WASHINGTON — Former president George W. Bush made a startling revelation last month: For two years he had secretly been working on a biography of his father, former president George H.W. Bush.
The book, scheduled for release in November, is considered unique.
“Forty-three men have served as president of the United States. Countless books have been written about them,” Crown Publishing Group noted in a press release. “But never before has a president told the story of his father, another president, through his own eyes and in his own words.”
Turns out, that’s not the whole story.
“If the claim is being made that George W. Bush is the first son of a president to write about his father, that claim is not true,” said Fred Kaplan, an author of several historical biographies. “John Quincy Adams was the first.”
John Quincy Adams started working on a biography of his father, John Adams, during the summer of 1829, just after leaving the White House. The Adamses are the only other father-son presidential duo in American history.
“There’s no literary agent or lawyer knocking on his door. Simon & Schuster isn’t giving him a $2 million advance and saying, ‘We’re going to have a big book tour,’ ” said Kaplan, who recently wrote “John Quincy Adams: American Visionary.” “He felt that it was his familial responsibility, his duty, to tell his father’s story. And he was urged on to do that.”
Over about a decade, Adams worked on the book. But then he got distracted. He missed politics and — over objections from family members who wanted him to complete the biography — decided to run for Congress.
The work was published in 1856 when his son, Charles Francis Adams, came out with the first volume of “The Works of John Adams.” In it, the words that John Quincy Adams wrote about his father take up the first 89 pages.
“He goes up to about the time John Adams was 35 years old or so and before he became a public figure,” said C. James Taylor, editor in chief of the Adams Papers at the Massachusetts Historical Society. “One of the suggestions that Charles Francis makes is that his father was stymied at this point. There was so much material, and he was so prominent. The research would have been daunting.”
John Quincy Adams writes about the youth and education of his father. Much of the first part is about his family ancestry, tracing relatives in Braintree, Quincy, and Medfield.
He has a long section on education and how every town with 100 families had to have a grammar school. “And thus it was that John Adams, shortly after receiving his degree of bachelor of arts at Harvard College, in the summer of 1755, became the teacher of the grammar school in the town of Worcester,” he writes of his father, who had not yet turned 20.
Adams paints a rich portrait — using letters and journal entries his father had written — of his father during a crucial period of his life, of his insecurities and his struggles to decide his profession before becoming a lawyer.
“For the profession of the law, John Adams had been preeminently gifted with the endowments of natures; a sound constitution of body, a clear and sonorous voice, a quick conception, a discriminating judgment, and a ready elocution,” he wrote. “His natural temper was as quick as his conception.”
Adams’s portrait of his father stops just after the Boston Massacre but before John Adams defends the British soldiers.
John Quincy Adams did write other materials on his father, some of which were not published until later.
A little more than a year into his presidency, John Quincy Adams was informed of his father’s death, five days after it occurred. He wrote in his diary, remarking on how his father died on the same day as Thomas Jefferson.
“He had served to great and useful purpose his Nation, his Age, and his God,” he wrote. “He is gone, and may the blessing Almighty Grace have attended him to his Account. I say not, may my last End be like his it were presumptuous. The time, the manner, the coincidence with the decease of Jefferson, are visible and palpable marks of divine favour, for which I would humble myself in grateful and silent adoration before the Ruler of the Universe.”
Several months later, on what would have been his father’s birthday, John Quincy Adams wrote a sonnet that started about his father and then turned into a commentary on slavery.
Most of what Adams originally set out to do was defend his father — a one-term president — from political attacks and ensure that history remembered him as a better man than some of his contemporaries.
“All of his adult life . . . John Quincy is coming back to the deep wound of his father’s being defeated,” Kaplan said.
Officials from Crown Publishing declined to comment on the record about their claim that the Bush book is the first time that a president told the story of his father, another president.
But the Bush book is unlikely to be anything like the one Adams set out to write — one that was an aggressive defense and an attack on his father’s enemies.
Matt Viser can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.