America's First Dynasty: The Adamses, 1735-1918by Richard Brookhiser
Richard Brookhiser has won a wide and loyal following for his stylish, pointed, and elegant biographies of George Washington and Alexander Hamilton. In America's First Dynasty, Brookhiser tells the story of America's longest and still greatest dynasty -- the Adamses, the only family in our history to play a leading role in American affairs for nearly two centuries. From John, the self-made, tough-minded lawyer who rose to the highest office in the government he helped create; to John Quincy, the child prodigy who grew up amid foreign royalty, followed his father to the White House, and later reinvented himself as a champion of liberty in Congress; to politician and writer Charles Francis, the only well-balanced Adams; to Henry, brilliant scholar and journalist -- the Adamses achieved longer-lasting greatness than any other American family.
Brookhiser's canvass starts in colonial America, when John Adams had to teach himself the law and ride on horseback for miles to find clients. It does not end until after the Titanic sinks -- Henry had booked a room but changed his plans -- and World War I begins, with Henry near the action in France. The story of this single family offers a short course in the nation's history, because for nearly two hundred years Adams history was American history. The Adamses were accompanied by an impressive cast of characters, from George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, to Andrew Jackson and Ulysses Grant, to Teddy Roosevelt. America's First Dynasty offers telling portraits of the great men of our past, and many of the women around them. John and Abigail's great love affair was destined to be repeated by their offspring and offspring's offspring.
As with any family, there was a darker side to the Adams story: many of its members were abject failures. Alcoholism was a familiar specter, and suicide was not unknown. Only one of the four great Adamses was a kind man and father; the others set standards so impossibly high that few of their children could meet them. Yet despite more than a century of difference from John to Henry, certain Adams traits remained the same. In the story of our first and still-greatest family, we can all see something of our own struggles with family, fate, and history.
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Read an Excerpt
The first time anyone asked a member of the Adams family about his famous ancestors, she was joking.
In April 1778, John Adams, lately of the Continental Congress, arrived in Bordeaux, France, to represent the new nation as a diplomat. His second day ashore, he was introduced to polite conversation at European dinner tables. "Mr. Adams," a pretty young woman asked him, "by your name I conclude you are descended from the first man and woman." Did he know of any family tradition that might explain how Adam and Eve "found out the art of lying together"? "I believe at first I blushed," wrote Adams in his diary that night, but "I was determined not to be disconcerted." He replied that a "physical quality," like magnetism, caused any pair of Adams and Eves that drew "within a striking distance" to fly together, "like the needle to the pole." "It is a very happy shock," the lady said.
John went on to assignments in Holland and Britain, as well as honors and offices at home, and soon enough Adamses were being questioned about their forebears in earnest. In 1795, John Quincy Adams, John's eldest son, was in London on a diplomatic mission of his own, and met George III, the king against whom his father had rebelled. His Majesty asked if all the Adamses "belong to Massachusetts"? An attendant minister told him they did, whereupon he asked John Quincy if his father was now governor.
"No, Sir, he is Vice President of the United States."
"Ay," said the king, "and he cannot hold both offices at the same time?"
If the new nation was still only dimly understood, its first dynasty was already known.
Twenty years later, John Quincy was back in London, this time as American minister to Great Britain, and had a similar conversation with George III's son, the Prince Regent, who ruled during his father's final illness. After they exchanged greetings, the Prince Regent asked John Quincy if he "was related to Mr. Adams who had formerly been the Minister from the United States here. I said I was his son." One member of the House of Hanover was preparing to succeed his father on the throne of England; a member of the house of Adams was following in his father's footsteps.
John Quincy went on to be secretary of state, president, and, as a congressman, a scourge of slavery and its political representatives. While he was in the White House, he hosted a dinner for Lafayette, the aged hero of the Revolution, who had met him and his father almost forty years earlier. At dinner, Lafayette pointed to nineteen-year-old Charles Francis, the President's youngest son, and the man who would be most famous among the third generation of famous Adamses, and solemnly asked the First Lady to see to it that he never "entertain thoughts of becoming President save by the free choice of the people." Charles Francis never entertained such thoughts, nor did the people ever choose him. But in 1848, he succeeded his father in the affections of antislavery men, when he was nominated to be the vice presidential candidate of the Free Soil party. "Yes, Sir, we want him," said a delegate from Wisconsin. "There he is with the crape on his hat." John Quincy had died six months earlier; Charles Francis, still in mourning, was treated as if he bore his transmigrated spirit.
Not everyone viewed the Adams family history favorably. Henry Adams, Charles Francis's third son, moved to Washington, D.C., after the Civil War, to represent the fourth generation of Adamses there, as a political journalist rather than a politician. One of his targets, Senator Timothy Howe of Wisconsin, declared that Henry belonged "to a family in which statesmanship is preserved by propagation," like "color in the leaf of the Begonia, perpetuating resemblance by perpetual change." "To be abused by a Senator is my highest ambition," Henry wrote a friend. "My only regret is that I cannot afford to hire a Senator to abuse me permanently." Henry wrote with the enthusiasm of youth: He would go on observing senators, with diminishing humor, for another forty-eight years. By the end of Henry's life, the Adamses had been center stage, or in the front row of the orchestra, for almost a century and a half. They had been present at the creation -- not, French banter aside, of the world, but of the country -- and at many of its pivotal scenes.
The United States is formally an egalitarian nation -- the Declaration of Independence (John Adams was on the drafting committee) states that all men are created equal. Yet political families weave through its history. In the 2000 presidential election, Vice President Al Gore, Jr., son of Senator Albert Gore, ran against George W. Bush, son of President George Bush and grandson of Senator Prescott Bush. The wife of the outgoing president, Hillary Clinton, became a senator. One of the signers of the Declaration was Benjamin Harrison (an "indolent, luxurious, heavy gentleman," John Adams called him), a charter member of the Virginia gentry. His son, William Henry Harrison, became president, as did William Henry's grandson, Benjamin Harrison. Franklin Roosevelt was Theodore Roosevelt's fifth cousin; Eleanor Roosevelt (her maiden name) was TR's niece. One of Henry Adams's friends and intellectual foils was Henry Cabot Lodge, who became a senator from Massachusetts. Lodge's great-grandfather, George Cabot, had been a senator from Massachusetts, and an enemy of John and John Quincy Adams. Lodge's grandson, also named Henry Cabot Lodge, became yet another Massachusetts senator, until he was beaten by John Kennedy, and a fresher dynasty. Political families regularly flare to national prominence, or sink to lower levels (like the Tafts); or they keep percolating along as local fixtures. In 2000 the representative for the eleventh congressional district of New Jersey was Rodney Frelinghuysen. The first political Frelinghuysen, Frederick, represented New Jersey in the Continental Congress in 1778, the year John Adams went to France.
Political families pass on inclination, as well as opportunity: The founding pols give their children prominence and contacts, while the talk around the dinner table, and the family pictures on the wall or in the scrapbooks, provide inspiration and example. John Adams expected these hereditary concentrations of power: They had marked the relatively free institutions of the colonies, and would survive independence. "Go into every village in New England," he wrote in 1787, "and you will find that the office of justice of the peace" has "descended from generation to generation in three or four families at most." No family will ever be as famous as the Adamses, whose role in the founding gives them a leg up even on the Roosevelts, but, as long as there are elections, people will vote for candidates whose names they recognize. It is the tribute democracy pays to aristocracy.
The Adamses also defined themselves as a meritocracy. They inspired their descendants to hold office, but they also required them to work for it. They did not expect fame and power to come to them by virtue of their birth alone. They trained themselves to live up to their birth -- and then they expected fame and power to come to them. John Quincy Adams's parents told him that his career should reflect his "advantages"; if it did not, it would be due to his "lasiness, slovenliness, and obstinacy." When Charles Francis Adams suggested that he might drop out of college, his father threatened him with "perdition." The Adamses who could not make the grade often did suffer earthly forms of perdition. In the second and third generations, there were six sons: one president, one diplomat, and four drunkards, one of whom was a suicide, and one of whom may have been driven to drink by the pressures of being gay.
The family employed carrots as well as sticks. Adamses took their sons with them to Europe on diplomatic missions; they also employed them as private secretaries. Young Adamses lived, as a matter of course, in Washington, London, Paris, and St. Petersburg, and hobnobbed with congressmen and kings. Home life was a long tutorial, a graduate-level course begun in infancy, conducted by presidents-in-residence.
Yet Americans have played a trick on this intensely political family. They tell the Adams story as if it were a purely domestic saga, a Yankee Buddenbrooks. The first historian to do so was Charles Francis Adams, who began publishing the letters of John and Abigail Adams in 1840. "The great men of the Revolution," he wrote in his introduction, "in the eyes of posterity, are many of them like heroes of a mythological age. They are seen, chiefly, when conscious that they are upon a theatre, where individual sentiment must be sometimes disguised, and often sacrificed, for the public good." But Charles Francis Adams offered, in the private thoughts of a great man and woman, the intimacy of the inside story. "Students of human nature...look for the workings of the heart." Only "the solitary meditation, the confidential whisper" provide true "guides to character" and to "the springs of action." Charles Francis's approach struck a chord. The husband and wife letters of the Adamses, detailed and tart, pop up in every history or biography of the period, and keep coming back into print. Phrases from them are sung by John and Abigail in the musical 1776. Publications about the first Adamses and their nuclear family constitute an industry, while smaller industries have grown up to cover the private lives of later Adamses, chiefly Henry and his wife and friends. The Adams Family Chronicles re-created the whole clan for public television, and the scholar Paul Nagel has tirelessly distilled the vast materials of the family archives into manageable narratives.
The Adams family saga satisfies our curiosity about famous figures, which is part gossip -- a venerable genre, from Suetonius to People -- part identification. Few of us are going to be president, and no presidents nowadays get to be revolutionaries. But all of us had families, and most of us form new ones. In the Adamses we find every variety of parent, child, and sibling. Abigail is -- mistakenly -- thought of as the only political woman of the late eighteenth century, and her letter to her husband asking the Continental Congress to "remember the ladies" is treasured as a proto-feminist appeal. Among her unsung peers was Mercy Otis Warren, an Adams family friend until she published a history of the Revolution that ferociously attacked John. But the Warrens have been deficient in PR.
Presenting the Adamses at home not only serves our needs; it also serves the family, coating its flaws with empathy and pathos. The Adamses need the help, for although they are admirable, and frequently lovable, they are seldom likable. Benjamin Franklin's famous judgment of John Adams, with whom he worked and fought for several years -- "Always an honest man, often a wise one, but sometimes, and in some things, absolutely out of his senses" -- can serve as a motto for much of his family (Abigail included). The Adamses typically envy the talents and achievements of others, while venomously reckoning their real or imagined failings. When the Adamses are engaged, they are apt to be prickly and temperamental ("I am the drollest little, peppery, irritable, explosive old man of sixty-two that ever was," Henry told one friend); when they are not on the offensive, it is often because they are deeply depressed (sometimes for good reason, sometimes for reasons that they themselves have created). Charles Francis, who was the most equable, accomplished this only at the cost of being more than a little dull.
All men have flaws and tics; the flaws of the Adamses limited their public effectiveness. Although two of them became president, they were failures in office. If the two Adams administrations were the family's only legacy, we would not be interested in them. For the last fifty years there has been an effort to re-evaluate John's administration upward, by positing him as a moderate midpoint between the extremism of Thomas Jefferson's Republicans and Alexander Hamilton's High Federalists. It would be more accurate to say that John Adams was an extremist throughout his four years in office, who switched sides (from High Federalist to crypto-Republican). There have been fewer efforts to salvage the presidency of John Quincy Adams, because the task is so obviously impossible. Adams presidential revisionism is thankless work; family history is a welcome distraction.
There is another way to look at the Adams family, which is the way that they mostly saw themselves -- as figures in the theater of history. Charles Francis might pitch his grandparents' letters as a backstage view, but all the Adamses, even at times Charles Francis, lived for the roles they played, and the effect they had on the audience, which was the country, and the world. In early July 1776 John wrote his wife a prophetic letter describing Congress's vote for independence: "[I]t will be celebrated, by succeeding generations, as the great anniversary festival....It ought to be solemnized with pomp and parade, with shews, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires and illuminations from one end of this continent to the other, from this time forward forever more." "[Y]our letters," she answered, "never fail to give me pleasure, be the subject what it will." Yet the pleasure she took from his last "was greatly heightened by the prospect of the future happiness and glory of our country; nor am I a little gratified when I reflect that a person so nearly connected with me has had the honor of being a principal actor." John had played a leading role, and the drama would always be in the repertory. More than a century later, the stakes were different but equally high. Henry Adams complained in a 1904 letter about the atmosphere of Theodore Roosevelt's White House -- "a boys' school run wild...mortifying beyond even drunkenness" -- but added that "one wants to listen at the key-hole. I think this place is now the political centre of the world." The Adamses did great things, and when others did them (or failed to do them) they watched closely.
Their family history was History. When they looked at their past, they saw the nation's; when they looked at the nation's past, they saw themselves. Their inherited likes and dislikes (mostly the latter) were political; the crafty acquaintances and treacherous neighbors who did their fathers and grandfathers wrong were generals, senators, and cabinet members; the friends who gave them a helping hand were presidents. In 1818, when John Quincy writes in his diary about calling on the painter John Trumbull to see the progress of "The Declaration of Independence," one of his historical paintings for the Rotunda of the Capitol -- "I cannot say I was disappointed with the execution of it," wrote Adams, "because my expectations were very low" -- we may need to remind ourselves that John Quincy's father is in the picture, in a brown suit and white stockings, right hand on hip, left leg bent. John Quincy and every other Adams, including John himself, could never forget where they stood.
The constant companion of the Adamses, like an extra member of the family in each generation, is the idea of greatness. What is a great man? How great am I? Am I as great as my ancestors? As great as my contemporaries? Why doesn't the world recognize my greatness? These are the family questions, inspirations, and anxieties. They begin with young John Adams, during the French and Indian War ("I talk with Sam Quincy about resolution, and being a great man," he wrote at age twenty-one, "which makes him laugh"), or even earlier, when at age ten he heard his father discussing with friends King George's War; they are still being asked by Henry Adams on the eve of World War I. The idea of greatness crushes and stimulates them; it is reinforced by the great deeds they witness firsthand, or in which they have a hand. The Adams family wished to be judged, and constantly judged themselves, by the standard of greatness. Our interest in their domesticity confuses the picture. Only when we strip them of the spurious advantages conferred by sentiment can we do justice to their achievements and see them as heroes (when they deserve the title), not mascots.
Great men have large and positive effects on their times and on the future, either through their actions or their thoughts. This book will look at the four Adamses -- John, John Quincy, Charles Francis, and Henry -- who meet this test. John's wife and Henry's brothers are interesting, but only these four touch greatness: John, as a patriot and a diplomat during the Revolution; John Quincy, as a policy maker before his presidency and an enemy of the slave power after it; Charles Francis, as a diplomat during the Civil War; Henry, as an artist. If you had to jot their achievements on a business card, it would be a speech and a treaty (John), a doctrine and a fight (John Quincy), a sentence (Charles Francis), and a book (Henry). This is a heterogeneous list, but everything on it changed the world or, in the case of Henry's book, has the potential to enlarge our minds.
Despite their differences in talents, careers, and circumstances, each of the Adamses goes through three phases of public life: initiation into the family and its public role; comparison with the great non-Adamses who are his peers and rivals; justification of what he, and his ancestors, have done. Certain themes run through all their lives and continue to engage us today, more than eighty years after Henry's death: the importance of writing and the meaning of history; the jostling of empire and republic in American history. One theme that preoccupied all the Adamses, and that concerns Bushes, Gores, and Clintons today, is how to perpetuate a legacy that must also be learned. Great actors often have great exits, and two of the Adamses had deaths as dramatic as those of any American public figure.
The Adamses were a public family. Politics, war, and peace were their vocations; politicians, warriors, and diplomats, past and present, were their soulmates and enemies. When the family lost contact with public affairs at the highest level, they snapped out like a candle in the wind, and became ordinary sons of Adam, like the rest of us.
Copyright © 2002 by Richard Brookhiser
Meet the Author
Richard Brookhiser is the author of Alexander Hamilton, American (1999), Founding Father: Rediscovering George Washington (1995), and The Way of the WASP (1991), all published by The Free Press. He is a Senior Editor at The National Review and a New York Observer columnist. He contributes to such publications as American Heritage and The New York Times. He lives in New York City.
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