Among the various conference sessions and sightseeing trips, the program of the annual meeting of the American Historical Association (AHA), held at Boston and Cambridge from 27 to 31 December 1912, lists a luncheon for members of the Association at 1:00 p.m. on Saturday, 28 December, at the Massachusetts Historical Society. Only those in the know, however would have been aware of the behind-the-scenes drama leading up to the event. In reviewing the meeting later, the officers of the Association observed that: “From the point of view of the general public, the chief characteristic of the Association’s twenty-eighth annual meeting lay in the presence of Colonel Roosevelt, and the power and charm of the address which he delivered as president [of the AHA].” From the Historical Society’s vantage point, the “chief characteristic” of the luncheon seems to have been whether the event would take place at all. The official host, MHS President Charles Francis Adams, Jr., reviled Roosevelt and seemed determined to sabotage the Society’s role in the meeting, if he could not avoid it.
The American Historical Association meeting took place in the immediate aftermath of the hard-fought 1912 (federal) presidential election. Theodore Roosevelt, defeated for reelection as a Progressive (“Bull Moose”) Party candidate a few weeks before, was the president of the AHA that year and would preside at the December meeting. Charles Francis Adams, Jr., a former AHA president, dreaded the approaching meeting. He was torn between what he saw as his duty as MHS president to host the officers and members of the Historical Association, and his intense dislike for Roosevelt, who he looked upon “as a sciolist in history and a fraud in politics.” “As it is,” he wrote in a letter to Frederic Bancroft, “I do not see but what I shall have to rally, assume the official aspect, and do the proper thing with dignity and in silence.” In spite of putting the best face upon an awkward situation, Adams continued to “groan” as the dreaded date of the visit by the “Sultan of Bullmoosia” approached. Adams, a man of no small self-esteem, was “nauseated” by what he saw as “T. R.’s” unquenchable “Egoism,” described in a ditty that a friend forwarded to him describing Roosevelt:
“My Country tis of me
Sweet land of mostly me
Of me I yell….”
Theodore Roosevelt, in turn, was no fan of Charles Francis Adams, Jr., who he thought of as an unreconstructed Mugwump and obstructionist—one of a class of men from a previous generation who criticized his every action, but offered no practical alternatives. After his resounding victory in the presidential election of 1904, Roosevelt asked a political compatriot, Henry Cabot Lodge, to be sure to bring his wide popular vote margin in Massachusetts to the attention of Adams.
Charles Francis Adams, Jr., nearing his “four score,” toyed with the idea of feigning illness or “the infirmities of age” to avoid the Boston meeting (by this time in his life, Adams spent each winter in Washington). Even when he finally girded himself for the ordeal—and although he and MHS Vice President James Ford Rhodes were underwriting the luncheon expenses—he prevaricated to the point that it was not clear that anyone would attend.
In fact, the MHS reception and the entire AHA meeting succeeded beyond anyone’s expectation. Adams even attended a private luncheon given by Rhodes for Roosevelt the following day—although he complained in his diary about the “band of Indians” (Progressive Party supporters?) who accompanied his nemesis. Rhodes and other mutual friends of Roosevelt and Adams skillfully turned the subject in another direction whenever politics came up.
Theodore Roosevelt’s AHA presidential address on 27 December, “History as Literature,” was a resounding success—drawing an audience of 2,000 even though it was only open to attendees at the AHA meeting and a series of related conferences. Adams ruefully allowed that if he had been the speaker he might have drawn an audience of 150. In fact, on the last day of the AHA meeting, Adams was the final speaker on the program. Reprising a lecture he had given the previous summer on the centennial of the War of 1812, Adams argued that the United States became a world power when the first successful naval engagement of that war began on Wednesday, 19 August 1812, at 6:30 PM. With the applause of the audience still ringing in his ears, Adams boarded a train to return to Washington, vastly relieved, and perhaps more than a little pleased with the outcome of the minor storm that he had created.
Charles Francis Adams, Jr., was born in Boston in 1835. A grandson and great-grandson of Presidents John and John Quincy Adams, he was the son of diplomat Charles Francis and Abigail Brooks Adams. Educated at Harvard College, the younger Adams studied law with Richard Henry Dana, Jr., but the coming of the Civil War offered him an escape from a profession that he did not enjoy. He described himself as a lawyer without clients.
During the Civil War, Adams served in the Massachusetts cavalry and rose from the rank of first lieutenant to brevet brigadier general, ending the war as commander of the 5th Massachusetts Cavalry, an African American regiment. At the close of the war, Adams, who was thirty and recently married to Mary Hone Ogden, abandoned the law for a new field—railroads—first as a railroad reformer and Massachusetts railroad commissioner, and later as president of the Union Pacific Railroad. When Adams was pushed out of the Union Pacific in 1890 after a battle for control with Jay Gould, he returned to Massachusetts where he devoted the last twenty-five years of his life to civic reform and the writing of history. Although not as well known a historian as his younger brothers, Henry and Brooks, Charles Francis Adams, Jr., wrote and spoke widely on diplomatic and military history, and the early history of Massachusetts. At the national level, he promoted civil service and tariff reform, and was involved in the Anti-Imperialist movement following the Spanish-American War. At the local level, he was active in civic and educational reform in his home town of Quincy, the creation of a state park system in the towns surrounding Boston, and service to Harvard University as a member of the board of overseers. For forty years, Adams was an active member of the Massachusetts Historical Society, serving as vice president and then president for twenty years until his death in 1915.
Note: by 1912, Charles Francis Adams had long since stopped using the term “Jr.” to distinguish himself from his father who died in 1886, but the Historical Society uses the earlier version of his name, or “CFAII,” throughout this website to distinguish him from his father and members of later generations of the family who bear the same name.
The main sources of information for the life of Charles Francis Adams, Jr., are the enormous collection of Adams Family Papers held by the Historical Society, and a separate collection of his personal papers dating from 1860-1933.
Adams, Charles Francis. Charles Francis Adams, 1835-1915: An Autobiography. Boston: Massachusetts Historical Society, 1916.
Adams’s Autobiography covers the events of his life in detail only through the Civil War, but it is revealing about his character. The volume also contains a memorial address delivered after Adams’s death by Henry Cabot Lodge, and a brief sketch of the later decades of his life by Worthington C. Ford.
The American Historical Review, vol. 18, October 1912-July 1913 reprints the speeches by Roosevelt and Adams at the December 1912 annual meeting:
Roosevelt, Theodore. “History as Literature,” p. 473-489.
Adams, Charles Francis. “Wednesday, August 19, 1812, 6:30 P. M.: The Birth of a World Power,” p. 513-521.
Kirkland, Edward C. Charles Francis Adams, Jr. 1835-1915: The Patrician at Bay. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1965.
In this fine biography, Kirkland, misled by the vehemence of Adams’s protests against hosting Roosevelt, mistakenly wrote that Adams had boycotted the MHS luncheon.
Klein, Maury. Union Pacific. 2 vols. Garden City: Doubleday, 1987.
The first volume of Klein’s history of the Union Pacific, Birth of a Railroad: 1862-1893, covers Adams’s troubled presidency.