Adams Ribbed

Adams Ribbed

A John Adams portrait seen through the sympathetic lens of HBO is more than the historical figure ever hoped for.


John Adams could never shake the feeling that history would be unkind to him. “I have very serious ideas of the duties of an historian,” he wrote to his friend Benjamin Rush in 1806. By this time Adams’s career was in ruins, and he was toughing out a bleak retirement scarred by family disasters and the triumph of his political enemies. Would Adams at least receive vindication from posterity? He wasn’t very hopeful, unless historians could be forced to swear the same oath that compelled witnesses in the courtroom: “to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.”

Adams would surely have been cheered by the slant of HBO’s recently concluded “epic miniseries event” about his life, which is consistently sympathetic to its title character. And he wouldn’t have grumbled about the casting of Paul Giamatti in the role–Adams was fat, short and bald, so he couldn’t have been expecting Ashton Kutcher. Yet there was a stubbornness about Adams, a refusal to take the easy option or to acquiesce in received wisdom, that might have prompted him to hold his applause. Adams was a lot better at grumbling than applauding in any case, but there’s something about HBO’s worthy effort that doesn’t ring true.

America’s second President has traditionally gotten a bum rap from historians and the public at large. It’s not hard to see why. Even before he succeeded Washington to the nation’s highest office, he had a reputation for being irascible and vain. He made enemies easily, and he had a touch of paranoia that made his outbursts seem pompous and detached from reality. In the first half-century of the Republic, he was one of only two Presidents who failed to win a second term. (The other was his son John Quincy, who failed at what the Bush dynasty has mastered: the trick of loosening up the second time around.) Adams spent more than twenty-five years in a bitter retirement, brooding over his mistakes and–more often–ascribing them to others. Little wonder that he was excluded from the founder pantheon, pushed aside even in his own lifetime as Americans celebrated Washington, Jefferson and Franklin–and to Adams’s horror, Alexander Hamilton.

In 2001 David McCullough’s biography presented a very different picture. Its John Adams was vain and crabby but also courageous and important. He was as much the architect of the American Revolution as any other man, and even his turbulent presidency had its noble elements. His relationship with his wife, Abigail, revealed a tenderness and (occasionally) a humility that belied his public image, and he endured personal tragedies and public opprobrium with considerable fortitude. Books about the founders were already hot property in the publishing world, not least because the Clinton impeachment had produced endless calls for the rediscovery of “character” and “rectitude” in American life. John Adams went straight to the top of the bestseller lists in June 2001, but 9/11 seemed to give it a second wind with the American public. Adams, after all, was a conservative President struggling to steer the country through a time of war. McCullough’s positive spin allowed readers to embrace the prickliest of the founders and to console themselves with the fact that America had endured dark times before.

Nearly seven years later, HBO has used McCullough’s book as a template for its John Adams. With an impressive cast on board–including Laura Linney playing opposite Giamatti as Abigail Adams–the miniseries begins in March 1770, on the night of the Boston Massacre, during which British soldiers guarding the customs house opened fire on a crowd of protesters. This was a key moment, not only because the patriot cause had its first five martyrs at the hands of the British. Within hours, Boston’s radicals launched an unprecedented campaign to spin events to their advantage: they sent news stories up and down the seaboard establishing the American view of what had happened–British redcoats had murdered their unarmed opponents–before word had even reached London. For nearly a decade, they commemorated the anniversary every year with a charged ceremony that lambasted the British occupation, until July 4 displaced March 5 in America’s collective memory. Adams was on the scene when gun smoke was still hanging in the air. Then, with characteristic bloody-mindedness, he agreed to represent the British soldiers in their criminal trial for murder.

It’s a smart move to pitch the first episode of John Adams as a courtroom drama, especially because Adams seems to be on the wrong side. The filmmakers introduce their subject as a man of unswerving principle, and they lay down some markers for the episodes that follow. First, we get a strong sense of the closeness of Adams’s bond with Abigail. Laura Linney watches over her husband with a wary eye and pounces whenever his character flaws peep out. “Ambition!” she cries, when she thinks he’s only taking the controversial case to get noticed in Boston. Linney’s Abigail spends too much time haranguing in the first episode, but the message is clear: we don’t have to worry about Adams’s foibles because his wife will keep them in check.

The trial also gives us an early chance to see why Adams–derided by his detractors as an autocrat, even a monarchist–didn’t have much patience for democracy. The standard version of the Boston Massacre is that a group of brave protesters faced off with the occupying soldiers and received a fatal musket volley for their pains. Adams–and John Adams–sees it differently. The Boston patriots are led by Danny Huston’s Sam Adams, second cousin of John, a demagogue and puppet master who uses crowds to stir up tensions with the British. Huston and his unscrupulous friends pack the galleries of the courtroom and try to menace witnesses into backing up their interpretation of events. John Adams, meanwhile, stands firm against their intimidation and offers a different version of the events: the crowd was armed with clubs, and the British were forced into firing as an act of self-defense.

The truth probably lies somewhere in the middle. Boston’s patriots had been spoiling for a fight with the soldiers, who had been stationed among them for more than two years; on the other hand, massacres are hard to avoid when an occupying army hunkers down in the middle of a city. But the movie presents the politics of the early 1770s as a dangerous swirl of mob violence and elite manipulation, to make Adams–with his natural disdain and caution–seem like a truer patriot than the hotheads. Soon after he gets the British soldiers acquitted, there’s a grisly scene in which another elite Bostonian, the merchant John Hancock, goads a crowd into tarring and feathering a customs inspector working for the king. As the poor fellow is hauled away, stripped naked and doused in burning tar by the baying masses, John Adams mutters, “Barbarism, barbarism!” Already, we’re seeing the world through Adams’s eyes: crowds can’t be trusted, and the base art of democracy involves deceiving the mob into doing things that are rash or harmful or both.

How important was Adams to the American Revolution? That depends on how you define it. Adams liked to say that the Revolution started in 1759, when the British kicked the French out of Montreal, and that it was completed with the Declaration of Independence. This chronology suited Adams very nicely. He was no soldier, and treating the summer of 1776 as the crowning achievement of the patriot effort swept the battlefield heroes (Washington and Hamilton in particular) out of the frame. But most of his contemporaries, not to mention posterity, didn’t see it this way; the years from 1775 to 1789 quickly became the focal point of Revolution commemoration. From this vantage point, Adams moves from a central to a more peripheral role in the founding.

In the vital years before the Declaration of Independence, Adams was a key figure in the patriot movement that was emerging throughout the colonies. He resisted the temptation to occupy a sinecure in the royal government of Massachusetts, which was his for the taking after his trial victory in 1770, and he was an early and forceful advocate of independence. Even after the shooting started in earnest in the spring of 1775, many patriots were nervous about a decisive break from Britain. Adams, on the floor of the Continental Congress in Philadelphia, was a constant and eloquent voice for separation. His impassioned pleas did a great deal to persuade his fellow delegates that they could tear themselves from their mother country without (as one of his rivals put it) “bleed[ing] from every vein.”

After the triumph of the Declaration, for which Adams deserves at least as much credit as Thomas Jefferson, the picture becomes murkier. Congress sent Adams (along with Benjamin Franklin) for peace talks with the British on Staten Island in the fall of 1776, but they achieved nothing. Franklin was then dispatched to France, in the hope that Louis XVI could be persuaded to join the war on America’s side. In 1777 Congress sent Adams to join his venerable colleague, but while Adams was en route the course of the war was turned on its head. General Horatio Gates defeated the British at the Battle of Saratoga, and Franklin used this unexpected success to secure an alliance with the French. When Adams arrived in Paris, he was irrelevant before he’d unpacked his cases. His sourness, particularly around the triumphant Franklin, ensured a swift recall.

In 1779 Adams returned to Europe to negotiate with the British and the Dutch. Again he had limited success. He served as the first American minister to Britain from 1785 to 1788, but he didn’t resolve the pressing issues left over from the war. He spent two terms as the first Vice President, during which he was routinely cut out of decision-making by Washington and frustrated by his diminished role as president of the Senate. His single, fateful term in the Executive Mansion was marked by the disloyalty of his cabinet and his disastrous relationship with Congress. Adams managed to keep America out of Europe’s wars but at the cost of alienating his party and ceding the White House to his bitter rival, Jefferson. (Adams remains the only incumbent to have skipped town at 4 o’clock the morning of his successor’s inauguration.) The unhappy Adams returned to his Massachusetts farm in 1801 to pick over the details of what had happened, settling scores in his head with those who had pushed him to the margins and prematurely ended his career.

How do you package all that as a seven-episode miniseries? You can’t, of course, which is part of the problem with John Adams. Strangely, given Adams’s reputation as a rather cold figure, the most successful thing about the production is its depiction of intimacy and quotidian experience. Most costume dramas avoid the horrors of life in the eighteenth century, but this one has amputations, smallpox outbreaks, even a heartbreakingly graphic mastectomy performed by Benjamin Rush on Adams’s beloved daughter. The already infamous sex scene, which takes place when Abigail is reunited with her husband in France after a long absence, is less embarrassing than it might have been. (I imagined Laura Linney crying “Lust, John!” in an act of halfhearted upbraiding; instead, there’s some tastefully blurry humping followed by John apologizing for being an infrequent correspondent.) The effect of all this is to make you appreciate the challenges of the period: the struggle to stay alive, to traverse the vast distances between family and professional duties and to make sense of the loss and death that could overturn your world without warning.

Unfortunately, the politics is a good deal more tidy and safe than these personal dramas. In the first two episodes, Adams’s achievements provide such ballast that his flaws can be fully displayed. After this, the story starts to unravel, especially in its depiction of the turbulent politics of the age. The third and fourth episodes (set mostly in Europe) seem strained and misleading. The producers are to be congratulated for taking Europe seriously: many of the most famous founders spent years away from home, representing the colonies and then the states in distant capitals across the ocean. While Franklin was back in Philadelphia in time for the Constitutional Convention in May 1787, Jefferson and Adams were still absent on diplomatic service. But we find out very little about how European politics actually worked, and the urge to salvage Adams’s unsuccessful missions nudges the movie into caricature.

France, in particular, is a horror show. Adams is appalled by the sybaritic behavior all around him and does his best to stand on (Yankee) principle. Franklin, on the other hand, seems happy to wave through any outrage in return for the easy adulation of his hosts. John Adams makes it hard for anyone to side with Franklin, who seems entirely at ease while powdered socialites encourage their tiny dogs to shit in the vol-au-vents. (The excess of Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette is staid by comparison.) Franklin is somewhere between a phony and a dirty old man: he sucks up to the French, endures their eccentric table manners and their licentiousness, then he smooches in the bath with an ancient countess while Adams palpitates. (Strangely for an HBO show, Franklin’s gnarled squeeze remains mostly clothed.) Even given Franklin’s considerable self-regard, the suggestion that he was a lascivious toady misses the mark, and the French scenes in John Adams only bolster Adams’s reputation by trashing that of his more successful colleague.

Adams always saw Jefferson as his greatest rival, and historians have traditionally placed the second President in the shadow of his successor. In the series, he’s always trying to bail on Congress and sneak back to Virginia, or thinking about a new portico he’s planning to add to his mansion. In one amusing scene, he seems more interested in the design of a wooden chair than in the draft of the Declaration of Independence, and both John and Abigail Adams do plenty of eye-rolling in his company. When Jefferson supports the French Revolution in the 1790s, and makes excuses for its early excesses, he seems preposterously out of touch. Worse, he seems irresponsible in his encouragement of American sympathy for France, which leaves us effectively endorsing Adams’s aristocratic approach: “I have sometimes thought that the public opinion is never right concerning present measures or future events,” said Adams during his retirement. If the series’s Jefferson is pulling the strings of popular opinion, you sympathize with that point of view.

In reality Jefferson was a little less dreamy and he was hardly alone in trying to make the United States more responsive to its people during the 1790s. During Washington’s presidency, many Americans became convinced that the constitutional experiment, with its many checks on popular opinion, wasn’t working. The federal government had too much power over the states, they believed, and was set on gaining even more. Adams saw no fault with this and reasoned that the tumult in France proved him correct in his skepticism about the public will. A natural aristocracy was no bad thing, providing it was enlightened in its views and aware of its responsibilities to those less talented. Jefferson, meanwhile, found himself in the awkward position of both working for the government (in Washington’s cabinet, then eventually as Adams’s Vice President) and trying to alter its relationship with the people at large. Adams was right to complain that Jefferson was disloyal and even dishonest at various moments in the 1790s, but the series gives no sense of the enterprise in which he was engaged: the assertion of the people’s right to shape their government, despite the better judgment of men like Adams.

Jefferson could also rely on the help of James Madison, a wily politician who shared these ideas about popular sovereignty but who tethered Jefferson’s flights of fancy. Madison doesn’t even appear in John Adams, perhaps because he’d make the hero look bad. In spite of Adams’s conviction that he was America’s supreme political thinker, it was Madison who played the leading role in drafting the Constitution and in defending it in the Federalist essays. He also managed the House of Representatives in the early 1790s with a nimbleness that exposed Adams’s clumsy touch in the Senate. Finally, it was Madison rather than Adams who talked Jefferson down from his wilder ideas, like the suggestion that property should be redistributed or that the Constitution should be rewritten every decade or two. Watching John Adams, you never see Jefferson the political animal or imagine that there was a practical way to realize at least some of his ideas for government. If we put Madison back into this middle ground, Adams moves further to the right: uncomfortably close, perhaps, to his nemesis Alexander Hamilton.

The Hamilton-Adams relationship, which should be one of the most compelling parts of the movie–a tale of ambition, mistrust and resentment–is a major disappointment. The first Secretary of the Treasury is a fast talker; he flits around as the older founders struggle to keep up. But after he pushes through his economic plan in the early 1790s, he disappears from the stage. More talked about than seen, he becomes the focus of Adams’s fears that partisans on both sides are looking for a European war–Jefferson and his friends are keen to fight Britain, and Hamilton and the Federalists want to take on France. In the sixth episode, which chronicles Adams’s lopped-off presidency, Hamilton returns as a vapid megalomaniac; he plans to lead an army to the outskirts of the nation to take Florida and New Orleans from Spain (now a French ally), before doubling back to Washington and mopping up Jeffersonian supporters along the way. Adams rightly calls him mad, and the movie chronicles Adams’s pyrrhic victory over Hamilton and the “High Federalists” who supported him in Congress. Adams denied Hamilton the war he craved but at the cost of splitting the Federalist Party and ceding the 1800 election to Jefferson.

It’s true that Adams came to dislike Hamilton’s obsession with money and that he was unnerved by his military ambitions; but what really got under his skin was that Hamilton had done a much better job than he had of parlaying service to the Revolution into prestige and power in the new United States. Of course, this was an absurd complaint on some level: Adams made it all the way to the top. Yet he always felt he was undervalued as a thinker and a patriot, and he resented what he took to be the unthinking praise poured on Franklin, Jefferson, even Washington.

The speedy ascent of Hamilton was especially hard to bear. He had been born in complicated circumstances in the Caribbean in the 1750s (Adams’s summary: a “bastard brat of a Scotch pedlar”), yet he had jumped the line of Revolutionary greatness so that, as Adams later complained, Americans tended “to ascribe the whole Revolution to Washington and the whole Federal Government to Hamilton.” Adams resented the way Washington seemed to lean on Hamilton in the early years of his presidency, and he became furious at Washington’s willingness to support Hamilton’s warmongering plans at the end of the 1790s. Washington had agreed to serve at the head of a national army mobilized to fight the French, and Adams strongly suspected that Washington would actually return to power in the 1800 election if Hamilton managed to get his war with Napoleon. Although in his sober moments Adams recognized Washington’s many talents, the association between the general and his scheming protégé skewed Adams’s perspective. The public love for Washington, Adams used to say, was hot air that would lift Hamilton’s balloon upward.

We get a hint of this in John Adams, but there’s no stomach for a serious reassessment of Washington’s unnerving conduct in his final years. Adams is marooned by a recalcitrant Congress and a disloyal cabinet, but he gets his French peace deal and he gets to leave the White House with his dignity intact. In the final episode, dedicated to his long retirement, the filmmakers focus more on family tragedy and on Adams’s eventual reconciliation with Jefferson than on his disenchantment with America. Adams resumed his correspondence with Jefferson in 1812, at the behest of their mutual friend Benjamin Rush, and the filmmakers serve up a Hallmark Channel montage in which the lapsed friends remember what they once achieved together.

I couldn’t help wishing that the movie had focused instead on Adams’s gossipy, gloriously dyspeptic correspondence with Rush, which provides a useful corrective to the view of a mellowing Adams reconciled with his country. Imagine the soft photography and the schmaltzy music as Adams goes on one of his rants to Rush. “Secrecy! Cunning! Silence! Voilà les grands sciences des temps modernes. Washington! Franklin! Jefferson! Eternal silence! impenetrable secrecy! deep cunning! These are the talents and virtues which are triumphant in these days.” That was Adams in 1806, and he wrote plenty more letters in this vein. Paul Giamatti, for one, seems to be channeling this darker Adams at various moments: in one discordant scene in the final episode, he attacks a painter who’s produced a massive canvas on the signing of the Declaration of Independence, lamenting that the picture is “very bad history” and that the true account of the Revolution is forever lost. Then he has one of those mad-old-man epiphanies that often occur in lengthy biopics, and he wanders around his estate taking joy in the flowers and wishing he hadn’t been such a miseryguts.

The problem is not, as some reviewers have complained, that Giamatti is miscast, but rather that John Adams can’t figure out what it wants to be. Is this a straight adaptation of McCullough’s book, with its desire to restore Adams to his rightful place in the pantheon? Or an edgier study of a man who was in many respects politically out of touch and genuinely unlikable? Giamatti seems a great choice for the nonheroic option, and his performance often has a jagged edge that tears at the safer conclusions of McCullough’s book. But he looks less comfortable in the “epic” parts, and he’s too good an actor to suppress the ironies and welts of Adams’s character.

The one moment at which I felt really gripped by John Adams was just after his triumphs in the summer of 1776. As I started watching the next episode, the action had moved to 1789 and Adams’s unhappy tenure as Vice President. Suddenly, the hero of Congress was back at the head of the Senate, but his suggestions that the President be given a grand title (“His Highness,” “His Excellency”) were being ridiculed by everyone. What had happened to bring Adams down from the heights of the last episode, I wondered. Had he been corrupted by his years in Europe? Then, just as I was getting excited about the unfolding story, I realized that I’d mixed up the DVDs. I was watching episode five, not episode three, and the jarring jump from 1776 to 1789 was my own invention.

This got me thinking about how much better John Adams would be if the producers had abandoned their cautious, chronological approach, and had mixed things up in order to explore Adams’s shifting motives and neuroses. Adams was more concerned about his reputation than almost any other President. There’s a dash of Richard Nixon in his raking over the past and his paranoia about those who would fix his place in history. But he never managed to produce the definitive book about either his life or the politics of his day. His autobiography, written fitfully during Jefferson’s presidency, takes the story only as far as 1780. His letters in retirement are filled with observations (many of them catty) about the Revolution and the early Republic, but also with bleak aphorisms about the impossibility of recovering the past. “I doubt whether faithful history ever was or ever can be written,” Adams told Benjamin Rush in 1809. “The world will go on always ignorant of itself, its past history, and future destiny.”

Perhaps it’s this element of Adams’s character–his historical defeatism–that seems most absent from the HBO series, which fixes its hero on a conventional trajectory through America’s founding drama: from ambition and early success, to frustration and defeat, to redemption in his final years. The producers want us to understand how valuable Adams’s contribution was: how he was in some ways outmaneuvered and ill-used by his Revolutionary peers, but never bested by them. It’s true that Hamilton comes off badly in this telling, but the other founders are left mostly intact. Franklin survives his French indecencies to offer some sage words back in Philadelphia; we never see Washington riding shotgun for Hamilton during the intrigues of 1798-99; and even Jefferson is transfigured by the resumption of his friendship with Adams.

The more interesting story is how Adams came to revile so many of his peers, and how he became such a sharp critic of the emerging industry of founder worship during the last decades of his life. We’re taught in high school to recognize that the past is political, but the effect of John Adams is to reduce the uncertainties, enmities and divisions of the early Republic to a consensus story about courage and sacrifice. Adams doubted that true history could be written even “300 years after the event,” and perhaps he’d be flattered to discover that HBO has spent so much money placing him at the center of the Revolutionary story. I’m just not sure that even he would be convinced by it.

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