Tuesday, March 25, 2008

A Few More Observations of John Adams

If you are a regular reader of the numerous blogs on the history of the American Revolution, you are probably more than aware of the fact that HBO's new miniseries John Adams has been receiving an incredible amount of attention. Historians and history buffs alike have put this film under a microscope, scrutinizing every last detail. Naturally, this may deter some viewers that watch only for pure entertainment. On the other hand, historical scrutiny allows other viewers to analyze the film for historical purposes, essentially making the miniseries a learning tool.

I for one am all for scrutinizing historical films. I believe that it forces the viewer to stretch his/her understanding and knowledge of the time period. Keeping this in mind, here are a few additional observations of the John Adams miniseries:

  • Colonial American society LOVED to drink. John Hancock, for example, kept at least a gallon of rum punch at his bedside. George Washington was the largest distiller of rum in the colonies prior to the outbreak of war. Alcohol was a large part of the every day colonial experience. People drank alcohol back then in the same way that bottled water is consumed today. There is little to no depiction of this in the film.
  • The film's portrayal of political thought and ideology are limited to say the least. For example, there is absolutely no reference to Thomas Paine or to the massive impact of his book Common Sense. In the Continental Congress, John Adams is seen as an idealist instead of the pragmatic realist that he actually was. Historian Jeff Pasley said it best in his review of this film when he wrote the following:

    Like the David McCullough source material, this episode was atrocious when dealing with politics or political thought. Tom Paine and Common Sense are not even mentioned, nor is there any sense of the pressure the delegates were feeling from the political radicalism that was boiling over in the streets of Philadelphia during the summer of 1776, a source of great consternation to the real Adams. (Ordinary Americans appear only in occasional scenes of silent soldiers and disease victims, and in a nice polite crowd that hears the Declaration read at the end.) Here the speech Adams gives in reply to John Dickinson during the final independence debate comes out of nowhere and sounds more like Paine than Adams, proposing a national republic and extolling revolution in a way that would have had the most of the delegates fleeing back home or to the British if anyone one had actually said that kind of stuff on the floor of the Continental Congress. The real speech, while not recorded, seems to have been much more practical and nothing the delegates had not heard many times before.

  • The lack of any background information into the causes of the Britain/Boston feud are completely ignored in this film. As I have stated before, I realize that every film has limitations to it, and certain events must be omitted for obvious reasons. With that said, however, I believe that it is essential for the audience to have a basic understanding of events like the Stamp Act, the Declaratory Act, the Tea Act, the creation of the Sons of Liberty, etc.

Though this film (like any other) is replete with historical inaccuracies, I still maintain my overall opinion that this film is deserving of praise. HBO should feel proud for having gone to such lengths to recreate this all-important era in our nation's history.


Brian Tubbs said...

I think the tarring-and-feathering scene was meant to depict the radicalism of many of the people.

And while John Adams was a pragmatic realist, he was (according to sources at the time) a powerful advocate for independence on the floor of the Congress. I think the portrayal of Adams as the principal mover and shaker IN THE CONGRESS is accurate. And there was an idealism to that. Not simply pragmatism.

Brad said...

I think one has to consider what was motivating John Adams. After all, Adams (like the other delegates to the convention) were deeply influenced by the demands of the people. We must keep in mind that this was a revolution of the PEOPLE and not just the elites.

The desire John Adams possessed for independence was undoubtably influened by the people, otherwise he and the others would have NEVER let the crusade for separation. His idealism is therefore a representation of the people in my opinion.

Brian Tubbs said...

Was Adams influenced by the people? I'm sure he was. Was he DRIVEN by public opinion? I don't think so. Not John Adams.

You're sounding a little too much like Ray Raphael and Howard Zinn, now, Brad.

Brad said...

Howard Zinn!!! Ouch!!! =)

Here is why I think Adams was driven by public opinion (like most politicians). In a letter to his wife he wrote, "Though I am unwilling to concede that independence is the only viable solution to the current crisis...THE PEOPLE DEMAND IT, so I must therefore acquiesce."

Sounds like is was swayed by public opinion to me!

Steve Becknall said...

Yeah...Adams is a great dude...none of us will argue that. But sure, he was influenced by the public just like anyone else. Come on, Brian. You have to admit that there never would have been a Revolution if the people hadn't wanted it. Adams & Co. couldn's simply will it...it had to be what the people wanted. Look at every single revolution in world history...it is the PEOPLE that create and maintain it, not the politicians. They just get all the credit.

Lindsey Shuman said...

Here is an important bit of truth: none of our Founding Fathers craved recognition or fame more than John Adams. Now, these motivations are not always a bad thing. Let us not forget that Adams wanted recognition and attention more than anyone. I agree with what the historian Brad quoted had to say. That last speech in episode #2 was NOT what Adams would have said. In fact, he probably droned on about something more mundane.

Raven said...

What's so wrong with Howard Zinn, Brian? I think everyone should read his book "A People's History of the United States." It opens up eyes. Maybe you are just too conservative in your views. Stick to stuff like David Barton and Michael Novak...like that stuff isn't biased!

Brad said...


I've read "A People's History of the United States" and I think it is crap. I've also read its rebuttal book, "A Patriot's History of the United States" and found it equally worthless. I fail to see how you can call Zinn's work eye opening. Taking an exclusively antagonistic approach to history is not "eye opening" in the least, and this is exactly what Zinn does.

I agree with you when you state that we should avoid reading overly biased texts. Keep in mind, however, that this is exactly what Howard Zinn is.

By the way Raven, what ever happened to being civil?

Brian Tubbs said...

For the record, my equating Brad with Howard Zinn was intended as a joke. I just neglected to put the smiley face in there. Sorry.

Raven, I've read Zinn's "A People's History."

Anyway, back to the issue...

I agree that Adams was influenced by popular opinion. And I definitely agree that Adams was vain (he admits it himself) and that he cared about his reputation. I think we could all, in fact, agree that Adams was probably as influenced by CURRENT popular opinion as he was by FUTURE popular opinion. :-) Adams spent a LOT of time thinking about what future generations would say about him and his peers.

Steve, I agree that the Revolution never would've happened had the people not wanted it. I agree 100% with that.

I guess where I'm coming from is simply this...

There are some politicians who stick their finger in the air to see which way the winds are blowing - and then they "lead" accordingly. John Adams was NOT that kind of politician.

He was certainly influenced by public opinion, but he was not driven by it. He was a leader in the truest sense of the word.

Brad said...

No worries, Brian. I knew you were joking. I guess others on here took it a little too seriously (we do like each other on this blog people).

I can agree with you assessment of Adams. I think he was a man that stuck to his guns regardless of what others thought (there are ample examples of this). I also agree with what Steve says about the revolution being primarily of the PEOPLE. Very good point there. And, of course, he was influenced by public opinion like anyone else.

For the record, "people's histoy" still is crap.

David Mabry said...

Alright, here I am again, Johnny-come-lately. Yes, we really do like each other here. I can appreicate the fact that we read and considered mutiple perspectives. While many of us have dismissed Zinn, we have read and considered his perspective along with others.
I agree that Adams did not just follow popular will. He defended the British soldiers accused in the Boston Massacre. The only reputable lawyer in Boston to do so. he wanted to show the British that Americans believed in the rule of law and thus are entilted to their rights under the law. We are not a bunch of club weilding street toughs with no respect for law.
Also, revolutions cannot be sustained by politicians or the ruling class. Adams was the primary advocate in SCC for indepedence. I really appreciate the job HBO did in its dramatic portryal of Amas and Dickinson as the representatives of the two schools of thought in Congress.

Patriot said...

Ist post on this blog. Love this site, and all things related to the study and furtherence of the founding era of this the "Shining City on the Hill". I belive that this $100m adoptation of David M's great tome is one of the finest efforts ever put forth by that medium. Although historical "license" was taken, the story is a first rate look at the Genisis of America. It shows the conflicted genious of the major players, and the proper aligning of the stars (Province) for it to have happened in the first place. It has given me a greater love for country and selfless expressions of patriotism that are sorely lacking in the last couple of generations. I read Zinn's pablum. That kind of America hating invective is symptomatic of the segment of Americans that clearly blame us for the worlds problems. Are we a perfect people, with perfect policies...NO. But in the words of the authors of A Patriot's history "It's not my country right or wrong, BUT nor is it my country, ALWAYS wrong either".

We have fed more, freed, more, and liberated more peoples around the world than any state in modern history. I'd say on the scale of things, the world is much better off because these brave men (and women) laid it all (lives, fortunes, sacred honor)on the line for the cause of LIBERTY! GOD SAVE AMERICA...(since we no longer have a King to save :-)

Brad said...

Thank you, Patriot for your comments. We're glad you enjoy the blog and hope to see more of you in the future.

I totally agree with your comments on Zinn. Choosing to exclusively promote a negative view of American history (or any history for that matter) is counterproductive.

klkatz said...

you must remember this is a film abuout the life of John Adams... and not a broad view of the revolution... Pain is not mentioned because because it is unnecessary to do so.

the boston tea party is alluded to and not highlighted, the battle of lexington and concord is alluded to and not highlighted... washington's troops needing supplies is alluded to and not higlighted because this film is about John Adams...

and sure, drinking is prevalent in many cultures, but you don't expect to see a drunken John Hancock in congress, or for George Washington to talk about his side business. let's be real here. there was probably one seen that took place in a pub, i don't recall if spirits were present, but for this to be a point of concern is unwarranted in my opinion.

i think it also important to note that this is made for TV, which leans towards the dramatic. to makee everything 100% historically accurate would be contradictory to the entertainment of TV.

because I'm parelleling my viewing of the HBO series with McCullough's book, i can note nearly a dozen innacurate instances... for example the journey across the atlantic, they combined two encounters with british ships into one... and the amputation of the leg happenend days after the incident and not in the heat of the moment...

i appreciate your watching the film with a critical eye, i think all of us history lovers do that, but keep in mind the film is about John Adams the view that he and his "Dearest Friend" had of his life.

Brad said...

Nobody is debating that this is a MOVIE, klkatz. We are simply pointing out where we feel the movie could be improved. Also, we've pointed out (many times) the fact that this is a film on Adams. This fact, however, does not suggest that the movie shouldn't include other parts of the American Revolution, especially when most Americans today know nothing of its history.

Brian Tubbs said...

Welcome, Patriot and klkatz...hope to see more posts from you both. Appreciated your comments.