The history of our Revolution will be one continued lie from one end to the other,” John Adams grumbled, in 1790, when Benjamin Franklin was on his deathbed. “The essence of the whole will be that Dr. Franklin’s electrical rod smote the earth and out sprang General Washington.” The neglect of posterity was a prospect that Adams could not abide. And now he doesn’t have to. HBO’s seven-part miniseries “John Adams,” which premières on March 16th, tells Adams’s tale, with Paul Giamatti in the title role, scowling beneath fifty-seven different wigs. “He United the States of America” is the miniseries’ motto, giving credit to Adams for everything. Franklin (Tom Wilkinson) is a rascal; Washington (David Morse) is a sapskull. Jefferson (Stephen Dillane) is distracted and, finally, deluded. And poor Thomas Paine seems never to have been born. Based on David McCullough’s Pulitzer Prize-winning biography, “John Adams” is animated as much by Adams’s many private resentments as by the birth of the United States. It is history, with a grudge.
“One night in 1759, when Adams was twenty-four, and just starting out, he woke up, seized with an aching void in his chest. He picked up his quill, reached for his ink pot, and wrote in his diary, “I feel anxious, eager, after something. What is it?” It was the same thing it always was: the pain of insatiable ambition. “I have a dread of Contempt, a quick sense of Neglect, a strong Desire of Distinction,” Adams wrote that night. Say what you will about the man who became our second President, he knew himself well. Giamatti’s finely crafted John Adams is a little easier to take—he’s the Ebenezer Scrooge of the American Revolution, slouchy, grouchy, and crusty, but mushy on the inside.
“John Adams” begins with the Boston Massacre, on March 5, 1770. By the dim light of a quarter moon, eight British grenadiers have fired into a crowd of Bostonians rioting on King Street. Adams, in a daze, stumbles over the bodies of the dead and the wounded, and trudges home through the blood-stained snow, speechless at the agony of what he has witnessed. “I have no words for it, Abigail,” he whispers to his wife (exquisitely played by Laura Linney).
Abigail, wise, fierce, and long-suffering, is Adams’s anchor, the brake on his pride, his most astute adviser. After the British soldiers are charged with murder, Adams agrees to defend them in court, defying his fellow Sons of Liberty, including his rabble-rousing cousin, Samuel Adams (Danny Huston), who wants nothing more than for the redcoats to hang. The night before he is to deliver his summary to the jury, Adams, in his nightshirt, paces the floor of his bedchamber, while Abigail, tucked beneath the covers, reads a draft of his statement. Impatient for her critique, he opens and closes the bed curtains, a scene that’s a nice play on the eighteenth-century phrase “curtain lecture” (a shrewish version of what we mean by “pillow talk”). “Vanity. You have overburdened your argument with ostentatious erudition,” Abigail observes, steering her husband, as always, onto a better course.
We then follow Adams to Philadelphia, where he serves as a Massachusetts delegate to the First Continental Congress. In the wake of Parliament’s passage of the Coercive Acts (which included a measure closing Boston Harbor to trade), Adams is tireless but unable to persuade delegates from the other colonies to support a struggle that, so far, looks to be Boston’s fight. He heads home, defeated. But on April 19, 1775, just before Adams is to travel back to Philadelphia for the Congress’s second meeting, shots are fired in Lexington and Concord. From his farm south of Boston, Adams races to the scene and rides through the bloody fields, once again picking a path over the dead and the wounded. “There can be no mistaking Britain’s intentions now,” he tells Abigail.
Back in Philadelphia for the Second Continental Congress, Adams ardently argues for declaring independence. Imagine an animated version of John Trumbull’s famous painting of the signing of the Declaration of Independence—the image engraved on the back of the two-dollar bill—and you’ve got a pretty good idea of the scene. Independence, this miniseries would have you believe, was almost entirely Adams’s doing. As history, and maybe even as television, this is a hard argument to make, because although Adams presented the case to Congress, it was Thomas Paine who convinced the American people to support independence and Thomas Jefferson who wrote the document declaring it. “I am obnoxious, suspected, and unpopular,” Giamatti’s Adams tells Jefferson—a line taken from one of Adams’s letters, like much of the dialogue—graciously ceding the task of drafting the Declaration of Independence to the Virginian. Adams forever regretted this. “Jefferson ran away with all the stage effect,” he complained, “and all the glory.”
There is much that is wonderful in “John Adams,” which was produced by Tom Hanks and Gary Goetzman, who also launched HBO’s 2001 miniseries “Band of Brothers.” Giamatti and Linney brilliantly portray the tenderness, loneliness, and passionate understanding that marked John and Abigail’s half century of marriage. Eighteenth-century Boston, and much else besides, is beautifully realized: lush and bustling, with ships’ masts looming and halyards clanking. If there’s a film that better captures the look of Colonial America, I haven’t seen it. For Revolution junkies, spotting the cameos makes an awfully good parlor game. (My favorite: Henry Knox, riding by Abigail’s house on his horse, on his way to Dorchester Heights to blast the British out of Boston. Joseph Warren rides by, too, after the Battle of Bunker Hill, except that he’s dead, and on an oxcart, so a bit of a disappointment, really.) There’s very little of the war itself—Adams was no soldier—but, perhaps as a solace, there’s plenty of bloodletting, not to mention amputation. (A word to the squeamish: it goes badly.) Actually, the inoculation of Abigail and the Adams children against smallpox—more blood; also pus—is nearly the most terrifying scene in the four episodes made available to reviewers. It’s second only to the tarring and feathering of a British customs official in Boston, the brutality of which Adams watches with horror, in a masterly sequence that exposes the violence of insurrection and helps explain the future President’s enduring fear of democracy.
At its best, the storytelling itself manages to accommodate a sense of historical contingency. American independence was not inevitable. It was debated. It didn’t happen overnight. No one was sure how it would turn out. Adams’s jaundiced view allows for this insight, too: war is a mess, and only ever glorious in hindsight. Finally, there’s something almost ineffably moving about watching the debates of the Second Continental Congress, where Adams truly shone.
There are, of course, little things that irk. Everyone is far too frank with everyone else (the eighteenth century was nothing if not coy), and this viewer happens to wish that the Pennsylvania delegate and eloquent opponent of independence, John Dickinson (Zelijko Ivanek), hadn’t been made into a Quaker Cruella De Vil, a distortion necessary, I suppose, to make Adams appear more stalwart. But the bigger problem is how far the writing has to go to make Adams both more important and more virtuous than everyone around him except his wife, as if to justify his prodigious self-regard and disdain for his contemporaries. Adams didn’t “unite the states of America,” but he accomplished a hell of a lot. He was bold. He was brilliant. That doesn’t mean he wasn’t also a heel.
After Adams’s devastating failure, in the election of 1800, to win a second Presidential term, he spent much of the rest of his life worrying about how history would treat him. In 1807, he read Mercy Otis Warren’s three-volume “History of the Rise, Progress, and Termination of the American Revolution,” a twelve-hundred-page book that devoted a scant four pages to the character of one John Adams. He fell into a rage. Adams wrote Warren ten letters—some more than twenty pages long—of petty, rambling vituperation. Warren had assailed his temperament: “In the 392d page of the third volume, you say that ‘Mr. Adams, his passions and prejudices were sometimes too strong for his sagacity and judgment.” She had neglected him: “You have carefully recorded the appointment of Mr. Jay to Madrid, in page 141, Vol. II, to have been on the 27th of September, 1779, yet have taken no notice of mine, which was on the 29th of the same month.” She would not even grant him alphabetic preëminence. When Warren listed Franklin, Jay, and Adams as ambassadors, Adams complained that his name ought to have appeared first in that list, as it had in their commission. “You will say, no doubt, this is ‘sighing for rank, he sneered, anticipating her objection. “Very well: say so, Mrs. Warren. Make the most of it.”
Adams had a right to feel betrayed: for decades, Mercy and Abigail had been close friends. But his reading of Warren’s “History” was paranoid and hysterical, and his letters to her are the rantings of a bully: she is unladylike; there are things he could say about her if he weren’t such a gentleman; and she could not possibly be motivated by anything but bitterness at his having been unwilling to grant members of her family political preferment. Adams is by no means the hero of Warren’s “History,” but neither is anyone else; it’s an epic history of an age, not a profile of its leading figures. And though Warren may have resented Adams, she, along with other Americans who had only recently seen him voted out of office, also felt quite certain that he suffered from “pride of talents” and a love of power.
Mercy Warren had a response to Adams’s abuse. “Were she to write her History over again, and correct her errors, as you seem to wish her to do,” she answered, what must she write? Adams would obviously be contented only if she told the world that he was free of ambition and vainglory, and that his writings “established the State and Federal Constitutions, and gave the United States all the liberty, republicanism, and independence they enjoy; that his name was always placed at the head of every public commission; that nothing had been done, that nothing could be done, neither in Europe nor America, without his sketching and drafting the business.” Who would believe such silliness? “Mr. Adams might indeed think this a very pleasant portrait, but I doubt whether the world would receive it as a better likeness.” Ah, just give it time, Mrs. Warren. Give it time.