John Adams goes to war on behalf of the professional-managerial class.

The first two segments of the HBO miniseries “John Adams” screened last night, featuring the title character as an unwilling professional-managerial incendiary.

Repelled by the melodramatic “join or die” rhetoric of the Sons of Liberty and not entirely unaware of the advantages of currying favor with the administration, Adams enters the picture deeply invested in colonial shared governance, declaring “The crown is misguided, but it is not despotic—I firmly believe that.”

The most compelling aspect of the character in these segments is the movement from this faith in shared governance to outraged revolutionist. Professorial in demeanor and temperament, Adams’ personal journey to democracy is perhaps farther even than his journey to dissent.  Praising Britain’s “strong governance,” he tells his wife Abigail, “most men are weak and evil and vicious.”

By beginning with Adams’s quietly self-interested commitment to “moderation” and professional-managerial distaste for democracy, the series makes a case for radicalism, giving the best lines to Ben Franklin: “I am an extreme moderate,” he quips. “I believe anyone not in favor of moderation should be castrated.”

In a similar moment, Laura Linney’s Abigail Adams wryly notes the narrowness of the demos envisioned by the founding-fathers crowd.  “This war touches people that your Congress treats with the same contempt that King George reserves for the people of Boston.” She also touches on economic realities astonishingly still relevant two centuries later in an unimaginably richer nation: “When I go to the cupboard, and I find no coffee, no sugar, no pins, no meat—am I not living politics?

I’m no fan of costume drama. And Giamatti’s performance as Adams didn’t quite do it for me. His note for Adams seems to be “every revolution needs good management.”  Still I found many moments to like. Gruesomely cool was the inoculation of  the Adams family against smallpox. Traveling the turnpike with a near-dead smallpox victim, the physician razors open the upper arms of every family member, packing the incisions with a few drops squeezed from his passenger’s pustules.

Probably my favorite moment was the introduction of George Washington in the turning point of Adams’ conversion to the rebellion. When the Contintental Congress seems likely to abandon Massachusetts to Britain’s wrath, Washington shows up ostentatiously wearing a black armband over his buff-and-blue uniform.  Adams asks who he’s mourning. Oh, Massachusetts, Washington says. An injury to one is an injury to all.

This new Washington for our times—the seducer of the professional class to revolutionary solidarity—now, that’s a historical fiction I can get behind.






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