Skip to comments.Exchange: HBO's John Adams (Adams and Catholicism)
Posted on 03/24/2008 9:07:10 AM PDT by Clemenza
Exchange: HBO's 'John Adams' (Part 3) Two scholars of early U.S. history debate the high-profile miniseries with its writer.
John Patrick Diggins, Kirk Ellis, and Steven Waldman , The New Republic Published: Monday, March 24, 2008
HBO's seven-part miniseries, John Adams, based on David McCullough's Pulitzer Prize-winning book about America's second president, premiered last weekend. The New Republic asked historian John Patrick Diggins and author Steven Waldman to critique the series. Click here to see their discussion of Parts 1 and 2. This week, Kirk Ellis, the series' writer and co-executive producer, will be joining the discussion. Below, Waldman kicks off the discussion with his thoughts on last night's airing of Part 3. Click here to see Diggins's response. Stay tuned for Ellis's response.
Dear Jack and Kirk,
The next time my wife complains that I'm spending too much time at the office, I'm going to say, "Well, at least I'm better than John Adams!"
As the HBO series reminds us, John Adams spent more years apart from his wife than together during this era. Worst of all, several of his overseas years were spent being utterly useless. HBO certainly takes the position that Adams' presence in Paris only complicated Benjamin Franklin's ability to negotiate French support for the year, a view that seems to be echoed by most historians.
It's always amazed me how much of early American politics was determined by whether you were a Francophile or an Anglophile. Of course, at this particular moment--the outset of the war--everyone was for seeking French aid, but that didn't mean they had to like the French. This series nicely captures Adams' disgust for the French's prurient ways--including, most deliciously, the scene of Ben Franklin in the bathtub with his French mistress. (In case you were wondering if HBO would find some way of getting sex into even a show about John Adams, the answer is: "Yes.")
This is as good an excuse as any to mention an aspect of Adams that is invariably ignored (and is ignored in the HBO series, too): his antagonism toward Catholicism. Adams disliked France not only because they powdered their faces and wore frilly clothes; he also disliked them for being Catholic. He believed it unlikely that a Catholic country could nurture a true Republic. "Is there any instance of a Roman Catholic monarchy of five and 20 million at once converted into a free and rational people?" he once asked Dr. Joseph Priestley, a philosopher and Francophile. "No, I know of no instance like it." Writing to Jefferson in 1816 about a recent revival of the Catholic order of the Jesuits, Adams wrote, "This Society has been a greater Calamity to Mankind than the French Revolution or Napoleans Despotism or Ideology. It has obstructed the Progress of Reformation and the Improvements of the human Mind in Society much longer and more fatally."
It's hard to recognize freedom's champion in this letter to his wife Abigail in which he describes a visit to St. Mary's Catholic Church in Philadelphia. His pen dripping with contempt and pity, Adams catalogues the repellant customs: "The poor wretches fingering their beads, chanting Latin, not a word of which they understood, Their holy Water--their Crossing themselves perpetually--their Bowing to the Name of Jesus, whererever they hyertit--their Bowings, and Kneelings, and Genuflections before the Altar."
In fact, one of the causes of the revolution was the Quebec Act, which gave religious protections to Catholics in Canada. This infuriated the colonists. "Does not your blood run cold to think that an English Parliament should pass an Act for the establishment of arbitrary power and Popery in such an extensive country?" wrote Alexander Hamilton. "Your loves, your property, your religion are all at stake." Sam Adams told a group of Mohawk Indians that the law would mean that "some of your children may be induced instead of worshipping the only true God, to pay his dues to images made with their own hands." Fortunately, George Washington realized that it would undermine the colonists' efforts to win support from Canada and France if they were perceived as being anti-Catholic, so he banned the "monstrous" practice of burning effigies of the pope on "Pope Day."
Later in life, Adams admitted to being a bit rash in his anti-Catholic judgments, but I believe (and argue in Founding Faith) that we have not paid close enough attention to the anti-Catholic sentiment as a factor in the revolution.
But otherwise I found Part 3 to be fascinating and well done! Since we have Kirk Ellis from HBO here with us, I'd actually like him to respond to our posts about the first two parts, most especially our sense that the shows didn't quite fully capture the more legitimate reasons why these men rebelled.
And I'd personally be interested in hearing how they figured out what kinds of accents to give each figure.
I bet he would have enjoyed reading some of Jack Chick’s material.
Part two was so good that I ended up watching it three
I have found the series to be quite good so far. How many more parts will there be?
Hubby and I have been glued to the screen for Parts 1 through 3... we think "John Adams" is excellent so far.
Had this been a motivating factor, then the colonists would not have erected a federal government far more tolerant of the Catholic faith than the mother country's. After independence, Catholics had more religious freedom in Protestant Georgia than in Catholic Quebec.
And why would the colonists have made common cause with Catholic France against Protestant England?
Or included Maryland in their alliance?
John Adams' personal moral flaws were not the basis for the independence movement.
Read Higgin’s Response at the Link.
Was Adams wrong about Catholicism? When did the Roman Catholic Church ever stand for freedom? Even in the 20th century, it aligned with Mussolini, Hitler, and Franco. Certain courageous Catholic thinkers like Father John Ryan and John Courtney Murray tried to reconcile Catholic doctrine with freedom and democracy, but they were reprimanded by the hierarchy. In Adams's era, the Catholic Church was anti-Enlightenment and invoked natural law instead of the idea of natural rights--the first demanding obedience to authority, the latter the duty to resist it if rulers violate the social contract. Edmund Burke, defending the American cause before Parliament in his famous "Speech on Reconciliation," told the British that the colonists would not yield because they were "Protestants," and he spelled out what that meant: protest, resist, defy.
Adams, to be sure, had his moments of ethnic bias. In his summary defense in the Boston Massacre trial, he claimed that the British soldiers had every reason to be afraid of the crowd, "a motley rabble of saucy boys, Negroes and mulattoes, Irish teagues [pigs], and outlandish Jack Tars." Abigail, tell your man that he is referring to my ancestors.
The third part of the series went beyond the opening two in the beautiful New England photography; the appropriate and telling dialogue--especially Adams telling French aristocrats that he must work hard so his children and grandchildren may later enjoy poetry and music; the musical score with some fiddles in the orchestra; and the wrenching separation for so long of John and Abigail, and even John Quincy going off to St. Petersburg at the age of 14. Duty and sacrifice came naturally to these heroic founders.
The story takes Adams away from the Revolution, but viewers ought to know that things were going bad militarily in the first years of the Revolution. Word got to Adams that some leaders wanted to have George Washington removed, having lost some battles and with the capitol Philadelphia captured by the British. General Knox made a visit to Adams to sound him out on this move, and Adams made a valiant defense of Washington.
The film makes no mention thus far that Adams was the founder of the U.S. Navy; he believed in naval superiority as essential to any victory and pressed that upon the French. Jefferson thought America could get along with small one-gun vessels. But thanks to Adams, America had a reliable fleet with which to face Britain.
Many students and some professors think Adams was the prude in Paris and Benjamin Franklin was the charming playboy, even as a doddering senior citizen. But Franklin accomplished little and the film makes clear that he didn't seem to realize what Adams did realize--that France needed America as much as America needed France. Adams's negotiation of the substantial loan from the Dutch was one of America's first diplomatic achievements and it helped win the Revolutionary War.
Franklin was witty and in many ways wise, but he was also complacent--and his idea of never pressing things to a conclusion is not the best mentality for a diplomat. To Adams, hard negotiation was what international relations was all about, and he could discern the difference between a gesture and a real commitment.
Watching the third episode of this series reminded me of how much the French supported the American Revolution. In our times, when there has been a lot of anti-French sentiment due to the Iraq War, we perhaps should remember this French contribution, which had Pierre Beaumarchais raising money, Admiral de Grasse sailing his fleet to eastern port cities to take on the British navy, and Rochambeau and LaFayette fighting valiantly with Washington. Viva La France!
I believe this is a 7-part series.
My only problem with Part 3, last night, is showing people vomiting. Okay, Adams had sea-sickness and was very sick, where his son was fine. I've got an imagination, I can know that someone has been, or is being sick, without having to look at the stuff shooting out of his mouth.
As an aside, I feel this way about all films, not just this one. Why, oh why, do filmmakers feel the need to do this. I can tell you the beginning of this "special effect" because I remember it clearly: The Witches of Eastwick. The film critics kept talking about "too much special effects". Now, I'm thinking Star Wars or something similar. If the word "vomit" had been in any of the reviews, I would have not gone to that movie (I didn't like it anyway), but I went and I was almost ready to puke in the aisles by the end of it myself. Since then, it seems that film makers cannot help themselves, but they have to show the entire puking process.
Stop, please stop. Have mercy on your audience!
“The notion that the movement for American independence was attributable to anti-Catholic bigotry is laughable.”
WA, do you ever, in a big-picture sense, have a bit of trouble reconciling Catholicism and Democracy - or rather, a Republic?
It would seem to me that they are not entirely compatible.
Traditional Catholicism seems most compatible with a Monarchy.
I believe the Catholics in Maryland were greatly outnumbered by the Protestants at the time of the Revolution (in fact, Protestants had always been a majority there). Maryland had 320,000 people in 1790, about 8% of the total US population of 3.9 million. The Catholic population was something like 1% in the US overall, and not all of them lived in Maryland—even if they had, they’d have been only 1 in 8 of the population there.
Catholics in Maryland nonetheless represented the elite in the state. Roger Teaney, the first Catholic Chief Justice, was a part of the Maryland Catholic elite. As a matter of fact, Catholics were one of the wealthiest religious groups in the country until the masses of shanty Irish came upon our shores, sending all socioeconomic indicators down for RCer due to their sheer numbers and poverty.
Actually, we are finding it was the western atheists/socialists that sympathized with the fascists.
The Catholic Church strongly opposed Hitler in his elections (and even afterwards) and generally opposed Mussolini too.
And the church unwaveringly opposed the communists.
It is true that Franco was a Catholic.
“Or included Maryland in their alliance?”
Maryland was governed by rancid Protestants by the time of the revolution, having replaced the Catholic Acts of [Religious] Toleration with severe anti-Catholic laws.
Unfortunately the evidence some 200 years later shows he had a good point... the Protestant countries came much much sooner to a republic.
One point I would like to remind all about: most (but not all, to be sure) of the colonial settlers of this country came not only to escape religious persecution (the Puritans and Quakers, for example) but to escape the potential for more Reformation and counter-Reformation (remember that blood really DID run in the streets in Europe). To do that, the Protestants tried to limit Catholic immigration to the colonies (other than Maryland, of course). For example, Dutch Reformed Niew Amsterdam allowed Jews to enter (1654) before Catholics.
However, the first Catholic mayor of (now) New York served in 1671 (the Brits took over in 1664 but the Dutch were still dominant).
“Traditional Catholicism seems most compatible with a monarchy.”
Like in Ireland?/sarc.
One of the reasons that the Carroll family (who were probably more responsible than anybody else for the support we received from the French during our Revolution) has never gotten much attention in the history books is simply that they were Catholics. Much of US history has been written from an aggressively anti-Catholic position, and continues to be so to this day, even now that the Protestants have lost their power to the Marxists.
Well, Higgins got one out of three right.
The link talks about Grant's book and mentions this topic.
One of the key reasons for New York’s emergence as the financial center of America was due to the fact that the Dutch trading houses stayed after British control. Most of the elite of 18th and 19th Century New York was of Dutch, NOT English ancestry (the Schemehorns, Scuylers, Vanderbilts, etc.).
I agree and disagree with your comments. Let me explain.
The history of the Catholic Church going back from the 1700s was one of an extreme authoritarian nature. It wielded a lot of power and to oppose it was to basicly put your life in jeopardy.
Moving forward the Church of England took on the same authoritarian nature after recognizing that problem in the Catholic Church, and having been formed by people who broke away from Catholocism for that very reason.
Many of the people who came to the colonies wanted religious freedom. They were sick in tired of the draconian restrictions of the Church of England and by extension the Catholic Church of the previous centuries.
I would say the Church of England was more of a driving force behind many of the colonists’ decision to move to New England, but I do think a ‘back of the mind’ reference to Catholocism was very much in there somewhere.
Coupla more thoughts about the Catholics, Maryland and the RevWar:
First, Charles Carroll was the only Catholic signer of the DoI. He was also the last Signer to die.
Second, let us not forget the Maryland 400, those incredibly brave largely middle class Irish Catholic lads whom, it may be said with little exaggeration, saved our fledgeling Republic from being strangled in its crib at the Battle of Brooklyn.
Anti-catholicism was part of MA in colonial times. In 1647, the commonwealth banned Jesuits or other priests from being in the colony. In 1688, Ann Glover was executed not because she was a witch, but because she was Catholic. In 1750, chief justice of MA Paul Dudley endowed four annual lectures at Harvard; he mandated that be involved in “the detecting and convicting and exposing the idolatry of the Romish church, their tyranny, usurpations, damnable heresies, fatal errors, abominable superstitions, and other crying wickedness in their high places”
Until the 19th century graduates of the College of the Holy Cross in MA were actually conferred degrees by Georgetown, since the Congregationalists would not charter a Catholic (and Jesuit) college. What’s more, MA banned the celebration of Christmas as popery.
Catholicism was banned in Maryland 1688. John Jay called for a loyalty oath for public officers to abjure foreign ecclesiasticl leadership.
I think that Catholicism fared worse in colonies/states which were influenced by Puritans.
Not sure about the entire elite; only one RC signed the Declaration, though he was Carroll of MD.
Was there ever a more authorian state than Puritan Massachusetts?
Unless you don’t count the Polish/Lithuanian Confederation, which was a Republic with an elected king run by a Senate or the Venetian Republic.
I like history stories, and I really miss Rome. I find the John Adams series very fascinating.
I saw a show on Protestantism this weekend (I think it was on History Channel) that concluded the American Revolution was one result of the Protestant Reformation.
George Washington understood the importance of true religious freedom. Another reason why he is my VERY FAVORITE Founding Father (and President).
“The more things change, the more they remain the same.”
You’re absolutely right. Remember that many of the colonists didn’t see England as the pariah that the revolutionaries did. Many remained loyalists to the core, and I guess that applied to their regligious fervor as well. If the church in the old country was okay, why not develop your own version in the U.S., just as authoritarian?
However, once the Irish took over Boston politics in the late 19th Century, they ruled it as their own petty fiefdom. From the 1880s until the 1950s, the great power struggle in Massachusetts was between the Boston Irish Dem Machine (and their Jewish, French Canadian and Portuguese allies elsewhere in the state) and the Yankee Republicans (and their Italian allies).
Ditto here. I was on vacation and decided to catch up on the HBO series that Rush L. had mentioned was very good and it peaked my intrest. The part where Adams nominated Washington as the Commander in Chief has to be seen. I didn’t think that the actor playing Washington could pull it off but was I mistaken. As one of the delegates kept talking, Washingtons stand up to move across the room and you could hear a pin drop. I will be the first in line to buy this DVD set. I saw part two three times.
Agreed; I was referring the Adams’ era.
It's pathetic that this guy is a professor.
When did the Roman Catholic Church ever stand for freedom?
Too bad Higgins can't address this question to the slaves of the late Roman Empire, or his presumably Irish ancestors, or the Spaniards living under the Arab yoke, or the Hungarians under the Turkish one.
Even in the 20th century, it aligned with Mussolini, Hitler, and Franco.
Franco, to a certain extent - but considering Franco's enemies were totalitarian Communists in the habit of raping nuns and using churches as latrines, one can see why.
To say that the Church aligned with either Hitler or Mussolini is simply beneath contempt, the Catholic equivalent of the blood libel.
Certain courageous Catholic thinkers like Father John Ryan and John Courtney Murray tried to reconcile Catholic doctrine with freedom and democracy, but they were reprimanded by the hierarchy.
John Ryan got into trouble with his employer by advocating Marxism - in other words the diametric opposite of freedom and democracy. John Murray was criticized not for his political writings but for his denial of the theological supremacy of the Holy See. This criticism certainly didn't hurt either his ecclesiastical or secular careers.
In Adams's era, the Catholic Church was anti-Enlightenment and invoked natural law instead of the idea of natural rights--the first demanding obedience to authority, the latter the duty to resist it if rulers violate the social contract.
There is no conflict between natural right and natural law, and St. Thomas Aquinas laid it all out quite perspicuously 500 years before John Adams was born. Adams himself was an opponent of the Enlightenment as embodied by the French Revolution.
The main criticism of Jesuit theologians in the 17th century by apologists for the absolute monarchies of Europe, was their championing of the right of the people to resist tyranny and their rejection of the false doctrine of the divine right of kings.
Edmund Burke, defending the American cause before Parliament in his famous "Speech on Reconciliation," told the British that the colonists would not yield because they were "Protestants," and he spelled out what that meant: protest, resist, defy.
Burke spoke these words as a man who personally wavered between Catholicism and Protestantism all his life, and remained a Protestant largely because he would not have been allowed to serve in Parliament if he were a Catholic. His mother and sister were devout Catholics and he was a Protestant mostly because his Protestant father insisted on it - pointing out that if he were a Catholic he could never receive an officer's commission in the army or navy, or admission to university, or stand for Parliament.
Burke, as a master rhetorician, was playing on Parliament's prejudices in order to further his pro-American sympathies.
This was not anti-Catholicism on Burke's part - it was flattery of Protestants. And Burke also had a horror of the anti-clerical French Revolution.
I disagree. Catholicism considers the political principle of subsidiarity as paramount.
Subsidiarity is compatible with many monarchical and republican forms of government - but it is radically incompatible with the classical absolute monarchy of the early modern period: the Reformation in Germany and England and the Gallicanist heresy in France occurred in large part because of the Papcy's dogged resistance to the claims of absolutist monarchs.
They were, but Catholics were greatly influential in the colony and were represented at the signing of the Declaration.
Yes, but the Catholic minority of Maryland was quite influential still and a free Maryland would have been expected to be a place for subsequent Catholic immigration to the new Republic - which it was.
Well, one thing you left out. When the opposite side took power briefly (Oliver Cromwell/Commonwealth) they were just as authoritarian as those others you criticized for being so.
Except, of course, that Adams and the Framers looked to Switzerland as an important example of a successful republic. And Switzerland was an entirely Catholic country for the first three centuries of its republican system.
And France had a republic before any of the major Protestant European countries, with the exception of Holland.
Check out one of my responses in 33. It pertains to this issue.
“Yes, but the Catholic minority of Maryland was quite influential still...”
Oh yes, that's why Catholics couldn't hold office, had restrictions on land ownership, could not have public Masses, etc. Quite influential, quite influential.
If by “quite influential,” you mean “not entirely snuffed out,” I'd guess that's not too far from the truth. But it literally took the Revolution and the formation of the United States for Catholics to regain their civil rights in Maryland.
“...a free Maryland would have been expected to be a place for subsequent Catholic immigration to the new Republic - which it was.”
Not really. Maryland has never been much more than 25% Catholic, in SPITE of being founded as a refuge for Catholics. Points north drew far more Catholic immigrants than Maryland ever did.
Unfortunately, we only caught Part 3. We were busy at the end of the week, and missed seeing the first two parts. Then, last night, at midnight, our free preview ran out. We’ll just have to wait until Netflix has it on DVD. ;o) I also wanted to read McCullough’s book again before I watched the whole series.
“They were, but Catholics were greatly influential in the colony and were represented at the signing of the Declaration.”
Only one Catholic signed the Declaration, Charles Carroll of Carrollton, out of four Maryland signers. This wasn't an over-representation of the Catholic population of Maryland at the time. Carroll represented Maryland IN SPITE of his Catholicism, not because of it.
Enjoyed the first two episodes of this series.
When independence was being debated someone blurted out ‘GD the King’
John Adams mentioned that achieving independence meant ‘Hope’ for the future.
A number of times while watching, it seemed that the ‘control’ and ‘taxation’ that the colonists resisted against has come back in modern American times!
I believe Pennsylvania was the most hospitable colony for Catholics and members of other unpopular faiths.
PA and Rhode Island (aka Rogue’s Island) were the most religiously tolerant, due to the former’s Quaker and latters Secular orientations.
Every November, Boston celebrated "Pope's Day" when effigies of the Pope and the devil were burned. I kid you not.
Colonial New Englanders were Cromwell's children, and attitudes towards Catholics were similar to what they were in Protestant Ulster or Scotland.
But you've only got to go back fifty years or so to see that Protestants and Catholics weren't alway's pals in the US or the rest of the world. Heck, some of the threads in the religion section might give you a clue about that.
Nor was anti-Catholic feeling confined to benighted conservatives. Paul Blanshard, the leading anti-Catholic of the day had been a socialist and an editor at the Nation magazine.