“I have come to the conclusion that one useless man is called a disgrace; that two are called a law firm, and that three or more become a Congress! And by God, I have had this Congress! For ten years, King George and his Parliament have gulled, cullied, and diddled these colonies with their illegal taxes! Stamp Acts, Townshend Acts, Sugar Acts, Tea Acts! And when we dared stand up like men, they have stopped our trade, seized our ships, blockaded our ports, burned our towns, and spilled our BLOOD! And still, this Congress refuses to grant ANY of my proposals on independence, even so much as the courtesy of open debate! Good God, what in hell are you waiting for?”
Long before HBO brought us the genius of John Adams there was another movie that showed how loveable the obnoxious and disliked second President of the United States was.
Unnamed Delegate: “Will someone shut that man up”
John Adams: “NEVER! NEVER!”
It’s a crazy idea that actually works. Turn the Second Continental Congress into a musical. As a musical this is not the strongest film you’ll ever find. In fact the musical numbers are kind of weak overall, but the film itself is quite strong. Primarily because so much of the time is spent covering the debates that occurred in the Continental Congress on whether or not to declare independence.
I first discovered this film in high school and this is where I began to see Adams as one of my greatest heroes (he may not have been the greatest President, but I would say he is possibly the greatest of the Founding Fathers.) The movie portrays Adams as arrogant, stubborn, obnoxious, disliked, principled to the point of being unwilling to budge on anything…and always right. Can’t imagine why I felt an immediate connection.
John Adams to God: “A second flood, a simple famine, plagues of locust everywhere, or a cataclysmic earthquake I’d accept with some despair…but no, you sent us Congress, good god sir, was that fair?”
The film spends a great deal of time in the debate between Adam’s pro-independence forces and the pro-Royalist force spearheaded by Pennsylvanian John Dickenson (the only man who had the opportunity to sign the Declaration and refused to on objections that he couldn’t in “good conscience”…yes endorsing evil he used the words “good conscience”…If I believed in Hell I would guarantee you he would be sharing a spot with Brutus, Cassius, and Judas…oh, by the way, the man also refused to sign and was opposed to the Constitution. Why they didn’t shoot this treasonous SOB boggles my mind.) It is this debate that makes the movie so patriotic. We revel in the ideals and debates that gave birth to a nation of ideals.
Dickenson makes bizarre claims, as many loyalists did at the times, that there must be better ways to solve the problems with the crown (ignoring that when the government starts sending the army after you for pleading your rights, there are few options left. Dickenson even goes as far as questioning George III’s status as a tyrant.
John Dickenson: Mr. Jefferson, I have very little interest in your paper, as there’s no doubt in my mind that we’ve all but heard the last of it, but I am curious about one thing. Why do you refer to King George as a… tyrant?
Thomas Jefferson: Because he *is* a tyrant.
John Dickenson: I remind you, Mr. Jefferson, that this “tyrant” is still your king.
Thomas Jefferson: When a king becomes a tyrant, he thereby breaks the contract binding his subjects to him.
John Dickenson: How so?
Thomas Jefferson: By taking away their rights.
John Dickenson: Rights that came from him in the first place.
Thomas Jefferson: All except one. The right to be free comes from nature.
John Dickenson: And are we not free, Mr. Jefferson?
Thomas Jefferson: Homes entered without warrant, citizens arrested without charge, and in many places, free assembly itself denied.
John Dickenson: No one approves of such things, but these are dangerous times.
Dr. Benjamin Franklin: Those who would give up some of their liberty in order to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.
(I know some Brits even object to this point, but if you ever get in an argument with anyone on this point you should remind them that Mad King George got so bad that he had to be effectively deposed and only ruled in name for the last 18 years of his reign. We Americans were just ahead of the curve in recognizing what a useless ponce he was).
Dickenson also made claims to tradition (a poor substitute to reason), “Do you expect us to forget Hastings and Magna Carta, Strongbow and Lionheart, Drake and Marlborough? “ (From a nation whose traditions also included The Anarchy, Richard II, Richard III, Bloody Mary, Charles I, James II, Cromwell, John…it’s also ironic that you would list the Magna Carta, a document creating new government restrictions on a tyrannical King…so really America was just living up to its British roots of not suffering tyranny very well.)
And of course the movie describes what makes America special among nations so well.
John Dickenson: Fortunately, the people maintain a higher regard for their mother country.
Dr. Benjamin Franklin: Higher, certainly, than she feels for them. Never was such a valuable possession so stupidly and recklessly managed, than this entire continent by the British crown. Our industry discouraged, our resources pillaged… first of all our very character stifled. We’ve spawned a new race here, Mr. Dickenson. Rougher, simpler; more violent, more enterprising; less refined. We’re a new nationality. We require a new nation.
One of the more ironic portions of the film is that when needing to take out the critique of slavery to get the South to sign on Adams advocates to not take it out as slavery is an abomination to the nation. But Franklin and Jefferson win the day arguing that they must have a nation first if they are to ever liberate the slaves, that to stand on principle on this issue will mean slavery for everyone.
John Adams: Mark me, Franklin… if we give in on this issue, posterity will never forgive us.
Dr. Benjamin Franklin: That’s probably true, but we won’t hear a thing, we’ll be long gone. Besides, what would posterity think we were? Demi-gods? We’re men, no more, no less, trying to get a nation started against greater odds than a more generous God would have allowed. First things first, John. Independence; America. If we don’t secure that, what difference will the rest make?
It’s painfully ironic that we have elevated them to Demi-god status. It probably was the wrong thing to do to take the line out, but it was the pragmatic thing, and it did lead to a nation that not only shed its own blood to end slavery within its own borders, but a nation that would shed its own blood to end tyranny in foreign lands because we do believe that “all men are created equal” and entitled to the right of liberty.