Monday, September 6, 2010

Book Review: The Adams Chronicles: Four Generations of Greatness

I'm not quite sure where I picked up The Adams Chronicles: Four Generations of Greatness by Jack Shepherd [1975, Little, Brown and Company, ISBN 0-316-78497-4]. It cost me $2.00, whereas it sold new, at its second printing in 1976, for $17.50, and used at a previous time for $5.98. I bought it thinking it would be a good history read. It was, and I'm glad I parted with the two.

The book covers four generations of the Adams family, beginning with John, second president. he was the fourth generation of Adamses born in America, but the first we know anything about. For many years history regarded him as almost an accidental founding father—an elitist, a monarchist, a distruster of rule by the people. More recent scholarship has returned him to a place of prominence among the American revolutionaries.

Much of John Adams' writings fueled the Revolution. An example is his recording of James Otis' argument, in 1761, against the Writs of Assistance. Since Otis was later deranged and burned most of his personal papers, most of what we know of this opening salvo of rebellion against England comes from John Adam's notes. I was happy that Adams wrote an opinion about this event that accords with my own: "Independence was then and there born."

John Quincy Adams is treated fairly by the book. His diplomatic successes, his failed presidency, his later Congressional career, and his efforts against slavery and for the Union are all described. I knew less about him than I had about John, and this book went a long way toward filling my educational gap.

I knew even less about the next two generations, having heard of Charles Francis Adams but knowing nothing about him or his career or his sons. They are treated in the book in less depth than the two presidents, which I suppose should be expected. Charles Francis Adams and his four sons who lived to adulthood—John Quincy II, Charles Francis Jr, Henry, and Brooks—spent less and less time with politics and more with literary and business pursuits.

Charles Francis Adams had a diplomatic and political career, even being considered for nomination as presidential candidate once, but he also spent much time editing his grandparents' and father's writings. Charles Francis Jr. began as a journalist but went into railroads, becoming president of the Union Pacific Railroad until he was forced out just before the Panic of 1893. Henry Adams did mostly writing, primarily of history but also a couple of novels. John Quincy II had a political career, trying to rebuild the Democratic party after the Civil War. Brooks, the youngest, had the least paragraphs in the book. He led a quiet life of writing and described himself as "a crank, very few people can endure to have be near soon as I join a group of people they all melt away and disappear."

The author made a valid attempt to show the family's faults alongside their good qualities; yet I sense he was not neutral (duh; the subtitle tells me that). He generally likes the Adamses and sees them as a positive force in American history. The writing is good and captivating. It took me only fourteen sessions to get through the 452 pages, including the historo-babble filled Introduction by Daniel J. Boorstin. The book is well illustrated, and has an adequate index.

By 21st century standards, the book can be faulted for its lack of documentation. It has no footnotes. Thus it would be classified as a popular rather than a scholarly history. The bibliography implies the author relied primarily on original family writings. Some notes as to sources would have been nice.

While this is a good book, a worthwhile read, it is not a keeper. If I do any more study on the Adamses I would want to do it from the primary sources. As soon as I note a few things from the bibliography, off to the garage sale pile it goes.

No comments: