Tuesday, April 22, 2008
Last Sunday I watched all seven episodes of HBO's John Adams series, and was pleasantly surprised by the show's quality. I found the program well-produced, attentive to historical detail, and graced by some very fine performances (notably Paul Giamatti's and Tom Wilkinson's). In all, it was a good evening's entertainment. However, as a historian of early America, I am honor-bound to point out some the series' factual and interpretive flaws, not so much to warn viewers away from it as to explain why I probably won't use John Adams much in my classes, and as part of a cautionary tale warning my readers not to undertake graduate education, lest they lose their ability to enjoy well-made television programs.
Herewith, then, are the things I most disliked about the miniseries:
1) In Episodes 1 and 2, colonial resistance leaders repeatedly say that they object to the policies of "the Crown." Actually, until 1776 the American rebels considered themselves loyal subjects of the King, and insisted that they merely opposed the wicked policies of the British Parliament – forgetting that, by the 18th century, the King was subordinate to the Parliament.
2) At the beginning of Episode 2, a rider tells Adams that "the British" have attacked Concord. Since most white American colonists still considered themselves British in 1775, this would have confused Adams. Paul Revere and other rebel messengers instead called their military adversaries "regulars," "redcoats," and related epithets (e.g. "bloody backs") – that is, they referred to them by their profession, not their nationality.
3) The series portrays George Washington as a genial, even-tempered man, concerned about the well-being of his soldiers during the war, and unable to resist Alexander Hamilton's personality during his presidency. In reality, Washington was cold and aloof in social settings, famous for his volcanic temper, and reckless in battle. Moreover, while Washington frequently took Hamilton's advice during his two terms as president, his final policy decisions were usually his own.
4) Two minor quibbles about the 1790s: Hamilton didn't propose that the federal government create a national debt in 1790, because that debt (to the tune of $54 million) already existed. He instead proposed that the government make the national debt permanent and interest-bearing. Also, Adams didn't cast the tie-breaking vote in favor of Jay's Treaty. No vice president can, or ever will, do this, because treaties require approval of two-thirds of the Senate.
5) The series ascribed President Adams's electoral loss in 1800 to his unpopular decision to negotiate a new peace treaty with France, which supposedly split the Federalist Party. Actually, Adams lost because the Republicans made political hay out of the Alien and Sedition Acts and the new taxes the Federalists levied to finance their projected war with France. President Adams approved of and signed all of these measures.
6) Episode 7 implies that the post-retirement correspondence between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson didn't begin until after Abigail's death in 1818. Actually, Abigail Adams was the person who arranged for the two men to resume their correspondence, which would have been difficult if she were dead. Adams and Jefferson subsequently exchanged dozens of detailed, erudite letters over a fourteen-year period.
7) Finally, everyone's accent is crap. Paul Giamatti manages a good eastern New England accent, but practically every other actor or actress either pretends he/she is on Masterpiece Theater, or doesn't bother. It's a jarring omission in an otherwise well-directed and detail-oriented series.