John Quincy Adams, who died the year his grandson Brooks Adams was born, once wrote, “There is no passion more deeply seated in my bosom than the longing for posterity worthily to support my own and my fathers name…for this I have done my part. My sons must do theirs.”
Like his more famous brother, Henry Adams, Brooks Adams’s contributions to posterity were primarily intellectual and literary. Brooks was an academic, historian and social critic whose writings on civilization, economics and capitalism foreshadowed some of the formative events of the early 20th century, including the shift of the world’s financial center to New York City, the rise of American empire, and the breakdown of modern civilization, as embodied in World War I.
The last child of the fourth generation
Peter Chardon Brooks Adams was born in Quincy in 1848. The son of Charles Francis Adams and Abigail Brooks Adams, he attended school in England while his father was minister to Great Britain. Brooks graduated from Harvard in 1870 and briefly studied law. Accompanying his father to Geneva, he served as Charles Francis’s secretary during negotiations over the Alabama Claims, which resulted in Great Britain paying reparations for damage inflicted by British-built Confederate warships during the Civil War.
In 1889, Brooks married Evelyn Davis, known as Daisy. Enjoying great wealth and having no children, they traveled extensively. When home in Massachusetts, they spent winters in Boston and the warmer seasons at the Old House in Quincy.
Tracing the arc of civilization and empire
From 1887 through 1913, Brooks published several notable works. The Emancipation of Massachusetts drew attention for harshly criticizing New England’s early leaders for their religious intolerance, hostility to freedom of thought, and zeal for crushing dissent. The Law of Civilization and Decay laid out the principle that civilizations arise around commercial trade routes and, driven by greed, follow a predictable cycle of growth, centralization, decline and collapse. In subsequent works, Brooks examined America’s growing economic supremacy, accurately predicted the rise of Russia and the U.S. as the world’s two great powers, and warned of the dangers to democracy posed by great wealth exerting private influence.
Carrying the weight of generations
All his life Brooks Adams felt the weight of the family legacy, which gave him access to incredible privileges yet also created expectations of greatness. He once described himself as “a good commonplace plodding, man, ruined by a spark of genius.” Like his father, he believed he had not lived up to the Adams name. Charles Francis confessed in his diary to feeling “crushed by the weight of two generations of distinction…let me take it for granted that my life must be…a verdict of failure against myself.” Speaking years later about John and John Quincy Adams, Brooks wrote that “they were pretty formidable men. The rest of us leave nothing.”
Restoring a national treasure
On the contrary, Brooks Adams left behind a national treasure. During the last years of his life, he devoted much of his energy to reclaiming the Old House (Charles called it “that old shanty”) and the adjacent gardens, which had suffered decades of neglect. He also pestered his brothers and sisters to return priceless family heirlooms that had been dispersed over the generations.
Wilhemina Sellers Harris, his social secretary, aided him in this project. Living with Brooks and Daisy in the Old House, she learned about the family traditions, customs and belongings and compiled a nine-volume record of family furnishings, a valuable resource for historians.
A gift to the American people and the world
When Brooks died in 1927, just two months after Daisy, he left the house to the Adams Memorial Society. It was gifted to the American people in 1946 and placed under the management of the National Park Service. Wilhemina Harris, who had become an expert on all things Adams, was named the first superintendent of the park.
This was Brooks Adams’s legacy: Because of his efforts, people from around the world can walk through the same rooms and gaze on the same paintings and furnishings that surrounded John and Abigail Adams from the early years of their marriage to the end of their lives. Visitors can contemplate the desk where John Quincy Adams faithfully wrote in his diary and the Bible that was given to him by the Amistad captives before they returned to Africa. Most of all, anyone who values our democratic freedoms can take inspiration from the remarkable lives and historic events that were witnessed within those walls