The much-acclaimed HBO miniseries "John Adams" took a goodly share of awards at the Golden Globes ceremonies last weekend, reminding us of this much-neglected but indispensable founding father of America. John Adams was a real republican, a man who lived his principles as well as professing them. This is not the first such production. On the occasion of our nation’s revolutionary bicentennial, our second President and several generations of his family were recalled in the PBS (more than) miniseries, The Adams Chronicles, in 1976. What the two shows have in common is a fascinating portrayal of a man who was immensely devoted to his country while battling certain character traits which detracted from his popularity and ultimately his lasting fame.
Accounts of Adams’s life both written and visual reveal a man who justly deserved the gratitude of his country but was overshadowed by men like George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton. This was partly because of bad luck, but partly because Adams did not read the temper of the times as well as his "founding brothers."
The ancient biographer Plutarch wrote "Lives" of famous Greeks and Romans, which included both major events and personal anecdotes. He believed that private glimpses into those lives were as much, if not more, revealing than the more public ones. That is true in spades for John Adams, for he was less adept at the arts of popularity and image making as other great men in the early republic.
The recent TV series was divided into seven parts, the first of which introduced Adams as the young lawyer who, contrary to current opinions of barristers, was a thoroughly honest man. When the so-called Boston Massacre occurred in 1770, there was considerable public indignation when British soldiers fired on some agitated colonists. It would have been easy for Adams to exploit the incident, as it was by his cousin Samuel Adams, as an instance of British brutality and grist for the mill of American independence.
But Adams determined that the young and frightened British troops had been deliberately provoked by hotheads who were throwing projectiles for the very purpose of causing a violent incident. He took much grief for preferring truth over propaganda, a characteristic which marked him his entire life.
It would have been good for Adams and for the country if he had been able to let time and events vindicate him. But it was difficult for him to do so, although in this first incidence he has been more than vindicated. For, as later episodes show, he was also felt slighted for his prodigious contributions to the Continental Congress, which declared independence from Great Britain; for his diplomatic efforts in France, Holland and Britain to obtain loans and settle all claims; for upholding, in his extensive writings, stable and energetic government against anarchy and faction; and as President, for bringing peace in an unwanted war with France.
As I was recently reminded by a close friend, an Adams scholar, Adams was defeated for re-election in 1800 at least partly because he did not grasp the importance of political parties to the effective working of our elective national government. He did not counter the arguments, not to mention the scurrilous charges, being circulated by the supporters of his successful rival, Thomas Jefferson, nor the scathing broadsides against Adams by Alexander Hamilton in his own name.
Perhaps the most galling insult to Adams was the brute fact that he and his wife, Abigail, actually worked on their Braintree and Quincy, Massachusetts farms, while being pilloried by his adversaries as an aristocrat, monarchist or worse. By contrast, the more successful Virginia aristocracy depended upon slave labor, which contradicted republican principles.
The musical "1776" about the Continental Congress (and especially about John and Abigail Adams), also called attention to Adams’s life-long struggle for recognition, particularly his support of Jefferson’s draft of the Declaration of Independence, which included condemnation of the foreign slave trade. Both men had to bow to the political necessity to subordinate a critical policy decision to the requirements of winning independence, particularly unity among the colonies, southern as well as northern.
Adams’s dedication to republican principles needed to be combined with an appreciation of the requirements of public opinion. This great man’s unwillingness to bend was harmful to his career, but fortunately his real accomplishments are undeniable. That is why efforts are now going forward to erect a memorial to the farmer, lawyer, politician, diplomat and statesman worthy of his service.