IT SEEMS INDISPUTABLE that the Adamses of Quincy, Massachusetts, are the greatest American family. Two presidents from a single family would alone constitute a strong claim on such a title. To that unique distinction must be added major leadership in the American Revolution, a half dozen of the nation's greatest diplomatic triumphs, a vigorous and protracted campaign against slavery, and several volumes of history, biography, and social theory that are still widely read and admired today. Three of the women who married into the family remain of sufficient interest to have been the subjects of major biographies in the last few years.

The influence of the leading members of this family did not end with their deaths, for the first four generations compiled and preserved family archives of such unequalled size and importance that the dead hands of the Adamses continue to shape historical interpretations of the times in which they lived. A definitive though selective publication of the Adams papers began at the Massachusetts Historical Society in the 1950s and may run to a hundred volumes before reaching the end after another generation or two of editors.

But the annals of the Adamses also record suicides, alcoholism, mental illness, wife neglect, alienation of children from parents, bankruptcy, and altogether far more failures than successes. Descent from Glory details this inner life of the family. By examining the relationships of all the Adamses, the obscure as well as the famous, one generation to another, Paul C. Nagel has attempted to discover not only the source of greatness but the price paid to achieve it. With an unmatched knowledge of the vast family manuscripts, he documents the lament of a third-generation Adams that "the history of my family is not a pleasant one to remember. It is one of great triumphs in the world but of deep groans within, one of extraordinary brilliancy and deep corroding mortification."

In the first generation, John and Abigail established what it meant to be an Adams. Nagel frequently refers to the "Adams family doctrine," or "gospel," or "scripture about duty, diligence, and determination," the only means of overcoming the natural weaknesses of human character. To be an Adams meant to aim for greatness. To fall short brought guilt, a sense of unworthiness, and sometimes tragedy. Of John and Abigail's three sons, only the eldest measured up. The younger two died alcoholics, one at 30. John Quincy fulfilled his parents' expectations but consequently became so obsessed with inculcating the "gospel" in his three sons that his "destructive love" could be withstood only by the youngest, Charles Francis. The others died in early adulthood and in disgrace.

The heroine of the family was Louisa Catherine, whom John Quincy married in London, far from the critical eyes of his parents. Once she arrived in Quincy to stand inspection before her "spiteful" mother-in-law, she realized that she could never be a true Adams. Nagel is particularly harsh on Abigail, who, he concludes, treated Louisa Catherine like a "helpless child." Refusing to take her dutiful place in Abigail's "maternal empire," Louisa Catherine kept to her side of the "everlasting gulf between her and the house of Adams." She survived a husband who treated her "so selfishly," to become for her grandson, Henry Adams, the "ideal of feminine grace, charity and love."

In the fourth generation, the four sons and two daughters of the first Charles Francis Adams suffered from being "beaten over the head with ancestry." John Quincy II told himself, "I am nobody," and often proved it. Charles Francis II tried to demonstrate that he was the greatest Adams of his generation. He turned soldier, then went into business and made money but lost it all in speculative ventures. Henry escaped Quincy through marriage to a brilliant but rebellious woman and a move to Washington, where his wife's inherited emotional instability drove her to suicide and him to depression. Brooks, the youngest, pursued a private life and became the preserver of family resources and the homestead in Quincy. Such a life, though, led him to make "an art of reproaching himself for being a failure in his generation." Of the daughters, Louisa Catherine II "never overcame her anger and guilt at not having been a boy" and became an Adams who "fled from the burdens of life." Only Mary managed to take life easily. She outlived them all.

This account of the fourth generation, filling over one- third of the book, offers new insights into these remarkable siblings, who cannot be fully understood except in their relation to each other. Through their eyes Nagel views the earlier Adamses. Henry's harsh judgments of the first and second generations, often passed to him by his grandmother, Louisa Catherine, seem to set the tone for this book. In Descent from Glory, these two, who were so unlike the other Adamses, pass their judgment on the family.

Despite his penchant for turning phrases of psychological import, Nagel does not stray far into psychobiography. He lets the manuscripts speak for themselves, but therein lies the major problem with this study of indefatigable labor. Whereas a psychobiographer might read between the lines to find veiled meanings, Nagel reads every line and accepts it at face value with little indication that he has made any allowance for the nature of the material he is using. Diaries and personal letters shape the perception of oneself in subtle but important ways. They became a form of self-analysis in an age before Sigmund Freud. Such writing must be used with care to avoid confusing inner thoughts at life's most despondent moments with normality.

Because the Adamses were such inveterate scribblers and preserved most of what they wrote, they have left their inner family life for all the world to see. How abnormal were they? Does not every child feel some sense of alienation from parents? Did not most middle-class parents in the 18th and 19th centuries hold up nearly impossible standards for their children to meet? How many thousands of American wives received and resented such treatment from their husbands as John Quincy dealt Louisa Catherine? By no means were the Adamses a typical American family. Yet when their history is viewed in the broader perspective of the history of all families, they do not appear to be as inordinately neurotic as this volume makes them out to be and as they thought themselves to be.

Descent from Glory also suffers from its one-dimensional nature. Nagel virtually ignores the public life of the great members of the family, and his cursory summaries are sometimes misleading. He attributes the election of John Quincy Adams to the presidency in 1824 to a "demeaning negotiation among politicians" that revealed the inability of the Adamses to meet the high standards they professed--hardly an adequate explanation of the complex pattern of national politics at that time. Similarly, few of today's Civil War historians would accept his outdated view that Charles Francis Adams, while minister to Great Britain, almost singlehandedly prevented that government from recognizing the Confederacy.

No one will ever take the full measure of the Adams family, but Nagel has added a significant dimension. Despite its unbalanced interpretation, Descent from Glory is well worth reading. There are memorable passages. The description of the last years of Charles Francis Adams I is particularly absorbing, and nothing better has ever been written on the fourth generation. Yet in order to put the "descent from glory" into perspective, a more comparative view and a fuller appreciation of the "glory" are required.