The Adams Chronicles
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Four generations of a founding family
Winner of four Emmys® and a Peabody, The Adams Chronicles created a sensation when it debuted in 1976. Lauded by contemporary critics as "the best and highest-rated series in the history of American public television," its vitality and historical integrity now prove timeless. This lavish series dramatizes four generations of Adamses and 150 years of American history from the birth of the Revolution through the Gilded Age. You meet John Adams -- passionate revolutionary and second president; John Quincy Adams -- proud son of a famous father and sixth president; Charles Francis Adams -- skillful minister to Great Britain during the Civil War; and Henry and Charles Francis Adams, Jr. -- historian and railroad magnate, respectively.
Going well beyond politics, this television masterpiece portrays these men as husbands, fathers, brothers, and sons, as well as leaders. Based on the familys personal diaries and correspondence, The Adams Chronicles not only educates as a true historical epic, but also captivates as a fully human family saga.
Anyone interested in the birth of America, and those who formed its precious Constitution--that would be just about anybody--will be riveted to all 13 hours of The Adams Chronicles, an Emmy-nominated miniseries from the mid-'70s that focuses on the life, and political dynasty, of John Adams. While occasionally rather talky, the series is accessible, well-directed and a fascinating history lesson, telling the larger story of politics, conflict, and power, through a family and relationships that are touchingly real to contemporary audiences. Adams launched an American political and financial dynasty that the Kennedys and Bushes can only dream of emulating. The second president of the U.S. was a key player in the battle for Independence and the drafting of the Constitution, and his offspring would become statesmen, historians, diplomats, a railroad magnate--even another U.S. president. Originally broadcast in 1976, the height of the American miniseries rage, The Adams Chronicles was a ratings smash, and proves to be a timeless, satisfying tour through America's inspiring formative years.
Adams (also paid detailed homage in both David McCullough's biography and the HBO miniseries starring Paul Giamatti) was a more low-key Revoluntary figure than, say, George Washington or Benjamin Franklin. But his political stealth, and fervent beliefs in liberty and freedom, helped mold the very country at its birth. The Emmy-nominated George Grizzard is nuanced as Adams, whose conscience must forever be reconciled with political reality. His relationship with his intelligent wife, Abigail, is depicted lovingly. Years after the Revolution, living in France as a diplomat for the still-unrecognized United States, Adams greets his family whom he hasn't seen in several years. When Abigail asks, simply, "How are you feeling, Mr. Adams?", he replies, holding her gaze, "Twenty years younger than yesterday." The 13-hour series traces John and Abigail's children, and their children, and so on, up through the Civil War and then the turn of the 20th century. By then there is no doubt that the Adams family is America's family, intertwined with the great upheavals, and achievements, in the young country. --A.T. HurleySee all Editorial Reviews
- 12 page program guide featuring articles by C. James Taylor, editor-in-chief of the Adams Papers, and Neil Horstman, president of the White House Historical Association
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From a list of the episodes, one gets a sense of the scope of the Chronicles: (1) John Adams, Lawyer (1758-1770); (2) John Adams, Revolutionary (1770-1776); (3) John Adams, Diplomat (1776-1783); (4) John Adams, Minister to Great Britain (1784-1787); (5) John Adams, Vice President (1788-1797); (6) John Adams, President (1797-1801); (7) John Quincy Adams, Diplomat (1809-1815); (8) John Quincy Adams, Secretary of State (1817-1825); (9) John Quincy Adams, President (1825-1829); (10) John Quincy Adams, Congressman (1831-1848); (11) Charles Francis Adams, Minister to Great Britain (1861-1868); (12) Henry Adams, Historian (1870-1885); (13) Charles Francis Adams, II, Industrialist (1886-1893).
The final three episodes focus on men with disparate concerns. These men went separate ways, and met separate frustrations. They did indeed experience what Nagel called a “descent from glory.” As Charles Francis Adams, Sr., reflects after dreaming of his grandfather’s role in the Revolutionary Era, “In those days, the fate of one man could be the fate of a country.” Or, as Charles Francis Adams, II, remarks to Henry Adams, “Perhaps the models we placed ourselves against were larger than life.” But perhaps the Adams family was merely living out what John Adams had predicted for nations: “There is no special providence for us. We are not the Chosen People that I know of. We must and shall go the way of the earth.”
A few observations on the historical accuracy of the Chronicles are in order. First, they were prepared in cooperation with the Massachusetts Historical Society and the Adams Papers project. Unlike many similar docudramas, they are largely based on original documents--the massive collection of Adams family papers held by the MHS (copies of these filled over 600 reels of microfilm). For example, the criticisms John Adams directed to his fiancé Abigail Smith (not sitting erect, walking with her toes inward, etc.) come directly from a May 7, 1764, document that he bluntly entitled, “a Catalogue of your Faults, Imperfections, Defects, or whatever you please to call them.”
Second, viewers should remember that, because they are largely based on the Adams family papers, the Chronicles tend to reflect the views of Adams family members. Thus, in the words of John Adams, Franklin may appear as a “lazy, senile old mischief maker,” and Hamilton as an “intriguer.” (Those interested in what the Founding Fathers thought about each other should read The Founders on the Founders: Word Portraits from the American Revolutionary Era edited by John Kaminski.
Third, only some of the Adams family papers survive—many documents were deliberately destroyed. Work on the family papers began with John Adams, whose comment that they would “make you alternately laugh and cry, fret and fume, stamp and scold,” suggests that he did not intend to destroy all the embarrassing records. But some subsequent family members clearly did intend to do so.
Growing up as an Adams was not easy. (John advised John Quincy, “if you do not rise to the head not only of your Profession, but of your Country, it will be owing to your own Laziness, Slovenliness and Obstinacy.” When he was 5 or 6, John Quincy wrote to his cousin Elizabeth Cranch (who was a few years older than he), “i have made But veray little proviciancy in reading . . . to[o] much of my time in play [th]ere is a great Deal of room for me to grow better[.]” And John Quincy, after trying to instruct his son Charles Francis, complained, “I find as with his elder brothers a difficulty in fixing his attention.” Charles Francis was then two years old.) The Adams children were being trained to be intellectual and moral athletes. Some of those who survived this training did well. But not all survived. Some succumbed to alcoholism, or were fell short for other reasons. Many records relating to these unsuccessful family members have been destroyed. Few of the surviving records relate to John’s son Thomas Boylston Adams or John Quincy’s son George Washington Adams. Similarly, there remain very few documents about Henry Adams’ wife “Clover” Hooper. The Chronicles attempt to compensate, to some extent, for gaps in the documentary record. But they gloss over mental problems in “Clover’s” family. Before “Clover” took her own life, her aunt and her sister had committed suicide, and her brother eventually died in a mental institution after an unsuccessful suicide attempt. Although it is not evident in the Chronicles, Henry’s relatives had understandable misgivings about his marrying into the Hooper family.
Given their scope, the Chronicles had to omit and abbreviate much of the Adams story. Missing are John and Abigail’s 1787 meeting with Sally Hemings, the reconciliation of Jefferson and Adams after Jefferson’s presidency, Brooks Adams’ historical writings, or anything about the fourth generation after 1893—Brooks Adams did not die until 1927.
This docudrama was highly successful. It received a total of 11 Emmy Awards, and 17 Emmy nominations (1976 and 1977), only three of which (to George Grizzard, Kathryn Walker, and Pamela Payton-Wright) were for acting. The appearance of certain characters is strikingly realistic (but most of them, from King George to John Calhoun, speak with the same accent). This miniseries provides an interesting glimpse into American history and the Adams family’s place in it.
George Grizzard portrays John Adams from youth to old age. He is splendid, as is William Daniels who portrays John Quincy from ages 50 to 81. Daniels is no stranger to portraying Adams's having played John Adams in the film of the musical 1776. David Birney portrays John Quincy Adams from ages 36 to 48. John Beal plays Charles Francis Adams and Peter Brandon plays Henry Adams. John Houseman reprises his Paper Chase crotchety attorney role as the irrascible Justice Gridley, John Adam's early legal mentor. The series depicts all of the founding fathers, doing so with humanity and very few marble bust performances. The women of the Adams family are portrayed with sensitivity and subtlety, averting the temptation of allowing them to become mere cyphers. Kathryn Walker and Leora Dana play Abigail Adams from her youth to her death, both actresses portraying John Adams' beloved wife with warmth, gentle humor, keen intelligence and stunning emotional depth. Her character's portrayal is crucial to the success of this series and they acquit it with grace and style. All of the many performances are exemplary in their own unique ways. It is gratifying that this series is finally available on DVD. If you enjoy historical drama and/or American history, then you will certainly enjoy this superb series. Most strongly recommended.