‘Adams’ the HBO Miniseries: “Lustrously ostentatious intellectually and overflowing with a visual history”

I’ve been to a lot of Tea Party events and know quite a few people on the inside of the movement and never did anyone bring up the magnificent miniseries done by HBO on John Adams as essential material for studying one of the greatest founding fathers in American history.  I assumed that the HBO produced event would be a typical progressive revisionist history that focused all too much on the hypocrisy of slavery and the general presentation as weak average men riding the coat-tails of history.  I assumed that since Tom Hanks produced the show that it would be laced with progressive references.  But……Laura Linney was in and was playing Abigail Adams—John Adams wife—so I put the series on a “to do” list for later.  I liked Linney in the Mothman Prophesies so thought I’d give the show a shot at some future time when I got around to it.  That time came six years later in 2014 when I saw that HBO was showing all seven parts of their mini-series on July 4th, so I set the DVR to record it which I eventually viewed a few weeks later when time allowed.  It was nothing short of lustrously ostentatious intellectually and overflowing with a visual history into the period which took great pains to be authentic. Without question some will attempt to question the accuracy of the work which is based on the David McCullough books, Adams and 1776 but to compress so much history and character into a relatively short period of time art had to bridge the gaps for the viewer which the series was marvelously successful at.  The set direction was monstrously good, the actors outstanding, but it was the writing that really overflowed with radiance.  The series covered in a scope I had never seen in a film or series of any kind the lifestyles and politics of France, England and the budding United States very accurately with costume design and makeup that I can’t imagine a more truthful attempt ever attempted.

John Adams is a 2008 American television miniseries chronicling most of U.S. President John Adams‘ political life and his role in the founding of the United States. Paul Giamatti portrays John Adams. The miniseries was directed by Tom Hooper. Kirk Ellis wrote the screenplay based on the book John Adams by David McCullough. The biopic of John Adams and the story of the first fifty years of the United States was broadcast in seven parts by HBO between March 16 and April 20, 2008. John Adams received widespread critical acclaim, and many prestigious awards. The show won four Golden Globe awards and thirteen Emmy awards, more than any other miniseries in history.

Part I: Join or Die (1770 A.D. – 1774 A.D.)

The first episode opens with a cold winter in Boston on the night of the Boston Massacre. It portrays John Adams arriving at the scene following the gunshots from British soldiers firing upon a mob of Boston citizens. Adams, a respected lawyer in his mid-30s known for his belief in law and justice, is therefore summoned by the accused Redcoats. Their commander, Captain Thomas Preston asks him to defend them in court. Reluctant at first, he agrees despite knowing this will antagonize his neighbors and friends. Adams is depicted to have taken the case because he believed everyone deserves a fair trial and he wanted to uphold the standard of justice. Adams’ cousin Samuel Adams is one of the main colonists opposed to the actions of the British government. He is one of the executive members of the Sons of Liberty, an anti-British group of agitators. Adams is depicted as a studious man doing his best to defend his clients. The show also illustrates Adams’ appreciation and respect for his wife, Abigail. In one scene, Adams is shown having his wife proofread his summation as he takes her suggestions. After many sessions of court, the jury returns verdicts of not guilty of murder for each defendant. The episode also illustrates the growing tensions over the Coercive Acts (“Intolerable Acts”), and Adams’ election to the First Continental Congress.

Part II: Independence (1774 A.D. – 1776 A.D.)

The second episode covers the disputes among the members of the Second Continental Congress towards declaring independence from Great Britain as well as the final drafting of the Declaration of Independence. At the continental congresses Adams is depicted as the lead advocate for independence. He is in the vanguard in establishing that there is no other option than to break off and declare independence. He is also instrumental in the selection of then-Colonel George Washington as the new head of the Continental Army.

However, in his zeal for immediate action, he manages to alienate many of the other founding fathers, going so far as to insult a peace-loving Quaker member of the Continental Congress, implying that the man suffers from a religiously based moral cowardice, making him a “snake on his belly”. Later, Benjamin Franklin quietly chastens Adams, saying, “It is perfectly acceptable to insult a man in private and he may even thank you for it afterwards but when you do so publicly, it tends to make them think you are serious.” This points out Adams’ primary flaw: his bluntness and lack of gentility toward his political opponents, one that would make him many enemies and which would eventually plague his political career. It would also, eventually, contribute to historians’ disregard for his many achievements. The episode also shows how Abigail innovatively copes with issues at home as her husband was away much of the time participating in the Continental Congress. She employs the use of then pioneer efforts in the field of preventative medicine and vaccination against smallpox for herself and the children.

Part III: Don’t Tread on Me (1777 A.D. – 1781 A.D.)

In Episode 3, Adams travels to Europe with his young son John Quincy during the war seeking alliances with foreign nations, during which the ship transporting them battles a British frigate. It first shows Adams’ embassy with Benjamin Franklin in the court of Louis XVI of France. The old French nobility, who are in the last decade before being consumed by the French Revolution, are portrayed as effete and decadent. They meet cheerfully with Franklin, seeing him as a romantic figure, little noting the democratic infection he brings with him. Adams, on the other hand, is a plain spoken and faithful man, who finds himself out of his depth surrounded by an entertainment- and sex-driven culture among the French elite. Adams finds himself at sharp odds with Benjamin Franklin, who has adapted himself to the French, seeking to obtain by seduction what Adams would gain through histrionics. Franklin sharply rebukes Adams for his lack of diplomatic acumen, describing it as a “direct insult followed by a petulant whine”. Franklin soon has Adams removed from any position of diplomatic authority in Paris. His approach is ultimately successful and was to result in the conclusive Franco-American victory at Yorktown.

Adams, chastened and dismayed but learning from his mistakes, then travels to the Dutch Republic to obtain monetary support for the Revolution. Although the Dutch agree with the American cause, they do not consider the new union a reliable and trustworthy client. Adams ends his time in the Netherlands in a state of progressive illness, having sent his son away as a diplomatic secretary to the Russian Empire.

Part IV: Reunion (1781 A.D. – 1789 A.D.)

The fourth episode shows John Adams being notified of the end of the Revolutionary War and the defeat of the British. He is then sent to Paris to negotiate theTreaty of Paris in 1783. While overseas, he spends time with Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson and Abigail visits him. Franklin informs John Adams that he was appointed as the first United States Ambassador to the United Kingdom and thus has to relocate to the British Court of St. James’s. John Adams is poorly received by the British during this time—he is the representative for a recently hostile power, and represents in his person what many British at the time regarded as a disastrous end to its early Empire. He meets with his former sovereign, King George III, and while the meeting is not a disaster, he is excoriated in British newspapers. In 1789, he returns to Massachusetts for the first Presidential Election and he and Abigail are reunited with their children, now grown. George Washington is elected the first President of the United States and John Adams as the first Vice President.

Initially, Adams is disappointed and wishes to reject the post of Vice President because he feels there is a disproportionate number of electoral votes in favor of George Washington (Adams number of votes pales in comparison to those garnered by Washington). In addition, John feels the position of Vice President is not a proper reflection of all the years of service he has dedicated to his nation. However, Abigail successfully influences him to accept the nomination.

Part V: Unite or Die (1788 A.D. – 1797 A.D.)

The fifth episode begins with John Adams presiding over the Senate and the debate over what to call the new President. It depicts Adams as frustrated in this role: His opinions are ignored and he has no actual power, except in the case of a tied vote. He’s excluded from George Washington’s inner circle of cabinet members, and his relationships with Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton are strained. Even Washington himself gently rebukes him for his efforts to “royalize” the office of the Presidency. A key event shown is the struggle to enact the Jay Treaty with Britain, which Adams himself must ratify before a deadlocked Senate (although historically his vote was not required). The episode concludes with his inauguration as the second president—and his subsequent arrival in a plundered executive mansion.

Part VI: Unnecessary War (1798 A.D. – 1802 A.D.)

The sixth episode covers Adams’s term as president and the rift between the Hamilton-led Federalists and Jefferson-led Republicans. Adams’s neutrality pleases neither side and often angers both. His shaky relationship with his vice president, Thomas Jefferson, is intensified after taking defensive actions against the French because of failed diplomatic attempts and the signing of the Alien and Sedition Acts. However, Adams also alienates himself from the anti-French Alexander Hamilton after taking all actions possible to prevent a war with France. Adams disowns his son Charles, who soon dies as an alcoholic vagrant. Late in his Presidency, Adams sees success with his campaign of preventing a war with France, but his success is clouded after losing the presidential election of 1800. After receiving so much bad publicity while in office, Adams lost the election against his Vice-President, Thomas Jefferson, and runner-up Aaron Burr (both from the same party). This election is now known as the Revolution of 1800. Adams leaves the Presidential Palace (now known as The White House), retiring to his personal life in Massachusetts, in March 1801.

Part VII: Peacefield (1803 A.D. – 1826 A.D.)

The final episode covers Adams’s retirement years. His home life is full of pain and sorrow as his daughter, Nabby, dies of breast cancer and Abigail succumbs to typhoid fever. Adams does live to see the election of his son, John Quincy, as president, but is too ill to attend the inauguration. Adams and Jefferson are reconciled through correspondence in their last years, and both die mere hours apart on the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence (July 4th); Jefferson was 83, Adams was 90.



Stephen Dillane as Thomas Jefferson role was particularly well cast.  I have seen many attempts at Jefferson by actors, particularly the Sam Neil portrayal and this one had to be the best of all.  The writers could have focused more on the slavery issues and been all caught up in the temperament of our modern times the way the current employees at Monticello do—focusing on the Sally Hemmings aspect of Jefferson’s life as though the man was a raging sexual lunatic.   But these interpretations of Jefferson are assumptions based on the faults of modern man.  Jefferson was an aristocrat—America’s first—but not in the traditional sense where it was handed to him by his ancestors. Jefferson was just intellectually superior and individually motivated and became an aristocrat by his own choice to be so which is an important distinction.  The John Adams miniseries covers this in great detail.  I thought the scene of Adams, his wife, and Thomas Jefferson in France witnessing one of the first hot air balloons was particularly captivating.  Without the foursome, Adams, Abigail, Jefferson and Franklin there would not be an America today.  Even with all the other characters involved, Washington, Sam Adams, Thomas Paine and all the other heroes of the Revolution—it was in essence the polar opposites John Adams and Thomas Jefferson who philosophically molded America with Franklin and Abigail gently directing the two men with warranted criticism and reality.  If those four people were not a part of the process so profoundly slavery would still be practiced on earth as a common occurrence in developed countries, and America would have never gotten off the ground beyond the musings of an angry mob in Boston.

Even more so, Jefferson and Adams loved their wives.  This I always knew but the HBO series delves into this love in a very mature way that is completely missing from most television dramas.  I have now enormous respect for the way Adams loved his wife and wish with every bit of my own essence that such love and respect could return to our society—as I believe it is a fundamental building block of marital sanity.  Without Abigail, John Adams would have spun into a haughty lawyer too smart for his own good, and without Adams, Abigail might have closed in on herself from introversion.  The two complimented and built a life from friendship that was particularly respectful and free of controversy.  Adams in all his time in France never yielded to their flamboyant sexuality—his intellectual position prevented it—which eventually won them over into supporting America in the war with much needed supplies.

But what was most striking was the love of intelligence which both Jefferson and Adams had their entire lives.  It was their intellectual capacity and love of learning which launched the nation—not so much the acts of laws and men in times of war.  It was the strength of their minds which was evident right up until the time of their deaths that carried America on its back and into the future.  The HBO series never wavered from this and displayed it as honestly as possible without being disrespectful in the least.  One particular scene in the series was when Adams traveled to England to meet with King George III as the first Ambassador to the United Kingdom.  Of course the King was insulted and hostile toward the new nation—it was the first strike against his empire which would eventually crumble away. But when he heard Adams speak, he understood why America had formed and realized that the foundations of intellectual superiority had sprung in the New World and it was because of that—that he lost the Revolutionary War—and he was actually honored.  He clearly expected some barbaric heathen which Adams clearly was not.  It was a beautiful scene.

Adams was a Federalist while Jefferson was clearly not—he formed the first of the Republican Party of extremely small government minded politics.  Adams shared with Hamilton and Washington the notion of much larger government controls which ran contrary to everything they founded the Revolution upon, and the HBO series handles these philosophic conflicts honorably—and honestly.  Many of the same arguments permeate politics today, but the HBO series never picks sides—it just presented the information to the best of their ability—which again was quite good.

My opinion about public education—my anger at much of what we see in the world today is the failure of our governments and institutions to give people a proper understanding of history.  We have failed as a society to study history properly so that we might have more enriched futures.  We have allowed for the eradication and complete revisionism of history in many cases to protect religious belief, and political desire—so work like Adams on HBO are extremely rare, and important.  All I have ever wanted in any debate over public education or politics in general is to have the kind of intelligent discussions that Adams and Jefferson had in their lives for the betterment of our times.  The ignorance so worshipped these days simply retreats to mechanisms of control and manipulation to win an argument and get laws put in place that essentially steal from producers and give to the lazy—which is something both men would be appalled at.  Tom Hanks has done a lot of good work over his many years as an entertainer some of it I enjoy, some I haven’t.  He often takes up progressive causes—such as his work in Philadelphia and most recently Cloud Atlas—but in the end he might best be known as the producer of the HBO series Adams.  Previously, it might have been Saving Private Ryan, or his role in Forrest Gump or for me his portrayal of Jim Lovell in Apollo 13.   The HBO miniseries on Sam Adams will likely be the greatest chapter in the long history of Tom Hanks.  I can’t imagine something so good being done by anybody in Hollywood unless someone of his caliber put a lot of love into the project as a producer securing the $100 million dollar budget to pull it off for a cable station—and then pulling in such great actors that had to live up to the high bar he had already set.  I don’t think there is another producer out there capable of pulling off something like this any other way.  It takes extremely good talent on all sides of the camera to achieve, and Hanks has set the high water mark clearly with this series.

If there is an opportunity to see the HBO series Adams on Netflix or by purchasing it on Amazon—you’d be well suited to do so upon conclusion of this reading.  It is an essential part of our history and how America was formed and why.  Historians can argue the details but really it is picking fly shit out of pepper when such an epic performance is put on display for public consumption with all the love of people who really poured their heart and souls into a project that would have otherwise never happened.  I would go so far to say that not only should every American—child to senior citizen–see this series of movies, but every single member of the world—so that they can see the benefits of minds on fire that wish to only be quenched with freedom from tyranny and all the perils associated with it.

Here, I’ll make it easy for you:



Rich Hoffman