Monday, October 31, 2016

Forgetting the Ladies

With the unlikely popularity of the musical Hamilton, I recently decided to re-watch the HBO miniseries “John Adams,” starring Paul Giamatti. My opinion of it remains unchanged.

Overall, it was pretty decent. The acting is great and the production values were superb. It seemed to be fairly well researched.(1) At least, for the most part - you can nitpick quite a bit. Some reviewers thought that Giamatti was not quite right for the part, but I disagree. His facial structure is admittedly a little different, but he so completely inhabited the character that you forget that. I thought his performance was spot-on.(2) Moreover, in hindsight, interesting analogs abound and this adds to the viewing experience.

My problem was with the series’ white-washing the protagonist. I am not the only critic on this issue. Sure, some ignoble moments are shown. John Adam’s ambition and vanity are certainly depicted – often to cuddly, semi-comic effect. His foolish and almost monarchist fondness for pomp and titles is accurately depicted. His suggestions that the President be addressed as “His Elective Majesty,” “His Mightiness,” or even “His Highness, the President of the United States of America, and Protector of the Rights of the Same" predictably invited ridicule. Of course, in retrospect, they were obviously correct to mock him. Marilyn Monroe singing "Happy Birthday, Mr. President" would have been far more awkward if we went with any of the more florid and grandiose titles that John Adams favored. And John Adams’ signing of the infamous Alien and Sedition Act (an obvious analog to George W. Bush’s Patriot Act)(3) isn’t quite defended but rendered understandable by sympathetically depicting him agonizing over it beforehand. 

But two important omissions really annoyed me.

The first concerns the Boston Massacre. John Adams was the defense attorney for the British soldiers who fired on the crowd. In the HBO series, his oratory is portrayed as a victory of judicial principle in which he gets his highly unpopular clients acquitted. Well, the historical record shows Adams employed a hefty element of race-baiting in his clients' defense as well:
We have entertained a great variety of phrases to avoid calling this sort of people a mob. Some call them shavers, some call them geniuses. The plain English is, gentlemen, most probably a motley rabble of saucy boys, Negroes and mulattoes, Irish teagues and outlandish jacktars.
This was basically the eighteenth century equivalent of calling the shooting victims “thugs,” which is the favorite default narrative of Fox News when cops shoot unarmed black men. Here we have another after-the-fact analog. This parallel is emphasized by the fact that the first victim, Crispus Attucks, was black. Attucks is accordingly recorded as the first casualty of the American Revolution. Needless to say, building sympathy for John Adams would have been pretty difficult if the script were more faithful to history – particularly since this incident was the centerpiece of the pilot episode.(4)

But more important for the miniseries as a whole is the omission of a famous exchange of letters between John Adams and his wife Abigail. I say “more important” because their relationship is the central thread of the series which accurately emphasizes both their egalitarian marriage and the immense amount of time they spent apart. For much of their marriage, these letters were the only way they could communicate and thanks to their frequent and lengthy separations historians have a very detailed record of their private lives and ideas. The series does indeed allude to the letters, but one particular exchange should have been used – the famous “Remember the Ladies” letters. While John Adams was working on the Declaration of Independence with Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, his wife Abigail wrote him urging:
Remember the Ladies, and be more generous and favourable (sic.) to them than your ancestors. Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the Husbands. Remember all Men would be tyrants if they could. If perticular (sic.) care and attention is not paid to the Ladies we are determined to foment a Rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any Laws in which we have no voice, or Representation. That your Sex are Naturally Tyrannical is a Truth so thoroughly established as to admit of no dispute, but such of you as wish to be happy willingly give up the harsh title of Master for the more tender and endearing one of friend.(5)
John wrote Abigail a rather patronizing response:
As to your extraordinary Code of Laws, I cannot but laugh. We have been told that our Struggle has loosened the bands of Government every where. That Children and Apprentices were disobedient – that schools and Colledges (sic.) were grown turbulent – that Indians had slighted their Guardians and Negroes grew insolent to their Masters. But your Letter was the first Intimation that another Tribe more numerous and powerful than all the rest were grown discontented. – This is rather too coarse a Compliment but you are so saucy, I won’t blot it out.
Most history textbooks stop at this point, if they bother with it at all. They treat it as a trivial incident - a human interest sidebar. By stopping here, the exchange comes across as playful flirting. If feminism is mentioned, it is isolated to Abigail Adams. But John and Abigail's letters to others make plain that they both took the issue quite seriously. To Mercy Otis Warren - another feminist woman - Abigail complained:
He is very sausy (sic.) to me in return for a List of Female Grievances which I transmitted to him. I think I will get you to join me in a petition to Congress. I thought it was very probable our wise Statesmen would erect a New Government and form a new code of Laws. I ventured to speak a word in behalf of our Sex, who are rather hardly dealt with by the Laws of England which gives such unlimitted (sic.) power to the Husband to use his wife Ill.
I requested that our Legislators would consider our case and as all Men of Delicacy and Sentiment are averse to Excercising (sic.) the power they possess, yet as there is a natural propensity in Humane Nature to domination, I thought the most generous plan was to put it out of the power of the Arbitrary and tyranick (sic.) to injure us with impunity by Establishing some Laws in our favour upon just and Liberal principals.
Obviously, Abigail was shocked by John's response. This may seem naïve, but she had cause to be shocked because they did indeed enjoy a very egalitarian and companionate marriage. And they were not the only ones: This is where marital relations were going in the Enlightenment. The status of women was rapidly climbing. Improving education for women was a major enterprise and divorce laws were liberalized.

And the Enlightenment was invoked in their arguments. As Mary Wollstonecraft wrote, “The divine right of husbands, like the divine right of kings, may, it is to be hoped, in this enlightened age, be contested without danger.” Judith Sargent-Murray was quite pleased to see that “in this younger world, ‘The Rights of Women’ begin to be understood.” In her “Observations on Female Abilities,” She wrote “I may be accused of enthusiasm, but such is my confidence in the SEX that I expect to see our young women forming a new era in female history” (emphasis original). She concluded by writing, “The idea of the incapacity of women, is, we conceive, in this enlightened age, totally inadmissible; and we have concluded, that establishing the expediency of admitting them to share the blessings of equality, will remove every obstacle to their advancement.”

In this optimistic atmosphere, Abigail Adams’s letter to John does not sound quite so solitary or quixotic.

Days later, John Adams took her words more seriously when writing to James Sullivan:
The same reasoning which will induce you to admit all men who have no property, to vote, with those who have, for those laws which affect the person, will prove that you ought to admit women and children; for generally speaking, women and children have as good judgments, and as independent minds as those men who are wholly destitute of property … Depend upon it, Sir, it is dangerous to open so fruitful a source of controversy and altercation a would be opened by attempting to alter the qualifications of voters; there will be no end of it. New claims will arise; women will demand a vote; lads from twelve to twenty-one will think their rights not enough attended to; and every man who has not a farthing, will demand an equal voice with any other, in all acts of state. It tends to confound and destroy all distinctions, and prostrate all ranks to the common level.(6)
My fear is that audiences might presume the series is modernizing the Adams’ marriage and thus dismiss it as unrealistic. But Abigail obviously thought John would be supportive because everything else about their marriage suggested he would be – everything about the times suggested he would be, hence her considering petitioning Congress. Women were making great strides during the Enlightenment. Unfortunately, the reactionary, religious backlash that followed reversed those gains. I detail this in my next book.

We now have two popular Broadway musical portrayals of the American Revolution’s most conservative figures - John Adams and Alexander Hamilton. Why don’t the era’s liberal figures get any? Certainly Jefferson’s participation in slavery disqualifies him, but what about Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Paine? They were also abolitionists who, unlike Hamilton, did not loathe the poor or disdain democracy. Indeed, Franklin and Paine were also early feminists. John Adams, who famously lamented that he would be forgotten by history, has been the subject of both a musical and an HBO miniseries. In both, Benjamin Franklin upstaged him and every other founding father. How is it possible that Franklin does not have a musical or miniseries made about him? He was, hands-down, our most interesting founding father. Nothing against the excellent actors who portrayed John Adams in 1776 and the HBO series, but Franklin the character easily upstages everyone in every scene because he is Benjamin-Fucking-Franklin.(7) 

So, somebody option Leo LeMay’s books for a miniseries already. Come on folks, this is Benjamin Franklin we are talking about here. You are leaving money on the table.

I suggest Paul Giamatti for the part.


(1) I’m not quite sure why HBO's Benjamin Franklin talked like a Boston cop in a 1930s movie. Franklin’s ancestry was English and his family had already been in America for two generations. Yes, Franklin was raised in Boston before he made his home in Philadelphia, so you could argue that he picked up an Irish accent growing up. But I am pretty sure significant Irish immigration to Boston did not hit until the early 1800s. In the 1700s, the city was still a Protestant stronghold - the de facto capital of Puritan New England. Perhaps no distinct American accent existed yet, but I doubt that. Constant immigration from the British Isles might have kept old accents fresh, but most of the American colonies were already over a century old by that point and speech patterns can morph quickly. (The era’s short life expectancy can accelerate this.) Also, in the 1700s, you already had Dutch, German, and French influences on American speech – and African ones in the South. Compare this with Australia, a younger colony without these added elements. They also had constant immigration from the British Isles, yet they still developed a distinct accent. But, hey, I’m not a linguistic historian and I am happy to admit I am wrong if that’s the case.

(2) Granted, it took me a moment because I so associated Paul Giamatti with his brilliant portrayal of Harvey Pekar in American Splendor. But I am a big fan of Pekar’s work and had the great privilege of illustrating one of his stories. I doubt most other viewers had that particular perceptual handicap. Full disclosure: Giamatti is one of my favorite actors. I also enjoyed his voice work on “The Amazing Screw-On Head” and reading Dalton Trumbo’s letter to the phone company in the documentary Trumbo.

(3) The analog to George W. Bush’s Patriot Act was obvious when it was being filmed, but had not happened yet when the David McCullough book it was based-on was written.

(4) At least David McCullough's book, John Adams, on which the HBO miniseries is based, acknowledges his protagonist's words in his text.

(5) The Feminist Papers: From Adams to Beauvoir, ed. Alice S. Rossi (Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1973), 10-11.
(6) John Adams, Life and Works of John Adams, Second President of the United States: With a Life of the Author, Notes and Illustrations, by his Grandson Charles Francis Adams (Boston: Little, Brown & Co., 1854), 9:377.

(7) And this is not even mentioning Benjamin Franklin’s literally insane relations. They were not crazy in the zany sense but in the tragic one. There’s lots of drama there. Also, a high body count from smallpox, consumption, and other calamities. The Franklin family was huge, but tragedy cut them down like George R.R. Martin decided their destinies after taking an interest in diseases. Franklin’s grandson, Benjamin Franklin Bache, was one of the newspaper editors jailed for criticizing John Adams under the Alien and Sedition Act and he died during the yellow fever epidemic shortly afterwards at the age of 29.

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