One of my July 4th weekend traditions is to watch the “Independence” episode of HBO’s John Adams mini-series. Not just because the writing is terrific and Paul Giamatti gives a tremendous performance throughout. Rather, it has a soft spot in my heart for all of the good small-p political advice Adams receives.
Take the advice Abigail Adams gives him about Congress:
ABIGAIL: Men need to think that they have made their own decisions, not had them forced upon them.
JOHN: I don’t have the time to coddle like a young girl courting a beau.
Adams ignores the advice at first, getting him beaten in Congress by John Dickinson. He then receives advice from Ben Franklin:
FRANKLIN: What did you get by opposing the motion? It was carried with our without you. All you did was make enemies… and make yourself feel better, of course.
ADAMS: Do you not believe in saying what you think?
FRANKLIN: No, I’m very much against it. Thinking aloud is a habit responsible for much of mankind’s misery. St. Thomas Becket might have lived to a ripe old age if he… You insulted Mr. Dickinson. You insulted him in public.
ADAMS: Would you have me insult him in private?
FRANKLIN: It’s perfectly acceptable to insult someone in private. Sometimes they might even thank you for it afterwards. But when you do it in public, they tend to think you are serious.
ADAMS: I feel myself hated in this town.
FRANKLIN: Go gently, I beg you. You are a guest in Philadelphia. Fish and guests stink after three days.
And of course, there is Franklin’s sage observation on George Washington (and ultimately, perhaps the Presidency in general):
ADAMS: A natural leader.
FRANKLIN: He’s always the tallest man in the room. He’s bound to end up leading something.
Adams gets his Continental Army largely by making it a referendum on the leadership of Washington, not of Adams.
Later, he convinces Thomas Jefferson to become the primary author of the Declaration of Independence, this time explicitly admitting what was implicit in the prior tactic of making Washington the issue:
JEFFERSON: What can possibly be your reason?
ADAMS: First, you are a Virginian, and a Virginian should be at the head of this business as it’s the most powerful state. Second, I am obnoxious, suspected and unpopular. And you are very much otherwise. Third, and perhaps most important, I have read your summary view of the rights of British America and I have a great opinion of the elegance of your pen, and none at all of my own.
JEFFERSON: You’re too modest, sir.
ADAMS: You’re the first to find me so, sir. I am not by nature a humble man, but circumstances sometimes require a change of habits.
Mind you, I don’t take any of this advice as often as I should. But I like to be reminded of it, just in case I ever decide to found a new nation.
Enjoy the weekend. It’s certainly what Adams intended.
PS: Consider subscribing to WHRPT in the sidebar (the posts come straight to your inbox; no muss no fuss). And sharing this post with the buttons below, as well as following WHRPT on Twitter. Thanks for reading and sharing.