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.
In the Continental Congress, debates rage 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 for compromise -- persuading Dickinson to be conveniently indisposed when the vote is taken -- and understands 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 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 without fanfare to sever themselves from Britain: "The resolution passes." We feel the magnitude of the decision only because we know how the story ends.
The current fashion of politicians in trouble resigning from office in order "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 over liberties taken with the facts, showing, for example, John Adams with his 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 demonstrates how the future president saw the insensate power of mob rule, and he understood the discipline required to harness the ferocity of angry men in order to make a legitimate fight for freedom. John Adams never gave up worrying about the vulnerability of a democracy.
The laconic George Washington and 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 of both parents and children to learn more. They could find more together. It's in the book.
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