Not Tony Soprano but John Adams on HBO
John Adams lacks historical charisma. Portly, short, balding, and plain, our first vice-president and second president, Adams was important to the founding of the country, and he deserves more attention than he gets. A new HBO miniseries, starring Paul Giametti as Adams, aims to give him just that. Viewers of the miniseries will surely witness some of the violent verbal abuse that the Founders inflicted upon one another. In this respect, Adams always gave as good as he got. If Paul Giametti does not throw any temper tantrums, the actor’s role will be diminished; those who witnessed Adams’s tantrums described them as fits of insanity. Ben Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and Alexander Hamilton all thought that Adams was mentally unstable.
Adams has always been good for some eighteenth-century wit. Franklin famously remarked that Adams was “always honest, sometimes great, but often mad.” There is an amusing story about Adams and Franklin having to share a bed in a crowded Philadelphia inn. Franklin believed that it was healthy to sleep with the window open, Adams disagreed, and they quarreled much of the night.
Like other Federalists, Adams wanted touches of dignity and ceremony to instill respect for the new republican government. As vice-president, Adams, who had no military background, made himself look foolish by wearing a ceremonial sword to preside over the Senate. When he proposed elaborate titles for himself and George Washington, Adams went too far; the senators mocked him as “His Rotundity.” (Madison, who was 5'3" and about 100 pounds, was nicknamed “His Littleness.”)
Of Adams, Jefferson wrote to Madison, “He hates Franklin, he hates Jay, he hates the French, he hates the English.” Indeed, Adams seemed, at one time or another, to have hated everyone in sight. He was transparently jealous of his fellow founders, even Washington, whom everyone else except Aaron Burr seemed to admire. Of Washington, Adams complained that he “had the distinction of always being the tallest man in the room,” as if his height were the sole reason for Washington’s prominence. Ben Franklin’s failure to abide by any of the precepts of Poor Richard annoyed Adams, and he was appalled at the way the famous old man flirted with French ladies. John and Abigail, who were apparently a couple of New England prudes, agreed that the handsome young Treasury secretary was a terrific flirt at the dinner table and undoubtedly equally active in the bedroom. Whenever their friendship was on the outs, Adams penned invective against Jefferson, describing him as full of secret ambitions and as “an intriguer.”
Jefferson does seem to have started the internecine warfare that marred the new republic. Using James Callendar as his hitman, Jefferson orchestrated vicious attacks upon Adams, Hamilton, and Washington. Despite his behind-the-scenes shenanigans, Jefferson once got caught red-handed. As David McCullough tells it in his 2001 Adams biography, Callendar printed one of Jefferson’s handwritten scrawls next to an attack on Adams. The publication resulted in a long break in their friendship. Unlike Jefferson, Adams and Hamilton wrote their political attacks themselves, often wounding themselves as they fired at their enemies.
The Founders are commonly paired, either as teams (Washington and Hamilton, Jefferson and Madison, sometimes Jefferson and Adams) or as opponents (Adams v. Hamilton, Jefferson v. Hamilton, Hamilton v. Burr). Since it will make Adams a hero, the miniseries will surely portray Hamilton, played by Rufus Sewell, as a villain. This is already suggested by the website photo of the actors; Sewell is wearing a tightly curled brown wig (no portraits show Hamilton bewigged) whereas the other founders look like natural republicans. Hamilton was twenty years younger than Adams, and the latter no doubt resented the younger man’s good looks and sexual attractiveness as well as his power and influence.
Hamilton’s friends in Adams’s administration had repeated to Hamilton some of the many scathing remarks Adams had made about him. Adams accused Hamilton of being the leader of a “British faction,” a claim that infuriated Hamilton. When Adams came up for re-election, Hamilton wrote a 54-page attack on him. In the long term, however, the Adams family did more damage to Hamilton. Adams’s famous slur, that Hamilton was “the bastard brat of a Scots peddlar,” and his great grand-son’s fabrication, that Hamilton had called the people “a great beast” (cf., Stephen Knott, Alexander Hamilton and the Persistence of Myth) have had more staying power than any insults Hamilton wrote in his pamphlet.
Thomas Jefferson regarded Adams, Hamilton, and other Federalists as monarchists. Adams and Hamilton—who could have sided with the Tories during the war—objected heatedly, but the slur stuck, and you can read it in newspapers and blogs today. Adams did once say of monarchy. “our ship must eventually land on that shore,” but he reliably defended the idea of a republic in his writings. Like the other Federalists, Adams had his doubts about mankind and saw government as a way to manage and contain human vices.
The Federalist were, however, opponents of slavery, unlike the supposedly democratic Democratic-Republicans and their slave-owning leaders, Jefferson and Madison. Adams never owned slaves or even rented them, as other Massachusetts farmers sometimes did, and he regarded slavery as a great evil. John Jay, Hamilton, and Gouverneur Morris founded, and were active in, the New York Manumission Society. John Adams makes a cameo appearance, via his portrait, in the film Amistad, in the riveting scene when John Quincy Adams, played by Anthony Hopkins, addresses the Supreme Court.
Scholars of conservatism have long considered John Adams the first exemplary American conservative. Russell Kirk lays claim to Adams in The Conservative Mind from Burke to Eliot and includes Adams in his anthology, The Portable Conservative Reader. “A conservative he always was,” writes Kirk. “In 1811, he wrote to Josiah Quincy, ‘Should I let loose my imagination into futurity, I could imagine that I foresee changes and revolutions such as eye hath not seen nor ear heard … I cannot see any better principle at present than to make as little innovation as possible; keep things going as well as we can in the present train.’ ” Such a view is indeed the essence of conservatism: maintaining the status quo. Kirk cites other classically conservative attributes of Adams, including his opposition to the French Revolution, his pessimism about human nature, his belief in a “natural aristocracy,” and his horror at (pure) democracy. It enhanced Adams’s conservative credentials that he was a New England farmer rather than, as Kirk says of Hamilton, “a city-man.”
The conservative press Regnery has published a thick anthology of Adams’s writings. It includes his “Defence of the Constitution,” (1778), and “Discourses on Davila,” (1791), as well as various shorter pieces. In a letter addressed to Richard Price on April 19, 1790, Adams wrote of the French Revolution: “I know not what to make of a nation of thirty million atheists.” He added, “Too many Frenchmen, after the example of too many Americans, pant for equality of persons and property. The impracticability of this, God Almighty has decreed, and the advocates of liberty, who attempt it, will surely suffer for it.”
On June 19, 1809, Adams commented on his reputation in a letter to Samuel Perley:
The newspapers have represented my writings as monarchical, as having a monarchial tendency; as aristocratical, and having an aristocratical tendency. In answer to these charges, I ask only that they may be read. I have represented the British Constitution as the most perfect model that has yet been discovered or invented by human genius and experience, for the government of the great nations of Europe. It is a masterpiece.
John Adams’s most infamous act was his signing of the Alien and Sedition Acts. His much-admired wife Abigail encouraged him to do so. Adams’s defenders argue that Jefferson and Madison, by supporting the Virginia and Kentucky resolutions, did worse. Jefferson’s admirers seem unaware that once he became president, he became as hypersensitive to press attacks as his former opponents. In 1804 Jefferson had a New York newspaper editor prosecuted; Alexander Hamilton defended the editor and the principle of a free press.
In his Pulitzer-Prize-winning biography of Adams, David McCullough writes, “Like nearly everyone who ever played a large part in public life and helped make history, Adams wondered how history would portray him, and worried not a little that he might be unfairly treated, misunderstood, or his contributions made to look insignificant compared to others.” It will be interesting to see how the HBO miniseries, which begins Sunday, March 16, portrays this ordinary yet extraordinary man.
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