A man of letters is usually someone who writes very well about a subject he does not quite understand. Richard Brookhiser is the exception, a beautiful stylist who has gradually established himself as one of the best political biographers in the land.

A senior editor of National Review and columnist for the New York Observer, Brookhiser earns his living as a conservative political journalist and commentator on the New York scene. Both have prepared him for the remarkable series of books he has written over the past two decades. The Outside Story illuminated the 1984 presidential election by insisting that the heart of the story was the candidates’ words and deeds, i.e., the contest as citizens saw it, not the Teddy White-style inside dope from behind the scenes. In The Way of the WASP (1991), Brookhiser (who is one) defended the contribution that White Anglo-Saxon Protestant culture (really, character) had made to American life, including its ability to attract non-WASP immigrants who practically adapted it as their own.

Brookhiser’s masterpiece is Founding Father: Rediscovering George Washington (1996), a bold work of moral portraiture that exhibited to a new generation of readers why Washington was a great man. Telling the outside story of this dignified WASP who became the quintessential American, Brookhiser displayed his own ability to revitalize political biography, a genre that sold well but had become bloated, boring, and blind to the protean challenges and hard-fought virtues of the politician’s life. Rather than bury his subject in a mountain of trivia, Brookhiser adapted from Plutarch the idea of a brief biography centered on Washington’s character and devoted to measuring him by the standards of statesmanship.

With Founding Father, Brookhiser became the anti-Gore Vidal, rejecting Vidal’s self-serving cynicism in favor of a sympathetic, though not uncritical, understanding of the demands of public life on public men. The same sensibility animated Brookhiser’s next volume, Alexander Hamilton: American (1999), which showed Hamilton, brash, talented, ambitious, as the New Yorker he was, with plenty of ambition for his country, too.

America’s First Dynasty is the latest in Brookhiser’s series of brief moral biographies, this time of a great American political family (“dynasty” is rather a stretch) instead of a single statesman. The book has two stories to tell about the Adamses. The first is the story of what it was like to be an Adams, constantly trying to meet the family’s expectations of greatness on the stage of national politics. The second is the account of how the country changed around them, and of the Adamses’ growing alienation from the America they sought to serve.

Brookhiser is better on the first that the second theme. From the evidence he presents, it was much harder to be an Adams than, say, a Roosevelt, Kennedy, or Bush. There was a similarly intense pressure to rise in politics and the same generational jostling, of course; but the Adamses set the intellectual bar for themselves much higher, and disdained political parties.

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John Adams was a hard act to follow. He told his son, John Quincy: “You come into life with advantages which will disgrace you if your success is mediocre. And if you do not rise to the head not only of your profession, but of your country, it will be owing to your own laziness, slovenliness, and obstinacy.” In other words, if John Quincy had not become president, his life would be a failure. Thanks, Dad.

John Quincy repaid the favor by advising his son Charles Francis, who wanted to drop out of Harvard, the family college, that if he could not attend classes he should at least attend church. “Let your scholarship be as it pleases heaven. If I must give up all expectation of success or distinction for you in this life,” at least “preserve me from the harrowing thought of your perdition in the next.” Charles Francis did not drop out.

Little wonder, reports Brookhiser, that “alcohol laid waste two-thirds of the second and third generations” of the family, and that one of the drunkard sons committed suicide. Brookhiser concentrates, however, on the four family members, one from each generation, who achieved greatness or at least came close: the two U.S. presidents, John and John Quincy; the accomplished diplomat and congressman turned family historian, Charles Francis; and the historian and artist, Henry, who was Charles Francis’s third son. Other Adamses merit passing mention.

America’s First Dynasty brings Brookhiser’s marvelous eye for detail and anecdote to bear on this unhappy but high-minded family. The book glows with its author’s style, an elegant, updated classicism. Yet the work doesn’t quite do justice to the Adamses’ thought, nor to the changing intellectual world in which Charles Francis and, particularly, Henry found themselves.

For example, Brookhiser writes repeatedly that John Adams “disagreed” or “quarreled” with the Declaration of Independence. This is misleading. He dissented from the egalitarian misinterpretation of it, that equal natural rights should produce a society of perfectly equal human beings. Adams believed that an aristocracy would assert itself in every society, America included. But Brookhiser doesn’t note Adams’s eccentric definition of an aristocrat: anyone who could command or influence more than one vote. Adams feared the political effects of aristocracy in a republic, though he thought these could be controlled by creating a second branch of the legislature just for the few. This is the theme of his three-volume Defense of the Constitutions of Government of the United States, one of the strangest and most tedious works of political theory ever written.

Brookhiser regrets “the arsenic whiff of unrelieved irony” in Henry Adams’s histories, but praises Mont St. Michel and Chartres, especially his account of the medieval love of the Virgin Mary. Strangely, though, “the Dynamo,” modern science, Darwinism, and Progressivism, which came to dominate many aspects of American thought after the Civil War, receive little sustained attention in America’s First Dynasty. These ideas haunted the later Adamses, particularly Henry, who largely as a result found it impossible to believe anymore in the ideas of his forbears.

Brookhiser knows this, but he prefers to keep the story all in the family. The age’s general challenge to American ideals becomes more of a genteel story of the accumulating burden of the past within the family Adams. It wasn’t all the Adamses’ fault, though they might like to think so.