Brookhiser's Adamses -- cool and compact

February 10, 2002|By Joseph R. L. Sterne | By Joseph R. L. Sterne,Special to the Sun

America's First Dynasty: The Adamses, 1735-1918, by Richard Brookhiser. The Free Press. 244 pages. $25.

In his flattering, best-selling biography last year of John Adams, historian David McCullough worked prodigiously to restore the second president of the United States to his rightful place in American esteem. Three years earlier, the film Amistad portrayed John Quincy Adams, the sixth president, as the hero he was in fighting slavery after he left the White House to take a seat in Congress.

Now comes Richard Brookhiser, author of widely acclaimed short biographies of George Washington and Alexander Hamilton, with a stimulating account of the nation' s first and greatest dynasty.

For almost a century and a half, from the founding to the second decade of the 20th century, the Adams family exerted vast influence on the American psyche. The Presidents Adams, father and son, were the only Northerners to interrupt Southern control of the executive branch from Washington's inauguration until Andrew Jackson's departure 48 years later. And even then, Jackson was succeeded by a renegade Northerner, Martin Van Buren, who catered to the slave power in Dixie.

Unlike all the early presidents, the two Adamses had sons who carried on a prodigious family heritage of work, ambition and achievement. John Quincy's son, Charles Francis Adams, served as did his grandfather and father, as American envoy to Great Britain. His was the most difficult assignment: keeping Britain from overtly allying itself with the South during the Civil War. His son, Henry Adams, eschewed politics to use his biting pen to reflect on the American experience until his death in 1918 brought the four-generation dynasty to an end.

Admirers of Richard Brookhiser will not be surprised to find his treatment of the two Adams presidents as a predictable corrective to the sympathetic McCullough / Hollywood portraits. Brookhiser discards the usual birth-to-maturity-to-death formula for biography. His works are extended evaluations throbbing with life, conflict, repartee and judgment.

Indeed, "cool and compact" is a good description of the Brookhiser style. He writes so well, with so much assurance, that the wary reader would do well to keep a sharp eye on him. This is especially true in regard to John Adams, whom he flatly describes as a "failure" as president and, more surprisingly, as an opponent of the Declaration of Independence.

On the latter point, it is all too true that Adams allowed himself to be hobbled by a hostile Cabinet he inherited and retained from the second Washington administration. It is also true that he spent too much of his four presidential years back home in Massachusetts. But he overcame his personal francophobia to keep his young republic from a disastrous open war with an expansionist France.

As for the declaration, McCullough's description of John Adams as the prime mover in its passage through the Second Continental Congress rings truer than Brookhiser's quibbling over that immortal Jeffersonian phrase "All men are created equal." That Adams in writing the Massachusetts state constitution in 1780 used the phraseology "All men are born free and equal" hardly makes him a foe of the declaration. After all, he was using an approach that first surfaced in a preliminary version of Virginia's Declaration of Rights. Not a single state constitution used Jefferson's exact words.

This may seem a quibble over a quibble. But Adams and his son and his grandson were militants in the battle against slavery whereas slaveholder Jefferson asserted he was merely repeating the popular notions of the moment. And since the race question goes to the heart of American democracy, the Adams Dynasty deserves due credit for the traditions it upheld despite the canard that that this hard-scrabble New England family was monarchical and aristocratic.

Let us hope Brookhiser now turns his provocative mind and incisive pen to an evaluation of Jefferson, Madison and Monroe, the two-termers sandwiched between one-termer Adamses.

Joseph R. L. Sterne, was, for many years, editorial page editor of The Sun. He was the London correspondent from 1957 to 1960 and then covered three Kennedys as a reporter in The Sun's Washington bureau from 1960 to 1969. He is now senior fellow at Johns Hopkins Institute for Policy Studies.

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