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 in 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 "John Adams."
The first two episodes suggest there's something for everyone to like (and to nitpick) in this fine drama, taken from the 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, incorporating their best instincts to take risks in order 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 out against slavery and derides the viewpoints of John's "Southern friends," knowing how crucial the importance of principle is, even in a lost cause. (She offers no reference to the Massachusetts men, including her father, who own slaves.) She melts household pewter into bullets for the revolution, because there is no time to dwell on the impossible.
The changes we have made throughout our history depend first on the foundation these colonists lay for the "more perfect union." This is where -- as Barack Obama reminded us this week in his speech attempting to defuse the 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, it's the attempt at perfection.