Previously on John Adams: John discovered that the role of vice president is pointless and thankless, but luckily he’s rescued from it by being elected president.
John’s strolling down the streets of Philadelphia with Jefferson, telling his VP that the French have started capturing American ships, and even tortured the captain of one. Jefferson essentially tells him that this is all John’s fault, because of that treaty with England. John doesn’t even address that. He’s worried about being drawn into a war with their former ally or with England, when America’s still establishing itself. He wants to send Jefferson to France to see what he can do. Jefferson mildly says there are some who’ll say he’s just trying to remove his chief rival to the presidency. And by “some” I think he means “me.” Jefferson refuses to go to France. Clearly, politicians were putting their own careers ahead of the best interests of the country from its very founding. How sad.
Jefferson goes on to knock John’s cabinet, which he inherited from Washington and didn’t change at all. Which means, I’m guessing, that Jefferson’s old nemesis Hamilton is still there. Indeed, Jefferson invokes Hamilton and says he’s trying to drive the cabinet to support a war with France. John says he’s determined to avoid just that thing, but Jefferson doesn’t seem certain John has the power to prevent it.
John reminds Jefferson that Thomas once promised he’d always be John’s friend. Jefferson says he is, but John snaps that what he doesn’t have is Jefferson’s support, which is something he really needs from his second-in-command. Sadly and tiredly, he tells Thomas he won’t bother him again, and bids him good day.
It’s now 1797. John’s meeting with some advisors, who are telling him that the French are going crazy attacking their ships, and war has become inevitable. John grumbles that war is never inevitable and must be the course of last resort. One of the advisors asks after the envoy John sent to France. John hopes he’ll be successful, but in the meantime, it would be prudent to arrange for the country’s defense. The first speaking advisor, Mr. McHenry, pushes John to create a provisional army, so they’re not just relying on state militia. John’s not interested in army building. McHenry says that Hamilton thinks an army is essential, and John reminds him that Hamilton’s no longer serving in the government. When did that happen? I feel like I missed a big chunk of time and information between scenes, here.
Another advisor, one with a rather rat-like face, pinched mouth, and bulging eyes who looks somewhat familiar to me, rudely points out that John spent most of the Revolution abroad, whereas he and McHenry were in the U.S., on the front lines. John shuts him down and tells them to respect him and his wishes, as they did Washington.
That night, in bed, Abigail observes that something’s clearly bothering John. John admits to being frustrated at being unable to express himself in a way that garners the support of his own government. Abigail says the problem isn’t him, it’s his audience. John gets all emotional at the lack of support and council he’s getting, and he knows a war would be disastrous. Abigail advises him to hold firm to his beliefs, but be prepared for a war, if war does come.
John’s son-in-law, Colonel Smith, has come to see him, and starts off the meeting by telling John how sorry he is that things suck right now. What’s more, he offers to serve in the army again, if they do indeed go to war. John shortly says Congress will decide such things, so Smith gets to the purpose of his visit: he wants John to act as a reference for him, essentially. John turns him down flat. Ouch! Smith looks like he’s been slapped. John accuses the poor man of having bankrupted himself with unwise investments and tells him he should have gotten a good, steady job and been happy with that. Smith snaps that, if John had helped out just a little with that, such a job might have more easily been found. Snap! Man, John is kind of a dick to his kids and their relatives, isn’t he? Just give the guy a helping hand, John, how hard is that?
John just gets pissed at Smith for saying the truth, but Smith refuses to back down. John yells at him for trying to capitalize on the Adams family name, and Smith flings right back that John hasn’t hesitated to use that name and his position to find good jobs for his own sons, whether they deserved it or not. John has no comeback for that, so he just sends Smith on his way.
Smith leaves and heads to the laundry room, where Abigail and Nabby are ironing and having a good old time. I know how entertaining I always found doing laundry with my mom. Clearly struggling to keep his temper in check, Smith respectfully asks Abigail if it would be all right for Nabby and the kids to remain at Peacefield for a while. Abigail clearly knows exactly what’s happened here, and she looks devastated as she tells Smith that Nabby can, of course, remain at Peacefield. Nabby, on the other hand, is totally in the dark, so Smith has to spell it out. He explains that his bad investments have tarnished his reputation, so if he’s going to start over, he has to go somewhere where he’s unknown. He’s considering going west, which was no small or safe thing in those days. Nabby runs to him and begs him to stay, as Abigail tries to slip out, but Smith urges her to stay, bitterly commenting that her husband can’t be alone in his bad opinion of his son-in-law. That’s a bit harsh, Smith. He collects himself and tries to be calm as he tells Nabby he has lots of preparations to make. She tearfully excuses herself and Smith gives Abigail the coldest, most passive-aggressive bow you’ve ever seen in your life.
John has moved on from domestic matters and is dealing with the international ones. Apparently his envoy, Mr. Marshall, has been thoroughly dissed by the French in a number of really insulting dispatches. John thinks this means war’s all but inevitable, because they can’t let insults like that stand, and if he doesn’t release the dispatches, he thinks Jefferson and his party will use it against him, accusing John of withholding important information. The advisor with him (McHenry, maybe?) urges him to try and reconcile with Jefferson and seek his help in keeping this whole matter contained.
John takes the advice and shows the dispatches to Jefferson, who seems shocked when he reads that the French minister, Talleyrand, basically tried to shake down their envoy. Jefferson thinks the problem is with Talleyrand, not the whole French government, and John informs Jefferson that Talleyrand is the French government. Jefferson’s next tactic is to suggest their envoys encouraged this behavior. Really, Tom? You think the American envoys actually encouraged the French to try and extort huge sums of money from them? Why? What purpose would that serve? He’s really grasping at straws, here. John tells him that’s not the case, and he doesn’t see how they can continue to deal diplomatically with France. So, he’s going on the offensive. They’re going to start arming their merchant ships, and he’s calling Washington out of retirement to start putting an army together. Jefferson’s horrified by the idea, assuming that Washington will just defer to Hamilton (on military matters? Why? Hamilton’s the money man, isn’t he?) and assuming the building of an army would be a provocation to France. John shouts that Talleyrand provoked first and Jefferson accuses John of wanting war from the get-go. John firmly tells him that, if there is a war, it’ll be France’s fault. Jefferson leaves in a snit.
John joins Abigail at the theater, where a speaker bedecked in red, white, and blue praises him to the skies and leads the packed theater in cheers for the president. John seems startled by this adulation, but he acknowledges it. The speaker starts singing a patriotic song as another of John’s guests comments that all of Philadelphia is now at his feet. John chuckles that the crowd is notoriously fickle, but he and the other patrons join in the song. Everyone cheers some more after it’s over, Abigail beams proudly, and John seems bolstered by the support.
Things seem to be rolling along towards a conflict. John’s meeting with his cabinet and reading a new law that gives the president the right to declare the subjects of a foreign enemy living in the U.S. hostile aliens. That seems a bit harsh. And also a ripe opportunity for abuse. John doesn’t seem keen about this, but the cabinet pushes for it, because if a war does come, they can’t have potential spies running around. John puts that aside for now and moves on to the rest of the bill, which makes it illegal to speak out against the government, essentially. Freedom of speech, anyone? Wasn’t that basically the whole point of including that in the Constitution? The rat-faced minister thinks these are great acts, because they’ll allow the administration to root out their enemies. And that, right there, is a really scary line, and basically the reason why these acts are appalling to anyone who thinks highly of the freedoms that America was founded on. The fact that they were signed into law by a founding father, and one who signed the Declaration of Independence, no less, and pushed so hard for independence in the first place, is all the more horrifying.
Talk turns to war with France, and John once again says he wants to maintain peace if he can.
Abigail reads a mean opinion piece from the paper aloud to John, who I’m sure has already read it. She’s indignant, but he doesn’t seem to care, saying that it’s beneath the dignity of the president to respond to such statements. Abigail angrily says that, in any other country, such outrageous claims would have been silenced long ago. Really, Abigail? You know what that silence would have meant? Someone was either thrown into prison or killed. Is that really what you’re advocating?
She reads the rest of the article, which sums up with a long list of really, really mean adjectives that seriously call into question the integrity of the so-called “journalist” who wrote it. It’s something even Fox News might think was out of line. John still refuses to rise to the bait, and even manages to crack a joke. Wow, look who’s starting to get all cuddly in his old age.
Jefferson comes to visit and warns John that the Alien and Sedition Act is making it look like he’s setting out to silence the opposition. He (rightly) points out that this is an assault on the freedoms they fought so hard for and asks John if he intends to deport every Frenchman and naysayer in the nation. John holds firm to the party line and says that, if it comes down to his nation’s safety, then yes, he’ll do just that. He claims that these are measures to protect the nation from war, but Jefferson counters that he can’t protect the nation by taking away everyone’s right to speak freely without being afraid of getting thrown in prison. He tells John that the states will have no choice but to oppose these measures, which seems to surprise John, since he claims the representatives of the states were the ones who demanded these acts. Jefferson’s unwilling to stick around and see this happen, so he informs John he’ll be heading home to Monticello. John shortly says that’s his privilege, if he chooses.
That night, John looks troubled, sitting on the foot of his bed. Abigail tries to reassure him, since for once in his life the people are on his side, and he slides off the bed, takes one last look at the Act, and signs it.
Washington’s willing to try and put an army together, but only on the condition that Hamilton serves as his second-in-command. And Hamilton himself has arrived to deliver Washington’s letter to John, who really has no choice to accept. Hamilton moves on to describe exactly how the army will be divided and subdivided, but all the army talk bores John, who was never a soldier, and he cuts him off and tells him they’ll talk tactics later, after he returns from Peacefield. Just before he goes, Hamilton shows him the sketch of the soldiers’ uniforms, getting really into the description of the buttons and such. It’s like 18th century Project Runway! John frets about having the army at all, because he knows it’ll be provocative, but Hamilton tells him they can’t keep relying on incompetent state militia forever, and anyway, a national army will help bring the nation together. And then he goes back to talking about buttons.
Thomas brings John a letter at Peacefield that brings good news—things in France are calming down a bit, Napoleon’s taking over, and it’s been made known that a new envoy from the United States would be respectfully received. John recognizes that the French Revolution has, in a sense, failed, since they just went right back to a monarchy, but he’s pleased by this turn of events.
Abigail and Nabby are out in the barn cleaning tack. Abigail asks if Nabby’s heard from Smith lately. Nabby shortly says there hasn’t. Abigail then, unnecessarily, tells her daughter that it’s not good for the kids to be without their father for so long. Well, it’s not like this was really their top choice, Abigail. This was the only option left open to them, because your damn husband wouldn’t help out! Acting like this is what Smith and Nabby want is kind of bitchy. Nabby responds in kind, telling her mother she’s resigned to her husband’s absences, as Abigail herself once was. Abigail rather clumsily offers to help, but Nabby cuts her off and tells her that Smith will be back as soon as he can. Abigail changes the subject and suggests Nabby return to Philadelphia with her parents in the fall, but Nabby says she and the kids are fine at Peacefield, and it’s not appropriate for the president’s daughter to be living in the city without her husband. Why, I have no idea. Abigail gives up and goes back into the house.
Trenton. Hamilton, now in his natty uniform, is reporting in and urging John to respond to all the hostilities in Europe. John tells him that, once the yellow fever is gone from Philly and the government can resume its work, he’ll return and they’ll address the matter then. Hamilton tells him it’s looking like the Bourbons will be restored to the French throne, which will make any dealings with Napoleon’s government illegal and could draw the U.S. into a war they can’t really afford to be fighting just now. John asks him what will happen if the French are victorious and Hamilton says that they’d need to start laying their hands on valuable territories, like Spanish Florida and French Louisiana, before the French can get them. He also mentions that there are some states that favor secession, and should that happen, they need to be ready to bring them back to the fold.
John calls Hamilton a fool for advocating actions that would probably bring about the very things he claims to be trying to prevent. John knows they’re unlikely to find a French army on their shores anytime soon and accuses him of being insane and wanting to build a giant empire. He dismisses Hamilton, who reminds John he became president just by the skin of his teeth before swirling out.
John returns to Philadelphia, where his pissed off cabinet demands to know why he didn’t ask their permission before asking congress to disband the army. McHenry claims John never would have done this if Washington was still alive, and John allows that Washington was the natural leader of the army and is entirely irreplaceable. I’m sure he especially doesn’t want the army in Hamilton’s hands. Another advisor, Pickering, the rat-faced guy, asks him why he’s disbanding the army when they’re getting ready for a war. John tells him they’re preparing for peace, and he’s determined to see that go through. McHenry tells him his reelection would be all but certain if he brought the army back, but John’s not so interested in that. Pickering spits that John’s abandoning his party in favor of Jefferson, and John shouts that he’d rather be vice-president under Jefferson, or anyone else on earth, for that matter, than serve the interests of someone like Hamilton. He shortly tells them their immediate resignations will be duly accepted. Pickering refuses to resign, so John offers to fire him instead. Off they go.
Charles’s wife, Sally (who’s played by Mamie Gummer, a.k.a. Meryl Streep’s daughter, by the way), has brought her very young children to see Abigail, and she tells her mother-in-law that Charles is in a pretty bad way these days. It’s gotten so bad she didn’t feel safe having the kids with him. Seems he’s been drinking a lot, driven by guilt over having lost Johnny’s $2000, which Charles was supposed to invest. Sally claims Charles was cheated by speculators. Well, yeah, he’s an idiot. He hasn’t gotten up the courage to tell Johnny about the loss either. Abigail thinks and looks distressed.
John alights from a carriage in a really bad part of town (Boston, I’m guessing, unless Charles moved to Philadelphia at some point). He asks for directions to Charles’s house and is pointed the way. He knocks and then lets himself into what can only be described as a depressing hovel. Charles is draped across a filthy table, passed out drunk. John takes in the sight, then loses his temper and smashes the bottles and glasses with his cane, startling his son awake. John immediately lights into his son, because that’s worked so well in the past. He informs Charles that his mother is beside herself, and that he’s squandered all their fine plans for him. Charles tearfully invites his father to curse him some more, since that’s all he’s ever done for him. John’s lip trembles, but in a firm voice he renounces his son, pushing him away when Charles begs him for mercy. John turns and makes his way out before Charles can see him start to weep. I’ve heard this isn’t entirely accurate—apparently John never renounced Charles and their relationship wasn’t quite this strained, but it’s definitely affecting.
John reports back to Abigail, who admits that Charles has his faults, but she can’t forsake him. She and John agree that Sally and the kids will remain with them in Philadelphia, until they move to the new capital at Washington, at which point they can head to Peacefield. Abigail wonders what they might have done wrong, but John tells her that they gave Charles every advantage, and it’s pointless to speculate on what might have been or to throw blame around.
Washington, D.C. is a city being built by slaves. John and Abigail arrive at the still unfinished White House by carriage in winter, looking uncomfortably at the people building the place. John helps Abigail alight at the front door, and they head inside the cold, echoing house as the builders stop and stare at them. Inside, there are smoky fires burning in all the rooms to help the plaster dry and to hasten everyone’s lung cancer. Abigail and John start hesitantly exploring as the man in charge reassures them the place will be ready soon. Abigail’s appalled that slaves are building their new nation’s capital. John pats her on the shoulder and then goes to look at the portrait of George Washington, wondering if Washington’s welcoming them or showing them the way out.
John’s getting to work, even as workmen continue to build around him. He finds a pamphlet written by Hamilton calling John’s character into question. Isn’t that illegal now? Abigail, scrubbing some silver nearby, listens as John reads the pamphlet aloud. An advisor hovering nearby tells John that the letter could very well damage him, if it finds its way into the hands of the electors. John knows this is all petty revenge, because he got rid of the army. He angrily flops onto a sofa, then asks if there’s any news from Paris. None.
That night, John and Abigail eat dinner and he rereads Hamilton’s pamphlet. He chuckles and calls it evil, because it’ll mean the election of the man Hamilton hates, or at least pretends to hate, more than John. Abigail asks if he’s resigned (presumably to losing the election) and John tosses the letter into the fire and says he’s always been ready to accept the consequences of his actions. All he really wants is peace with France. Abigail lifts a glass to that. John looks around and hopes that none but wise men should rule there. Oh, if only that could have been true.
Abigail arrives home at Peacefield and is immediately greeted by Nabby, who’s relieved to see her mother. Sally, looking worn, comes down the stairs, and Abigail asks if “he” is awake. Sally nods. Abigail goes to head upstairs, and Nabby tells her that “his” mind is pretty much gone at this point.
“He,” of course, is Charles, who’s in bed and in a pretty bad way. Abigail bathes his face, and finally he manages to recognize her. He heartbreakingly asks if John’s with her and she tells him he isn’t. Charles lunges for a glass of whiskey or something on the nearby table, but Abigail pins him down and fiercely tells him that his wife and children need him, and his family wants him to return to them. He begs her to forgive him and she gently brushes the hair out of his face and hushes him.
One of John’s advisors brings him news from France: a treaty was signed on October 3 and a copy for ratification will arrive within the month. The advisor mourns that this is probably too late to have any effect on the election, but John’s just happy they have an honorable peace.
Abigail prepares to leave Peacefield. She makes Nabby promise to send her word if there’s any change, kisses Sally, and tells them she prays every day for her son’s recovery. Sally watches her go, then very slowly makes her way upstairs. That poor, poor girl.
John and Abigail play checkers while waiting for the results of the election. They finally arrive, and John learns he got 65 votes. Jefferson and Burr are tied at 73. John looks over the results and observes that only New England stayed true. Marshall, the man who brought the election news, starts giving us all a lesson about how the tie will be broken, but the bottom line is: John’s not going to be president anymore. He takes this in his stride, and tells Abigail and Marshall he plans to recall Johnny, because the family’s been apart for too long. Abigail smiles a little sadly when she hears it.
While John works, Abigail reads letters on a nearby sofa. As she reads one, the music gets sad, and she slowly dissolves into tears, then tells John quietly that Charles is dead. John, like a complete prick, can’t let go of his anger at Charles even now. Abigail reminds him that Charles was nobody’s enemy, and he was pretty much her favorite. Still, John refuses to forgive him. Jesus, man, can you not even shift yourself to comfort your wife, who’s just lost her child? Stop being such a stubborn jerk! Abigail gathers up the letter and leaves, still crying. Once she’s gone, John finally allows himself to look sad.
Abigail leaves for Peacefield soon after, probably unable to bear being around her husband any longer. John sadly watches her go from the house’s makeshift porch, then turns and goes back inside.
Jefferson arrives at his new home and bows to John, calling him “Mr. President.” John returns the salutation, but Jefferson reminds him the House is still deadlocked after 33 ballots, so the title’s not sure yet. He tells John that a word from him would end the uncertainty, but John’s unwilling to intervene, of course. Jefferson quietly says that this endless deadlock could actually result in armed insurrection, and John advises him to stop being so stubborn and make a few concessions, and he’d win over enough votes to win. Jefferson’s unwilling to start ruling through compromise, though, because compromise is for wusses, so it looks like there’ll be more votes. John puts his glasses back on and Jefferson finally takes the cue and leaves.
Marshall arrives at the White House to deliver the news that one of the representatives finally went for Jefferson and broke the deadlock, after Jefferson decided that compromise was better than all-out war in the streets. John comments that he feels rather relieved not to have the country on his shoulders, and he’s content to just be plain old Farmer John again. Marshall bids him farewell and says he’ll see him at the inauguration. John has no intention of attending the inauguration, though, because he doesn’t want to glory in Jefferson’s triumph.
At night, John wanders the rather depressing, dark house, smoking and probably reminiscing a bit. The next morning, he emerges alone and climbs into a waiting horse-drawn minibus. Wow, they couldn’t even get him a carriage as they kicked him out of office? That seems petty. The man’s the former president, for heaven’s sake! I don’t recall the Bushes having to take the Metro to the airport. John nonetheless climbs aboard, and then notices everyone around him staring. He snaps at them to stop gawking, because he’s just plain old John Adams, an ordinary citizen, just like them.