John Patrick Diggins on the Final Hour of 'John Adams'





[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, has joined the discussion. This is the fifteenth entry in their conversation.]

Dear Steve and Kirk,

"There is no vocabulary/for love within a family," wrote T. S. Eliot. The producers of John Adams found the words in the correspondence between Abigail and John to deal with love as they bring this superb series to a conclusion that marks the end of an era in American history, and the end of the lives of the two remarkable characters.

Even though I once thought I knew everything I wanted to know about Adams from my readings, I was not prepared for final Part 7. "Old age is dark and unlovely," observed Abigail. Indeed the last years, which take us from 1801 to l826 when Adams dies, ache with sorrow and grief, death and dying. The opening scene has Adams's old friend Dr. Benjamin Rush informing him and Abigail that their daughter "Nabby" has cancer of the breast and he must operate immediately. She survives the operation quietly and courageously, with only a brandy and no anesthetics. Nabby dies shortly afterwards, but first remembers to ask her father not to be too hard on her husband, his son-in-law who left her and her children. With the exception of their son Charles, the Harvard graduate who drank himself to death, the Adams family felt things deeply and we see what goodness is even if we have no words to describe it.

In the last episode of the series, politics and diplomacy recede as Adams goes into retirement. Mention is made of Jefferson negotiating with Napoleon to purchase the Louisiana Territory, but no mention is made of Hamilton's death in a duel with Aaron Burr, the Marbury vs. Madison decision giving the Supreme Court the right of judicial review, or Jefferson joining Napoleon to crush the Santo Domingo slave uprising--the cause of black freedom that Adams supported when in office.

The War of 1812, which is also passed over, is an event that proved again Adams's consistency and integrity. Due to grievances over the federal government imposing a trade embargo on New England shipping, much of Adams's old Federalist Party advocated seceding from the Union. But Adams, though once accused of British monarchist sympathies, stood with the nation in the war against England. The centralization of national authority vindicated Adams's predictions about American history. The Jeffersonian tradition stood for liberty as the right to actualize one's desires without hindrance, even the desire to live off the slavery of others. Adams discerned, as did Lincoln, that evil may thrive under the rubric of natural right.

In this episode, there is a scene of Adams being shown the vast painting by John Trumbull of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. After telling the artist "you are no Reubens," Adams reminds him that the figures in the painting never met as a whole but had to sneak in and out of Philadelphia to sign the Declaration, as many feared being caught by the British. Adams's words about how the Revolution cannot be comprehended by a propagandistic painting, and how the study of history is as misused in America as in Europe, are in his writings. But did the conversation with Trumbull ever take place?...






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