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Diggins on the Sixth Hour of 'John Adams'

When American politics start to get down and dirty
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 thirteenth entry in their conversation. (Follow the complete dialogue here: Entries 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13.)

Click here to read the previous entry in the conversation.

The sixth episode of the John Adams series, dealing with his one-term administration (1797-1801), raises a question: Does history require momentous events to deserve our attention? Here is an era when we had no wars abroad or civil insurrections at home; no demand for change looking toward the future as much as a restoration of the past; no enduring legislation from Congress or decisions from the Supreme Court; no direct addressing of slavery in the South and racism in the North; no exciting economic take-off that promised the pleasures of prosperity; no impeachments or assassinations; and no well-publicized sexual scandals.

Yet the Adams presidency is rich with historical significance, and the makers of the film are to be congratulated for giving us what may be the best episode of the series so far—one that is as poignant as it is profound. It was the Adams presidency that introduced American history to politics as we know it: not the stage of virtue and honor that was expected in the classical republicanism of ancient history, but the spectacle of maneuvering, plotting, and mendacity that makes modern politics the last place where truth can reside and morality prevail.

In the opening scene of this week’s episode, Adams tells Hamilton that he hopes the young Republic can “rise above the din of politics,” but Hamilton feels he must resort to partisan politics to save America from falling into the hands of Thomas Jefferson, who resists Hamilton’s effort to make the country into an industrial power at the expense of the agrarian South and to take America to war against his beloved France. Viewers of the film may well wonder, as do students of American history, which side stood for power and which for principle. Did Jefferson sincerely believe that a large, centralized government threatened liberty? Or did it just pose a threat to slavery in the South? Adams’s motives were perhaps less complex since he did what he believed was right regardless of the political consequences. But the ironies are telling. When Congress passed the Alien and Sedition Acts--which would expel non-citizens for suspected plots and subversive utterances, reduce the flow of aliens, and punish publications for writing anything “libelous” against the government--political positions shifted. Jefferson accused Adams of failing to uphold the Constitution that he, Jefferson, had all along suspected, and Adams replied that he cannot go against the will of the people that he, Adams, had all along suspected.

The sixth episode marks the beginning of party politics, something that troubled the framers of the Constitution in thinking about “factions” and that Washington warned against in his Farewell Address. At that moment in American history, a two-party system had yet to become legitimate and the idea of a loyal opposition seemed impossible to conceive. In the Adams era, conflict and suspicion was in the air as each party, the northern Federalists and southern Republicans, suspected the other of endeavoring to dominate the country and possibly eliminate their rivals one way or another. The two-party system was only fully accepted in the 1830s, when Americans awoke to discover that their political culture was characterized more by consensus than conflict.

Nevertheless, the conflicting exchanges between Adams and Hamilton are revealing, and indeed they come through almost as Platonic dialogues. Adams insisted in pursuing peace, knowing well that America was in no position to take on either of the two superpowers of the eighteenth century--England with its mighty fleet and France with its victorious army. Hamilton could only see a military solution to any international problem that America faced. He refused to negotiate with France to recover losses occurred when American merchant ships were seized, and indeed rather than pay for anything, Hamilton advocated that America simply take from France the Louisiana territory (which Jefferson later purchased) and from Spain the Florida that Portugal first discovered. An interesting scene shows Hamilton gleefully describing to Adams the over-decorated uniforms to be worn once an American army is organized. Despite all his animosity toward France, Hamilton is really America’s Bonapartist.

Some viewers may regard the personal histories as digressive asides. Yet they are illuminating. Perhaps even more than politics, personal and family relations reveal character and the inner thoughts of the mind. Adams came to have little use for his son-in-law who thought he could call upon the President for special favors, and even less so for his own son, who abandoned his wife and children and became an alcoholic. Adams’s visit to his son in the slums of Philadelphia could have come out of Dickens. When Adams told Abigail that he had renounced his son, she could only forgive him and remember his youth as “the darling of my life.” Revealingly, Adams was accused of being a monarchist, yet he turned aside all appeals to nepotism and looked to his sons to be on their own.

The scenes in this week’s episode of the construction of the new White House in Washington reveal the vast presence of slavery in the South. Looking around, Abigail asks, “What good can come” of this? The house of liberty is built on the backs of slavery.

As to Jefferson’s inaugural, there was no precedent for an incoming president to invite his predecessor to the occasion, and Adams rode away from the White House in the darkness of the early morning. One wishes he had crashed the party.

John Adams always believed that his not going to war with France was his presidency’s greatest achievement. Viewers should be aware of the enormously good consequences of his not doing so. His refusal to declare war may have cost him the election of 1800, as his own Federalist Party was pro-war and the Republicans wanted him out of office. But what goes unmentioned in the miniseries is that in late 1800 ,Napoleon Bonaparte had signed a peace treaty with England, leaving France to cross the Atlantic unmolested. If Hamilton had his away, the young American Republic may have found itself in a war with Napoleonic France. “I should have no fear of a honest war,” Adams wrote Abigail. “But a knavish one would fill me with disgust and abhorrence.”


Jack Diggins

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