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Exchange: Diggins Responds to HBO's 'John Adams' (Part 3)

Two scholars of early U.S. history debate the high-profile miniseries with its writer.

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


Click here to read the previous entry in the discussion.

Dear Steve and Kirk,

Was Adams wrong about Catholicism? When did the Roman Catholic Church ever stand for freedom? Even in the 20th century, it aligned with Mussolini, Hitler, and Franco. Certain courageous Catholic thinkers like Father John Ryan and John Courtney Murray tried to reconcile Catholic doctrine with freedom and democracy, but they were reprimanded by the hierarchy. In Adams’s era, the Catholic Church was anti-Enlightenment and invoked natural law instead of the idea of natural rights--the first demanding obedience to authority, the latter the duty to resist it if rulers violate the social contract. Edmund Burke, defending the American cause before Parliament in his famous “Speech on Reconciliation,” told the British that the colonists would not yield because they were “Protestants,” and he spelled out what that meant: protest, resist, defy.

Adams, to be sure, had his moments of ethnic bias. In his summary defense in the Boston Massacre trial, he claimed that the British soldiers had every reason to be afraid of the crowd, “a motley rabble of saucy boys, Negroes and mulattoes, Irish teagues [pigs], and outlandish Jack Tars.” Abigail, tell your man that he is referring to my ancestors.

The third part of the series went beyond the opening two in the beautiful New England photography; the appropriate and telling dialogue--especially Adams telling French aristocrats that he must work hard so his children and grandchildren may later enjoy poetry and music; the musical score with some fiddles in the orchestra; and the wrenching separation for so long of John and Abigail, and even John Quincy going off to St. Petersburg at the age of 14. Duty and sacrifice came naturally to these heroic founders.

The story takes Adams away from the Revolution, but viewers ought to know that things were going bad militarily in the first years of the Revolution. Word got to Adams that some leaders wanted to have George Washington removed, having lost some battles and with the capitol Philadelphia captured by the British. General Knox made a visit to Adams to sound him out on this move, and Adams made a valiant defense of Washington.

The film makes no mention thus far that Adams was the founder of the U.S. Navy; he believed in naval superiority as essential to any victory and pressed that upon the French. Jefferson thought America could get along with small one-gun vessels. But thanks to Adams, America had a reliable fleet with which to face Britain.

Many students and some professors think Adams was the prude in Paris and Benjamin Franklin was the charming playboy, even as a doddering senior citizen. But Franklin accomplished little and the film makes clear that he didn’t seem to realize what Adams did realize--that France needed America as much as America needed France. Adams’s negotiation of the substantial loan from the Dutch was one of America’s first diplomatic achievements and it helped win the Revolutionary War.

Franklin was witty and in many ways wise, but he was also complacent--and his idea of never pressing things to a conclusion is not the best mentality for a diplomat. To Adams, hard negotiation was what international relations was all about, and he could discern the difference between a gesture and a real commitment.

Watching the third episode of this series reminded me of how much the French supported the American Revolution. In our times, when there has been a lot of anti-French sentiment due to the Iraq War, we perhaps should remember this French contribution, which had Pierre Beaumarchais raising money, Admiral de Grasse sailing his fleet to eastern port cities to take on the British navy, and Rochambeau and LaFayette fighting valiantly with Washington. Viva La France!

Jack Diggins

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 by John Patrick Diggins, Kirk Ellis, and Steven Waldman