UNITED STATES HISTORY THROUGH FILM
John Adams
Episode 1 :  Join or Die

*The Peace of Paris ended the French and Indian war for the French, but not for the Indians.  The war had, after all, begun over land claims, and settlers streamed into the back country and over the Appalachian Mountains even before the war was over--after all, D. Boon cilled a bar on a tree in 1760 in modern Washington County, Tennessee. 

*These settlers provoked the Indians living west of the mountains, and shortly after the French and Indian War ended, Indians attacked again under the leadership of an Ottawa chief named Pontiac who briefly united several tribes to attack British forts and settlements around the Great Lakes.  They killed around 2,000 soldiers and settlers before being put down by force of arms and gifts of blankets infected with small pox.

*To avoid future conflicts, King George III issued the Proclamation of 1763, creating the Proclamation Line, forbidding settlement west of the crest of the Appalachian Mountains or even trading with the Indians without the permission of the British government.  Although the British planned to eventually allow settlement of this area, they meant to do it in a slow and carefully managed way rather than in the haphazard manner of earlier settlement that had so often provoked Indian wars in the past.  The colonists who had fought to open this land to settlement, however, felt betrayed.  This was just the first of many misunderstandings between the British government and their American colonists.

*The fact was that the colonists saw themselves as completely British and were proud of it.  As members of the British Empire, they enjoyed more freedom and self-government than anyone else on earth, and they attributed this to traditions of liberty enshrined in the Magna Carta of 1215 and the Bill of Rights of 1689.

*Although only about 2% of British subjects in Britain could actually vote thanks to property qualifications and other restrictions, that was far more than in any other country, and the British often referred to the subjects of other monarchs (particularly the French) as slaves and sometimes even called their own system a republic because it was held together by the virtue of all classes of people.  Most British people had faith in their government, including the British colonists in America, who saw themselves as part of a great British tradition and were proud to be so.

*In Britain (and America) at this time, it was believed that liberty was based on property--only someone with enough property to be independent of anyone else's control could truly be free.  This was one reason Britain and her colonies had property qualifications to vote:  a man who did not own enough property to support himself was not truly free, because whoever had economic influence over him might influence his vote, too. 

*Under long-standing traditions and the newer contract theory of government, a just government could not just take a free person's property.  Taxes were, at least in theory, a gift from the people to the government.  Therefore, taxes could only be levied by a representative body such as Parliament or a colonial legislature because it represented the property-owners whose property was being given to the government in the form of taxes.  This is why the House of Commons had the power of the purse, and they guarded that privilege jealously.

*British colonists in America also believed that elected colonial legislatures, like the House of Burgesses, were the only groups to have the power to create taxes for the colonies, although they said that the British Parliament did have the right to create tariffs that regulated trade for the entire empire, even though these were a form of tax, too.

*There were a number of such taxes in place before the 1760s (such as the Molasses Act of 1733), but most were not enforced, or at least not enforced well.  Many Americans (like John Hancock) grew rich off smuggling.

*Thanks to the French and Indian War, however, Britain was deep in debt, and also needed to police the Proclamation Line.  The British government would need to pay for all of this, and rapidly came to feel that the colonies, on whose behalf the war had been fought, ought to help pay for it and, in general, ought to be managed more closely in the future.  Unfortunately, according to many colonists, taxes that specifically raise revenue could only be created by a colony's elected representatives in the colonial legislatures, not by representatives in London for whom they had never voted and with whom they had no connexion at all.

*The weakness of the connexion between the colonists and officials from Britain had become clear during the French and Indian War as well, when many colonial leaders, particularly militia officers like George Washington felt slighted by the British military officers and other officials they dealt with, a fact made worse by the incompetence of many British generals (such as in Braddock's Blunder and the 1757 attack on Ticonderoga).  On the other hand, British officers felt that the colonial militia were undisciplined, poorly trained, and unreliable, and many British leaders resented how reluctant the colonists were to even provide militiamen or even supplies to assist the British army that was there to fight for them, and then certainly did not want to pay for it afterwards.

*After the French and Indian War, Britain needed to repay £125 million to £140 million of debt, had to police the Proclamation Line, and in general felt a need to bring her American colonies under closer supervision.  In April, 1763, George Grenville was named Prime Minister of the United Kingdom and set out to do just that, and to get the colonies to pay for it.

*The Sugar Act of 1764 cut the Molasses Act in half, but actually tried to enforce it, thereby giving British authorities more power for search and seizure of potentially smuggled sugar and sugar products (such as molasses).  Colonists did not see a need for more taxes and especially not for more bureaucracy now that peace had arrived.  Worse, violators of the law were tried by the appointed British Admiralty courts located in distant Britain, not by local juries. 

*In short, as the colonists saw it, Britain was changing the rules and threatening their rights as Englishmen.  Still, most colonists (Benjamin Franklin, for example) felt that, though perhaps not ideal, the Sugar Act was legal and within the traditional powers of Parliament, because it was an external tax meant to regulate the Empire.  Opposition was limited, although there were some petitions to Parliament against the law, some boycotts of taxed goods, and some violence, but the results were minimal.  However, George Grenville was not done.

*The Stamp Act was announced in 1764 but not put into force until 1765.  It was a tax on most printed documents, including legal documents, magazines, playing cards, newspapers, and many other paper goods.  This was a direct tax levied against property in order to make money for the government.  Worse, it especially hurt newspapermen, businessmen, lawyers and legislators--the sort of people who could organise resistance.  It was also difficult for others, because, although the tax on individual items was not that high, it had to be paid in specie rather than colonial paper money, and hard money was scarce. 

*Loyal citizens such as Franklin advised against the Act, but were ignored.  Agitation spread to several colonies, and Patrick Henry began his career by denouncing the Stamp Act in the Virginia House of Burgesses.  Pamphlets were written denouncing the Act, but were ignored by Parliament. 

*Eventually, representatives from nine colonies met in New York in 1764 to plan a cohesive resistance to this one act while remaining loyal to the king.  This was known as the Stamp Act Congress, although it did not accomplish much besides set an example of inter-colonial meetings to discuss resistance to British laws. 

*Other groups appeared as well, including the Sons of Liberty, led by Samuel Adams and others, who served as vigilantes to harass anyone taking part in enforcing the Stamp Act.  By late 1765, all the officials supposed to sell the stamps were afraid to do their duty, and in 1766 the act was repealed and the Sugar Tax reduced, but Parliament passed the Declaratory Act saying they had the absolute right pass laws that were binding over the colonies , so the crisis was not over.

*In 1766, William Pitt returned as Prime Minister.  Once a friend of the colonies, he started to get sick of them quickly, feeling that they were complaining about the costs of being part of an empire that protected them and gave them access to the greatest markets on Earth.  His Chancellor of the Exchequer, Charles Townshend, quickly became frustrated, too, but tried to consider the colonists’ point of view:  he would use indirect taxes, of the sort that the colonists claimed to approve of.  This led to a series of acts typically known as the Townshend Acts.

*The Townshend Acts of 1767 placed duties on certain imports, including glass, paper, lead, paint, and tea.  These were supervised by a board of customs commissioners headquartered in Boston, which was generally resented.  The taxes resulted in protests, boycotts and violence, as merchants (sometimes out of fear) signed non-importation agreements that hurt British merchants, who in turn complained to Parliament.  This violence reached a climax in Boston in 1770. 

*Following a long series of riots and other protests in Boston led by the Sons of Liberty, more British soldiers were sent in to keep the peace.  They were resented by the locals and frequently teased and taunted, and not allowed to respond.  On the night of 5 March, 1770, a crowd of about 60 Bostonians started harassing about 10 soldiers guarding the customs house.  One soldier was hit with a club and knocked down.  The crowd also threw rocks and chunks of ice at the soldiers.  Angry and afraid, the soldiers fired their muskets into the crowd and killed or wounded eleven civilians, including the mob's leader, a runaway slave named Crispus Attucks who died instantly.  The Sons of Liberty described this as the Boston Massacre, and an engraving by one of their members, Paul Revere, became an influential piece of propaganda. 

*Later, a trial found only two of the nine soldiers guilty thanks to their defence lawyer John Adams, and even those two were released after their thumbs were branded.

*Parliament tried to temper its policies.  King George III's friend Lord North replaced William Pitt as Prime Minister and repealed all the Townshend Duties except the one on tea.  In fact, this happened on the same day as the Boston Massacre.

*After this, not much happened, but colonists opposed to the British kept in touch through letter-writing groups or Committees of Correspondence.

*The colonies were becoming prosperous now, and they were willing to live with the tea tax and the old tax on molasses from the Sugar Act. 

*In 1773, Parliament passed the Tea Act.  This gave a monopoly on tea importing to the East India Company (in which many MPs and royal officials owned stock), and let them bypass wholesalers.  It also eliminated all duties and taxes on tea except the Townshend Duty.  Therefore, the East India Tea Company could sell tea (even with the duty) cheaper than even the smugglers could.  The merchants, especially the middlemen, called it corruption and monopoly and the start of an insidious conspiracy!  They said the local merchants would be ruined, then the tea company would raise prices when it had no competition.  It supported unneeded bureaucrats and corrupt officials.  However, most colonists did not seem to care.  Tea was too popular--close to half the population drank it daily.  However, a few agitators again stirred up trouble.  The Sons of Liberty threatened merchants and tax officials, so that many resigned rather than be tarred and feathered or have boiling tea poured down their throats or even have their houses torn down.

*Finally, in Boston, a large shipment of tea arrived in the harbour.  Acting Governor Hutchinson said that since it was in the city, the taxes must be paid.  However, a mob at the docks would not let the ships unload or sell the tea, while the governor would not let them leave.  Finally, the captain of one ship went ashore and asks for help.  This was creatively misinterpreted by the Sons of Liberty, and sixty, dressed as Indians, went aboard and dumped £10,000 worth of tea into Boston Harbour while 2,000 locals stood around and cheered.

*There were other tea parties like this up and down the coast, and Parliament was not pleased.  In response, Parliament passed the Coercive Acts, or Intolerable Acts, of 1774.  The Boston Port Act shut down Boston Harbour until all the taxes were paid and the tea itself was paid for; the Massachusetts Governor Act removed Hutchinson from office and replaced him with General Thomas Gage who had the power to appoint a council and forbid town meetings; the Administration of Justice Act ensured that royal officials charged with any crime would be tried in England (not the colonies), which theoretically could let them harass locals and get away with it; and the Quartering Act introduced more troops to enforce the laws, who had to be supported any way the military saw fit (even in private homes).  Parliament also passed the Quebec Act, which preserved Catholicism, the French language, and other traditions in Quebec while enlarging its borders down to the Ohio River under the authority of a Royal Governor who would not be restrained by an elected legislature.

*The Virginia House of Burgesses called for a day of prayer for Massachusetts and was disbanded by the governor, Lord Dunmore.  Reconvening nearby in the Raleigh Tavern, they called for a meeting of all the colonies to decide what to do next. 

*Twelve colonies (all but Georgia) sent a total of 55 delegates to Philadelphia, where they constituted the First Continental Congress (5 September, 1774-26 October, 1774).  Some of the delegates had to be sent from ‘reconstituted assemblies’ created illegally after 6 colonies had their assemblies dissolved by their royal governors.

--Introduce John Adams (Episode 1:  Join or Die)

-John Adams is a 7-part series produced by HBO in 2008.  Episode 1 is entitled ‘Join or Die,’ after the famous political cartoon produced by Benjamin Franklin to encourage the colonies to work together during the French and Indian War, and later re-used to encourage unity in opposition to Britain.  The series is based on a biography of John Adams by David McCullough, although with quite a bit of dramatic license taken.

-Episode 1 focuses on John Adams’s career as a lawyer in Boston in the years 1770-1774, a time period that included the Boston Massacre, the Boston Tea Party, the passage of the Intolerable Acts, and the election of delegates to the First Continental Congress.

-Although Episode 1 is set in Boston, most of the filming was done in Colonial Williamsburg, Virginia.  In later episodes, some scenes set in Europe were filmed in Hungary (but not France, the Netherlands, or Britain).

-John Adams was a farmer and a lawyer living near, and later in, Boston.  Although a critic of British policies in the 1760s and 1770s (to a greater degree than suggested in Episode 1), he opposed violence against royal officials.  He did support complete independence from Britain earlier than most colonial leaders, and served in the first and second Continental Congresses, and later as a diplomat in France, the Netherlands, and Britain.  After independence, he helped to write the Massachusetts state constitution and eventually served as America’s first vice-president and second president.

-Abigail Adams was the wife of John Adams and the mother of his children.  Together they had six children (including future president John Quincy Adams), although only four of their children lived to adulthood, and all of them that are shown in this episode of John Adams are portrayed as being several years older than they really were at the time.  Abigail and John Adams were very close and deeply in love, and she was an important advisor to him whenever she could be, although his political career often forced him to be away from her while she stayed in Massachusetts and managed the farm.

-Samuel Adams was the cousin of John Adams and a leading figure in the Sons of Liberty.  For a time he worked in the family business making malt (an ingredient in beer), but he was never successful in business.  Rather, he devoted himself to the cause of resisting British tyranny and eventually promoting independence.  Historians to this day debate how much he supported the mob violence and vigilantism that the British accused the Sons of Liberty of promoting.  In HBO's miniseries, he is presented as a strong supporter of violent opposition to British authority.  In fact, he was more moderate than is suggested, and approved of John Adams's work as a lawyer for the accused British soldiers, hoping to show that Boston could give them a fair trial, thus proving that the colonists were not the ones who ignored the law.  Furthermore, while he was very critical of the policies of Parliament and many royal officials, he made a point of being loyal to the King himself until fairly shortly before the Declaration of Independence.  He would later serve in the First and Second Continental Congress and even as governor of Massachusetts after independence.

-John Hancock was a merchant, and one of the wealthiest men in the thirteen colonies after inheriting a shipping business from his uncle.  The British accused him of smuggling, and historians debate to this day whether that was correct.  It probably is, at least to an extent, as many colonial merchants imported goods from the colonies of other European countries (especially sugar and molasses from the Caribbean) and avoided paying taxes on them.  John Hancock was also a leading member of the Sons of Liberty, and an early supporter of independence from Britain.  He later served as President of the Continental Congress (a role more like a chairman than like the Chief Executive the president would later become) and as governor of Massachusetts after independence.

-Captain Thomas Preston was the British officer in command of the soldiers involved in the Boston Massacre.  He was accused of ordering his men to fire; he always insisted he did not give that order.  After many lawyers known to be loyal to the British crown refused to defend him and his men, he asked John Adams to represent him in court, and he did so, although there were actually two separate trials, one for Captain Preston along and a separate one for the eight soldiers accused of murder, not a single trial for all of them as shown on HBO.

-Show John Adams

-#2 shows John Adams wearing a wig, as almost all prosperous men did, and which lawyers and judges in a British court were required to wear (and still are required to wear in most courts in Britain and some former British colonies).  Although wigs largely fell out of fashion in the late 1700s, partly as a result of the American Revolution and the French Revolution challenging traditional status symbols, John Adams would even wear a wig as president (and James Monroe would as well--Monroe made a point of dressing in the style of the 1770s even into the 1820s in order to remind people that he was a veteran of the Revolutionary War).

-#3 is partly accurate.  When the fighting broke out around the customs house, people began ringing the church bells of Boston, which was normally done to alert people to a fire in town so that everyone would rush out to try to fight the fire.  However, John Adams himself was not at home when the massacre took place, and did not run out to fight a fire or to see the shooting.  By the time he did reach the site of the massacre, all the bodies and suspects had been cleared away.

-#11 is not entirely accurate for the moment.  Although five men did die as a result of the Boston Massacre, only three died on the spot, while a fourth died of his wounds the next day and a fifth died two weeks later.  At the moment this scene depicts, only three or four men had died so far.

-#24 & #25 are technically true--none of the soldiers were found guilty of murder, but two of the soldiers were found guilty of manslaughter and were punished by being branded on their right thumbs.

-#27 refers to the Stamp Act and the Townshend Duties.

-#30 depicts a British official being tarred and feathered with the encouragement of John Hancock and Samuel Adams.  In fact, they never publicly encouraged such violence, and historians debate to what extent they supported it privately.  Furthermore, the kind of tar used in the colonial period was pine tar, made from baking the sap out of the roots and stumps of pine trees, and would have been a yellowish-brown colour rather than the black of petroleum-based asphalt tar shown by HBO.  Furthermore, pine tar melts at 140 degrees or so, which would be uncomfortable but not fatal, while asphalt melts around 300 degrees, so that hot tar of that type would scald someone, potentially fatally.

-#32 refers to the expense of the French and Indian War.

-#33 is the complaint that taxes should not be created for the colonies by a Parliament in which the colonists do not get to elect representatives.

-#35-#40 all refer to different aspects of the Coercive Acts, known in the colonies as the Intolerable Acts.

-#41 refers to what will later be known as the First Continental Congress.

-#43 refers to the Boston Tea Party, in which the men who threw the tea overboard were in fact disguised as Mohawk Indians, although this wasn't really meant to fool anyone except to the extent that any witnesses who were questioned could claim they didn't recognise anyone involved, because they were all in disguise.

-#44 mentions the Virginia House of Burgesses choosing delegates for Congress.  Technically, Lord Dunmore, the royal governor of Virginia, had dissolved the House of Burgesses, but they had continued to meet unofficially (while eventually the governor himself fled from Williamsburg and tried to govern Virginia from a Royal Navy ship off the coast of the colony).

-#45 & #46 are based on documents written by John Adams eight years earlier during the Stamp Act crisis.  He is not known to have given a speech upon the occasion of being selected to represent Massachusetts in Congress.  These lines were presumably chosen because they so strongly resemble lines in the Declaration of Independence that will be written two years later (with Adams as a member of the committee chosen to write the Declaration, although most of the writing was actually done by Thomas Jefferson).

*Some delegates to the First Continental Congress, such as John and Samuel Adams, George Washington, and Patrick Henry were very radical and were starting to consider breaking from England.

*Other delegates are more conservative, notably John Dickinson and Joseph Galloway of Pennsylvania.

*Together, the delegates resolved that Parliament did not and could not represent the colonies.  Despite this, the colonies did not yet (with the exception of a few radicals) want independence.  They simply wanted a new relationship with Great Britain-—perhaps united under one king, but with separate parliaments.  This was even suggested in Galloway's Plan of Union, in which all the colonies would be united into a single colony with an elected president-general and a Grand Council that would be subservient to Parliament.  This plan was rejected by a margin of only one vote.

*Congress supported non-importation, non-exportation, and non-consumption agreements (except for rice, in order to get South Carolina’s co-operation).

*It created Committees on Public Safety, one per colony, to enforce boycotts, pass out fliers, protect people who supported Congress, and beat up people who did not.

*Relatively satisfied with their accomplishments, Congress adjourned, but decided to meet again the next year, in May, 1775.

*Many colonists thought Congress and the Committees on Safety and the reconstituted assemblies were going a bit too far, but they were willing to go along because the new system looked much like the old one with most of the same, old, respected men in charge.  People also knew that there are real problems, and saw that this is at least a relatively calm, rational way of approaching them.  Finally, people saw what was happening in Massachusetts, and feared it could happen to them next.  Consequently, boycotts were mostly followed and militia units begin to train seriously, particularly the Minutemen of New England who claimed to be able to fight at a minute’s notice.


This page last updated 23 January, 2019.
Powered by Hot Air