Why John Adams? September 18, 2012Posted by ourfriendben in Ben Franklin, wit and wisdom.
Tags: Abigail Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Colonial America, David McCullough, John Adams, John Adams series, Revolutionary War
Our friend Ben, Silence Dogood, our friend and fellow blog contributor Richard Saunders, and his fiance Bridget were watching a DVD of the miniseries “John Adams” the other night. We’re all huge fans of Colonial and Revolutionary history, but we all also found ourselves asking, as we do every time we watch this excellent series, “What the bleep?”
This is perhaps the best series about Colonial America that was ever made. But instead of featuring the movers and shakers of the Revolution, the colorful characters—George Washington, Ben Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, Patrick Henry, Sam Adams, John Hancock, Gouverneur Morris, Lighthorse Harry Lee, Paul Revere—it stars the fat, bald, irritating, paranoid, unpopular John Adams. Why?!
John Adams was unloved in his day and is just as unlovable in the series. Even the flag that serves as the icon of the film, the severed snake of the 13 colonies with the motto “Join or Die,” was the creation of Benjamin Franklin, not Adams. Adams had no part in the shaping of the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, or the Treaty of Paris. What could have possessed the creators of this series to focus on the man his own contemporary legislators contemptuously dismissed as “His Rotundity”?
Perhaps they were sentimentalists who focused on the lifelong love affair between John Adams and his wife Abigail. Like Martha Washington and Dolley Madison (and, for that matter, Deborah Franklin), Abigail Adams was a very strong woman, who supported her husband and bolstered his confidence no matter how his contemporaries viewed him.
Unlike Martha, Dolley, and Deborah, Abigail had her work cut out for her, with a pompous, unpopular husband. But she recognized her husband’s brilliance even as she also recognized how he needed to curb his ambition and arrogance to make that brilliance heard. (Thank God Ben Franklin inherently understood this and combined his gargantuan intellect with wit, humor, and compromise, or we’d have lost the Revolution.) Humor wasn’t John Adams’s strong suit, nor was an understanding of his fellow men. He stood for the law and for honor and justice, whatever the personal cost. And he paid a very high price for his noble ideals.
That the series (and the book by David McCullough that inspired it) is able to so brilliantly bring Colonial and Revolutionary America to life through the eyes of John Adams and his family is what our friend Ben would have called an impossible attainment. And yet it does attain it.
You may pity or despise John Adams at the series’ end, or feel terribly sad for a man with great gifts and great blindness about human nature. You will definitely feel desperately sad for his wife Abigail and his brave, tragic daughter. But you will also feel ennobled by the story of a people who collectively rose above themselves and above their station and achieved something no one had seen in over a thousand years: A republic where the citizens claimed the right to represent themselves and elect their officials.
Why John Adams? Our friend Ben still doesn’t have a clue. A less appealing character could hardly have been found. It would be like making a movie about the Civil War era and focusing on Confederate General Marcus J. Wright rather than Generals Robert E. Lee, Ulysses S. Grant, Stonewall Jackson, Nathan Bedford Forrest , William Tecumseh Sherman, Philip Henry Sheridan, George Gordon Meade, Admiral Raphael Semmes, or, say, Presidents Abraham Lincoln or Jefferson Davis. It’s not that Wright was irrelevant, he just wasn’t compelling. Nor was John Adams.
But the series “John Adams” is compelling. Thanks to historian David McCullough’s deep knowledge of the era and the filmmakers’ ability to bring it to life, it’s a must-watch for anyone who enjoys American history or values American liberty. And thank you, John Adams, for being so unattractive and so unpopular and still showing us what one person’s passionate beliefs, backed by their heartfelt actions, whatever their personal drawbacks, can accomplish.