John Adams, Reviewed by Griffin

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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.[1] 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.”[2] 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.[3][4]

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.


[1] Michel-Rolph Trouillot, Silencing the Past, (Boston: Beacon Hill Press, 1995), 6

[2] Avalon Project: Documents in Law, History, and Diplomacy. “Declaration of Independence,” Accessed: Feb 7, 2017, http://avalon.law.yale.edu/18th_century/washing.asp

[3]Jason Opal, “Thomas Paine and Thomas Jefferson”, (lecture History 327 Age of the American Revolution, Mcgill University, Montreal, February 6, 2017.)

[4] Jason Opal, Conversation During Office Hours, February 7, 2017.

3 responses to “John Adams, Reviewed by Griffin”

  1. Kathryn says:

    Hi Griffin, thank you for this review. From what I can remember from the series, you did an excellent job of highlighting both its strengths and deficiencies. It was important for you to note how John Adams does try to avoid falling into the “trap” of retelling the period with the benefit of knowing how events unfolded. I do agree with you that the series was fairly balanced, but you did point out a pretty glaring gap in the narrative that viewers would likely miss: “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.” I agree with you, this is definitely an example of how events or accounts can be silenced “in order to bolster [their] patriotic narrative”. Americans tend to cherish the open, transparent nature of our society and the mechanisms that have evolved over time to ensure access to and preservation of historical truth. This often leads us to believe that our collective historical memory is balanced and all-encompassing. However, accounts of the American Revolution are almost always romanticized to some extent, as shown in John Adams. To this day, I am still learning bits that were glossed-over in high school history classes (ex. malaria decimating British troops throughout the southern campaign, giving colonial forces a “tactical” advantage, etc making American success certainly less impressive). Your review has helped draw our attention to a major flaw (of which I’m sure there are others) in a critically-acclaimed series. Thank you for providing both a balanced yet critical review!

  2. Jennifer Yoon says:

    Hey Griffin,

    I really enjoyed your review of HBO’s John Adams. The show’s been on my ‘to-watch’ list for years now, and it’s interesting to hear your interpretation of the show’s strengths and weaknesses.

    I find your argument – that Adams is depicted as an idealistic optimist- to be quite interesting, especially compared to Ilya’s analysis of Alexander Hamilton in Ron Chernow’s biography (which inspired Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical, Hamilton). Ilya, too, thinks that Hamilton was likewise depicted as an idealist by Chernow. I think perhaps this may say something interesting about how Americans and Western audiences tend to automatically view the founding fathers: as heroes. Heroes that may be nuanced and idealistic and naive – but heroes nonetheless. That’s why I really appreciated how you pointed out the Alien and Sedition Acts and the Judiciary Act of 1801. I also liked how you pointed out that the series kind of side-steps confronting the shortcomings of its protagonist through showing the former as a fraternal struggle between Jefferson and Hamilton.

    Perhaps these omissions have to do with the fact that the popular histories take into consideration – more so than in academia – the anticipated reception of the piece from the broader public. I can think of multiple academic articles which mercilessly criticize some of America’s founding fathers. Running such a narrative through a TV show, however, could open up the network to criticisms of anti-patriotism or un-American-ness, or make the network vulnerable to punishment through the show running a loss.

  3. Amanda Krett says:

    Griffin,

    As someone who hasn’t watched John Adams, I’m now very interested to watch it, after reading your thoughts on the show.

    I really appreciated how you acknowledge Trouillot’s point that in the TV Show, they couldn’t possibly include every historical detail. I think that’s a very fair way to enter into your analysis of the show. That being said, I still very much appreciated seeing you highlight some of the sizeable ”silences” or omissions the show engaged in, such as not mentioning the “merciless savage” passage in the Declaration of the Independence. I agree that this would have been an important passage to include in portraying Adams not simply as the heroic, male idealist, and would have definitely made audiences see some of the contradictions historians are usually taught about, such as the potential hypocrisy in America claiming to be fighting an imperial force (the British), yet, displaying imperialist tendencies domestically against the Indigenous Peoples. I find it interesting to compare this willingness to delve more into the nuance or “dark side” of a popular history’s “heroes” to more recent historical dramas, such as The Crown, which Liam reviewed. Liam mentioned how The Crown, that came out recently, did mention some of the Royal Family’s racism and imperialism. I know John Adams is a bit less recent so I wonder if this willingness to create more nuanced characters is indicative of our contemporary interest in narratives featuring anti-heroes, such as Walter White in Breaking Bad. This makes me question the merits of the popular history format as one can really see the influence of dramatic, more fictionalized narratives on historical ones.

    I also really appreciated you mentioning the show “silencing” some of the partisan animosity between Jefferson and Adams. This also makes me question the merits of popular history as I wonder where this need to be “apolitical” comes from? Does it stem from not wanting to alienate its audience? This also highlights the differences between more academic versus more popular history as popular histories rely on their funds from viewership, while many academic histories are funded with governmental or university funds. While of course academic histories are funded with their own biases and motivations behind it, it is worrisome how money and viewership are such fundamental parts of creating a popular history. As you mention, this can lead to this history being more “romanticized” than perhaps it should have been?

    In terms of mentioning the omissions or some of the “silences” the show produces, I’m also interested in how much the show depicted Adam’s personal life. You mentioned that the show highlights the relationship between Jefferson and Adams, but I wonder if Abigail Adams played a big role or not? If the show didn’t feature Abigail as much, this also may be another producer of “silences” as from your summary, it seems like the show was very much focused on the “heroic” male figure and was less invested in showing the influence of women. I would be interested to hear more of your thoughts on this.

    I was also really fascinated by you mentioning how other accounts of the American Revolution show independence as “inevitable.” This reminded me of Hayden White discussing how some narratives are “prefigured.” I would think this paints a more “accurate” picture of history to show the confusion and lack of clarity regarding how events will or will not work out.

    Overall, I really enjoyed reading your thoughts and would be interested in watching the TV show.

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