It’s not easy being the son of a great man. First, thanks to the doctrine of reversion to the mean, the son is unlikely to shine as brightly as the father. And great men are usually too busy being great to be good fathers. When you’re the son and grandson of great men, as Charles Francis Adams (1807–86) was, that goes, at the least, double, as Douglas R. Egerton makes clear in his informative new biography of the Adams family, the country’s first political dynasty.

Charles Francis and two of his sons, Charles Francis Adams, Jr., and Henry Adams, all had distinguished careers in their own right. But none of them was able to escape the deep shadows of John Adams and John Quincy Adams, and the family increasingly moved away from politics and disapproved of the “modern America” Egerton mentions in his subtitle and which emerged in their lifetimes.

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