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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Tuesday, March 18, 2008

What John and Abigail Really Saw

The Comcast cable-television repairman is outside my house now, so this seems an appropriate time to discuss the H.B.O. miniseries John Adams, which debuted on Sunday. This television drama shows some of the signal events of the American Revolution in Massachusetts through the eyes of John and Abigail Adams—even when they weren’t there.

The first episode quickly offers some exciting action: shortly after arriving home in Boston on 5 Mar 1770, John hears church bells ring. He rushes away from his family to fight a fire, hears the shots of the Boston Massacre, and comes upon bodies in the snow and British soldiers drawn up before the Customs house. It’s all very dramatic.

Here’s what John actually recalled seeing on that night, in the autobiography he wrote in the early 1800s:

The Evening of the fifth of March, I spent at Mr. Henderson Inches’s House at the South End of Boston, in Company with a Clubb, with whom I had been associated for several Years.

About nine O Clock We were allarmed with the ringing of Bells, and supposing it to be the Signal of fire, We snatched our Hats and Cloaks, broke up the Clubb, and went out to assist in quenching the fire or aiding our friends who might be in danger. In the Street We were informed that the British Soldiers had fired on the Inhabitants, killed some and wounded others near the Town house. A Croud of People was flowing down the Street, to the Scene of Action.

When We arrived We saw nothing but some field Pieces placed before the south door of the Town house and some Engineers and Grenadiers drawn up to protect them. Mrs. Adams was in Circumstances [i.e., pregnant], and I was apprehensive of the Effect of the Surprise upon her,...alone, excepting her Maids and a Boy in the House.

Having therefore surveyed round the Town house and seeing all quiet, I walked down Boylstons Alley into Brattle Square, where a Company or two of regular Soldiers were drawn up in Front of Dr. [Samuel] Coopers old Church with their Musquets all shouldered and their Bayonetts all fixed. I had no other way to proceed but along the whole front in a very narrow Space which they had left for foot passengers. Pursuing my Way, without taking the least notice of them or they of me, any more than if they had been marble Statues, I went directly home to Cold Lane. My Wife having heard that the Town was still and likely to continue so, had recovered from her first Apprehensions, and We had nothing but our Reflections to interrupt our Repose.
No dead bodies or even blood. Soldiers, but not those involved in the shooting. And John didn’t leave Abigail at the alarm; rather, he left his gentlemen friends and hurried home to her. (Incidentally, Samuel Adams appears to have been another member of that club, in case people wonder where he probably was during the Massacre.)

In the second episode the Adamses are at their home in north Braintree (now Quincy) when a horseman brings news that the British army has marched on Concord. John immediately rides out, once again leaving Abigail and the children. He meets dead and wounded militiamen, then his physician and friend, Dr. Joseph Warren.

Here’s what John wrote in his autobiography about that outbreak of war in Massachusetts:
...the Battle of Lexington on the 19th of April, changed the Instruments of Warfare from the Penn to the Sword. A few days after this Event I rode to Cambridge where I saw General [Artemas] Ward, General [William] Heath, General Joseph Warren, and the New England Army. There was great Confusion and much distress: Artillery, Arms, Cloathing were wanting and a sufficient Supply of Provisions not easily obtained. Neither the officers nor Men however wanted Spirits or Resolution. I rode from thence to Lexington and along the Scene of Action for many miles and enquired of the Inhabitants, the Circumstances.
So John didn’t visit the battlefield until days after the battle. Dr. Warren was involved in the fighting on 19 April, but many miles from the Adams homestead. There were no casualties from Braintree and nearby towns. We don’t actually know what John Adams did on 19 April; he wasn’t keeping his diary. (Both these quotes come from the Massachusetts Historical Society’s Adams Electronic Archive.)

At one point in the second episode John tells the Continental Congress that his family is living only “five miles” from “the might of the British army.” The Adams homestead is more than eight miles from Castle Island, where the nearest redcoats were stationed. But that farm seems to shift around a bit for the sake of television drama. At one point Col. Henry Knox rides past the Adamses’ front door with some of the cannons from Fort Ticonderoga. The Knox Trail is well mapped, and north Braintree was miles out of the way.


EHT said...

Interesting....I like your take on the miniseries and what John and Abigail really saw. I didn't watch part 1 or 2 until last night and I was riveted to the screen even with some of the "liberties" that were taken with the actual events.

Anonymous said...

I also find your supplementary/correctional information interesting. Like eht, i was also sucked in to the drama and acting. I did not like the absence of a timeline of any sort, with the exception of the beginning of the episodes giving the years. It went from the boston massacre, glossed over the boston tea party and into the siege of boston very abruptly without notice of years changing, in the first episode. But all in all, with artistic freedoms included, it was a great beginning and i think exemplified the drama and emotions that ran high and rampant during the time.

J. L. Bell said...

The fact that the same telegenic young actors were playing Nabby, Johnny, and Charles Adams from 1770 to 1776 also produced the sense that no time was passing at all.

John Quincy Adams was actually less than two years old when the Massacre occurred, but the actor playing him, according to IMDB.com, was born in 1994.

Anonymous said...

I was sure I remembered David Hackett Fischer's "Paul Revere's Ride" as saying that Adams had ridden out to Concord on the afternoon of the 19th, and had followed along the Battle Road that evening, seeing the destruction. Was Fischer incorrect, or my memory (more likely)?

J. L. Bell said...

The good news is that your memory of Paul Revere’s Ride is correct; Fischer says on page 279 that John Adams rode out along the scenes of battle immediately after the fight. The book also offers vivid word-pictures (not in Adams’s words) of what he saw.

The bad news is that Fischer’s quotations and citation point to the same passage I quoted in this posting, in which Adams clearly stated that he went out “A few days after” the battle. So this was an error in the book.

Paul Revere’s Ride also stated, citing a biography by Bemis, that John Quincy Adams saluted the militiamen passing the family home in Braintree by performing the manual of arms (militia drill) for them. I loved that detail. I wanted to write about it today. And I couldn’t find a primary source.

In fact, when I looked in some other J. Q. Adams biographies, they told a different story: that militiamen camped near the farm taught Johnny the manual of arms after 19 Apr 1775. Reportedly one of those soldiers reminded him of it during a visit to the White House decades later. So I have a new lead to track down, but have to discard one of my very favorite images of the day.

Anonymous said...

One thing I find disturbing is that the soldiers are referred to as "British" until 1776 they were all British and considered themselves as such.

J. L. Bell said...

The American Patriots wrestled with what to call their foes since they, as you say, saw themselves as British and fighting for traditional British liberties. They could be “Americans” geographically without being a separate nation, but how to distinguish themselves from the people “across the water”?

Among the terms were “the ministerial troops,” so called after the ministry or government in London, and “the Gageites,” after Gen. Thomas Gage.

In April 1775, Paul Revere probably warned people that “The regulars are out!” That term distinguished between full-time regular soldiers and the local militia. But “regulars” also distinguished ordinary infantrymen from grenadiers and light infantry, who were the actual troops marching to Concord.

All of those period terms would have required a lot more explanation than the miniseries producers probably thought they had time for. I thought they managed to hold off on using “British” pretty well in the first episode.

Nachum said...

Another point: It seems that all troops were pulled from Boston immediately after the Massacre, to calm feelings, but the series shows them still around days after.

Oh, and the trial is completely wrong. Should be trials, plural, for starters.

J. L. Bell said...

My analysis of the trial scene is here. You’re quite right; the miniseries compressed the two main trials that followed the Massacre into one. (And left out two little-known others.)

The two regiments in Boston in March 1770, the 14th and 29th, were indeed moved to Castle William within a couple of weeks. The move didn’t happen immediately, but for the eighteenth century it was pretty fast.

The 29th was then sent to New Jersey. The 14th remained at the Castle in Boston harbor for many months before being replaced by another army regiment.

I forget how the miniseries depicted soldiers in the town after the Massacre.