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Exchange: Diggins On The Fourth 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 This is the seventh entry in their conversation. (Follow their complete dialogue here: Entries 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7.)

Click here to read the previous entry in this discussion. 

Dear Steve and Kirk,

I much appreciate your response, Kirk, to my response to your splendid series on Adams. The military defeats of the early revolution are mentioned by French and Dutch figures, as you rightly note, and I was glad to hear that Adams’s views on naval power will be dealt with when we get to the Quasi War. As to Adams’s attitude toward religion, everyone wants God on his or her side when making a revolution; the curious thing is that He is not invoked in making the Constitution. Religion can give any cause a sense of righteousness, but the Constitution addressed the ways in which the colonists could go wrong without living under a well-devised system of political controls. Yes, a persuasive explanation of why Adams took the side he did in the Boston massacre case. Adams was a good Puritan, vain and full of self-doubt at the same time.

The political chronology of Adams’s life requires that Part 4 of the series proceed from the end of the Revolution and the peace treaty to his stay in England and then Washington’s inauguration. But given the amount of time spent on the Declaration, the Constitution gets rather lost in the story, and it is the latter document that shaped American history. Now while it is true that Adams was in London and had no direct hand in drafting the Constitution, he was at the same time writing volumes to defend its formation as well as those of the state constitutions. Why was this necessary? Because many French philosophers, once they saw what America was up to, accused the colonists of still emulating the parliamentary system of government and dividing power rather than unifying it in a single national assembly. Adams’s three-volume A Defence of the Constitutions of Government of the United States of America and his provocative “Discourse on Davila” make him, I believe, America’s greatest political philosopher. I realize, of course, that such theoretical matters cannot be readily dealt with in television series, but just let me mention three reasons why Adams deserves more recognition than he has ever received, now as well as then.

First, Adams was the only one of all the founders to grasp that in America the most important political institution would be the executive branch of government. The status of the Supreme Court remained vague, and other founders followed the British Whig theory that made Parliament or Congress the sovereign source of authority.

Second, Adams was the only one who recognized that, as America developed, the forces of society would become more important than the institutions of government--a point later emphasized by Tocqueville upon his visit to America. This meant that the American people would be moved more by wealth and power than by virtue and honor.

Third, Adams predicted the outcome of the French Revolution even before it broke out in 1789. Here he was, three years ahead of Edmund Burke, whose “Reflections on the French Revolution” came out in 1782, as France enters the stage of terror. Jefferson and Adams’s opponents were completely naïve about events in France, convinced that it was following the American Revolution rather than drastically departing from it.

I mention these matters in praise of Adams because he has been regarded as a poor president, one who couldn’t even get himself reelected. But we should know by now that for a president to be reelected requires not the art of leadership but the politics of deception and the delusion that a change in party is a change in substance.

Part 4 of the “Adams” series carries forward the superb photography, acting, and historical settings--not only sensual Paris, but also the cold, austere court of St. James. But was there no treatment of Abigail crossing the Atlantic, which she describes with thrill and terror in her writings? Did I miss it in this week’s episode? Also, many of the scenes between Abigail and John--the ones verging on intimacy--seem to take place in dark shadows, and the conversation is in whispers, almost inaudible. I guess with such matters the lights and the voices go low.

Using Abigail’s first impressions of Paris is impressive, with her dressed to the nines to attend a concert. She is shocked by the openness of the goings-on, and there is a telling exchange between her and Jefferson on the meaning of pleasure. The next scene captures well one of the many differences between Jefferson and Adams: One felt liberated and enlightened by Europe, the other feared being corrupted and debauched.

My lament over the absence of the Constitution is made up for in the important dialogue among Franklin, Adams, and Jefferson. Franklin is happy to live with irreconcilable differences; Adams believes the Constitution will put an end to the need for any future revolution in America; but Jefferson is the Trotsky of the 18th century, convinced that freedom depends upon permanent revolution. His comment that no generation can bind another was made to Madison in a letter, I believe, but it is still pertinent here. As Adams noted, Jefferson believed that power would somehow disappear once a revolution fulfilled its promises; Adams saw the presence of power as an unchangeable aspect of the human condition.

Adams’s meeting with King George is dramatic in a quiet, nervous way. Despite what he later says to Abigail about being tired of wigs and formality, he is impressed by the trappings of royalty, and when back in America he suggests practicing some of the customs and rituals of the court, which led his enemies to believe he was at heart a secret monarchist.

The reunion of the family in Boston is also poignant. The Adams family had its share of problems, with one son involved in a premature romantic attachment, the other with the beginnings of a drinking problem. I look forward to the next episode with Adams finding the job of vice president “the most useless institution every invented by man.” Congratulations on Part 4.



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