Ambitious multipart PBS production that brings to life five generations of one of America's leading political and historical families. It traces their lives from John Adams early years as a...
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Ambitious multipart PBS production that brings to life five generations of one of America's leading political and historical families. It traces their lives from John Adams early years as a colonial Boston attorney to the rise in prominence of Brookes Adams in the fields of political and social philosophy. This mini looks into their triumphs and tragedies, exploring their genius and profound social conscience.Written by
An Inside View of the Adams Family's Role in American History
The Adams Chronicles, originally telecast in 1976, consist of 13 episodes that follow the public and private lives of the Adams family from 1758 to 1893. This docudrama is not to be confused with the 7-part HBO miniseries, starring Paul Giamatti, that covered the life of John Adams from 1770 to 1826. Several books on the Adams family have covered the four generations who lived in these years: James Truslow Adams, The Adams Family (1930), Jack Shepherd, The Adams Chronicles (1976), and Paul Nagel, Descent From Glory (1983). But it is easier to cover so much ground in a book than on a screen.
From a list of the episodes, one gets a sense of the scope of the Chronicles: (1) John Adams, Lawyer (1758-1770); (2) John Adams, Revolutionary (1770-1776); (3) John Adams, Diplomat (1776-1783); (4) John Adams, Minister to Great Britain (1784-1787); (5) John Adams, Vice President (1788-1797); (6) John Adams, President (1797-1801); (7) John Quincy Adams, Diplomat (1809-1815); (8) John Quincy Adams, Secretary of State (1817-1825); (9) John Quincy Adams, President (1825-1829); (10) John Quincy Adams, Congressman (1831-1848); (11) Charles Francis Adams, Minister to Great Britain (1861-1868); (12) Henry Adams, Historian (1870-1885); (13) Charles Francis Adams, II, Industrialist (1886- 1893).
The final three episodes focus on men with disparate concerns. These men went separate ways, and met separate frustrations. They did indeed experience what Nagel called a "descent from glory." As Charles Francis Adams, Sr., reflects after dreaming of his grandfather's role in the Revolutionary Era, "In those days, the fate of one man could be the fate of a country." Or, as Charles Francis Adams, II, remarks to Henry Adams, "Perhaps the models we placed ourselves against were larger than life." But perhaps the Adams family was merely living out what John Adams had predicted for nations: "There is no special providence for us. We are not the Chosen People that I know of. We must and shall go the way of the earth."
A few observations on the historical accuracy of the Chronicles are in order. First, they were prepared in cooperation with the Massachusetts Historical Society and the Adams Papers project. Unlike many similar docudramas, they are largely based on original documents--the massive collection of Adams family papers held by the MHS (copies of these filled over 600 reels of microfilm). For example, the criticisms John Adams directed to his fiancé Abigail Smith (not sitting erect, walking with her toes inward, etc.) come directly from a May 7, 1764, document that he bluntly entitled, "a Catalogue of your Faults, Imperfections, Defects, or whatever you please to call them."
Second, viewers should remember that, because they are largely based on the Adams family papers, the Chronicles tend to reflect the views of Adams family members. Thus, in the words of John Adams, Franklin may appear as a "lazy, senile old mischief maker," and Hamilton as an "intriguer." (Those interested in what the Founding Fathers thought about each other should read The Founders on the Founders (2008), edited by John Kaminski.)
Third, only some of the Adams family papers survive—many documents were deliberately destroyed. Work on the family papers began with John Adams, whose comment that they would "make you alternately laugh and cry, fret and fume, stamp and scold," suggests that he did not intend to destroy all the embarrassing records. But some subsequent family members clearly did intend to do so.
Growing up as an Adams was not easy. (John advised John Quincy, "if you do not rise to the head not only of your Profession, but of your Country, it will be owing to your own Laziness, Slovenliness and Obstinacy." When he was 5 or 6, John Quincy wrote to his cousin Elizabeth Cranch (who was a few years older than he), "i have made But veray little proviciancy in reading . . . to(o) much of my time in play (th)ere is a great Deal of room for me to grow better." And John Quincy, after trying to instruct his son Charles Francis, complained, "I find as with his elder brothers a difficulty in fixing his attention." Charles Francis was then two years old.) The Adams children were being trained to be intellectual and moral athletes. Some of those who survived this training did well. But not all survived. Some succumbed to alcoholism, or were fell short for other reasons. Many records relating to these unsuccessful family members have been destroyed. Few of the surviving records relate to John's son Thomas Boylston Adams or John Quincy's son George Washington Adams. Similarly, there remain very few documents about Henry Adams' wife "Clover" Hooper.
The Chronicles attempt to compensate, to some extent, for gaps in the documentary record. But they gloss over mental problems in "Clover's" family. Before "Clover" took her own life, her aunt and her sister had committed suicide, and her brother eventually died in a mental institution after an unsuccessful suicide attempt. Although it is not evident in the Chronicles, Henry's relatives had understandable misgivings about his marrying into the Hooper family.
Given their scope, the Chronicles had to omit and abbreviate much of the Adams story. Missing are John and Abigail's 1787 meeting with Sally Hemings, the reconciliation of Jefferson and Adams after Jefferson's presidency, Brooks Adams' historical writings, or anything about the fourth generation after 1893—Brooks Adams did not die until 1927.
This docudrama was highly successful. It received a total of 11 Emmy Awards, and 17 Emmy nominations (1976 and 1977), only three of which (to George Grizzard, Kathryn Walker, and Pamela Payton-Wright) were for acting. The appearance of certain characters is strikingly realistic (but most of them, from King George to John Calhoun, speak with the same accent). This miniseries provides an interesting glimpse into American history and the Adams family's place in it.
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