Everyone Loves George, But John Adams?

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On April 21 in Lower Manhattan's Federal Hall, John Adams was sworn in as the first vice president. Nine days later George Washington became president, forever condemning Adams to second fiddle.

MIKE PESCA, host:

On April 21st, which is today, in Federal Hall in lower Manhattan, John Adams was sworn in as the nation's first vice president. Nine days later, George Washington became president. Down there at Federal Hall there's a big statue of George Washington.

Tourists climb up on the pedestal, and they take pictures with him, everyone loves George. But what about John? Do they even know him? I went down there, and I asked all the people gathered around. First up was Joan Murphy(ph).

Right there is where George Washington was sworn in as the first president. You knew that?

Ms. JOAN MURPHY (Federal Hall Visitor): I didn't know that!

PESCA: Well, look at the big statue, you can figure it out.

Ms. MURPHY: This lady, she was telling me that he was here.

PESCA: Yeah.

Ms. MURPHY: Yes?

PESCA: In 1789, he was sworn in right there as the first president.

Ms. MURPHY: I didn't know that.

PESCA: Now, April 21st, which is tomorrow, nine days prior, the first vice president was sworn in. What can you tell me about him?

Ms. MURPHY: The first vice president? Was he an Adams?

PESCA: One of them. Which one?

Ms. MURPHY: Samuel?

PESCA: No, no, no.

Ms. MURPHY: My husband would know. We're from Denver, and we just got here yesterday.

PESCA: They still have their presidents there.

Ms. MURPHY: I know. John(ph), who was the vice president for George Washington?

PESCA: And then John guessed Monroe. Next up of the people I spoke with yesterday was Bridget Suddoff(ph) from Orlando, Florida.

Who was that? Who's the first vice president?

Ms. BRIDGET SUDDOFF (Federal Hall Tourist): I have not a clue.

PESCA: You want multiple choice?

Ms. SUDDOFF: Sure.

PESCA: OK. Madison, Monroe, Jefferson, or Adams?

Ms. SUDDOFF: Well, hold on.

PESCA: You know it's going to be one of those guys.

Ms. SUDDOFF: Well, yeah. I mean, I've got a 33.333 percent chance of getting it right.

PESCA: I think 25, actually. One out of four.

Ms. SUDDOFF: Was it Madison?

PESCA: It was John Adams.

Bridget, not that strong in math or history. I also spoke with John Donald Fitzpatrick(ph).

You know who it was, come on.

Mr. JOHN DONALD FITZPATRICK (Federal Hall Tourist): No, I don't.

PESCA: He was - I'll give you a hint. He was also the second president of the United States.

Mr. FITZPATRICK: I don't know that.

PESCA: Want multiple choice?

Mr. FITZPATRICK: All right.

PESCA: All right. Madison, Monroe, or John Adams?

Mr. FITZPATRICK: John Adams.

PESCA: That's correct! So, John Adams doesn't make that big of an impression on you?

Mr. FITZPATRICK: No.

PESCA: You know why? He's not on currency, I think.

Mr. FITZPATRICK: Yeah, that's true.

PESCA: Do you know anything about John Adams?

Mr. FITZPATRICK: No.

PESCA: And we find that too many people do not know anything about "John Adams," despite the recent HBO miniseries. So, joining us is J. L. Bell, a writer and historical researcher. He writes a blog called Boston 1775. Hello, J. L.

Mr. J. L. BELL (Blogger, Boston 1775): Hello. Good morning.

PESCA: Why 1775 of all the years?

Mr. BELL: Well, that's when everything started, and here in Boston we tend to think that the war was over by 1776 when the British left this area, and there was just sort of mopping up operations in New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and the whole South.

PESCA: So, you guys haven't gotten past the 13 colonies, and maybe a United States mindset?

Mr. BELL: That was always New England's problem at the time, yeah.

PESCA: Yeah. So, first of all, John Adams, we're talking about him being vice president. He was vice president for nine days before Washington was president. So, does that mean I can win a bar bet? Was Adams actually, technically, the first president of the United States?

Mr. BELL: I think he was pretty clear what his office was, which he felt was extraordinarily insignificant. Those nine days, I remember looking at the Congress records, and they were spending a lot of time trying to deal with protocol, and who would say what to whom, and how he would address different people.

They knew that the inauguration of the president was going to be very important, so they had to work up to that. And at the same time they started the nation's business by figuring out how to swear each other in.

PESCA: Now, Adams didn't, as you said, he didn't really have respect for the office. Here's a famous Adams quote. "My country has in its infinite wisdom contrived for me the most insignificant office that ever the invention of man contrived or his imagination conceived." He didn't like being vice president, and he didn't really think much of the vice presidency, did he?

Mr. BELL: That's right. He said that in 1793 after he'd been vice president for several years, and really gotten a sense of what the job entailed.

PESCA: And so, do you think this was - if he had a totally different perception, if he came into it very optimistic, do you think we'd think of the vice presidency as being worth more than a bucket of spit?

Mr. BELL: I think that the original Constitutional Convention thought the Senate, the whole Congress, would be more important than it actually turned out to be. And so, they probably thought of the vice presidency, which was the president of the Senate, the person who oversaw the most august legislative body in the land, as more important.

And then, as it turned out, the way the rules had been written, Adams could do nothing but vote in tiebreakers. And he voted in more tiebreakers than any other vice president because the Senate was so small, but that didn't turn out to be a very important job at all.

PESCA: And I think at the time they even, kind of, self-defined it, or maybe it was their conception of the Constitution that the vice president wasn't even part of the president's cabinet. So, it was almost a purely legislative duty as they conceived the vice presidency.

Mr. BELL: That's right, and yet one thing that is pretty constant in American history, senators do not like to be told what to do. So, as president of the Senate, Adams was not really allowed to advise the senators as he'd hoped.

PESCA: Right. And he didn't - and from what I had been reading, he thought the Continental Congress was full of intellectuals, and great rhetoric, and he just thought that the Senate was, well, he was, getting into his personality a little bit, he was a little bit of a sour guy and he didn't think much of the quality of the speechmaking that was being conducted there in the Senate.

Mr. BELL: Oh, yes. Now, when he worked with the Continental Congress it was the early days. It was really the A-team, and by the time he was in Paris and London as a diplomat the Congress in Philadelphia was no longer really the best and the brightest of the colonies. So, he didn't get to - he got to experience the Continental Congress at its best.

PESCA: And I get the sense that the Congress kind of felt that he had disdain for them. I mean, he was very respected as part of the revolution, but did he gradually lose respect as maybe he sniffed or looked his nose down at these senators who he didn't think were up to snuff?

Mr. BELL: Yes, and he was a cantankerous sort, and he was not a diplomat - well, he was a diplomat, but he was not diplomatic.

PESCA: Yeah, and he would let you know where he stood. Well, let's talk about this HBO miniseries. In fact, the Adams renaissance, because David McCullough wrote a biography that won a Pulitzer Prize, was a bestseller and from that they made this HBO miniseries. Beforehand, did you sense that, especially being a Bostonian, that people were becoming more and more interested in Adams than they ever had before?

Mr. BELL: Oh yes. McCullough's book certainly created a renaissance. For the very first time people were talking about a monument to Adams, for instance.

PESCA: As the - now, as far as the HBO miniseries, I thought that having Madison and Jefferson hang out in the bada-bing was historically inaccurate. But seriously, what did you think of the depiction of Adams by HBO?

Mr. BELL: I thought Paul Giamatti's performance was excellent. I thought that it was interesting to see a lot of Adam's own words put into the character's speaking mouth, sometimes to the - he was literally at times reading off what came out of his letters, or his speeches.

PESCA: Yeah.

Mr. BELL: I thought that simply because it was biographical it put Adams at the center of events where he wasn't necessarily the center of events. It made him a crucial figure when he was one of many crucial figures.

PESCA: Got you. Well, let's listen to - we have a couple clips here, and so first let's concentrate on Adam's words, and Adam's rhetoric. Sometimes, you know, obviously they're not going to be reading letters, so you can tell us if you know if these words came from a speech he gave, or letters he wrote to Abigail, but this is when he's rousing his fellow Massachusens - what do you say?

Mr. BELL: Massachusettians.

PESCA: Massa - OK.

Mr. BELL: Bostonians.

PESCA: When he's rousing those folks he's about to go to the Continental Congress, and here's what he says.

(Soundbite of miniseries "John Adams")

Mr. PAUL GIAMATTI: (As John Adams) Liberty is not built on the doctrine that a few nobles have a right to inherit the earth. No! No! It stands on this principle that the meanest and lowest of the people are by the unalterable, indefeasible laws of God and nature as well entitled to the benefit of the air to breathe, light to see, food to eat, and clothes to wear as the nobles or the king. That is liberty, and liberty will reign in America! PESCA: J. L. Bell, do you know where those words came from?

Mr. BELL: Interesting you should ask that because I looked that up. The - many of the words come from a pamphlet that John Adams wrote in 1765 against the Stamp Act. These final rousing (inaudible), the liberty will reign in America, which is quoted all over the Internet now, I can't find that anywhere.

PESCA: Interesting. The - so, the - so again they took the written word, because they have to act it out. Whenever you do a dramatization of historical events there is some cheating going on to make it more dramatic, but what did you notice or pick out where they did this a lot, where they perhaps dramatized or over-dramatized historical events?

Mr. BELL: I would say that the first episode with depictions of violence in Boston, and the Boston Massacre trial, seem to be the most distorted. It presented a sort of two-dimensional picture of the politics there. The Samuel Adams character was quite unrecognizable.

PESCA: So, what happened was John Adams, and as far as historical accuracy, John Adams said, I will defend the English soldiers who fired on the crowd. He did, he won, but the series was showing that except for his wife, everyone in Boston was against him.

Mr. BELL: That's right, and he did defend the soldiers, however he had two co-counsels. He, in terms of winning, two of the soldiers were convicted of manslaughter, which was a capital crime at the time, but then got off with a corporeal punishment of branding on the thumb.

It was much more of a mixed picture, and a great deal of the drama came from the idea that John Adams was alone, and that very hostile crowd was suffering from - in public opinion, and there is really no evidence that he suffered in public opinion at the time.

PESCA: And he - and also during that scene I remembered that they were respectful, at least respectful towards - there was an African-American in the courtroom at the time, and I read something you wrote on the blog. That wouldn't have been true at all, right?

Mr. BELL: There were African-American witnesses, and there were also - I have no idea about the courtroom to be certain, but almost completely there would be no African-Americans in sort of public spaces like that as equal citizens.

PESCA: And just referring to an African-American as Mr. So-and-So wouldn't have happened?

Mr. BELL: Certainly not. That particular African-American, that witness was based on an enslaved man named Andrew that - I guess that character was sought to be a composite, because the director referred to him at one point in an interview on Talk of the Nation as a freed slave.

PESCA: And I even read in your blog that at the newspapers at the time famously Crispus Attucks was one of - he was a freed slave who was one of the people killed in the Boston Massacre, but newspapers referred to everyone else as Mr., but not Crispus Attucks.

Mr. BELL: That's right. Every other adult male, and Crispus Attucks.

PESCA: Well, let's hear some more of Paul Giamatti's portrayal of John Adams. In this scene, and maybe this goes to him being a central figure in history, I don't know how important he was, I'll ask you about this, here he is nominating a certain someone, you know him from statues and the quarter, as leader of the armed forces.

(Soundbite of miniseries "John Adams")

Mr. GIAMATTI: (As John Adams) What is required now is one able man to build and to lead this new continental army.

Unidentified Man: And who do you propose of the Massachusetts delegates should lead this force?

Mr. ZELIJKO IVANEK: (As John Dickinson) Gentlemen, we move too quickly. We have not yet resolved the question of any continental army, much less who is to lead it.

PESCA: That's John Dickinson of Pennsylvania who didn't want to go to war.

Mr. GIAMATTI: (As John Adams) I have but one gentleman in mind, known to all of us. Mr. President, I propose as commander-in-chief our most honorable and esteemed delegate, the good gentleman from Virginia, Colonel George Washington.

PESCA: J. L. Bell, do you think that's how it went down?

Mr. BELL: No. John Adams did nominate George Washington. It was a terrific political move to bring in some of the colonies to the south. It turned out to be a terrific personnel decision. Washington was very good as a commander.

The miniseries depicts the Continental Army adopting the New England army as its own, adopting this national cause after hearing the news of the Battle of Bunker Hill. However, in real life, the Continental Congress made that decision two or three days before the Battle of Bunker Hill, and thus over a week before they received news of the battle.

PESCA: Ah, and I guess, though, if he was the one who thought of Washington, John Adams should be the patron saint of HR departments everywhere.

Mr. BELL: He was...

PESCA: It was a good call.

Mr. BELL: Until he got to his own cabinet, he was quite good at choosing who should be in charge. He also promoted the career of Henry Knox.

PESCA: My biggest problem with the series, which I thought was excellent, I enjoyed Jefferson from the nickel, the two-dollar bill, and everywhere else. I thought the depiction of Jefferson as a little weaselly, well, it didn't comport with perhaps my misconceptions. What did you think of that?

Mr. BELL: I actually liked the picture of Jefferson. The fact that he was obviously very intelligent, but also very soft spoken, the - clearly it was sort of an Adams centered view of the world, and an Adams centered view of Jefferson, but Jefferson was not quite able to reconcile his fairly strong and somewhat ruthless political instincts with his ideals.

PESCA: And one last question. Hearing the sounds that we heard, do you think that's what they sounded like?

Mr. BELL: Oh, you mean the accent?

PESCA: Accent wise, yeah.

Mr. BELL: I have read about how the people behind the miniseries went about making that. It's still - as with all the other historical decisions they've made, I believe they put a lot of thought into it.

PESCA: And? Final verdict?

Mr. BELL: I don't - I - it still sounds strange to me.

PESCA: J. L. Bell, writer and historical researcher at the blog Boston 1775. Thank you. We'll be back.

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