J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Thursday, March 20, 2008

How John Adams Shows Samuel Adams

Longtime Boston 1775 readers know that I occasionally grouse about misrepresentations of Samuel Adams as an unreasonable troublemaker. But only occasionally.

The first episode of H.B.O.’s John Adams miniseries depicts Samuel Adams pretty much along those terms. He appears as the dangerous radical leader of pre-Revolutionary Boston, provoking conflicts and violence and making wild claims about British tyranny. Jeremy Stern has written a detailed critique at History News Network of this dismissive portrayal of the elder Adams and basically the entire nine years of protests before 1774. Here’s just one part:

Samuel and his allies are also shown cynically exploiting the Massacre as propaganda to whip up a public frenzy. In fact, though enraged by the shootings, the radical leaders were also deeply concerned: they had sought since 1765 to avoid violence, which would only seem to validate their enemies’ claims that Massachusetts was lawless and disloyal. But they considered the military’s presence in Boston since 1768 unnecessary and illegal; inevitable popular resentment, in friction with arrogant and abusive soldiers, had now led to bloodshed. Thus, in addition to condemning the soldiers, the radicals wanted to emphasize that an illegitimate occupation had caused the tragedy: Boston, they stressed, was a law-abiding town, never in need of troops to enforce order.

In the television episode, Samuel is shown publicly assailing John Adams for taking the soldiers’ cases, even interrupting the trial with shouted threats. It is true that John met with hostility and anger from some quarters. But he was not opposed by Samuel and other radical leaders. Rising radical lawyer Josiah Quincy, Jr., who joined John Adams in the defense, at first refused to take the case, but changed his mind when urged by a host of radical leaders, including Samuel Adams, John Hancock and the speaker of the Massachusetts House of Representatives. Samuel, determined to exonerate the crowd for the violence, was certainly not pleased by the acquittals. But he knew it was essential that Massachusetts prove its ability to provide a fair trial. . . .

The program’s tone abruptly changes when it reaches the 1774 watershed: suddenly, the Coercive Acts – closing Boston’s port, reimposing harsh military occupation and altering the system of government – appear as uncontrovertibly oppressive. The more subtle and complex issues of the earlier years, which can make opposition look petulant if the immense gravity of those issues is not explored, are set aside: being a revolutionary suddenly seems more fashionable. The illogic of this abrupt transition is highlighted by a curious turn in the drama: in and after 1774, the darkly drawn Samuel Adams suddenly becomes a sympathetic if not a heroic figure, fighting for a just cause.
Indeed, in most of episode two Samuel Adams is simply the tall man sitting beside his cousin at the Continental Congress, his wig suddenly kempt, his behavior sedate. All Samuel’s warnings appear to have come true, but John—who found radicalism distasteful earlier—now supersedes him as the champion of resistance and independence. As Jill Lepore noted, “‘He United the States of America’ is the miniseries’ motto, giving credit to [John] Adams for everything.”

I’ll once again note Ira Stoll’s review of the series’ obligatory tar-and-feathers scene (can’t do a Revolutionary story without one of those!). It depicts Hancock as calling for mob violence and Samuel Adams as condoning it. Before the series aired, I thought that scene might be based on compressing two events involving Hancock’s ship Liberty in the late 1760s. To my surprise, I saw that the script actually tied it to the tea crisis of 1773. There was no tarring and feathering at that time. The scene also identifies the three tea ships as “British ships.” The Beaver and Dartmouth were owned by the Rotch family of Nantucket. The Eleanor was owned by the Boston merchant John Rowe. Life in pre-Revolutionary Boston was much less simple than these scenes let on.


Anonymous said...

Here, here!

Matt! said...

Thank you for pointing this out! I was disturbed by the portrayal of Samuel Adams in the miniseries. I am a history teacher, and I always make a point of making sure students understand Samuel Adams' impact on the American Revolution. He is barely mentioned in most text books, and even scholarly work on him is limited. A lot of this is due to the fact that he destroyed most of his correspondence, but the fact remains that Samuel Adams was one of the most important of the founding fathers. He made intelligent, calculated moves to steer the colonies towards revolution and independence, but the label as a radical is a misnomer.

This lack of attention stems from the fact that he became more of a background figure once the Revolution was over. He was not a framer of the Constitution, a President, a Cabinet member or even a Congressman. In fact, Samuel Adams seemed content to focus on local politics once the American Revolution was complete. Nevertheless, his role in bringing about the American Revolution and the Declaration of Independence is undeniable, and to some extent more important than John Adams in these early years of our nation.

Unknown said...


I have mixed feelings about this blog. On the one hand, I love reading about what was, or may have been, inaccurate.

On the other hand, I worry people will say, "Well, I heard something about the show being inaccurate. Why watch?"

The reasons they should watch are too many to list. Suggesting that people shouldn't watch (Which I do NOT accuse the author of doing)is like suggesting that starving people shouldn't eat stew that had a fly in it.

I'm glad that this blog exits so that I can see what may be off, but I worry that the conversation will keep some people (who probably should watch the most) away.


Bill Dawes

J. L. Bell said...

Well, Bill Dawes, I was about to break off for lunch, but now that you’ve posted your fly analogy I may never eat again.

Seriously, I share your mixed feelings about how a whiff of inaccuracy might give people an excuse to write off this drama entirely. Though I’ve been highlighting episodes from the miniseries which documents tell us happened a different way, or didn’t happen at all, I’ve also tried to point out parts of the show that I think are accurate and/or entertaining. I think people who have any interest in this period will find a lot to enjoy in the show, and I hope they’ll be stimulated to check out more.

If John Adams viewers check out the Massachusetts Historical Society’s Adams Electronic Archive, then they’ll see the original letters between John and Abigail, and John’s diary and autobiography, and the show will have done a Good Thing.