HBO John Adams series writer defends program

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HBO's seven-part miniseries, John Adams, based on David McCullough's Pulitzer Prize-winning book about America's second president, premiered last weekend. The New Republic asked historian John Patrick Diggins and author Steven Waldman to critique the series. Click here to see their discussion of Parts 1 and 2. This week, Kirk Ellis, the series' writer and co-executive producer, will be joining the discussion. Waldman kicked off the discussion with his thoughts on last night's airing of Part 3. Click here to read Diggins's response. Below, Ellis responds to their comments on the first three episodes of the series.

Dear Jack and Steve,

Thank you for insightful comments and questions about the series thus far.

Jack, you mention in your comments on Part 3 of the series that "viewers ought to know that things were going bad militarily in the first years of revolution." Because Adams spent the majority of his congressional and diplomatic years away from the scene of battle, the challenge in structuring the story was to maintain Adams's primacy without recourse to omniscient, expository cutbacks to the war at home. Nevertheless, America's own poor fortunes in war are frequently referenced in dialogue. In the prologue to Part 3, Abigail recounts her worry for John's fate upon hearing of Howe's capture of Philadelphia. Later, the Dutch bankers make specific reference the losses of Newport and Charleston as well as Benedict Arnold's treachery in denying Adams's first request for a loan.

You also comment that "the film makes no mention that Adams was the founder of the U.S. Navy (and) believed in naval superiority as essential to any victory." Adams is repeatedly seen in Part 3 haranguing anyone who will listen that America's war cannot be won without a massive naval component. "Nothing will bring this war to a speedier conclusion than a powerful fleet sufficient to secure naval superiority," he tells the complacent Comte de Vergennes in their initial audience. Adams's stratagem ("Position a massive fleet along our coast and the enemy armies can be bottled up inside the port cities they've seized," he would later advocate) accurately predicts General Cornwallis's predicament at Yorktown. Adams's stubborn advocacy of a national navy is addressed in Part 6, ironically enough, in the context of the Quasi-War with France in 1798.

Steve, in the earlier episodes, you expressed concern that we have "neglected to sufficiently show the patriot side of things" in recounting Adams's growing commitment to the cause of independence. Jack, you mention as well that "the opening episodes might lead viewers to conclude that the colonists rebelled because British soldiers treated them so rudely on the streets of Boston." But it would be impossible to summarize, without resorting to reams of expository dialogue, the myriad underlying causes of the American Revolution. In two scenes between Adams and his friend and Crown official Jonathan Sewall--one following the Boston Massacre and another following the tarring-and-feathering of a British customs man--we endeavored to address the necessity for taxes to replenish British coffers depleted by the Seven Years' War.

Historians continue to differ on the exact moment of Adams's "conversion" to the patriot cause. Some, including David McCullough, take at face value Adams's own later insistence that he became committed to the then-vestigial notion of American independence as early as 1761, when he heard James Otis argue against the notorious "Writs of Assistance"--what we would today call illegal search-and-seizure warrants. ("Then and there the child independence was born," Adams wrote in his autobiography.) Others, like John Ferling, speculate that Adams's conversion on the road to Damascus was a more incremental fare....

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