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Diggins on the Final Hour of 'John Adams'

Assessing the legacy of America's second president.
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 Historyjoined the discussion. This is the fifteenth 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. )

Click here to read the previous entry in the conversation.  

Dear Steve and Kirk,

“There is no vocabulary/for love within a family,” wrote T. S. Eliot. The producers of John Adams found the words in the correspondence between Abigail and John to deal with love as they bring this superb series to a conclusion that marks the end of an era in American history, and the end of the lives of the two remarkable characters.

Even though I once thought I knew everything I wanted to know about Adams from my readings, I was not prepared for final Part 7. “Old age is dark and unlovely,” observed Abigail. Indeed the last years, which take us from 1801 to l826 when Adams dies, ache with sorrow and grief, death and dying. The opening scene has Adams’s old friend Dr. Benjamin Rush informing him and Abigail that their daughter “Nabby” has cancer of the breast and he must operate immediately. She survives the operation quietly and courageously, with only a brandy and no anesthetics. Nabby dies shortly afterwards, but first remembers to ask her father not to be too hard on her husband, his son-in-law who left her and her children. With the exception of their son Charles, the Harvard graduate who drank himself to death, the Adams family felt things deeply and we see what goodness is even if we have no words to describe it.

In the last episode of the series, politics and diplomacy recede as Adams goes into retirement. Mention is made of Jefferson negotiating with Napoleon to purchase the Louisiana Territory, but no mention is made of Hamilton’s death in a duel with Aaron Burr, the Marbury vs. Madison decision giving the Supreme Court the right of judicial review, or Jefferson joining Napoleon to crush the Santo Domingo slave uprising--the cause of black freedom that Adams supported when in office.

The War of 1812, which is also passed over, is an event that proved again Adams’s consistency and integrity. Due to grievances over the federal government imposing a trade embargo on New England shipping, much of Adams's old Federalist Party advocated seceding from the Union. But Adams, though once accused of British monarchist sympathies, stood with the nation in the war against England. The centralization of national authority vindicated Adams’s predictions about American history. The Jeffersonian tradition stood for liberty as the right to actualize one’s desires without hindrance, even the desire to live off the slavery of others. Adams discerned, as did Lincoln, that evil may thrive under the rubric of natural right.

In this episode, there is a scene of Adams being shown the vast painting by John Trumbull of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. After telling the artist “you are no Reubens,” Adams reminds him that the figures in the painting never met as a whole but had to sneak in and out of Philadelphia to sign the Declaration, as many feared being caught by the British. Adams's words about how the Revolution cannot be comprehended by a propagandistic painting, and how the study of history is as misused in America as in Europe, are in his writings. But did the conversation with Trumbull ever take place?

The death of Abigail, in 1818, is painfully moving. As she lies dying, Adams cries out in anguish, “Wait for me!” For more than 50 years, they lived almost as one, even though Adams had spent many years abroad. Rather than a romantic longing, their love was almost spiritual in nature, requiring not happiness but an emotion that touches the soul. After her passing, Adams seemed not to care whether he lived or died. “The bitterness of death is passed,” he wrote, “the grim spoiler so terrible to human nature has no sting left for me.”

I was waiting to see if the last part of the series would deal with the letters that Abigail wrote to Jefferson after she discovered how he had hired hack journalists to spread rumors about her husband so as to assure that he would lose the election of 1800. How could he explain such behavior, questioned Abigail? Jefferson avoided responding to her question, as he did when Adams also challenged him to document the accusations he had made against him. Although the series skips over this important correspondence, it does convey the sensitive letters between Adams and Jefferson commiserating with one another about their family losses (Jefferson had long been a widow). The beauty of Jefferson’s prose shines as he tells Adams that they both “must ascend in essence to an ecstatic meeting with friends we have loved and lost, and whom we shall still love and never lose again.”

The last lines exchanged between Adams and Jefferson rise to poetic elegance. When Jefferson wrote to Adams to congratulate him on his son’s election as the sixth president of the United States, Adams replied that John Quincy Adams is not my but “our son,” the heir to all the generation of the “spirit of ’76.’” The film shows the two great presidents losing consciousness and passing away on the same day, July 4, 1826.

The seven-part series ends on the right aesthetic note, with John Adams whispering some final thoughts, closing his eyes for the last time, his body stilled into silence as he leaves us, now belonging to the ages. But he still belongs to us--particularly his views of government and politics, which envisioned an energetic nation-state and a president who would lead as well as guide, and his sense of international affairs, which strove for peace and put the future of the country ahead of the petty interests of a party. These views have been more than confirmed in an American history that saw Abraham Lincoln assert the authority of the national government, Franklin Roosevelt boldly using the executive office to address domestic problems, and Ronald Reagan using the same office to help bring the cold war to an end.

Is it possible to admire Adams and the other founders and still believe in the political future of America? The historian Henry Adams, the President’s great-grandson, once observed that the history of the office of the presidency from George Washington to Ulysses S. Grant provides sufficient evidence to refute Darwin’s theory of evolutionary progress. Like the old man John Adams, Henry gave us something to think about and to laugh about.


Jack Diggins

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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