Saturday, April 26, 2008

John Adams: The Courage to Sign

It's not only youth that's wasted on the young, as George Bernard Shaw famously remarked. So is education. Other than learning to read and write, and maybe do the odd sum, is there any point in going to school before you're 40-something or even or 50-something?

Certainly teaching me history was a waste. As a schoolgirl, I was too self-absorbed and my imaginative powers were too undeveloped for me to fully appreciate any historical event. If it happened before I was born, my M.O. was “memorize and forget.”

This occurred to me recently because I am in the middle of watching “John Adams,” the seven-part HBO miniseries about the founding of our country. There are aspects I don't much like about the production, mainly Paul Giametti's John Adams -- he seems to have two facial expressions, both of them cribbed from Homer Simpson.

But I have found the history unexpectedly moving, and have for the first time begun to grasp what it really means. Watching scenes from the Continental Congress, where the terms of Independence were hammered out, I understood for the first time how terrifying it was for these men to repudiate their government -- how extreme an act, and how uncertain of success.
They had reason to be scared. Benjamin Franklin (played brilliantly by Tom Wilkinson) expressed everyone's mood when he said, “We must all hang together, or most assuredly we will all hang separately.” And so they would have. Because we know how the story comes out, it's hard to fully appreciate the courage and audacity of these 56 men. In signing the Declaration of Independence, they might well have been signing their own death warrant.

Strip away the mythologizing and the pieties of history-books, and the fact remains: those Patriots were extraordinary men. Not only courageous, but also smart. Pretty much the same bunch went on to frame the Constitution and the Bill of Rights; they created a substantially new form of government that has proved durable and important.

No comments: