Review: John Adams – Part 5

By this part of the series, you realize that HBO is not set out to glorify any of the historical figures presented, but to give a portrayal of historical, down-to-earth quality about the times, places, and people so that they look and appear like everyday human beings. These “characters” presented in the series are all historical and authentic (for the most part) to historical fact. The only time I see somewhat displeasing representation of the founders and those around them is not in what they do reveal about these men but what they leave out. Matters of faith and religion are especially down played considering the time and lifestyle these men had in their day. Besides this and a few other details I’d wished they’d touched on, I have to say that the series still holds its own as the closest representation of the founding of our country to date by motion pictures.

    John Adams as portrayed in the series by Paul Giamatti

John Adams as portrayed in the series by Paul Giamatti

The Story of Part 5

I’ve probably given too much away with what I’ve said before about the stories, so I want to limit what I say from here to the last episode.

Part 5, Unite or Die, covers Adams’s frustrations presiding over the Senate and exclusion from George Washington’s inner circle of cabinet members, as well as his strained relationships with Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton. A key event is the struggle to enact the Jay Treaty with Britain, which Adams himself must ratify before a deadlocked Senate (although his vote was not required historically). The episode concludes with his inauguration as the second president and arrival in a plundered executive mansion.

General Overview Details

If you began with this part in the series I believe it would not impress you. For the most part, it is unheroic and tedious. Politics are introduced of the time period that might seem unrelatable to the political climate of modern America. At the same time, if you have seen the previous parts, you get the thickening of the drama and somewhat tragic quality of the turn of events following the success of founding American independence after the war.

Adams’ main confrontation is with two foes: his inability to participate in good and meaningful cabinet meetings of President Washington’s staff (the vice president is reduced to maintaining a tie-braking vote to the congress—that’s all he is allowed to do). And the second is his terrible relationship with Alexander Hamilton who has basically the position that Adams wants on the president’s staff. Not that Adams is merely jealous, but John quite disagrees with Hamilton’s platform and fears his advice to Washington will sorely misdirect the country on delicate matters.

It is especially a sad moment you can empathize with when Adams is elected the second president of the country and the manor he is given after Washingotn’s use is stripped of all furnishings. It is not clear in the film as to why Washington’s servants, slaves, and staff would have done this. I assume that all the missing furnishings rightfully were Washington’s property, and the president mansion had not yet been furnished by government funds?

The Good

It is historical. It’s not the best of times, but it gives you a greater appreciation for what these men went through after all the hard work they did to win the war. John Adams and the like were not living happily ever after the climax of their lives. Basically, you get to see what real men go through the whole of their lives—if they are set on making a difference on the world around them.

The Bad

The emphasis on the Americans not supporting the French in their war is somewhat misrepresented. It would appear they didn’t support the french against the British in another war (not American related at all) because they feared the loss it would be to their own fragile and new independent system. While this may have been true, there were many other legal, moral, and ethical reasons that kept the powers that were from siding in the war. At the time, it was America’s policy to not be involved in any war that wasn’t authentically
‘their business.’ They had no legal right to pick a side… This among other substantial reasons, they did not fight in this French and British war.

I’m not sure if it started with this episode, but I noticed that the older Adams gets the shorter his temper gets, and the shorter his temper gets the more he uses language. Whether this was historical, or not, I wish they had used more discretion representing Adams. I would hate to put those words in his vocabulary if they did not historically belong, and even if they had…

And this is not necessarily bad, but it is hard to watch unfold. At best, John Adams leadership in his home was flawed, and you begin to see the greater deterioration of his fatherly responsibilities in this episode. Whether this is played up or 100% historically accurate, I cannot be the judge.


I give it 3 out of 4 stars. It was well done considering what a difficult time it was to portray dramatically. Still, it might have warranted more clarification on some of the key issues (as pointed out under “The Bad”). If you are watching the series straight through you will not want to miss this part.

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