Sunday, March 16, 2008

John Adams: Good Founding Father, Bad President Makes Great Television on HBO

The Adams Chronicles mini-series on PBS in 1976 has long been one of my all-time television favorites. And, seeing as how I don't at all like the real John Adams, the second President of the United States, that's saying a lot.

I just saw the first two episodes on HBO's new mini-series, John Adams, and I think I like it better than the Chronicles.

Of course, the first two episodes did not get close to the part of the real life of John Adams that makes him a villain in my book. And that book is: respect for the First Amendment to our Constitution. Adams signed the Sedition Act into law shortly after he became President in 1796 - an Act that so trampled the First Amendment, that Thomas Jefferson was close to urging the South to leave the USA back then.

I'll tell you more about that era when the HBO mini-series gets there.

In the meantime, what I saw is superb, breathtakingly accurate history. David McCullough, author of the book upon which the mini-series is based, is a top-notch historian and a riveting writer. Tonight's two episodes captured perfectly the unique blend of radical and authoritarian that made John Adams what he was - a great Founding Father, and (in my opinion) a poor President. He is a passionate believer in American independence and the primacy of our laws over England's - so much so that he defends British soldiers wrongly accused in the Boston Massacre. He is powerful and convincing to some of our more cautionary Founding Fathers. He is an early appreciator of Washington as a military man, has a great alliance with Ben Franklin, and encourages Jefferson to write the Declaration of Independence.

Adams and Jefferson will later fall out over the Sedition Act, but for now, John Adams (the character in the mini-series of the same name) is nothing but a pleasure to see. Paul Giamatti plays him well. Stephen Dillane has a quiet power as Jefferson, David Morse is excellent as George Washington, and Tom Wilkinson is marvelous as the sage Ben Franklin. The 20 or so minutes leading up to the ratification of the Declaration of Independence were pure gold.

I'll be back next week with another report on this history brought to vivid life on television.

See also: John Adams 3 and 4: Jefferson and Space Travel of the Soul ... John Adams 5: Jousting of Ideas ... 6. President and Father ... John Adams Concludes ...

Further reading ...

The Flouting of the First Amendment - my 2005 Keynote Address at Fordham University, in which I talk about John Adams and the Sedition Act...

The Soft Edge: A Natural History and the Future of the Information Revolution - my 1998 book, with more details on this time in history, and the roles of Adams and Jefferson

And ...

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