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Exchange: Diggins Responds to HBO's 'John Adams' (Parts 1 and 2)

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 second entry in their conversation. (Follow their complete dialogue here: Entries 1, 2, 3, 4, 5.)

Click here for the previous entry in the discussion.



There are many memorable scenes in the first two episodes of John Adams. Capturing the feelings of a child watching the Battle of Bunker Hill was poignant, as was the composing and recomposing of the Declaration of Independence, with the scientific Ben Franklin insisting that, when describing natural rights, the expression “self-evident” be substituted for “sacred and undeniable.” How to interpret the Declaration has perplexed statesman and scholars ever since, and Lincoln was determined to give it a religious explanation by returning the term “sacred.”

The enigma of Adams was that he was a man of law and order who feared the mob--brought out vividly in his role as lawyer in the opening Boston Massacre episode--yet as the Revolution approached, he welcomed the rise of the waterfront riff-raff, celebrated throwing tea into the harbor, and praised rights and liberties more than duties and authority. Later, when it comes to defending the new Constitution, he again stands for the authority of political controls over unchecked liberty by the democratic masses. A cynic might say that all along he wanted to be in control, but I think that the explanation is more historical than personal, and that the events preceding the Constitution were so unruly as to lead him to this position. We shall see in future episodes.

Thomas Jefferson comes off as the aloof riddle that he was, rather hesitant about the Revolution and the Declaration, yet providing some of the most elegant writing to defend both causes. The depiction of grand old man Franklin was just right in his dismissal of right and wrong; he advised Adams to be sensitive toward the feelings of others and to avoid thinking in terms of absolutes. In Adams and Franklin we have the classic contrast between a man of principle and a pragmatist. Adams is certain of his convictions, while Franklin asks him to think of the consequences. I’m not sure the series will show the extent to which Franklin remained a reconciliationist, convinced that the differences between the colonies and mother country could be worked out short of war.

The opening episodes might lead viewers to conclude that the colonists rebelled because British soldiers and officials treated them so rudely on the streets of Boston, with utter contempt for the provincials. Little was shown about the Stamp Act and other measures that sought to regulate the colonies in order to gain revenue to make up for the debts of the French-Indian War. Yet the colonists interpreted the slightest infringement upon their rights to self-govern as the first step toward suppressing all their rights. Was there such a conspiracy? No, but in American history suspicion is the name of the game in politics, and, as we shall hopefully see in the rest of the series, Jefferson projected such suspicion on poor President Adams, accusing the Federalists of conspiring to deprive their opponents of their freedom and returning America to the British monarchy.

But what exactly was the nature of the American Revolution? In the opening episodes, Adams talks about events in America about to resonate throughout the world, and the assumption is that 1776 would have universal significance. But shortly afterwards, Adams becomes an exceptionalist and insists that the revolution in France has little to do with the colonists’ more limited revolution. This raises the question of why the American Revolution was the only revolution in modern history that succeeded (the Dutch being a close second). I wonder if this timely issue will be addressed in future episodes.

Regarding your comments about the series' treatment of religion, many of the Calvinist ministers knew their John Locke and the right of resistance to illegitimate authority as a duty to God as well as civil society. I doubt the series could bring in theology because it is so abstract. But viewers should be made aware that the American Revolution was the only modern revolution in which the Church stood on the side of rebellion.

In terms of your question about the Boston Massacre, I was troubled that the movie quotes Abigail Adams to the effect that John is defending the accused for reasons of ambition. I never came across that sentiment in any letter from her to him. Actually, if one knows the circumstances--the British soldiers were young and frightened, having been taunted by the colonists and even threatened with death, and so they fired into the crowd--Adams defended them believing in their innocence. I could be wrong, but that's how I treated it in my little book on Adams.

As to the colonies' move toward issuing the Declaration of Independence, you wonder what all the fuss was about. Two explanations: One is that the majority of colonists were still monarchists at heart; Adams knows this well when he remarks how miraculous it was that, almost overnight, they became republicans committed to a new regime without a monarchy. The other explanation is a little cynical: The French made it clear that they would refuse to side with America and extend a loan unless the colonists declared their independence. Actually, the thinker and writer most inspiring on this issue was Tom Paine, who is hardly dealt with in the series. But he offered cogent reasons why there had to be a separation: "An island cannot control a continent."


Click here for the next entry in this 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. Steven Waldman is the editor-in-chief of and author of the newly released Founding Faith.

By John Patrick Diggins and Steven Waldman