Adamses: The ‘Best’ People I

The Adams Chronicles: Four Generations of Greatness

by Jack Shepherd
Little, Brown, 448 pp., $17.50

John Adams: A Biography in His Own Words

edited by James Bishop Peabody
Harper and Row, 406 pp., $15.00

The Character of John Adams American History and Culture

by Peter Shaw
The University of North Carolina Press for the Institute of Early, 324 pp., $12.95

Adams: An American Dynasty

by Francis Russell
McGraw-Hill, 400 pp., $15.00

The Book of Abigail and John: Selected Letters of the Adams Family 1762-1784

edited by L. H. Butterfield, edited by Marc Friedlaender, edited by Mary-Jo Kline
Harvard University Press, 411 pp., $15.00

John Quincy Adams
John Quincy Adams; drawing by David Levine

The Inventors of the United States decided that there would be no hereditary titles in God’s country. Although the Inventors were hostile to the idea of democracy and believed profoundly in the sacredness of property and the necessary dignity of those who owned it, they did not like the idea of king, duke, marquess, earl. Such a system of hereditary nobility was liable to produce aristocrats who tended to mix in politics (like the egregious Lord North) instead of good politically responsible burghers.

But the Inventors were practical men and the federal constitution that they assembled in 1787 was an exquisite machine that, with a repair here and a twist there, has gone on protecting the property of the worthy for two hundred years while protecting in the Bill of Rights (that sublime afterthought) certain freedoms of speech and assembly which are still unknown even now to that irritable fount of America’s political and actual being, old Europe. The Inventors understood human greed and self-interest. Combining brutal cynicism with a Puritan sense of virtue, they used those essential drives to power the machinery of the state.

Certainly none wanted to change the way people were. “As to political reformation in Europe or elsewhere,” wrote conservative Inventor John Jay in 1796, “I confess that…I do not amuse myself with dreams about an age of reason. I am content that little men should be as free as big ones and have and enjoy the same rights, but nothing strikes me as more absurd than projects to stretch little men into big ones, or shrink big men into little ones…. We must take men and measures as they are, and act accordingly.” That is the very voice of the American Inventors: conservative, commonsensical, and just—within (as opposed to the age of) reason.

At the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia a few romantics fought a losing battle to make Washington king and to create a peerage using the odd title “margrave.” The matter was then settled, the Inventors thought, once and for all. Government would be by the best people in order to forward the best interests of the country’s owners. They might have invented the word “meritocracy” had they not had the same prejudice against neologisms that they had against new men.

But although America’s “best” people were not to have titles, they did have names; they also acquired fortunes which they passed on to sons and to grandsons and to great-grandsons. As a result, the history of the American republic is the history of certain families, of names that are now every bit as awesome as titles.

First among the country’s political families are the Adamses. In four successive generations the Adams family produced not only two presidents but a number of startlingly brilliant man and women, culminating in the country’s only major historian Henry Adams, the bright light of the fourth…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.