Last night we watched the first episode of HBO’s 7 part series, John Adams. We’ve read some of McCullough’s stuff–notably, Truman–but haven’t yet read the similarly titled book on which this series was based.
In fact, we met McCullough in the fall of 2005 and wrote the following about our experience:
McCullough visited campus nearly two weeks ago. Matt (our brother) and we spoke with Mr. McCullough at a breakfast reception where he signed our copies of 1776 and imparted a little advice. It is rare that someone meets expectations and even more rare that they exceed them. As the most renowned popular American historian and winner of two Pulitzer Prizes he could have been exceedingly arrogant. Instead he was incredibly gracious and interested in our educational experience.
McCullough remains those things–a talented writer and popular historian. Even as we write that, we must acknowledge, as historian-in-training, that McCullough’s history often says things that the sources he cites do not. That is to say, he sometimes infers things that cannot be inferred or at least would be a stretch to infer from what the primary source documents tell us about a given subject.
Therefore, bear this in mind as you watch John Adams. Know that the history has passed through a number of filters–McCullough’s, the screenwriter'(s), the director’s, the actor’s, etc.–and understand that what you are seeing is not a completely accurate reproduction of the life of John Adams.
That said, we do not mean to be interpreted as saying that such works have little or no value. Quite the opposite is true. We think things like HBO’s John Adams are tremendously important. What McCullough has done with Adams and what Stephen Ambrose did with Band of Brothers represent important collaborations with media-types to create good history through film.
It’s certainly not perfect, but it tells compelling history in a very approachable fashion: through film. Anyone can sit down and watch John Adams and learn more about the man, the period, his collaborative relationship with Abigail, the Founders, the Constitution, the Revolution, everything, than they previously knew. This is good and important.
From the first episode, one event stands out: the aftermath and trial resulting from the Boston Massacre. We refer the reader to the source of all human knowledge, Wikipedia, for a brief background.
The history of the Boston Massacre is tough to unpack, mostly because of the partisan telling of the tale. Sam Adam’s Sons of Liberty wanted to use it to galvanize public opinion in favor of independence and agains the Crown. This made a fair trial with an unbiased jury and witness difficult to procure. Furthermore, it made it difficult to find an attorney willing to represent the British soldiers accused of committing murder.
In steps John Adams. Adams, with the constant support of his wife Abigail braved the public backlash and defended the soldiers. All but two were acquitted. The two who were not, were convicted of lesser charges.
This incident proved to the King and England and anyone else who cared to notice that the Rule of Law was in full effect in the American colonies. It would have been easier and more satisfying to the public to have a show trial and string them up. But the law prevailed.
We strongly encourage anyone with HBO or with a friend who has HBO to watch John Adams. There are lots of ways to spend your idle time, this is a good one.
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