The American Scion Who Secured British Neutrality in the U.S. Civil War

The journal pages of Charles Francis Adams, the son of one president and the grandson of another, illuminate the life and politics of Victorian England

Charles, the son and grandson of American presidents, carved out a second home in England, succeeding in his main diplomatic mission: securing British neutrality in the Civil War. (Photos via Getty Center, Massachusetts Historical Society and public domain / Photo illustration by Meilan Solly)
smithsonianmag.com

What do you wear to meet the queen of England? Torn between a crisp navy-and-gold lace suit or a severe black morning coat, Charles Francis Adams fretted over his first day of work. He was more comfortable in plain clothes, but worried that he would look like a proper English butler in all black.

So the 55-year-old American statesman erred on the side of history in the spring of 1861, dressing for his new London audience in full color. It was starchy and hot, but Adams had to make a good first impression. To a degree, the fate of his nation’s Civil War hinged on his royal interview. Which way would the world turn: North or South?

Leafing through Adams’ recently digitized diaries, spanning the period from 1861 to 1865, we can watch how Charles, the son and grandson of American presidents, carved out a second home in England, negotiating his place in Victorian London, and succeeding in his main diplomatic mission: securing British neutrality in the war.

His diary “remains unique because his view of the war operates on two levels,” says Sara Martin, editor in chief of The Adams Papers editorial project, based at the Massachusetts Historical Society. “First, he was a father whose son was a soldier, so he experienced the war as a parent. Second, as the U.S. minister to the Court of St. James, Adams was tasked with mitigating foreign engagement in the domestic conflict. Thus, his diary places the war in a global context.”

Beyond that, a curious and cosmopolitan Charles comes through in the diaries as he soaks up English culture and befriends foreign peers. His wife, Abigail Brown Brooks Adams, emerges as a highly regarded hostess. His growing children dabble in journalism and sample European culture. From tempestuous politics to glamorous parties, Charles and his family tasted the best and worst of the capital city.

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While previous foreign ministers had met with the British monarch to present their formal diplomatic credentials at St. James’ Palace, the protocols had changed by Charles’ day. His first audience with Queen Victoria took place in Buckingham Palace, which she established as her home base in the city and carefully renovated to project her trademark vision of domestic serenity.

As he wrote in his journal on May 16, 1861, Charles found Victoria “dignified and yet gracious.” In other pages, he writes about forming an influential friendship with her husband, Prince Albert. Meanwhile, the livelihood of both Charles’ nation and his soldier son were in constant, grinding doubt.

Charles, Jr., a Massachusetts cavalryman, reported frequently to his father on the war’s bloody consequences. His detailed letters, often written on picket in the Carolinas, were passed around the legation and parsed for clues. Diplomatic duty and paternal heartache blended together in the pages of his father’s diary. The severity of his wartime mission was never far from the senior Charles’ mind.

Charles’ interleaved his diary with newspaper articles, photographs and political pamphlets he collected to build his case. He kept up a “cordial relationship with Lord [John] Russell, the foreign secretary, and other conservative elites who were ready to recognize the Confederacy. He helped the Lincoln administration to allay crises like the Trent Affair,” says historian Manisha Sinha.

A political insider at home, Adams had to work hard to convince British peers that the American Civil War had global implications. He opposed slavery on moral grounds, watching as “secession fever” grew throughout the 1850s, and lamenting the nation’s disunion. The Confederate bombardment of Fort Sumter in Charleston, South Carolina, on April 12, 1861, marked a clear turning point. Adams turned to his journal for solace, writing:

“My fear now is that the breach is complete. Perhaps this is not in the end to be regretted so much, as the Slave States always have been troublesome and dictatorial partners. But I had always hoped that slavery might be driven back to the cotton region, and there left to work out its mission. We must now rely upon a consolidated action among ourselves. The peaceful solution of the problem has failed. Mr Lincoln has plunged us into a war.”

A student of diplomatic history, Adams perceived that the unfolding conflict would riple through the globe. Any intervention from the powerful British Navy would radically alter the outcome, so he pursued neutrality once at his post in London.

“The rest of the world, mainly Europe, seemed to have accepted the ‘fact’ of Confederate independence and it would take Union victories, the emancipation policy of the Lincoln administration, and all the expertise of American diplomats to avert diplomatic recognition of the Confederacy,” adds Sinha. “In Britain, Adams noted that the sympathy of the working classes was with the Union but that of the upper classes with the Confederacy. He astutely notes that the bonds of cotton tied Britain to the slave states as ‘consumers’ and ‘producers.’”

Within two years, Charles scored a major diplomatic victory, persuading the ministry to halt the progress of Confederate ironclad ships built in Liverpool. His act stemmed a tide of British support for the South, just as a ring of Confederate agents pressured them for aid.

Apart from his diplomatic success, Charles’ neat, daily entries offer a unique tour of Victorian London, taking readers from palaces to slums at a stately clip. He made pilgrimages big and small, revisiting family haunts and documenting new architecture.

One of Charles’ first stops upon arriving in London was at No. 8 (now No. 9) Grosvenor Square, which served as the first American legation in Great Britain. His grandfather John Adams leased it shortly after his arrival in the summer of 1785. Shortly after he reached London in 1861, Charles inspected a number of possible homes in Bloomsbury’s posh Russell Square, as well as in Grosvenor Square. “The prices are enormous too,” Charles wrote of his ventures in London real estate. For 700 guineas, he settled on a house at 21 Grafton Street in the Mayfair district, an area that became known as a diplomatic enclave.

Although Charles thought he was a “pretty monotonous” writer, he liked the sound of his diary ticking along like “a second Conscience.” He used it to jot down weather statistics, political events, family news, social outings, and personal observations. On and off, when his diplomatic duties felt fairly calm, Adams made what he called a set of “journeyings” through English culture. He hunted and catalogued the work of architect Christopher Wren (1632-1723), who rebuilt London’s religious landscape after the Great Fire of 1666. Charles never aimed to become a professional architect, but during his time in London he realized that beauty was holy to him.

With sons Henry and Brooks in tow, Charles worked his way through most of Wren’s 52 churches. He was less fond of the crowds crawling through the parks. Italian opera blared by his office, interrupting his long dispatches to Lincoln. One thing he noticed right away was that gin shops threw open their doors early on the Sabbath. “Think of this on a Sunday in New England,” Adams wrote incredulously. Eager to experience the full range of London, he took to the streets.

Charles was intrigued by the colorful slew of cultural offerings—museums, zoos, libraries, learned societies, department stores, theatre—that he passed on his way to and from work. And he possessed a third-generation diplomat’s knack for using religion to read foreign culture. Adams reveled in his first trip to attend services at Westminster Abbey. In a rare burst of praise, he called it “the quietest and pleasantest day I have passed in London,” taking special note of the Poets’ Corner.

He strolled over to the House of Commons—he had visited Parliament once or twice as a young boy—and returned with plenty to say. “The hall contrasts singularly with that of the House at Washington,” Adams wrote. “It is much more plain and so small in size as not to accommodate the members when the attendance is very full. They sat tonight packed in the seats as people do in a popular meeting, though not by any means all were there.”

Three days after Christmas 1862, he made an emotional trip to the Church of All Hallows Barking, located in the shadow of the Tower. He knelt, weeping, at the altar where his parents John Quincy and Louisa Catherine Adams wed in 1797. “Here am I, their only surviving son plodding my weary way through days of natural tribulation, in the performance of an arduous trust, in the land which witnessed the outset of their career,” he observed.

In lighter moments, Charles joined the visitors mobbing the world’s oldest zoo, opened in 1828 and then known as “the zoological gardens in Regent’s Park.” The whole Adams family enjoyed a few professional perks, too. Charles and son Henry toured through the fossils and natural history treasures at the British Museum. “The collection is enormous, and it grows at a rate to make it difficult to keep up with it in space. Indeed it threatens to be too large for utility,” Adams wrote. Charles’ diary is filled with repeat visits to “the South Kensington museum” (founded in 1852, later the Victoria & Albert Museum). He singled out as his favorites the art of John Singleton Copley, William Hogarth, and J. M. W. Turner. “On the whole the collection is valuable and suggestive,” Adams wrote. “Three hours fatigued me and I went home to find my weekly despatches had arrived, and letters from my sons which absorbed me completely.”

Like any newcomer, Adams scored some of his best London “finds” when he got lost. His accidental ramble into the Seven Dials neighborhood—then poor and troubled, now a dynamic and artsy neighborhood—was especially illuminating. Any reader of Charles Dickens will recognize the scenes that Adams painted, connecting England’s prospects to the future of its poorest inhabitants. “All the best that these young people can hope to arrive at in England is perhaps domestic service, and hard labour, whilst the worst is only to be learned in the history of the region of th[e] Seven Dials, the work houses and the prisons,” Adams wrote. “Here is the painful idea of a city of three millions of people.”

On an April morning in London, 1865, as the end of the Civil War neared, news of Richmond’s fall set the American minister aglow, imagining how this story might appear in the books he loved to read. “Marvellous indeed is the history,” he wrote. “Nothing in the records of the past exceeds it for the magnitude of the interests at Stake, and the heroism that has been developed.”

Charles, who loathed the pomp and “geegaws” of diplomatic ceremony, resigned his post in 1868 and returned home. His mission was complete. Charles, who published editions of the writings of Abigail, John, and John Quincy Adams, turned next to building the Stone Library in Quincy, Massachusetts.

Leaving foreign queens and political questions behind, Charles spent the bulk of the Reconstruction years reconnecting with his New England roots. He kept up his diaries, which grew to nearly 11,000 pages filling 36 bound notebooks. His soldier son Charles, Jr., first eyed his father’s journal for future publication in 1895.

“He took to diary writing early,” the younger Adams noted with an historian’s appreciative gleam, “and he took to it bad.”

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