Last week, I delved into my reasons (#1-3) why you should watch HBO’s John Adams. I touched on the acting, the cinematography and why I liked the somewhat gruesome depictions of small pox.
This week I’ve listed reasons #4-6 of why I think it’s worth a watch. I’ll talk about how they use primary sources and why now would be the perfect time to pour yourself a pint of cider (John Adams’ favorite), or a glass of Madeira, and watch this show.
John (Paul Giamatti) and Abigail Adams (Laura Linney)
#4 The show incorporates historical documents in interesting ways
A lot of lines from John and Abigail’s letters to one another are woven into the show. As a side note: these letters are well worth a read and, in my opinion, a lot more vivid, engaging and romantic than some fiction that I have read, simply because John and Abigail were both such excellent writers living through such interesting and turbulent times! It’s a shame for them that they had to spend so much time apart, but it’s a good thing for us because we have all these letters! And quotes from their letters are woven into the dialogue in this show in fairly naturalistic ways.
One of my favorite quotes that they use comes from an exasperated letter John sent to Abigail from Philadelphia on October 9, 1774. He bemoans the slow moving Continental Congress, which he thinks is all talk and no action. He writes:
‘I believe if it was moved and seconded that We should come to a Resolution that Three and two make five We should be entertained with Logick and Rhetorick Law, History, Politicks and Mathematicks, concerning the subject for two whole Days, and then We should pass the Resolution in the Affirmative.’
It’s a funny quote (Adams was funny) and I’m glad they figured out a fun way to incorporate it into the show about his life. In John Adams, the character of John says something very similar when he is lamenting Congress’ inaction at a dinner one evening. I was delighted to see that they’d managed to weave in lots of other lines as well from their letters. It gives you a clearer sense of their real personalities, their sense of humor, and the way people spoke back then.
#5 It showcases a different kind of leading man
I enjoy the fact that neither Adams (nor Paul Giamatti) is classically attractive or charming in an obvious way. Giamatti’s Adams is short, grumpy, belligerent, vain, but also principled, decent, honest and loving. Most big budget film and television shows, not just about the Revolution but more generally, feature much more conventionally attractive leads, both in temperament and in appearance, and I personally enjoyed seeing this harsh, grumpy little man as our main character. There’s something that feels fresh about it.
John Adams being grumpy as he defends the British soldiers accused of itentionally murdering civilians during the Boston Massacre. Adams really did this in life. He believed everyone should get a fair trial and successfully got them acquitted. When reflecting on his life, he considered it ‘one of the most gallant, generous, manly and disinterested actions of my whole life, and one of the best pieces of service I ever rendered my country.’
And this series is about Abigail almost as much as John, which is also really cool to see and their relationship (in real life and in this series) is/was incredibly loving and supportive and dynamic and endlessly interesting to learn about.
Also we see that while John was away practicing politics, Abigail was living out the consequences of those political decisions, as she tries to keep her family safe and alive throughout the war – fighting off diseases, dealing with food shortages. The real Abigail was deeply invested and informed about politics, but she often had to focus on her family. She wrote to John on Sep 8, 1775:
‘As to politicks I know nothing about them. The distresses of my own family are so great that I have not thought about them.’
#6 It conveys the chaos and uncertainty of this time period
One of the things that truly makes me giggle when I hear people talking about the founders in glowing and overly idealized ways is that these dudes were questioning themselves at every turn and were making it all up as they went along. Declaring Independence (and the war that followed) was chaotic, fraught, messy and the outcome was uncertain. The real Adams was full of self-doubt. He wrote in his diary in 1774, as war loomed:
‘We have not men fit for the times. We are deficient in genius, education, in travel, fortune – in everything. I feel unutterable anxiety.’
‘Unutterable anxiety’! That quote gives me a lot of hope when I think about the turbulent political times we’re in now (as I write this, we’re in the middle of an impeachment inquiry of President Trump). There has always been animosity and upheaval in American politics and these fellows, the founders, were just doing the best that they could. We never have individuals ‘fit for the times’. We just have people who do the best they can. But America’s founders were full of questions, worries and self-doubt – as smart people usually are. I love how the show captures this and even includes Adams saying a very similar line to the one I quoted above, about not feeling adequate enough for what this historical moment requires.
Adams and some of his fellow Continental Congress members walking down the street in Philadelphia
And it’s probably worth mentioning here that one of the reasons I think this time period is so fascinating to learn about is that these are the men who wrote the U.S constitution, who created the political system that Americans are still living under right now. In this way, their lives touch our own every day.
Like I said above, I could go on about the series and Adams himself, but I think I’ll leave it there for now! I hope that you will consider giving the series a try if you’re looking for a unique and well-acted piece of historical fiction, or a sort of companion piece to Hamilton.
Have you see the John Adams miniseries? Or do you have another favorite film or TV show about this period or about the American Revolution?
If you want to hear more about any of this and happen to live in Dublin, do come along to my talk at Trinity College in November. It’s an academic conference, but geared towards the public and all the presentations will be very accessible. My presentation is titled: ‘Obnoxious and Disliked’: John Adams’ Legacy in Popular Media, from 1776 to Hamilton.
Til then I remain your humble and obedient servant,
‘Madeira Mondays’ is a series of blog posts exploring Early American history and historical fiction. I’m not a historian, but an author and poet who is endlessly fascinated by this time period. I am also currently writing/researching a novel set during the American Revolution and recently finished a Doctorate of Fine Art looking at how creative writers access America’s eighteenth-century past. Follow the blog for a new post each week and any questions or suggestions feel free to get in touch.