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Popular Culture & Politics

HBO’s Favorite Founding Father

During the presidential election campaign of 1800, John Adams was labeled a “monarchist,” a warmonger and a vain eccentric with a mean temper. The attacks were the kind we have come to accept in the age of “attack politics,” but in this case they proved successful beyond anyone’s imagination, for Adams not only lost the election to Thomas Jefferson – he also lost his reputation as a major actor in the shaping of the American constitutional system.

In recent years, John Adams has gotten a good deal of positive attention in the media —and some people would say it’s about time. The second president of the United States was a prominent member of the group we honor with the name “Founding Fathers,” and most historians would argue that he was among the most important of that august brotherhood. And yet he has been among the least studied of the most prominent Founders, and many historians who have studied his life and work have found it difficult to feature him as a key actor in the events of the period. Some believe it is because he operated in the shadows of larger-than-life characters such as George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Jefferson. Others point to his unpopularity as a one-term president who is more often remembered as the person Jefferson handily defeated in the highly contested election of 1800 (he came in third behind Jefferson and Aaron Burr).

Ironically, Adams would have been quite pleased about his relative lack of status among popular views of the Founders. He was adamant in his opposition to efforts to romanticize the Framers or to see them as anything more than ordinary persons caught up in extraordinary events. He felt that giving too much attention to the personalities who led the Revolution and the first decades of self-government would detract from the real accomplishments of the American people. He applied this view not only to himself but to all others identified as Founders. He devoted much of his retirement to writing critical assessments of everyone from George Washington (an individual he personally admired) and Thomas Jefferson (his longtime political nemesis whom he respected) to Alexander Hamilton (whom he despised) and Thomas Paine. He thought Benjamin Franklin “politically vacuous and a diplomatic fraud” and Washington “more an actor than a leader.” Alexander Hamilton he labeled “as ambitious as Bonaparte, though less courageous.”

Historian Joseph J. Ellis has argued that Adams was motivated, in part, by a fear that he would not come off as well as others in the effort to construct a mythology of the American founding period and those involved in it. “Whatever his motives,” Ellis wrote, “Adams’s prediction came true. The history of the American founding has become a conversation about the American founders, who have been mythologized and capitalized as Founding Fathers just as he feared they would. And until recently, Adams’s fear that his own personal reputation would be eclipsed by Washington, Franklin, and Jefferson also proved prophetic.”

But then came the 2001 publication of a biography of Adams by David McCullough, an author of popular histories and best-selling presidential biographies of Harry Truman and Theodore Roosevelt. The book was a major bestseller. And, in 2008, the HBO cable network aired a widely praised miniseries based on McCullough’s book. Whether or not he would have approved, John Adams emerged as a heroic and complex figure who is now recognized in American popular culture as having played several extremely important roles from the period leading up to the American Revolution through 1801, when he left office to return to his home in Massachusetts.

Sources: Quotes drawn from Joseph J. Ellis, Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2000), chap. 6; and Joseph J. Ellis, American Creation: Triumphs and Tragedies at the Founding of the Republic (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2007), pp. 5–7. Also see David G. McCullough, John Adams (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2001).

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