November 29, 2009

loyal opposition

On July 3, 1776, the day before the D of I was signed and independence declared, John Adams wrote this in a letter to Abigail:

The fourth day of July, 1776, will be memorable epocha in the history of America. I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated by succeeding generations, as the great Anniversary Festival. It ought to be commemorated, as the day of deliverance by solemn acts of devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with pomp, shews, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations, from one end of the continent to the other, from this time forward forever.

Dont fail to notice, people, that he said "one end of the continent to the other." Did they even know about California back then?

The miniseries had many flaws (not least of which was casting the marginally talented paul giamatti against the actress, laura linney), but one thing it was great at was contextualizing and respecting Adams's opponents- those like John Dickinson who did not want the colonies to declare their independence. Since we now know that declaring independence was so clearly the right decision, it seems right to portray the loyalists as british apologists at worst, and scaredy-cats at best. Now that we know that we won the war and survived our salad years, arguing for reconciliation seems reckless.

But John Dickinson wasn't the crazy one---John Adams was. There were too many obstacles in the way of independence to list, or fit in an 8 hour miniseries. But through guile, rhetoric, religious invocation, and a bit of fear-mongering, Adams convinced 12 state delegations composed of learned men to essentially ignore the facts on the ground, and start a suicidal war (12, not 13, because Dickinson ultimately abstained) because of idealism. The movie portrays Dickinson as he probably thought of himself--- a sober, thoughtful, grounded man with his finger in the dyke, holding off for as long as he could the deluge of revolution.

What kind of man leads his countrymen into such chaos? The same kind of man/fanatic who knows specifically that 230 years later, the 4th of July will be celebrated with parades and fireworks. Only because his ideas seem reasonable now does history regard Adams as a reasonable man. But in the unfolding of his time, Adams was as daring a revolutionary as has lived. Film proved an especially good medium for reminding me of this.

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