Born at Derby, Vermont, January 24, 1835. His early years were spent upon farms in his native state and Iowa. He had passed his majority before he could afford time to fit himself for college. Matriculating at the University of Michigan in 1857, he supported himself by teaching school and doing other work, and graduated in 1861, obtaining the degree of M.A. from his Alma Mater in the following year.
At first serving in the University as instructor in Latin and History, he was advanced in 1863 to the position of assistant professor. Four years later he was given the full professorship of History, and immediately thereafter spent a year and a half in study at leading universities in Germany, France, and Italy. Soon after returning to his post at Michigan, he established there a seminary in history, upon the German plan, one of the first in this country. In due course, he became Dean of the School of Political Science, and established a wide reputation as a student and teacher of history.
He had for some time been the non-resident lecturer on history at Cornell University, when, in 1885, he was called to the presidency of that institution. Under his administration, the numerical attendance there advanced from 560 to over 1,500, and the University's endowment was increased by nearly two million dollars. In many ways, he broadened and deepened the work at Cornell, but resigned in 1892 with the intention of thereafter devoting himself to historical writing.
He at once, however, received several invitations to resume educational work; and finally, though with much hesitancy, accepted the call to the presidency of the University of Wisconsin, entering upon his duties at the beginning of the academic year of 1892-93, although he was not formally inaugurated until January 1893. He enjoyed the reputation of being one of the leading educators in the United States. He was the author of many articles on history. The degree of LL.D. was conferred upon him by Harvard University in 1886.
An invincible purpose to accomplish whatever he set before him was President Adams' most characteristic trait. He resigned the presidency of the University on January 4, 1902. He died July 26, 1902.