A study of the devolution of America’s first dynasty as it reflected the nation’s increasingly democratic and unruly dynamic.
American history scholar Egerton (History/Le Moyne Coll.; Thunder at the Gates: The Black Civil War Regiments That Redeemed America, 2016, etc.) delves deeply into the third, fourth, and fifth generations of the Adams, finding them more “cripple[ed]” than entitled by the legacy of the great Revolutionary hero and second president, John Adams, and even that of his illustrious son, John Quincy Adams, who served both as president and anti-slavery congressman. As the author discovered while wading through vast amounts of research material—the dense narrative, packed with layered family detail, will lose some readers—the problem was that the Adams “progeny grew up aware of the perfectionist standards demanded of them, but equally mindful of their failures to reach those goals.” Alcoholism plagued several of the promising youth—e.g., John Quincy’s two brothers, Charles and Thomas—as well as those of the next generation, including two of John Quincy’s sons—George and John II—who both died as young men. The one son of John Quincy to carry on valiantly into Victorian responsibility was Charles Francis (Sr.), who was elected to Congress yet never captured the presidency; he also served on the court of St. James in London during the Civil War. His sons were a motley assortment: Charles Francis Jr. enlisted on the Northern side of the war out of familial obligation, but he expressed dismaying racist views. John Quincy II was the first to abandon the Republican Party for the Democratic Party “because of his disaffection for Reconstruction reforms.” Henry, rather more versatile, served as his father’s secretary in London and became a notable journalist and historian. As for the women of the family, many were gifted, yet most were thwarted. Thankfully, Egerton provides a family tree, which readers will want to keep handy.
A deeply researched, recondite, occasionally mind-scrambling maze of familial relations and historical detail.