Wednesday, November 27, 2019

Douglas R. Egerton's "Heirs of an Honored Name"

Douglas R. Egerton is a professor of history at Le Moyne College. The award-winning author's books include Thunder at the Gates and The Wars of Reconstruction.

Egerton applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Heirs of an Honored Name: The Decline of the Adams Family and the Rise of Modern America, and reported the following:
By page 99, Charles Francis Adams Sr., the son and grandson of presidents, is deeply into antislavery politics. The year on this page is 1852, and four years earlier, Adams had run as the vice presidential nominee for the Free Soil Party, a new party dedicated to keeping slavery out of the lands in the Southwest taken from Mexico. Although himself not a candidate for office that year, the former state assemblyman campaigned for the party around his home state of Massachusetts, and he was gratified to see that the Free Soilers captured 22 percent of the vote in his state and came in just behind Whig candidate Winfield Scott. As much as he mourned the triumph of Democratic nominee Franklin Pierce, whom he derided as "an ultra pro-slavery" candidate, Adams took heart in the fact that his new party was "no longer the third party of the nation." In the coming years, Adams was to play a key role in the founding of the Republican Party.

For Heirs of an Honored Name, the page 99 tests works splendidly. Readers just glancing at the page will see Charles Francis Adams Sr. at the dawn of his illustrious career. Behind him were five years in the Massachusetts assembly, and by this page Adams was deeply involved in antislavery politics as one of the most famous free soil advocates in the nation. But one also sees his deep ambivalence--a longstanding family trait he would pass along to the fourth generation of Adamses--toward national greatness. Of all the early presidents, only John Adams and Martin Van Buren sired sons who lived to adulthood, making the Adams family the nation's first political dynasty. Charles Francis Sr. coveted fame and dedicated his life to the service of his country, but as an Adams, greatness had to come to him. He could not seek it out. One sees on this page that his friends hoped to nominate him for the House of Representatives, and Adams admitted to his diary that the nomination "would be agreeable" provided it was "spontaneous." He wished to his friends to understand, however, that he never "solicited a nomination." It was that refusal to seek out fame that would ultimately cost him the chance to become the third President Adams.

Heirs opens where most books on the Adams family end, with the 1848 death of Congressman John Quincy Adams, who was the first man ever to die in the Capitol building. Because they helped to found the American republic and held the nation's highest office, John and John Quincy have received the most attention from historians. Each year, it seems, sees the publication of a new biography or presidential study of the early Adamses. Yet the third and fourth generation of Adamses, if largely forgotten today, were nearly as important to American history. Charles Francis Sr. served five years in the Massachusetts legislature, where he succeeded in passing some of the most progressive legislation the state had ever seen. (At a time when new states, for example, banned interracial marriages, Adams drafted legislation that repealed his state's 1786 ban on interracial relationships.) He helped to create the 1848 Free Soil party, ran as its first vice presidential nominee, and then played a critical role in building the Republican Party. As a congressman, he served on the Committee of Thirty-three, which attempted to forge a compromise to halt southern secession, and after Abraham Lincoln was sworn in as president, Adams was tapped to become the third member of his family to serve as minister to Great Britain. During his seven years in London, Adams worked to keep Britain from siding with the Confederacy, and his skill at doing so marked him as one of the greatest diplomatists in his country's history. At the same time, however, Adams and his children reflected the troubled mood of the post-war nation. They mirrored the decay of the Republican Party's ideals as the party deteriorated from a progressive, free soil movement that spoke to the aspirations of the northern middle class, into a party of wealthy barons and railroad magnates.
Learn more about Heirs of an Honored Name at the Basic Books website.

--Marshal Zeringue