John Adams: Join or Die

With Independence Day right around the corner and all, I thought this was a good time to turn my attention to my own country’s history for a change. And since John Adams seems to be pretty much the only founding father with a decent miniseries detailing his involvement in the founding of the United States, that’s who I’m going with.

This miniseries basically had no choice but to be good. It’s got a great cast full of “hey, look who it is!” types, it’s based on the book by David McCullough, backed by Tom Hanks, written by Graham Yost (who did such a great job with Band of Brothers and The Pacific), and directed by Tom Hooper, who most recently helmed The King’s Speech. I think this crew would have been hard pressed to put out a crappy product, and thankfully, they didn’t. The American Revolution has never really been my historical period of choice, but this miniseries might have changed my mind. I loved it. I keep watching it (obviously), and it’s given me a whole new appreciation for one of our crankier founding fathers.

Boston, 1770. We meet our man on the cold, snowy road, riding along, slumped in the saddle, looking tired and cold. He passes a recruitment poster that says “Join or Die”, as well as two skeletons strung up with signs that say “Tory” around their necks. He barely gives them a passing glance.

In Boston, the city’s fairly quiet, but things have obviously been rough here. Adams rides past a trashed shop, and then passes a sentry standing outside the Custom House who’s being taunted by a group of boys. Oh, dear.

Adams arrives home and starts taking care of his horse. He’s soon joined by his wife, Abigail, who takes one look at him and figures he lost his latest case. It hasn’t been a good day for John, but he manages to find some humor in the situation. She helps him tend the horse, and they go back inside together, ignoring some kids running past, shouting.

Inside, John’s greeted by his daughter, Nabby, with a big smile and a curtsey. He pretends to be stern for a moment, then grabs her up in a bear hug. He and Abigail start to talk about their farm as she shakes out his wig (it’s little details like that that make these films seem so real, isn’t it?), but then he hears people shouting “Fire!” outside and dashes back out to help. Poor guy hasn’t even had a chance to take his coat off yet.

John tries the nearest pump, but it’s frozen solid, so instead he helps pick up a very early firetruck, which has tumbled onto its side. He tries another pump, but that’s frozen too, and then he hears the unmistakable sound of gunshots coming from the Custom House. He runs towards it and finds the aftermath of the Boston Massacre. Several men lie wounded or dead on the ground as the smoke clears and the sentries look horrified but keep their guns leveled. Their commander orders them not to fire, and John spares a moment to glare at them before helping some kid and then noticing his cousin, Samuel Adams, arriving. Sam’s a hothead and starts shouting, calling the soldiers murderers, so John hurries over and talks him down.

John arrives home yet again, and is peppered with questions by Nabby and his oldest son. Abigail tells the kids to go to bed, but when they don’t hop to it, dad barks at them to get lost. They scamper off. Once they’re alone, John tells Abigail what happened. She tiredly says she was afraid that it would come to this.

Daytime. Abigail tutors the children while John works in his adjoining office. There’s a knock on the door, and when Abigail opens it a beaten and bloodied man comes in, scaring the hell out of her. The man dismisses his injuries as nothing and explains that he’s there to ask John to act as the defense lawyer for Captain Preston, the commander in charge of the massacre soldiers. John agrees to see him, and Abigail goes to fetch a basin to dress the man’s wounds.

Later, John sits pensively in his office, mulling over his next action. Abigail comes in and reminds her husband that he’s about to take on the case of the most despised man in Boston. John comments that the case would be much talked of, with the implication that even bad publicity is better than no publicity at all. Abigail accuses him of being ambitious, so he takes another tack and tells her that counsel is the last thing any accused man should lack in a free country. She tells him to accept the case, then, but reminds him that everyone will think he’s the crown’s man. He claims not to care.

John goes to see his new clients, who are introduced as “the murderers” by the jailor, so he’s clearly got a long, steep road ahead of him. The soldiers, all looking battered and scared, are being kept in a sort of outdoor pen by the look of it. In winter. In Boston.  How do they still have all their fingers? John introduces himself to Captain Preston, who greets him courteously, as does his second-in-command. John makes it clear he’s no fan of the crown, but he’s willing to hear what Preston has to say about what happened. Preston tells him that he and the soldiers came to the aid of a sentry who was being abused by the crowd, both verbally and physically. Preston insists he gave no order to fire, and in fact, he was standing in front of his men at the time. John tells him that someone certainly fired, and now five people are dead. Preston firmly says his men acted in self-defense.

Later, John sits by the fire at home with a friend of his, talking about the latest developments. The friend thinks the people of Boston would have no problem paying exorbitant taxes to Britain if they had representatives in Parliament, and he thinks the colonists’ defiant attitudes are just hurting that particular cause. Well, going meekly along with it isn’t helping either, is it? John helpfully title drops that the guy is the attorney general, so I’m guessing this is Jonathan Sewall. Sewall tells John that the governor’s pleased John’s taken on Preston’s case. John’s surprised that the governor’s even heard of him, but knows John’s an ambitious man and tells him this can only help.

The massacre victims are being buried, accompanied by many of the citizens of Boston, who carry hanged soldiers in effigy, which is a great way to celebrate a life, isn’t it? Sam Adams is right at the forefront, and as they pass the Adams house, he tells John he doesn’t have much of a case here. John begs to differ, but Sam warns him not to be foolish, because this isn’t the time to show off your cleverness, it’s time to choose sides. John refuses to do so, so Sam launches into a rousing speech about how evil Britain is. John growls that he doesn’t have the luxury of Sam’s inheritance, so he doesn’t have time to go about fomenting dissent, he’s got to work for a living.

Inside, John works on the case, stressing that the jury will have already made up their minds before the trial even begins, because they’re already pissed about the whole taxation without representation thing, and they’ll use that anger, even though this case isn’t about taxation. Abigail counsels him to bring that up but John’s reluctant to do so. Abigail presses, and urges him to also mask his dislike of those less intelligent than he.

Trial. A witness claims he heard Preston threatening the crowd and telling the soldiers to fire. The prosecutor asks the witness what the crowd was doing before that, and the witness says they were throwing snowballs. Yeah, snowballs, and rocks, and pretty much whatever they could get their hands on to create some blunt-force trauma.

John steps forward and asks the witness if members of the crowd had anything in their hands aside from snowballs. The witness puts on a big show of pretending to think about it, then claims not to remember. John jogs his memory by asking if anyone was carrying a club. The witness says they were, because the men were ropemakers who use the clubs in their business. John points out that those clubs could also be used as weapons, and then Sam steps in to rile up the crowd and shout that the crowd had assembled peacefully and lawfully. Sam, shut up. You weren’t even there. You got there after John did, from what we saw. The judge finally hushes the crowd and John gathers himself, taking a few seconds to glance up at the upper-floor gallery, where a black man is hugging a pillar and quietly watching the proceedings. John asks the witness how close he was to Preston when he heard the order to fire and the witness claims he was close enough to have touched the man, and that Preston was standing behind his men. Oh, really? That’s the story you’re going with, witless?

John’s now got a black man in the witness spot (I’m guessing it’s the same guy who was in the gallery earlier, although he looks older than that man did. Maybe they were looking at someone else up there.). The poor guy’s terrified and clawing at the railing in fear. When gently prompted by John, the man says he saw a bunch of boys shouting at the sentry and throwing ice and oyster shells. The abuse continued when Preston and the soldiers arrived. John asks how many people were there and the man says there were about 200 boys and men, which is a lot of people lobbing projectiles. As the man speaks, the men around him, including Witless, close in menacingly. This poor man is so, so dead. Still, he continues to give evidence. Bravest witness ever. John asks him if the crowd was shouting, and after some hesitation, the man says the crowd was yelling: “Fire!” Smart. Yelling “Fire” at a bunch of threatened soldiers. In this day and age, that’d get you a Darwin Award nomination for sure. John pats the man on the hand and sincerely thanks him.

John heads to the docks, passing by the ropemakers beating the rope with short clubs, and a few other people dipping ropes in hot tar. Everyone stares menacingly at him as he passes, but John doesn’t care. He finds the man he was looking for and tells him he knows he spoke to Preston the night of the massacre, and he wants him to be a witness. The man isn’t keen, so John starts persuading, asking the man if he wants innocent blood on his hands, if the soldiers are, indeed, innocent.

The man, Richard Palms, agrees to be a witness, but when he’s called forth in court he hesitates for a while before stepping up to the rail. The other men there stamp their feet in greeting, and Witless comes up to shake his hand. John asks Palms to confirm that he was standing next to Preston when the men fired. Palms does so, and John shows everyone where Palms’s coat was scorched by musket fire. John asks him what Palms and Preston spoke about, and Palms says he asked Preston if he intended to fire on the crowd. Preston, who was standing in front of the men, said no, because that would be potentially suicidal. John makes sure everyone understands that Witless lied about Preston being behind his men. John next asks when the order to fire came, and Palms says it was after the first shot was fired, and the order came from behind the soldiers. Palms can’t, however, swear that Preston did not order his men to fire. John thanks him and goes to Preston, asking him to back Palms’s testimony. Preston does, of course. John asks him which man fired first and Preston readily throws one Private Montgomery under the bus. Young Montgomery fired because he’d been smacked in the head with a club (John points out the injury for all to see), and when he fell to the ground, his musket discharged. And when that happened, all hell broke loose. As it does in the court, as the spectators start jeering Preston loudly until the judge orders them to be quiet. John reminds everyone that there were voices from behind the soldiers shouting for them to fire, and Preston agrees.

At night, John paces back and forth while Abigail reads his closing argument in bed. She quietly urges John to calm down, and somehow he deduces that she doesn’t like what she’s reading. She employs the old trick of starting with flattery first, and then moving on to criticism—her problem with the argument is a bit heavy on the classical allusions and big words. “You don’t need to quote great men to show you are one,” she says gently. He tries to argue for his verbosity but she still urges him to keep it simple. He folds and goes off to rewrite his argument after kissing her a few times.

The prosecutor gives his own closing argument, claiming the soldiers clearly meant to cause trouble because they loaded their weapons in the first place. Isn’t that fairly standard practice when being called to deal with an out-of-control, violent mob in the 18th century? It’s not like they could employ tear gas and rubber bullets.

John’s turn. He starts off with one of his quotes, throwing a cheeky look at Abigail, who’s watching from the gallery, and then moves on to acknowledge Boston’s anger over being taxed. He reminds everyone that that has nothing to do with the case, and that soldiers may defend themselves when attacked, just like anyone else. He urges a jury to think of themselves in the soldiers’ position and wonder if they, too, wouldn’t fear for their lives.

Back home, John muses about crops at the farm while one of the boys plays with toy soldiers on the floor. There’s a knock on the door, and a fancily dressed, bewigged man reports that the jury’s back already. John thinks that’s bad for them as he grabs his coat, tells his youngest son, Charles, not to leave his toys lying about, and heads out.

In the courtroom, the verdict is read out: Preston is found not guilty of murder, which pisses off the crowd something fierce. The soldiers are acquitted as well, and John almost cries. Sewall, who’s been watching all the proceedings from the side of the court, nods approvingly at John. Court is adjourned and John goes to his clients, who thank him profusely and hand over what little money they could scrape together. John counsels the young men to stick to the barracks for a while, and Preston rather meanly tells John to do the same, because he won’t be safe from the rabble. John proudly tells him he’s just been acquitted by a jury of New Engand men. The soldiers file out, and Sam smiles and bows to his cousin.

John arrives home and tells Abigail he won. She grins, hugs him, and laughs that there’ll be no living with him from now on. At their mother’s urging, the kids come forward to congratulate their dad. John accepts their congratulations, sends Nabby and Charles off on errands, and is playful with little John Quincy.

Sam and a few other guys have come for a visit, trying to enlist John’s help in the Sons of Liberty cause. One man, wearing a pretty funny poofy wig, earnestly tells John that he’s now famous for being impartial, and if he were to declare himself against the crown, it’d help their cause a lot. Sam urges John to stand for election on the Massachusetts council, but John says he’s too busy for politics, and he already served on the council once and hated it.

Another man—Mr. Payne (or Paine? Thomas Paine, maybe? I’m going to go with that) reminds John that they are being taxed like crazy, and John reminds him that a lot of the worst taxes were repealed. He apologizes, but says he won’t be joining the council or their cause anytime soon.

John and Abigail are having a fancy dinner with Sewall and his wife. Sewall casually mentions that a certain office has become vacant, and the governor and Sewall thought John would be a good candidate to fill it. John claims to be flattered and Sewall’s wife congratulates him. John doesn’t immediately leap to take the job, so Sewall starts to sell it, reminding John that his practice has fallen off since the trial, and this would be a really profitable appointment. John remains silent and, in Latin, Abigail suggests he’s remaining silent as a means of agreeing. John doesn’t deny it, but he doesn’t seem all that pleased either.

That night, he lies awake in bed, musing over what seems to be a fairly meteoric rags-to-riches rise. Or, at least, a potential one. He’s not happy about the idea of giving up the law and becoming the king’s man, though.

Sam drags John down to the docks, claiming John Hancock wants some advice from him. John’s no fool and suspects this is just another attempt to win him over to the Sons of Liberty cause. Sam promises this is just business and points out three ships loaded with tea which Boston men will have to unload and buy at a ruinously high tax rate. As they approach the ship, a well-dressed man gets into an altercation with the poor customs lackey, who’s totally just doing his job and trying to get this shipment unloaded so he can get on with his day. Well Dressed Man is none other than John Hancock, owner of the ship in question, and at this point the customs guy makes a mistake by accusing Hancock of dabbling in smuggling as well. Hancock claims to be an honest man being strangled by a monopoly, and then of course Sam has to get involved and cries shame on the customs man. He’s soon joined by the large and rather threatening crowd that’s gathered, and Customs Guy starts to look scared, as he should. Hancock urges the crowd to tar the customs guy, who tries to flee, but there’s no getting away from this. John begs Sam to calm everyone down, but Sam’s loving this. The crowd strips the poor man naked as the ship’s crew watches, and then, just for fun, they smear a bit of the boiling tar over his chest to start off. The man wails in pain, and then they pour the entire barrel of pitch over him. Jesus, that’s hard to watch. What is wrong with people? I mean, that would kill you, right? And what a horrible way to go. John looks sick, and even Sam starts to look horrified by the turn this has taken. John asks if Sam really approves of this, and Sam tries to fall back on his rhetoric, but John won’t let him get away with that. The customs man, now tarred and feathered, is put up on a beam and carried around by the horrible, horrible mob. I am so glad I didn’t live in Boston back then. What the hell was wrong with these people? I know they were frustrated, but geez. Torturing and killing random people? Stoning soldiers? Not the best way to get what you want.

John goes to see Sewall and tells him things are getting bad on the street. Sewall tells John the colony can’t dictate to Parliament or to the king, and that taxes are necessary to keep the empire going. After all, the French and Indian War wasn’t cheap and it still needs to be paid for. John says he has no problem with taxes, just with the way they’re being administered. Sewall tells him the offer of the new job still stands.

John sits down with Abigail that night and tells her he doesn’t think the crown is terribly bad, just misguided. She reminds him that Sam and his buddies don’t think so, and John laughs that Sam and his friends seem intent on taking the government of the colony into their own hands. He tells her people need strong governance, because most people are weak, evil, and vicious. As he now well knows. She says nothing, only silently offers him her hand to hold.

Soldiers are on the move in Boston, marching, wheeling cannon about. Not looking good. An official looking type reads out a proclamation from the Custom House (I think). Basically, it puts the colony on lockdown, forbidding any goods from being imported into or exported from Massachusetts and sending anyone engaging in insurrection to England for trial. Harsh, folks. Not that I totally blame them. Oh, and any British soldier accused of a crime will have his case heard in England and the council is to be disbanded.

Soon, English ships start gathering in the bay to cut the colony off. Sam and John take a tour of the harbor to see and Sam says the people won’t sit idly by and watch this happen. John points out that they stand little chance against the might of the British Empire. As they watch more soldiers disembark from ships, Sam quietly tells John that a congress is meeting in Philadelphia to discuss the rights and liberties of the colonies. Sam has sweetly nominated his politically averse cousin to represent Massachusetts. Wow, thanks for nominating me for treasonous duty, Sam! What a giver!

John asks if this congress has any legal authority, or if they’re just making it really easy for the British to pick out the most rebellious leaders. Sam doesn’t answer.

John’s next visit is to Sewall, who’s seriously stressed out by everything that’s been going on in Boston lately. Sewall says this is not the time for the crown to be all warm and fuzzy with the colonists. John tells him that these new acts strip them of some pretty basic rights. Sewall informs John that the crown thinks the courts of the colonies are now hopelessly biased and can’t be trusted to deliver justice. Courts in England, I guess, were totally pure and unbiased. John’s hurt by that and asks if Preston didn’t receive justice? Sewall just says that the crown has ruled and the only way now is to be obedient, like good little children. John snippily wishes Sewall a good day, and Sewall looks sad. Ahh, the end of a bromance is always tragic.

Late at night, Abigail comes downstairs to find John still hard at work in his study. She reads what he’s writing over his shoulder and looks sad too, even as she rubs his head affectionately.

Sam’s doing his firebrand thing in a church somewhere, reading out a message about the Continental Congress being gathered in Philadelphia. The crowd, which includes John and Abigail, claps. Sam goes on to read out the names of the delegates Massachusetts is sending: John Hancock; Robert Treat Paine (sorry, not Tom Paine as I thought); Crazy Wig, whose name is actually Mr. Garrett; and John Adams. John, as the newest delegate, gets to read a speech, so he takes the pulpit and gets started. It’s suitably rousing: he reminds everyone that they have God-given rights that they are due, and it’s not right for a few nobles to inherit everything. The meanest man in the world has just as much right to air and clothes and a living as kings and dukes. That’s liberty, and America shall have liberty! The crowd gets to its feet and cheers him as he takes his seat again. Abigail congratulates him, but he’s not ready to rest on his laurels yet. He knows this is going to be rough and worries that they’re not ready for this drastic a move.

Nonetheless, he’s off. Abigail and John Q. help him pack while John scolds Charles (man, what’s his deal with this kid? Every time we’ve seen them together he’s yelling at him). Abigail, by the way, is out-to-here pregnant. Nabby and John Q. hear music and run to the window just in time to see a procession that features a really fancy carriage come to a stop in front of their door. John’s horrified and tells Sam, who steps out of the carriage, that his horse’ll suit him fine. “A plain horse for plain John Adams,” says Sam  cheerfully. John exchanges a look with Abby before wigging himself up and heading out to leave. He worries about Abigail, wondering if she’ll be safe in Boston. She’s obviously anxious but reassures him they’ll go to the farm and be safe out there. They kiss and embrace, both trying not to tear up. John mounts his horse, Sam and the others get in their fancy carriage, and John takes one last look at his family. He asks Abigail to forgive him, bids the kids farewell, and off the delegates go, as the music swells and British soldiers march past on their guard duty. John passes by Sewall, who still looks sad and can barely look his old friend in the eye. Nabby and John Q. hold hands as their father goes. The crowd slowly disappears, leaving Abigail and her children alone.



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