John Patrick Diggins vs. Steven Waldman: Is HBO's John Adams series any good?

Historians in the News

HBO's seven-part miniseries John Adams, based on David McCullough's Pulitzer Prize-winning book about America's second president, premiered this weekend. The New Republic asked historian John Patrick Diggins and author Steven Waldman to critique the series. Waldman kicked off the discussion with his thoughts on Parts 1 and 2. Here is Diggins's response:


There are many memorable scenes in the first two episodes of John Adams. Capturing the feelings of a child watching the Battle of Bunker Hill was poignant, as was the composing and recomposing of the Declaration of Independence, with the scientific ben Franklin insisting that, when describing natural rights, the expression"self-evident" be substituted for"sacred and undeniable." How to interpret the Declaration has perplexed statesman and scholars ever since, and Lincoln was determined to give it a religious explanation by returning the term"sacred." The enigma of Adams was that he was a man of law and order who feared the mob--brought out vividly in his role as lawyer in the opening Boston Massacre episode--yet as the Revolution approached, he welcomed the rise of the waterfront riff-raff, celebrated throwing tea into the harbor, and praised rights and liberties more than duties and authority. Later, when it comes to defending the new Constitution, he again stands for the authority of political controls over unchecked liberty by the democratic masses. A cynic might say that all along he wanted to be in control, but I think that the explanation is more historical than personal, and that the events preceding the Constitution were so unruly as to lead him to this position. We shall see in future episodes.

Thomas Jefferson comes off as the aloof riddle that he was, rather hesitant about the Revolution and the Declaration, yet providing some of the most elegant writing to defend both causes. The depiction of grand old man Franklin was just right in his dismissal of right and wrong; he advised Adams to be sensitive toward the feelings of others and to avoid thinking in terms of absolutes. In Adams and Franklin we have the classic contrast between a man of principle and a pragmatist. Adams is certain of his convictions, while Franklin asks him to think of the consequences. I'm not sure the series will show the extent to which Franklin remained a reconciliationist, convinced that the differences between the colonies and mother country could be worked out short of war.

The opening episodes might lead viewers to conclude that the colonists rebelled because British soldiers and officials treated them so rudely on the streets of Boston, with utter contempt for the provincials. Little was shown about the Stamp Act and other measures that sought to regulate the colonies in order to gain revenue to make up for the debts of the French-Indian War. Yet the colonists interpreted the slightest infringement upon their rights to self-govern as the first step toward suppressing all their rights. Was there such a conspiracy? No, but in American history suspicion is the name of the game in politics, and, as we shall hopefully see in the rest of the series, Jefferson projected such suspicion on poor President Adams, accusing the Federalists of conspiring to deprive their opponents of their freedom and returning America to the British monarchy....

Read entire article at Exchange in the New Republic

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