John Adams – HBO Miniseries Review and the lessons it holds for us

Posted on March 18, 2011


After Adam and I went to Washington DC and Williamsburg last fall, my mom and dad heard only a couple of our rapturous stories of momentous history before telling us that we HAD to watch John Adams (HBO Miniseries). Since I love history and HBO and America, I figured that we would love this series too, and boy howdy was I right.


Adam and I in front of the original capitol building in Williamsburg, Virginia, October 2010

The wonderful thing about this particular production is that it tells the whole story, and nothing is excluded or included for effect. There’s no effort made to force us to like or dislike John Adams – we like him despite his foibles and we admire him even though we must grant that he was probably a tough man to live with.

We are introduced to Adams when, as a young family man and lawyer, he defends the British soldiers involved in the Boston Massacre, much to the outrage of his friends and neighbors. The imagery of him boldly fighting for unvarnished truth and braving the storms of public disapproval set the tone for his entire life. His famous line, “we should have a nation of laws and not of men” feels oddly well-placed in today’s celebrity culture, one in which it matters not what someone says, but who they are, how they say it and who endorses them.

A history geek like me knows that many of the lines are directly taken from Adams’ correspondence with his wife, Abigail, and others, which lends the series its documentary-like appeal. While Adams is not the most well-remembered or the sexiest of our founders, I think it’s incredible that HBO took the time to treat a loyal, dedicated and largely overlooked hero with the respect he deserves. In his lifetime, Adams was alternately loved and hated, scorned and exalted. But his honest sentiments still ring true centuries later, and give us courage to live up to our beliefs, and the rights that he and his compatriots worked so hard to protect.

In a letter to Abigail in 1780, John Adams wrote; “I must study politics and war, that our sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy. Our sons ought to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history and naval architecture, navigation, commerce and agriculture in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry and porcelain.”

The miniseries places Adams at a state banquet in France when he delivers this line, which a French statesman laughingly translates for the others at the table, sarcastically adding that “he [Adams] has it all figured out.” Although this setting is fictional, created for effect by the filmmaker, it is well-placed. Adams was an unpopular ambassador to France, probably because of his serious outlook on the revolution, but France, despite her outward frivolity, was headed for a bloody but unsuccessful revolution of her own; even as the French court laughed at Adams’ ardent love of country and liberty.

It struck me that we can learn something from this bit of artistic license. We’ve had a lot of comfort in America since these patriots risked everything to create a new nation, and through growth and distance, we’ve largely forgotten the reasons we became independent in the first place. America is the French court, laughing heartily at serious-minded, plain-clothed John Adams and his dire predictions.We don’t see revolution and we don’t expect our tidy lives to be interrupted, despite the storm clouds on the horizon.

Would it not be wise, then, after two centuries of studying painting, poetry and music on the shoulders of giants, that we consider a return to more serious arts, in an effort to preserve our own revolution and liberties?


I started this post by mentioning our trip to Washington D.C. and Williamsburg. When we were coming home from that trip, I mentioned to Adam that I liked both places – but I felt that in Williamsburg, history is felt and honored, whereas in DC, history is cast into statues and made untouchable by pomp and circumstance.

John Adams helped me feel history again, and reminded me why it matters – not just why we have busts made of notable statesmen, but why they are notable in the first place.