Friday, August 28, 2015

American Dynasty

America's First Dynasty: The Adamses, 1735-1918America's First Dynasty: The Adamses, 1735-1918 
by Richard Brookhiser

“So Henry Adams, well aware that he could not succeed as a scholar, and finding his social position beyond improvement or need of effort, betook himself to the single ambition which otherwise would scarcely have seemed a true outcome of the college, though it was the last remnant of the old Unitarian supremacy. He took to the pen. He wrote.”   ― Henry Adams, The Education of Henry Adams

Richard Brookhiser has written biographies of Presidents Madison and Washington, revolutionary statesmen Hamilton and Gouvernor Morris, and most recently a book on Lincoln, but my favorite of his biographies that I have read is America's First Dynasty: The Adamses, 1735-1918. The dates alone, spanning three centuries, suggest the significance of this family on the history of the United States.

The first two of the dynasty, John and his son John Quincy both became President. The father was one of the leaders of the American Revolution while the son was both President and, later, member of the House of Representatives from Massachusetts. John's grandson Charles Francis also had a brilliant political career that included a term as Minister to England in the Lincoln Administration. The fourth Adams of this dynasty, John's great grandson Henry Adams, found his greatness in literature both as an academic historian and with the publication of his autobiography, The Education of Henry Adams, a classic that is read to this day.

Their story begins with John Adams, a self-taught lawyer who rode horseback to meet clients, and ends with Henry Adams in France as World War I begins and he returns to Washington, D. C. This is a well told overview of a family dynasty that more than any other helped make the United States the great nation it is today.

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Stephen said...

I've become very fond of the Adams in recent years, largely thanks to David McCullough and Joseph Ellis. You've read "The Education of Henry Adams", I think?

James said...

Thanks for your comment. Yes, I read The Education of Henry Adams several years ago (BB, before blogging). At some point I hope to read Garry Wills' book, Henry Adams and the Making of America.

Brian Joseph said...

This book is of great interest to me as the American Revolutionary War era is kind of a lifelong subject of interest.

I think that after all was said and done, despite his grouchiness, John Adams is the Founding Father that I admire the most.

James said...

Thanks for your observation. I find it hard to choose among founding fathers. I admire Adams' conservatism yet find Franklin and Jefferson both attractive as paragons of Enlightenment and reason.

Stephen said...

A biography of Jefferson called 'American Sphinx' characterizes him fairly well; his contempt for centralized power and avowed support for agrarianism makes him attractive to rural conservatives these days, and yet in his way he was a progressive of the time, wooed by "The People" and the French mob's dreams of completely tearing down society to build it in their image. Fortunately he was more prudent while in office, although by that time the French had revealed themselves to be completely off their rocker at that point. His characterization in HBO's "John Adams" strikes me as appropriate -- he is hopeful, but sad. He sees the best in a species that often acts at its worst. His role in a book I'm about to start reading ("The Quartet") should be interesting.

James said...

I read American Sphinx when it was first published and remember being impressed with Ellis' narrative. Your characterization of the French is well put.
Jefferson's agrarian approach to politics faded fairly quickly with the rise of the populism of Jackson followed by Van Buren and the start of the traditional Democrat party (the one that has mostly disappeared).