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
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
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
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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