The Beehive: the official blog of the Massachusetts Historical Society

“A disposition to do my duty”: Three Generations of Ministers to Great Britain

Charles Francis Adams recorded Tuesday, April 30, 1861 as a “soft, springlike day” in Boston in his diary. Nevertheless, as serene as the weather may have been, the political world was far less so. Not yet had three full weeks gone by since the Battle at Fort Sumter—the opening salvos of what would be a long and painfully bloody Civil War. The turbulent present and still unknown future did not solely occupy his thoughts on this day however. Rather, it was to the past that he looked. He could not help but be acutely aware of the knowledge that he was following in the footsteps of both his father, John Quincy Adams in 1815, and grandfather, John Adams in 1785; as he prepared to embark as the third generation of his family to serve as the United States Minister to Great Britain.

As he was to depart Boston the next day, Charles went to take his leave from the Governor of Massachusetts, John Albion Andrew, who surprised him by making a speech before the state’s public officials. Charles recorded the meeting in his Diary:

Soon after ten o’clock Governor Andrew was announced but instead of coming as I supposed with only his immediate Aids and Secretary, there filed in all the heads of bureaus of the Commonwealth.... The Governor rose and made me an address, alluding to the peculiar position which I occupied, to the departure of John Adams eighty four years ago, to the responsibility of my present mission, and closing with the expression of the entire confidence of the State in whose name he spoke as well as his own in my capacity and fidelity in the performance of my duty. For such a speech I was entirely unprepared and yet I saw that a reply was demanded.... I expressed my thanks for this most distinguished honor, my regard for him as the head of the Commonwealth not less than as a man, alluded to the painful circumstance in which I should leave the Country, but took consolation from the fact that as my father and grandfather had both of them left in moments of the greatest national distress, so I might like them return to the hour of restoration of its prosperity.

Nearly 44 years before, a ten-year-old Charles had crossed the Atlantic travelling home with his parents and siblings at the conclusion of his father’s mission to England—now he would be returning to that country with his own wife and children and a very different mission. For his father and grandfather, the threat to the survival of the United States had come from across that ocean; now, the threat lay at home. But like the generations before him, he would ably perform his duty as his country’s minister and would return home in 1868 to a booming and prosperous but still deeply scarred nation.

permalink | Published: Wednesday, 30 April, 2014, 1:00 AM


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