shenanigans.

Charles Francis III was the son of John Quincy Adams II, who was a fairly minor member of the family, spending a bit of time in the Massachusetts legislature and being noted for being on the Liberal Republican movement that became Democrats when that party nominated Horace Greeley in the disastrous 1872 campaign. Adams became a Democrat permanently, unusual for his family. The reason for being named for his uncle with the III is that Charles Francis II’s wife kept popping out girls, so they gave that name to John’s son. Well, Charles Francis III did what every Adams does, go to Harvard. Then it was Harvard Law, of course.

There was little of interest about this guy at first. He practiced law and had his business interests, like every other Adams of this era. He was mayor of Quincy for one term in the 1890s. He was president of the Massachusetts Historical Society because of course he was, how could you not have an Adams there? He did lobby Congress to restore the USS Constitution and that was a good move, I agree, if only just to allow people to see an important 18th century ship more than for patriotic reasons.

Unlike his father, Adams became a Republican and he was your utterly bog-standard corporate Republican of the early 20th century. He was on so many corporate boards, 43 in total over his career, including banks and railroads.

What brought Adams into slightly more publicity was Herbert Hoover naming Adams as his Secretary of the Navy in 1929. Adams didn’t really have any expertise in this, outside of protecting historic naval ships and being a great yacht racer. But he evidently proved quite solid at the job. At the very least, he was really into ensuring the nation had a strong naval presence at a time when isolationism was the order of the day. So probably his biggest achievement came at the London Naval Treaty of 1930. This is far less known than the 1922 Washington Naval Treaty, but that important moment did not solve every naval issue out there. So in 1930, the major powers got together again and created new rules on the use of submarine warfare, limited naval shipbuilding, and created new rules on cruisers and destroyers. Now, we all know the Nazis would blow up these treaties, quite literally, but still, they seemed like a good idea at the time and I am not going to criticize international agreements intended to bring international peace.

Interestingly, this 1930 conference was not the first time amending the Washington Naval Treaty had happened. In 1927, a meeting in Geneva had intended to do this, but the British and Americans were in a really bad place in their relationship at that time and the British attempted to bigfoot the conference and demand far greater naval tonnage than the Americans would get and thus wanted far more cruisers. So the Americans said no. In 1930, they tried again and Adams was able to get the British to see a bit more reason here. To be fair, Herbert Hoover and Ramsay McDonald had worked through some of these issues before the conference, but as the representative of the U.S. here, it’s fair to say he was useful and competent, at the very least. Hoover later said that if he knew Adams was going to be this good at the job, he would have named him Secretary of State instead.

After FDR destroyed Hoover in 1932, Adams naturally had to leave office. He engaged in a new passion–hating FDR. That would take up the rest of his life. He hated the New Deal of course–he was a Republican’s Republican. But what he really despised was the third and fourth term. He started advocating for a constitutional amendment that would limit the president to two terms, which eventually happened with the 22nd Amendment. He wanted to go a bit farther that this though. He believed that the president, whoever it is, should have to give up any registration with a political party.

I have to admit, this is a new flavor of politics without politics for me. I’m surprised this wasn’t brought up on The West Wing at some point. I have no idea how that is supposed to work as a functional governance issue. FDR is elected with the support of Democrats but then governs from some mythical center because he’s not technically a Democrat? Nonsense. Adams also advocated that all ex-presidents be made ex-officio members of the Senate. What this was supposed to accomplish? Can you imagine Donald Trump in that position?

Adams had other passions too–rich people stuff. He was in all the history clubs for rich white people to talk about their ancestors, which is dumb but if you are Adams, you are going to at least have the cred. Then there was yachting. He was the skipper of the boat that won the America’s Cup in 1920 and was inducted into the America’s Cup Hall of Fame in 1993, part of its inaugural class. As an aside, having lived in Rhode Island for 13 years now, I have never heard a single person say they care about the America’s Cup at all. The rich people in Newport, when they are there for the summer as opposed to their homes in New York or LA or Tokyo or Paris or wherever the rest of the year, simply live a completely different life than everyone else in the Ocean State.

Adams married the daughter of a congressman (of course) and they had a couple of kids. Charles Francis Adams IV became the first president of Raytheon, so what a legacy. Catherine married J.P, Morgan’s grandson, founder of Morgan Stanley.

In conclusion, America is a true meritocracy.

Adams died in 1954 in Boston. He was 87 years old.

Charles Francis Adams is buried in Mount Wollaston Cemetery, Quincy, Massachusetts.

If you would like this series to visit other people who were Secretary of the Navy, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Edward Denby is in Detroit and Claude Swanson is in Richmond, Virginia. Previous posts in this series are archived here and here.

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