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. Alan Taylor, author of Writing Early American History, joined the discussion last week. This is the tenth entry in their conversation. (Follow the complete dialogue here: Entries 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10.)
Dear Jack and Kirk,
I'm imagining that at some point in the writing of this series, Kirk, you must have looked at the normal HBO lineup and thought: You know, it's easier to make mob killing, polygamy, undertakers, and sex seem riveting than early American history. Exhibit A is the fact that the big, saucy, blood-curdling moment of Part 5 is … the ratification of the Jay Treaty. HBO made the best of it in this week's episode, squeezing high drama out of the conflict of ideas (Was it France or Britain that best embodied American values? How centralized should the government be?), as well as the clash of personalities (Hamilton vs. Jefferson, Jefferson vs. Adams, John Adams vs. Abigail Adams, and Washington as the angry father of the squabbling children).
In this episode, like the last, Adams is a mostly pathetic figure--lobbying for Washington to get monarchical titles, getting mocked by the Senate for his efforts, and then getting scathingly chastised by Washington himself. (If ever you feel the sting of being chewed out by your boss, imagine how it must have felt to be reprimanded by George Washington.) This creates a bit of a disconnect. Adams seems like a humiliated, marginal, and not well-respected figure--and yet he's then elected president. Somewhere in there he must have impressed someone. Or was it simply residual love of George Washington that got Adams elected?
Though I loved this episode like the others, I found myself with more quibbles. What is it with the flirtatious twinkle in Abigail Adams's eyes every time she gazes over at the charismatic Jefferson? It certainly seems plausible that women in general would have batted their eyelashes more at the tall, poetic, violin-playing, red head than the plump, balding New Englander. But Abigail? (Not that anyone would blame her.)
We learn that Washington and Adams had a wise and farsighted desire to keep America neutral in the European wars, and yet Washington then stakes his reputation and presidency on the Jay Treaty with Great Britain. Jack or Kirk, why?
One other point that I forgot to mention earlier: The other winner in this series besides HBO is the musical 1776. In our family, we have a tradition of watching this show every Fourth of July, and though it shaped our vision of the Founding Fathers, I always half-expected it to be proven mostly false. But the musical holds up well, and even gives more thorough treatment of the debate over slavery in the Declaration of Independence than the HBO series.
Another question for both of you: This episode, combined with those on his years in Europe, make Adams seem like he had a few years of profound impact (around 1776) followed by almost 20 years of ineffectiveness. Do you think that is true, Jack? And is that what you intended to convey, Kirk?
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. Kirk Ellis is the writer and co-executive producer of HBO's John Adams. Alan Taylor, a contributing editor to The New Republic, is a professor of history at the University of California, Davis, and author of Writing Early American History. Steven Waldman is the editor-in-chief of Beliefnet.com and author of the newly released Founding Faith.
By John Patrick Diggins, Kirk Ellis, Alan Taylor, and Steven Waldman