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Ellis on the Final Hour of 'John Adams'

John Patrick Diggins, author of John Adams: The American Presidents Series, Steven Waldman, author of Founding Faith, and Kirk Ellis, writer and co-executive producer of the HBO miniseries "John Adams," are discussing the show on Alan Taylor, author of Writing Early American History, has joined the discussion. This is the fourteenth entry in their conversation. (Follow the complete dialogue here: Entries 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16.)

Click here to read the previous entry in the conversation.

Dear Steve and Jack,

The theme of the final episode is legacy. History and great events recede into the background for an examination of how a man makes sense of such a long and eventful life as Adams's own. Taking a page from both the final, long section of David's book and Adams's own late-life letters, we see this principled but often exasperating man finally come to terms with the personal cost of his devotion to duty. The world outside Peacefield matters little to our principal story here, which must concern itself with Adams' gradual--if grudging--reconciliation to his place in history. The tragedies he experienced--tragedies that might well have broken a man with less fortitude--strip away any last vestiges of vanity and make him capable of seeing more deeply into himself and the world around him.

On that score, I make no apologies for the Trumbull scene. None whatsoever. When I came across that incident in David's book, I knew instinctively it would become what is for me the signature moment of the series, a chance to encapsulate all the strength and pitfalls of historical recreation--indeed, of the recounting of history itself. Steve is right: Beyond calling the painting a "shin piece," we don't know exactly what Adams said to Trumbull (though the same criticism could be leveled against virtually any other scene in the miniseries; that's what I'm paid to do, by the way--imagine things). But we do know what Adams thought of what he called "modern history." His speech to Trumbull is a distillation of those thoughts conveyed in several letters.

Adams is not only speaking to Trumbull in that scene. He is speaking to us, the creators of the series, and to our audience, warning us that history ceases to be real after the last man who remembers it has passed--and very possibly even a good while before that. "Truth, nature, and fact" should indeed be our guides at all times. But who defines truth? (Even Pontius Pilate failed to obtain an answer for that question from the one man who might know.) And while facts are stubborn things, they can also be rather slippery as well, serving a variety of purposes and dependent on the person wielding them. Adams and Jefferson both lived long enough to see the revolution recounted, analyzed, and reinterpreted by countless commentators. If our miniseries sends people back to the first-hand accounts, then we have achieved our purpose.

The same goes for Sally Hemings. David's account of Jefferson's death is but one version. My research for the script eventually encompassed some 60 other books, and the writing of each scene involved the pulling together--Trumbull-like, you might say--of telling details. Joseph Ellis's version of Jefferson's death in American Sphinx, for example, includes the slave who stood vigil at Jefferson's bedside fanning away flies. It is both possible and plausible that Sally Hemings may have been among those gathered to witness her master's final moments. Even Steve admits the scene provides a subtle way to acknowledge the relationship without giving it undue emphasis. And for what it's worth, David advised on the staging and suggested what became that final grouping.

Sometimes what's in a book isn't the whole story. And sometimes a dramatization can illuminate what written history cannot: namely, the human emotions at the heart of all events, both great and small. We are the heirs of all those who have walked before us, the product of their struggles and triumphs, their strengths and their failings. John and Abigail Adams, like all of the founding generation, were not icons, but human beings. They did not live in "history," but in a very vibrant present. Our task in making this miniseries has been to restore to them some of that humanity and immediacy. For all your quibbles, Jack and Steve, your final comments at least give me some confidence we have achieved our purpose.



John Patrick Diggins is a professor of history at the Graduate Center, City University of New York, and the author of John Adams: The American Presidents Series. Kirk Ellis is the writer and co-executive producer of HBO's John Adams. Alan Taylor, a contributing editor to The New Republic, is a professor of history at the University of California, Davis, and author of Writing Early American History. Steven Waldman is the editor-in-chief of and author of the newly released Founding Faith.

By Kirk Ellis