John Adams, Reviewed by Griffin
Historical narratives regarding the American Revolution are typically romanticized to a certain degree in order to be palatable to American audiences. As a result the founding fathers are generally depicted as staunch visionaries protecting liberty. Even depictions that attempt to show other aspects of American life (such as slavery) often cling to this trope to a certain extent. The HBO mini-series John Adams attempts to express neutrality towards the events of the revolution and its aftermath, yet it still tends to create omissions in the narrative in order to maintain an idealized history. The show initially begins with a highly sympathetic view of the English when chronicling the Boston massacre. The show then goes on to discuss the event in a fairly accurate way from Adam’s role in the continental congress to his time in office. However, during the series there are occasional omissions which tend to create a romanticized narrative.
Due to the series covering the events of Adams’s life from 1770 onwards, it is natural that certain events must be omitted. The failure to include certain occurrences fits with Michel-Rolph Trouillot’s idea that silences are inherently created within a narrative fit the inclinations of the person creating the narrative. While HBO created a fairly balanced account of John Adams’s life there are still silences involved that project a glorification of John Adams.
The first episode consists of Adams defending the redcoats who perpetrated the event commonly known as the Boston Massacre. In the midst of a hostile riot full of angry Bostonians, the redcoats are depicted as being violently antagonized and in serious danger. A shot is discharged, the panicked soldiers fire their rifles, before the captain orders them to cease fire. The episode consists of Adams working to acquit the accused soldiers by convincing the jury it was in self defense. The show tries to depict Adams in a similar light as Atticus Finch from the 1960 novel To Kill a Mocking Bird, an honest lawyer trying to represent a man wrongly accused of murder in a society that despises the defendant. The British soldiers are seen as kind hearted people who are doing their duty, and conversely the Boston sons of liberty are an unruly mob in drab clothing. Additionally, the episode shows a man being tarred and feathered by the sons of liberty after an argument with John Hancock in which he referred to Hancock as a smuggler (which was technically accurate); the scene made a point to highlight the brutality of the act. These depictions clearly show a concerted effort by the producers to portray the British in a sympathetic way or at least depict the colonists negatively.
The episode is fairly accurate in its depiction of the event. For instance it is notable that the patriots refer to themselves as Englishmen, as even the more radical protestors still refer to themselves as such. This is an important distinction because accounts of the revolution often include the propensity to state that independence was an inevitable conclusion. However, the idea of independence did not become widespread until the publication of Thomas Paine’s pamphlet common sense in January 1776, less than a year before the signing of the declaration of independence. The show proceeds to give an accurate rendition of the events, mentioning important issues such as slavery. The first major silence to my mind was when the colonists declared independence and the declaration was read aloud.
At the end of the second episode it showed various people reading out the text of the Declaration of Independence, and it is noteworthy which passages they selected. The parts the producers decided to include in the show typically advocated liberty and natural rights. While this may have been small issue, the show devoted time to scene, there seemed to be a concerted effort to read out lesser known passages from various parts of the text. For instance, this phrase was not read on screen: “He has excited domestic insurrection among us, and has endeavored to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers the merciless Indian savages, whose known rule of warfare is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes, and conditions.” The excerpt is fairly important because it shows how the continental congress was accusing their sovereign of essentially encouraging war crimes against his own subjects, and according to Professor Jason Opal this was an important statement in the declaration.
In order to create a romantic image of the founding fathers it is necessary to omit this passage from the narrative. It would be more difficult for audiences to empathize with the revolutionaries had they used the term “merciless Indian savages”. While this silence may seem innocuous, it does show the active decision by the show’s creators to silence an aspect of the event in order to bolster their patriotic narrative the reading conjures. In addition to this, during John Adams’s presidency he is portrayed as non-partisan and the show neglects certain events which would undermine such a presumption.
Since the series chronicles the life of John Adams it naturally tries to portray him in a positive light. As a result his term as president depicts him as a political idealist who tries to avert war with France in spite of factional disagreements between Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson. When viewing this series I presumed that the producers would exclude two notable events from their narrative: the Alien and Sedition acts, and the Judiciary act of 1801, interestingly, they managed to incorporate the former in the story. The acts essentially allowed the federal government to censure journalists, and imprison foreigners. The acts were discussed in the show by Jefferson and Adams in which Jefferson accused Adams of trampling on the constitution. The show showed this blemish on Adams’s record, but also curiously never mentioned the extent of Jefferson’s contestation of the acts, preferring instead to show continued comradery between the two figures. The narrative never mentioned how Jefferson helped write the Kentucky resolutions, which declared that the states had the right to regard federal statutes as unconstitutional. This omission appears to be an attempt by the show’s creators to downplay the division between Adams and Jefferson’s Democratic-Republicans. In Addition, The show does not include the judiciary act which would severely tarnish the perception of Adams as someone disdainful of factionalism.
The failure to mention the judiciary act was necessary in providing an interpretation of Adams as non-partisan. After the Democratic-Republicans defeated the Federalists in the election, they won the presidency, the senate, and the House of Representatives. As a result the Federalists were worried what the new government would do, and appointed a large number of federalist judges to preserve their influence in government. This act was quickly enacted after Adam’s defeat to Jefferson, and shows how he was willing to participate in the factionalism of the time in spite of lacking a clear mandate to create such a law. This contrasts with the show in which Adams appeared to be above the panic of a Jeffersonian government. Overall the series is a compelling account of the life of John Adams.
The HBO series is ultimately a compelling chronicle of the life of John Adams, although there are some silences that impede the account. It begins with a Pro British account of the prelude to the revolution. This nuance allows the series leeway when it uses common Pro American narratives in the later part of the series. The chronicling of events is fairly accurate, the main criticism that could be leveled against it is the neglect of certain occurrences. However, these omissions are benign and do not particularly affect the narrative to a huge extent.
 Michel-Rolph Trouillot, Silencing the Past, (Boston: Beacon Hill Press, 1995), 6
 Avalon Project: Documents in Law, History, and Diplomacy. “Declaration of Independence,” Accessed: Feb 7, 2017, http://avalon.law.yale.edu/18th_century/washing.asp
Jason Opal, “Thomas Paine and Thomas Jefferson”, (lecture History 327 Age of the American Revolution, Mcgill University, Montreal, February 6, 2017.)
 Jason Opal, Conversation During Office Hours, February 7, 2017.