They were America's longest lasting dynasty, the closest thing to a royal family our nation has ever known. The Adamses played a leading role in America's affairs for nearly two centuries -- from John, the self-taught lawyer who rose to the highest office in the government he helped to create; to John Quincy, the child prodigy who followed his father to the White House and fought slavery in Congress; to Charles Francis, the Civil War diplomat; to Henry, the brilliant scholar and journalist. Indeed, the history of the Adams family can be read as the history of America itself. For when the Adamses "looked at their past, they saw the nation's," writes author Richard Brookhiser. "When they looked at the nation's past, they saw themselves."
America's First Dynasty charts the family's travels through American history along with an impressive cast of characters, among them George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Ulysses S. Grant, and Theodore Roosevelt. Brookhiser also details the darker side of the Adams experience, from the specters of alcoholism and suicide to the crushing burden of performance passed on from father to son. Yet by putting a human face on this legendary family, Brookhiser succeeds in creating an impassioned, heroic family portrait that the American public is not likely to forget.
"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.