Montreal, December 15, 2008 • No 262




Bradley Doucet is a writer living in Montreal. He has studied philosophy and economics, and is currently completing a novel on the pursuit of happiness. He also is QL's English Editor.




by Bradley Doucet

          I remember wishing, back in 2004, that the Bush clan would go down in history as the second father-and-son Presidential tag team in which each failed to win re-election. I thought Dubya richly deserved to lose, and although John Kerry was about as uninspired a choice as the Democrats could have made, I hoped against hope for the existence of some as-yet-undiscovered law of nature that restricted the sons of American presidents to the same single terms their fathers served. Alas, my hopes were dashed: Bush Jr. got four more years to make war abroad and undermine the free market at home. Last month, finally, the Democrats regained the White House. Though it is inconceivable that Barack Obama will come close to living up to the hype surrounding his victory, it remains to be seen just how much he will disappoint.


          The first father-and-son Presidential tag team was, of course, John Adams and his son John Quincy Adams, the second and sixth American Presidents respectively. In 2001, popular historian David McCullough wrote a book about the second President's life entitled simply John Adams. It won the Pulitzer in 2002, and this year was made into an HBO miniseries of the same name, which won a record thirteen Emmy Awards. Anyone looking for a last minute gift idea for a freedom-loving or history-buff friend should consider this excellent miniseries, which is now available on DVD.

Who Was John Adams?

          When we think of the American Revolution, we naturally think of George Washington, who commanded the Continental Army and became the young Republic's first president; of Thomas Jefferson, who wrote the Declaration of Independence and became the third president; or again of the iconic Benjamin Franklin who… er… captured lightning with a kite? John Adams might not even come to mind at all in the shadow of those three other great men, though he had a very significant part to play in the founding and preservation of the fragile young nation.

          Born on October 30, 1735 to a modest family, John Adams rose to prominence as a Massachusetts lawyer. As a delegate to the First and Second Continental Congresses, Adams was nominated, along with Jefferson, Franklin and a few others, to draft a Declaration of Independence from Britain. Jefferson became its primary author, but Adams was its foremost defender in the Congress. Adams was subsequently dispatched to Europe to negotiate for financial and military support, without which the Revolutionary War would fail. In France, he clashed with Franklin over diplomatic strategy. Eventually he travelled to the Netherlands to seek a loan from the Dutch government. When the War with Britain was won, Adams helped negotiate the Treaty of Paris, and then became the first US Ambassador to the United Kingdom. Finally, from 1789 to 1797, he served as the first Vice President of the United States under the first President, George Washington, whom he then succeeded as President, serving from 1797 to 1801.

          There is much to admire in John Adams. Throughout his long life, he refused on principle to own slaves, unlike many of the other Founding Fathers. His presidency was shaped by the threat of becoming embroiled in yet another of the seemingly endless wars between England and France. With some, like Thomas Jefferson, wanting to side with the French and others, like Alexander Hamilton, with the English, Adams fought to remain neutral and keep the young nation out of the unnecessary war. His success in this endeavour (despite the initial humiliation of the XYZ affair in which France demanded a hefty bribe to secure peace) was arguably his proudest achievement, though the news of his ultimate success came too late to win him a second term.

"Why would someone who already knows the bare bones of the story of John Adams want to watch HBO's miniseries about the man? This quality production brings the history alive in a way no mere summary of events ever could."

          The darkest stain on his legacy, on the other hand, is surely the notorious Alien and Sedition Acts. Though he did not craft these laws, President Adams was persuaded to sign them into law in 1798, widening the rift between him and his Vice President and onetime friend Thomas Jefferson, who was fiercely opposed to the measures. The four separate Acts increased the number of years of residence needed for aliens to become citizens (from five to fourteen); authorized the president to deport any resident alien considered a danger to the United States; authorized the president to deport any resident alien whose home country was at war with the US; and outlawed the publishing of writing against the government that was "false, scandalous and malicious," essentially making it a crime to criticize the government. Of the four Acts, the first was repealed in 1802; the second and fourth expired in 1800 and 1801 respectively; but the third, the Alien Enemies Act, remains in effect to this day.

Quality Programming

          Why would someone who already knows the bare bones of the story of John Adams want to watch HBO's miniseries about the man? This quality production brings the history alive in a way no mere summary of events ever could. There are the glimpses of the early law career and the drama of an eighteenth century courtroom. There is the build up to the Revolution, with rabble-rousing Samuel Adams urging his cousin to put his growing influence to good use. There are the debates in the Continental Congresses, egos and ideas clashing over whether the injustices inflicted by the British were sufficient to justify separation and war. There are the conflicts between Franklin and Adams in France, and the philosophical disagreements between Jefferson and Adams, friendly at first but erupting eventually into full-fledged political rivalry.

          And there is Abigail Adams, John's beloved wife and "dear friend," sharing his struggles and helping him refine his writing and ideas. She supports his involvement in the monumental events of the time, raises their children and runs their farm singlehandedly while he is away on diplomatic mission to Europe, is charmed and then disillusioned by Thomas Jefferson. The viewer is left with the impression that had she lived in our time, Abigail Adams would have been a formidable politician or intellectual in her own right. The superb performance of Laura Linney in this role perfectly complements Paul Giamatti's in the title role, for which excellence both actors duly received Emmy Awards.

          The eleven other Emmy Awards, including one for Outstanding Miniseries, one for Outstanding Writing for a Miniseries or Movie, and one for Tom Wilkinson in the role of Benjamin Franklin, attest to the overall quality of the miniseries. The overall casting (another Emmy) is fantastic, and extra special mention has to go to prosthetics and makeup (yes, another Emmy) for bringing home the harshness of life in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. In defiance of the popular practice, when filming a period piece, of making everyone stunningly gorgeous, the world created here is both dirty and dangerous. Small pox blisters and rotting teeth give this production added authenticity, and remind us all to be happy to be living in the twenty-first century. As a friend of mine remarked, modern dentistry is an excellent argument for capitalism all by itself.

          Yet despite the harsh living conditions, the eighteenth century was a time of great optimism. These men and women really felt the world could change for the better, and that they could be an integral part of that change. This sense of hope and excitement about the future is captured nicely in a scene set in Paris after the Revolutionary War has been won. It is 1783 and Abigail Adams has joined her husband in Europe. Accompanied by Thomas Jefferson, they are attending the launch of the first untethered manned flight of a balloon, seeing humankind break the bonds of gravity that had previously kept us anchored to the Earth’s surface. It is a joyful celebration of our potential to embark upon great quests and see them through to their successful completion.

          A quick Wikipedia search uncovered a spattering of historical inaccuracies in the seven episodes, but none serious enough to dampen my enthusiasm for this fine work. HBO deserves a lot of credit for bringing us great, quality programming in recent years, shows like Rome and Deadwood, and for my money, they have done it again with John Adams, recreating this crucial time in the history of humanity's continuing struggle for freedom.