John Adams has now been immortalized for a new generation by an HBO series based on the revisionist work of David McCullough. Adams, the temperamental founding father who was least suited to leadership now become a cult hero of sorts to younger fans of history who are unaware of Adams shortcomings thanks to McCullough's glossing over of these realities in his work. While the HBO series shows some of Adams troubles it still does a poor job of conveying his insecurities and ineffectiveness while in high office.
Richard Brookhiser is a conservative commentator and historian who wrote an insightful work on the Adams family, America's First Dynasty, a few years ago. I've always been dubious about reading anything written by Brookhiser. A longtime writer and editor for the National Review, his writing and commentary has always been at the extreme right of American political discourse. His biography of Alexander Hamilton, while well researched and written was tremendously biased towards Hamilton who modern day conservatives have tried to claim as one of their own. His denunciations of Jefferson are equally biased because modern day liberals claim Jefferson, although a strong argument can be made that with the current Northeastern/urban elitist emphasis of the Democratic Party, Hamilton should be claimed by liberals and since the GOP's emphasis has drifted south and to small town America, Jefferson should be the Conservative hero.
My reservations about Brookhiser aside, his work on the Adams family is a must read. Unlike McCullough and HBO he does not gloss over John Adams obvious flaws. He also puts Adams actions in the proper context of someone who was partriotic to a fault but also vain and insecure. The book then continues to cover the career of Adams son John Quincy Adams. Putting a great emphasis on the younger Adams experience abroad, he demonstrates how J.Q. Adams was more practical and ultimately more effective as a politician than his father.
The work then continues to focus on Charles Francis Adams and his son Henry Adams. Four generations of Adams are covered in the book, with the constant theme of dynasty and the evolution of America. I am a fan of Henry Adams who was perhaps the best historian the United States has ever produced. Henry Adams like his grandfather and father (but unlike his great grandfather, the second president) was shaped by experiences abroad at a young age and was thus able to put American policies in its proper international context. Henry Adams favorite subject was non other than his great grandfather's great rival, Thomas Jefferson.
Gary Wills, who ironically taught Brookhiser at Yale is a liberal historian. But Wills draws a similar conclusion about Henry Adams in his recent work, Henry Adams and the Making of America. Wills spends a great deal of time in the book describing Henry Adams fascination with the South and with Jefferson in particular. Wills also picks apart areas of the history where he disagrees with Henry Adams, most notably on Jefferson's embargo act and on the treason trial of Aaron Burr. Wills is among the group of historians who in the last ten years have subtly tried to rehabilitate the image of Aaron Burr. Wills engaged in similar defenses of Burr in his recent study of Jefferson, something not apparent in his earlier books about Jefferson.
Both Brookhiser and Wills books are must reads for anyone interested in American History. They are easy reads which give a quick overview of important historical figures while drawing some important and valid conclusions.
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- I am the host of the Major League Soccer Talk and EPL Talk Podcasts and am frequent guest on other (world) football shows. I am also the publisher of various other websites including this one. I work in public/government relations in addition to my soccer work and have a keen interest in history, politics, aviation, travel,and the world around us.