The Adams Family

[Little, Brown and Atlantic Monthly Press, $5.00]
MR. JAMES TRUSLOW ADAMS modestly calls his book of 550 pages ‘neither history nor biography, but an interpretative sketch of the rise of an American family.’ It is, in fact, a series of cleverly interwoven character studies of seven highly individual men who, identified with the same locality, presented in their careers an amazing demonstration of the persistence of genius from generation to generation. A century after the immigrant ancestor, Henry Adams, arrived in Massachusetts Bay in 1636, something happened to the stock, which had hitherto produced merely ‘hard-working, pious, reliable, public-spirited village folk’ in the town of Braintree; and there emerged, rather inexplicably, John Adams, the first to bring distinction to his line.
The seven personalities whom Mr. Adams describes were all Harvard graduates and students of the law. With rare analytical skill, he has revealed the family traits, — their egotism, their proneness to introspection, their morbid fears and suspicions, their passionate desire to write which led them to seek relief in diaries and autobiographies, their deficiency in humor, their censoriousness of others, their shyness which often resembled superciliousness, and their ’self-defensive brusqueness of manner,’ and, along with these weaknesses, their astonishing capacity for labor, their rigorous morals, their courage, their independence, and their faithfulness to duty. Capturns, austere, and uncompanionable, they moved through crowds, respected, but unloved. They had a genius, according to James Russell Lowell, ‘for saying even a gracious thing in an ungracious way.’ They had little magnetism, but were scornful of meanness and incapable of vulgarity. They could sacrifice themselves for a principle. ’No Adams, says Mr. Adams rightly, ‘has ever been a party man.’
Each one of the seven, however, had his own peculiar qualities. John Adams, son of a yeoman father, was a sturdy leader, who forged to the front through sheer audacity. He was jealous of Washington, he quarreled with Franklin, and he hated Hamilton; but he served his country well, and, without resorting to any of the arts of the politician, became President of the nation which he had done so much to establish. If he was bold, his son, John Quincy Adams, was restless. Educated largely in Europe, he grew up accustomed to the great. Like all the Adamses, he knew himself to be the centre of the cosmos, but he had a gift for running counter to the spirit of the age. Virtually unaided, he rose to be Secretary of State and President, battling constantly, like Don Quixote, against real and imaginary foes, and revenging himself by recording each evening in his inimitable journal his vitriolic estimates of his contemporaries. We see him in the pages of Mr. Adams’s book spending his last days on the floor of the Hall of Representatives, upholding the cause of human freedom — querulous and tactless, but not to be intimidated, the finest example in our annals of completely unselfish statesmanship.
His son, Charles Francis Adams, with probably a more perfectly balanced mind than either his father or his grandfather, began to feel ‘the accumulated weight of the family’s past.’ The spread of democracy was a factor in preventing him from attaining any high elective office, but he inherited a trend toward diplomacy, and at the Court of St. James’s during the Civil War continued the tradition established by John Adams after the Revolution and by John Quincy Adams following the War of 1812. It is significant that he spent laborious years in editing the papers of John Adams, Abigail Adams, and John Quincy Adams. It was becoming easier for the Adamses to write history than to make it.
Each of his four sons — John Quincy, Charles, Henry, and Brooks — turned inevitably to literature, although John Quincy became a leader in the Democratic Party and Charles was not only a brigadier general in the Northern Army but also an authority on railroads, Like all the Adamses, each insisted on going his own way, and each found his proper niche in nineteenthcentury America. But times had unmistakably altered, and the process of adjustment to environment was increasingly difficult for an Adams. The sensitive Henry taught at Harvard,—the Presidency of which was offered in 1869 to his brother Charles, —published his admirable History, of the United States, and finally gave the world, in The Education of Henry Adams, the ‘most thought-provoking autobiography . . . that America has produced.’
When it was printed after his death, its mordant irony and its emphasis on the futility of existence suggested that the blood was thinning out. But, as Mr. Adams shows in his Epilogue, the appearance of another Adams as Secretary of the Navy is proof that the essential virility of the original John Adams, his great-great-grandfather, has not been diluted through five generations.
Mr. Adams, equipped with a scholarship both detailed and comprehensive, has a talent for generalization, and his frequent flashes of wit throw light on noteworthy facts or anecdotes. His occasional iconoclastic disregard of conventional opinion is refreshing, as is also his unconcealed impatience with certain phases of modern civilization. He is at his best, perhaps, in summarizing the tendencies of a period or in using a scalpel on a human soul. His style, incisive yet urbane, loses nothing by its bints of irony, but the general tone throughout is sympathetic, not antagonistic. Unswayed by prejudices, he views these successive Adamses as problems in psychology, and depicts their conduct with an affectionate detachment. Although this volume is easy reading, it stimulates reflection, and one finds himself often pausing to relish a phrase or assess an idea. It is a lucid and entertaining book, worthy of its theme and of its author — a book which is, beyond a doubt, a permanent contribution to historical literature.