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Exchange: Ellis On The Fifth Hour Of 'John Adams'

The series' writer has some explaining to do.

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 Alan Taylor, author of Writing Early American History, joins the discussion this week. This is the eleventh entry in their conversation. (Follow the complete dialogue here: Entries 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11.)

Click here to read the previous entry in the conversation. 

Dear Jack, Steve, and Alan,

Looks like I've got some explaining to do this week. Alan--welcome to the discussion. Before taking up some of Jack and Steve's questions, I'd like to address your positive mention of our effort to achieve some balance in our depiction of events and people. From my very first meeting with Tom Hanks, he made it absolutely clear that there were to be no "villains" in the piece. The British soldiers were not to be depicted as malevolent solely because they were British; John Dickinson was not to be written off as a Tory patsy; Adams's meeting with King George was to be conceived (as it largely played out in fact) as a civil, slightly uncomfortable meeting between two well-spoken men, not a moment of trumped-up triumph.

That directive, which I wholeheartedly endorsed, not only made good sense--it also made for good drama. How eloquent might Adams have seemed on the floor of the Second Continental Congress on July 1, 1776, if his opponent had been portrayed as a caricature of an appeaser? How much less moving would Adams's audience with the English king have been if His Majesty had been a prematurely mad monarch? Stereotype, as Alan astutely notes, makes things far too easy and robs a story of complexity. (Have a look at the movie Revolution if you need further convincing.) Jack and Steve have previously argued that we may have been too scrupulous in our fair-mindedness, depicting a Boston so anarchic that the British position on taxation seems eminently reasonable. I'd quibble with that conclusion. Dramatizing history has a certain Rashomon quality: One must assess the value of various competing agendas and try to strike at the underlying truth of the events being portrayed.

On to some of Steve and Jack's concerns: You're both right to variously term Part 5 "demanding" and "problematic." Not an easy thing to dramatize your protagonist's marginalization, indeed. But I would disagree with Steve that the portrayal renders Adams "pathetic," or that we mean to create an impression of Adams's career as "a few years of profound impact followed by almost 20 years of ineffectiveness." Remember, he does successfully negotiate the Dutch loan, which keeps the American cause alive, and he is one of the prime movers in the Treaty of Paris, which ends the war--an event that admittedly takes place off-screen. (That is another sequence I was pained to lose between the original drafts and the final production scripts; Adams's speech in defense of the New England cod was a comic highlight.)

That said, this episode shows Adams as an active participant in creating his own irrelevance; the original title of the script was "A Man of No Importance." While his line to Dr. Rush, that "the vice-presidency is the most insignificant office ever devised by the mind of man," may strike some as unintentionally funny, given all the talk about that office's current occupant, it did reflect the nature of the office at the time (and throughout most of its history). Adams was the guinea pig for a job the framers of the Constitution thought so little about they assigned it no specific duties. Still, he did his best, attending every session of the Senate. After his embarrassing start with his effort to assign a regal title to the office of President of the United States, he learned the difficult art of keeping his mouth shut until absolutely necessary.

And in that, he performed yeoman's service: Adams cast more tie-breaking votes in the Senate than any subsequent vice president, and always cast them on the side of the Washington administration. That's why the Jay Treaty debate receives what Steve might call "the HBO treatment." For purposes of our drama, Adams' siding with the treaty's supporters once again reinforces his role as a man of principle over passion. That support also demonstrates his loyalty to the administration despite its treatment of him and his role. Then, as now, loyalty was a quality often rewarded with continued office. Both Adams and his Federalist supporters badly misread each other: Adams, by assuming that he, like Washington, could "rise above the din of politics"; the Federalists, by thinking Adams could be manipulated (though Hamilton, for one, came to disdain Adams's independent streak).

I think Jack has already addressed Steve's question regarding the apparent contradiction between Washington's (and Adams's) desire for a strict neutrality overseas and his advocacy of the Jay Treaty. I would add only that one of the most difficult dilemmas facing the nascent American government was the frustrating reality that neutrality itself could be seen as a hostile act by one power or the other. England and France in this period (and for some considerable time after) condescended to notice America only insofar as an alliance would benefit one or the other country in their perpetual conflict. Adams will, as you know, face a similar situation with France when he is president. His decision to rattle the martial saber while simultaneously pressing for peaceful settlement informs the whole of the next episode.

I'm not sure I see the same eye-batting that Steve does in that scene where Adams and Abigail entertain Jefferson in their Philadelphia quarters. Certainly as the scene begins, with Jefferson showing off his plans for Monticello, there's the same flirtatious quality to their interaction. But as Jefferson begins to espouse on the glories of the French Revolution and exhorts Adams to "rejoice" in the violence, you can see the shift in Abigail's assessment. It's one of the beauties of Laura Linney's performance that she can suggest so much with just a look--throughout the production we were often trimming dialogue in favor of telltale glances between her and Paul Giamatti that could say infinitely more. By the end of the scene, Abigail's expression conveys something very different, and she cautions Adams in the next scene to be wary of their mutual friend, whom she finds "much changed." How much changed will become apparent at the outset of next week's episode.

I suppose it's my turn to comment on 1776 (the musical, not the David McCullough book), which seems to be a favorite point of reference. I tend to agree with Alan that it's a little lightweight, which isn't to say it's not tremendously entertaining. And yes, it does hold up well, especially in the recently released original version that reinstates the "Cool, Considerate Men" number cut by Jack Warner from the original release prints at the express behest of Richard Nixon. Some reviewers have even had the temerity to compare Paul's performance unfavorably to that of William Daniels, which I find utterly preposterous--Daniels looks nothing like the man, and good as his performance is, it's a trifle ... well … priggish. And while "Molasses to Rum" is a great song, I don't think it goes nearly so far in addressing the slavery issue as our editing-the-Declaration scene, or that moment in Part 1 when a newly arrived band of shackled slaves are confronted by the horror of a tarring-and-feathering. Of course, you could say I'm biased.…




Click here to read the next entry in the conversation.


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 and author of the newly released Founding Faith.

By John Patrick Diggins, Kirk Ellis, Alan Taylor, and Steven Waldman