Monday, April 7, 2008

HBO's John Adams: Episode 5

Episode #5, "Unite or Die" is in the books! As hard as it may be to believe, HBO's hit miniseries John Adams has almost reached its conclusion. I guess that the old saying, "all good things must come to an end" is true after all. It has been an absolute joy to not only watch this miniseries, but to engage in a meaningful discussion on the film's historical accuracies/inaccuracies with all of you. Speaking for myself, the series has become quite the learning experience, thanks in large part to your input.

Like most of you, I watched episode #5 last night with great anticipation. Going into this week's episode I knew that the miniseries would be covering the early years of the American republic, which is a time period I greatly enjoy learning about. Overall, I think that HBO did an excellent job at capturing the true nature on America's infant years as a republic. The series brought out the convoluted nature of America's political atmosphere, which eventually drove a rift between many of our Founding Fathers. Episode #5 also helped to put a personal spin on the Adams family's domestic quarrels, which were anything but peaceful.

I only have a few critiques of this week's installment. Most of them center on the portrayal of various political issues that came up in episode #5. First off, I want to YET AGAIN stress the fact that this miniseries is only skimming the historical surface of the American Revolution. It is impossible to give a detailed portrayal of George Washington's eight-year administration in only one hour. I lament the fact that so many viewers will miss so much history that is critical in gaining an understanding of the early American republic.

My main problem with last night's episode centers on its depiction of the Jay Treaty. There can be no doubt that the French/British conflict propelled the infant United States into a very difficult dilemma. There is also no doubt that a large part of the American population favored an alliance with France, and that the announcement of the Jay Treaty angered many across the continent. With that said, however, it is also important to remember that a large part of the nation defended Washington's decision to make a treaty with Britain. HBO's portrayal of George Washington being hated by the masses is grossly overdone. Of course there were protests against Washington for the Jay Treaty, but there were also protests against France as well. As historian James Sharp points out in his book, American Politics in the Early Republic, "The treaty that Jay negotiated, and that Washington sent to the Senate divided the country like no other issue in the history of the young republic." Washington's decision was controversial to say the least, but it did not cause the majority of Americans to hate him (as is suggested in the film).

In fact, Washington's decision to accept a treaty with Britain was an ingenious move to say the least. As Joseph Ellis writes in his book, Founding Brothers:

It bet, in effect, on England rather than France as the hegemonic European power of the future, which proved prophetic. It recognized the massive dependence of the American economy on trade with England…it linked American security and economic development to the British fleet, which provided a protective shield of incalculable value throughout the nineteenth century. Mostly, it postponed war with England until America was economically and politically more capable of fighting one.
Washington's decision to avoid war at all costs and to align America's economic future with England instead of France was arguably the most important decision of his presidency.

In addition, it would have been a huge plus if the miniseries did a better job of portraying George Washington's departure from the presidency as the illustrious event that it was. Washington's ability to willingly give up power set a precedence that no president dared to break in almost 200 years. That was an event that deserved more attention.

Another historical event that could have used further development was Alexander Hamilton's plan of economic assumption. The miniseries only devotes a small segment to this all-important issue. In fact, Hamilton seems to be somewhat demonized in the film's portrayal of his economic policies. We would be wise, however, to remember that Alexander Hamilton's plan of assumption did more to set America on the road to prosperity than any other act of government policy.


Anonymous said...

I missed the dialogue in the last scene in a house(?). What was it, why was it in that condition, and who left it that way?

Lindsey Shuman said...

I am in complete agreement with what Ellis has to say about the Jay Treaty. Yes, it was very divisive, but that doesn't suggest that everyone hated Washington. He left with great distinction.

Vince Treacy said...

The episode falsely showed Adams casting a tie breaking vote after a 15-15 deadlock.

In reality, a treaty requires a 2-3ds vote, and David McCulloch himself wrote that it received the exact 2-3d majority needed, without any comments by Adams.

It was gratuitous and unnecessary to the plot. They could have portrayed Adams words to Senators off the floor and shown him announcing the real result.

Brad said...

Excellent point, Vince. I was not aware of that.