Charles Adams was born in the township of Derby, Vermont on January 24, 1835, but his family moved to Iowa in 1856. Adams studied history at the University of Michigan where he graduated in 1861. He received a master’s degree in history from Michigan in 1862 and began teaching there. He eventually became a full professor of history and then dean of the School of Political Science at Michigan.
In 1885 he was chosen as president of Cornell University, where he had also taught courses. In May 1892 Adams resigned at Cornell, and in July he was offered the presidency at Wisconsin. The regents made his appointment official on September 20, 1892, and he was inaugurated on January 17, 1893. Adams continued to build on the foundation that Chamberlin established, attracting new faculty who were able scholars and guiding the large growth of the student population.
Adams developed good working relationships with the state and local governments, and these helped him secure funding for several important building projects on campus. The State Historical Society of Wisconsin building, which housed the libraries of the society and the university, was constructed during his administration, as was a new law building, soils building, and the Armory (Red Gym).
Unfortunately, Adams developed serious health problems in early 1900, and he was on leave for most of that year and the next. He resigned the presidency on October 11, 1901, but the regents postponed formal acceptance until January 1902. In the meantime, Adams had moved to California hoping to recuperate, but he died in Redlands on July 26, 1902