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Series / John Adams

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"I'm just Farmer John..."

"I must study politics and war that my sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy."

2008 US HBO's Mini Series about the life of John Adams, second President of the United States, from his defense of the soldiers accused in the Boston Massacre in 1770 to his death in 1826. It's based on the biography by David McCullough, and is divided into seven parts.

Two major themes stand out throughout this work: "Behind every great man is a great woman" and "The more things change, the more they stay the same".

Directed by Tom Hooper, it stars Paul Giamatti as John Adams and Laura Linney as Abigail Adams.


This mini series contains examples of:

  • Anti-Villain: John Dickinson, who's adamantly opposed to independence but for very sympathetic and understandable reasons. This is markedly different from most other portrayals like 1776.
    • Similarly, King George III is sympathetically treated when Adams actually meets him. Evidently Truth in Television.
    • Captain Preston and the British soldiers in Boston accused of murder are shaken and scared at what happened, and genuinely think they acted in self-defense. Adams is able to successfully defend them by demonstrating this.
  • Artistic License – History: Putting aside the fact that there's reasonable limitations on how true-to-life historical dramas can get, there are some inaccuracies and changes that stand out:
    • The famous engraving of the Boston Massacre was printed two whole years later, not mere hours.
    • Only six of the eight soldiers of the Boston Massacre were acquitted of any charges. The other two (specifically the two who fired directly and purposefully into the crowd) were convicted of manslaughter, but received a reduced sentence and avoided the death penalty.
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    • The tarring and feathering of a British customs official. Not only was this scene not present in the original book, it depicts the use of petroleum tar (AKA asphalt/bitumen) on the victim. The actual sort of tar used for tarring and feathering was pine tar, which has a melting point of 55 to 60 °C (130 to 140 °F) compared to petroleum tar's 100-190 °C (212-380 °F). Suffice to say, this change makes an act meant to be uncomfortable and humiliating into a (very likely) Cruel and Unusual Death.
    • Charles Adams is depicted as The Unfavorite of the Adams clan, who (among other things) gets left at home while his older brother John Quincy accompanies John to Europe. According to most accounts, though, Charles did go to Europe with his father and brother, which is never depicted in the series.
    • The Adams' stay in France, and later London, deviates greatly from history:
      • John Adams actually made two separate trips to France, which the show condenses into one continuous stay. In doing so, however, it omits one of Adams' greatest achievement: singlehandedly drafting the Constitution of Massachusetts in 1780, the oldest written constitution still in use in the world.
      • Abigail and John reunited in London before departing to Paris.
      • Abigail "Nabby" Adams actually accompanied her mother to Europe, and both courted and married Colonel William Smith there (and not in the United States).
      • John Quincy Adams also stayed in Europe with his parents for a time, before leaving early to attend Harvard.
      • Thomas Jefferson's daughter Patsy, who lived with him in France, is entirely omitted.
    • John Adams did not cast the deciding vote on the Jay Treaty. Though it was close, it was in fact a 20-10 split in favour, exactly the bare minimum needed to ratify it. Not only did Adams not need to cast a deciding vote, he couldn't, as treaty ratifications needed a two-thirds majority rather than a simple one, with no vote from the chair allowed.
    • Nabby was diagnosed with cancer in 1810, not 1803. She would die years later in 1813.
    • This is lampshaded in the final episode when a now-elderly John Adams is presented with Trumbull's "Declaration of Independence" and critiques it for the many historical inaccuracies is contains, leading an argument between the two over historical representation. Adams bitterly concludes that the truth of the Revolution is lost, turned into myth and artistic fabrications as the generation who was there gradually dies away and are replaced by generations who have to interpret events they were not part of. The meta-critique of the series as doing the same thing is clear, if subtle.
  • Asskicking Equals Authority: The prestige gained by Washington as the main general of the Continental Army makes him a virtually uncontested candidate for the first presidency, much to Adams' chagrin.
  • "Ass" in Ambassador: Adams, to a degree while representing America in France. Franklin eventually gets him removed because of it. Ambassador Genet while whipping up support for the French in America is very much this.
  • Aw, Look! They Really Do Love Each Other: The entire scene where John Adams and Thomas Jefferson reconcile through an exchange of letters. In one scene, it's revealed that Jefferson has a bust of Adams in Monticello.
    • John Adams gives his second son, Charles, nothing but a hard time during their interactions. But upon disowning him and, later, learning of his death, even he is reduced to tears. The former act, especially, is one of the hardest things John does in the entire series, even with all of the frustration and shame Charles has caused him.
  • Awesome Moment of Crowning: Or rather, Awesome Moment of Swearing In. George Washington becoming the first president is truly a sight to behold. From the other Founding Fathers gathering behind him to walking towards the balcony where the audience hears the buzz of a crowd until a woman shouts "There he is!" and thousands of people cheer as Washington appears to take his oath. "God bless George Washington! President of the United States!"
    • Though Washington does deflate the mood a bit with his soft-spoken taking of the oath, forcing everyone to lean forward.
  • Berserk Button: For both Washington and Adams, injecting party politics into the business of government. The only time the audience sees Washington truly shout in anger is when he scolds Jefferson and Hamilton for continually arguing over "factions" in the government. Both of them look like sheepish schoolboys afterward. Adams, meanwhile, does constantly stress over Jefferson and the Republicans' attempts to oppose him. However, he still explodes in anger and fires Timothy Pickering and James McHenry from the Cabinet on the spot when they suggest he prolong tensions with France in order to increase the Federalists' chances in the upcoming election. Adams doesn't regret it later on, either. While naturally disappointed at losing reelection to Jefferson, he says that he would have hated to have a second term simply because of possible war when peace was possible in just one.
  • Beware the Quiet Ones: George Washington is depicted as a highly modest and soft-spoken man who barely speaks above a whisper. When he wants to command a room, though, he does.
  • Calling the Old Man Out: Charles does this to John in "Unite or Die," when he describes their lack of contact when John and Abigail were in Europe.
  • Character Tics: George Washington often wriggles his jaw in discomfort while speaking, hinting at the fact that he wore dentures.
  • Conflicting Loyalty: Some members of Congress still feel loyalty towards the king, though grieved by him.
  • Courtroom Antics: John Adams when defending the British Soldiers after the Boston Massacre.
  • Culture Clash: Funnily enough not as strongly between enemies US and UK. John and Abigail Adams seem more baffled by the land of their allies, France. John's visit to the business-minded Dutch also proves more productive.
  • Deadpan Snarker: George Washington certainly had his moments. And in general this was sort of Ben Franklin's thing.
  • Decadent Court: The French nobility are all debauched party animals, and Franklin is only to happy to ingratiate himself by joining them. He tells Adams that to be fully accepted in French high society, one must become somewhat of a depraved sex addict, and even counsels him to get a French mistress to improve his standing with the aristocracy.
  • Dutch Angle: So, so many of these.
  • Eccentric Mentor: Benjamin Franklin succeeds in Adams toning down his obnoxiousness... a little.
  • Enemy Mine: France of the Ancien Régime and the Rebellious States.
  • Establishing Character Moment: Adams is having trouble finding other delegates at the Continental Congress who share his desire for a complete split from England. Then he's introduced to George Washington, a hero of the French and Indian War who's attended the congress in his army uniform, and offers to round up a new regiment to defend against future attacks like Massachusetts has suffered. Adams is left speechless by the man's natural leadership skills.
    • Washington does this without even saying a word. On his uniform, he wears a black arm band. When Adams asks if he is in mourning, Washington humbly and simply replies “For Massachusetts, Mr Adams. An Attack made against one of our sister colonies, is an attack made against all of us.” You can watch the blowhard, loud talking Adams start to choke up right then and there.
  • Eternally Pearly-White Teeth: A rare aversion. Every character's teeth get noticeably more hideous-looking the older they get. In fact, George Washington is so tight-lipped, his teeth are never shown (he had false teeth).
  • Everyone Has Standards: Adams may not like the British, but he doesn't like mob violence either which is why he defends the British soldiers involved in the Boston Massacre since they were attacked by a mob and only defending themselves. Nor does he approve of the tarring and feathering of a tax collector who was just doing his job.
    John Adams: Do you approve of brutal and illegal acts to enforce a political principle, Sam? Answer me that, can you!?
  • Fan Disservice: Sarah Polley naked? Thank you. Covered in scratches? Jesus Christ...
  • The Fettered: It's his loud and vocal commitment to his principles that earns Adams most of his victories throughout the series, and most of his defeats too.
  • Fish out of Water:
    • To say that Adams doesn't fit in at the French court is an understatement.
    • Adams' meeting with George III, in all its awkwardness, surely counts as an example.
  • Follow in My Footsteps: The elder Adams doesn't so much expect this of his sons, as command it. His eldest son John Quincy remains The Dutiful Son, eschewing marriage to become a lawyer first just like his father, and eventually becomes president too. John's second son Charles winds up hating him for it and self-destructs over the lack of love and acceptance from his father.
  • Foolish Sibling, Responsible Sibling: The subplot about Adams's sons Johnny and Charles, with the fun-loving, rakish Charles as the Foolish Sibling, and the serious, studious Johnny as the Responsible Sibling. Charles died of cirrhosis of the liver at 30; Johnny served as a diplomat in Europe and became President himself.
  • Funny Foreigner: Played to the hilt by Franklin. The French stereotype of Americans is that they are all rustic backwoodsmen, so he goes about Paris as though he's been tailored, as Adams says, by a taxidermist and deliberately speaking French in his abominable English west country accent. As Franklin explains to Adams, in Paris everyone is an actor and he is playing the role of village idiot that the French judged him to be from the getgo in order to gain their sympathy and support.
  • General Ripper: Alexander Hamilton. The enemy X is Revolutionary France, although President Adams accuses Hamilton of it all being his convenient excuse to justify his desire to turn America into an empire to rival Britain and France, and thus his only concern for making war with France is to take French colonial territory.
  • The Good Chancellor: Adams to Washington during his time as vice-president.
  • The Greatest History Never Told:
    • Adams is keenly aware in his later years that his contributions towards American independence will be ignored and forgotten in favor of the legends around his more popular contemporaries. As he puts it, history will say that Benjamin Franklin "smote the earth with his electrical rod and out popped Washington and Jefferson".
    • In the final year of his life, Adams is presented with the painting of the signing of the declaration of Independence featuring all the delegates in the same room. He comments that it's a big canvas of Blatant Lies because the signing happened piecemeal due to everyone being busy fighting the war against England. Adams considers the true history of the revolution to be utterly lost forever in the intervening fifty years.
  • Happily Married: John and Abigail Adams. A stark contrast to the French court.
  • Historical Domain Character: Omnipresent in this period piece work, with some of particular note:
    • George Washington appears throughout most of the series. True to form, his influence is felt even when he doesn't appear in the episode. Played by David Morse.
    • John Adams: The main character.
    • Thomas Jefferson is Adams' ally, best friend, rival, enemy, and best friend again.
    • Interestingly enough, the show watches John Quincy Adams from a young, bookish little boy all the way to ascending to the presidency.
  • Historical Villain Upgrade: Several characters get hit with this, largely due to the series' Protagonist-Centered Morality.
    • John Hancock and Samuel Adams are depicted as inciting the tarring and feathering of a British customs official—with petroleum tar no less. In reality, both were just as opposed to mob violence as John Adams is shown to be.
    • Alexander Hamilton. Here he doesn't get much screen time, but what little he does have makes him look like Adolf Hitler mixed with Otto von Bismarck. In reality he was philosophically conservative, a militarist, and a big government fan, but he was also one of the most senior American revolutionaries. The main reason is that Hamilton and Adams loathed each other, and Hamilton was at his worst during the Adams Administration, being out of office yet trying to exercise power by manipulating Adams' cabinet while creating a permanent standing army. It's not that the show's portrayal is inaccurate so much as emphasizing this particular period of Hamilton's life paints him in a highly unfavorable light.
    • The Comte de Vergennes is depicted as a patronising, snobbish politician when he says the French Navy can't send its entire force to America to fight the British. Adams accuses him of not wanting to win the war, but de Vergennes' explanation, that the French have already sent a significant naval taskforce and are only holding back the forces needed to defend their own coastline against the Royal Navy, is actually quite reasonable.
    • Even Thomas Jefferson receives this in later episodes, which portray his support for the French Revolution as unreasonable fanaticism that constantly undermines Washington and Adams's diplomatic efforts.
  • Interrupted Intimacy: Adams is the one who is embarrassed when he runs into Franklin while the latter nude, inside a bathtub and enjoying the company of Madame Helvétius. Subverted in that they are seemingly just playing chess.
    • Well, at the moment they were just playing chess. Knowing both Franklin and Mme. Helvétius, the chess was probably a prélude to something else.
  • I Take Offense to That Last One!: Adams' only response to a scathing newspaper article that hurls numerous physical insults at him:
    Abigail (reading a newspaper): Before it is too late to retrieve our deranged affairs, the people must demand the immediate resignation of old, querulous, bald, blind, crippled, toothless Adams.
    John (shrugs and puffs his cigar): I'm not crippled.
  • Jerkass Has a Point:
    • The Crown Officials are quick to point out that taxes that the colonies complain again were passed to pay for The French and Indian War: in which British Soldiers protected the colonies from the French and Native Americans, and the colonies seems unwilling to pull their own weight as it were
    • One of John Dickinson's concerns about seeking independence for the colonies is the possibility of Civil War. 84 years later, just such an occurrence would indeed happen.
    • When the French ambassador tries to engage the United States in war with Britain to defend the fledging First Republic by pointing out that the United States has a treaty with France, Alexander Hamilton — no friend to France, and generally someone with a lot of tension with most of the other officials — points out that said treaty was made with and signed by Louis XVI, and since the French have just overthrown and executed him then it is now legally null and void.
  • Kavorka Man: Benjamin Franklin is not what some would call traditionally attractive. Nevertheless he is very popular with the ladies.
  • Killed Offscreen: Happens to every major historical figure outside of Adams' family, with the exception of Jefferson, his death being included since he and Adams both died within hours of each other. The other major figures simply disappear into legend after their political careers end.
  • Kneel Before Zod: Played for laughs — having been sent to England as the American ambassador right after the Revolution, Adams has to go through an elaborate kowtowing ritual to King George III (staring coldly from the other side of a large hall) in order to present his credentials. Neither person is particularly happy about it.
  • Large and in Charge: Washington, whose leadership is certainly not hindered by his large presence. After being introduced to Washington by Franklin, Adams notes that the former is a natural leader. Franklin quips that he's bound to lead something by virtue of always being the tallest man in the room.
  • Locked Out of the Loop: Mundane example when Vice-president Adams, to his surprise, is excluded by Washington from the government meetings and the day-to-day ruling of the country.
  • The Magnificent: Adams insists the President's dignity should have several honorary and bombastic titles or surnames, but Washington overrules him and sets it as "Mr. President and nothing more"
  • Nice Guy: King George III is portrayed by revolutionary propaganda as a tyrant, but when John finally meets him in person, he's one of the most agreeable and well-spoken people John ends up meeting.
  • Not Allowed to Grow Up: The on-screen portrayals of Nabby and John Quincy don't age at all from the Boston Massacre (5 March 1770) in "Join or Die" to the American victory at Yorktown (19 October 1781, but probably a fair bit later considering the speed of the mail at that time) in "Don't Tread on Me".
    • This also applies to Charles, who (accurately) isn't portrayed during the Boston Massacre scene but later appears to be roughly five or six years old as John prepares for the trial (which occured the autumn after the shooting), foregoing aging for the remainder of the war.
  • Not Even Bothering with the Accent: Played with; aside from Adams, few of the Founding Fathers sound notably American, and many of the Founding Fathers are played by British actors who either keep their normal accents or adopt another British regional one. This is intentional, however, as the Founding Fathers probably wouldn't have sounded the same as a modern American from their regions would.
  • Omnidisciplinary Scientist: Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson to a certain degree.
  • Once Done, Never Forgotten: Outgoing president Adams is concerned that he will only be remembered for the Alien and Sedition Acts.
  • Pair the Smart Ones: Why John and Abigail have such a good marriage.
  • Pimped-Out Dress: Abigail wore one of these during a trip to France.
  • Politically Correct History: The trial of the Boston Massacre soldiers hinges on Adams' belief that mob rule cannot be allowed to ignore the facts of the case. But the series avoids showing how Adams made that argument on a racial basis, arguing that the mob was composed of "saucy boys, negroes, and molattoes, Irish teaguesnote  and outlandish Jack Tarrsnote " and by characterising Crispus Attucks, one of the five dead, as a Scary Black Man who intimidated the soldiers and roused the mob (despite two eyewitness accounts saying Attucks was back amongst the crowd and not particularly prominent.)
  • Rage-Breaking Point: The Crown placing Massachusetts under Martial Law is the catalyst for the American Independence in general and what motivates Adams to be a full-fledged revolutionary.
  • Realpolitik: Nearly every American politician in the series is willing to play this game except for Adams and Washington who are both just too darn honest and principled. Of all of them, Alexander Hamilton is depicted as the worst offender, initially being the Chessmaster Sidekick to Washington, and later trying and failing to be the same to Adams. Jefferson even says Hamilton has the cynical worldview that the people are only motivated by self-interest or by force, and that Hamilton doesn't possess the benefit of the latter - yet. Fortunately for the country, Hamilton never gets his chance to grab real power.
  • Reality Is Unrealistic: Yes. Both Thomas Jefferson and John Adams really did die on the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. This would be seen as too on-the-nose if it wasn't for the fact that it actually happened.
  • Reunion Kiss: Actually reunion sex upon Abigail's arrival in France. Those two really missed each other.
  • The Revolution Will Not Be Civilized: The (historically inaccurate) Boston mob's use of petroleum tar/bitumen instead of pine tar really ramps up the savagery of the event.
  • She Cleans Up Nicely: John Adams is visibly impressed when his wife puts on a nice dress at Versailles. Apparently Truth in Television.
  • Shout-Out: Several to 1776
    • In the final episode of the series, Adams is pacing nervously and Abigail says to him, "For God's sake, John, sit down". Her words are identical to the repeated line from "Sit Down, John", the opening number.
    • When John sees Trunbull's painting, he scathingly remarks that he "is no Rubens." Reminiscent of the play when he tells Franklin that the man painting his portrait "is no Botticelli."
    • While recovering from an accident on his farm, Adams tells Abigail that people will think that Franklin hit the ground with his "electric rod" and out came Washington and Jefferson to win the war. In the play, Adams says that Franklin would smote the ground and Washington and his horse arose.
    • Same description, different context: In the series, Dickinson mentions that they are about to fight a was in a "skiff made of paper," meaning they have no hope to win if they sign the document. In the play, as John Hancock is about to put his signature on it, he refers to the Declaration as a "skiff made of paper," but meaning the start of a new nation.
  • Shown Their Work: Far more accurate than most works about The American Revolution. It's based on a legitimate work of history.
  • Smart People Play Chess: Combined with a fair amount of Squick for Adams (and hilarity for us), when Adams heedlessly barges into Franklin's quarters at the American Mission in Paris...only to find Franklin playing chess in a bathtub with Madame Helvétius.
  • Shouting Free-for-All: During Adams' time as Vice President, which makes him president of the US Senate, there's a scene where the entire Senate is in furious debate over some matter. All the senators are on their feet, yelling at each other. Adams, who can't participate unless there's a vote to conduct, sits at the front desk, bored out of his mind, reading a newspaper, occasionally looking over the noisy chamber and sighing.
  • Southern Gentleman: A lot of the Southern delegates—including Richard Henry Lee, George Washington, and Thomas Jefferson—are also portrayed this way. Edward Rutledge of South Carolina stands out though. When he privately informs Adams that his colony—pardon—state is willing to vote for independence he says that one of the reasons the southern delegates delayed for so long is that they are used to a more "courtly forum".
  • The Starscream:
    • Basically, Adams' entire cabinet as President. Holdovers from Washington's Administration, they treat their boss with thinly veiled contempt and effectively answer to Alexander Hamilton. Eventually Adams grows tired of their scheming and fires two of them, Timothy Pickering and James McHenry, with undisguised relish...though it destroys any remaining loyalty Hamilton and the Federalists hold towards him.
    • Thomas Jefferson himself while serving as Adams's Vice-President. His term as VP was spent mostly stoking anti-Adams sentiment in the country by financing opposition newspapers. The election of 1800 was the culmination of Jefferson's work, as he emerged victorious. Adams rightly considered Jefferson's undermining of his presidency, and Jefferson's subsequent campaign against him, as a serious betrayal, and led to Adams refusing to speak to his erstwhile friend for more than a decade.
  • Stunned Silence: The delegates of the Second Continental Congress after they pass the Lee Resolution, making the United States an independent nation, July 2, 1776.
  • Talk to the Hand: Rutledge casually waves the back of his hand at an angry Adams and his supporters during the debate over independence.
  • Tar and Feathers: Adams witnesses a British tax collector being tarred and feathered by an angry Boston mob. Can serve as a Tear Jerker and horrific for some, conflicting emotions and all. Sure, the mob was angry over a rightly felt injustice, but to see a man screaming in agony for only trying to do his job is enough to make anyone feel for the unbearable pain he must have gone through. (But see Artistic License – History above; the "tar" used was not actually asphalt.)
  • Tears of Joy: Adams awakens after a serious illness to the news that the British have surrendered at Yorktown. After several moment of digesting the information he breaks down in tears and kisses the messengers hand over and over.
  • Tough Love: John's parenting style in a nutshell. Among other things, he orders John Quincy to break up with his girlfriend so that he won't be distracted from his career, and he forces all of his sons to follow in his footsteps and become lawyers, regardless of whether they actually want to.
  • Vice President Who?: Adams is chagrined when President Washington excludes him from Cabinet meetings. He later chafes at the uselessness of his office.
    • His annoyance at the uselessness of the office is actually one of the things that resulted in changing the nature of the Vice Presidency. As originally envisioned (and indeed, what happens to Adams), the Vice President was actually second place in the Presidential election. In other words, the guy who ran for the Presidency and lost to the victor. This was rectified relatively quickly, and the Vice President became the running mate to the President that is much more familiar in modern times.
  • War Is Hell: Adams, alerted to the British advance by a rider, comes across the remains of a skirmish, with wounded men dying as other try in vain to help, with a wounded British soldier ignored to die slowly. Then when Adams actually sees for the first time the army he created, it's suffering from cold, hunger, and smallpox. The naval battle he takes part in is a grisly affair, as well, during which he's forced to witness an amputation.
  • Weapons of Their Trade: Following the Boston Massacre, the British authorities claim that the rope makers had been looking for trouble because they had all been carrying batons. It is then pointed that out that the baton is a tool of the rope maker's trade—being used to beat the strands in the huge hawsers into position—and that every single man in the rope factory carried one.
  • "Well Done, Son!" Guy: Charles Adams gets this treatment in the series; with his father being largely absent during his childhood and teenage years, Charles becomes resentful, neglects his own wife and children and devolves into alcoholism and self-destructive behaviour before dying an early death. Not quite how history really played out, and more likely done to invoke Rule of Drama.
  • We Used to Be Friends:
    • How the French ambassador treats Washington because of his refusal to support the new French Republic after the revolution and execution of the French king. He claims America owes France for their support in the revolutionary war. Alexander Hamilton points out that their old alliance was with the previous French government that just got executed, and is thus voided.
    • Adams feels this way about Jefferson from the time after his presidency when he discovers all Jefferson did to undermine his administration, right up until Abigail dies and they rekindle their friendship through written letters.
  • What the Hell, Hero?: Invoked by John Adams to Sam Adams following the Tar and Feathers scene.
  • With Friends Like These...: Adams as President does not get along with his fellow Federalists any more than the Republicans.