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Why John Adams? September 18, 2012

Posted by ourfriendben in Ben Franklin, wit and wisdom.
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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.



1. William S. Scudder - September 18, 2012

Adams appears to have been the prickliest of our Founding Fathers. The French Court found his moral lecturing tiresome. Franklin couldn’t get him out of Paris fast enough. But perhaps his moralist nature was his gift to the cause. Most of the Continental Congress had skin in the game and would benefit financially from independence. Adams was one of the few voices who may have actually believed his rhetoric and acted on it. Franklin trotted him out around Europe to show our revolution was more than a mere land grab.
I too wondered, why bother with an HBO series on such an annoying man, but I always felt that McCullough’s story was more of a love story than a history pageant. Like Franklin, I loved Abigail.

Very well put, William! John Adams certainly had a good deal of competition for the title of prickliest Founding Father. (Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr spring to mind, and let’s not forget poor Benedict Arnold and George Mason, nor Sam Adams and Patrick Henry of “I smell a rat” fame.) But I agree that John Adams won that particular contest, since he didn’t seem to know how to compromise or to refrain from judging his fellow men by his own high standards, and I also agree that he was entirely sincere in his morals and beliefs.

2. William - September 18, 2012

Could the answer be found with everyone else involved during the colonial / revolution period? Everyone else has been covered countless times. I’d be less willing to watch another show on Washington or even Franklin (sorry, Ben). As much as I enjoy Jefferson’s plantation, he does not grab my attention anymore.

Oh, Abe the same goes with you and the other popular generals. Just please help prevent someone coming up with the idea of starring Jimmy Buchanan!!

Ha, oh dear, William! Maybe Ben Franklin has had enough coverage, but I still don’t think anyone has really done George Washington adequately, and live in hope of seeing a series that does.

I too love Monticello and make a point of visiting anytime I find myself in Virginia. If there’s ever been a film about Stonewall Jackson, please let me know so I can rent it on Netflix. The bizarre, lemon-sucking general was perhaps the most brilliant strategist who ever lived.

And please don’t tell me you’re not going to see Daniel Day-Lewis’s interpretation of Abraham Lincoln in the upcoming film. I don’t know why they didn’t choose to star my fellow Lincoln relative Tom Hanks in the role, both of us are related to Lincoln through his mother, Nancy Hanks (and I to his wife Mary Todd Lincoln as well, not to mention Martha Custis Washington), but no one could dispute Mr. Day-Lewis’s authenticity and acting ability.

3. narf77 - September 19, 2012

As a non American I am in the dark about just who John Adams actually is. If I was so inclined, I would head off and google it right now but from the post I can glean that he is fat, irritating and dead. All situations that are hard to change and so I will leave you here ruminating about your dead anti-heroes while I head off to play some Zelda 🙂

“Fat, irritating and dead.” Ha!!!! That pretty much says it all, Fran, and please forgive me for not putting His Rotundity in context. John Adams was our first Vice President and second President. Probably anyone who had to follow George Washington as President would have been a popular failure, but poor Mr. Adams was an especially unfortunate choice, squashed between the idolized Washington and almost equally idolized Thomas Jefferson. But he did have vindication of sorts when his son, John Quincy Adams, also was elected President!

4. colonialchris - September 27, 2012

I’m just getting into this blogging, so don’t let my unimpressive blog site persuade your judgement on the content of what I have to say but I happen to be one of the few who like John Adams. The reason I do so is because he IS a prick. He’s brash, stubborn, but most importantly, he’s loyal and speaks his mind. He never filtered himself for anyone. These were characteristics of the New Englanders, as a whole, in the eyes of the rest of the colonies. More importantly, these were characteristics of a regular PERSON. With our Founding Fathers, we tend not to look at them as people but demi-gods. They had great minds but also personal flaws. Watching John Adams’ very personal interactions with the other Founding Fathers was refreshing because it showed that they are not much different from the politicians in power presently. And it’s because of his unpopularity in his own time-period that he is not remembered.

However, he should be remembered. While there is no one I love more than Ben Franklin, I think its important to show the other side of the coin. John Adams did LEAD the debate for Independence before anyone else had the guts to. He also helped to edit the Declaration of Independence. And while people might argue his Presidency was a failure, keep in mind that he kept us out of a potentially catastrophic war with France. Also, his Presidency’s Alien and Sedition Acts are criticized right now but keep in mind that this was the first real time that the government was challenged with the freedom of press and speech. His decision was flawed, but it taught a lesson to everyone else. No matter what, he was a great man. But it’s important to remember that he was a person, first and foremost, who had flaws like everyone else.

Very good points, Chris, and thank you for sharing them! And of course, we have to appreciate your love of our own hero and blog mentor, the great Benjamin Franklin!

5. Lisa - July 5, 2013

And nobody’s ever done Gouverneur Morris, have they? High time:).

Hi Lisa! Gouverneur Morris is one of our all-time favorites, and would make a fabulous hero in a miniseries. He had it all: wealth and privilege, drama and tragedy, a major role in exciting times, lots of love affairs and globe-trotting, and ultimately a true love and true happiness, though it came at a high price. If you’d like to read more about him, go to our earlier post “A most confusing name” via the search bar at upper right, then read down through the comments until you get to the one where we recommend various books on Gouverneur Morris, including a set by Teddy Roosevelt!

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