Charles Francis Adams II was born May 27, 1835, the son of Charles Francis Adams (1807-86), and through him the grandson of President John Quincy Adams (1767-1848) and the great-grandson of President John Adams (1735-1826). After graduating from Harvard University in 1856 (the same school his father, grandfather, and great-grandfather graduated from), he served during the US Civil War. Initially a captain in a Massachusetts cavalry regiment, he saw combat in several battles, and retired as a brevet brigadier general. After the war, he served on the Massachusetts Railroad Commission, and then was president of the Union Pacific Railroad from 1884 to 1890. From 1893 to 1895, he was chairman of the Massachusetts Park Commission.
As a railroad executive, he attempted to expose corrupt business practices, in the hope that businessmen would be shamed into mending their ways. But he also held true to a regulatory philosophy, viewing regulation as necessary to protect investors and businessmen.
Adams was also a historian, and became president of the Massachusetts Historical Society in 1895 and the American Historical Association in 1901. He wrote extensively on the problems of railway management, his business philosophies, and on other historical subjects. In January 1913, at the Founders' Day Celebration at Harvard University, he gave this address, looking back on the sixty years since he'd first entered Harvard as a student.
Charles Francis Adams II died a week before his 80th birthday, on May 20, 1915.