Oh posterity, you will never know how much it cost us to preserve your freedom. I hope that you will make a good use of it. It you do not, I will repent in heaven that I took half the pains to preserve it.
So speaks John Adams in the last line of the HBO mini-series inspired by David McCullough’s biography. Adams knew that our American revolution was precarious, and that its principles were vulnerable to misinterpretation.
The mini-series juxtaposes Adams and Jefferson. We see Adams as a prudent, calculating revolutionary. For the cause of independence, he leads the Continental Congress with the temperament of a radical. His revolutionary convictions were shrewd, and genuine. But as a President he was conservative. Once the revolution was achieved, he was solely determined to preserve the government. Meanwhile, Jefferson envisioned a perennial revolution, with each generation overthrowing the institutions of the last.
McCullough shows that Adams was uniquely aware of the fragility of the new government and the principles it affirmed. As he transformed from a revolutionary to a conservative, his reputation faltered. His efforts in office to protect the delicate union, his preoccupation with its infant weaknesses, lead many in his time to question his true commitment to the revolution—as though revolution, itself, was always virtuous. He lost the legacy battle to Jefferson, and witnessed firsthand the cold unfairness of history.
Though mocked and unpopular, Adams commented before vacating the Presidency, “Mr. Jefferson is fortunate that I have left him a county at all over which to preside.”
It is probably true that part of Adams’ pessimism was partly due to offended disgruntlement. He clearly resented Jefferson’s popularity. But there was also something worrying to Adams about the way history embraced Jefferson. Adams believed completely in the principles of the revolution, and the institutions of the new government, and he knew of their profound importance to the world. To him, the revolution was real, necessary, and genuine. To Jefferson, and to many Americans of the time, it was abstract and romantic. Adams seemed to know that there would be something lost if the realness of the American principles was not appreciated.
In a later scene, the mini-series shows an old, ornery Adams surveying John Trumbull’s painting of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Adams tells Trumbull:
Do not let our posterity be diluted with fictions under the guise of poetical or graphical licenses…It is a very common observation in Europe that nothing is so false as modern history. Well I would hasten to add that nothing is so false as modern European history, except modern American history. In plain English, I consider the true history of the American Revolution to be lost…forever.