Priceless lessons from ‘John Adams’

Terry Garlock's picture

I don’t have to tell you how the junk slouching out of Hollywood seems to counter your best efforts to teach your kids character and values.

But sometimes a diamond can be found in a pile of stones, and so it is with the seven-part miniseries “John Adams” recently shown on HBO, produced by Tom Hanks and based on the renowned biography of the same name by David McCullough.

Every American child should watch this series with parents nearby to take advantage of teaching moments.

The story begins with growing discontent in the American colonies and progresses through conflict with the British, the first thoughts of independence, the process of declaring independence, the war for independence, winning independence, constructing a government and the never-ending struggle of political differences.

Watching this series is a fascinating trip back in time, tasting what life was like and how our nation was born, without the usual romanticism.

If you yawn at this news because there are so many movies and documentaries on those historical events, I understand but hasten to tell you this series is different. It is a first-class production that works hard to tell the story without the piety, with human frailties and warts on full display, with our American heroes shown as flawed real people, just like you and me.

I’ll show this series to my 11-year-old daughter, Melanie, and later to my now 6-year-old daughter, Kristen. I will try to get them interested in the first episode and once they watch a little, they will be hooked on the story. They will see how much harder life was back then, and how the people had no say in how the British king decided to rule their lives, and the resulting rebellion.

More interesting, though, is how much disagreement and infighting took place among our forefathers, how Adams himself was vain and prone to irritate the hell out of people by speaking his mind, just like I do.

He was obsessed with his own image and tormented by knowing some thought ill of him while all he wanted was a new nation that preserved, above all else, individual liberty.

Just like today, those we think of as deified forefathers were often vain, egotistical schemers who gathered in cliques of like-minded men to vilify and plot against others who had different ideas on what was best for the new nation. Some became enemies for life. Sound familiar?

Despite personal flaws, these men were exploring the never-heard-of idea that citizens would be in charge of their own government.

Adams was a deep thinker on how best to preserve individual liberty, even though preoccupied with his worry that his central role in America’s birth would be unfairly overshadowed in history by Washington, Jefferson and Franklin. That is just what happened, because, just like today, appearances trumped reality.

One of the lessons I want my kids to learn is that when they study history in school, memorizing dates and names and events makes historical events seem kind of inevitable, that things happened that were supposed to happen.

Reality is quite different, and the birth of America is an example. There are so many reasons America’s independence was not supposed to happen, and it very nearly did not. The dedicated, relentless and courageous actions of a few people created a turning point in history while the vast majority stood on the sidelines as observers, many waiting to see who the winner would be before committing their cowardly loyalty. Just like today.

There is a great lesson on compromise if you look for it. Some of the founding fathers, like Adams, wanted slavery abolished, while the Southern states were committed to it, their morality influenced by their own pocket and their state’s economy.

But the choice was clear. Fight slavery now and agreement on a new nation was not possible; set the issue aside for now, and a new nation is possible.

They compromised in order to form a new nation, some knowing the evil of slavery and hoping they would later be able to get rid of that immoral and inhumane practice.

Congress was a group of men collected in various factions arguing endlessly, dithering in inaction while the men fighting and dying in their war for independence went wanting for pay, supplies, men and weapons despite letter after letter from Washington begging for action. Collective honor in Congress was in short supply. Not much has changed.

In an 1819 scene I love most, in his retirement after serving as America’s second president, Adams is shown a 12-by-18-foot canvas by James Trumbull, the painter, romantically depicting Thomas Jefferson presenting to Congress his draft of the declaration of independence, all gathered in seeming brotherhood.

Adams growled that it was a good example that nothing is so false as modern history, that in reality they fought like cats and dogs over that document, that they were never gathered all at one time, that Thomas Jefferson sulked in silence as they argued and edited by committee his masterpiece draft. That painting has been hanging in the Capitol Rotunda since 1826.

Throughout the story, Adams’ wife Abigail was a vital part of him. She was his best friend, his confidant, his critic and his most trusted advisor. She, too, was a patriot who helped found the country, and she expressed her disgust that the White House, the home of the president of a supposedly free country, had been built by slaves.

If there is just one lesson I hope my kids learn from the “John Adams” series, it is that this experiment in democracy is ongoing, and that it is not inevitable to last.

For generations now, Americans have been born and lived their entire lives under a bubble of freedom, protection and plenty. Too many of them have a mindset that our system of government is their birthright, that it is the natural way countries are run, and they do not recognize that our freedom is fragile, that the natural order of things is either anarchy or being ruled by an iron fist.

When our forefathers were fighting with one another like cats and dogs to hammer out a new kind of government, one where each of us has a say, a woman spotted Benjamin Franklin leaving Congress and asked him what kind of government they were giving us. He replied, “A republic, madam, if you can keep it!”

Every layer of our government wants more and more control over our lives, always more, never less. If we and our kids don’t recognize that we must work at keeping our freedom and resisting the incessant calls for a nanny state that does everything for us, I wonder how long we will keep Franklin’s republic.

Run, do not walk, to the HBO store at and buy the “John Adams” series. It will be the best $60 you ever spent, an excellent prelude to a summer trip to Washington to show your kids the painting in the Capitol Rotunda and many other treasures.

[Terry Garlock is a certified financial planner in Peachtree City. His email is]

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Richard Hobbs's picture
Submitted by Richard Hobbs on Thu, 05/15/2008 - 10:36am.


Absolutely correct, this was one of the best shows I've seen in as long as I can remember. Sad though to say, so few people actually watched it. During a recent trial, I voir dired the jury panel of 24 people, and ZERO had seen the show.

Its akin to the Saving Private Ryan and Band of Brothers. I got goose bumps watching the debates on Declaraton of Independence. And when they did the surgery on his daughter for breast cancer, with little if any anesthetia, well, I just sat that he horror.

So please take Terry's advice and buy or rent this series and make your kids watch it too.

Our schools should make this required viewing, as opposed to the ignorant "documentaries" like the Convienent Lie.

Maybe if Michelle Obama could fathom what our founding fathers had to do, had to risk, had to suffer, to help create our Nation, she might stop the whinning about her shame of being an American.

My Earlier John Adams Blog

Submitted by tgarlock on Thu, 05/15/2008 - 11:20am.

Did not see your earlier blog, Richard, but you and I are on the same track on Adams. I would wager most liberals will love the film, too (I am a conservative) but I wonder how many of our members of Congress, whether Democrat or Republican, would take to heart the inherent message of self-reliance and keeping government out of our lives except for those few things we cannot do for ourselves, like raise an army for national defense. I fear we are so far down the slippery slope of the nanny state we can never return to what I would call a sane level of government.

Terry Garlock

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