Presenting the Facts: John Adams Miniseries

Presenting the FactsIn this edition of "Presenting the Facts", we explore John Adams, the 2008 HBO miniseries. The miniseries was based on the book of the same name by David McCullough; the screenplay was by Kirk Ellis, and it was directed by Tom Hooper. With one exception, we focused on the second half of Part 2: Independence (starting at 45:13). This episode is so richly detailed, we had to limit our analysis to just the events related to the Lee Resolution and the Declaration of Independence (sorry, Abigail!). 


Screenshot, Independence Hall

The First Continental Congress met in Independence Hall

The First Continental Congress met in Carpenters' Hall from September 5 through October 26, 1774. At that time, the Provincial Assembly of Pennsylvania was using the State House (later renamed Independence Hall) for its meetings. When the delegates reconvened in May 1775 as the Second Continental Congress, they were able to meet in the State House. Carpenters’ Hall is located about one block east of Independence Hall, off Chestnut Street, and was a less conspicuous place for the Congress to meet. This was important, because on September 6, 1774, the Congress officially resolved, “That the doors be kept shut during the time of business, and that the members consider themselves under the strongest obligations of honour, to keep the proceedings secret, untill the majority shall direct them to be made public.”

Screenshot, Adams Seconds Lee

John Adams seconded Richard Henry Lee's resolution

Though the Journals of the Continental Congress do not explicitly say so, it is widely accepted that Adams did second the Lee Resolution. In his autobiography, John Adams recorded the event as follows: "Certain Resolutions respecting Independency being moved and seconded. Resolved That the Consideration of them be referred till tomorrow morning; and that the members be enjoyned to attend punctually at ten O Clock, in order to take the same into their consideration. It will naturally be enquired why these Resolutions and the Names of the Gentlemen who moved and seconded them, were not inserted in the Journals? To this question I can give no other Answer than this. Mr. Hancock was President, Mr. Harrison Chairman of the Committee of the whole House... And Mr. R.H. Lee, Mr. John Adams were no favourites of either."
Screenshot, Benjamin Rush

Benjamin Rush was a delegate to the Second Continental Congress from the beginning

Throughout this episode, Benjamin Rush is sitting in Congress next to John Dickinson. The problem is, Benjamin Rush wasn't elected as a delegate from Pennsylvania until July 20, 1776 – after all of the scenes in this episode.




Screenshot, Discussing France

Advocates for independence wanted to send an envoy to King Louis XVI of France

Once independence seemed inevitable, forming alliances became one of the top priorities for the Continental Congress. But many agreed with what Adams articulates in this scene: how can the King of France acknowledge the United State when they haven't yet acknowledged themselves. In June 1776, three important committees were formed in Congress: one to prepare a Declaration of Independence (the Committee of Five), one to prepare the plan of a treaty with foreign powers (especially France), and one to develop Articles of Confederation. All three of these committees were essential to declaring and sustaining independence.


Screenshot, Rutledge and Dickinson Discuss

South Carolina requested a postponement of the vote on the Lee Resolution

In this late-night scene, an exhausted President John Hancock calls for a vote on the Lee Resolution. In the middle of the vote, Edward Rutledge proposes postponing the vote, in order to seek new instructions. The vote on the Lee Resolution was postponed three weeks, from June 10 to July 1, but there is no evidence that Rutledge called for this postponement. According to Jefferson, Rutledge did call for a postponement of the vote from July 1 to July 2, so this scene seems to conflate the two postponements. Also, it is worth noting that Rutledge was as young as he appears – just 26 years old in the summer of 1776, the youngest signer of the Declaration of Independence. In his diary entry from October 10, 1774, Adams described Rutledge as “young and zealous—a little unsteady, and injudicious, but very natural and affected as a Speaker.”

Screenshot, Adams Requests Committee

John Adams recruited the Committee of Five

In this scene, Adams requests to form a committee to draft a declaration, “should the vote tend toward independence”. Hancock responds, “Form your committee, Mr. Adams.” In reality, committees such as the Committee of Five were chosen in Congress, through appointment or election. But, if Adams had recruited the committee, it is not unlikely he would have chosen the core group of himself, Jefferson, and Franklin anyway. The other members of the Committee of Five, Robert R. Livingston and Roger Sherman, served more as representative of their colonies/states (New York and Connecticut, respectively) than as collaborators in the document.


Screenshot, Adams Refusing

John Adams was already serving on the Board of War and Ordnance and twenty-two other committees when the Committee of Five was formed

When Jefferson asks if Adams could write the Declaration of Independence himself, Adams responds "Oh, no, no, no..." because he already has too many commitments. It is factual that Adams served on dozens of committees over the course of the Second Continental Congress, and certainly could have been a member of twenty-two different committees by early June 1776. In fact, on the day he was selected for the Committee of Five, he was also selected for the committee on foreign treaties. However, the election of the Board of War and Ordnance took place on June 13, two days after the members of the Committee of Five were chosen. 

Benjamin Franklin Screenshot, Franklin makes Changeschanged "sacred and undeniable" to "self-evident"

In Thomas Jefferson’s rough draft of the Declaration of Independence (now at the Library of Congress), the second sentence began “We hold these truths to be sacred & undeniable…” The phrase “sacred & undeniable” is crossed out, and “self-evident” is added. According to Walter Isaacson’s Benjamin Franklin: An American Life, Franklin didn’t just suggest the change – he edited the document himself, as he does in this scene: “Using heavy backslashes, he crossed out the last three words of Jefferson’s phrase…”



Screenshot, Swivel Chair

Thomas Jefferson invented the swivel chair

As Jefferson explains to Franklin on screen, he used casters from windows to create a swivel seat on a Windsor chair. The chair was purchased and adapted to swivel while Jefferson was in Philadelphia, and it is likely he used the chair while writing the Declaration of Independence. Jefferson’s swivel chair is now in the collections of the American Philosophical Society (the writing arm was added in 1791). This scene between Jefferson and Franklin also highlights the fact that both men were inventors.


Screenshot, Duane

James Duane was an outspoken opponent of independence in June/July 1776

Duane left Congress in early June, likely right after his New York colleagues John Alsop and Francis Lewis arrived in Philadelphia. So, he did not represent New York in these debates, and did not announce New York’s abstention from the vote on July 2.




Screenshot, Rain

It was raining during the debate on July 1

When John Dickinson and John Adams gives their impassioned speeches in this scene, the weather looks dreary through the windows of Independence Hall, and lightning occasionally illuminates their faces. Robert Treat Paine recorded the weather each day in his diary (now at Massachusetts Historical Society), giving evidence that there were “fine showers” on July 1, and it “Rain’d hard” on July 2. 



Screenshot, Adams Speech

John Adams responded to Dickinson's speech

In his autobiography, Adams recalled the speeches of July 1: "I expected no more would be said in public but that the question would be put and decided. Mr. Dickinson however was determined to bear his Testimony against it with more formality. He had prepared himself apparently with great Labour and ardent Zeal, and in a Speech of great Length, and all his Eloquence, he combined together all that had before been written in Pamphlets and News papers and all that had from time to time been said in Congress by himself and others. He conducted the debate, not only with great Ingenuity and Eloquence, but with equal Politeness and Candour: and was answered in the same Spirit. No Member rose to answer him: and after waiting some time, in hopes that some one less obnoxious than myself, who had been all along for a Year before, and still was represented and believed to be the Author of all the Mischief, I determined to speak. It has been said by some of our Historians, that I began by an Invocation to the God of Eloquence. This is a Misrepresentation. Nothing so puerile as this fell from me. I began by saying that this was the first time of my Life that I had ever wished for the Talents and Eloquence of the ancient Orators of Greece and Rome, for I was very sure that none of them ever had before him a question of more Importance to his Country and to the World. They would probably upon less Occasions than this have begun by solemn Invocations to their Divinities for Assistance but the Question before me appeared so simple, that I had confidence enough in the plain Understanding and common Sense that had been given me, to believe that I could answer to the Satisfaction of the House all the Arguments which had been produced, notwithstanding the Abilities which had been displayed and the Eloquence with which they had been enforced. Mr. Dickinson, some years afterwards published his Speech. I had made no Preparation beforehand and never committed any minutes of mine to writing." Since no historical evidence exists for Adams’ speech, in this scene, his lines are pulled from various letters he wrote in June and July 1776, as well as from the speech Daniel Webster imagined Adams might have given, in a eulogy delivered in Boston on August 2, 1826 (see below).

Screenshot, Votes on July 1

After the speeches on July 1, the vote was 9-4 in favor of independence

A decision as monumental as independence really needed to be unanimous. In this scene, Samuel Adams says, "Majority is ours, cousin. Nine to four in favor." At the end of the day on July 1, there were nine colonies/states in favor of independence: New Hampshire, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, New Jersey, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, and Georgia. But it isn't exactly accurate to say there were four votes against. South Carolina and Pennsylvania were against independence, New York had outdated instructions, and Delaware was split with one delegate in favor and one against. And yes, Samuel Adams and John Adams really were cousins!


Screenshot, Rodney Arrives

Caesar Rodney was "fetched and brought back" to Congress just in time to vote

Delaware delegates Thomas McKean and Caesar Rodney were in favor of independence, and George Read was against (though he would go on to sign the Declaration). With Rodney absent, Delaware’s vote was divided. In this scene, Adams tells McKean to send word to Romney, which McKean did, according to a letter written to Rodney’s nephew, Caesar A. Rodney, in 1813: “without delay I sent an Express (at my private expense) for your honored Uncle Caesar Rodney Esquire, the remaining member for Delaware, whom I met at the State-house door, in his boots and spurs, as the members were assembling…” A few minutes later on screen, Rodney arrives, mud-coated boots and all.

Screenshot, Dickinson

John Dickinson was absent from Congress on July 2nd

Though there is no evidence to indicate that Franklin suggested the idea to him (as he does in the scene a few minutes before this), Dickinson was indeed absent from Congress on July 2, the day of the final vote. This swung Pennsylvania’s vote in favor of independence. 



Screenshot, Lee

Richard Henry Lee announced Virginia's vote on July 2nd

Lee left Congress on June 13, shortly after presenting his resolution. He was not present for the debates and vote for independence, but was able to sign the Declaration of Independence upon his return to Philadelphia in the fall.




Screenshot, Public Reading

Members of Congress stood outside Independence Hall as the Declaration of Independence was read aloud by Charles Thomson

Though it is a powerful visual, there is no evidence for this scene. The first recorded public reading of the Declaration of Independence in Philadelphia was by Col. John Nixon on July 8, in the State House Yard (behind Independence Hall). Note that Dickinson is in the crowd, in military uniform and on horseback. After he left Congress, Dickinson was given the rank of brigadier general in the Pennsylvania militia. One other note: the document Charles Thomson is reading from is a fabrication, and looks unlike any known manuscript copies of the Declaration.

Screenshot, Abigail reading Declaration

Abigail Adams had a copy of the Dunlap broadside

John Adams definitely sent Abigail a copy of the July 6 edition of the Pennsylvania Evening Post, which included the text of the Declaration of Independence. Based on clues in one of Abigail's letters, it is plausible that he also sent her a copy of Jefferson's draft. He may have also sent Abigail a Dunlap broadside, but there is no clear evidence. Regardless, Abigail was among the first people in New England to receive a copy of the Declaration of Independence. She wrote to her husband about the Declaration on July 13, days before the text was published in Massachusetts newspapers.


A note on voting order: Three votes are cast by the Committee of the Whole during this episode: one for the Olive Branch Petition, one against the Lee Resolution, and one for independence. The colonies/states vote in a slightly different order each time. In reality, votes were most likely cast in north to south order for all votes: New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia.

Text Check


How does the dialogue in John Adams compare to the real life speeches and writings of these characters? 


Adams: “Well now, I have not heard you say three words together in the last Congress.”

“… during the whole Time I satt with him in Congress, I never heard him utter three Sentences together.”John Adams’ Autobiography

Jefferson: “I would gladly lend my hand to sink the whole island of Great Britain in the ocean.”

“I am sincerely one of those, and would rather be in dependence on Great Britain, properly limited, than on any nation upon earth, or than on no nation. But I am one of those too who rather than submit to the right of legislating for us assumed by the British parliament, and which late experience has shewn they will so cruelly exercise, would lend my hand to sink the whole island in the ocean.”Letter from Thomas Jefferson to John Randolph, 25 August 1775

Adams: “Because, Mr. Duane, the middle way that some in this chamber have been seeking is no way at all. Gentlemen, if we finally fail in this great and glorious contest, it will be by bewildering ourselves in groping for the middle way!”

“I agree with you, that in Politicks the Middle Way is none at all. If We finally fail in this great and glorious Contest, it will be by bewildering ourselves in groping after this middle Way.”Letter from John Adams to Horatio Gates, 23 March 1776

Franklin: “The question is not whether by a Declaration of Independence, that we should make ourselves something we are not, but whether we should declare as fact something which already exists.”

“On the other side it was urged by J. Adams, Lee, Wythe and others… That the question was not whether, by a declaration of independence, we should make ourselves what we are not; but whether we should declare a fact which already exists.” Thomas Jefferson’s Notes of Proceedings in the Continental Congress

Adams: “King Louis cannot be expected to acknowledge us until we have acknowledged ourselves and taken our rightful place as a sovereign power.”

“That foreign Powers could not be expected to acknowledge Us, till We had acknowledged ourselves and taken our Station, among them as a sovereign Power, and Independent Nation.”John Adams’ Autobiography

Adams: “Mr. Duane well knows that reconciliation would be as agreeable to my inclinations and as advantageous to my interests as to any man’s! But, I see no prospect for it, no probability, no possibility! And I cannot abide the hypocritical heart that pretends to expect peace when in truth it does not.”

“Reconciliation if practicable and Peace if attainable, you very well know would be as agreable to my Inclinations and as advantageous to my Interest, as to any Man’s. But I see no Prospect, no Probability, no Possibility. And I cannot but despise the Understanding, which sincerely expects an honourable Peace, for its Credulity, and detest the hypocritical Heart, which pretends to expect it, when in Truth it does not.”Letter from John Adams to Abigail Adams, 18 February 1776

Adams: “Do you know the conduct of some states from the beginning of this affair has given me reason to suspect that it is their settled policy to keep to the rear of our confederacy come what may, so as not to harm their future prospects?”

“That the conduct of some colonies from the beginning of this contest, had given reason to suspect it was their settled policy to keep in the rear of the confederacy, that their particular prospect might be better even in the worst event:”Thomas Jefferson’s Notes of Proceedings in the Continental Congress

Abigail Adams: “That such evil should befall a people… could it be punishment for the sin of slavery?”

“Unsearchable are the ways of Heaven who permitteth Evil to befall a city and a people by those very hands who were by them constituded the Gaurdians and protectors of them. We have done Evil or our Enimies would be at peace with us. The Sin of Slavery as well as many others is not washed away.” Letter from Abigail Adams to John Adams, 25 October 1775

Adams: “First, you are a Virginian, and a Virginian should be at the head of this business as it’s the most powerful state. And second, I am obnoxious, suspected, and unpopular, and you are very much otherwise. Third, and perhaps more 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.”

“1. That he was a Virginian and I a Massachusettensian. 2. that he was a southern Man and I a northern one. 3. That I had been so obnoxious for my early and constant Zeal in promoting the Measure, that any fraught of mine, would undergo a more severe Scrutiny and Criticism in Congress, than one of his composition. 4thly and lastly and that would be reason enough if there were no other, I had a great Opinion of the Elegance of his pen and none at all of my own.”John Adams’ Autobiography

Dickinson: “Gentlemen. The consequences involved in the motion now lying before us are of such magnitude that I tremble at the oppressive honor of sharing its determination. My conduct this day, I expect, will give the finishing blow to my once great and now much-diminished popularity. Yet I had rather forfeit popularity forever than vote away the blood and happiness of my countrymen. Independence will not strengthen us by one man! Nor by the least supply. But it may expose our soldiers to additional cruelties and outrages. The full fury of British wrath will be unleashed. Indians will be loosed on the frontier. Negroes will rise up to slaughter us. New York may well be destroyed. By their own admission, the advocates of separation say foreign assistance will be necessary. At what cost? Let us imagine a war without victors. When the guns fall silent, many will have bled and sacrificed only to have exchanged the light yoke of Great Britain for the heavy dominion of an alien power. Some have argued that America will become one great commonwealth. But what is to keep 13 unwieldy colonies from splitting asunder? I have a strong impression in my mind that this will take place. No, gentlemen. To escape the protection of Great Britain by declaring independence, unprepared as we are, would be to brave a storm in a skiff made of paper.”

“The Consequences involvd in the Motion now lying before You are of such Magnitude, that I tremble under the oppressive Honor of sharing in its Determination. … My Conduct, this Day, I expect will give the finishing Blow to my once too great, and, my Integrity considered now too diminish’d Popularity. It will be my Lott to know, that I had rather vote away the Enjoyment of that dazzling display, that pleasing Possession, than the Blood and Happiness of my Countrymen… Others strenuously assert, that tho regularly such Information & Establishment ought to precede the Measure proposed, yet, confiding in our Fortune more boldly than Caesar himself, we ought to brave the Storm in a Skiff made of Paper. … The Burning of Towns, the Setting Loose of Indians on our Frontiers, has Not yet been done. … A PARTITION of these Colonies will take Place if Great Britain cant conquer Us. To escape from the protection we have in British rule by declaring independence would be like Destroying a House before We have got another, In Winter, with a small Family; Then asking a Neighbour to take Us in and finding He is unprepared. … I should be glad to know whether in 20 or 30 Years this Commonwealth of Colonies may not be thought too unwieldy, & Hudson’s River be a proper Boundary for a separate Commonwealth to the Northward. I have a strong Impression on my Mind that this will take Place.”Dickinson’s Speech, 1 July 1776 (click here to read the full speech)

Adams: “Objects of the most stupendous magnitude, measures which will affect the lives of millions, born and unborn, are now before us. We must expect a great expense of blood to obtain them. But we must always remember that a free constitution of civil government cannot be purchased at too dear a rate, as there is nothing on this side of Jerusalem of greater importance to mankind. My worthy colleague from Pennsylvania has spoken with great ingenuity and eloquence. He has given you a grim prognostication of our national future. But where he foresees apocalypse, I see hope. I see a new nation ready to take its place in the world. Not an empire, but a republic, and a republic of laws, not men. Gentlemen, we are in the very midst of revolution! The most complete, unexpected, and remarkable of any in the history of the world. How few of the human race have ever had an opportunity of choosing a system of government for themselves, and their children? I am not without apprehensions, gentlemen. But the end we have in sight is more than worth all the means. I believe, sirs, that the hour has come. My judgment approves this measure, and my whole heart is in it. All that I have, all that I am, and all that I hope in this life, I am now ready to stake upon it. While I live, let me have a country—a free country.”

1. “Objects of the most Stupendous Magnitude, Measures in which the Lives and Liberties of Millions, born and unborn are most essentially interested, are now before Us. We are in the very midst of a Revolution, the most compleat, unexpected, and remarkable of any in the History of Nations.”Letter from John Adams to William Cushing, 9 June 1776 
2. “The Object is great which We have in View, and We must expect a great Expence of Blood to obtain it. But We should always remember, that a free Constitution of civil Government cannot be purchased at too dear a Rate; as there is nothing on this Side of the new Jerusalem, of equal Importance to Mankind.”Letter from John Adams to Archibald Bulloch, 1 July 1776
3. “He [Dickinson] conducted the debate, not only with great Ingenuity and Eloquence, but with equal Politeness and Candour: and was answered in the same Spirit.”John Adams’ Autobiography
4. “How few of the human Race, have ever had an opportunity of choosing a System of Government for themselves and their Children? … for the true Idea of a Republic, is 'An Empire of Laws and not of Men'…”II. To John Penn, 27 March 1776 (part of John Adams' Thoughts on Government) Note: Adams is quoting English political theorist James Harrington
5. “I am not without Apprehensions from this Quarter”Letter from John Adams to Abigail Adams, 3 July 1776
6. “I can see that the End is more than worth all the Means.”Letter from John Adams to Abigail Adams, 3 July 1776
7. “But while I do live, let me have a country, or at least the hope of a country, and that a free country. … Sir, before God, I believe the hour is come. My judgment approves this measure, and my whole heart is in it. All that I have, and all that I am, and all that I hope, in this life, I am now ready here to stake upon it…”Imaginary Speech of John Adams by Daniel Webster, in Discourse on the Lives and Services of Adams and Jefferson, 1826

Adams: “Idle misspense of time. A waste of breath. I said nothing but what has been repeated and hackneyed in that room before a hundred times past these six months.”

“That Debate took up the most of the day, but it was an idle Mispence of Time for nothing was Said, but what had been repeated and hackneyed in that Room before an hundred Times for Six months past.” Letter from John Adams to Samuel Chase, 1 July 1776

Adams: “You will think me transported with Enthusiasm but I am not. It is the will of Heaven that Britain and America should be sundered forever. It may be the will of Heaven that America shall suffer calamities still more wasting and distresses yet more dreadful. I am well aware of the toil and blood and treasure that it will cost us to maintain this Declaration and support and defend these states. Yet through all the gloom, I can see the rays of ravishing light and glory. I can see that posterity will triumph in that day’s transaction.”

“You will think me transported with Enthusiasm but I am not.—I am well aware of the Toil and Blood and Treasure, that it will cost Us to maintain this Declaration, and support and defend these States.—Yet through all the Gloom I can see the Rays of ravishing Light and Glory. I can see that the End is more than worth all the Means. And that Posterity will tryumph in that Days Transaction, even altho We should rue it, which I trust in God We shall not.”Letter from John Adams to Abigail Adams, 3 July 1776

By Emily Sneff

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