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Then came the outbreak which had been so often foretold, so often menaced; and the ground reeled under the nation . . . John Bright, member of Parliament and friend of the Union, Speeches of John Bright, on the American Question
Charles Francis Adams curled his fingers around the armrest of the ancient mahogany chair, feeling for the familiar groove on the underside. Wearing a finely stitched suit from London, he sat erect and still, as his mother had taught him during dark, snowy afternoons in Russia, when winter's cocoon confined them to the solemn embassy for months. But his fingertips betrayed the anxiety beneath his exterior calm. The chair had been at the White House since his father was president. Generations of politicians and other favor-seekers had camped on the Regency velvet until the brown backing showed through like the fallow field in Quincy, mowed close to the sod. The emerald plush of the armrest was dry stubble now. The president's living allowance must be as puny as ever.
Charles silently traced the deep scratch he had worried countless times as a student, waiting for his father to invite him into the book-lined office and deepening the crack as only a bored child would. He was hardly that disheveled youngster anymore. Charles was nearly as old as his father, John Quincy, had been when he labored in the White House. At fifty-three, Charles was two years older than the man who kept him waiting like a boy now.
He hoped, more intensely than he would have acknowledged even to Abby, who knew him better than anyone but his father, long dead, that the time would be well spent. He had anticipated this moment his entire life. Year after year, dreading the catastrophe, he still ached for the opportunity to prove himself. At last, the summons to history had arrived. It had been delayed so long that he almost ceased expecting it. Now, to distract himself, he concentrated on the flaw that meandered under his fingertips like the Charles River winding through cobblestoned Boston.
The door to the office opened abruptly.
"President Lincoln will see you, Mr. Adams," William Seward announced, poking his head through. Seward's words were as formal as his black wool suit, but he angled one eyebrow and flashed Charles a quick smile as he opened the door wide. "Charles," he added sotto voce, gesturing toward the inner office.
Seward's bushy white hair struggled against the pomade he used to press it flat. The thick tufts reminded Charles of the pompadour crest on the barnyard rooster back home. His old friend was only secretary of state, not president as the abolitionists had expected, yet he was still cock of the walk. Seward had let Lincoln stew in Washington's cook pot three long weeks before finally accepting the public offer of secretary. The brash New Yorker had enough nerve to equip two presidents. Charles knew no one else in politics with as much self-assurance, and he envied him.
"Good afternoon, Mr. Adams," the president said, barely glancing up from a stack of letters as Charles entered the room. A sheaf of telegrams spilled across the opposite corner of the desk. Lincoln waved a long hand at a chair across from him. "Take a seat, please. I'll be with you in a moment." He continued stabbing at the letters, signing his name in jerky bursts.
Charles studied the obscure Westerner whom fate had elevated to the republic's highest office. It was the first time he had seen Lincoln up close, aside from shaking hands in the inaugural reception line, and he marveled anew, with no conscious disrespect, at the strange debris kicked up by the wheels of the American political process.
Lincoln's nomination had been a surprise. He had served one forgettable term in Congress a decade earlier and was just as homely as the newspaper artists sketched him, with a plain, plowed face. His beard softened the angular jaw, but it couldn't hide the deep furrows running under his prominent Indian cheekbones or the dark bruises around his sunken eyes. The man was as raw as the frontier. Lincoln made weather-beaten Andrew Jackson look like a Broadway dandy. Of all the presidents Charles had knownand he had known most of themnone seemed so unfinished.
God help us, Charles thought. If appearances meant anything, the man was as fit to be president as the Quincy blacksmiththough probably less inured to the heat.
Lincoln finally pushed aside the last letter with the tip of his index finger. He wore a black broadcloth coat, tight across the shoulders, and his wrists stuck out from the cuffs. He sat at the Louis XVI table as he would a school desk, angled sideways to fit his knees. The spacious office shrank around the gangly Kentuckian, who now looked expectantly at Charles.
"Mr. Adams. Secretary Seward tells me the Senate has accepted your appointment as minister to England. It looks like Congress has seen fit to give us our wayfor once."
Clasping his hands behind his head, the president leaned backward in a long, slow stretch. His cuffs hoisted themselves higher on the bony wrists, and the buttons quivered against the strain, ready to pop. Charles noticed that one was sewed on with white thread, the other with brown. Lincoln's gray eyes bore down on him. He wondered what plan Lincoln had devised for handling Great Britain. It would have to be ingenious.
Charles leaned forward, deferent but poised. He knew he looked every bit the Boston Brahmin for which most people took him, the elegant embodiment of America's only aristocracy and its severe, Puritan rectitude.
"So it seems, sir. Even the opposition hardly objected. It was most gratifying, especially in light of our present circumstances." Charles paused, but Lincoln remained silent, watching. "I would like to thank you for your confidence, Mr. President, and for the appointment," he continued. "I've studied the issues closely. It will be tough to bring St. James's to our side, but I believe we can do it. As you know, my father and grandfather occupied the same position."
Charles stopped himself from saying more. The chronicler in him wanted to add that they, too, served in desperate times. Grandfather had bearded the British lion after the Revolution and toasted the king who had earlier threatened to hang him from a yardarm in Boston Harbor. Thirty years later, Charles's father signed the peace treaty that ended the War of 1812the second time that mighty paw had knocked America sprawling. Charles was third in his line to act as minister to the Court of St. James's. A direct descendant of the American Revolution.
But he held his tongue. To anyone outside the family, it was ancient history. The worn tale would reveal only vanity. "Beware of pride, Charlie," Grandfather had cautioned. "Strive to be useful. God alone is our witness." Besides, Lincoln would be well aware of his family's long association with these matters.
With his hands still clasped behind his head, the president now swiveled to look at Seward, causing the chair's iron mechanism to bray in protest. The secretary of state was studying a patch on the ceiling as if looking far into the future, where no one else could see. Lincoln glanced from Seward to Adams, taking the measure of one man against the other. He then placed his hands on the table with a deliberate air, and responded, "Very kind of you to say so, Mr. Adams. But there's no need to thank me. You're not my choice. You're Seward's man. I've no claim on you a'tall."
Lincoln pursed his full lips, perhaps aware that this statement was hardly a compliment, and then smiled. "I reckon you'll do just fine, though," he added. "England can't have much interest in our affairs. When can you sail?"
Years of training repaid Charles in an instant. Dismay might have shown on a less controlled man, but he had governed the display of his emotions since the age of six. All the ladies in St. Petersburg had commented upon it: a miniature diplomat. Old before he was out of short pants. The more intensely Charles felt, the more unemotional he appeared, as drum-tight as a Chinese cabinet.
"I'll be ready for London in two weeks, sir," Charles answered, his level tone unchanged. "I've already turned the family farm in Quincy over to my eldest son."
"That'll do, then," the president said, a faint twang in his tone. "Mr. Seward will send your instructions presently."
"He will send my instructions?" Charles spoke with more emphasis than he intended. Despite his low-tide opinion of Lincoln, it simply hadn't occurred to him that the president wouldn't want to discuss the looming dangers. If not now, when? Once the Royal Navy turned its lethal broadsides on America's paper fleet? Was Lincoln aware that Europe crouched in the shadows while the country careened toward war? He couldn't imagine why else Lincoln would have requested a meeting. "That is, surely you wish to discuss my instructions before I leave?" Charles said.
"This is not an opportune moment, Mr. Adams," the president said, waving his hand at the stacks of documents. One slipped sideways in the breeze and drifted to the carpet, but the president appeared not to notice. Seward bent over, then put the paper back on the desk.
"With respect, sir, don't you wish to apprise me of your plan? The queen's ministers will surely demand an explanation of our blockade. Blockades are permissible only against a foreign enemy, and yet we assert that the Confederacy remains part of the United States. It's a contradiction. Perhaps even illegal."
Charles pressed his lips together, damming the other arguments that threatened to flood forth. He mustn't appear to be instructing the presidenta member of the bar, dear Godon the finer points of maritime law. Massachusetts had best be careful lecturing Kentucky. Charles knew that more than a few Westernerswhose ancestors had braved the Appalachians for the wilds of the Ohio Valleywere tired unto death of pontificating New Englanders and the fiery rhetoric that had brought the country to the brink of destruction on which it now trembled.
"I wish I had something to tell you, Mr. Adams, but there are any number of matters that require attention at the moment. Washington is in a perpetual hurry. Appointments to be made. The army to organize. I must skip to catch up. Mr. Seward will send your instructions as soon as possible." Lincoln's expression was mild but unyielding.
Seward redirected his gaze from the ceiling to Charles. "Indeed," he confirmed with half-hooded eyes. The secretary of state stood topmast straight, his expression enigmatic.
Charles knew what Seward thought. No instructions meant no plan. The president was incapable of subtle strategy or decisive action, and he had all the savoir faire of the Mississippi River boatman he had been a few decades earlier. Seward had implied as much over breakfast a few days earlier at Willard's Hotel, around the corner from the White House. The secretary wasn't explicit, but he shook his head as he diced his sausage and eggs, reluctant to report all the gaffes from which he had had to rescue his unsophisticated superior.
Lincoln unfolded a lanky arm and handed Seward a letter from the sloping pile on his desk. "Now here's something. I do believe I have solved the vexatious problem of the Chicago Post Office," he said with a satisfied air. "We'll give it to the fellow from Peoria who lost his seat last November. A perfect spot for him to land. Like a bullfrog on a lily pad."
"Excellent, sir," Seward said. He glanced at Charles and gave a quick nod of dismissal. Apparently the interview was over.
Charles excused himself, though Lincoln hardly looked at him again. The president and Seward had moved on to other matters. Charles walked out with a dazed feeling, blinded by memories. In what was once the family office, someone neither familiar nor familial now occupied the seat of power.
Seward's man. The short phrase cut to the bone. He was no one's man, Charles thought, stunned at the implication. Appointed to the Court of St. James'sAmerica's slyest enemyand then dismissed as casually as a two-bit party hack. Like an office-seeker. An Adams. In the same breath as the Chicago Post Office. It was mortifying. And what about his instructions? How could he sail without them?
His own concentrated, intense father had toiled over every detail of strategy, every line of his correspondence, every crinkle in the boundary lines that he wrested from Spanish negotiator Don Luis de Onis. The Adams-Onis treaty of 1821 took the United States clear to the Pacific Ocean. Did Lincoln have any idea what it was like to deal with a great power? Did he understand what they were up against, as he allowed the country to drift rudderless into war? If Great Britain lent her warships to the South, as France had aided the colonies in 1776, they would cleave the country into kindling. And how could Charles possibly implement Lincoln's strategy when the man did not have one? Seward was right. The Kentuckian was unequal to the hour, leaving so much to chance.
Charles stopped at the old mahogany chair in the hushed anteroom and looked up at the oil portrait of his grandfather that hung above it. His grandfather's face looked down as dignified as ever, but Charles thought he caught a glint of amused irony playing around the familiar blue eyes. John Adams had endured a whole cabinet of men handpicked by the rival who wanted his job. Like Seward, the imperious Alexander Hamilton couldn't let go of the idea that he was the one who really ought to have been president, and Grandfather never knew whom to trust.
A small sigh escaped Charles's lips. His shoulders drooped like an abandoned Punch doll. Perhaps the "prairie statesman," as Seward had branded Lincoln when they were both vying for the Republican ticket, was reticent for a reason. Lincoln couldn't have traveled this far without being something more than he appeared.
Was the president keeping a safe distance in case Charles fell flat on his face? In all truth, Charles thought, forcing himself to look at the situation from another's point of view, he was an office-seeker. And with the appointment to St. James's, Lincoln had given him the opportunity, at long last, to be usefulthe one thing he coveted.
Charles's mouth tightened. But he would never, not ever, be Seward's man. He was an Adams. If he couldn't speak on Lincoln's authority, then vanity be damned. He would speak for the two ancestors who had bequeathed him a nation to defend. He wouldn't let them down.
He squared his shoulders. Steadied by the sermon, the new minister to Great Britain gave his grandfather a curt nod, drew up every inch of his average frame, and strode purposefully from the White House.