A concise history of four famous men from the house of Adams.
John (1735–1826), John Quincy (1767–1848), Charles Francis (1807–86), and Henry (1838–1918) were a prickly bunch who always maintained their sense of self-importance, even after they failed to realize their goals and the family started its long slump into obscurity. Their other shared trait, after all, was contrariness. John was in favor of a kingly presidency, but he despaired of George Washington’s regal air even as he sought but failed to acquire it. Historian and journalist Brookhiser (Alexander Hamilton, American, 1999, etc.) calls John the first loser in American presidential history, alienating so many during his single term that he couldn’t get re-elected. John Quincy was a strident enemy of slavery not because he wanted to free slaves but because he believed that their masters wanted to lord it over free men as well. Charles Francis despised partisanship, yet he would have gotten nowhere if he hadn’t hooked up with William Seward, who as Secretary of State made him ambassador to England. And Henry, who found post–Civil War politics vulgar, nonetheless moved to Washington and became a political journalist. Brookhiser, an admirer of WASP culture, is fascinated by the Adamses’ tendency to play out in the public arena exploits that were really directed toward family members. John wanted to impress Samuel Adams. John Quincy had to impress his father. The work Charles Francis most appreciated was the editing of his father’s diaries. And Henry could breathe a sigh of relief only after he wrote “Mont Saint Michel and Chartres” as a testament to his family’s genius. One wishes that the female members of the tribe had received some attention here. They must have been impressive characters, or no Adams would have married them in the first place.
Brookhiser elegantly undermines his subjects even as he sympathetically records their importance as a crucial link between Americans of several generations and their national past.