Biographical suggests reliance on history.

Warning: Although it’s semantically incorrect that revealing facts presented in a television show based on a biography of a historical figure as large as John Adams counts as a spoiler, this entry discusses how those facts are presented. If you wish to watch HBO’s John Adams and judge its merits for yourself before reading my impressions of the show, stop reading now. End warning.

I eagerly anticipated John Adams when I first saw an ad for the miniseries. It’s good, except it’s not. It’s compelling entertainment, as much of what HBO produces seems to be. But as history, it’s becoming quite clear that it’s at best a CliffsNotes version of John Adams’ life, and then only if sections of the CliffsNotes version were lost or cropped. Why?

The series leads the viewer to believe all sorts of strange interpretations of events that happen to be at best inaccurate. Events have been smushed together, with little things like periodic visits home being omitted. This may give dramatic tension to the filmed version of John Adams’ reunion with, separately, his wife and his children, but it has the inconvenience of being false. While I understand that turning a book into a film requires edits, alteration is not editing. The miniseries is poorer for it. As a result, my enthusiasm for the remaining three episodes is waning.

Worse, the end of episode four, “Reunion”, angered me. I can’t find my copy of David McCullough’s John Adams because we’ve temporarily piled our books into a closet as we remodel, so I can’t verify whether or not this appears in the source text for the miniseries. However, Mr. McCullough consulted on the script, so I doubt he wasn’t given a chance to comment on episode four’s conclusion, which involved the inauguration of George Washington. To be more precise, it involves John Adams’ reaction to George Washington’s inauguration, but it presents Washington’s oath of office to demonstrate the point.

The episode depicts George Washington reciting the oath in a quiet reserved tone to suggest the humble nature of a great man. After “…defend the Constitution of the United States,” Washington bellows “so help me God.” Are we really to believe that George Washington said this? What does Article II, Section 1, Clause 8 of the Constitution say about this?

I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my Ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.

Is it realistic to believe that any of the founders, having spent more than a decade to realize the fruition of a new republic based on limiting the power of government over the people, would deviate from a rule so basic as the oath of office as proscribed in the Constitution? I know our politicians violate the Constitution every day, but is anyone so morally defective that they’d blatantly do so in 1789, in this specific manner? (Yes, I’m aware that the First Amendment was not yet ratified in 1789.) If he was as smart as he must’ve been, would he overlook the absurdity of ignoring the Constitution while swearing to uphold it? And if Washington did add “so help me God,” would he essentially mumble the oath, only to loudly proclaim faith in God at the new nation’s birth? That’s inconsistent on multiple interpretations.

Personally, I lean to Kip’s view that the original appearance of this “fact” precludes any conclusion other than willful deceit. For a more cautious view, read Jonathan Rowe’s analysis.

Unfortunately, America’s founding fathers are misrepresented to push the Christian nation myth. They all believed in a single god, so clearly they wanted us to include God in everything the United States government does. We’re to ignore the controversy from not including a Bill of Rights in the original Constitution presented to the States, as well as the rather quick ratification of the First Amendment after the birth of the new Constitution. It’s ridiculous, but people want to believe it. And nonsense like this episode of John Adams encourages it. For example:

I hope this show can let some people remember that this country was founded by a bunch of men who were extremely religious [sic]

Even if that were true in the way that the writer believes, so what? Some of our founding fathers owned slaves. Are we to conclude that we should own slaves as a result? Or are we to conclude that imperfect men created a system of government capable of filtering human deficiencies from the exercise of power better than any other structure yet created? The text of the Constitution is sufficiently clear on this topic to know that the specific religious views of the founders are interesting but rather irrelevant to how we should operate today.