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America's First Dynasty : The Adamses, 1735-1918 Paperback – February 4, 2003

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 244 pages
  • Publisher: The Free Press; 1st edition (February 4, 2003)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0684868644
  • ISBN-13: 978-0684868646
  • Product Dimensions: 8.2 x 6.2 x 0.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 8.8 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 2.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (28 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,307,122 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews Review

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 --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Publishers Weekly

"The Adams family saga satisfies our curiosity about famous figures, which is part gossip a venerable genre, from Suetonius to People part identification," writes Brookhiser in his introduction to this quartet of lively profiles of four generations of Adamses: John, the second president; his son, John Quincy, the sixth president; the latter's son, Charles Francis, diplomat and antislavery advocate; and Charles's son, historian and memoirist Henry. Brookhiser, senior editor at the National Review, deviates from the tone of his recent hagiographic works on Washington and Hamilton and presents us with quirky, often unflattering miniatures. Piecing together bits from a wide variety of letters, histories, autobiographies, speeches and legal documents, Brookhiser creates vivid, often disconcerting portraits. Reaaders see Abigail chiding husband John to "remember the ladies," but also his arguing in favor of an "aristocracy of birth"; John Quincy's powerful arguments in the Amistad case turn out to be superfluous to his winning the case. Brookhiser appears to have a love/hate relationship with his subjects. While the first three men are implicitly criticized for seeking power, Henry Adams's later prose style is described as having "the arsenic whiff of unrelieved irony, the by-product of forswearing power." There are wonderful details here John and son John Quincy reading Plutarch to each other over the breakfast table but curious lapses such as a lack of interest in the suicide of Henry's wife, Clover. All too often, however, Brookhiser's conservative politics (so evident in his 1991 The Way of the WASP) color the text: James Buchanan is described as a "gracious, gutless homosexual whose lame-duck cabinet was filled with traitors," and Elizabeth Cady Stanton's complicated race politics are ridiculed. While entertaining, Brookhiser's book feels a little thin, more of a footnote to David McCullough's richly admired biography of John Adams than an important work on its own.

Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information, Inc.

--This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Customer Reviews

It is, as with his other works, very well written.
History Buff
Brookhiser had far too many opinions, many of them about as cynical as any Henry could come up with, to make this a good book of history.
Gary E. Gilley
Still, the bad ideas -- even though they don't make up a substantial part of the book -- hang over it.
Jeffery Steele

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

23 of 26 people found the following review helpful By Kerry Walters VINE VOICE on March 3, 2002
Format: Hardcover
An interesting and nicely readable survey of four generations of one of America's founding families. Brookhiser's book doesn't have the detail of McCollough's recent biography on Adams (this isn't a complaint, by the way!). Instead, it traces family traits and dispositions through their historical and psychological course over a period of 150 years or so.
Each one of the mini-biographies of the four Adamses Brookhiser discusses--John, John Quincy, Charles, and Henry--are fascinating in themselves. But what I think is especially valuable is the thread of melancholy that seems to run through the Adams lineage, a thread Brookhiser paints with innuendo rather than bold stroke. John's ambition and frustrated pride, John Quincy's self-punishing advocacy of unpopular causes, Charles' heart-breaking need to establish a postmortem relationship with his father by editing John Quincy's multi-volumed diary, Henry's world-weariness that expresses itself in his cleverly cynical autobiography or his romantic nostalgia for a medieval period that really never was: each of the Adamses suffers from and copes with a dark side in his own way. The darkness is what makes them all so incredibly intriguing and, combined with a New England work ethic, creates a restlessness in them that probably fuels their success.
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15 of 19 people found the following review helpful By Andrew S. Rogers VINE VOICE on May 21, 2002
Format: Hardcover
Richard Brookhiser doesn't write 'biographies' in the conventional sense -- and certainly not in the modern sense, in which writers seem determined to prove that once-admired historical figures are just as messed up as the rest of us, and probably even worse. No, what Brookhiser attempts to do (as I believe he noted in 'Founding Father,' his book about George Washington) is reclaim the ancient idea of biography as a means of understanding and exploring ideas about civic virtue, citizenship, and (dare we say?) morals.
This isn't to say that Brookhiser whitewashes his subjects. Far from it: his subjects come through in this book both as sharply defined individuals and as members of a family with a very clear sense of itself and its place in history. That he chooses not to bog himself down in domestic minutia doesn't detract from the quality of the biography, and enhances the points he's trying to make.
If this book were a novel, cover blurbs would breathlessly proclaim it 'the sweeping saga of an American family across four tempestuous generations.' And the description wouldn't be far wrong. From the time of the Founding until the First World War, the Adams family was (to varying degrees at various times, but always to some extent) among the most prominent, influential, respected, and reviled families in America. Brookhiser does a fine job showing how four individual members of this family bore that inheritance, and shaped, and were shaped by, what it meant to be an Adams. If 'the contract of the [American] founding ... was a contract with their family' (p. 199), the family had contractual obligations in return. Many Adamses chose not to fulfill those 'obligations.' But the four who most notably did, did so with one eye on their times and the other on their patrimony.
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9 of 11 people found the following review helpful By John B. Maggiore on March 24, 2002
Format: Hardcover
After Richard Brookshiser's excellent - even inspirational - short biographies of George Washington and Alexander Hamilton, I eagerly purchased AMERICA'S FIRST DYNASTY with great expectations. Sadly, the book doesn't live up to my hopes, and does not do its subjects justice.
The book contains four mini-biographies (even briefer than Brookshiser's norm) of the four "great" Adamses - John, John Quincy, Charles Francis, and Henry. Their four lives spanned from 1735 through 1918 and tell the tale of America during that time. Which is part of the problem with the book - the scope is way too big for a work slightly longer than 200 pages.
While Brookshiser seemed to capture the essence of Washington and Hamilton, his scant treatment of each Adams only scratches the surface of each life. At the same time the book is more four strung-together stories, rather than an ongoing story (for instance, in chapters about one Adams, Brookshiser rarely writes about the others despite their overlapping lives). At the end of the book, perhaps in an attempt to identify trends to tie these stories together, or perhaps only to push up the page length, Brookshiser writes concluding chapters on "themes."
The book fails for another reason, having to do with the concept of "greatness." If there is such a thing as a "great man," John Adams is a legitimate candidate for the title. Brookshiser tries to make the case that the other three hold such a claim, too, but he (or rather they) fall short. John Quincy, whose story Brookshiser tells best, was an accomplished politician, but he would almost certainly be forgotten if not for his famous name, his failed presidency, and Steven Spielberg's film, AMISTAD.
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