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John and Abigail Adams, Part One

Narrator: In 1802, shortly after he had been defeated for a second term as president, John Adams sat at his desk to write his autobiography. He desperately wanted to be remembered as a founder of a new nation, yet he feared he would be forgotten.

John Adams (Simon Russell Beale): Statues and monuments will never be erected to me, nor flattering orations spoken, to transmit me to posterity in brilliant colors.

Narrator: He had been the prime mover in the Continental Congress, the premier political thinker of the American Revolution.

John Adams (Simon Russell Beale): The decree has gone forth, and cannot be recalled, that a more equal liberty than has prevailed in other parts of the earth must be established in America.

Narrator: Adams moved a reluctant Congress to declare America's independence from England. And when the revolution seemed nearly lost, he single-handedly secured millions of dollars in loans to keep the American army from collapse. He'd written the constitution of the state of Massachusetts, which became the foundation for the national constitution.

He had helped negotiate peace with Britain; been the first vice president of the United States, and its second president. And through it all, he had had by his side an extraordinary woman, who became his most valued political advisor and confidante.

David McCullough, Historian: Abigail Adams was one of the most remarkable, admirable, wise Americans of all time. She was phenomenal. She was a better judge of people than he was. She was a much more insightful politician, if you will. And she adored him. And he adored her. It's a great love story. And it's all in their letters.

John Adams (Simon Russell Beale): My dear girl, there is in Congress a collection of the greatest men upon this continent...

Abigail Adams (Linda Emond): The constant roar of the cannon is so distressing that we cannot eat, drink, or sleep...

John Adams (Simon Russell Beale): Vanity suffers. Cold feelings of unpopularity, humiliation. I can pronounce Thomas Jefferson...

Abigail Adams (Linda Emond): Dearest Friend, I set down with a heavy heart to write to you. Woe follows woe, and one affliction treads upon the heels of another...

John Adams (Simon Russell Beale): Dear Miss Saucy, I hereby order you, to give me as many kisses and as many hours of your company as I shall please to demand...

Narrator: Sustained by one of the greatest partnerships in American history, John Adams had earned a place of honor among the Founding Fathers.

But the aging, angry former president had good reason to believe that history would not rightly remember his role in the birth of the American nation.

In 1774, the British army shut down the port of Boston, strangling trade. Punishing colonists who'd thrown British tea into the harbor to protest high taxes.

Four regiments of British soldiers poured into the city, joining the hated two thousand redcoats already patrolling the unruly streets.

Ten miles south of Boston, in Braintree, John Adams prepared for a momentous journey. He had been chosen to join a Continental Congress in Philadelphia, a meeting of the colonies' leading statesmen, to seek a solution to the increasingly violent conflict with Britain.

Adams, the son of a farmer, was 38 years old. He had a passion for history and philosophy, had studied at Harvard, and built up the biggest law practice in Boston, taking on some of the most controversial cases of the day.

Twenty-nine year old Abigail Adams faced the bleak prospect of months without her husband. But she believed he had an important role to play in shaping America's future.

David McCullough, Historian: She spotted him before anybody. She saw the talent. And she wasn't afraid to speak her mind.

Abigail Adams (Linda Emond): You cannot be, nor do I wish to see you, an inactive spectator. We have too many high sounding words, and too few actions that correspond with them.

Narrator: Promising Abigail he would soon return to private life, John Adams joined three other members of the Massachusetts delegation for the trip to Philadelphia.

David McCullough, Historian: He goes off to Pennsylvania, nearly 400 miles, to get to Congress. And he was participating in something that could very well be considered treasonous; he leaves her with four children and the farm. And she's got to make ends meet.

Abigail Adams (Linda Emond): The great anxiety I feel for my country, for you, and for our family renders the day tedious and the night unpleasant. And the great distance between us makes the time appear very long to me. The rocks and quicksands appear upon every side.

Narrator: Colonial militia units, the seeds of an American army, were beginning to drill in the towns around Boston.

Abigail Adams (Linda Emond): Did ever any kingdom or state regain its liberty, when once it was invaded, without bloodshed? I cannot think of it without horror.

Narrator: John Adams had always been a man at war with himself. A man of restless ambition, and deep self-doubt. Now, in Philadelphia, it was self-doubt that consumed him.

John Ferling, Historian: He has virtually no political experience. He was overweight. He was already balding. He just didn't see himself as somebody who would become a leader.

John Adams (Simon Russell Beale): I muse, I mope, I ruminate. I feel unutterable anxiety, unequal to this business.

Narrator: As delegates convened in Carpenters Hall that September day, the American colonies were on the brink of war with the most powerful nation on earth.

Struggles with Parliament had dragged on for years. Adams knew this was the decisive moment, but he feared he was not up to the task.

Joseph Ellis, Historian: Do you have what it takes? Are you learned enough? And he's worried about that. He's pushing himself, asking himself that question.

John Adams (Simon Russell Beale): There is in Congress a collection of the greatest men upon this continent, in abilities, virtues and fortunes. It makes me blush for the sordid venal herd which I have seen in my own province.

Narrator: He was awed by them at first, but it didn't take long for him to become impatient with some of his fellow delegates.

David McCullough, Historian: He had a great mind. And it was a mind capable of seeing ahead, to a degree not found in most of us mortals.

Narrator: Adams saw, long before many of the other delegates, that there had to be a break with Britain.

John Adams (Simon Russell Beale): Gentlemen, the object is great which we have in view, and we must expect a great expense of blood to obtain it, but it cannot be purchased at too dear a rate, as there is nothing on this side of Jerusalem of equal importance to mankind.

John Ferling, Historian: His confidence in what is possible for America and also his confidence in what's possible for John Adams begins to grow. And I think he begins to see that the sky is the limit.

Abigail Adams (Linda Emond): About eight o'clock Sunday evening there passed by here about 200 of our men, and marched down to the powder house.

Narrator: Abigail became the home-front reporter for her husband.

Narrator: The British were fortifying Boston, she wrote, and seizing arms from the Americans. Local militias began hiding their ammunition. Soon, they would occupy the highest of the three hills opposite the city: Bunker Hill.

Abigail Adams (Linda Emond): The militia passed without any noise, not a word among them till they came against this house. They asked me if I wanted any powder and I replied not, since it was in good hands.

Narrator: It was an active political role she would continue for much of her life. And there were other letters, more personal, which John described as an "inexhaustible dowry," enriching his life.

Abigail Adams (Linda Emond): I have taken a great fondness for reading ancient history since you left me and I have persuaded Johnny to read me a page or two every day.

John Quincy Adams(Noah Pimentel): Alexander's first care...

Narrator: Seven-year-old John Quincy was the second of the Adamses' four children. Young Abigail, called Nabby, was nine, and there were two small boys, Charles and Thomas.

With war looming, most schools were closed. Abigail had to see to their education herself. She also ran the household and the farm, and managed their meager finances.

David McCullough, Historian: At the end of a long day, which would begin for her at about five o'clock in the morning, in a house that upstairs is so cold that water freezes in the little wash basin, she sits down at her kitchen table with a quill pen and a candle, and writes some of the greatest letters ever written by an American.

Abigail Adams (Linda Emond): I dare not express to you at 300 miles how ardently I long for your return. The idea plays about my heart and awakens all the tender sentiments that years have increased and matured.

Edith Gelles, Historian: She didn't ask him to come home. But she did tell him, time and again, how lonely she was without him.

Narrator: Abigail urged John to burn her letters. He never did.

Abigail Adams (Linda Emond): Your most affectionate friend, Abigail Adams.

Narrator: Early on the morning of June 17th, 1775, Abigail and the children, asleep in Braintree, were awakened by the thunder of cannon from across Boston harbor.

American militia on Bunker Hill had been attacked by British troops. There had been skirmishes with the British at Lexington and Concord in April, but this was the first all-out battle.

Abigail Adams (Linda Emond): How many have fallen we know not. The constant roar of the cannon is so distressing that we cannot eat, drink, or sleep. Perhaps the decisive day is come on which the fate of America depends.

Narrator: In Philadelphia, Abigail's reports from the front kept John supplied with the most up-to-date information, and heightened his belief that a formal break with Britain was essential. The colonies should prepare for full-scale war.

Joseph Ellis, Historian: Adams is engaged in debate and in committee meetings in an extraordinarily intensive way. He is essentially the major legislator and the one-man Secretary of War, maddeningly telling people that there's not going to be a middle position here, folks. It's going to go one way or the other.

And it is something that is called out of him- his own latent talent, his own latent energies-is called out of him by the urgency of the moment. These really were the times that try men's souls.

Narrator: Adams was the first to support George Washington as commander of the American forces. He was pushing for new governments for each colony and even drafted a guide for constitution-writers.

Joseph Ellis, Historian: The two most important people in moving the American Revolution forward are George Washington and John Adams. Washington because he's appointed as head of what will soon come to be called the Continental Army. And Adams is the major figure in the Congress.

Narrator: But the Congress was sharply divided. Adams led a small radical faction; most delegates still favored reconciliation with Britain.

Joseph Ellis, Historian: There were no unanimous votes; there were divided votes on almost every question. They were essentially improvising on the edge of catastrophe.

Narrator: John Dickinson of Pennsylvania believed that independence was suicidal folly. He pushed for reconciliation with the British Crown. Adams would not hear of it.

John Adams (Simon Russell Beale): I am as fond of reconciliation as any man. But the cancer is too far spread to be cured by any thing short of cutting it out entirely.

Narrator: "The cancer" was British corruption, British arrogance. Adams believed that London cared nothing for American rights. He saw a once-great nation now obsessed with luxury and wealth, hungry for ever-higher taxes from its colonies.

John Adams (Simon Russell Beale): They are taskmasters bent on reducing the colonists to desolation, poverty and servitude. There is no more justice left in Britain than there is in Hell.

Narrator: In a private letter to a friend, Adams viciously mocked John Dickinson.

John Adams (Simon Russell Beale): He is a man of great fortune and piddling genius whose fame has been trumpeted so loudly, but who has given a silly cast to our whole doings.

Narrator: The letter was intercepted by British agents, and quickly made its way into Tory newspapers.

Adams had managed to insult one of the Congress's most respected men. For weeks, he was ostracized.

John Adams (Simon Russell Beale): I was avoided like a man infected with leprosy.

Joanne Freeman, Historian: Adams has this perpetual habit of saying what he thinks, bluntly, and then getting in trouble for it, and being shocked that he's getting in trouble for saying what he thinks bluntly. So he says -- announces things about people. "Well, that's stupid." "Well, that's ridiculous." "I can't believe he did that." And then people report that he said that, and he gets in trouble. And he's continually outraged.

John Adams (Simon Russell Beale): Will our ambassador be received or so much as heard or seen by any man or woman in power? He might possibly... if well skilled in intrigue and his purse well filled with money and his person elegant enough to be introduced to some of the courtesans but would that not be all...

Narrator: Later, Adams would call his behavior in the Continental Congress "obnoxious."

Joseph Ellis, Historian: "Obnoxious" is a strong term. Notice, Adams is using the term about himself. He is unpopular in the sense that he has been the major and the most fierce advocate for ultimate American independence, with a group of people that need to be dragged, kicking and screaming, to that particular cause.

David McCullough, Historian: He was very much like a character out of Dickens. You would know him in a minute if he walked into the room.

John Adams (Simon Russell Beale): Suppose we send ambassadors now to foreign courts, what nations shall we court? Shall we go to the court of Prussia or Russia or Turkey or Denmark...

David McCullough, Historian: He could be very abrasive and tactless and disputatious and opinionated and pugnacious. He was so honest, he expected other people to be honest too.

John Adams (Simon Russell Beale): Blockheads.

Abigail Adams (Linda Emond): I set down with a heavy heart to write to you. Woe follows woe and one affliction treads upon the heel of another.

Narrator: After a visit from her husband in the summer of 1775, too brief to be consoling, Abigail Adams faced a crisis. Alone.

Epidemic dysentery had struck Braintree, leaving a trail of death in its wake.

Abigail Adams (Linda Emond): Such is the distress of the neighborhood that I can scarcely find a well person to assist me in looking after the sick. So mortal a time the oldest man does not remember.

As to politics I know nothing about them. I have wrote as much as I am able to, being very weak.

Our little Tommy lies very ill now. Were you to look upon him you would not know him. A general putrefaction seems to have taken place, and we cannot bear the house only as we are constantly cleansing it with hot vinegar.

Narrator: Abigail's mother too was infected, and in early October, she died.

Abigail Adams (Linda Emond): Have pity upon me, have pity upon me, o! thou my beloved, for the hand of God presseth me sore. How can I tell you (o my bursting heart) that my dear mother has left me. This day about five o'clock she left this world for an infinitely better.

Abigail Adams (Linda Emond): I know I wound your heart. Ought I to give relief to my own by paining yours?

Narrator: Three-year-old Tommy survived. John came home in December, but by January of 1776 he was on his way back to Philadelphia. The Congress needed someone to draft a declaration of independence from Great Britain.

John Adams (Simon Russell Beale): That is satisfactory, gentlemen...any further questions? Good, we will meet again tomorrow.

Narrator: Some members thought that Adams should be the writer. But he felt that Thomas Jefferson, a 33-year-old planter from Virginia, was a better choice.

Jefferson: Why?
Adams: Reasons enough.
Jefferson: What can be your reasons?
Adams: Reason first: you are a Virginian and a Virginian ought to appear at the head of this business. Reason second: I am obnoxious, suspected and unpopular. You are very much otherwise. Reason third: You can write ten times better than I can.

John Ferling, Historian: John Adams declined, mostly, I think, because he felt that no one would ever remember the Declaration of Independence. Congress had already adopted a number of declarations. And nobody remembers them today. And Adams was certain that no one would remember the Declaration of Independence.

Narrator: Jefferson was a Southerner, an aristocrat, a slaveholder- everything that Adams was not.

Joseph Ellis, Historian: John Adams' favorite form of conversation was an argument. He thought that arguments were the only form of conversation that really forced you into truth and into grappling in a struggling way. He's the exact opposite of Jefferson.

Jefferson regards argument as dissonant noise. It is almost like bad notes in a song. Whereas for Adams, it is the song.

Narrator: Thomas Jefferson, writing with a simple eloquence that John Adams could never have achieved, crafted what would become the most memorable document in American history.

In Braintree, Abigail and the children were enjoying a brief respite from war and illness. Tommy, now 4, had fully recovered. His 11-year-old sister Nabby had escaped infection.

Washington's troops had managed to drive the British out of Boston. The farm was quiet. But Abigail was impatient for news from John, and concerned about how women would be treated in the new American republic.

Abigail Adams (Linda Emond): And by the way, in the new code of laws which I suppose it will be necessary for you to make, I desire you would remember the ladies, and be more generous and favorable to them than your ancestors have been. Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the husbands. Remember, all men would be tyrants if they could.

Edith Gelles, Historian: It was the most bold statement by any woman of her time. She was aware that women had rights. She thought that women's role in the household was equally important with men's role in the greater world. And in fact John wrote back and he teased her.

John Adams (Simon Russell Beale): We know better than to repeal our masculine systems. Although they are in full force, you know they are little more than theory. We are obliged to go softly. And in practice you know we are the subjects. We only have the names of masters.

Joseph Ellis, Historian: This is banter. It's serious banter, however. What really comes through is that this is a political partnership as well as a marriage partnership, and that Abigail knows what is going on inside the Congress in Philadelphia, and understands those arguments as well as any delegate does.

Narrator: On July 1, 1776, the Continental Congress faced the great question of the day: Should the colonies declare independence, and abandon any hope for peace and reconciliation with Britain.

Narrator: With the doors locked against spies, the opposition spoke first. John Dickinson pleaded with the delegates not to make a terrible mistake.

David McCullough, Historian: Dickinson said, "To declare independence now, would be to launch our fortunes into the storm in a skiff made of paper." Point being -- this is just a piece of paper, this declaration, and don't do it now, it's too dangerous. Let's find out first whether we can win, or let's find out if they're willing to have a reconciliation. We don't have to go through the bloodbath.

Narrator: A long silence followed Dickinson's address. Finally, John Adams took the floor.

John Adams (Simon Russell Beale): Objects of the most stupendous magnitude are now before us. We are in the very midst of revolution, the most complete, unexpected, and remarkable of any in the history of the world.

Narrator: Outside, the sky darkened; the clouds unleashed a summer downpour. Adams had once written that such storms "unstrung" him. Now, he pressed on, making the case for independence.

John Adams (Simon Russell Beale): From England we hear nothing but war and revenge. What pains and expense, and misery that stupid people will endure, for the sake of driving the colonies to the necessity of separation.

Narrator: The majority must govern, he argued, and the "insolent domination" of the high-born in London be thrown off.

John Adams (Simon Russell Beale): The decree is gone forth, and cannot be recalled, that a more equal liberty, than has prevailed in other parts of the earth must be established in America.

Narrator: Independence was a military necessity. America could not win without foreign assistance, and it could not get foreign assistance without first declaring independence.

John Adams (Simon Russell Beale): If you imagine that I expect this Declaration to ward off calamities from this country, you are much mistaken. A bloody conflict we are destined to endure. That has been my opinion from the beginning.

It is your hard lot and mine to have been called into life at such a time. But even these times have their pleasures. May heaven prosper the newborn republic and make it more glorious than any former republic has been.

Narrator: "The man to whom the country is most indebted for the great measure of independency is Mr. John Adams of Boston," one delegate wrote. "I call him the Atlas of American Independence."

With this speech, Adams put his life on the line. Agents of the Crown were drawing up a list of those rebels to be pardoned. John Adams was not on it. He was to hang.

John Adams (Simon Russell Beale): My dear: I am anxious to hear how you do. I have in my mind a source of anxiety, which I have never had before. You know what it is.

Narrator: During the harsh winter of 1777, the American army struggled to survive. The British now occupied New York City and threatened New England. And Abigail was pregnant once again.

Servant: You must rest, madam.

Narrator: John was eager for word of his wife's condition, but wary that yet another letter would be intercepted by the British.

John Adams (Simon Russell Beale): Can't you convey to me, in hieroglyphics, which no other person can comprehend, information which will relieve me. Tell me you are as well as can be expected.

Narrator: Abigail wrote at first of a normal pregnancy, but by the spring she was becoming increasingly apprehensive.

Edith Gelles, Historian: It was a great struggle for her, being pregnant at a time when there was danger of British troops invading the very area where she lived. She was frightened. I think it's the only time in her letters that she expresses such vulnerability.

Abigail Adams (Linda Emond): I lose my rest at nights. I look forward to July with more anxiety than I can describe.

Narrator: As the birth approached, Abigail wrote of a nighttime shaking fit, and fears that "a life had been lost" within her. A short time later, she went into labor.

Edith Gelles, Historian: She suspected that something had gone wrong. And she spent the evening writing a letter to John Adams.

Abigail Adams (Linda Emond): Tis now 48 hours since I can say I really enjoyed any ease. Slow, lingering, and troublesome is the present situation. The Dr. encourages me to hope that my apprehensions are groundless. I pray heaven that it may be soon or it seems to me I shall be worn out.

Edith Gelles, Historian: And the most remarkable thing happens. She writes while she was in labor.

Abigail Adams (Linda Emond): I must lay my pen down this moment to bear what I cannot fly from -- and now I have endured it, I reassume my pen.

Narrator: Abigail had been right. The child, a girl, was stillborn. A week later, she wrote again to John. She pointed out that in the fourteen years that they had been married, they had been together not more than half that time.

Abigail Adams (Linda Emond): The unfeeling world may consider it in what light they please. I consider it a sacrifice to my country, and one of my greatest misfortunes.

Narrator: In September, the advancing British army closed on Washington's forces on the outskirts of Philadelphia. Adams and the others were forced to flee the city. Congress was booted from town to town, staying just ahead of the redcoats.

John Adams (Simon Russell Beale): The prospect is chilling on every side. When will the light spring up?

Narrator: In October, the Americans saw a glimmer of light at Saratoga, New York. The Continental army defeated a British force that had marched south from Canada. Now, after ten months, John Adams could take the time to come home to his family.

John Ferling, Historian: I think Abigail thought that they had worked out an agreement that John would come home to stay once independence was declared. And he hadn't done that. He had gone back to Congress. And now he had come home, presumably to practice law.

Narrator: In December, while John was away on legal business, an official packet arrived at the farm. It was from Congress.

Joseph Ellis, Historian: Adams is chosen for what they think is the most important single diplomatic mission possible, namely, to negotiate an alliance with the French.

Narrator: The revolution could not survive without money and military support from the French. Adams was to leave for Paris as soon as possible.

John Ferling, Historian: It was just a devastating moment for Abigail. I think she felt her world collapse around her when she saw that letter.

And so an enormous clash develops, I think, between a wife who wants her husband at home, and a husband who wants to continue the public role that he has set out for himself, and which he sees as his future.

Narrator: On the frigid evening of February 13th, 1778, John Adams secretly boarded a frigate bound for France. With him went ten-year-old John Quincy.

Abigail had let him go, despite what she called her "thousand fears." The experience would make her son an "honor to his country," she wrote. But she could not bring herself to see them off.

David McCullough, Historian: Now nobody went to sea in the wintertime off the coast of New England, in the North Atlantic, even in peacetime. And they're sailing not only in the midst of winter, but they're sailing in the midst of war. And there were British cruisers right off the shore, just waiting to catch somebody like John Adams trying to make a run for France, and take him to England, take him to the Tower of London, and hang him.

Narrator: Adams and John Quincy endured a grueling six-week voyage, fraught with fierce winter storms and a harrowing encounter with a British warship. Finally, they reached Paris. Before he could unpack, John received jolting news.

Courier: Monsieur...

Joseph Ellis, Historian: : By the time Adams gets there, the French have already signed a treaty. So it was a totally unnecessary trip.

Narrator: Even before Adams left Boston, Benjamin Franklin, already in Paris, had moved ahead without him.

John Ferling, Historian: : And it must have been an enormous letdown. He had seen this as an opportunity to score a huge success and the success had already been accomplished.

Narrator: There was little for him to do in Paris -- excruciating for a man with his ambition. He found a good boarding school for John Quincy. Practiced his French. Kept the books for the delegation. Six months earlier, he had been the most important member of Congress. Now he served as a virtual clerk.

John Adams (Simon Russell Beale): I am now a man of whom nobody had ever heard before. A man who did not understand a word of French -- awkward in his figure -- awkward in his dress -- a perfect cipher.

Narrator: If Adams was a cipher in Paris, Franklin was a star.

Joseph Ellis, Historian: If you asked a Frenchman who is an American, it is Benjamin Franklin. He is a world-class scientist. He is a famous writer. Adams is entering a kind of Franklin electromagnetic field. And he's jealous of him.

Narrator: Adams was contemptuous of the alliance that Franklin had negotiated. The Americans needed the help of the French navy. He urged Franklin to push the French much harder. Franklin refused.

Joseph Ellis, Historian: Franklin recognizes that in order to get what we want from France, which is both money and military support, you've got to be deft and you've got to be indirect. And Adams just thinks, "Look. We got -- need the God damn navy over there. Let's get them over there."

Narrator: Adams fired off a torrent of letters back to Congress, critical of Franklin. Franklin, too, took up his pen -- and deftly disposed of John Adams.

"Adams," he wrote in a widely circulated letter, "is always an honest man, often a wise one, but sometimes and in some things, absolutely out of his senses."

Adams languished in Paris. After ten months, Congress named Franklin the sole American representative to the French court. Adams was pushed aside.

Abigail Adams (Linda Emond): How lonely are my days? How solitary are my nights? Secluded from all society but my two little boys, and my domestics.

John Quincy Adams (David Mokrisky): Mother!

John Adams (Simon Russell Beale): Abigail!

Narrator: Fed up with France, John Adams had decided to come home. He and John Quincy arrived on August 2, 1779. It had been a year and a half since Abigail had seen them.

Narrator: Abigail proudly showed John how well the farm had done under her care, despite wartime scarcities and inflation. New England was no longer the main battleground; most of the fighting had shifted to the South. And though the outcome of the war was still very much in doubt, many of the states were holding constitutional conventions, preparing for self-government, much as John had urged a few years before.

Joseph Ellis, Historian: And as soon as he gets back, the Massachusetts constitutional convention says, "By the way, would you like to write the constitution?" And he said, "I think I'll give it a go."

John Adams (Simon Russell Beale): Abigail, hear this: This is the preamble. The aim of government is to furnish the individuals who compose the body politic with the power of enjoying, in safety and tranquility, their natural rights - and the blessings of life...

David McCullough, Historian: He has no staff. He doesn't have a group of people doing research. It comes out of a mind that I think probably never forgot anything he read. It comes from talent, God-given gift. And it comes from a tremendous capacity to use the language and to cut through to the essence of things.

Narrator: Adams knew from struggling with his own inner conflicts that there were powerful passions deep in the human soul, and that part of the role of government was to restrain those passions, to keep them in check.

Joseph Ellis, Historian: It's an attempt to say: You've got to balance and separate and balance and separate power. You can't allow it to be just power that flows forward in its own ferocious way.

Narrator: The power Adams feared most was that of an American aristocracy.

John Ferling, Historian: He was attempting to devise a structure of government that would prevent the wealthiest, the most elite in American society, from gaining control.

Narrator: Adams called for a strong executive in the form of a governor with veto power; for two branches of the legislature, and an independent judiciary.

David McCullough, Historian: Adams was the driving champion of that. You must have an independent judiciary. The judiciary must be able to come to its decisions without the influence of politics or the power of the other segments of government.

Joseph Ellis, Historian: And by late summer and early fall, he has written this document, which still is the constitution of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, and is generally regarded as the model state constitution, the one that became the closest approximation of what the federal Constitution is going to be.

Narrator: Abigail rejoiced in having the family back together. But in October, Congress called on Adams once again. He was asked to return to Paris to lay the groundwork for a peace treaty with Britain. And once again, he said yes.
Abigail steeled herself for another separation.

Her husband, and, they had decided, their two older sons, John Quincy and Charles, would be gone for God knows how long. Concealing her own anxiety, she encouraged a reluctant John Quincy to make the most of a difficult moment.

Abigail Adams (Linda Emond): These are the times in which a genius would wish to live. It is not in the still calm of life that great characters are formed. The habits of a vigorous mind are formed in contending with difficulties. Great necessities call out great virtues.

Narrator: Adams knew the British were not yet ready to talk. The mission could take years. He had agreed to go without consulting Abigail.

John Ferling, Historian: Adams made the decision to go back to France because he was John Adams. I mean he was an ambitious man and what could be more outstanding than to be the sole negotiator of the peace treaty that would recognize American independence.

Narrator: After John left, Abigail was in despair... At the age of 34, she felt as if she were widowed or divorced.

Abigail Adams (Linda Emond): My habitation, how disconsolate it looks! My table, I set down to it but cannot swallow my food.

Narrator: John had spent only 71 days with his family. Back in Paris, Adams found his hands were tied once again. America's ally, France, was not willing to help him start peace talks with its age-old enemy, Britain. And the British rebuffed him completely. John Adams was beginning to see the limits of European alliances. He wrote to Congress:

John Adams (Simon Russell Beale): I am convinced that all the powers of Europe rejoice in the American Revolution, yet I think that not one of them wishes to see America rise very fast to power.

Narrator: But in 1780, a fast rise to power seemed unlikely. The war had dragged on for five years; America was broke. There had been talk in Congress of seeking loans from Holland.

Acting on his own, Adams packed up the boys and left for Amsterdam. Wealthy Dutch bankers, he hoped, could lend enough money to keep the American war effort alive.

David McCullough, Historian: He didn't speak a word of Dutch. He didn't know anyone in the Netherlands. He's going in there as cold as one could be.

John Ferling, Historian: And he worked, and he worked, and he tried to open every door. He courted people in Holland. He did everything that he could possibly do.

Narrator: Adams drove himself to exhaustion, but had little success. After more than a year, he wrote that his life in Holland had become "gloomy and melancholy," his work "useless."

Then, in the fall of 1781, Washington's army rallied, delivering a crippling blow to the mighty forces of the British king at Yorktown, Virginia.

Abigail Adams (Linda Emond): My dearest friend, America may boast that she has accomplished what no power before her ever did -- captured two of their celebrated generals and each with an army of thousands of veteran troops to support them. This event must fill Britain with despondency.

Narrator: A fleet of French ships had made the decisive difference, helping the Americans to surround the British. It was sweet vindication for John Adams, who had battled for years to get the French navy into the fight.

Narrator: The victory gave Adams new leverage in Amsterdam. If the Dutch wanted to be aligned with the winning side, the time to loan money to the Americans was now.

David McCullough, Historian: He gets the Dutch government to loan our country millions of dollars, one of the most important diplomatic coups of all time. And he did it on his own.

John Adams (Simon Russell Beale): If this were to be the only action of my life, it would have been well spent. I hope however you will pardon the vanity.

Narrator: With support from the Dutch, the American military could keep the pressure on the British. Soon, there were signs that London might be ready to negotiate.
Adams returned to France, where preliminary British-American peace talks were under way.

After months of delicate negotiations, John Adams, along with Benjamin Franklin, put his signature on a treaty that was a diplomatic triumph for the United States. The American Revolution was over. A new nation was born.

Adams stayed in Europe to firm up relations with other countries, including England. He had never before set foot in the land of his former enemies, and found himself enthralled by the wonders of London.

John Adams (Simon Russell Beale): I have this day seen an inestimable collection of paintings by the greatest masters -- Raphael, Rubens, Van Dyke. The library is the most elegant thing I ever saw. Come to Europe with Nabby as soon as possible, and view these magnificent scenes.

Narrator: But there was a farm to run. Europe was too expensive. She would feel awkward, an embarrassment to John.

Edith Gelles, Historian: She was nervous about going to Europe because she was a mere American going onto the stage of dignitaries. She was going to be dealing with statesmen. I think it's the only time that she expresses such a lack of self-confidence.

Narrator: Reluctantly, Abigail said yes.

Abigail Adams (Linda Emond): My dear sister, Mr. Adams professes himself so much happier for having his family with him that I feel amply gratified in having ventured across the ocean.

Narrator: John had found a villa for his family in Auteuil, a country town not far from Paris.

Abigail Adams (Linda Emond): We are indeed a very very happy family once more, after a separation of four years.

David McCullough, Historian: Imagine. Here's a woman who had scarcely ever been 60 miles from home, had maybe slept in- overnight in someone else's house twice in her life, who suddenly is plunked down in the Paris, the France of Louis XVI, with all of these superbly educated, cultivated, elegantly dressed men and women. And at first she's stunned.

Well, she picks up the dance step very fast, and pretty soon she not only is holding her own, she loves it.

Narrator: She fell in love with the theater, the opera.

Abigail Adams (Linda Emond): There is the grandest scenery, and the passions all excited until you imagine yourself living at the very period.

David McCullough, Historian: She had read plays all of her life. She'd never seen one. There was no theater in Boston. Imagine going to the opera in Paris. You couldn't have even conceived of what an experience of going to the opera was like, just to go into the building at that time. And she was thrilled.

Abigail Adams (Linda Emond): Youth, beauty, grace, ease clad in all the most pleasing ornaments of dress and singing like cherubs! O! It has a soft persuasive power and a dying, dying sound!

Narrator: But Abigail struggled with the language. She grew homesick. She had never before wanted a pet, but now she bought a tiny songbird, and found comfort in its delicate, cheerful company. The whole family enjoyed the visits of an American friend who had come to Paris to work with Adams and Franklin.

Edith Gelles, Historian: John and Jefferson knew each other. They'd served on the committee to draft the Declaration of Independence together. So that they were long-time friends and colleagues. But this was the first time he had met the Adams family, and Jefferson liked the Adams family.

Joseph Ellis, Historian: I think that this time in Paris in '84, '85, is the time when Adams and Jefferson really bond, when the relationship becomes an emotional relationship as well as a collegial relationship. Abigail says at the time that Jefferson is the only man that her husband can speak to in confidence without any concern or any restriction. There's a coming together of these two personalities here in a way that is fateful for American history.

Narrator: "Jefferson," Adams wrote to a friend in Congress, "is an excellent hand. You could not have sent a better."

David McCullough, Historian: John Quincy Adams looked upon Thomas Jefferson as kind of an uncle, a beloved uncle, and spent as much time as he possibly could with Jefferson. And it's a wonderful time in their lives. The war is over. Their new nation is launched. The possibilities seem limitless. And it's a lovely interlude.

Narrator: Jefferson had never met a woman quite like Abigail Adams.

Joseph Ellis, Historian: She can move elegantly from a conversation about silk and gloves to a discussion about the tariff policy of the French. He's not used to that. She threads these different pieces together, and that confounds him.

Narrator: Abigail was charmed. Thomas Jefferson, she wrote, was "one of the choice ones of the earth." Jefferson and the Adamses parted with great regret when John was named the first American minister to London. On June 1, 1785, Adams was to be presented to King George III. He worked and re-worked what he would say to the King.

John Adams (Simon Russell Beale): "I shall esteem my self the happiest of men if I can restore the old good humor between people who, though separated by an ocean and under different governments, have the same language, and kindred blood."

David McCullough, Historian: What a scene. What a moment. Here's a farmer's son from New England, standing before His Majesty the King, who would have hanged John Adams had John Adams been caught, only a few years before.

Narrator: But the old good humor between Britain and America was not so easily restored. Adams had little success in encouraging trade with the British, and he was mocked and condescended to in the press.

David McCullough, Historian: John Adams was the representative of this small, untried, distant, little cluster of population at the edge of a huge wilderness, with no guarantee whatsoever that their new dream nation was going to succeed.

In fact, most of the wise heads of Europe were quite confident that it would not succeed, that it would fail.

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John & Abigail Adams American Experience

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