March 25, 2008
I cannot tell you how many people have asked me recently if I've seen the John Adams tv show. I cannot tell you how many have asked, but I can tell you that the number is considerable and that I have responded to each and every inquiry in the same way.
The conversation goes something like this:
Excited Student/Friend/Colleague (gushingly): Have you been watching the John Adams series? I bet you LOVE it!
Me (feigning disappointment): No, I don't have HBO, sadly. But, I hear that it's great.
ESFC (surprised, and clearly mildly disappointed with me): It IS! I would have thought that you would be watching it...
Me (evasively): hmmmmm....maybe I'll get to see it on DVD or something, someday...
Yeah, maybe I will. Maybe I'll watch 1776 some day too, but I doubt it. I seem to resist pop culture versions of American history (while love, loving pop culture versions of British history--Elizabeth, for example). In fact, one of the PCC has even gone so far as to lend me her copy of 1776, which I must now confess that I never found the time to watch. So, maybe I'll watch the John Adams tv show some day, but I doubt it. I'm not against it. I'm not above it. I'm not convinced that it is based on poor scholarship. I have no real objection to it. In fact, if it gets people interested in political history, then I think that it might be pretty awesome. I just have no real desire to see it.
As a scholar of Early American political discourse I feel like I probably already know what the John Adams series has to teach. In fact, I write about John Adams. I was revising an essay about his and Thomas Jefferson's twin deaths on the Jubilee Fourth of July today, to be exact. I'm pretty sure that I know the guy. I know his friends too. People have called me Founder-obsessed, and they may be right.
The thing is that to really get to know the Founders you have to be obsessed. You have to read their letters, their papers, their diaries, the newspapers of the time, the books that they loved and hated; you have to read their biographies--and you have to read all of their biographies because each generation will reinterpret each of the Founders' lives. Not only that, but you have to read about their friends, teachers, and especially, their nemeses. You will learn as much or more about Hamilton, for example, by reading a biography about Jefferson than you will by reading the Hamilton biography alone. The Founders, their family members, and their biographers have spent years and years trying to hide all the really nasty bits from you, so to get at them you have to look in a place where they are trying to hide some other Founders' secrets.
In any case, to really get to know the Founders you have to do a lot of homework. A lot, a lot.
So maybe watching the John Adams tv show seems a little like cheating to me. Maybe it seems like sitting in front of the tv while America's political history comes to life before your eyes is a little bit like fake citizenship. Watching is very passive, after all. I mean, I know that everyone doesn't have the time to study (stalk) the Founders the way that I have. I'm very lucky to have a job where I can spend my day obsessing over what I choose to obsess over and call it "working." I get that. But, you know, watching the tv is nothing like reading the primary sources or reading a biography or visiting Colonial Williamsburg or, hell, even listening to a book on tape.
Learning about American political history from a tv show means that you learn one, simplified version of events from one of the Founders' perspectives rather than from the multiple different perspectives that really existed at the time. Every one of the Founders had their own view of what happened to cause the Revolution and just ask their recent biographers, every one of the Founders single-handedly saved the Republic! So, maybe it seems like the audience is getting cheated a little too when they learn about American political history from the tv. Shouldn't Americans have the opportunity to make up their own minds about the Founders hopes and fears for the new American republic? In fact, if the Founders' opinions still matter today, then isn't it our responsibility to find out what we think about them and their ideas? I guess that I think that it is.
Perhaps this is the real reason why so many people have asked me lately if I've been watching the John Adams tv show. Maybe they also feel a little cheated by their passive exposure to American political history and maybe talking it over with me was one way to be a more active learner. If so, I'm sorry for letting you down friends, students, and colleagues. I suppose I should have asked you more about what you thought about the show and what you wanted to learn more about. I could have even suggested some sources for you to consult. Whoops, missed that. If not, and you just wanted me to agree how awesome the John Adams tv show is, then I'm afraid that I can't do that for you.
Here are some places around the interwebs where you can learn about the Founders for yourself:
The American Memory Project at the Library of Congress has lots of primary documents on line for you to freely browse. You can find records from the Continental Congress, letters of the presidents, and all kinds of other interesting things there.
Google Books has lots of digitized primary source materials from the Founding generation. Just make sure to set the search to "full view" and you will be able to download literally millions of books for free--including early versions of Jefferson's Papers.
There are also lots of archival materials digitized on the various Founders' own websites. For example, if the John Adams tv show turned you on, then you might want to read his Diary, which you can find in the Adams Family Collection at the Massachusetts Historical Society. You'll also find the letters between John and Abigail there and John Quincy Adams' Diary, among other things.
In short, there are many, many primary materials out there for you to read if you are really interested in learning about the Founders. But, if you just want to watch a tv show, then that's ok with me too. Just don't expect me to watch it with you.