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Exchange: Diggins On The Fifth 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, joins the discussion this week. This is the tenth entry in their conversation. (Follow the complete dialogue here: Entries 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10.)

Click here to read the previous entry in the conversation. 

Dear Steve and Kirk,

Part 5 of the Adams series sustains the overall excellence and imagination of the project. This may be the most demanding segment since it involves Adams as vice president for two administrations consisting of eight years, and rather uneventful in terms of politics and diplomacy, though things are building up. Adams's well-known remark that the vice presidency is the “most insignificant” institution ever invented by man is a little more elegant than Lyndon Johnson’s remark that the office “isn’t worth a bucket of spit.”

Will viewers be perplexed seeing the condition of the White House as the Adamses are moving in? The servant does say a few words about what happened, but they are a little muffled. Apparently after Washington moved out, the place was vacant, so the help and neighbors used it for parties. By the time John and Abigail arrived, it looked like a frat house inhabited by John Belushi. The government gave the new president a meager budget to restore the place, and Abigail went to work with Puritan diligence and modesty.

The scenes of Jefferson exulting in the French Revolution--“in the throes of violence, we should rejoice”--are well done, and record the skepticism of Adams, Hamilton, and Jefferson. Hamilton’s casualness about nullifying the treaty with France is more important in the long run of American history, especially for a country that always claims that our antagonists never live up to the treaties they enter with us. Hamilton’s position on this matter is cited by scholars of international relations as the first expression of “realism” in American diplomatic history.

The growing rift between Hamilton and Jefferson, with Adams looking on in frustration, is exceedingly well done. The implications of Hamilton’s financial policies and Jefferson’s worries that an agricultural South is to be dominated by the mercantile North are conveyed concisely and lucidly. In history books, and in classrooms, it takes much space and time to explain to readers and students what the film’s dialogue conveys so succinctly and accurately.

Adams, to be sure, should not have brought up the subject of court customs and regal rituals in his effort to convince the Senate that America could use a little royal polish. But his efforts by no means indicate that he desired to see America restore monarchy, as his enemies charged, including the aristocratic Jefferson. On the contrary, Adams had a theory of human behavior, some borrowed from Adam Smith’s “A Theory of Moral Sentiments,” which he spelled out in his “Discourse on Davila.” Both brilliant writers saw human conduct driven by emulation and the desire for recognition, and Adams worried whether a new, rough, democratic republic would be able to command respect, and he tried to convince Americans that it was natural for people to look up to others. When Jefferson asked him whether he thought America couldn't have a “natural aristocracy” based on talent and virtue, Adams answered that people look up to the prominent for reasons that have little to do with morality and more to do with celebrity. Yet he and Hamilton hoped that our leaders would be motivated by honor, “the noblest passion” of humankind. Today, we ask our leaders not whether they are ethical, but whether they are electable.

In response to your question, Steve, Washington and Adams desired to remain neutral at all costs between England and France. If they fully accepted the Jay Treaty, it was because America’s territorial and maritime grievances were with England and not France.

As you point out, Steve, Abigail is indeed taken by Jefferson, as the letters between the two indicate, though it was less a flirtation on her part than an admiration toward a man who seemed so cool and gallant. This makes all the more telling her later discovery of what Jefferson is up to in scheming against her husband, for which she calls him to account in her letters.

Jefferson is not retiring to Monticello to leave government and politics behind, as he says in the film. He is slinking away to organize a party against John Adams.



Click here to read the next entry in the conversation.  

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 John Patrick Diggins, Kirk Ellis, Alan Taylor, and Steven Waldman