As Boston Globe columnist Alex Beam notes today, I’ve been thinking and chatting a lot about the H.B.O. miniseries on John Adams. In particular, I’ve been thinking about interesting episodes in the man’s life that didn’t make it onto the screen this time. My top five such episodes so far (all post-1770, since that’s when the series started):
- In the summer of 1775, a young Boston lawyer named Benjamin Hichborn was arrested while carrying some of John’s personal letters home from Philadelphia to Massachusetts. The royal authorities had these documents published, revealing John’s critical remarks about the Continental Congress (“The Fidgets, the Whims, the Caprice, the Vanity, the Superstition, the Irritability of some of us”) and in particular John Dickinson (“A certain great fortune and piddling genius”). The miniseries quoted John on how he was disliked in Congress, and showed the political disagreements between him and Dickinson, but it didn’t show how he had really contributed to those strains.
- The following summer, the Congress declared independence (a scene I thought the miniseries handled nicely, with no triumphal music, emphasizing how the delegates couldn’t know what would come next). At the same time, a huge British fleet appeared off New York and started landing soldiers. The Congress sent John, Benjamin Franklin, and Edward Rutledge on a last-ditch effort to negotiate an acceptable peace with Adm. Richard Howe. Along the way, John and Franklin shared a bed and a memorable conversation. Tom Wilkinson’s performance as Franklin (shown above) has been so delicious so far that I wish we could have seen this moment.
- After the British scored a decisive victory at the Battle of Brandywine on 11 Sept 1777, the Congress had to evacuate Philadelphia in a hurry. As late as 23 August, John was writing Abigail to reassure her that Gen. George Washington would be able to protect the city. As he hurried to leave ahead of the British troops, John found his cousin Samuel Adams burning letters in a fireplace, declaring that no one would suffer because of his carelessness. (A televised scene with Abigail alludes to the loss of Philadelphia, as I recall, but we don’t see it.)
- During a trip home from Europe in 1779, John drafted much of the Massachusetts constitution—the oldest written constitution still in effect today. I realize that is largely of local interest, but it was one of John’s biggest solo accomplishments, and a major influence on the U.S. Constitution. (The miniseries skips that whole trip back to Massachusetts, implying that John made only one voyage to Europe during the war instead of two.)
- John returned to Europe in late 1779 with not only John Quincy Adams but also middle son Charles (shown staying back home in the series) and the boys’ tutor, John Thaxter. Along the way, the ship sprang a leak and everyone had to take turns at the pumps before they limped into a Spanish port.
Now to scenes that the miniseries did show. Last week I noted a few striking moments from the first couple of episodes that didn’t happen, and geographically or chronologically couldn’t have happened. All four of the following dramatic events appeared in the third episode. Which of these never happened?
- On his first trip to Europe as a diplomat for the U.S. of A., John’s ship met an armed British vessel. The American captain asked John to go below for his own safety, but he quietly came back up on deck with his gun.
- John assisted during an emergency shipboard surgery, helping to hold down a wounded man while his leg was sawed off.
- During his posting in Paris, John was unpleasantly surprised to learn that the Congress had appointed Franklin as the first American minister plenipotentiary to France.
- Because he could speak French, John Quincy Adams was made secretary to the U.S. minister to Russia, which entailed traveling more than a thousand miles across Europe, even though he was only fourteen years old.