president john adams

John Adams (TV miniseries)

John Adams is an Emmy Award-winning 2008 American television miniseries directed by Tom Hooper. The screenplay by Kirk Ellis is based on the book John Adams by David McCullough.

The biopic of John Adams and the story of the first fifty years of the United States was broadcast in seven parts by HBO. The first episode aired on March 16 and the final episode aired on April 20.

Plot summary

  • Part 1: Join or Die

Covers the Boston Massacre, Adams's successful defense of the British soldiers on trial for murder, the growing tensions over the Coercive Acts, and Adams's election to the First Continental Congress.

  • Part 2: Independence

Covers the drafting of the Declaration of Independence and the disputes among the members of the Second Continental Congress towards declaring independence from Great Britain.

  • Part 3: Don't Tread on Me

Covers Adams's journey to France with his son John Quincy Adams, his subsequent embassy with Benjamin Franklin to the court of Louis XVI, and his trip to the Dutch Republic to obtain monetary support for the Revolution.

  • Part 4: Reunion

Covers John and Abigail's time in Paris during the negotiations of the Treaty of Paris, his appointment and service as the first US Minister to the British Court of St. James's, his return to Massachusetts and his election as the first Vice President of the United States.

  • Part 5: Unite or Die

Covers Adams's frustrations presiding over the Senate and exclusion from George Washington's inner circle of cabinet members, as well as his strained relationships with Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton. A key event is the struggle to enact the Jay Treaty with Britain, which Adams himself must ratify before a deadlocked Senate (although his vote was not required in reality). The episode concludes with his inauguration as the second president and arrival in a plundered executive mansion.

  • Part 6: Unnecessary War

Covers Adams's term as president and the rift between the Hamilton-led Federalists and Jefferson-led Republicans. Adams steers his own course, pleasing neither side. He signs the Alien and Sedition Acts, offending Republicans, and avoids war with France, angering his own Federalist party. Adams's son Charles dies as an alcoholic vagrant and Adams disowns him. Adams loses his bid for reelection to Jefferson and retires from public life.

  • Part 7: Peacefield

Covers Adams's years in retirement, the deaths of Nabby and Abigail Adams, and the election of John Quincy to the presidency. Adams and Jefferson are reconciled through correspondence, and both die on the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence.

Principal cast


The score for the miniseries was composed by Rob Lane and Joseph Vitarelli. The two composers worked independently of each other, with Lane writing and recording his segments in London and Vitarelli in Los Angeles . The soundtrack was released on the Varèse Sarabande label.

Critical reception

The critical reception to the miniseries was predominantly positive. Metacritic rates the critical response at 78 out of 100 based upon 27 national reviews . Ken Tucker of Entertainment Weekly rated the miniseries A- , and Matt Roush of TV Guide praised the lead performances of Paul Giamatti and Laura Linney .

David Hinckley of the New York Daily News felt John Adams "is, quite simply, as good as TV gets . . . Best of all are two extraordinary performances at the center: Paul Giamatti as Adams and Laura Linney as his wife, Abigail . . . To the extent that John Adams is a period piece, it isn't quite as lush as, say, some BBC productions. But it looks fine, and it feels right, and sometimes what's good for you can also be just plain good."

Alessandra Stanley of the New York Times had mixed feelings. She said the miniseries has "a Masterpiece Theater gravity and takes a more somber, detailed and sepia-tinted look at the dawn of American democracy. It gives viewers a vivid sense of the isolation and physical hardships of the period, as well as the mores, but it does not offer significantly different or deeper insights into the personalities of the men — and at least one woman — who worked so hard for liberty . . . [It] is certainly worthy and beautifully made, and it has many masterly touches at the edges, especially Laura Linney as Abigail. But Paul Giamatti is the wrong choice for the hero . . . And that leaves the mini-series with a gaping hole at its center. What should be an exhilarating, absorbing ride across history alongside one of the least understood and most intriguing leaders of the American Revolution is instead a struggle."

Among those unimpressed with the miniseries were Mary McNamara of the Los Angeles Times and Tim Goodman of the San Francisco Chronicle . Both cited the miniseries for poor casting and favoring style over storytelling.

Historical inaccuracies

  • In Part 1, Captain Preston and the British soldiers involved in the Boston Massacre are tried in a single trial in the seeming dead of Winter and declared not guilty of all charges. In actuality, Captain Preston's trial took place on October 24 and ran through October 29, when he was found not guilty. The eight soldiers were brought to trial weeks later in a separate trial that concluded on November 29. Six of the soldiers were found not guilty but two, Hugh Montgomery and Hugh Killroy were convicted of manslaughter. They both received brands on their right thumbs as punishment.
  • In Part 2, the First Continental Congress meets in Independence Hall, when in fact the First Continental Congress actually met in Carpenters' Hall. The first version of the Declaration of Independence read by Adam’s family was depicted as a printed copy; in reality, it was a copy in Adam’s own hand, which led Mrs. Adams to believe that he had written it himself.
  • In Part 3, during Adams's first voyage to France, his ship engages a British ship in a fierce battle while Adams assists a surgeon perform an amputation on a patient who dies. In reality, Adams helped perform the amputation several days after the capture of the British ship, following an unrelated accident. The patient died a week after the amputation rather than during the operation, as shown in the film.
  • Part 4 depicts Abigail Adams reprimanding Benjamin Franklin for cheating on his wife in France, but his wife died 7 years earlier in 1774. (In fact, she does not do this precisely. She mentions that Mrs. Franklin may not approve, which could theoretically mean from beyond the grave, as Abigail Adams believed in the afterlife.)
  • In Part 5, then-Vice President John Adams is shown casting the tiebreaker vote in favor of ratifying the Jay Treaty. In reality, his vote was never required as the Senate passed the resolution by 20-10.
  • The latter half of the series depicts Nabby Adams meeting and marrying Colonel William Stephens Smith upon her parents' return to America from London. John Adams is depicted as refusing to use his influence to obtain political positions for his daughter's new husband, though Colonel Smith requests his father-in-law's assistance repeatedly with an almost grasping demeanor. Mr. Adams upbraids his son-in-law each time for even making the request, stating that Colonel Smith should find himself an honest trade or career and not depend upon speculation. In reality, Nabby met Colonel Smith abroad while her father was serving as United States Ambassador to France and England, and the couple married in London prior to the end of John Adams' diplomatic posting to the Court of St. James. Both John and Abigail used their influence to assist Colonel Smith and obtain political appointments for him, although this did not curb Colonel Smith's tendency to invest unwisely.

Also, after then-President Adams refuses to assist Colonel Smith for the last time, Smith is depicted as leaving Nabby and their children in the care of the Adams family at Peacefield; according to the scene, his intention is to seek opportunities to the west and either return or send for his family once he can provide for them. Nabby is living with her family when she discerns the lump in her breast, has her mastectomy, and dies two years later. Smith does not return until after Nabby's death and it is implied that he has finally established a stable form of income; whether he was returning for his family as he had promised or was summoned ahead of his own schedule by the Adams' pursuant to Nabby's death is not specified.
In reality, Smith brought his family with him from one venture to the next, and Nabby only returned to her father's home in Massachusetts after it was determined that she would undergo a mastectomy rather than continue with the guesstimated potions and poultices prescribed by other doctors at that time. Smith was with her during and after the mastectomy, and by all accounts had thrown himself into extensive research in attempts to find any reputable alternative to treating his wife's cancer via mastectomy. The mastectomy was not depicted in the series as it is described in historical documents. Nabby returned to the Smith family home after her operation and died in her father's home at Peacefield only because she expressed a wish to die there, knowing that her cancer had returned and would kill her, and her husband acceded to her request.

  • In Part 7, Adams is shown inspecting John Trumbull's painting Declaration of Independence (1817) and states he and Thomas Jefferson are the last surviving people depicted. This is inaccurate as Charles Carroll of Carrollton, who is also depicted in the painting, survived until 1832. In fact, Adams never made such a remark. In reality, when he inspected Trumbull's painting, Adams' only comment was to point to a door in the background of the painting and state, "When I nominated George Washington of Virginia for Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army, he took his hat and rushed out that door." In the same episode, Benjamin Rush is portrayed as encouraging Adams to start a correspondence with Thomas Jefferson after the death of Abigail Adams. Abigail's death occurred in 1818 but the Adams-Jefferson correspondence started in 1812, and Rush died in 1813.

Awards and nominations

John Adams received twenty-three Emmy Award nominations, and won thirteen, besting the previous record for wins by a miniseries set by Angels in America.

The miniseries won in the following categories:

  • Outstanding Miniseries
  • Outstanding Writing for a Miniseries or Movie - Kirk Ellis
  • Outstanding Lead Actor in a Miniseries or Movie - Paul Giamatti
  • Outstanding Lead Actress in a Miniseries or Movie - Laura Linney
  • Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Miniseries or Movie - Tom Wilkinson
  • Outstanding Art Direction for a Miniseries or Movie
  • Outstanding Casting for a Miniseries, Movie or a Special
  • Outstanding Cinematography For A Miniseries or Movie (Episode 2, Independence)
  • Outstanding Costumes for a Miniseries, Movie or a Special
  • Outstanding Prosthetic Makeup for a Series, Miniseries, Movie or a Special
  • Outstanding Sound Editing for a Miniseries, Movie or a Special (Episode 3, Don't Tread On Me)
  • Outstanding Sound Mixing for a Miniseries or a Movie (Episode 3, Don't Tread On Me)
  • Outstanding Special Visual Effects for a Miniseries, Movie or a Special

The miniseries also was nominated in the following categories:

  • Outstanding Directing for a Miniseries or Movie - Tom Hooper
  • Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Miniseries or Movie - Stephen Dillane
  • Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Miniseries or Movie - David Morse
  • Outstanding Cinematography for a Miniseries or Movie (Episode 3, Don't Tread On Me)
  • Outstanding Hairstyling for a Miniseries or a Movie
  • Outstanding Makeup for a Miniseries or a Movie (Non-prosthetic)
  • Outstanding Original Dramatic Score for a Miniseries, Movie or a Special (Episode 2, Independence)
  • Outstanding Single-camera Picture Editing for a Miniseries or a Movie (Episode 2, Independence)
  • Outstanding Sound Editing for a Miniseries, Movie or a Special (Episode 6, Unnecessary War)
  • Outstanding Sound Mixing for a Miniseries or a Movie (Episode 5, Join Or Die)


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