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America's First Dynasty: The Adamses, 1735-1918 Hardcover – February 12, 2002

2.8 out of 5 stars 30 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com 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

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.


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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Free Press; 1st edition (February 12, 2002)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0684868814
  • ISBN-13: 978-0684868813
  • Product Dimensions: 6.3 x 0.9 x 9.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 2.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (30 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #2,035,747 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

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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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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If you think a dysfunctional family is a modern phenomenon, think again. The Adames were ambitious and filled with self doubt. Brookhiser gives the reader a small glimpse at this First American family. The first part: the biographies of each of the four Adames is clever, insightful and entertaining. The second part is disjointed and confusing. Recommend this work for the more serious academic. It's a little dense for the general reader. But I'm glad that I bought it!
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Format: Hardcover
For a quick introduction to the highlights to four generations of the Adams Family, “America’s First Dynasty’ is an excellent choice. It chooses one figure from each of t first four generations, John, John Quincy, Charles Francis and Henry. It shows how the family morphed from revered politicians of action into respected historians who chronicled their own history for the rest of us.

Many know about the presidents, John and John Quincy, but few are familiar with Charles Francis’ critical role in the Civil war as American Ambassador to the Court of St. James during which he struggled to prevent British recognition of the Confederacy and delivery of warships to it, as well as his later representation of his country at the arbitration of claims arising out of the damage done by the C.S.S. Alabama. His dabbling in politics over, Charles Francis switched over the role of historian with his compilation of his father’s papers. As America changed the Adams family did with it. Recognizing that, in his day, politics was not the center of action that it had been previously, Henry made his career as an historian, professor and confident of political leaders, primarily John Hay and Theodore Roosevelt. Even though I have read much about the Adams family, I learned facts and recognized threads running through their lives. Alcoholism and suicide were multi-generational tragedies while irritating personalities remained a lingering trait. I had not been aware of Charles Francis’ dabbling in third party movements and the reasonableness of what may seem to us to be futile quests.

Author Richard Brookhiser has created an easy to read history of our First Dynasty and, through them, of our nation.
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