I’ve been keeping up with the Tom-Hanks-produced mini-series, John Adams, on HBO. It is the most compelling dramatization of the Revolutionary period that I’ve seen. It took time for me to warm up to Paul Giamatti’s John Adams – but after the fifth installment I now consider it an achievement.
GQ‘s critic, Tom Carson, highlighted the most important aspect of the production: it’s characters experience their lives in a modern world. The cause of American independence seems so unlikely and perilous in the opening episodes that a viewer can’t help but feel a twinge of loyalty to King George. There are no halos around the heads of our Founding Fathers, no sense that they understand their role. When Jefferson, Hamilton, Washington or Adams engage in argument there is no glow upon the winning side, or certainty that any side will see victory at all. There are only two exceptions to this rule that I can recall. At the beginning to the last week’s installment, John Adams is joylessly presiding over the Senate. He suggests titles for the new president, because “Neither dignity nor authority can be supported in human minds without spelndor and majesty.” They include “his esteemed majesty, the president” and “his excellency, the supreme commander-in-chief.” A piano and cello play groan their disapproval. Later, the cause of the French revolution is (rightly) portrayed as dangerous for the American republic. French rabble-rousers mock execute King Louis in Philadelphia to the cheers of a mob. Jefferson, in reptilian repose, urges Adams to “rejoice” at “the violent birth” of France.
On the whole, John Adams, rewards viewers with the sense that the debates of the revolutionary period are not fully over. One exchange between Hamilton and Jefferson seems more relevant to our time than anything heard on the floor of the Senate in years. History never “judges” one cause or another. The terrible truth (and the liberating truth) is that we judge these debates. Either passively by accepting the norms of our time unreflectively, or actively by pursuing one course or another.