Diary of a Not-Wimpy AmbassadorOn September 9, 2020 by Elyse
If you found a diary left open and unguarded, conveniently transcribed, digitized and text searchable, would you snoop?
If you said “no,” you’re a better person than I am.
When it comes to gleaning insights about the days of yesteryear—to say nothing of tantalizing gossip—you can’t beat diaries and letters (along with certain newspapers). As a prolific diarist myself, I sympathize with the pathological need to record painstaking accounts of the weather, copious descriptions of meals and detailed lists of mundane activities. And let me tell you, dear readers, Charles Francis Adams, Sr. wrote a lot about all of these fascinating subjects.
At times, his daily life was as dull and humdrum as mine—spoiler alert for any would-be snoopers who come across my diary. However, unlike me, he at least had run-ins with celebrities like President Abraham Lincoln and Queen Victoria. As the son and grandson of two U.S. presidents, a U.S. representative from Massachusetts and the nation’s top envoy to the United Kingdom during the American Civil War, he was ideally placed to witness and record a period as chaotic and disorienting as our own.
The first half of Charles’ 1861 diary takes us through the beginning of the Civil War, President Lincoln’s inauguration, his transatlantic crossing with his family and the start of his posting as the U.S. government’s representative to the United Kingdom.
Eventually, he would be instrumental in ensuring the United Kingdom stayed neutral during the war. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. For now, enjoy his less-than-flattering first impressions of President Lincoln, his handwringing over his career prospects and an agonizing, high-stakes sartorial decision.
Charles’ diary was definitely not Daniel Day-Lewis’ inspiration for his portrayal of President Lincoln in Steven Spielberg’s film.
Thus ends this most trying period of our history. To me it has been a moral trial of my carnage and of my firmness. [Editor’s note: Charles, you ain’t seen nothing yet.]
. . . In the evening, we all went to the Inauguration ball. . . The new President and his Wife came in quite late— They are evidently wanting in all the arts to grace their position. He is simple, awkward and hearty. She is more artificial and pretentious.
I took my daughter Mary up to him as she desired it. We came among others, and he did not at all recollect me. Indeed I had doubts whether he was thinking whose hand he was shaking.
Were it any body but a Western man I should have construed it as an intentional slight. But we cannot measure such a free and easy people by the standard of courtly civilization.– Diary of Charles Francis Adams, March 4, 1861
As a fellow Illinoisan and proud resident of the “Land of Lincoln,” I’m offended. How dare Charles insinuate that deep dish pizza—an exquisite delicacy from the northeastern part of the state—isn’t up to the standard of courtly civilization?! However, I’m not offended enough to stop reading.
Charles’ opinion of President Lincoln did not improve with time. At a meeting shortly after his nomination as U.S. minister to the United Kingdom:
Soon the President came in. He shook hands with me and said something complimentary. I briefly thanked him for the honor conferred upon me, and expressed the hope not to discredit his selection.
For the matter of that, said he, I must frankly admit I have no great claim on you, for the selection was mainly Governor Seward’s. I replied, admitting my consciousness of the fact, but that without his assent, the act could not have been done. . .
He was about to go on to talk with Governor Seward on other topics without minding me, when the latter gave me a hint, and I respectfully took my leave.
Such was his fashion of receiving and dismissing the incumbent of one of the two highest posts in the foreign service of the country! I left the presence cheerfully enough, and congratulated myself that the task of being his council had not been laid upon me.– Diary of Charles Francis Adams, March 28, 1861
More than 150 years later, I can feel him fuming through the page, er, screen.
If anyone has ever been up for a promotion they didn’t want, Charles felt your pain. But at least you probably didn’t find out about your ambassadorship through a newspaper.
On opening the morning’s newspaper before breakfast I found a telegraphic dispatch announcing that I had yesterday been nominated to the Senate by the President as Minister to Great Britain.
It could be worse; he could’ve seen it on Twitter.
I know not exactly whether I ought to feel elated or depressed by this distinction. In one sense it flatters my pride that I make the third in lineal descent in my family [both his father, John Quincy Adams, and grandfather, John Adams, served as U.S. ambassador to the United Kingdom], on whom that honor has been conferred by his country, an unprecedented case in American annals. On the other hand it imposes new and untried duties, and responsibilities of a grave character at this crisis which I may fail to meet. . .
I go into comparative retirement on the other side of the water, with no object excepting to sustain, so far as I can, the honor of the country in the midst of its mortifying embarrassments.– Diary of Charles Francis Adams, March 19, 1861
Every diary needs some drama. Fortunately for those of us reading in 2020, Charles had a frenemy.
I was called to see Mr Edward L Peirce who came to tell me he was going to Washington. . . He had already written to me one or two letters awkwardly apologizing for his conduct in the winter, and he clearly shared the effect of it, in this meeting.
On my part I met him with quiet courtesy, at the same time not unwilling to throw in just that shade which makes a line of separation from familiarity. In truth I have no ill will to this young man. But his conduct indicates an absence of heart or a flexibility of political morals which puts an end to further confidence.
That he should differ with me on such a point as that of last winter is natural and justifiable. But that when professing to be my friend he should draw from me a private and confidential explanation, and then rush into a public attack on it in the newspapers, which he scandalously circulated whenever he thought it could hurt me is not exactly to be reconciled to my notions of good faith.
Now he finds he has made a mistake and that I am at once and suddenly placed above his reach to benefit or harm me, he apologizes by saying he never doubted my motives. He will have no more letters from me.– Diary of Charles Francis Adams, March 21, 1861
After reading five months’ worth of Charles’ writing, refusing to send Edward any more letters may not have been the punishment he thought it was.
Charles wanted to drain the swamp before it was cool.
From the cars at Baltimore we passed over to those about to start for Washington and at six we had arrived at the spot I had quitted only so few days since. Why was it that I felt such a sickening at the heart on passing the various landmarks, and such a sense of relief at the idea that I was not to come again?
My career here has not been unsuccessful. My reception has been uniformly kind and friendly. And yet the irrepressible sense of moral desolation here extinguishes all the promptings of the highest ambition.– Diary of Charles Francis Adams, March 28, 1861
Charles agonized over what to wear to his new job just as much as any freshman on the first day of high school.
The question of today is what am I to do about dress at Court. . . [Previous U.S. Minister George Dallas] has appeared the only man of the entire corps Diplomatique in a plain black suit. Mr Dallas confessed to me that this gave him a painful degree of prominence from the contrast it presented. Yet he had worn it steadily from deference to the example of his predecessor as well as taste.
On the other hand. . . It so happens that the ordinary black dress adopted is exactly that used by all the servants who officiate as butlers in great houses. The effect of this association among so formal a people is obvious.
Will Charles stand by tradition and wear a boring black suit, even if it means being ridiculed by all the cool kids and mistaken for a butler?
After reflecting upon this, and upon the peculiarity of my situation here in this time of difficulty at home I made up my mind that it is no time for indulging oddities of any kind. If gold lace and silk stockings recommend my country through me to the people who have any influence, more than a black coat and pantaloons I am for the former. For the rest, nothing can be much more unpalatable to me than to be so bedizened and masqueraded.– Diary of Charles Francis Adams, May 15, 1861
“Ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country.” Even if it means wearing gold lace and silk stockings.
Charles has the best excuse I’ve ever heard for skipping church on Sunday morning.
I reflected upon attendance on Divine service without being able to decide where I should go. To go to the Episcopal Church involves the idea of selection of some particular place, about which I am entirely uninformed, and gives rise to speculations about the American Minister which have no basis. I know of no worship of the dissenting kind which would harmonize with my ideas any better, so that I prefer to put off deciding this point.– Diary of Charles Francis Adams, May 19, 1861
I found a kindred spirit in Charles. His writer’s block was almost as bad as mine!
I am trying to prepare the materials for a speech at the proper time, but it is very difficult to get any leisure for it. Though the skeleton of it is in mind I do not yet succeed in committing it to paper.– Diary of Charles Francis Adams, January 17, 1861
I worked lamely on my speech, afterwards.– Diary of Charles Francis Adams, January 18, 1861
Evening engaged on my labor without much satisfaction.– Diary of Charles Francis Adams, January 19, 1861
He’s seeing into my soul.
Then home where I worked on my speech, which does not yet turn out to my satisfaction.– Diary of Charles Francis Adams, January 20, 1861
I am getting a little uneasy under the responsibility of my speech.– Diary of Charles Francis Adams, January 21, 1861
I’m very familiar with this feeling of growing panic.
After their departure, I worked until late at night on my speech. It wears me a good deal.– Diary of Charles Francis Adams, January 26, 1861
I finished my speech a little after midnight. God be praised.– Diary of Charles Francis Adams, January 27, 1861
My sentiments exactly when I finish a blog post. I’ve never felt more seen in my life.
No country was ever so blasted by feeble partisanship and miserable jealousies.– Diary of Charles Francis Adams, February 18, 1861
2020 America: Charles, hold my beer.
If you’re missing Charles’ dour, pessimistic rhetoric already, never fear. There are four-and-a-half more years of diary entries to snoop through. In the meantime, I hope his keen observations and gripes inspire you to record your own day-to-day existence. . . and perhaps upgrade your wardrobe with some gold lace and silk stockings.
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About This Blog
Welcome to Second Glance History! This blog seeks to uncover the people and the stories forgotten by history and give them another read through a modern lens. Join me every week as we examine the differences that divide and the common threads that connect the then to the now.
Ha – I totally sympathize with Charles’s writer’s block and his worry over what people will think about his speech! I’m always surprised how modern some primary sources feel. I was reading Queen Sophie of the Netherlands’s published letters, and she was complaining about just wanting to be left alone to read, write, and research one of her historical obsessions (Charles I of England). I was like, yup, I’ve said that! Thanks for a fascinating post!
Thanks so much for the kind words, Jenni! Same here, some experiences really are universal. Queen Sophie sounds like a woman after my own heart. I’m intrigued and looking forward to hearing more about her one of these days!