A Man for All Seasons: 'John Adams: Parts VI & VII,' reviewed

Part VI: An Unnecessary War

Part VII: Peacefield

“Thomas Jefferson Survives”


Six weeks ago, I began this weekly review of HBO’s “John Adams” with the observation that Tom Hooper, the series’ director, and David McCullough, the project’s muse, subscribe to the “Great Man” theory of history, the idea that big events frequently turn on the actions of a few exceptional people. True enough. Yet, as the concluding episodes of this superb film illustrate, even for “great men,” history is not entirely of their own making.

Episodes six and seven of the series depict the final years of Adams’ life, including his largely anticlimactic presidency and his final reconciliation with Thomas Jefferson, twenty years after his loss to Jefferson in the bitterly contested election of 1800. In both episodes, Adams, accustomed to commanding events, is instead the prisoner of them. The turbulent political fronts of Jefferson and Hamilton have collided, generating a political “nor’easter” that destroys Adams’ presidency. In the post-presidential years, his son Charles succumbs to alcoholism and his daughter is consumed by cancer after enduring an agonizing mastectomy without anesthesia. Even his beloved Abigail departs him, leaving him to the lonely, painful torments of an old age.

One approach Adams has to his predicament is to reassert his control over events through an active pre-occupation with his legacy. Always immodest and tactless, he tells a friend, “I wont be in the history books anyway.” They’ll say that “Franklin smote the ground and out sprang George Washington, fully grown and on his horse. Franklin then electrified him with his miraculous lightning rod and the three of them—Franklin, Washington and the horse—conducted the entire revolution by themselves.”

Add Thomas Jefferson to this mix (or is he the horse?) and you have a pretty good telling of American history as most of us have heard it. Until McCullough’s masterful work, there had only been a couple of serious biographies of Adams, meaning that Adam’s greatest fear had been realized. For as much as he disliked being despised, and he was by many in his lifetime, what he dreaded most was irrelevance. Adam’s listless post-presidential years, therefore, provoked in him a great existential questioning. Who am I? What have I become? He asks these questions with greater frequency and greater urgency toward the end of his long life, each question tinged with a hue of regret, for all the time and energy his ambition consumed.

Yet what would he have been without his ambition? “I should have spent my life as a farming, shoemaking deacon like my father,” he tells Abigail toward the close of the series. Yet, almost immediately, he knows how absurd this sounds. For all the ill will, the painful separations from his family and the strained relations among them, if it were not for his ambition, he would not have existed as he was or as we have come to know him in the eight hours of this mini-series. Ambition was a constitutive element of who he was and like all human beings it rendered him capable of both the most generous and ignoble of acts.

History may largely be the product of great men and women, but it is always the product of flawed men and women. Its humanity is what makes it so interesting. When we gloss over that fact, when we allow history to become mythology by mistaking the lust of nationalism for the love of patriotism, we do the men and women of history, as well as ourselves, a great disservice. By allowing ourselves to inhabit Adams’ life these past few weeks, we have come to know not only the intimate, personal struggles of one of America’s founders, but the fearful and faith-filled human reality that is the genesis of America’s collective identity. “A nation reveals itself not only by the men it produces but also by the men it honors, the men it remembers,” John Kennedy once remarked. In honoring such people, we “pay honor to the deepest sources of our national strength.” In other words, Adams’ existential questioning is at once our own. For that reason alone, his life is compelling.

As anyone who has watched the concluding episode now knows, Adams died on July 4, 1826, the same day as Thomas Jefferson and the fiftieth anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. For all his famous vanity and ambition, his final words were not about himself but about another and as much about a revolutionary idea called America as they were about the wellbeing of his friend. “Thomas Jefferson survives,” he said. The line, of course, would not have survived the first draft of a Hollywood screenplay if it were anything but true. “Too saccharin, too cute,” they would surely say. But Adams did speak those words and, in doing so, produced one of those moments that historians relish, when the truth is wonderfully stranger and infinitely more captivating than fiction.

Part V: Unite or Die

“I Find Him Much Changed, John.”

Popular political discourse, especially in its more jejune forms, relies extensively on the use of buzzwords. Terms like “anti-choice,” “tax and spend,” “surge” and the all-powerful “liberal” are short currency in political speak, words that immediately demand attention and impress their meanings on the listener. Eighteenth century politics also had its buzzwords and one of them was “faction,” generically meaning a clique or sub-group within a larger political unit, but in the context of the raging ideological battles of America’s founding, it meant a subversive and destructive force that threatened the fragile unity of a new republic. In federalist paper no. 10, for example, the word appears no fewer than eighteen times.

In the latest installment of HBO’s new mini-series, “John Adams,” the word appears only three times, yet, in different ways, it is the constant concern of every character. As episode five begins, Adams has been elected America’s first vice president, a post he accurately and frustratingly describes as “the most insignificant office ever devised by the mind of man” (until Dick Cheney perhaps). Adams is bored and politically impotent, excluded from cabinet meetings by Washington and relegated to baby-sitting the Senate, barred from participating in its debates and allowed to vote only in the event of a tie. This does not sit well with our anti-hero: he is accustomed to being in the arena, hooking and jabbing his way to political knockouts.

His exclusion from the cabinet is especially painful given that a whopper of a fight is occurring there over the future of the union. At issue is the practical arrangement of political power and the principal concern is the danger of factions. Most founders feared the nefarious influence of factions, but each also had a very different idea about what could be considered a faction and which faction posed the greatest threat. In an expertly choreographed scene in episode five, the principal players—Adams, Washington, Jefferson and Hamilton—are assembled for a luncheon at the president’s house in Philadelphia. The polite noontime conversation belies the invective Jefferson and Hamilton are whispering to partisans away from Washington’s ear. Jefferson expresses his fears that a political elite is bent on restoring a monarchy in all but name in the form of a powerful federal government. Alexander Hamilton argues in return that only a strong central government can unite the states of America and assure its survival in a treacherous geo-political environment.

Adams’ sympathies, if not his affection, are for Hamilton. He too shares a desire to avoid partisanship and faction. “I dread a division of our republic into parties and that is what I see is happening,” Adams says at one point. To avoid this, Adams attempts to reconcile Jefferson’s and Hamilton’s positions (a strategy doomed to failure because of his limited powers), arguing for a strong central government that at the same time respects the sovereignty of the states.

That the positions of Jefferson and Hamilton may be irreconcilable does not occur to Adams. And so it is that in this attempted via media the viewer glimpses a curious paradox in Adams’ complex character: He is a realist, agreeing with Hamilton that “if men were angels than no government would be necessary,” yet he is at the same time hobbled by an almost quaint naïveté regarding the intentions of both men. He pleads with Jefferson to compromise and gives moral force to his plea with an appeal to their long friendship. It is as if Adams thinks that nostalgia alone could somehow counter the powerful forces at work.

Adams also appears oblivious to the fact that his friendship with Jefferson is not truly mutual. Jefferson distrusts Adams, particularly Adams’ association with Hamilton, who leads the party that at the end of the episode nominates Adams for president. Jefferson, like the viewer, is surprised by Adams’ inability to see Hamilton’s scheming and understandably concludes that since Adams is smart enough to see it, his protests of innocence are intended to conceal his complicity in it. Thus begins the disintegration of their friendship, which will not be re-established for decades. In the demise of their friendship and their subsequent alignment into opposing political camps, we see the personal costs as the country descends into factions.

We also see the two men as we have rarely seen them before. The relationship between Adams and Jefferson reminds me of what was once said of John and Robert Kennedy: “One was a realist disguised as an idealist (John) while the other was an idealist disguised as a realist (Bobby).” In our popular history we tend to think of Jefferson as the great romantic idealist of the revolution. His public sentiments were no doubt noble and lofty. Yet his ownership of slaves and his near bloodlust, revealed in his views of the French revolution, reveal a man comfortable with moral ambiguities and harsh political or economic realities when it suited his interests. Adams, on the other hand, who is frequently depicted in historical accounts as the calculating master of the realpolitik, was in fact a man driven in and throughout his life by an intense, personal devotion to his ideals (David McCullough frequently points out that he was the only founding father who never owned a slave). Could Adams be the true idealist? After all, what could be more romantic than the notion that mutual affection and nostalgia could overcome the fierce political winds tossing the founders? Who but an idealist would be surprised to discover Machiavellian machinations all about him?

The characters of Jefferson and Adams come into clearer focus during a scene in which Adams tells Jefferson that he feared for Jefferson’s safety while Jefferson was Ambassador to Paris during the violent Parisian uprisings. Jefferson’s response horrifies Adams: “France is in the throes of a violent birth. We should rejoice,” Jefferson says, adding later, “the tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time by the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is a natural manure.” Are these the words of an idealist, or the rantings of a radical, tinged by a hue of cynicism? There is something dark, brooding and dangerous in Jefferson that Adams, rightly, does not trust.

Abigail notices it too, telling Adams, “You must be careful John. I find him [Jefferson] much changed.” Indeed he is. Anyone who witnessed the terrors of Bastille Day and its aftermath, as Jefferson had, would most certainly have been changed. The result is that Jefferson now lives in a heaven-and-hell world in which one is either on the side of right or is its oppressor. Adams cannot subscribe to such a worldview. A titanic battle for the presidency follows and the buzzwords “Democrat” and “Federalist” are added to the American political lexicon.

Part 4: Reunion

“It Is No Small Thing To Build A New World”

The conflict at the heart of American politics began, like the conflict at the heart of the human experience, with a conversation in a garden. At least that’s how director Thomas Hooper depicts it in the latest installment of the miniseries “John Adams,” running this week on HBO. In the wake of Washington’s triumph at Yorktown, part four of the series finds Adams back at the court of France’s King Louis XV, negotiating a peace treaty with the British and enjoying the company of Franklin and Thomas Jefferson.

“It is no small thing to build a new world,” Franklin says in the garden during a break in the discussions. No small thing indeed, for the founding fathers were attempting something almost entirely new, untried in large measure since the death of the Athenian republic. And compounding the difficulty were the divergent opinions among the revolutionaries about just what this new world should look like.

In the first three episodes, Jefferson and Adams forged an unlikely alliance and friendship, united against their common enemy. In episode four, with America’s independence assured, their partnership starts to dissolve as a new battle begins for the idea of the American Revolution. In listening to the conversation, the viewer almost begins to think that maybe Washington had the easier job. He waged war on plain ground, where victory and defeat were objective realities. Adams and Jefferson, however, are engaged in a notional, philosophical struggle for the hearts and minds of their countrymen, a battle in which victory is neither certain nor clearly defined.

The scene begins when Franklin announces that a convention has been called to draw up a binding constitution for the new republic (By the way, the dialogue in the scene has been cobbled together by the screenwriters from correspondence between Jefferson and Adams. That the conversation didn’t happen in quite this way, however, should not distract us from its truth.):

Jefferson: I am increasingly persuaded that the Earth belongs exclusively to the living and one generation has no more right to bind another to its laws and judgments than one independent nation has the right to command another.

Adams: Surely the constitution is meant to establish the stability and the long-term legality essential to the continuation of civilized society.

Jefferson: Yes, possibly, but I fear it could prove a breach in the integrity of our revolutionary ideals through which will pour the forces of reaction.

Adams: Dr. (Franklin), Mr. Jefferson’s pet topic is not the artful arrangement of political power, but the cordoning off of a space in which no power exists at all. You, (Thomas), are a walking contradiction.

Franklin: We are all contradictions, Mr. Adams.

Adams: Indeed. And what is government, ultimately, but putting into effect the lessons, which we have learned in dealing with the contradictions in our own characters.

Jefferson: You have a disconcerting lack of faith in your fellow man Mr. A., and in yourself, if I may say so.

Adams: Yes. And you display a dangerous excess of faith in your fellow man, Mr. Jefferson.

Anyone who has ever studied American history should immediately recognize that in this brief, casual exchange during a languid Parisian afternoon, the seminal question of the American experience is revealed: What should be the rights, form, size and direction of government? Shall we be a republic, a democracy or an empire? In short, how should we bring order to the chaos? This conversation brilliantly foreshadows the titanic debates between federalists like Adams, distrustful of democracy, and Jefferson’s anti-federalists, champions of smaller government and direct rule by the people.

Yet this question, what form government should take, involves an even more important and most fundamental question, which the scene also reveals: what is the essential nature of the human person? Are we deprived of divine guidance by virtue of our parents’ fall in that other garden, with a consequent proclivity toward sin, yet still noble enough to govern our own affairs? Or are we somehow depraved, imprisoned in our own wickedness, in need of a strong government to monitor and control our baser instincts?

What do you think?

Once upon a time in America, this was a question we asked in the public square. In its current incarnation, politics, of course, is not exactly fertile ground for such metaphysical inquiries (sadly, neither is philosophy, but that’s another topic.) It’s hard to imagine how even Karl Rove or James Carville, those inventive masters of political communications, could fit the question into a thirty second ad during Wheel of Fortune.

That we don’t ask the question, however, does not mean that we have answered it, nor does it mean that the question is no longer worth asking. Quite apart from its central theological or philosophical importance, it seems to me that it is in fact the first question we should ask as political people. For how we answer it does much to form our political personalities and inform our answers to other questions ranging from the ultimate purpose of law to the more mundane implications of public policy.

The late John Paul II used to argue that anthropology (our view of the origin and destination of the human being) matters. Jefferson and Adams, though loath to side with any pope (see Jim Martin’s blog entry on Adams anti-Catholicism), would likely agree. As America’s electoral battle royale continues this year, we would do well to remember that and to find a quiet place amid the din of the public square where we can ask ourselves the most important question a self-governing people can ask: who are we? From that, I think, may come a better sense of who we might become. It won’t be easy. It is no small thing to build a new world.

Part 3: Dont Tread on Me

“I Go Because I Love You”

If our founding fathers were subjected to that contemporary test of political preference, which politician a voter would pick to have a beer with, people would likely prefer the cheeky, witty and occasionally vulgar Ben Franklin over dour, staid John Adams. In part three of HBO’s seven part series, “John Adams,” we learn that the court of Louis XV felt the same way. This is mainly because the Adams that continues to emerge in HBO’s new biopic (part three is airing this week) is in many ways an anti-hero. Vain, tempestuous, impatient and overbearing, this Adams lacks many of the heroic virtues we usually associate with modern protagonists. Yet Paul Giammati’s Adams has the one virtue most needed for good drama: a fully formed character; a man tempest-tossed by the best and worst within himself, at once generous and ignoble. In other words, he is interesting.

In episode three, Adams sets sail for France to negotiate a treaty in support of the revolution. Having crossed a violent ocean, his ship under ferocious assault by the British navy, Adams arrives in Paris to find that Benjamin Franklin, the toast of the Paris gentry, has already concluded the treaty. “Never has a man endured so much to so little point,” Adams remarks, directing his frustration at the French court, where his crude New England manners and rigid Puritanism serve to get him fired and eventually re-assigned to the Netherlands.

To be fair, Adams had endured much to make it to the French court. In the opening episodes, Adams’ loyalty was divided between his country and his King, a conflict resolved by his ultimate loyalty to the law and a Declaration of Independence. In episode three, his loyalty is torn between his country and his family. His wife, Abigail, forced to contend with a harsh winter and a smallpox epidemic, pleads with him to stay put in Massachusetts, yet the Continental Congress demands that he go. His children, equally bereft at his departure, even stage a mini-rebellion of their own, at first refusing to kiss their father goodbye. “Why must you go,” they ask. “I go because I love you,” is Adams’ response, a rare expression of affection from a frequently cold and sometimes autocratic father (when he returns over a decade later, Adams will have to be re-introduced to his children).

No public person can ever be divorced from his or her private self. Yet Adams, in order to manage the pain of absence, attempts exactly that and the result is disastrous. His worst mistakes occur when he is separated from his family and especially from Abigail, his moral and political Rosetta Stone. When Adams fails his country in Paris he also fails his lifelong love. Paralyzed by the desire to be absolutely honest and the admission of failure that honesty would require, Adams stops his correspondence. In the aftermath, the viewer sees the moral and psychological complex that is Adams: his great virtue, honesty, in mortal combat with his equally powerful vice, vanity.

The episode concludes with Adams in Amsterdam, removed from Paris by Congress, rejected by the Dutch, heart broken and violently ill with fever. He has also bid farewell to his son, John Quincy, who, at fourteen, has joined the American diplomatic expedition to Saint Petersburg (memo to the current presidential candidates: talk about a lack of experience). The skill of the direction by Tom Hooper almost leaves the viewer to wonder what will happen. We know, of course, what will happen, but that is beside the point. By watching it happen, by entering into the drama on its terms, we enter into a private conflict not at all foreign to our own human experiences, while rediscovering the public conflict that is the source of our national identity. At any time, but especially in a presidential election year, that’s worth thinking about.

Pictured above: Stephen Dillane, Paul Giamatti, Tom Wilkinson. Photo credit: Kent Eanes/HBO.

Part 1: Join or Die
Part 2: Independence

"It is As It Was"

Tom Hooper, the director of the new HBO miniseries "John Adams," is in love with his subject, at least as much as David McCullough showed himself to be in his bestselling book of the same title. Not a scene of the seven-part miniseries (which debuted Sunday March 16 on HBO) takes place without Adams or his wife, Abigail, at its center, the camera demanding on their behalf, "look at me, look at me." Yet the two characters, ably played by Paul Giamatti and Laura Linney, are worth looking at, if simply because they are two of the more commanding figures in the great and still too little understood drama of Americas founding.

And while the film is clearly the product of a love affair, Hoopers affection, like that of McCulloughs (whose work inspired the film), is neither blind nor fantastical, but open-eyed and realistic. Too often in our historical dramas, and this is particularly true of treatments of the American revolution (the musical "1776" or the Disney melodrama "Johnny Tremain" come to mind), the viewer is indoctrinated into a mythology that nearly dehumanizes its subjects. "John Adams" is not this, but neither is it documentary or an Oliver Stone-esque Freudian fantasy, but rather a compelling historical drama that has an obvious and abiding respect for its subject and the human reality that is the essence of American history.

Avoiding the listless exposition that can plague historical films, "John Adams" plunges the viewer immediately into the middle of Adams life and into the center of a dark, almost barbarous Boston on the eve of revolution. The viewer sees a textured, three-dimensional depiction of a time and place that is sickly, dank and violent. To quote what someone was once reported to have said about another film, "it is as it was." This is no Disney Hall-of-Presidents, animatronic presentation of American history. Viewers are as likely to be repulsed by some of what they see as they are to be inspired.

In episode one, Giamattis Adams struggles to navigate this physically and politically turgid terrain. His loyalties at first appear divided, between his "country," Massachusetts, and his king. Yet his loyalty to the law, and the divine guarantees he sees at its roots, emerges as decisive, facilitating both his adamant and eventually successful defense of the British soldiers in the Boston Massacre trial and his choice to begin on the path of dissent and, ultimately, revolution against the crown. In fact, it is during the depiction of the Boston Massacre trial that we see the films realism most clearly at work. The incident was a complicated human event, and the film immerses the viewer in its political and moral complexities, showing that the crowds abusing and provoking the redcoats were at least as much responsible for the tragedy as the soldiers who fired the shots.

We also learn a good deal about Adams himself in these early scenes as well as his hugely formative relationship with his wife, Abigail. With Adams brilliance as well as his arrogance on full display, his wife admonishes him for his wordiness and his too-eager desire to impress: "You must mask your impatience with those less intelligent than yourself," she says at one point, adding later, "you do not need to quote great men to prove you are one." We also see in the first episode flashes of Adams infamous temper as he thoughtlessly scolds his children three times in forty minutes of film. Also on display is the emotional Adams, angrily yelling "this is barbarism" and coming to tears at one point during the brutal tarring and feathering of a man who did little more than insist that Massachusetts pay the tea tax the king demanded.

McCullough and Hooper clearly subscribe to the "Great Man" theory of history, an unpopular view in this supposedly postmodern age. But it seems great events do frequently turn on the actions of a few exceptional people, actions that are anything but predetermined. The film captures this uncertainty well. One has the sense of watching a film narrated in the present tense. At any moment, McCullough reminds us in his book, these figures could have chosen otherwise and history would have taken a different turn.

Right or wrong (and I suspect McCullough is right) this view of history makes for riveting storytelling. McCullough recently said that his hope for the film is that viewers "will come away knowing more about that all-important time, but will feel the reality of what happened and of what those caught up in the struggle went through." The filmmakers meet this standard and in the process produce a work of art worthy of McCulloughs Pulitzer-Prize-winning biography.

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10 years 8 months ago
Another fine commentary. 'No public person can ever be divorced from his or her private self.' Something that has become painfully obvious to New York Staters in the wake of Governor Eliot Spitzer's resignation (not to mention Governor James McGreevey of New Jersey before him, and so on). But while I would much rather have a beer with Ben Franklin (imagine all of Poor Richard's sayings about drinking that Dr. Franklin would offer up), I would much rather have John Adams as a friend.
10 years 8 months ago
This "John Adams" is human with conflicts, sufferings and imperfections. Can we expect more from those who dedicate themselves in service to all mankind?
9 years 9 months ago
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