Sorry, HBO. John Adams Wasn't That Much of a Hero.

By Jack Rakove
Sunday, April 20, 2008

Here's one scene that did not make it into the epic HBO miniseries on the life of John Adams that ends tonight. It is June 23, 1775, and members of the Continental Congress accompany George Washington as he sets off to command the provisional army outside Boston. Adams rides along, then returns to his Philadelphia digs and writes in self-pity to his wife Abigail: I "must leave others to wear the Lawrells which I have sown; others to eat the Bread which I have earned -- A Common Case."

Coming at the zenith of the colonists' revolutionary fervor, two months after Lexington and Concord, this was a stunning statement. It was also classic Adams. At the very moment when selfless feelings of patriotism ran highest, he was already fretting about whether his countrymen and history would treat him fairly, whether his contributions to "the common cause" would be justly recognized.

This outburst of envy and self-doubt -- one among so many -- goes to the heart of our John Adams problem. Was Adams, as his admiring biographer David McCullough would have it, the one leading founder who has never received his due? Or was he his own worst enemy, succumbing to a temper and vanity unique among his contemporaries? HBO is keen to usher him into the canon, but Adams did a great deal to earn the devastating assessment that has trailed him ever since Benjamin Franklin first quipped it in 1783: "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."

For Adams could not let that nagging sigh of '75 go. Fear that he was not getting the credit he was due was not a passing sensation but a virtual obsession. For Adams, politics was always deeply personal. Ten years earlier, he had called the Stamp Act "an execrable Project [that] was set on foot for my Ruin as well as that of America in General." Five years later, he began treating his diplomatic colleague Franklin as a vindictive rival plotting his political destruction. Though Adams mellowed a bit in his quarter-century retirement (1801-26), he left this earth -- famously dying on the 50th anniversary of independence, the same day as Jefferson -- fearing that history would do him wrong. Or, perhaps, remember him accurately.

This is the Adams whom scholars still try to fathom and whom the actor Paul Giamatti liberates from the tired conventions that routinely spoil efforts to dramatize the Revolutionary era. In the spirit of his feisty, cranky, self-righteous, vain, opinionated yet inquisitive subject, Giamatti transcends his own image as pinot noir's best friend to present a compelling portrait of America's least understood founder. Building on McCullough's bestseller, the miniseries works hard to rehabilitate our second president's reputation. But the challenge remains real enough.

Adams left HBO wonderful material. He was a candid, vivid, even sensuously descriptive writer. (His basic rule was never to use one adjective when six would work just as well.) He is the major founder whose personality emerges most strongly from his papers -- especially the fabulous correspondence with Abigail during the decade after 1774, when they were apart for all but 21 months. Agonizing over his ambition, assessing his faults, asking himself whether he was vain, apologizing to Abigail, this bewigged 18th-century Whig seems thoroughly modern.

To their credit, HBO and Giamatti do not present Adams solely as he so often saw himself, as the victim of disrespectful, scheming rivals. The series also takes Abigail's long-suffering side in the politics of their marriage. (When the absent diplomat could barely find time to write his "dearest friend," he was flooding Congress with verbose reports about European politics it could never really use.)

But personality aside, his role and impact remain the most difficult to assess of any of the major founders. We speak easily about Franklin's genius, Washington's charismatic leadership, Jefferson's paradoxical egalitarianism, Madison's brilliant constitutionalism and Hamilton's ambitious state-building. Identifying Adams's legacies and influences is a much tougher enterprise.

So even in HBO's basically appreciative portrait, viewers cannot be sure where their sympathies should lie. Of course, the series cannot possibly do justice to the complex history it spans; it often takes big leaps that leave even historians gasping, "Which year are we in now?" But beyond that, Adams remains an unlikely icon. Much as we come to admire his independence, patriotism and realism, his self-righteousness really did identify a critical failing in his judgment. All of his notable contemporaries cared deeply about reputation (or character, as they preferred to call it). But Adams was uniquely vain, and that vanity manifested itself in his inability to separate his positions from himself.

Return, then, to that revealing 1775 remark about the laurels that others would reap. Adams had been serving in the First and Second Continental Congresses, arguably his finest political moments. There he was the leading advocate for doing everything possible to prepare the colonies for the independence he believed was inevitable. Because he was so direct in arguing that the colonies must prepare for the worst, he earned the respect of most of his more cautious congressional colleagues.

But does this really justify the tag line on the HBO ads calling Adams the man who "united the states of America"? Congress did not declare independence because Adams debated his foes there into submission. The real uniters of the new states of 1776 were King George III and his anxious chief minister, Lord North, supported by a docile Parliament. By offering the colonists nothing more than pardons and proving that repression was the only policy Britain knew, they made independence a mere matter of timing.

If the miniseries inflates Adams's contributions to independence, it plays down the trouble that his impatience and impulsiveness got him into in France thereafter. He made two trips to Europe, not the sole decade-long sojourn invented here. (In between, he came home, wrote a much admired constitution for Massachusetts, then learned that Congress wanted him back in Europe as its peace commissioner.) And no sooner did he arrive than he began crossing both the French foreign minister, Vergennes, and his own colleague, Franklin.

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