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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Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Quizzing John Adams: Episode 3

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.
I’m personally fond of the last event because that voyage was when John Quincy started to keep his lifelong diary. I studied those early documents and two other journals from the same trip for a paper I delivered at the Dublin Seminar for New England Folklife last year.

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.
At least one of these things didn’t happen—and there may even be more than one correct answer. Answer(s) and commentary tomorrow.


Anonymous said...

I believe John Quincy did go to Russia as secretary.

DevonTT said...

I'm thinking it was the grisly amputation scene that was concocted for the screen.

(Reading the book about five chapters ahead from the miniseries week to week...)

Anonymous said...

The orientation of the Adams homestead in the HBO series is backwards. From the doorway of the Adams home, which faces east, travelers passing from left to right were heading south, and therefore away from Boston. The cannon from Ticonderoga would have ended up in Rhode Island!
--a Massachusetts librarian

Pete said...

First, this is one great blog! I only recently discovered it and I'll never catch up on reading the posts!

I have to go with the musket scene as the must unlikely event. I read the book a while ago and I don't remember that. Then again, it seems too obvious!


Brad Hart said...

Does anyone know if there is any validity to the bathtub scene in episode #3? It's the scene where John Adams interrupts Benjamin Franklin in his room, and Franklin is playing chess in a bathtub with a French woman. I know that Franklin was quite open about his intimate life (in his autobiography he admits as much) but I am not sure about his time in France.

J. L. Bell said...

I don’t think that the bathtub scene has any documentation behind it, apart from Franklin’s habit of doing work in such a bathtub. But it’s also not the sort of event that people of the eighteenth century would have written about explicitly and exactly.

As far as I’ve read, Franklin did a lot of flirting when he was in Paris, but not much more. He may not have been up for much more. As the character says to Adams, “Ah, to be seventy again!”

One detail I liked about the bathtub scene was that it showed Franklin sharing his warm water with one of the older ladies in his salon, not an H.B.O. starlet. That felt right for the characters—fictionalized characters, to be sure.

Brad Hart said...

In his book, "The Americanization of Benjamin Franklin, historian Gordon Wood does mention the fact that Benjamin Franklin shared "a very intimate affair" with an Anne-Catherine Helvetius. Wood states that Franklin proposed to her on numerous occasions while on his diplomatic mission to France. John Adams also noted that French women, "had an unaccountable passion for old age."

What I found interesting is that Franklin actually debated staying in France, which he considered "the civilest Nation upon Earth." At a later time, Franklin stated, "I am here among a people that love and respect me, a most amiable nation to live with...and perhaps I may conclude to die among them...I have been so long abroad that I should now be almost a stranger in my own country."

I guess the bathtub scene, though lacking any documentation, may still have some validity.

J. L. Bell said...

On Franklin and Mme. Helvetius, I recommend this long, detailed passage from James Parton’s biography.

Wood describes how Franklin introduced Abigail Adams to Helvetius, and the New England lady was not well impressed by the Parisian dame. Will we see that in the next episode?

Anonymous said...

Three things

1) One of the writers for the show, Kirk Ellis, has made a post on The New Republic's blog because they have been discussing the show, here:


He gives some interesting insights there about inaccuracies, intent, etc. Check it out!

2) In this last (the second) episode, they had Edward Bancroft as Ben Franklin's assistant in France, Adams clearly called him "Mr. Bancroft," but they did not use the fact that he was a spying for England in that job, and that Franklin may have suspected him, see:


Though the truth didn't come out for a century, they could have played it a little with a sense of mistrust or something like that.

3) I am an art appraiser with a speciality in American art, background in American art and cultural history. I think your blog is superb, congratulate you on it and have recommended it on several political blogs.

J. L. Bell said...

Thanks for the comments! I’d found Kirk Ellis’s comments for a posting on the accents in the series, but he has a lot to say on other aspects of the show as well.

I’d seen Dr. Edward Bancroft’s name in connection with Silas Deane, and hadn’t realized he’d stayed on under Franklin. Since Bancroft hasn’t played a big role in the series, it looks like including him might have been a sort of inside joke between Ellis and folks in the know.