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Exchange: Ellis Responds to 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 fourth entry in their conversation. (Follow their complete dialogue here: Entries 1, 2, 3, 4, 5.)


Click here for the previous entry in the discussion.

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.

Based on my own research, I came to agree with the latter view, which explains why so much emphasis is given in the latter half of the first episode to the Coercive Acts. From Adams's point of view, the abrogation of due process in the Massachusetts Bay colony and the virtual imposition of martial law there gave the lie to his former view that "the Crown is misguided, but not despotic." For someone who believed, as Adams did, in "a nation of laws, not men," such measures were--in fact as well as in name--intolerable.

Steve, you confess that your "one pet peeve is (that) this show, like most, ignores the role of religion as a cause of rebellion." Do not forget that Adams makes his decisive "liberty will reign in America" speech from a church pulpit, and that he and Abigail raise their voices with the congregation's in song to "Chester," a traditional hymn with new lyrics by William Billings that would go on to become America's first-ever No. 1 hit. The lyrics are indicative of political thinking at the time. "New England's God forever reigns," Billings wrote. New England's God--not America's. Adams would later learn (with varying degrees to success) to moderate his inbred sense of New England superiority.

Religion--and people's manipulation of it--played an undeniable part in fomenting revolutionary aims. Adams himself recounted to Abigail an "amusing incident" from the First Continental Congress in which an observer compared the nascent revolution to the Protestant Reformation, noting that the delegates had "no one but God on their side." Nonetheless, we always kept in mind that in the main, the Founders were Deists--men who believed in the "blind watchmaker" (to use Richard Dawkins' famous phrase) who set the universe in motion and left men to sort out its intricacies as best they could.

Adams, as the most observant of his contemporaries--often attending two services every Sunday (and inevitably commenting on the qualities of the sermons)--is among the characters in the series most given to peppering his remarks with solemn references to Divine Providence and exhorting his wife to "pray for guidance in all our endeavors." In this matter, as with everything in the series, we sought to illuminate the political through the personal.

Steve, you also inquire as to origins of the "hybrid accents" we use in the series. From the beginning, we wanted to emphasize that independence was a battle between British Americans and their brethren in England, not, as so often depicted, a conflict that pitted Crown officers with plumy Oxonian accents against patriots with full-blown American dialects. All our research pointed to the fact that, in written and spoken speech, America was much closer to the mother country than had been acknowledged in past dramatizations.

From our advisors in Colonial Williamsburg, we learned that one's residence in America frequently depended on one's point of origin in England. Virginia, for instance, was largely settled by residents of East Anglia--in terms of dialect and accent a very distinctive region. Moreover, a goodly number of our characters (notably John Dickinson) had been educated in English schools and had acquired the manners and speech of the time and place. Still others, such as Adams's Secretary of War James McHenry, were themselves immigrants whose accents (Irish, in McHenry's case) were noted at the time.

Our dialect coach, the gifted Catherine Charlton, asked me to provide miniature biographies of each character, from which she was able to reconstruct that person's likely accent. Catherine had had past experience in such linguistic archaeology, having had to essentially re-invent a lost Native American language for Terence Malick's film about Jamestown, "The New World." The results of the painstaking craftsmanship are evident in the rich tapestry of accents heard throughout the series, which we regard as accurate an approximation as can be reached at this distance in time, without the benefit of recording.

Both of you address our decision to open the series with Adams's defense of the British soldiers in the Boston Massacre trial. From the beginning, Adams's representation of the British soldiers provided the ideal starting point to the series. Good stories always begin in the middle of something, and Adams's brave decision to represent a group of men presumed guilty was the best way to establish him as a man for whom principle always trumped the personal--often to grave costs.

Jack, you are "troubled" by the implication that Adams takes the case for reasons of vanity. Adams is steadfast in his belief that "counsel is the last thing a man should want (lack) in a free country," a line taken directly from his own writings and incorporated into his dialogue with Abigail. However, as Joseph Ellis observes in Passionate Sage, Adams's career can be seen as an ongoing conflict between duty and ambition--a very Puritan dichotomy that makes for some very effective storytelling.


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