Monday, February 10, 2014

John Adams: History vs. Hollywood

John Adams: History versus Hollywood

The musical 1776 (music and lyrics by Sherman Edwards and Peter Stone) is a dramatized portrayal of the Second Continental Congress, created by using Congressional minutes and the attendees’ personal journals and correspondence as source material.  A movie version (directed by Peter Hunt) was made in 1972.  Both presentations tell the story of John’s involvement in the American Revolution, but often Hollywood takes so many dramatic liberties that the final presentation hardly matches the true stories the adaptation was based on.  Using the biography John Adams: Independence Forever by Janet and Geoff Benge as my historical reference,  I watched the film.  My question was, "Would the movie depict John accurately, or would Hollywood rewrite history?"

President John Adams
President John Adams, c. 1792
painting by John Trumbull (public domain)
Adams was a very determined man. He was determined to get his thoughts of considering supporting independence from Britain across to the other delegates, and was frustrated by the others’ less passionate attitudes. In the movie*, he states:

 “I have come to the conclusion that one useless man is called a disgrace, two are called a law firm, and that three or more become a Congress!” 

The delegates think he is crazy for his intensity and unwavering push for the Congress to do something in response to Britain's actions towards the American Colonies, and cry out in chorus, “For God’s sake, John, sit down!”  According to the biography, John strongly believed in the cause for Independence to a point of he forced upon the other delegates to consider the fact that King George III was taking away the rights and freedoms for which they settled their colonies, so I think the movie was accurate in its portrayal of his personality. The film portrays Adams as only taking part in the Independence Document Committee.  However, while in Congress he actually was part of multiple committees  including the Foreign Treaties commission and the Board of War and Ordnance. I believe the reason why the movie focused on the document committee alone is that through the whole movie, Adams is insisting the movement for Independence, and highlighting only this one aspect underscored Adams' fervor. 1776 was accurate in showing John as part of the Declaration committee, but overlooked his other contributions to independence.

Abigail Adams
Abigail Adams c. 1766
 painting by Benjamin Blythe
(public domain)
Finally, the movie shows that when Adams was in need of support, he turned to his wife, Abigail. This idea is accurately portrayed, though in a dramatic fashion. They constantly wrote letters, but a letter could take up to two weeks to travel from Philadelphia to Braintree, which meant a letter written today for advice may not have an answer for nearly a month. The movie is set in the two weeks prior to July 4, 1776, yet John and Abigail have at least three rounds of correspondence on the same topic shown (notably Adams' desire for saltpetre and the ladies' firm refusal to make it until the men sent them dressmaking pins). Though it does show the importance of the letters he and Abigail wrote to each other, the process was highly overdramatized and extremely inaccurate to the colonial period.

John Adams was a man who was always focused on the task at hand. He worked tirelessly to bring about independence from Great Britain.   He valued the opinion and support of his wife, Abigail, as much as any man’s.  Though there were dramatic liberties taken with details of his character's actions, the personality of the character of John Adams in the movie 1776 strongly and reasonably accurately resembled the historical John Adams portrayed in John Adams: Independence Forever.

*Film screenshot: "Sit Down, John!" 1776. William Daniels as John Adams. (1972)

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