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What's Inaccurate About the New HBO Series on John Adams

Mr. Stern is now completing his doctorate in the department of history, Princeton University; his dissertation is tentatively entitled,"The Overflowings of Liberty": Practical Politics, Political Ideas and the Townshend Crisis in Massachusetts, 1766-1770. He is also the author of"Jane Franklin Mecom: A Boston Woman in Revolutionary Times" (Early American Studies, Spring 2006).

The opening installment of the new HBO miniseries on John Adams, first aired on March 16, skillfully depicts the difficulties and controversies leading to American independence, and often – though not always – does so accurately. If students watch it, they will very likely understand more about the period than they did before. The physical depiction of Revolutionary-era Massachusetts is impressive, and as a drama the series is well acted and well produced. But there are already some very troubling problems. The first episode especially is fundamentally marred by an all-too-familiar and depressingly resilient prejudice against the early Revolutionaries, one that stretches back to late nineteenth-century scholarship and its depiction of the early protests as disingenuous tax riots. Too many scholars still mark the ‘real’ Revolution from 1774 or later, writing off the earlier opposition movement – in which most of the Revolution’s crucial ideas actually emerged – as violent and crude, an embarrassment to the later high-minded cause.

The HBO drama unfortunately begins with inaccuracy. By his own later account, John Adams was not at his Boston home but with friends elsewhere in town when the shots were fired on March 5, 1770. By the time he reached the scene of the massacre in King Street, both the soldiers and the bodies were gone. The scenes in which he agrees to represent Captain Preston and his men largely follow the account in Adams’s autobiography, but with a significant deviation: Adams gave no suggestion that Forrest, the merchant who approached him on behalf of the accused, had been molested or injured by the townspeople. Preston and his men were actually tried separately: the program compresses both trials into one. Adams’s old friend Jonathan Sewall is shown attending the trial throughout; in fact, he had removed himself from Boston for several months to avoid having, as attorney-general, to lead the prosecution against the military. More seriously, the verdict in the soldiers’ trial is falsified: not all were acquitted, as the drama insists. Two of the soldiers, who were specifically proven to have fired, were convicted of manslaughter. The other six were acquitted because only five had fired, and it was not known which of them was innocent (at least technically so – witnesses suggested the sixth pulled his trigger, but his powder flashed in the pan).

The depiction of the trial itself is more deeply flawed, rooted in the persistent stereotype of Revolutionary-era Boston as a den of snarling mobs. The anarchy shown in the courtroom is almost certainly inaccurate, unattested even by staunch pro-government men who branded almost any gathering an incipient riot: Massachusetts had great respect for jury trials. The alleged reluctance, even fear, of defense witnesses to testify is contradicted by the fact that there were, in reality, quite a few who testified for the defendants with every sign of freedom. The behavior of the crowd before the shots were fired was indeed much argued over, but the daring of the troops to fire was openly and frequently mentioned, not boldly extracted from a fearful witness in a crucial “aha!” moment. (These dares were rooted in a legal opinion, well known in Boston, that soldiers could not fire on civilians without orders from a civil magistrate.) The drama seeks to portray all participants in the King Street crowd as a rabble. Richard Palmes, indeed a crucial defense witness, was not a coarse laborer reluctantly persuaded to appear, but a merchant of substance who had, as a solid citizen, approached Preston before the shots were fired to ask his intentions and warn him of potential consequences. He had not come from the rope walks where the original quarrel with the soldiers had begun some days before, but had been drawn by the noise from the nearby British Coffee House.

Most egregious, however, is the all-too-typical depiction of Samuel Adams, often a symbol for these mistrusted early years of the Revolution, as a leering, ranting, even dangerous fanatic. Samuel may be the most misunderstood figure of the Revolutionary generation, still generally regarded as a disingenuous, scheming, unprincipled and Machiavellian rabble-rouser, manipulating the mobs and fomenting disorder for sinister purposes – the very image of the corrupt urban politician. It is an image straight from the words of his enemies, fostered and perpetuated by neo-Tory historians such as Hiller Zobel, and so deeply ingrained in the assumptions of scholars that few have even questioned it. (The notable exception is Pauline Maier, whose 1976 article, “Coming to Terms with Samuel Adams,” in the American Historical Review and 1980 book, The Old Revolutionaries: Political lives in the age of Samuel Adams, should have thoroughly discredited these distortions decades ago, had her arguments received the attention they deserve.)

In reality, none other than John Adams, notorious for rarely praising anyone, wrote of his cousin Samuel with frank admiration – except to note his own superior legal knowledge – and was particularly aware of Samuel’s distaste for violence: “[Samuel] Adams is zealous, ardent and keen in the Cause, is always for Softness, and Delicacy, and Prudence where they will do, but is stanch and stiff and strict and rigid and inflexible, in the Cause …. Adams I believe has the most thourough Understanding of Liberty, and her Resources, in the Temper and Character of the People, tho not in the Law and Constitution, as well as the most habitual, radical Love of it, of any of them – as well as the most correct, genteel and artful Pen. He is a Man of refined Policy, stedfast Integrity, exquisite Humanity, genteel Erudition, obliging, engaging Manners, real as well as professed Piety, and a universal good Character, unless it should be admitted that he is too attentive to the Public and not enough so, to himself and his family” (in John Adams’s diary, Dec. 23, 1765). Certainly, this testimony to Samuel’s ‘gentility’ is absent from the HBO program, which shows him practically as a dockyard thug – and yet at the same time ironically suggests that he is rich, and thus at leisure to pursue his devious wiles. This contradictory claim ignores John’s actual worry about Samuel’s neglect of himself and his own: Samuel was in fact in constant financial trouble, often dependent on the charity of his friends. Praise for Samuel’s character went beyond Massachusetts. In 1819, Thomas Jefferson, who had no reason to polish Samuel’s record, wrote almost as fulsome a tribute: “I can say that he was truly a great man, wise in council, fertile in resources, immoveable in his purposes.”

In the first episode of the series, Samuel Adams and others are shown repeatedly expressing their opposition to “the Crown” and their contempt for those who support it, implying a determined plot to bring about independence as early as 1770. This is a serious, ahistorical distortion: Samuel Adams and his allies were fiercely determined to prove their loyalty to the King, blaming the imperial crisis principally on Crown officers in Massachusetts, and, much more reluctantly, on the Parliament and royal ministers in Britain. The King was not significantly implicated until fighting erupted in 1775.

Samuel and his allies are also shown cynically exploiting the Massacre as propaganda to whip up a public frenzy. In fact, though enraged by the shootings, the radical leaders were also deeply concerned: they had sought since 1765 to avoid violence, which would only seem to validate their enemies’ claims that Massachusetts was lawless and disloyal. But they considered the military’s presence in Boston since 1768 unnecessary and illegal; inevitable popular resentment, in friction with arrogant and abusive soldiers, had now led to bloodshed. Thus, in addition to condemning the soldiers, the radicals wanted to emphasize that an illegitimate occupation had caused the tragedy: Boston, they stressed, was a law-abiding town, never in need of troops to enforce order. In the television episode, Samuel is shown publicly assailing John Adams for taking the soldiers’ cases, even interrupting the trial with shouted threats. It is true that John met with hostility and anger from some quarters. But he was not opposed by Samuel and other radical leaders. Rising radical lawyer Josiah Quincy, Jr., who joined John Adams in the defense, at first refused to take the case, but changed his mind when urged by a host of radical leaders, including Samuel Adams, John Hancock and the speaker of the Massachusetts House of Representatives. Samuel, determined to exonerate the crowd for the violence, was certainly not pleased by the acquittals. But he knew it was essential that Massachusetts prove its ability to provide a fair trial. (David McCullough, on whose book the series is based, does note that Samuel never objected to John’s role in the trials.)

The dramatization contrasts John Adams to this distorted image of his cousin Samuel, showing John as initially wary and even antagonistic toward the radicals, keeping largely aloof from the opposition until the Coercive Acts in 1774. John Adams’s doubts about human nature and his concerns about an ungoverned people are accurately suggested, but his fears applied just as strongly to those given unchecked governmental power. He had, in reality, been very active from the time of the Stamp Act in 1765, writing extensively on the opposition side. After the Stamp Act's repeal in 1766, John turned to his private affairs and his law practice, but the 1767 Townshend Acts drew him back into the fight. In the program, he condemns Samuel Adams and “your Sons of Liberty.” John had, in fact, been actively involved with the Boston Sons of Liberty for years, attending gatherings and helping draft letters to British radical John Wilkes in 1768 and 1769. In May 1769, he drafted Boston’s fiery instructions to its representatives in the provincial legislature; that August, he attended a massive gathering of liberty men, declaring that none were “more sincere, and stedfast than I am.” When a hated customs informer fired into a hostile crowd and killed a boy in February 1770 – just days before the Massacre – John Adams seethed that “there are many more Lives to spend if wanted in the Service of their Country” and “that the Ardor of the People is not to be quelled by the Slaughter of one Child and the Wounding of another.” That June – before the trials, but after he had accepted the soldiers’ cases – the town of Boston handily elected Adams to the House of Representatives, in which he was highly active. In the drama, it is only after the verdicts that the radical leaders, in grudging admiration, urge Adams to “run” for the Council (itself a misleading term, since there were no campaigns for Council seats); his service in the House is not mentioned. But it is a generally inaccurate scene: John also rejoins that the Townshend taxes have now been repealed, when in fact the partial repeal of 1770 had left the tea duty as a statement of Parliament’s right to tax, thus satisfying no one; he further objects that he had already served on the Council, which he had not. In 1773, he was elected to the Council, clearly very reluctantly, though he was vetoed by the governor; later that year, he actively and publicly fought against royal salaries for Massachusetts judges that would remove them entirely from popular control. He was, in short, deeply involved in the early Revolutionary struggle, before the Massacre and after.

Certainly, despite the claims of the program, Crown officials had no illusions after the Massacre cases that John Adams was now on their side. The drama shows Sewall after the trial extending an offer of a royal appointment in the widely detested vice-admiralty court. Adams’s autobiography indicates that this offer was made, but in 1768 – two years before the Massacre, and he refused it then as contrary to his principles. By 1769, some Crown officials still thought Adams might be brought over with a similar offer, but the new acting governor, Thomas Hutchinson, dismissed the idea, declaring “it very dangerous appointing a man to any post who avows principles inconsistent with a state of government let his talents otherwise be ever so considerable.”

The program’s tone abruptly changes when it reaches the 1774 watershed: suddenly, the Coercive Acts – closing Boston’s port, reimposing harsh military occupation and altering the system of government – appear as uncontrovertibly oppressive. The more subtle and complex issues of the earlier years, which can make opposition look petulant if the immense gravity of those issues is not explored, are set aside: being a revolutionary suddenly seems more fashionable. The illogic of this abrupt transition is highlighted by a curious turn in the drama: in and after 1774, the darkly drawn Samuel Adams suddenly becomes a sympathetic if not a heroic figure, fighting for a just cause. Perhaps the scriptwriters – and too many historians – should consider that he and his cause had not changed that year. Only their rigid preconceptions seem to shift with the calendar.

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