A Brief Note on John Adams (The HBO TV Miniseries)

The HBO miniseries John Adams (2008) was one of the two TV shows that I binge-watched in the Fall 2014 semester. The show’s evident unadulterated creative process, engaging story telling and commitment to historical accuracy kept me hooked to the computer screen right through it’s seven episodes.

The series, which was directed by Tom Hooper (who went on to direct The King’s Speech and Les Miserables), rightfully received critical acclaim (winning four golden globes and thirteen Emmy awards). I have been trying to understand the events and ideas of the American Revolution for sometime now, and through this show, I was able to develop a basic understanding for the life of one of the centrally important founding fathers of the United States. There were many interesting ideas and events that I made a note to follow-up on as I watched the show (the Boston Massacre, John and Abigail Adams’ amazing relationship, Thomas Jefferson’s emphasis on small Government, Alexander Hamilton setting up the First Bank of the United States etc etc). I have included a small fraction of those notes in this post.

The Boston Massacre


The fact that John Adams (the first Vice-President of the United States from 1789 – 1797 and the second President of the United States from 1797 – 1801) was the defense lawyer for the British soldiers responsible for the Boston Massacre was particularly surprising to me. During the trial of the British soldiers, John Adams eloquently highlights the importance of casting away the blinders of bias when interpreting the law.  He reminds the jury that bias could be particularly challenging to eradicate when it is rooted in legitimate frustration. In the show, John concludes the defense trial by saying,

In the words of the Marquis of Beccaria, “if by supporting the rights of mankind and of invincible truth, I shall contribute to save from the agonies of death one unfortunate victim of tyranny, or of ignorance, equally fatal, his blessing and tears of transport will be a sufficient consolation to me for the contempt of all mankind” (Link: Of Crimes and Punishment – Cesare Beccaria)

John Adams

YouTube Link: Boston Massacre Trial

When people are taxed without representation they are sometimes to feel abused… and sometimes they may even rebel. But, we must take care, lest blown away by a torrent of passion, we make shipwreck of conscience. The prisoners must be judged solely based on the evidence produced against them in court and by nothing else …

… Facts are stubborn things. Whatever our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictum’s of our passions, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence. The law on the one hand is inexorable to the cries and the lamentations of the prisoners, but on the other hand, it is deaf, deaf as an adder, to the clamors of the populace. Gentlemen of the jury, I submit to your candor and justice, the prisoners and their cause.

The Declaration of Independence

John Adams’ role in choosing Thomas Jefferson as the principal author of the  United States Declaration of Independence was pretty fascinating. The US Declaration of Independence is a brilliant document. It was adopted by the Continental Congress on July 4th, 1776. For some reason, my history classes in high school (back home in India) placed a lot of emphasis on the content and impact of the French Declarations of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen without any mention or discussion of the influence of Thomas Jefferson and the principles of the American Revolution (General Lafayette and Thomas Jefferson played a central role in drafting the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen). The Declarations of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen was adopted by the French constituent assembly in August 1789 (thirteen years after the adoption of the US Declaration of Independence)! Here’s a small excerpt from the US Declaration of Independence,

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness

We, therefore, the Representatives of the united States of America, in General Congress, Assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, do, in the Name, and by Authority of the good People of these Colonies, solemnly publish and declare, That these United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States; that they are Absolved from all Allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain, is and ought to be totally dissolved; and that as Free and Independent States, they have full Power to levy War, conclude Peace, contract Alliances, establish Commerce, and to do all other Acts and Things which Independent States may of right do. And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor. (Link: The Declaration of Independence: A Transcription)

John and Abigail Adams

John and Abigail Adams

For me, one of the most interesting elements of the show was the exploration of the amazing relationship between John and Abigail Adams. David McCullough refers to their relationship as “one of the great love stories of American history.” The letters between the couple during those revolutionary years provide a tremendous insight into the realities of those times, the depth of their characters and their emotional/intellectual intimacy. Here are a few interesting excerpts from Abigail Adams’ correspondences with John Adams.

Abigail Adams on Women’s Rights: I long to hear that you have declared an independency. And, by the way, in the new code of laws which I suppose it will be necessary for you to make, I desire you would remember the ladies and be more generous and favorable to them than your ancestors. Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the husbands. Remember, all men would be tyrants if they could. If particular care and attention is not paid to the ladies, we are determined to foment a rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any laws in which we have no voice or representation (31st March, 1776). (Note: Women’s suffrage or right to vote was established nationally in the United States one hundred and forty four years later in 1920).

Abigail Adams on Slavery: I wish most sincerely there was not a Slave in the province. Itallways appeard a most iniquitious Scheme to me-fight ourselfs for what we are daily robbing and plundering from those who have as good a right to freedom as we have. You know my mind upon this Subject. (22nd September, 1774). (Note: President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation eighty nine years later in January, 1863).

Abigail Adams on her relationship with John: (YouTube Link: John Adams Ending): Should I draw you the picture of my heart? … I look back to the early days of our acquaintance; and Friendship, as to the days of Love and Innocence; and with an undiscribable pleasure I have seen near a score of years roll over our Heads, with an affection heightned and improved by time — nor have the dreary years of absence in the smallest degree effaced from my mind the Image of the dear untitled man to whom I gave my Heart. (23rd December, 1782). You cannot be, I know, nor do I wish to see you an inactive Spectator. (16th October, 1774).

Join or Die


Posterity! You will never know, how much it cost the present Generation, to preserve your Freedom! I hope you will make a good Use of it. If you do not, I shall repent in Heaven, that I ever took half the Pains to preserve it. (John Adams, 26th April, 1777)

Take a look at,

What’s Wrong with HBO’s Dramatization of John Adams’s Story

The Making of John Adams


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