If you’re as much of a history buff as I am, you’re no doubt aware that HBO is currently airing a seven-part miniseries on John Adams, based on the popular Pulitzer-winning book of the same name by David McCullough. I confess I haven’t watched it yet. It’s building up in my Tivo queue so I can watch it all at once. I also didn’t read the book, though I’ve read McCullough’s 1776 and plenty of other books about the same period in history. I’ve always been fascinated by that time in our history, not least of which because my ancestors came to Pennsylvania from Switzerland in the early 1700s. The son of my original descendant in America—at least on my mother’s side—even fought in the war before returning to take over the family farm near what today is Bernville, Pennsylvania.
Samuel Adams, as portrayed by Danny Huston in the new HBO miniseries John Adams.
But what’s interesting about the new series is not about John Adams, but what is being said about the portrayal of his cousin, Samuel Adams. In my own reading, I recall him being portrayed as totally committed to the cause of revolution—to the point of obsession—and that he worked tirelessly toward that end. My memory is that he was beloved by his friends, though not everyone thought his methods (he was notoriously unwilling to compromise or negotiate) to be the best approach. I believe it was Samuel who got John Hancock, one of the richest men in New England, involved in the revolutionary cause and, eventually, his now more famous cousin John.
When he was chosen to be represent in the first Continental Congress his friends got together and bought him a new suit, because he cared so little for his own appearance. The fact that he later receded into the background of history is a shame, because apparently he was very instrumental in bringing about our independence from England. It’s quite possible that without the Boston Beer Company using him on their beer labels, he might even be less well-known today than he already is. But I’m sure there are many such men whose early efforts have been overshadowed by the politicians who signed the Declaration of Independence and hammered out the Constitution. Those are the people we tend to remember as our founding fathers.
But according to some reviews, Samuel Adams is portrayed as “little more than a common thug whose idea of a good time is watching British dudes get Gatoraded with tar” and as “a leering, ranting, even dangerous fanatic … the very image of the corrupt urban politician.” Another reviewer says Samuel is “a character who seems at once both sinister and benign” and wonders when he’ll “finally give the others a taste of that new ale he’s been raving about?”
But Jeremy A. Stern, a historian writing on the History News Network, tells a different tale. His article, entitled What’s Inaccurate About the New HBO Series on John Adams, points out a number of inaccuracies from the first episode alone, before launching into his Sam Adams defense.
A portrait of Samuel Adams by one of the most well-known artists of the time, John Singleton Copley, painted around 1774, two years before the events in episode one of the HBO miniseries, when he would have been 50 years of age. Today it hangs in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts.
Certainly, this testimony to Samuel’s ‘gentility’ is absent from the HBO program, which shows him practically as a dockyard thug – and yet at the same time ironically suggests that he is rich, and thus at leisure to pursue his devious wiles. This contradictory claim ignores John’s actual worry about Samuel’s neglect of himself and his own: Samuel was in fact in constant financial trouble, often dependent on the charity of his friends. Praise for Samuel’s character went beyond Massachusetts. In 1819, Thomas Jefferson, who had no reason to polish Samuel’s record, wrote almost as fulsome a tribute: “I can say that he was truly a great man, wise in council, fertile in resources, immoveable in his purposes.”
In the Boston Globe‘s own condemnation of the series’ inaccuracies, they also mention a local historical researcher, James Bell, and his blog, Boston 1775. He, too, has posted a raft of inaccuracies not only about the miniseries itself, but specifically about Samuel Adams.
There’s more, too, both by Stern and Bell, but I’ll let you read that at your leisure, if you’re interested. Suffice it to say that historical dramas are almost always riddled with inaccuracies, that’s certainly nothing new. Usually, the excuse is something like “dramatic license” or “pacing” or some other story-driven nonsense. Of course, people watch history shows like this expecting them to be accurate, so I think it’s doubly bad when they’re not. But accepting that it’s just entertainment is harder to justify when you realize that HBO sent out leaflets to 10,000 teachers with “John Adams” agitprop urging them to show it to their classes. Of course, history textbooks are already riddled with mistakes, inaccuracies and propaganda, so maybe it doesn’t matter (for a wonderful book on this subject, see James W. Loewen’s Lies My Teacher Told Me). But it still seems weird that a Pulitzer Prize winning novel would be so compromised, but such is the way of the entertainment business. I’m thirsty now. Who wants to join me for a Samuel Adams Boston Lager.
“Suffice it to say that historical dramas are almost always riddled with inaccuracies”
Jay, you preach to the converted! We in Britain aren’t very pleased to learn we played no part in the Normandy landings (as it appears in Saving Private Ryan), that it was the Americans and not us who cracked the Enigma code (U-571 movie), or that we’e generally evil incarnate (anything directed by Mel Gibson)!
“History is a fable agreed upon” is an aphorism that ignores the deeper motivations of the tendency. A better quote: “That’s History; not what happened, but what people make themselves believe MUST have happened.” – Alistair Cooke
Samuel Adams, no less than everyone else, must bow to this principle. The indignant finger-pointing will preserve no one and no event from the inevitable human tendency to view what has happened through the filter of invidiousness.