Monday, April 21, 2008

John Adams Concludes, The Tudors Continues, The First Amendment Abides

A fabulous, instructive night for history on cable television - John Adams, the splendid mini-series, concluded on HBO, and The Tudors, the magnificent, searing series, continued with its second season on Showtime.


The last episode of John Adams was mostly personal, and very powerful. Adams' daughter dies of breast cancer. Abigail dies. And Thomas Jefferson and John Adams die on the same day, July 4, 1826, after they have reconciled via letters.

What was mostly at dispute between them was freedom of speech and communication, and the First Amendment. Adams, early in the hour, complains that all he'll be remembered for is signing the Alien and Sedition Acts - the closest our nation has ever come to abrogating the First Amendment.

Its importance was wrenchingly, brilliantly portrayed in the two episodes (4 and 5) of The Tudors I saw tonight (on Showtime On Demand). Thomas More resists the law that Parliament passed on behalf of Henry, proclaiming him the ultimate religious authority in England. More can accept Henry's marriage to Anne, but not the displacement of the Roman Catholic Church in his country. He doesn't seek to compel any other person to follow his lead, but nor will he give in to the King's and Parliament's request.

And so, he is sentenced to death. And, much like Socrates, Thomas More is executed for his beliefs.

This is precisely what the First Amendment is supposed to prevent. By separating Church and State, by insisting that government cannot compel people to believe, cannot punish people for not believing, or believing something different, cannot punish people for talking and writing whatever they may politically and/or religiously believe, our American society seeks through the First Amendment to improve upon the savage worlds of ancient Athens and Henry VIII.

I often tell people that, were I in Socrates' position, and given a chance to escape, I would have done so, rather than drinking the hemlock. And were I Thomas More, I might well have taken his own hypothetical mode of escape and publicly said I accepted the King's law - given it lip service - and continued with my contrary beliefs. But More rejected that, and chose martyrdom instead. I doubt that I could have been a martyr like Socrates and More.

But the point is that the First Amendment in America makes such an agonizing choice unnecessary. And that is why we are truly more civilized.

As long as we don't let the First Amendment slip away.... But it's not easy - it never is. It and we are daily tested...

Truly powerful history on our new golden age of television tonight. Emmy award-winning acting by Paul Giamatti as John Adams, and by Jeremy Northam as Sir Thomas More.

And let's not forget Peter O'Toole, who is unforgettable in his every scene as the Pope, and tonight was part of the one laughing-out-loud funny scene of the evening, as he hears Michelangelo berating one of the workers on the Sistine Chapel, "Moses looks like a pile of ..."

But television nowadays has never looked better.

See also: John Adams on HBO: Good Founding Father, Bad President ... John Adams 3 and 4: Jefferson and Space Travel of the Soul ... 5. Jousting of Ideas ... John Adams 6: Flawed President and Flawed Father ...

Further reading ...

The Flouting of the First Amendment - my 2005 Keynote Address at Fordham University, in which I talk about the vying opinions of John Adams v. Thomas Jefferson...

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 ...



See also ...

Tooling Up for The Tudors and The Tudors: Transformations and Assassins ... The Tudors and the Printing Press ... The Tudors Concludes and America Begins ...

and my reviews of all of last season's episodes, beginning here ...

and more on the printing press and the Protestant Reformation in my book, The Soft Edge ...

and ...



The Plot to Save Socrates


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