They were America's longest lasting dynasty, the closest thing to a royal family our nation has ever known. The Adamses played a leading role in America's affairs for nearly two centuries -- from John, the self-taught lawyer who rose to the highest office in the government he helped to create; to John Quincy, the child prodigy who followed his father to the White House and fought slavery in Congress; to Charles Francis, the Civil War diplomat; to Henry, the brilliant scholar and journalist. Indeed, the history of the Adams family can be read as the history of America itself. For when the Adamses "looked at their past, they saw the nation's," writes author Richard Brookhiser. "When they looked at the nation's past, they saw themselves."
"America's First Dynasty" charts the family's travels through American history along with an impressive cast of characters, among them George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Ulysses S. Grant, and Theodore Roosevelt. Brookhiser also details the darker side of the Adams experience, from the specters of alcoholism and suicide to the crushing burden of performance passed on from father to son. Yet by putting a human face on this legendary family, Brookhiser succeeds in creating an impassioned, heroic family portrait that the American public is not likely to forget.
In the spirit of his earlier books, Alexander Hamilton: American and Founding Father: Rediscovering George Washington, Richard Brookhiser produces an elegant, concise volume drawing on previous scholarship but offering a fresh perspective on four prickly generations of Adamses. Until David McCullough's John Adams became a surprise bestseller, the United States' second president and his descendants seldom had good press. Acknowledging John's essential role in the American Revolution and his son John Quincy's principled fight against slavery, contemporaries and historians nonetheless judged both men poor presidents, characterized by haughty pride and stiff-necked dislike of compromise. Charles Francis Adams, John Quincy's son, lost an almost certain chance to run for president as a Republican in 1872 by disdainfully announcing "that he would reject any nomination that had to be negotiated for;" the most famous book by Charles's son, The Education of Henry Adams (1907), implicitly blames Henry's failure to achieve the prominence of his forefathers on the loss of meaning and coherence in the modern, fragmented world. Tracing the lives and careers of these four men, Brookhiser strikes a balance between their struggles with a daunting heritage and battles with the often unappreciative outer world, identifying "the constant companion of the Adamses" as "the idea of greatness. Am I as great as my ancestors? As great as my contemporaries? Why doesn't the world recognize my greatness?" This proves a sensible organizing principle for his graceful reappraisal of a well-known but not often well-understood family. --Wendy Smith