A Letter from Charles Francis Adams, Part 1

Charles Francis Adams

Readers of The Liberator for January 17, 1851 could turn immediately from John Palfrey’s argument against maintaining the Free Soil-Democratic coalition in Massachusetts to a letter from another prominent Free Soiler, Charles Francis Adams. Palfrey endorsed Stephen Phillips for governor on his proposed ticket, but left the nomination for senator open to an unspecified party man. Most of Palfrey’s and The Liberator’s readers could probably guess he had Adams in mind. According to Charles Sumner’s biographer, David Donald, Adams thought he had a fair chance at becoming a Senator with Free Soil and Whig votes as well. If any missed the implication, then William Lloyd Garrison printed a letter from Adams immediately following Palfrey’s circular.

Adams opened by playing innocent. Nineteenth century politicians should not look hungry for office, but rather approach it when summoned out of a sense of duty. The son and grandson of presidents protested that no one should even care about “the private opinions of a retired individual”. But since the editors of the Boston Atlas, from which Garrison copied the piece, put his name out there Adams felt he ought to set the record straight. Playing disinterested statesman to the hilt, he declared

In all the trials to which individuals in any way connected with the Free Soil movement have been subjected during the years that I have had any share in them, it has been a rule laid down by me for the regulation of my own conduct, never voluntarily to place myself in them, excepting when called upon by my sense of public duty.

Adams didn’t want to take part in politics, except when he did. It had cost him “friends with whom I had for several years cordially acted” when he opposed Robert Winthrop’s bid for Congress back in 1846. Given Winthrop now stood much as he had then, as a conservative Whig, raising that memory had particular resonance even apart from placing Adams in the founding struggles of Massachusetts Free Soil. He then progressed through his opposition to Zachary Taylor for the presidency in 1848, when the Conscience Whigs broke with the state and national party. Seeing Taylor

unattended with a single pledge to sustain the policy of freedom […] I consented to be driven from the associations, from which, I had consulted my own feelings and the natural resentment which rough treatment occasions, I should have parted some time before. And just so has it been of late.

John Palfrey

In other words, Adams didn’t leave Whiggery. Whiggery left Adams, and that in a particularly unkind way. His old affections kept him with the party for too long, he saw with the benefit of hindsight. Now duty moved Adams again:

My sterling and respected friend, John G. Palfrey, took a different view of his duty, and presented his reasoning to me in a manner in which I could not, neither did I seek to avoid an opinion. It commanded my assent, and I bowed to the ascendancy of moral truth, recognizing in this as in preceding cases, the force that principle of conscience in judging political questions, for which it has been the pleasure of those opposed to us to make us a bye-word and a reproach.

Adams didn’t want any part of political advancement. But his good friend Palfrey had such a strong argument that it dragged the retiree, who hadn’t held an office since his Massachusetts State Senate term ended in 1845, back into politics. A skeptical observer might note that Charles Adams also found duty dragged him into serving as Martin Van Buren’s running mate on the Free Soil ticket in 1848. Adams had certainly left public office, but his retirement from politics looks to have lasted about a year.

 

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