Charles Francis Adams, the grandson of Founding Father John Adams, was the third generation of the Adams family to go to London – and he probably had the toughest job. He had a major role to play as the American Civil War broke out and had to stop the British supporting the South… Here, Steve Strathmann follows up on his articles about John Adams (here) and John Quincy Adams (here) by considering Charles’ time in London.
Charles Francis Adams, Sr. had already had a long political career by 1861. He had served in the Massachusetts state house and run for vice president on a third party ticket in the 1840s. In late 1860, he was a congressman and joined a number of committees trying to end the secession crisis (to no avail). As Abraham Lincoln prepared to enter office in 1861, his Secretary of State-designate William Seward pressed for Adams to be the nation’s minister to Great Britain. Lincoln approved his choice and Adams presented his credentials to Queen Victoria on May 16. The third Adams in London had arguably the hardest job when compared with those of his father and grandfather. He had to try and keep Great Britain from becoming involved in the American Civil War.
The British View
As the American Civil War began, Great Britain did not react as the Americans expected it would. The British had long supported the abolition of slavery, so many in the North believed that they would support their side in the conflict. Problems arose when Lincoln initially framed the war as a fight to save the Union, not to free the slaves. The northern states also supported higher tariffs on foreign goods than the southern states had. On top of that, the large British textile industry used cotton grown in the American South, which would now be cut off by the North’s blockade. As historian Kathleen Burk wrote about this period, “there was, therefore, no reason of either British national interest or morality to support the North as a matter of course.”
The government of Lord Palmerston looked at the war as an opportunity to see a rival power weakened. Palmerston, along with his foreign minister John Russell, felt that if the United States became two or more separate nations, the result would be a more powerful Great Britain. On the other hand, the prime minister was reluctant to commit to any policy that may favor one side over the other, as his ruling coalition held many opinions on the American situation and could collapse over any disagreement. As a result, the British proclaimed themselves officially neutral in May 1861, but gave belligerent rights to the Confederates and met with several representatives from the breakaway states.
One other reason why the British were wary of taking sides as the Civil War began was a fear for Canada, which at this time was still a British possession. William Seward was known to be an Anglophobe, and some in London thought that Seward would convince Lincoln that the United States should invade Canada in order to make up for the loss of the South. This would never happen, but the Palmerston government was worried enough to send 11,000 troops to defend the Canadian frontier.
Seward’s dislike of Britain would continue to be a problem for Anglo-American relations. The messages he sent for Charles Francis Adams to relay to John Russell were at times blunt and confrontational, and could have caused a dangerous rift between the two nations. Fortunately, Adams was independent enough that he would at times hold back all or parts of these messages until they could be presented in a more diplomatic manner. Still, there were several times during Adams’ tenure when he feared that Britain and the United States would come to blows despite his best efforts. In fact, he would only rent his London home by the month, in case he was recalled to the United States.
The Trent Affair
The first major incident that Adams had to deal with was the Trent affair. On November 8, 1861, the USS San Jacinto stopped the British steamer Trent, and arrested two Confederate commissioners, John Slidell and John Mason, who were on their way to Europe. The captain of the San Jacinto, John Wilkes, acted without orders and against the advice of his crew, but was hailed as a hero in the North. The British were infuriated by the stopping and boarding of a neutral vessel. They claimed (rightfully) that Wilkes’ actions were illegal and demanded an apology from the United States, as well as the immediate release of Mason and Slidell. British public opinion turned so strongly against the United States over the Trent incident that preparations for war were started. This was the point when British troops were sent to Canada, and Palmerston was also close to sending the Royal Navy’s Channel Squadron across the Atlantic. Adams warned Seward that the mood of the British could lead to war.
Several factors helped defuse this situation. Prince Albert, in one of his last acts before his death, had the British government temper their demands in order to give the United States a way to back down from possible conflict. Adams and his British counterpart in Washington, Lord Lyons, made sure not to inflame the situation while waiting for instructions from their governments. Most of all, the time it took for messages to cross the ocean (usually several weeks as there was no trans-Atlantic telegraph service at this time) allowed public opinion to cool down. Eventually, the US relented and the two commissioners were allowed to continue to Europe, where they were largely ineffective.
Another incident that caused trouble between the two nations was the construction and escape of the Alabama. The Confederate government had contracts to have ships built in British shipyards. This was allowed as long as the ship wasn’t armed. The Alabama was one of these vessels and Adams tried to get the British to detain the ship by arguing that it would be armed as a privateer soon after leaving Liverpool. Russell replied that there was no legal reason to stop the Alabama from leaving port. Adams presented more proof to British authorities that the ship was due to be a warship, eventually persuading them to detain it. Unfortunately, the Alabama escaped hours before government officials arrived and proceeded to the Azores, where it was armed and set loose on the high seas. This event was seen by the United States as a violation of neutrality, and they would press claims for damages on Britain for the shipping losses caused by the Alabama. This disagreement would linger between Great Britain and the United States until 1872, when it was settled by international arbitration in Geneva, Switzerland.
The Laird Rams
After the escape of the Alabama, Adams continued to try and stop the construction of Confederate warships. He was especially focused on two ironclad Laird rams in Liverpool. It was claimed that these ships were being built for Egypt, but Adams presented proof to the contrary. The British once again hesitated to act, saying that there needed to be more evidence.
Adams now felt he had only one alternative left. He sent a message to Russell stating that if the ships were allowed to leave, the United States would have no choice but to view it as an act of war by Great Britain. Cooler heads would thankfully prevail. The British saw that at this point (late 1863) the North was gaining the upper hand in the Civil War, and realized that antagonizing them would serve no purpose. The rams were eventually purchased by the British for their own use, placing them out of the Confederates’ reach.
As 1864 began, the tensions that existed in Anglo-American relations finally began to ease. There were fewer incidents that would cause problems between the two nations, and Adams soon settled into the normal, sometimes tedious, business of running a diplomatic post. He still pressed the British on the Alabama claims, but he maintained good relations with Russell, who would become prime minister when Palmerston died in 1865.
Adams would serve in London until 1868, three years after the end of the Civil War. While he received warm tributes from Seward and several American newspapers, the British gave him even greater honors. His name was cheered in the House of Commons, and even the Times, a long-time foe, credited him for his judgment and discretion. His father and grandfather would have been amazed at these British compliments!
Thus ends the saga of the three Adams in London...
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Brookhiser, Richard. America’s First Dynasty: The Adamses, 1735-1918. New York: The Free Press, 2002.
Burk, Kathleen. Old World, New World: Great Britain and America from the Beginning. New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 2007.
Duberman, Martin B. Charles Francis Adams, 1807-1886. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1960.
Ellis, Sylvia. Historical Dictionary of Anglo-American Relations. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2009.
Foreman, Amanda. A World on Fire: Britain’s Crucial Role in the American CIvil War. New York: Random House, 2010.