I realize I should have had this up yesterday, but the thing is, my husband and I just spent the weekend moving from New Jersey to Georgia, and I was just too knackered to sit down and fight with our new cable setup and get a recap up. I’m sorry. I’ll try to be less lazy in the future.
Anyway, previously on John Adams: Boston lawyer John Adams just wanted to run his law practice and enjoy his family, but then the British started making trouble and treating the colonies like an endless ATM, so he reluctantly agreed to join the Continental Congress gathering in Philadelphia.
We open with the congress in Philadelphia, and…it’s about as boring as anything you see on CSPAN today, so it’s good to see that some things never change. One of the reps is blathering on while everyone else, John included, struggles to stay awake. The speaker proposes the colonies stop importing or exporting anything from or to Britain and that they prepare a nice little note for the king to read. John and Sam snark away about the futility of these steps and the speaker glares at them before stepping down. The congress is adjourned and John takes a minute to complain to Sam that the congress has achieved nothing, which is pretty much what he anticipated when he joined up, isn’t it?
The reps gather for dinner at a stately brick house right out of Colonial Williamsburg. Their host, Mr. Dickinson, is certain that the congress has made the colonies’ stance plain to England, but John begs to differ. He accuses his fellow reps of being windbags, which doesn’t go over too well. Mr. Dickinson rescues the dinner by raising a toast to Boston, hoping her troubles will soon be over, but then he kind of wrecks that by hoping they’ll soon be reconciled with Mother England and saying God save the king.
John heads back to the bucolic peace of the family farm, where Charles is playing in the mud and John’s showing Johnny the joys of composting. Johnny announces that he wants to be a farmer, and John tells him that farming’s all well and good, but he’ll be going to school and then becoming a lawyer, like his dad did. Their peaceful afternoon of dream squelching is totally ruined by a man riding by, screaming that the British are on the move. John hustles the boys inside as Abigail runs out, holding a toddler—so I guess the baby was a boy, then. John tells her to run for the woods at the first sign of trouble. Are those unusually secure woods or something?
John grabs his horse and a pistol and rides in the direction the British were coming from. He eventually comes up on the sight of a recent skirmish. Redcoated British soldiers lie amongst the bodies of ununiformed patriots. A clutch of American soldiers dashes past, along with a boy waving a battle flag. John finally locates Dr. Warren and asks him what happened. Warren tells him that General Gage sent some soldiers to seize their powder at Concord, but the Patriots were able to turn them back and now they’re chasing them back toward Boston. Warren rides off and John dismounts to help the wounded.
Later, he rides back to the farm, looking exhausted and dispirited. Abigail comes out and John can barely look at her. There’s a long pause where it looks like he might cry, and then he huskily tells her that there can be no mistaking Britain’s intentions now.
Before John leaves for Philadelphia again, they sit side-by-side in their bedroom and John waxes rhapsodic about how important it is to support these soldiers, plain country boys who are dreaming about something better. She urges him to say as much to the congress and John says he’ll do so, forcefully. She advises him to back off just a little, because men don’t like to feel like their minds are being made up for them. John snaps that he has no time to handle these men with kid gloves.
In Philly, Ben Franklin is carried to the future Independence Hall in a sedan chair, wondering where the gentlemen from Massachusetts are. He’s played by Tom Wilkinson, of course, because no quality movie or miniseries with any British involvement at all can be made without him, Michael Gambon, or Timothy Spall being involved in some way. He climbs down, identifies John and his cohorts and asks the other reps if they don’t think these men are a disgrace, because they’ve violated the fundamental rule of warfare, which is, of course, to always let the British win. The other reps relax a bit, realizing he’s kidding, though one of them, a poncy type named Mr. Rutledge, finds it necessary to open his trap and tell Franklin to chill, so Franklin tells him he’s got no balls and moves along to greet John and his fellow Massachusetts reps and tell them how glad he is they’re there.
Inside, Rutledge has the floor and is urging everyone to remember they’re British subjects and that one rash action shouldn’t mean a whole damn war. Sam gets to his feet and reminds everyone that blood’s been shed in his neck of the woods, and it was shed without any support or encouragement from the congress. Dickinson speaks next, backing Rutledge and saying that one colony shouldn’t be able to drag the others into war and they should really extend an olive branch to Britain. Yeah, because they’re totally going to be in a mindset to listen right now. John says as much, telling Dickinson that, if they want to regain their rights as Englishmen, they’re going to have to fight for them. Dickinson agrees that their rights are being violated, but they need to develop a plan to play nice with Parliament. John looses his cool and shouts that his wife and kids are very close to the bulk of the British army, and in order to protect them and others, they need weapons and properly outfitted soldiers. Things devolve from there, as John insults Dickinson’s religion (Quaker) and Dickinson calls the Boston men hotheads. The president of the congress takes control again and calls for a vote on the olive branch measure. It passes, and the Massachusetts delegation childishly gets up and leaves as soon as it’s clear they’re going to lose this battle.
John finds Franklin in a tavern later and asks for a word with him. John scolds him for failing to speak up and back John earlier in congress. Franklin gives him a much-needed schooling on how things work in politics: all John did by opposing the motion was make enemies and make himself feel better. He really needs to choose his battles. John asks Franklin if he doesn’t believe in saying what he thinks and Franklin tells him he’s actually heartily opposed to that, because it causes more problems than it solves. Also, John needs to stop insulting people in public, because that’s a memory that tends to linger. As one last bit of advice, he tells John he should consider sitting down with the Virginia delegates. He’ll even come along, if John wants.
The two men greet two of the VA delegates—Mr. Harrison and Mr. Lee—in the garden near the hall where they’re meeting. John butters up Lee a bit, and he introduces Colonel Washington. John notes the mourning band on Washington’s arm and Washington says he’s in mourning for the men of Massachusetts, and furthermore, he’s prepared to raise a company at his own expense and march them north to relieve the Bostonians. Wow, generous! Seriously, that’s no small endeavor. He wanders off, and John notes he’s a natural leader. They move on to Jefferson next, a quiet man with a handful of books who yearns to be home, just like John. That’s about all the information they get out of him before he excuses himself.
It’s night at the Adams farm, and the kids are wakened by a racket outside. It’s the sound of gunfire and cannon not too far off. The children all run to their mother’s room and curl up in bed with her.
In the early morning light, Abigail and the two older boys go out to a nearby vantage point, where they can see Boston, apparently aflame. They stare in both awe and horror at the sight.
Later, the Adams family stands by the road, giving water to the exhausted Patriot soldiers marching past. Abigail asks what happened in Boston. He tells her the British opened fire from the harbor while also attacking at Bunker Hill, but the Americans held them back. A cart passes piled with bodies, and Abigail recognizes one of the men in it. Struggling to remain composed, she hustles the children inside.
In Philadelphia, John informs the congress that Warren has fallen at Bunker Hill. And what’s more, the British soldiers did a number on his body. The other reps listen silently and solemnly to the news. John goes on to tell them that 400 Massachusetts men died at Bunker Hill, just to preserve their liberty, but they took over 1000 British soldiers with them. Some of the other reps applaud that while Dickinson and the PA delegation looks a bit abashed. John calls on the congress to adopt the MA militia immediately. Dickinson gets to his feet and clarifies that Adams is urging them to form an army. Don’t you think it’s time for that? Clearly the British mean you ill. You need a frigging army, dude! I bet he’d feel differently if the British fleet was sailing up the Delaware. John counters that they need an army with a single able leader at his head, and he thinks that leader should be Washington. Everyone’s shocked that John didn’t want an MA man, but when he recovers, Franklin backs John’s choice. Washington gets to his feet and says he’d happily accept if the congress asks him to. The president calls for a vote and the measure passes. The MA militia will be the nucleus of the new army, and Washington will be in charge. Afterward, John congratulates Washington, who admits he’s not sure he’s worthy of this honor.
It’s winter by the time John returns home. He and Abigail stand at the vantage point and she tells him how General Howe attacked again. She’s disgusted at how the congress is going on its knees to the king, who hasn’t even deigned to reply yet. She spits that a woman should go to the congress and knock some sense into them. Well, who’s the rash Adams now, Abby? She moves on to sex politics, saying the congress is treating women and slaves just as dismissively as the British are treating the colonists. She calms down a bit and admits she’s scared that the war will never really end, and in the meantime, things are getting rough on the homefront. John wraps his arms around her, and as they look at the warships bottling up Boston harbor, he admits he thinks they’re heading toward a complete break with the mother country.
John heads into Boston to visit Washington, who takes him on a tour of the army camp. Things are really grim: they’ve been hit by disease, and a bunch of men went home after their enlistments were up, so now they’ve only really got a skeleton force, and they won’t be able to hide that from the British for long. John promises to tell the congress about the army’s condition, but Washington knows the congress is useless. They can’t even send supplies. John says he’ll make them listen, and also persuade them to get into bed with either France or Spain, and finally, hand over a declaration of independence. Washington reminds John that independence will mean war from one end of the country to the other, and they should really focus on freeing Boston first.
Back home, Abigail’s scrubbing down the floors with a stone and some kind of disinfectant, because disease is everywhere. John watches her from the doorway for a moment, dressed to travel, so I guess he’s going back to Philadelphia. He wonders how she’s going to manage the winter with the blockade and she shortly says they’ll be fine. John starts to leave and mentions that he’d love to walk in the garden with her in the spring but she cuts him off, because she can’t even think that far ahead, or that optimistically. John sadly leaves and heads back south on his horse, alone. The kids watch from the doorway and little Charles pouts that he hates the congress. Abigail watches him leave alongside the kids, until the snow and fog swallow her husband up.
At the congress, John’s making his case for actually giving their soldiers rifles that shoot, but nobody seems to be listening. That is, until the president calls them to order to read a proclamation from the king, which is essentially a verbal spanking that calls on all the king’s soldiers and men to suppress the rebellion in the colonies and bring the traitors to justice. The traitors being, of course, everyone in that room. And if caught, they’ll al be hanged. Dickinson looks sick, while Jefferson looks thoughtful. “God damn the king,” Sam spits when the proclamation has been read. But Franklin sees it differently, because the king’s words have brought the congress together in a way nothing else could. He meets with John and one of the VA delegates after the day’s business is over and they discuss independence, which is basically a necessity at this point. The VA delegate hits the road to persuade the VA government to free the delegates to act independently, and John and Franklin agree to get to work persuading the others to go along with the independence idea.
At the Adams farm, Abigail and the kids make bullets when the dogs start barking frantically. The boys run outside to explore while Abigail takes a moment to grab a rifle. Charles goes out to the road but Abigail sends him back when she sees a company of soldiers marching down the road. They’re patriots, and they’ve got some oxen hauling cannon with them, Abigail recognizes one of the men and asks him what’s up. He tells her that the guns were captured from the British at Fort Ticonderoga and he thinks Washington might find some use for them.
Indeed he can. The guns are placed on a hill overlooking Boston harbor.
In Philadelphia, one of the MA delegates reports to the others that Howe crapped himself when he saw the guns ringing the city. John peels off from them to speak to Lee, who’s apparently returned from Virginia with permission to act as he and the other delegates see fit. John tells him they have to act now, and he’s looking to VA to lead the way. Lee’s happy to take point. John sighs and comments that they’re about to take a leap into the dark, and Jefferson calmly says he’d happily sink the whole island of Great Britain into the ocean, which startles Adams, because Tom’s been pretty quiet up until now. Jefferson modestly says he has no gift for oratory.
Inside, Lee takes the floor and introduces the idea of independence, which makes some delegates pretty happy and others decidedly not. A NY delegate starts freaking out about the reinforcements Howe’s expecting, who’ll probably sweep down to New York, and then Philadelphia. Rutledge joins the chorus and says two warships have already been sighted sailing up the Delaware River, and surely they mean to take the delegates prisoner. Everyone starts shouting, but finally John manages to make himself heard, insisting that they can’t take a middle ground here, they need to go one way or another. Dickinson asks Franklin to tap into his knowledge of England (he lived there a number of years) and advise them, and Franklin says the king’s government sucks and they really have no choice but to act and take the independence they are entitled to. Rutledge asks John who will back them in this adventure and John says France sounds good, which just creates another uproar. Franklin agrees with Adams, but Rutledge shouts that they’ll never vote for independence. He also gives John the most hilarious, dismissive little handwave.
The debate goes late into the night, and everyone’s looking pretty soggy and tired. I have to hand it to whatever assistants or makeup people kept spraying these guys down so we understood that it was frigging hot and uncomfortable in Philadelphia that particular summer. Everyone’s got the perfect glisten. Some of the men are starting to remove their wigs and mop their heads with their handkerchiefs. John is one of them, and he has to pause when he starts to speak in order to put his wig back on. After hours of debate, the president calls for a vote, but Rutledge, speaking on behalf of South Carolina, asks for an adjournment so they can return home and seek new instructions. As the president goes to leave for the night, John quickly suggests that a committee be formed to write up a statement for the people, should independence pass. Dickinson offers no objection, so the president says that’s fine.
Washington pays Abigail a visit at the farm and admits that he’s pretty scared of what awaits them in New York. He knows his men are wildly outnumbered and outgunned. Abigail wonders if this misfortune is punishment for the sin of slavery, which is a pretty rude thing to say to a slave owner who’s a guest in your home, no matter what your thoughts on the matter are. Plus, Abigail, I think you might want to keep your eye on the ball and fight one battle at a time. I’m not saying slavery wasn’t horrible and shouldn’t have ended, but everyone has enough on their plates right now, don’t you think?
Washington’s really gracious about what Abigail just said and asks her if there’s anything he can do for her. She asks him to deliver her letters to John, which have been difficult to send because the mails suck at the moment. So, you sit in judgment on a man and then ask a favor of him? Wow, lady. Washington’s a total gentleman and promises to send them via his own courier, because her advice is helpful to John and is greatly needed at this time.
John has evidently asked Jefferson to help him draft this message to the people, but Jefferson’s busy at the moment preparing a new constitution for Virginia, to have in place in case independence goes through. Jefferson suggests John write the declaration himself, but John says he’s swamped, since he’s on more than 20 committees, and he needs to be leading this debate on the floor anyway. Plus, he’s unpopular, whereas Jefferson isn’t. Jefferson seems to be considering the idea, especially since Adams’s mind is already made up.
Abigail’s called the doctor to the farm to talk about having herself and the kids inoculated against smallpox. The doctor nervously tells her that inoculation comes with risks, which she knows. They’re risks she’s willing to take.
John and Franklin read Jefferson’s first draft of the declaration. John says it’s something completely unexpected—it’s not just a declaration of their independence, it’s a declaration of the rights of all men. He loves it. But he and Franklin have some notes. They think any mention of slavery should probably be avoided, because the delegates from the southern states won’t like it. And there’s some quibbling about wording. Jefferson takes their suggestions in his usual calm manner. Does anything shake this guy up? He gets a bit more lively when Franklin starts to admire the swivel chair he’s sitting on, which was a Jefferson invention (as many of us learned in Downton Abbey).
Things are more serious at the farm, where the doctor’s about to get down to some inoculating. This involves, horribly, the doctor arriving at a house with someone suffering from the pox, so he can lance one of the patient’s pustules, remove some pus, and insert it underneath the skin of the people being inoculated. Jesus. I will never complain about having a shot again. Abigail goes first, wincing in pain as the doctor cuts her arm and jams some pus in the cut. Charles volunteers to go next, followed by Nabby, who whimpers that she wants her dad. Abigail gently tells her dad’s not there, and they need to depend upon themselves.
John, Franklin, and their allies arrive at Independence Hall and strategize. They need to work on Dickinson for sure, and Rutledge is going to be a problem. The president calls everyone to order and Dickinson rises to speak. He acknowledges that this is a big deal, and he knows what he’s about to say is going to make him unpopular, but it needs to be said. He’s sure independence will only weaken the country and encourage the British soldiers to perform all sorts of atrocities. He paints a lurid picture of slaves rising up and Indians attacking the frontiers. He doesn’t see what’ll keep 13 colonies together under one government once they split from Great Britain, and he thinks it’s a terrible idea to escape the protection of England as unprepared as they are. The man does have a point. It’s easy for us to forget just how uncertain and untrod the road ahead of these men really was. This was a huge experiment—they had no way of knowing it would stand the test of time or even work on the short term.
Now he’s said his piece, John rises to speak, as lightening portentously flashes. He speaks calmly, admitting that this will be a bloody conflict, but that’s what freedom costs. Unlike Dickinson, Adams predicts a hopeful future for their republic and reminds everyone that this is a historic moment, because how often do you get to choose your very own government? When he finishes speaking, many of the other delegates pound the floor in agreement. But John doesn’t think he said anything new or useful, and he admits as much to Franklin later. Franklin disagrees and thinks Adams did marvelously.
Sam arrives and tells John they have the majority, so should they call a vote? John says it has to be unanimous, so they should really hold off. He wonders where one of the Delaware delegates went and is told the man went home to see to something or other. John says they need him and sends someone to fetch him back. Rutledge then pulls John aside for a word and tells him South Carolina might consider casting her vote for independence, because they don’t want to be left out in the cold. But they need John’s reassurance there will be no dissent from the other colonies. John promises there won’t be.
John and Sam work on the troublesome NY delegate, who’s too freaked out about General Howe setting his sights on New York to vote for separation. All John’s asking for is an abstention, instead of a no, and the delegate is willing to consider it, as long as they can deliver Pennsylvania.
To deliver PA, they need Dickinson, and he’s not budging. He’s not just being a dick, either, he’s scared that this move, when they’re so unprepared for a full-on war, will only destroy them, and he can’t vote for his own and his countrymen’s destruction. Franklin suggests Dickinson just find himself “indisposed” and unable to attend the vote the following day, so there won’t be any problems.
At the Adams homestead, the family’s all sick from the inoculations, Nabby worst of all. Abigail, her own face peppered with a few pox, sponges off her daughter’s face as the older two boys watch from the hall. Charles comes in and lays a stuffed horse next to his sister’s head as a gift. Abigail thanks him, then gently sends them back to bed, trying desperately to remain calm and not start to cry or panic. Can you imagine how guilty you’d feel if your kid died from an inoculation?
The congress has reconvened and is ready to vote. One by one, the colonies vote to become states, with New York the sole abstention. The missing Delaware delegate arrives just in time to vote yes. Rutledge looks ill as he listens to all the yes votes, but when called upon, he, too, votes yes on behalf of South Carolina. So, independence passes. Everyone sits in heavy silence for a while after that, considering what they’ve just done. I think they all need a serious drink.
Jefferson’s declaration is read out to the crowd that’s gathered at Independence Hall, and also read aloud by Nabby, who’s looking much better, though she’s still a mess and bedridden. Dickinson, in an army uniform and mounted on a horse, listens as part of the Philadelphia crowd. The crowd cheers after the declaration is read, and John allows himself a tiny, proud smile. Later, he writes to Abigail, acknowledging that now the real work will begin. I’ll say. How do you go about building an entire country? Talk about a daunting project.