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John and Abigail Adams sired the first dynasty to shape American politics but they would not witness their family’s calamitous fall from grace. When President John Quincy Adams died in 1848, so began the slow death of the family’s political legacy – a decline that mirrored the fall of the Republican Party. The Adamses would abandon their forefather’s enlightened republicanism, yielding to the temptation of oligarchy and personal spoils.

In Heirs of an Honored Name, award-winning historian Douglas Egerton depicts a family grown famous, wealthy – and aimless. After the Civil War, the country’s future was up for grabs. Republicans disillusioned with President Ulysses S. Grant’s governance looked to the Adams family to steer their party back to its 1840s roots. Instead, family patriarch Charles Francis Sr. refused to fight for the nomination in 1872 and 1876 and the family eventually quit the political arena altogether for the luxuries of Gilded Age America.

With the party of Lincoln transformed into a lobby for robber barons and imperialists, the younger Adamses – Charles Francis Jr., Henry and Clover Adams and Louisa Catherine – found refuge alongside many upper-class New Englanders in an imagined medieval past of aristocratic preeminence. They were born elitists, each as highly educated and ambitious as they were uniformly disagreeable and overly competitive. Egerton mines their extensive personal writing and correspondence to offer an absorbing tale of aristocratic infighting and familial strain, showing how every Adams lived in the shadow of his or her name, expecting great things of themselves and their progeny. Yet they rarely lived up to those expectations and blamed others for their supposed misfortune.

Heirs of an Honored Name tells the enthralling, troubling story of the nation’s first family and the end of an older, aristocratic America amid the upheavals of the Gilded Age.