You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

Exchange: HBO's 'John Adams' (Part 3)

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 This is the third entry in their conversation. (Follow their complete dialogue here: Entries 1, 2, 3, 4, 5.)

Click here to read the previous entry in the discussion.

Dear Jack and Kirk,

The next time my wife complains that I’m spending too much time at the office, I’m going to say, “Well, at least I’m better than John Adams!”

As the HBO series reminds us, John Adams spent more years apart from his wife than together during this era. Worst of all, several of his overseas years were spent being utterly useless. HBO certainly takes the position that Adams’ presence in Paris only complicated Benjamin Franklin’s ability to negotiate French support for the year, a view that seems to be echoed by most historians.

It’s always amazed me how much of early American politics was determined by whether you were a Francophile or an Anglophile. Of course, at this particular moment--the outset of the war--everyone was for seeking French aid, but that didn’t mean they had to like the French. This series nicely captures Adams’ disgust for the French's prurient ways--including, most deliciously, the scene of Ben Franklin in the bathtub with his French mistress. (In case you were wondering if HBO would find some way of getting sex into even a show about John Adams, the answer is: "Yes.")

This is as good an excuse as any to mention an aspect of Adams that is invariably ignored (and is ignored in the HBO series, too): his antagonism toward Catholicism. Adams disliked France not only because they powdered their faces and wore frilly clothes; he also disliked them for being Catholic. He believed it unlikely that a Catholic country could nurture a true Republic. "Is there any instance of a Roman Catholic monarchy of five and 20 million at once converted into a free and rational people?" he once asked Dr. Joseph Priestley, a philosopher and Francophile. "No, I know of no instance like it." Writing to Jefferson in 1816 about a recent revival of the Catholic order of the Jesuits, Adams wrote, "This Society has been a greater Calamity to Mankind than the French Revolution or Napoleans Despotism or Ideology. It has obstructed the Progress of Reformation and the Improvements of the human Mind in Society much longer and more fatally."

It’s hard to recognize freedom’s champion in this letter to his wife Abigail in which he describes a visit to St. Mary's Catholic Church in Philadelphia. His pen dripping with contempt and pity, Adams catalogues the repellant customs: "The poor wretches fingering their beads, chanting Latin, not a word of which they understood, Their holy Water--their Crossing themselves perpetually--their Bowing to the Name of Jesus, whererever they hyertit--their Bowings, and Kneelings, and Genuflections before the Altar."

In fact, one of the causes of the revolution was the Quebec Act, which gave religious protections to Catholics in Canada. This infuriated the colonists. "Does not your blood run cold to think that an English Parliament should pass an Act for the establishment of arbitrary power and Popery in such an extensive country?” wrote Alexander Hamilton. “Your loves, your property, your religion are all at stake." Sam Adams told a group of Mohawk Indians that the law would mean that "some of your children may be induced instead of worshipping the only true God, to pay his dues to images made with their own hands." Fortunately, George Washington realized that it would undermine the colonists’ efforts to win support from Canada and France if they were perceived as being anti-Catholic, so he banned the “monstrous” practice of burning effigies of the pope on “Pope Day.”

Later in life, Adams admitted to being a bit rash in his anti-Catholic judgments, but I believe (and argue in Founding Faith) that we have not paid close enough attention to the anti-Catholic sentiment as a factor in the revolution.

But otherwise I found Part 3 to be fascinating and well done! Since we have Kirk Ellis from HBO here with us, I’d actually like him to respond to our posts about the first two parts, most especially our sense that the shows didn’t quite fully capture the more legitimate reasons why these men rebelled.

And I’d personally be interested in hearing how they figured out what kinds of accents to give each figure.


Click here to read the next entry in the discussion.

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. Steven Waldman is the editor-in-chief of and author of the newly released Founding Faith.

By John Patrick Diggins, Kirk Ellis, and Steven Waldman