Monday, March 24, 2008

July 1, 1776

If you could be witness to any historical event, what would it be? My choice is the Pennsylvania State House (later renamed Independence Hall), Philadelphia on July 1, 1776.

July 4, 1776 is the most famous date in American history. But that is merely the date independence was declared. If you had one shot at time travel and chose the original 4th of July, you wouldn’t see very much beyond a herald named John Nixon reading the Declaration to a small crowd.

July 2, 1776 is the day that independence was decided. It is of the 2nd that John Adams wrote to his wife:

"The Second Day of July 1776, will be the most memorable Epocha, in the History of America…I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated, by succeeding Generations, as the great anniversary Festival."

John Adams was right about much, but not that.

But it was on July 1, 1776 that independence was debated. Throughout that day and into the evening the bold supporters of independence, led by the eloquence of John Adams, argued for severing the colonies’ ties with England. The opposition was led by John Dickinson of Pennsylvania, and supported primarily by delegates from New York and South Carolina. Adams, of course, carried the day, and independence was declared.

Since time travel only exists in science fiction, I instead settled in to watch the HBO miniseries John Adams. The second episode, “Join or Die”, featured this memorable debate and all of the other momentous events of the Second Continental Congress: Richard Henry Lee’s resolution calling for independence; John Adams’ formation of a committee to write a declaration and his subsequent persuading of the young Thomas Jefferson to compose a first draft; the debate itself; the backroom wrangling with New York and South Carolina; and finally, the momentous vote itself, with Cesar Rodney from Delaware arriving at the final moment to tip the vote into unanimity (if you were wondering why the Delaware quarter has an engraving of a guy on a horse, that is Rodney racing to Philadelphia).

This is filmed history at its finest. And with any luck, John Adams will finally get his due.

“The Colossus of Independence”

Just as Americans have erroneously celebrated July 4th as Independence Day, we have also erroneously celebrated Thomas Jefferson, the primary author of the Declaration, over Adams, the true leader of the independence movement. To the founders themselves, the document was just that, a document, however beautifully written. Independence itself was won largely by Adams. It was Jefferson himself who called Adams “the colossus of independence”, and rightly so.

The miniseries perfectly captures Adams the statesman, Adams the orator, and Adams the politician as he moves the tentative Congress towards independence. With Benjamin Franklin (played by the excellent Tom Wilkinson) coaching him, we see Adams almost single-handedly moving this body of men into their place in history as Signers of the Declaration of Independence.

Paul Giamatti, a gifted actor, plays the title role. His casting violates Keatang’s Third Law of History Movies: never cast familiar actors in the roles of famous historical figures. When an actor is famous, you can’t help but see the actor playing a historical figure rather than the historical figure himself. Shows like The Sopranos and The Wire have taught us there are plenty of gifted unknown actors out there, but filmmakers can't help themselves. Giamatti is a brilliant enough actor to pull it off, though when he raises a glass of madeira in toast I half expect him to make some snarky comment about the vintage.

Further Reading

The miniseries is based on the popular biography by David McCullough (pictured above, with Giamatti). This is a bit odd. Nothing in the book or the miniseries is McCullough's invention; in fact, the vast majority of the events featured have been written about thousands of times. HBO could have easily made the exact same movie without Mr. McCullough's permission.

But the approval of one of America's finest historians lends a sort of imprimatur on the whole proceeding. Producer Tom Hanks and HBO have produced something that lives up to the standards of McCullough's work.

But...if you want to learn more about the great John Adams, I'm partial to a pair of books by different authors: John Adams and the American Revolution by Catherine Drinker Bowen and Passionate Sage by Joseph Ellis. The former focuses specifically on Adams role as Colossus; the latter on his days as a lion in winter.

And who knows? Maybe one day John Adams will get his own monument...

No comments: