John Patrick Diggins, author of John Adams: The American Presidents Series, Steven Waldman, author of Founding Faith, and Kirk Ellis, writer and co-executive producer of the HBO miniseries John Adams, are discussing the show on TNR.com. This is the first entry in their conversation. (Follow their complete dialogue here: Entries 1, 2, 3, 4, 5.)
First, a general caveat: I know a lot about one facet of Adams’s life (religion and religious freedom) and not much about, well, everything else. So I am going alternate between self-confident analysis and innocent question-asking.
I thought the first episode of the HBO series was spectacular. Beautiful cinematography, great acting, and depictions of colonial life unlike I've ever seen. In particular, it captures the scale of life there and then. Even a "city" like Boston only had 10,000-15,000 people. The series depicts it as bustling but intimate.
HBO is also to be applauded for showing the demagogic and even cruel aspects of the patriot cause. The scene of a British customs collector being tarred and feathered should forever change the popular notion of that act from being an impish political prank to being a life-threatening form of torture. In fact, at moments I wondered whether HBO overdid the counter-intuitive programming and neglected to sufficiently show the patriot side of things. By the end of the first episode, we see Adams’s commitment to the cause, but I can't say I'm left fully clear on why independence was such a good idea.
My one pet peeve is, not surprisingly, about religion. This show, like most, ignores the role of religion as a cause of rebellion even though Adams himself wrote that fear of British religious meddling contributed "as much as any other cause, to arouse the attention not only of the inquiring mind, but of the common people." This was, he said, “a fact as certain as any in the history of North America." Patriots like Sam Adams, depicted by HBO as a canny demagogue, fueled fears that the Church of England was going to send bishops to squelch religious freedom.
Two questions for you, Professor Diggins. The first is about accents. Most movies depict the colonists as speaking with American accents, which makes no sense. These were mostly English colonies with many of the patriots as first-, second-, or third-generation immigrants from England or Scotland. This series depicts some of the founders as having accents--some English, some Scottish, some a unique new hybrid. Bravo to HBO for trying. But did they get that right?
The other thing I wondered about was the Boston Massacre. One of the most difficult tasks of a director of a historical documentary is which few scenes should represent key aspects of the man. HBO’s decision to emphasize Adams’s role in defending the British soldiers in the Boston Massacre was shrewd and interesting. It has inherent dramatic tension: the patriot defending the enemy in order to prove the higher principle. Here’s my question: The series implies that it was Adams's representation of the British that made him an especially valuable catch for the other patriots looking for representatives and spokespeople. Is it true that that his defense of the British soldiers actually helped his career as rebel leader?
John Patrick Diggins is a professor of history at the Graduate Center, City University of New York, and the author of John Adams: The American Presidents Series. Steven Waldman is the editor-in-chief of Beliefnet.com and author of the newly released Founding Faith.
By John Patrick Diggins and Steven Waldman