In deference to history, Appellate Judge Mike Pinsky refrains from jokes about "the Adams Family."
"Adams is always an honest man, often a wise one, but sometimes, and in some thing, absolutely out of his senses."—Benjamin Franklin, 1779
Historian Joseph Ellis makes a key statement about John Adams late in the PBS documentary John and Abigail Adams that succinctly sums up both Adams as a man and Adams as a historical figure, one of the less-heralded founders of our nation: "Adams has a genius for putting things in a way that will almost certainly be misconstrued."
John Adams, second president of the United States, has been, at least insofar as we know him through our history books, pretty much, well, second. There are few monuments to him, and no major cities bear his name. He was a leader whose strength stemmed more from a boundless passion than a talent for tact and diplomacy. He griped; he sulked. It is often a wonder that he became a great figure at all, except for a peerless skill at rhetoric—when he kept his temper in check.
Abigail Adams was smarter, more politically astute, and sometimes more articulate than her husband. He knew it and adored her for it—to a point. For example, Abigail was an early advocate for women's rights, although John was merely amused and paid her no mind. This was the 18th century, and a woman could only influence politics from the fringes, if at all, and Abigail was too modest to play the Nancy Reagan of the new republic.
John and Abigail Adams, part of the long-running series The American Experience, is not a comprehensive biography of either of these seminal figures in American history. Indeed, it begins in 1775, as the 38-year-old John Adams heads off to the Continental Congress while his wife waits behind in Massachusetts. Abigail could hear the assault on Bunker Hill while John pleaded the case for independence in Philadelphia. But John Adams was a man whose fierce determination was often a mask of deep insecurity. Several years before, he had served as defense council for the British soldiers accused of the Boston Massacre; later, he would oppose the French Revolution as a disturbing example of mob violence. He was often a man with little patience for fools. Even he admitted that his behavior was "obnoxious."
John and Abigail Adams tries to humanize Adams and his wife through dramatic recreations of their lives, starring Simon Russell Beale and Linda Edmond. Often, the documentary (narrated by David Ogden Stiers) plays out more like a docudrama. The recreations dominate the story, with the requisite talking heads (including David McCullough, author of a fine biography on Adams) explaining this or that. But by dramatizing the dour Adams's life, the creators of this documentary manage to make the man seem rather fussy and unappealing. Also, the sharp Abigail is not given nearly enough to do (which I suspect is exactly what happened to her in real life). The John Adams we meet is insecure, so worried about his place in history that he jealously fights with Benjamin Franklin, ends up in a bitter election campaign with Thomas Jefferson (who admittedly fought pretty dirty), and prompts Alexander Hamilton to call him deranged. His own Federalist party opposed his policies. And because we think of Franklin and Jefferson as national heroes, our cultural memory of Adams has been diminished over the years. Some of this, Adams did to himself, though. It does not help that, as president, he signed the Alien and Sedition Acts, the most repressive attacks on the First Amendment to come out until the Patriot Act.
In retrospect, Adams did succeed best at what people wanted least. For example, he made peace with France and Napoleon when all those around him demanded war. Such going against the grain was characteristic of Adams, but in this case, it turned out to be the discrete course: it probably saved the country and later enabled Jefferson to buy Louisiana from a cash-strapped Napoleon who no longer saw the United States as a strategic threat.
The DVD release of John and Abigail Adams has no useful extra features. Only a text piece and a very brief making-of featurette are included. The important thing here is the documentary itself. As crucial as John and Abigail Adams are to the history of the United States, this documentary manages to do little to make audiences feel that history has been unfair in its marginalization of America's first power couple. We actually see little of Abigail (especially after the first half of the story), and we see too much of John looking glum and griping about his unpopularity. The cumulative effect—probably an unfair assessment given the message of more skillful biographies of Adams—is that Adams comes across as a guy whose own bad attitude and lack of public relations skill were the main causes of his second-rate status in our mythology of the Founders. Washington was able to play war hero. Franklin had humor to temper his irascible genius. The enigma of Jefferson helped magnify his strengths and cloud his flaws. But John Adams is the cranky, stubborn side of our American character, and that is the side that we like to pretend we do not have.
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