Three Sides of John Adams
by findingDulcinea Staff
A seven-part miniseries on John Adams, based on the biography by David McCullough, airs on HBO Sunday, March 16 through April 20. Find out more about the man, the book, and the miniseries in this article.
John Adams: The Man
A Founding Father and America’s second president, John Adams is nonetheless an overlooked figure in American history. There are no monuments or currency dedicated to him and, before David McCullough’s bestseller “John Adams” was published in 2001, little mainstream coverage of his life.
On July 4, 1826, fifty years after the birth of the country he worked so hard to build, John Adams passed away. Even in death he was overshadowed by a fellow Founding Father—Thomas Jefferson—who had died just hours before. Adams accomplished much in his life, yet his legacy is defined more by his disappointing one-term presidency than his work during the Revolution and thus pales in comparison to that of men like Jefferson, George Washington and Benjamin Franklin. To learn more about the times in which Adams lived, see the findingDulcinea U.S. History Web Guide, specifically the sections on the American Revolution and the early years of the United States.
The University of Virginia’s Miller Center of Public Affairs features several concise, easy-to-read essays on various parts of Adams’ life, including his life before the presidency, his foreign and domestic policies, his family life and his legacy.
Source: The University of Virginia’s Miller Center of Public Affairs
In 2006, PBS’ American Experience aired “John and Abigail Adams.” The film’s Web site has a Special Features section that takes interesting looks at Adams’s life: his evolution as a revolutionary leader, his relationship with Jefferson and even notations he made in the margins of his books. There are many other resources on the site, including accounts of the people and events in his life, maps and links to primary sources.
The History Channel Web site has a short biography, timeline and image gallery of Adams. The video gallery includes a three-part biography, covering his early years, his marriage and his presidency.
Source: The History Channel
For a deeper look into Adams’ writings (and readings), a few archives are particularly useful:
The John Adams Library at the Boston Public Library hosts Adams’ extensive collection of books and papers, many of which have been digitized and can be viewed online with Adobe Flash Player 9 or by visiting the John Adams Library page at the Internet Archive. Though there are few books here written by Adams, his collection and his many notations (which can be searched by keyword) show why McCullough calls Adams one of the most well-read presidents.
Source: John Adams Library
The Massachusetts Historical Society features collections from Adams’ diary, autobiography and letters to his wife, Abigail.
Source: The Massachusetts Historical Society
The Avalon Project at Yale Law School has a collection of documents from Adams’ presidency, including his inaugural address and State of the Union addresses.
Source: The Avalon Project at Yale Law School
John Adams: The Book
McCullough originally intended to write a dual biography of Adams and Jefferson, but found his research on Adams to be so rich and fascinating that he soon dropped Jefferson from the book. The end result, “John Adams,” was published in 2001 by Simon & Shuster.
SimonSays.com, the official Web site of publisher Simon & Schuster, has a biography of David McCullough along with a list of his works and awards.
C-SPAN2’s Book TV Web site hosts a video of a 2001 speech made by McCullough at the Library of Congress. McCullough discusses his work in writing, explains why he found Adams to be such an important figure and relates humorous anecdotes that help to reveal Adams’ character. The speech is about an hour long and can be downloaded and viewed with RealPlayer.
Source: C-SPAN2’s Book TV
NPR’s “Weekend Edition” hosted McCullough soon after the release of “John Adams.” In this 14-minute interview, McCullough reveals what he learned while writing the book and discusses Adams in comparison to Jefferson.
For reviews of the book, we turn first to H-Net, where Edith Gelles praises McCullough: “No historian has done a better job of narrating John’s story in clear prose without the jargon or political overtones.” Still, she wishes he had spent more time covering Abigail Adams’ “proto-feminism.”
The Yale Review of Books’ John Coggin writes that McCullough portrays “the malicious and virtuous qualities of Adams so vividly and recreates his character with such profound compassion that his death resonates with no less tragedy than King Lear’s.”
Source: The Yale Review of Books’
Finally, Andrew Burstein at BusinessWeek compares the book to John Ferling’s “John Adams”: “while McCullough’s knowledge of early American political culture cannot compare with Ferling’s, his storytelling ability is without peer … he succeeds notably in sustaining enthusiasm across 751 pages, taking a wise and soulful man who was inept at courting popular opinion and lionizing him.”
Source: Business Week
John Adams: The Film
HBO’s seven-part adaptation stars Paul Giamatti as John Adams and Laura Linney as Abigail. Like the previous HBO historical dramas “Deadwood” and “Band of Brothers,” the series has received critical acclaim. This section shows you where to find information about the film and its actors, as well as critical reviews. The series airs Sunday nights at 8 p.m., with a two-part premier on March 16. HBO.com has the full television schedule.
HBO’s official “John Adams” site features episode summaries, video clips and short biographies of the actors. Particularly good is the 20-minute “Making John Adams” clip, which features a behind-the-scenes look at filming and includes interviews with the actors, McCullough and executive producer Tom Hanks.
Townhall.com’s Bill Steigerwald interviewed David McCullough about the film and asked whether it’s faithful to the book. McCullough commented, “My wife tells me I have to hold back in my praise for what they have done, but I can’t. It’s everything I could have dreamed for, hoped for, and then some.”
The Hartford Courant interviewed McCullough, Giamatti and Linney. Giamatti discussed his feelings on Adams, saying that the President “had more human dimensions than a lot of the other guys of the era did. Though he may not be as iconic as the other guys.” McCullough praised the filmmakers for their attention to detail and commitment to accuracy, commenting, “it will be a shock to many people to see the dirt under the fingernails.”
Source: The Hartford Courant
Enough background: let’s get to the reviews. We’ll start with Jill Lepore at The New Yorker. She gives a generally favorable review, saying, “If there’s a film that better captures the look of Colonial America, I haven’t seen it.” She is critical, however, about the film’s pro-Adams bias, stating that “‘He United the States of America’ is the miniseries’ motto, giving credit to Adams for everything.”
Source: The New Yorker
Salon.com’s Heather Havrilesky admires the film’s gritty realism and praises Giamatti’s performance in portraying Adams “in all of his clumsy, envious imperfection.” She warns that the first two episodes are a little dry, but encourages the audience to stick with the series to the third episode.