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.