John Adams, the HBO Series
Tibor R. Machan*
The HBO program, John Adams, is proving to be a much needed antidote to how most Americans are educated about the beginning of their country. It is to all appearances a meticulously crafted docudrama. The acting sizzles, the design is riveting, and the direction must have been superb.
It is also nice to know, from a short program, “The Making of John Adams,” that HBO is also running now, that the author of the novel on which the program is based, David Willis McCullough, fully approves of the result. It is more usual to find authors whose works Hollywood translates into film complaining of how the work was butchered in the process. Readers of the book also appear to find the filmed version very satisfactory.
My own interests lead me to be very attentive to the segment titled “Independence,” where the founders hashed out just what they wanted to communicate to the domestic and world population concerning what they were embarking upon and why. It was gratifying to hear some of the characters make it abundantly clear that the Declaration of Independence they forged, mostly at the hands of Thomas Jefferson, is indeed a thoroughly revolutionary statement about the nature of human community life, the relationship between government and the citizenry. (To hear Abigail Adams read out laud these ideas to the Adams children served as a reminder of how home schooling, recently targeted by California for near abolition, can be far superior to what government “school” provide to children.)
And the issue of the abomination of slavery was introduced with no hesitation, showing that for many of the founders the creation of a nation that could withstand attacks from around the globe was a priority despite the fact that they found slavery morally intolerable and had they found a way, they would probably have abolished it. But the newly formed Southern states would hear none of that and without them the venture would appear to have failed.
For me the only lapse involved the failure to feature one of the most essential elements of the Declaration, namely, its theory of government. Immediately after the very famous statement, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal; that they are endowed, by their Creator, with certain unalienable rights; that among these rights are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” this theory of the nature of government is given a nice succinct statement: “That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed….”
Clearly, the producers could not include the entire Declaration of Independence in the program and had to be selective but to omit this part and the discussions surrounding it is not easily excused. It is in this sentence that we find one of the most radical elements of the American revolution, namely, the confinement of the scope of governmental power to specific and limited tasks and no more. “To secure these rights” is the only just purpose of government, period. Only that which contributes to the achievement of this purposes is justifiable. That is what makes sense of the idea that follows, namely, “that whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it….”
In a cynical, dark moment while watching this segment of John Adams, I gave some credibility to my fear that perhaps the producers realized that this idea of the limited scope of governmental responsibilities may have rubbed many in Hollywood and elsewhere the wrong way. After all, many in tinsel town are great friends of the growth of governmental power, of the expansion of the scope of what government is supposed to do in human communities, at the hands of the likes of Hillary Rodham Clinton, et al. So perhaps they deliberately meant to exclude this theory of strictly limited government!
But, of course, I am not privy to the thinking of those who fashioned the program and, in fact, many other aspects of limited government theory, for example, the unalienability of our basic rights, clearly imply what these lines of the Declaration make explicit.
In any case, for one like me, a refugee to America who has always found the Declaration to be the most inspiring of the original documents, more so even than the Bill of Rights, HBO’s John Adams is a breath of badly needed fresh air. I hope it is shown over and over in the schools across the country so a most neglected aspect of early education might gain center stage for millions of young Americans.
*Machan is the author of, among other works, Human Rights and Human Liberties, A Radical Reconsideration of the American Political Tradition (1975).