On how much Henry Adams had to live up to, and why I believe he did.
Taken individually, second cousins John Adams and Samuel Adams would each be among the upper echelon of impressive Americans; taken together (especially if we add in John’s amazing wife Abigail), the pair exemplifies much of what comprised the Revolutionary and Founding eras. Despite both taking part in the Continental Congress and signing the Declaration of Independence, the two men generally pursued very distinct yet complementary Revolutionary paths: John’s far more national, culminating in his two terms as the nation’s first Vice President and one as its second President; and Samuel’s more local, as illustrated by his influential terms in the Massachusetts Assembly and his continuous and fiery political journalism and activism throughout those years. Quite simply, no family was more central to the Revolutionary cause and its aftermath.
When John’s son John Quincy Adams won the Presidency twenty-eight years after his father, he extended that familial legacy into the Early Republic era. Quincy Adams, coming off a hugely influential term as James Monroe’s Secretary of State, did not meet with the same success as president; “Old Man Eloquent” was perhaps too staid, and the Adams family perhaps too Whiggish, for the moment that would immediately thereafter produce Jacksonian Democracy. But it’s far too easy to understate the significance of one family—one father-son combination, no less—serving as two of the nation’s first six presidents, and (with John’s vice presidency thrown in) occupying the executive branch for four of the first ten total terms of office. Much has been made of Virginia’s early hold on the presidency, but those four executives came from four different families; I think the Adams clan takes the prize.
Given that legacy, it’s understandable that Henry Adams, John Quincy’s grandson, suffered from some well-documented self-doubts, both about his own worthiness and about his family’s relevance to a changed America and world. Yet while Henry didn’t help orchestrate a Revolution or attain the nation’s highest office, to my mind he achieved an equally impressive and more unique success: becoming one of the first writers, educators, and thinkers to engage fully with the complexities, challenges, and possibilities of American identity, history, community, and life. The influences of such a man are not localized in a historic document or an election, of course—but Henry’s legacies found their way into every kind of American writing, across the Atlantic and back again, and helped shape the 20th century just as much as his ancestors had the 19th.
July recap tomorrow, and then the series resumes on Thursday,
PS. What do you think? Family histories or stories you’d highlight, American or yours?
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