John Adams
Kirk Ellis, David McCullough, and Tom Hooper, 2008

At one point in this HBO miniseries, based on the bestselling biography by David McCullough, John Adams mutters that the main thing future generations will know him for is the Alien and Sedition Acts. Sure enough, when I was tutoring a kid in history a couple of months ago and she wanted to go through each president and associate him with something, that's what he got stuck with. Hey, he still comes out ahead of Coolidge.

I am very interested in history but even I knew little about Adams. I knew he was a Federalist and I knew the Federalist positions on the issues, but of his character I was basically ignorant. If this miniseries is anything to go by, it's clear why McCullough might have been attracted to him as a subject: John Adams was a dead-even mix of good and bad qualities. A pompous windbag with a terrible temper, he alternated between endless strings of classical allusions and bug-eyed shouting — not a very appealing combination, especially in a man who spent a decade as a diplomat. (After watching him basically get kicked out of France for insulting the ministers he was supposed to be lobbying, I couldn't help but imagine George Washington shaking his head and saying, "And you want to be my latex salesman.") Though not the "avowed monarchist" the Jefferson campaign literature painted him as, he was certainly no opponent of class and rank; as vice president, he quickly made himself a laughingstock by trying to establish a lofty title along the lines of "His Majesty" for the office he aimed to inherit. So it's not too surprising that he would be the one to try to kill off the First Amendment in its infancy, signing the Sedition Act to (briefly) make it illegal to direct "malicious writing" at government officials.

On the other hand, John Adams makes it clear that Adams's predilections weren't totally unfounded. Watching along with Adams as a man in uniform tries to enforce an unjust law, and then as a seething mob seizes that man and pours hot tar on him, I agreed with Adams that both were wrong but the mob was worse. From such episodes Adams took the lesson that the commoners are in need of "strong governance" because "most men are weak, and evil, and vicious." Again, I agree — at least with the second part. The problem with the first part is that the same can be said of most anyone you might come up with to do the governing. As Orwell pointed out, it's silly to be afraid of setting the mob loose, because even in the most hierarchical society, the mob is already loose in the form of the upper class: the average millionare is only the average dishwasher dressed in a new suit. Hell, sometimes they don't even bother to change out of the suits before rioting. So trying to establish an aristocracy in order to improve the character of the government is pretty foolish.

But then, what does a vain, obnoxious elitist know about character? Actually quite a lot, at least compared to his contemporaries. George Washington married the wealthiest widow he could find in order to get his hands on some starter capital; John Adams's wife Abigail was his best friend, whom he respected as an equal — and given his high opinion of himself, that's saying something. He was faithful to her, which the French took as another sign of the laughable squareness that made him such a contrast to the beloved rake Benjamin Franklin — but isn't the scorn of the court of Louis XVI a compliment? Isn't Adams's tactlessness kind of gratifying when it's directed at loathsome Bourbon clown-faces? Isn't the fact that he was a crappy politician, out of his depth in a swirl of Hamiltonian intrigues, admirable? If nothing else makes the case for Adams in his lifelong rivalry with Jefferson, it's that he died surrounded by his family of abolitionists, while Jefferson died in a room full of slaves.

As for the miniseries, it's pretty good for what it is, but suffers from being a conventional by-the-numbers biography rather than one that has been shaped into a real story. Still, I'll certainly take an eight-hour TV program over a 30-CD audiobook read by the guy who does Thomas Jefferson in a whiny rasp.

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