Hello, on February 21, 1848, Congressman John Quincy Adams of Massachusetts had just cast a “nay” vote on a resolution thanking American officers and soldiers for the victories of the Mexican War. In the next moment he suffered a stroke. Lingering for the next two days in the chambers of the Speaker of the House, he died on February 23rd.
His death was, for my guest Douglas Egerton, the beginning of the decline of the Adams family as both a political but also as a moral force in American life. This was not immediately apparent. As Egerton amply displays in his new book, Heirs of an Honored Name: The Decline of the Adams Family and the Rise of Modern America, Charles Francis Adams, Sr., the patriarch of the third generation of Adams’, was a formidable man. He was an early proponent of a movement that would become one of the foundations of the Republican Party, a powerful Congressman at the moment of the 1861 rebellion, and then perhaps the greatest ambassador in the history of American diplomacy. But his children, while brilliant and accomplished, were…different. Charles Francis Adams, Jr., was the commander of a African-American cavalry regiment and a lifelong racist who became a supporter of the “lost cause” story of the American Civil War. So too did Henry Brooks Adams, the brilliant son who would eventually write of his confusion in the Autobiography of Henry Adams. And Brooks Adams, the baby of the family, wrote a series of books on the inevitable decline of commercial societies.
Douglas R. Egerton is Professor of History at Le Moyne College. The author of numerous books his most recent were a documentary history of the Denmark Vesey affair, and Thunder At the Gates: The Black Civil War Regiments That Redeemed America (2016), This is his second appearance on Historically Thinking; when he was last with us, he discussed Reconstructionm, based on the research of his book The Wars of Reconstruction: The Brief, Violent History of America’s Most Progressive Era (2014).