John Adams – an HBO MiniSeries
What was so special about John Adams that he became the subject an HBO mini-series? The series had widespread critical acclaim, winning many awards.
Adam’s career started with the Boston Massacre – he successfully defended the British soldiers accused of killing five civilians. It must have been unpopular to defend the British soldiers and Adams displays a great sense of integrity in stating that everyone deserves a fair trial based on the evidence. Hard to imagine a similar circumstance today; the closest I found might be the ACLU defending the rights of Nazi’s to march in Skokie, IL, home of many Holocaust survivors, back in the late 1970’s. Could not have been a popular stance, but it was a principled stance, similar to Adams defense of the British soldiers in 1770. By the way, in the 1980 Blues Brothers film, the Nazi court case is mentioned to Jake and Elwood, Jake says “I hate Illinois Nazis” and they break up the demonstration by running their car through it, causing the Nazis to chase them for the rest of the film. It’s a good scene.
Back to Adams. Several years after the Boston Massacre, he was nominated to represent Massachusetts in the Continental Congress and became a strong advocate for independence. He nominated Washington to be general of the army and convinces Jefferson to write the Declaration of Independence. Adams reasons for asking Jefferson were “First–You are a Virginian, and a Virginian ought to appear at the head of this business. Reason second–I am obnoxious, suspected, and unpopular. – You are much otherwise. Reason third–You can write ten times better than I can.” Jefferson never independently confirmed the conversation.
Adams was sent overseas in 1778 to try to convince France to support the Americans in the revolution. By the time he arrived, Benjamin Franklin had already succeeded in signing a treaty of alliance. Adams did not get along with the American negotiating team and moved to Holland to try to negotiate some loans, but was unable to do so. After several years in Europe, he helped in negotiating the peace treaty with Great Britain in 1783.
Adams finally returns to the United States in 1789, after the new Constitution has been written. Even though considered “blunt, stubborn, vain, opinionated and jealous” he is nominated to run for President. In those days, the candidate with the most electoral votes becomes President, the one with the second most votes becomes Vice President. Adams finished second behind Washington and becomes Vice President.
Adams missed raising his children, leaving the U.S. in 1778. He did not return until eleven years later, and his children are grown. He was also apart from his wife for over five years until she could join him in Europe. That was life in those days.
In a close election in 1796, Adams defeated Thomas Jefferson for the Presidency. They are bitter enemies as Adams, along with Hamilton, favor a stronger central government (Federalist) while Jefferson favors a weaker central government (anti-Federalist). Jefferson became Vice President because he finished with second most electoral college votes. Now imagine having bitter enemies as President and Vice President – for example, Trump as President with Hillary as Vice President? Would be fun.
By the time Adams became President, the French Revolution has occurred and France and Great Britain are at war again. And, in a kind of love triangle, they both want to keep the U.S. from helping the other by limiting trade. Of course, America would have been plenty content to make good money selling goods to each side. France is impounding ships. You would think that America would be sympathetic to the French. For one thing, they helped us win independence from Great Britain. Second, their revolution was, at least in part, inspired by ours – another group of people wanting liberty. But we were an English-speaking country and still felt affinity for the British. We also had a significant trade with the British, so losing that business, due to French interference, was costly. There were some in the country, especially the Federalists and New England states who wanted us to go to war with France, our former patron! When we sent a delegation to negotiate with France, the French wanted a payment from us to even negotiate – known as the ‘XYZ affair’. This led to the famous quotation ‘millions for defense but not one cent for tribute’. France felt the revolutionary war treaty mandated that the U.S. take their side. However, the U.S. took the position that the treaty was no longer valid since it had been made with a government no longer in existence, the now overthrown French monarchy. It also served as a good excuse to stop paying our debts to France.
Adams wanted to build up the military to ensure peace, a strategy well proven out in many other times and places. Finally, in 1799 France, now under Napoleon, made peace overtures. Eventually the U.S. made a peace agreement with France which was signed in September 1800. However, news did not arrive in time for that year’s presidential election which Adams narrowly lost to Jefferson. Even so, Adams deserves credit for avoiding war during his term.
If you think we have problems today with the press and partisanship, consider the Alien and Sedition Acts passed during Adam’s presidency. The Alien Acts allowed deportation of non-citizens and made it harder to become a citizen. The Sedition Act permitted the prosecution of individuals who voiced or printed what the government deemed to be malicious remarks about the president or government of the United States. Fourteen Republicans, mainly journalists, were prosecuted, and some imprisoned, under the act.
Passage of these acts greatly damaged Adams' reputation in history. Most of these acts were repealed a few years later but one part, the ‘Alien Enemies Act’, remains in place today. Franklin Delano Roosevelt used this act to support internment of over 100,000 Japanese during World War II. In opposition to the Alien and Sedition Acts, Jefferson and Madison drafted the Virginia and Kentucky Resolves, declaring the Acts to be a violation of the First and Tenth Amendments. And they argued that States had the right to declare Acts of Congress unconstitutional and to ‘nullify’ their enforcement. Fifty years later those resolves posed a problem as the country approached the Civil War, with arguments over States’ rights and nullification. Oh, and for good measure, the country passed another sedition act, in 1918, under President Wilson, again wanting to limit criticism. Repealed by President Harding.
Lesson learned: no matter how discordant or harsh, or distasteful, free speech needs to be protected.
Adams narrowly lost his re-election campaign in 1800 to Thomas Jefferson. It was a brutal campaign. Federalists attacked Jefferson as an un-Christian deist whose sympathy for the French Revolution would bring similar bloodshed and chaos to the United States. Federalists were accused of favoring Britain in the war with France to promote aristocratic, anti-democratic values. There was more, much more. Jefferson's camp accused President Adams of having a "hideous hermaphroditical character, which has neither the force and firmness of a man, nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman." Adams was called ‘his rotundity’. Adams' men called Vice President Jefferson "a mean-spirited, low-lived fellow, the son of a half-breed Indian squaw, sired by a Virginia mulatto father." Adams was labeled a fool, a hypocrite, a criminal, and a tyrant, while Jefferson was branded a weakling, an atheist, a libertine, and a coward. Ben Franklin said about Adams - "He means well for his Country, and is always an honest Man, often a Wise One, but sometimes and in some things, absolutely out of his senses."
After losing the Presidency, Adams quietly retired back to Massachusetts. Twelve years later he started a long correspondence with Jefferson, as they discussed the founding of the nation, their differing governing philosophies and other issues. By coincidence, both Jefferson and Adams died on the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, July 4, 1826. Adams last words were “Thomas Jefferson still survives”. He was mistaken: Jefferson had died five hours earlier.
Back to the original question – why did he get an HBO mini-series and not any of the other founding fathers? For that matter, why did the musical center around Hamilton and not one of the other Founding Fathers. Jefferson got a movie, ‘Jefferson in Paris’, but that centered around his relationship with the slave Sally Hemmings. The popular biography of Adams, by David McCullough is probably one big reason for the mini-series. I recommend both the book and mini-series.