Watching John Adams By Dr Naazir Mahmood


The recent turmoil in Washington DC that President Donald Trump instigated surprised many. Not that the United States is unfamiliar with such events; it has seen much worse, such as the civil war in the 1860s that tore the country nearly apart – but that was over 150 years ago.

The way Trump and his supporters have reacted after the defeat of the Republican candidate in the presidential elections is unprecedented, at least in recent history. The decline in American democratic values and magnanimity becomes even sharper if you try to compare and contrast it with the values inculcated by the founding fathers of the US and the framers of its constitutions. You may read the Declaration of Independence, the American constitution, or the Federalist Papers, and get an idea about the capabilities of those people, their diction, and their intellectual depth that impresses you greatly.

Here I would recommend a much easier activity that you will find entertaining and intellectually stimulating: read David McCullough’s 2001 book ‘John Adams’, or – based on the book – watch an eponymous miniseries that Top Hopper directed in 2008. It chronicles the first 50 years of the US, beginning in 1770 in Boston when the notorious Boston Massacre took place.

British soldiers fire into a mob of Boston citizens and a respected young lawyer, John Adams, becomes an eyewitness to the bloodbath. His dedication to justice is revealed when he uses his legal expertise as defence council – not for the victims but for the accused.

He defends the oppressors, and antagonizes his friends because of his belief in fair trial. The first lesson we learn from him is that everyone deserves a fair trial. Upholding justice is more important to him than being swayed by sentiments. We get to know about the Sons of Liberty, whose founder was John Adams’ cousin Samuel Adams trying to fight unjust taxation with the motto ‘No taxation without representation’.

John Adams is resolute in his convictions to defend his clients. Then he has a change of heart when the British Parliament passed the Coercive or Intolerable Acts in 1774, taking away the rights of self-governance that the British America had enjoyed.

‘No taxation without representation’ and the right to self-governance are slogans that still resonate not only in the US but across the world. The Coercive Acts failed, like all other coercive acts have done in history. So, they never reverse the trend of resistance, and John Adams becomes one of the leaders of the resistance in America. Punitive measures trigger more fire. John Adams wins a seat and becomes a delegate to the First Continental Congress, and there you see spirited discussions to resist coercive actions of the British government.

Adams becomes part of a common cause for redress of American grievances. From the Second Continental Congress in 1775, we learn how to manage disputes among the members of an assembly. The Congress leads to the drafting of the Declaration of Independence in 1776. Though John Adams himself was a master of legal language, he persuaded the committee to select Thomas Jefferson to compose the original draft. The chapter of David McCullough’s book dealing with this episode in American history is a treat to read. Tom Hopper presents in his series the marvelous dialogues between Benjamin Franklin, John Adam, and Thomas Jefferson, discussing the intricacies of the Declaration.

A Committee of Five prepared the final draft and presented the Declaration but John Adams is portrayed in the book as the lead advocate for independence in the Second Congress. One the one side, he promoted Jefferson as the lead writer and on the other John Adams played an instrumental role in the selection of George Washington as the new head of the American or Continental Army. Adams is seen as zealous for immediate action and in his zeal, he alienates some other founding fathers. Benjamin Franklin plays the role of an elder statesman who quietly chastens Adams.

If you watch the second episode of John Adams miniseries, you will love the dialogue delivery when Benjamin Franklin tells John Adams that it is “perfectly acceptable to insult a man in private” because it may lead him to even thank you afterwards. But if “you do it in public, they tend to think you are serious”. Of course, John Adams is in most cases blunt and his political opponents start thinking that he has no gentility. Many of his colleagues turn hostile, some explicitly and other implicitly.

Adams travels to Europe and seeks alliances with European powers when the American Revolutionary War is raging. There he joins Benjamin Franklin; both are seen to have marked differences in approach. Pre-revolution France is decadent and Franklin is a lover of parties while John Adams is a straightforward talker who wants prompt responses. Franklin knows better and succeeds, while Adams moves to Holland to seek monetary support to American independence. At the end of the Revolutionary War, Adams finds himself in Paris again negotiating the Treaty of Paris in 1783. Here the trio of Adams, Franklin, and Jefferson is marvelous to read and watch. Adams wife Abigail also joins them with her own touch of feminine grace.

Soon John Adams relocates to London as the first American ambassador to Great Britain. He hates repeating the genuflection he has to practise and offer to the British King, in quite contrast to the friendly and congenial atmosphere of the newly independent American government. British newspapers mock Adams, which further infuriate him. Just before the first presidential elections in America in 1789, he returns and is elected the first vice-president of the US, with George Washington as the first president. Adams is dejected at being number two but his wife puts some sense in his mind to accept the position that could maybe lead to his future presidency.

As vice-president, Adams presides over the Senate but has no actual power, except in the case of a tied vote. If you compare that to the situation in 2021, you understand perfectly well how with a 50-50 representation of the Democratic and Republican parties, Kamala Harris is going to play the role that John Adams played for the first time in American history. Then we learn about how Adams had to tackle strained relations with Alexander Hamilton and Jefferson; even Washington rebuked him off and on. Thanks to Adams’ own learning and his wife’s sound advice, he still manages to get elected as the second president of the US in 1796.

Now we come to the most interesting part of this story of John Adams as president, and the two-fold pressure he had to face from the Federalists and the Republicans. Alexander Hamilton leads the Federalists who want a strong central government. Vice-president Thomas Jefferson spearheads the Republicans who champion political equality and expansionism. Though Adams is initially with the Federalists, he drifts towards neutrality and pleases neither side.

Then, in 1798, Adams has to sign an act which has an uncanny resemblance to what Trump tried to do. The signing of the Alien and Sedition Act introduced four laws that the Federalist-dominated Fifth US Congress had passed. They made it harder for an immigrant to become a citizen and allowed the president to imprison and deport non-citizens who were deemed dangerous or were from a hostile nation.

Remember Trump’s outcry against ‘criminal foreigners’ and his ban on travelers from certain countries? The laws also criminalized making ‘false statements’ critical of the federal government. Some of these laws expired within a couple of years after their signing but they keep resurrecting themselves in one shape or another, not only in the US but in other countries too. Now, go for John Adams; you won’t regret it.

The writer holds a PhD from the University of Birmingham, UK and works in Islamabad.