New Adams documentary based on McCullough biography invents some scenes

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In the first episode of HBO's "epic seven-part miniseries event" "John Adams," one of the most riveting scenes occurs at Boston Harbor, when a customs inspector or informant challenges John Hancock (Justin Theroux) for evading the taxes imposed by the British. "Teach him a lesson, tar the bastard," Hancock commands a mob, which proceeds to do exactly that to the poor accessory of the crown. This being HBO, there's a glimpse of full frontal nudity that is promptly drenched with hot tar. Hancock looks on, as do John Adams (Paul Giamatti) and his cousin Samuel (Danny Huston). "God, Sam, that's barbarism," John cries to his cousin, who stands silent. "Do you approve of this? Answer me, Sam, can you?"

It's a telling scene, because there is no historical evidence that it ever happened. It's not included in the Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of our second president by David McCullough, upon which HBO's miniseries event, which makes its premiere Sunday at 8 p.m., claims to be based. It's not included in James Grant's biography of John Adams, "Party of One," nor in any of the many biographies of Samuel Adams. There was a riot in June of 1768 over Hancock's ship, the Liberty, in which customs officials were beaten, but there is no evidence that Hancock or either Adams was at the scene of that riot, nor is there any record that anyone was tarred in the event. One historian who examined the subject recently, Alfred Young, found that there were only three individuals subject to "full-scale tar and featherings in Boston in the revolutionary era," and that "In Boston, Whig leaders" — of whom Hancock and both Adamses were certainly at the forefront — "invariably were hostile to tar-and-feathering; they tried to rescue the victims."

The scene does convey, accurately, John Adams's hostility to mob violence. "These private Mobs, I do and will detest," he wrote to his wife Abigail on July 7, 1774. "These Tarrings and Featherings, these breaking open Houses by rude and insolent Rabbles, in Resentment for private Wrongs or in pursuance of private Prejudices and Passions, must be discountenanced." But it does so by inaccurately, well, tarring the reputations of Hancock and Samuel Adams, and by conjuring a situation that there is no evidence existed.

Such are the compromises attendant in turning history into a seven-part miniseries for television. As Mr. McCullough himself acknowledges in publicity material for the epic miniseries event, "A great film production involving the efforts of hundreds, even thousands, of people, as this has, is a vastly different undertaking from that of an author setting out to write a book. The medium itself is infinitely different from that of the printed page and a multitude of different considerations have to be weighed and decided on."...

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