Previously on John Adams: John and Abigail reunited and spent a few years in Europe, then returned home to find their oldest son in a relationship they don’t approve of and their second son well on his way to having a drinking problem. And then John got elected Vice President.
John is with the congress, trying to decide how Washington will be addressed. He thinks just calling him ‘president’ isn’t impressive enough. The congress is impatient but John won’t yield the floor. He proposes several methods of addressing Washington, almost all of them royalty related, aside from the last, “his excellency, the supreme commander in chief.” One of the congressmen (actually, I guess they’re senators and John’s acting in his capacity as president of the senate) reminds John that their constitution explicitly forbids the granting of titles of nobility. John says this is no such thing, it’s just a title that goes along with an elected position. They call for a vote, and only one guy is in favor of the president being referred to as “his highness.” Motion failed. One of the senators rudely pokes fun at John as they get up to leave and he just looks frustrated and defeated. Vice president is such a thankless job, isn’t it?
We learn it’s now 1790. John’s evidently been bitching about his day to Abigail, who’s agitatedly organizing some linen. She shortly tells him he should have consulted with Washington before he met with the senate and John tries to defend himself, saying the office of the president should carry with it appropriate gravity, such as that which accompanies monarchical titles. Abigail yells that he should hold his tongue with the monarchy talk, because people are already saying his mind’s been tainted by foreign courts. “Well, a man cannot go to Europe without being tainted, as you well know,” he sneers. Oh, ouch! He evidently realizes he’s gone too far and tries to joke his way out of it, but Abigail stalks out of the room, pissed.
John follows her and apologizes, in his way. She tells him that she’s sorry she hasn’t been around to keep his worst nature in check, but she can’t be in Philadelphia all the time, because someone needs to run their farm. Evidently, she doesn’t think his salary of $5,000 a year (I’m guessing that’s in dollars) is sufficient, even though as recently as the 1930s that would have been somewhere in the neighborhood of $200,000, so I can’t imagine what that would have been worth in 1790. Jesus, lady, how much money do you need? The house you guys bought wasn’t that big, it’s not like you need an army of servants!
John suggests they find a tenant for the farm and she tells him there aren’t any around, so he tells her to just leave the place, because he needs her. She says he needs to mind his tongue, which he can do without her around, but we all know she’ll stay. He promises to reform if she does. She promises to stay until congress adjourns. Good enough for now, I guess. He grabs her hand and kisses it before she goes. This really is such a fine portrait of a marriage that went through thick and thin and yet somehow managed to survive, though not without its rough days.
Hey, Rufus Sewell’s playing Alexander Hamilton! I’d forgotten about that! He, John, Washington, Jefferson and a few others are sitting down to a meal and Jefferson’s talking about how awesome it was to be in Revolutionary France, but then he came home and all anybody talks about is money. Well, the states already had their revolution, now it’s time to move on to other things, Tom. Like how to fund the running of the country. Hamilton essentially says as much and tells everyone that the future prosperity of their country lies in trade, and they need to establish some international credit to get that going. To do that, he intends to establish a national debt, because the greater the debt the greater the credit. I don’t understand that concept. Granted, I’m not an economist by any means, but how does that work? The less able you are to pay money back, the more money people are willing to lend you? I’m fairly sure my bank wouldn’t feel that way about me, nor would my credit card company. So, why’s it different for countries? If someone wants to go ahead and explain this, I’m all ears.
Anyway, Hamilton wants the national government to assume all the debts the states have run up. Jefferson points out that, if the states are indebted to the central government, it’ll make the central government more powerful, which he’s not keen on, but Hamilton is. Jefferson muses that the moneyed interests in the country are primarily concentrated in the north (which was more industrialized, compared with the more agrarian south), and so power would end up being tipped there. He’s basically just put his finger on some major issues that informed the Civil War. Hamilton says that’s a necessary evil if they’re going to preserve the union. Jefferson doesn’t like this idea at all, and it’s clear some tension is now building up between him and Hamilton.
John finally breaks in and plays the peacemaker, saying that they need a strong central government, but also need to attend to the needs of the individual states, both north and south. Washington finally opens his mouth to welcome Jefferson home as the secretary of state. He then says there are cabinet matters he wants to discuss, and he’d like John to leave. Ouuuuch. John looks hurt but goes to leave, referring to Washington as “Mr. President.” Washington tells him “Mr. President” it shall be, and nothing more. Ok, then.
John’s back in the senate, but instead of trying to bend them to his will, he’s reading the paper while they debate. When John tries to guide them, he’s rebuffed, so he goes back to his paper, looking bored out of his mind.
He later goes to an outdoor café and moans that the office of vice president is totally pointless. What’s more, it’s torture for him to sit and listen to men talk all day and not be allowed to speak himself. His dining companion, who looks familiar, but for the life of me I can’t remember who he is, tells John that there are rumors that some voter tampering was at work during the election; that some members of the electoral college were urged not to vote for John, so he didn’t wind up embarrassing Washington. John’s disgusted that their very first election went dirty. He also gives us a brief history lesson: his party is referred to as the “Federalists” because they believe in strong central government, whereas the other side is known as “Republicans” because they believe in the sovereignty of the people. Well, the sovereignty of white males, at least. John’s not happy that they’re already dividing into parties, but that just seems to be what happens with politics.
Jefferson’s visiting Abigail and John and talking about his constant building projects at Monticello. No wonder he was always broke. Abigail shows John the plans for Monticello as we know it today. They talk about the craziness in France but Thomas thinks the violence will end soon, as it did in the US. Abigail wonders what will replace the old order once it’s pulled down, and Thomas predicts they’ll end up with a constitutional monarchy with a parliament similar to what they have in England. He must have been surprised at how wrong he was. He said as much to Lafayette, and John’s not terribly pleased to hear that Thomas was involving himself in revolutionary affairs while acting as the United States’s ambassador. Jefferson says he was merely asked for advice and he gave it. He claims the French court was aware of his activities and thought he might be a moderating influence.
John doesn’t have such a rosy view of France’s future. He predicts that Louis could become a victim of the violence, which will freak out England and Spain, who’ll probably declare war on France to protect their own monarchies, and America’s treaty with France will drag them straight into the conflict. Thomas still thinks it’s great that France has revolutionary fever and they should be celebrating that. John asks if that’s the advice he gave the president. Abigail’s starting to look really uncomfortable.
Talk then steers to the government. Jefferson thinks Washington has too much power, and congress too little, which makes the president monarch in all but name (and he almost had the name too, thanks to John). He’s afraid Washington will view his position as a sort of monarchy, and refuse to leave it. Oh, come on, Tom. The man’s proven to be incredibly humble so far, and not at all power mad. Why do you assume the worst of him, Thomas? John says he’s no fan of monarchy, but he’s seen too many mobs and knows better than to entrust them with the running of anything. Rather darkly, Jefferson says the tree of liberty must be watered from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. Well, that’s creepy.
That night, Abigail warns John to be careful with Jefferson, because he’s definitely changed, and not for the better.
John’s at work, dictating a letter to Smith. After they finish, Smith asks for permission to speak on a personal matter. John distractedly goes about his business, until Smith says he’s in love with Nabby, and then he sure as hell starts to pay attention and gets all scary dad.
Apparently the talk doesn’t go well, because John reports back to Abigail that he vetoed the proposal. Abigail thinks he’s being a dick and tells him to reconsider.
John’s seated in the hallway outside someone’s office, listening to a heated argument going on inside between Hamilton and Jefferson. The two men emerge, along with Washington, who yells at them for being children, basically. Hamilton goes back into his office, Jefferson takes off, and John tells Washington he just swung by to tell him he’s going back home for a bit, because his daughter’s being married. Washington remembers the groom and congratulates John on the fine match Nabby’s made. John bids him good day, but Washington invites him to stay for lunch. John manages not to dance a little jig of happiness.
At lunch, Washington complains about the fact that Jefferson and Hamilton can’t agree on anything, which is especially bad right now, because England’s about to go to war with France, and Washington feels they can’t continue trading with England while supporting her enemy. John advises neutrality.
Abigail tears up as she watches her daughter get married in the garden at Peacefield. Nabby and Smith are both smiling brightly, and a pretty young woman (Smith’s sister) catches Charles’s eye. Afterward, the family’s dining and Smith breaks the news that he and Nabby are going to be heading to London, where he’s got some business opportunities lined up. John frowns on speculation and thinks Smith should find himself a profession. Smith says he’d put the trip off if he could find some work with the government. He asks John to put in a word with Washington, but John’s not willing to do so.
Hamilton’s come for a visit, to urge John to remain VP if Washington decides to stand for reelection. If Washington doesn’t stand, John will be the party’s choice for next president. John seems to like that idea. Hamilton wants John to return to Philadelphia to show himself and silently stump.
John returns, pausing his horse to watch a Frenchman behead a dummy of King Louis right in front of Independence Hall. Uh, yay liberty? The crowd gathered there cheers.
It seems Washington took John’s advice. He meets with the French ambassador, accompanied by John and the cabinet, and tells the man the US plans to remain neutral, now that England’s declared war. The ambassador reminds him they have a treaty, but Hamilton points out the treaty was made with King Louis, and his murder makes that null and void. The ambassador gets snippy and says he’s met lots of people in America who are willing to fight for the French cause, and it’s not for Washington to command him. Well, yes it is. He’s in charge, and he can kick you out of the country, if I’m not mistaken. Jefferson looks a bit sick.
He and John meet in a tavern, and John urges him to see the logic in keeping out of a war that has nothing at all to do with them. Jefferson thinks the neutrality will actually favor the British, and he accuses John of being blind to Hamilton’s schemes. He thinks Hamilton wants America to be British in all by name, and that he’s appealing to everyone’s fear and greed to make that happen. John says that, without the government, the country would have collapsed into anarchy long ago, and Jefferson counters that, with this government, he’s not sure they even have a republic. But it doesn’t really matter what he thinks, because he’s handed in his resignation. John’s sorry to hear that, but Jefferson’s mind is made up, and he’s rather happy to go, because he never really loved all the fighting. He raises a glass to the revolution. “Whose?” John asks drily. “They’re one in the same, John!” Jefferson hisses. “Don’t you see that?” Well, no, actually. One revolution was fought to free a colony from an oppressive mother country, the other kind of started out similarly but then became a horrific bloodbath that served no purpose other than to terrorize people and completely screw up the country for many, many years after. And it didn’t even accomplish all that much, because in short order they ended up with an emperor, and then the Bourbon kings came back for a while. And then they had another emperor.
Washington summons John to his office and confirms that John’s heard about Jefferson’s resignation. Hamilton, who’s there as well, is sure they haven’t heard the last of Jefferson. Washington’s more concerned about the fact that this war between France and England is putting them in a tough position, and Hamilton chirps up that England is now pissed at America for even having received the French ambassador. Washington tells John he’s sending a special envoy to London, whom John approves of, and he wants to send Johnny abroad as well.
John shares the news with his son, informing him that he’s to be the ambassador to the Netherlands. Good deal. John’s all proud of his son and tells him it’ll be important that he maintain peace with England. Johnny’s not as excited as his dad, though he won’t refuse it, out of duty. He asks to take his youngest brother Thomas with him as secretary, but John doesn’t want to send Thomas, who’s apprenticed to a lawyer. Johnny informs his father that Thomas doesn’t enjoy the law, a fact that surprises John, because Thomas has never said anything about it. Possibly because, as we noticed last episode, Thomas is The Pleaser in the family. Johnny’s The Dutiful One, Charles is The Disappointment, and Nabby’s The Precious Girl.
For some insane reason, before he goes, Johnny hands $2,000 over to Charles and asks him to find some way to invest it. Why, Johnny, why? The boys head outside, where a carriage is waiting, along with the rest of the Adams family. Nabby’s got a cute baby now, and Miss Smith has married Charles. Johnny hugs his mother goodbye as John gives Thomas some last-minute advice. When they swap, John urges Johnny not to disappoint him, because all the family’s hopes are in him. No pressure!
At some point later, John’s having his hair done while he visits with Charles in New York and apologizes for having to return to Philadelphia so soon. But it seems there’s a treaty with England now, so he has to go back and attend to his political duties. He asks Charles how his practice is going, and Charles just says he has clients. John praises Sally, Charles’s wife, and then bitches at him for marrying young. With one hand he gives, with the other takes. Charles reminds John that he himself married young, and it doesn’t take long for a whole gush of repressed anger is unleashed in John’s direction by the son he always did nothing but yell at. Charles accuses John and Abigail of abandoning him and Thomas to go gallivant around Europe. John responds by calling his son a frivolous boy who knows nothing of duty and honor. Charles refuses to back down and asks John why he wasn’t half as devoted to his family as he was to his precious country. John turns on his heel and stalks out, and at that point Charles plaintively asks if he and Sally have his blessing. Oh, so I guess they’re not married yet, then. John doesn’t respond.
The senate is in an uproar, and it takes quite a bit of gavel pounding on John’s part to bring them to order. They’re split down the middle over whether or not to ratify the treaty with England, which means John actually gets to do something: break the tie. The senators aren’t happy about that. John casts his vote in favor of the treaty, and one of the senators accuses him of falling in line with Washington because he wants to be president someday. John informs the man that he has to fall in line with current policies and look up to the president’s chair because he’s the next in line should Washington drop dead all of a sudden.
Outside, crowds aren’t all that happy with the treaty either. They’re protesting and waving French flags outside Washington’s home. Inside, Washington tells Adams that the treaty hasn’t gone over so well, which is pretty obvious, and that the people think he’s selling the country out to England. I can see how this might have been a massively unpopular move—siding with the monarchy you so recently threw off against another country fighting for liberty. But then again, the States couldn’t afford to go pissing off the most powerful country in the world and destroying their trade relations, so this was a real rock/hard place situation. John tells him not to sweat it, because mobs will always say mean things. Well, they will until John Adams made it illegal to do so.
Wringing his hands, Washington tells him his desk is overflowing with letters and petitions calling him a traitor for siding with England. He firmly says that he doesn’t agree with every last word in the treaty, but it does keep them out of the war, which is all he really wants. He sadly looks out at the crowd and says now he knows what it’s like to be hated. Poor Washington.
Washington has evidently decided to relinquish the presidency at the end of his second term, a move that amazes Abigail, who thinks Washington could have served until his death. John notes that this does mean he’s essentially heir apparent to the presidency. He’ll probably be facing down Jefferson, though, a prospect John doesn’t relish.
John’s friend, Benjamin Rush, reports to the Adams home with some political cartoons Jefferson’s buddies have been spreading around. They accuse John of being a monarchist, same old, same old. Rush, sounding like John’s campaign manager, says they can expect the south to go for Jefferson, New England to cleave to John, and New York, Pennsylvania, and South Carolina are all wild cards. Oh, and there’s a third candidate entering the race: Thomas Pinkney of South Carolina. John thinks he’s an absurd candidate, because he has no experience. Rush informs him that Hamilton’s been throwing his support behind Pinkney because he thinks John won’t be able to compete effectively with Thomas, and all Hamilton wants is for Jefferson to be defeated.
It falls to John to read the final results of the electoral college votes to the senate. He gets 71 votes, just edging out Jefferson by three. It takes a minute, but then a few of the senators start to applaud for him.
As he arrives home and takes the oath of office in voiceover, John eyes some black people on the street. And that’s pretty much it. Odd. We switch to the interior of the senate and watch him complete the oath. He gets far less fanfare than Washington did, but keeps the “so help me God” in the end. Once finished, he acknowledges Jefferson as the new vice president, and then addresses the senate. He remembers reading the constitution abroad, and talks about how great the experiment that is America turned out to be. He also heaps praise on Washington, who’s in attendance as well. The speech goes over well, and afterwards John shakes hands with Jefferson, asking him to just call him plain old “John”, and then shakes hands with Washington.
John and Abigail arrive at the president’s house, only to learn it’s been completely cleaned out by Washington’s departing household staff. Well, that sucks. It looks like they kind of trashed the place too. Abigail makes her way through the ransacked rooms, calling such behavior deplorable.
A little later, John’s sitting on one of the only chairs in the place, looking tired and defeated already. He admits, out of the blue, that he hates giving speeches, which I’m sure is news to his wife, who’s had to listen to them for decades now. He complains a bit about getting old and she counsels him to look at all the good things in his life: three sons with good careers, a daughter and a cute grandkid, and a wife who loves him. She leaves him to his moaning, finds a broom and begins cleaning up. He asks her not to tell anyone about his complaints, and she scolds him for being so vain and silly, at his age, and in his exulted position. She urges him to get up and help her, and he reluctantly obeys.