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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Friday, March 21, 2008

What’s Missing in the John Adams Household

In the John Adams miniseries on H.B.O., Laura Linney as Abigail Adams has received universally good reviews in a very sympathetic part. (Some authors, such as Paul Nagel, might say that part was written too sympathetically.) Paul Giamatti as John has been getting generally good reviews, with a few critics saying he’s not up to carrying the series. I think he’s doing a fine job in a role that’s written to carry a tremendous burden (all of American independence!) yet is never fully likable and admirable. But I’ve been a fan of Giamatti’s acting since I saw him in a college production of Ionesco’s Rhinoceros.

So far the series looks mighty impressive in terms of sets, costumes, and other details of everyday life in eighteenth-century America. I’ve seen complaints about the details of the British military uniforms, which are part of tomorrow’s entry. Kent Sepkowitz wrote at Slate about the differences evident on screen between modern show-business teeth and the teeth of the past. (Thanks to PhiloBiblos for this tip.)

One of the most difficult things to get right in historical movies, as Jill Lepore hinted at in her New Yorker review, is people’s behavior inside the sets and costumes. The action and manners of the John Adams characters often seem too forward and modern. I’ve been thinking in particular about how the miniseries portrays the Adams household in light of the quotations I’ve posted over the past few days.

The series shows the Adamses as a modern nuclear family: mother, father, and (by the end of episode two) four kids. We see John and young John Quincy working in the fields. We see John saddling his own horse. We see Abigail scrubbing the floors by herself and watching over the children as they recover from smallpox inoculation. Though we don’t do those same activities today, it’s easy to imagine modern parents doing equivalent tasks in much the same way.

But eighteenth-century genteel families didn’t live the same way that twenty-first-century middle-class families do. They lived a lot closer together, with less stuff in less space but more people from outside the nuclear family. The miniseries’s picture of the Adamses’ domestic life appears to be missing the following elements.

Servants. On the night of the Boston Massacre in 1770, John worried about Abigail being “alone, excepting her Maids and a Boy in the House.” In other words, Abigail was alone except for three people whose jobs were to look after her, the house, and the children (then aged four and two). The Adamses never had slaves, but as a genteel family they were used to having servants. Here are letters they exchanged in 1764 as they were setting up their household and hiring help. Here’s a receipt from Rachel Marsh, who received “one pound six shillings and eight pence lawful money for a quarters wages” from Abigail in May 1765. Most modern Americans are unfamiliar, even uncomfortable, with the idea of personal servants, but that was an essential element of eighteenth-century genteel life. John Adams did work in his fields. Abigail did clean her house. But they didn’t do that work all alone.

Relatives. The Adamses had nearby relatives whom they often visited, hosted, or worked alongside. Abigail was very close to her older sister Mary Cranch, who had settled in Braintree, and her in-laws. Abigail and Mary’s parents and younger sister Betsy lived in nearby Weymouth. John Quincy Adams recalled that these Smith grandparents “seemed to me as a second father and mother.” When John was out of town, Abigail had to do business through her male relatives because, as a woman, she had limited legal rights. John’s parents were dead, but he had brothers in town. In 1774 Abigail’s cousin John Thaxter came from Hingham to be John’s law clerk; since John was away at the Continental Congress and the courts were closed, Thaxter ended up becoming tutor to John Quincy and Charles for years. He hasn’t shown up in the series yet; I wonder if he’ll appear on the boys’ voyage to Europe in 1779 because he certainly went along.

Books. John Adams’s personal library was notably large in his time, and represented a big investment for a middle-aged lawyer. I was struck by a line from John Quincy Adams’s 1823 letter about his memories of the outbreak of war:

I remember the packing up and sending away of the books and furniture from the reach of [Gen. Thomas] Gage’s troops, while we ourselves were hourly exposed for many months to have been butchered by them.
The children can face a little risk, but save the books! That’s the sort of family value I believe in. A scene of packing up all the books might have shown what made the Adams family distinct, and how valuable books were.

I suspect that these details of the series were partly dictated by the budget—putting servants and relations on screen, even in the background, would have meant paying for more actors, more costumes, more takes, &c. But those choices also reflect, and reinforce, our difficulty in imagining how much people’s daily lives have greatly over the centuries.

(The portrait above of Abigail Adams around 1766 comes from the Massachusetts Historical Society, and is on display in its current exhibit of Adams family letters.)


Anonymous said...

I worked on the miniseries for 2 months, but I've only seen ep. #2. There were usually a few field hands on the "Braintree" set, but no "servants" in the house that I recall.
Everyone on screen had their teeth painted brown twice daily, at the start of the day and after lunch.

J. L. Bell said...

Thanks for the inside information! I hadn’t been struck by anything wrong (right?) about the teeth, as the Slate writer was, but I don’t have a color television set to check such details.

Anonymous said...

I do get a kick out of some of the people who complain the military uniforms aren't exact. HBO has a dark green color when it should be a light green color. The RevList on yahoo is great for this stuff. At some point HBO needs to scarifice authenticity for actually getting a movie completed on time. And as long as its not glaring (Patriot, Gifford Court House battle, Colonist Winning...ANything in Braveheart) I'll love the show anyway.

Brad Hart said...

I have a question. Do you know if the servants of the Adams Family were white? Freed Blacks?

J. L. Bell said...

At this stage in their lives, it appears that the Adams family’s servants were local whites. The black population of Massachusetts outside Boston and other seaports was small. Many young women and teenaged boys from the yeoman class worked for other families before getting married.

Anonymous said...

Thank you very much for this discussion about servants and the Adams family. I just wrote a poem from a servant's point of view about Abigail Adams as I thought they must have had a few house servants, but wanted to check. I also assumed that such a servant would probably have been young and white. Very helpful. I also want to say that the anecdote of saving the books certainly sounds accurate for a lawyer/judge from Massachusetts!

--Karen Braucher, poet,
daughter of Hon. Robert Braucher,
Harvard Law professor and judge, Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts