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 TNR.com. Alan Taylor, author of Writing Early American History, has joined the discussion. This is the fourteenth entry in their conversation. (Follow the complete dialogue here: Entries 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16.)
Dear Jack and Kirk,
I won’t end on a sour note, but I need to gripe a bit first about historical inaccuracies in this episode.
We see Adams railing against the painter John Trumbell for his new depiction of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. “It is bad history!” he said at the end of a cruel rant. But it seems that, in reality, Adams didn’t say much of what he’s shown saying. According to David McCullough, whose book formed the basis for the show, “What Adams thought as he looked the painting will never be known.”
In this episode, the incredible correspondence between Adams and Jefferson in old age was rekindled by Abigail Adams’s death. The exchange actually began in 1812, six years before Abigail’s death. Part of the reason for the warmth in Jefferson’s extraordinary condolence letter, recounted in the show, was that the Adams-Jefferson relationship was already well-thawed.
And most dramatically, this episode depicts Sally Hemings as sitting, lovingly, at Jefferson’s death bed. There’s no evidence of this that I know of. McCullough wrote, “Which servants he called or what he said to them are unknown.”
Now, I realize that historical fiction is sometimes, well, fictional. In Gore Vidal’s works, entirely made-up characters weave their ways through the accounts. But HBO deliberately made a point of saying this show was “based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning book” by McCullough, thereby giving the show extra credibility and power. To then diverge from the book on key details is irksome, and often unnecessary. To be sure, it was thrilling watching Sally Hemmings at the deathbed--a mysterious but probably important relationship is brought to life, and imagined in a plausible way. But the show takes a strong position, and not one embraced by McCullough’s book.
So a question for Kirk Ellis: What’s the basis of the placement of Sally Hemings at Jefferson’s deathbed? And why did you diverge from the history in these ways?
Having said that, I still think this episode is a triumph. The depiction of Nabby's cancer treatment captures the tremendous courage involved in withstanding nineteenth-century medical treatment. The aging and deaths of John and Abigail are poignant, dramatic, and unusually realistic. That fraction-of-a-second image of Jefferson, eyes still open after his spirit has departed, may stick with me longer than any other image from the series. Six Feet Under meets 1776. Though the chronology of the Adams-Jefferson reconciliation is off, it remains the case that their renewed friendship is one of the great stories of American history, and this show captures the emotional complexity well.
In general, the craftsmanship--from the theme music to the sets to the makeup--is consistently breathtaking. Making history into good TV, especially without the benefit of numerous battle scenes, is yeoman’s work, deserving of public support. What’s more, the series manages to elevate and appreciate John Adams without ignoring his serious imperfections.
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 Beliefnet.com and author of the newly released Founding Faith.
By Steven Waldman