John Adams (2008)

History has always been an obsession of mine. My mother first suspected it when I was dragged kicking and screaming to do my math lessons, but would often go above and beyond the call of duty when it came to reading history books. Those years are long behind me but my quest for knowledge continues. Thus, when John Adams came along, it rapidly became my favorite miniseries (book adaptations notwithstanding). Admittedly, the first hour is slow even if we do learn quite a bit about Adams because of it. (Did you know he defended the British responsible for the Boston Massacre? I certainly didn’t, but I do now!) But part two really takes off and then the series explodes into fast-paced history, taking the audience from one significant moment in his life to another, from the marriages and deaths of children to rivalry and backstabbing in Congress.

For the most part, the history is accurate and things are only stretched or forgotten here and there for the sake of good storytelling, but what really stands out the most in the production are the relationships. I had not realized what a profound, beautiful romance Mr. and Mrs. Adams had, but in reading their letters have come to realize that this might be the series’ strongest point, depicting them as strong individuals but a formidable team. Adams calls Abigail his “ballast,” and cannot seem to steer the ship without her. It is she who reads over his legal arguments, who offers minor criticism, and reminds him not to show too much arrogance. “You do not have to quote great men to prove you are one,” she tells him. Is John Adams a “great man”? By his own words, he is disliked, arrogant, and “obnoxious,” but one cannot argue the fact that he did in fact accomplish great things — in spite of being the shortest, least-attractive, most obnoxious Founding Father. He had two things going for him — his passion for justice, in which he was literally the backbone of the Revolution, and his magnificent wife.

Behind every great man is a great woman, and this was our nation’s first “power couple.” Abigail possessed the common sense he did not, and was a better judge of character. He had the foresight to listen to her advice and together they weathered stormy seas — in spite of spending the first twenty or so years of their marriage almost completely apart, as he stirred the Revolution, served in Congress, and attempted to raise support abroad. Her eventual death devastated him, and in that hour he reconciled with another tremendous friend in his life — Thomas Jefferson. One would not imagine them to be friends. By today’s political standards, Jefferson was a a far right-conservative and John Adams a centric left. They disagreed on everything. Religion. Politics. Big Government. National Debt. The French. The British. Foreign policy. Domestic policy. For such a mild-mannered, reserved man, Jefferson could argue with the best of them. He may not have been a public speaker, but some of their fights were dandies — and one lead to a ten-year-long estrangement.

Some have remarked that the miniseries does Jefferson no favors. I don’t see it that way. In fact, my interest in him increased tenfold because of a beautiful performance and the similarities between our political views. What was even more interesting to me — or ironic, if you will — is that we are still arguing today over the same things we were 200 years ago. Watching Hamilton, Jefferson, Adams, and Washington sit around a table and discuss whether or not bigger government is better, if increasing the national debt is a good idea, or whether the military should be increased or diminished is rather surreal. I cannot help but think if they arrived on our doorstep today, none of them would be particularly pleased with our trillion dollar debt, to say nothing of other current debates. Some of our rights, they could not fathom. Others would appall them. True, Jefferson was the man who created a “separation of church and state,” but his motives were far from anti-religious. He did it so that the government might not intrude in religious matters or force churches to adhere to certain standards, teachings, or philosophies, in order to avoid situations like Britain’s established Anglican Church. In doing so, he also guaranteed that religion would never die out in America, because churches are constantly growing, expanding, renewing themselves, and breaking off to form new denominations. Thus, they never stagnate and become out of date or irrelevant.

Admittedly, out of all the wonderful episodes, it is the fourth that I love the most, in which Abigail comes to France and what she encounters there changes her forever. She comes alive in society, meets and befriends Jefferson (who does a reasonable amount of flirting with her, I must admit… and yes, it was cute), and shares her husband’s eye-rolling over the old-fashioned politics and manners of the European courts. What the film does very well is bring history alive, not merely its events but its characters. It is hard to spend any time with these men and women and not become fond of them, amused by them, frustrated with them, or sometimes downright irritated at them. What makes it so special is because for once, my emotions are not tugged because of fictional characters, whose lives play out according to the pen of their author, but the knowledge that these individuals actually lived, and have been represented well. When I cry over Abigail’s death, I am crying for a woman that truly existed, who has in the course of eight hours become my heroine — a true feminist of her time: a woman of business, family, politics, foreign policy. A woman of great strength, conviction, and unwavering faith.

Tremendous men and women built my nation.

It is a great pleasure to come to know them.

6 thoughts on “John Adams (2008)

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  1. Sadly, nowadays most people do assume Jefferson and Sally is true, but for various reasons (health, his morality, station, and taste in women) I very much doubt it. As was hinted at in the miniseries, Thomas Jefferson was rather fond of married women around his own age with a good education — like Abigail Adams. He was extremely fond of her, but not in a romantic way. In fact, he said she was the only woman he could imagine as being capable enough to be involved in politics, which from him was a HUGE compliment. =)

  2. I haven't seen Jefferson in Paris. I just knew that it related the story about Sally which I thought nowadays was assumed to be true? I guess I'll have to read more…

    I did wonder about the relationship with Jefferson and Abigail. I worried during some of the early scenes that they might have developed an affair so I was relieved that it never happened.

    Looking forward to the next Chronicles!

  3. Considering I know almost nothing about Canadian history, I am not offended. I knew a certain amount about each of the founding fathers but not that Hamilton was so pro-big government or that Adams defended the British soldiers involved in the Boston Massacre. Like you, this provoked my interest in Thomas Jefferson. I have been reading quite a lot about him of late — his relationship with John Adams, his friendship with Abigail (John got so jealous of it, he told Thomas to stop writing his wife), and his constant feud with Alexander Hamilton.

    PLEASE, please don't base your assessment of Jefferson on “Jefferson in Paris,” “Sally Hemings, An American Scandal,” or any other rubbish that claim he had an affair with his slave. IT IS NOT TRUE. (I would expound, but instead will encourage you to nab our next “Costume Chronicles” on August 1st, in which we have an interview with William Hyland Jr., who authored a recent book revealing the true story behind the Hemings allegations. His evidence exonerates Jefferson completely.)

    Abigail is truly magnificent. I adored her in the miniseries, and love how much of a firecracker she was in real life. I think they brought out the best in one another, as all the finest couples do.

  4. I knew very little about American history before watching this. (Sorry, but as a Canadian, I never studied it.) I truly enjoyed learning about that time period and was surprised to find just how influential John Adams was to the founding of the States. I was intrigued by the friendship between Adams and Jefferson and found myself wanting to know more about TJ. (What came to mind was 'Jefferson in Paris' but I have to admit shallowly that I would like to see more of Dillane's TJ rather than Nick Nolte's.) I also realize that we only see the charismatic side of Jefferson and not anything about his relationship with Sally Hemmings for example.
    One of the highlights for me was seeing what a strong wife he had in Abigail Adams. It was hard to see why she married that crotchety man at times but you could see how she was his backbone. I couldn't believe how much time they spent apart and was touched by their commitment to each other and their country.

  5. Pagie, isn't it a wonderful miniseries? I have really emotionally connected to it in ways I haven't done before. I get teary so often, I'm surprised my couch isn't waterlogged. (Wait until the last episode — that's when you will cry your eyes out!)

  6. My family is in the middle of this, and I agree with you whole heartedly. It really brings history to life. When they were reading The Declaration of Independence aloud for the first time, I got teary eyed.

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