- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 20, 2008


There are times when it’s OK to surrender to the popular culture. Alas, such occasions are all too rare. But here’s such a time.

Everyone who decries the young Americans of school and university who “don’t know much about history,” should invite one or two (or more) of these deprived youngsters to gather in front a television set to watch the continuing seven-part HBO series on “John Adams.” The first two episodes suggest there’s something for everyone to like (and to nitpick) in this fine drama taken from lives of the Founding Fathers leading up to Philadelphia and beyond. This is an authentic breakthrough event to watch with the children.

We see flesh-and-blood characters, indulging their best instincts to take risks to establish a democracy. We’re reminded how it required intelligence and bravery to forge the new nation. Patriotism here is not an empty word, nor is flag-waving a self-aggrandizing gesture.

Abigail Adams is here as our “First Feminist,” counseling her husband to give women their say, his closest confidant making her case with a strong intellect radiating through roles of wife, mother and wise adviser. She speaks against slavery and derides the viewpoints of John’s “Southern friends,” knowing how crucial the importance of principle even in a lost cause. (She offers no reference to the Massachusetts men, including her father, who owned slaves.) She melts household pewter into bullets for the Revolution because this is no time to dwell on the impossible.

The changes we have made throughout our history depend first on the foundation these colonists laid for “the more perfect union.” This is where, as Sen. Barack Obama reminded us in his speech this week attempting to defuse controversy over his association with his race-baiting pastor, our union grows stronger. “And as so many generations have come to realize over the course of the 221 years since a band of patriots signed that document in Philadelphia,” he said, “that is where the perfection begins.” Or, more to the point, the attempt at perfection.

In the Continental Congress, debates over going to war against the “Mother Country,” John Dickinson, a Quaker delegate from Pennsylvania, speaks eloquently of the brutality of war and counsels conciliation in arguments that might be employed today in opposition to the war in Iraq. Benjamin Franklin prevails in counseling compromise, persuading Dickinson to be conveniently indisposed when the vote was taken, understanding conciliation as the route to unity. When Franklin edits Thomas Jefferson’s ringing “We hold these truths to be sacred and undeniable” to the even more memorable “We hold these truths to be self-evident,” we see the value of a good editor, even for a Jefferson.

No decision is reached without a bow to complexity. Early on John Adams decides to defend British soldiers accused of killing five colonists because no one else would defend them, and he believed they had a right to a fair trial. He knew it would make him unpopular.

Such a pudgy patriot, persuading with thoughtful and precise language, seems hardly credible in our age of the edgy image, where candidates for president are measured by the media as “rock stars.” No frills were needed in Philadelphia when the delegates finally voted to sever themselves from Britain without fanfare: “The resolution passes.” We feel the magnitude of the decision only because we know how the story ends.

The current fashion for politicians in trouble to resign from office “to spend more time with my family” could be measured here by the authentic. The Adams family shows real sorrow, loneliness and anger as it sacrifices the consolations of the family hearth for public matters of state. “I hate Congress,” says young Charles Adams, watching his father gallop off again to Philadelphia.

Purists quibble with the liberties taken with the facts, showing, for example, John Adams with cousin Sam Adams (to be memorialized on a beer bottle) standing in the crowd as a British customs collector is stripped naked, tarred, feathered and ridden out of town on a rail. It didn’t happen, but it could have, and the dramatic moment demonstrated how the future president saw the insensate power of mob rule and understood the discipline required to harness the ferocity of angry men to make the legitimate fight for freedom. Adams never gave up worrying about the vulnerability of a democracy.

The laconic Washington and the shy Jefferson sometimes appear as bit players to Adams’ Hamlet, but this is the story of the man from Massachusetts, who more than most made independence happen. The series, based on David McCullough’s prize-winning biography, might even whet the appetite for both parents and children to learn more. They could find more together. It’s in the book.

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