Adapted from David McCullough’s biography by Kirk Ellis and directed by Tom Hooper, John Adams life is depicted from 1770 until his death in 1826 as he strove to serve his country and the good of mankind. His closes relationships with his wife and family are portrayed as well as with his political colleagues and adversaries.
In 1770 John Adams (Paul Giamatti) rides a horse in the snow into Boston. He sees boys mocking the behavior of British soldiers. He gets off his horse and sees that Abigail Adams (Laura Linney) is there to greet him. She knows he lost the case by his demeanor. He says there were no witnesses, and the beast refused to testify.
They go into the house, and by the fire little Nabby Adams (Madeline Taylor) is hugged by her father. They hear sounds outside.
Adams comes out with a bucket and pumps water into it and carries it to help a person. He goes back to pump more water and hears muskets firing. A man shouts to reload. He goes over and sees men down in the snow next to British soldiers with muskets. The officer tells them not to fire. An American calls them murderers. John tells Samuel Adams (Danny Huston) to come away. John sees that a Negro has been killed.
John Adams comes home, and he tells little John Quincy Adams (Steven Hinkle) and Nabby to go to bed. He sits down and tells Abigail that British soldiers fired into a crowd. She asks if people were killed, but he does not know how many.
Abigail is teaching Latin to three children while John works at his desk. Abigail opens the door, and James Forrest (Dara Coleman) with a bloody face tells John he is known to be a friend of the soldiers there, and he asks him to take the case of Captain Preston because no one else will. John tells him to come in.
Later John and Abigail discuss whether he should go see “the most despised man in Boston.” John says a free person in a free country should not lack counsel. She tells him to accept it. When he asks what happens when he is condemned, she says that they will say he is the King’s man. He does not care about gossip on either side.
Adams visits the British soldiers who are being held. Captain Preston (Ritchie Coster) tells him that all the others have refused him, but he has heard that Adams is a man of integrity. Adams says he cannot expect any sophistry or prevarication from him in such a cause. Only facts, evidence, and the law may justify Captain Preston. Before he can consider taking the case, he needs to hear his account of what happened. Preston says that he and his men came to the aid of a sentry who was being abused by the crowd. The young man says they asked him to empty their shit buckets. He told them to back off, but they kept screaming and throwing things at him. Preston says that Mr. Montgomery called for the guard, and Preston led them to the square. They took a formation facing the crowd with bayonets fixed, but he says he gave no order to fire. He was standing in front of his men and talking to a big man with a club they called Palmes. Adams says that some of his men did fire, and already five men and boys are dead. Preston says his men fired in self-defense, and he swears by God.
John Adams is sitting by a fireplace and talking with Attorney General Jonathan Sewall (Guy Henry) about the incident. Adams says the presence of soldiers in Boston is resented. Sewall suggests they would be lining up to pay taxes if they were represented in Parliament; but they are not, and defiance will not get them included. Sewall says that the Governor is pleased that Adams has taken Preston’s case. Adams does not think the Governor pays any attention to him. Jonathan says that Adams moved his law practice to Boston so that he would be more noticed.
People are demonstrating in the street with the banner “Join or Die” and dummy soldiers hanged in effigy. Samuel Adams sees John Adams standing outside his house and tells him he does not have a good case and that no jury will ever acquit the British soldiers. Sam comes over and tells John that this is a time for choosing sides. John tells his cousin that he is for the law. Sam says loudly that some will fight for their rights while others will fight to strip them of their rights. He shows John a newspaper that refers to the “bloody massacre.” John says he does not have the luxury of Sam’s birth or purse to spend his time fomenting dissension. Sam turns away and goes back to the demonstration. John shouts that he will prove that this colony is governed by law regardless of what he and his Sons of Liberty say. Sam says they are all sons of liberty.
At home John is working at a table and tells Abigail that the jury will judge the case before they hear the evidence. He asks if the British government has the right to tax the citizens of Boston while denying them the right to be represented in the Parliament. He tells little Charles to stay away from the fire. John says this is not a trial about taxes on the citizens of Massachusetts, but Abigail says he would benefit by mentioning that. He says it is about whether Captain Preston ordered his men to fire on that crowd and whether they were a lawful assembly or a mob. He shouts to Charles to leave the room. John says the resentment against the King is irrelevant, but she warns him not to ignore it. She suggests he acknowledge it as a fact, and he can persuade them to rise above it as he has. She advises him to have patience for those less intelligent than he is. He asks if his demeanor in court is on trial now, but she would not tell him how to conduct himself in court.
In court the witness Robert Goddard (Boris McGiver) is testifying that he heard Captain Prescott say, “Damn your bloods; you will not treat me this way.” Then he told his soldiers to fire. The prosecuting attorney asks him to describe the behavior of the young blacks before the soldiers fired, and he says they were throwing snowballs. The prosecutor mocks this as not dangerous. Adams asks Goddard if he observed what the people in the crowd were carrying besides snowballs. He says he does not remember. Adams asks if any were carrying clubs, and he says they were. Goddard says the clubs were for beating out rope by rope-makers. Adams asks if they could be used for beating out men’s brains. In the gallery Sam Adams shouts that there was no riot and that anyone who says so is lying. The judge calls for order. Adams asks Goddard where he was standing when he heard the order. Goddard says he was close enough to touch him and that Preston was standing behind his men. Adams asks the jury to take note of that.
Adams asks the black man Andrew Holmes (Vincent Renart) what he observed on March 5. Holmes says he saw some boys near the sentry at the Customs House door, and they were making noise. Adams asks what they were doing, and he says they were throwing ice and oyster shells. They continued to do so after Captain Preston came with his men. Adams asks Holmes if he threw anything, and he says he did. Adams asks how many were there, and Holmes says there were two hundred boys and men before it ended. Adams asks if they were throwing anything else such as their clubs. Holmes admits they were shouting. He says just before the shooting they said, “Fire, damn you, fire!” They meant firing muskets, and Adams asks if they dared the soldiers to fire. Holmes says they did. Adams thanks him.
In the street Adams sees rope-makers working. He tells Richard Palmes (John Bedford Lloyd) that he knows he spoke to Captain Preston. He asks him if he will testify to what he saw that evening. Palmes keeps working on the rope. Adams says if the soldiers fired on a defenseless crowd without provocation, he will be the first to want to see them hang for it; but if they are innocent, he does not want to see them die in his name. He asks Palmes if he does. Palmes says nothing.
In court Adams calls Richard Palmes to testify. As he comes forward, some applaud. Adams says Captain Preston told him that Palmes was standing close to him, and he asks him what he said to him. Palmes says that he asked Preston if intended to order his men to fire on the crowd. He says that Preston was standing in front of his men and replied that he would be foolish to do so. Adams notes that his testimony differs from Goddard who said he was standing behind his men. Adams asks Palmes when he heard the command to fire, and he says it was after the first shot went off. Adams asks if this came from behind his men, and Palmes says he thinks it did. Adams asks if he can swear that Preston did not give that command, but Palmes says he could not. Adams asks Captain Prescott if he agrees that he was standing in front of his men, and he says he does. Preston says he was speaking to Palmes when the first shot was fired, and Adams has him confirm that he did not give the order to fire. Adams asks Preston which man fired, and he says it was Private Montgomery. Adams asks why he fired, and Preston says he received a severe blow from a club. Adams goes to Montgomery and shows his bruised eye. Preston says he fell on the ground, and his musket discharged. Preston says that after that more clubs and bats were thrown at them. Preston says he was telling them not to fire. Adams says that some voices were urging them to fire. Preston agrees that they were daring his men to fire, and he says they were coming from the alley behind his men. Adams reminds them of the testimony of Goddard.
At home Abigail is sitting on the bed and tells John that she is finishing what she is reading. He asks if she did not like it. She says he did a fine summary for the defense. She praises his command of language but warns him of vanity. She says he has burdened his argument with ostentatious erudition. He does not have to quote great men to show that he is one. He sits on the bed and says that certain principles are eternal and that great men through the ages have agreed on principles. She says that is a noble purpose, but the jury may think that he wants to prove the brilliance of the speaker rather than the truth of his case. He admits that in some passages a more direct line could improve it. He says he will get no sleep tonight and kisses her.
In court the prosecutor argues that any voluntary act implies malice and not manslaughter. He says the prisoners had malice on their minds. He says they are condemned by their own actions, and many people agree. He argues that they perpetrated murder, and they must judge them guilty.
Adams stands up and says he speaks for the prisoners. Abigail is watching from the gallery as he begins with a complicated quote from a marquis about supporting the rights of mankind to save one man from tyranny or ignorance. He says when people are taxed without representation, they will feel abused and may rebel; but we must be careful not to be borne away by passion. He says prisoners must be judged by the evidence brought against them in court and by nothing else. He says the evidence they have heard is that a sentry’s post is his castle and that to attack it is in English law an illegal act. Soldiers assaulted may defend themselves to the death. He says that people were shouting to knock them down and were throwing ice, oyster shells, and clubs. He asks if they are to behave like Stoic philosophers. He tells them to ignore the uniforms and asks if a reasonable man would not fear for his life. He says that facts are stubborn. Our passions can alter the facts or the evidence. The law is deaf to the clamors of the populace. He submits to the jury the justice of the prisoners and their cause.
At home John is sitting and telling Abigail what they should plant next year. A man knocks on the door and tells Adams that the jury is back already. John says it is an ill omen for their side. Abigail helps him put on his coat and kisses him before he goes out. She sets up a toy soldier and commends Charles for knocking it down.
The jury on the charge of murder finds Captain Preston not guilty. People shout, and the judge calls for order. On the murder charge for the eight other soldiers the jury finds them not guilty too. The judge has order restored and then declares this session adjourned. The British say, “God save the King.” Preston thanks Adams, and Montgomery gives him some money that the soldiers collected for him. Preston asks Adams if he thinks he will be safe from this rabble. Adams reminds him that he was just acquitted by a jury of New England men and that Massachusetts is his country. Preston leads the soldiers away, and Sam Adams nods at John.
John comes in the house and tells Mrs. Adams that he has done it. She is excited and hugs him. She says there will be no living with him now. She has the children congratulate their father. He ask Johnny to help him take off his boots.
Elbridge Gerry (Tom Beckett) tells John that his defense of Captain Preston, though it may have hurt his practice, has earned him a reputation for impartiality. John laughs. Gerry says if he were to speak out in opposition to the Crown, it would add gravity to their cause. Sam Adams urges him to stand for election to the Massachusetts Council. John says he has no talent for politics because he is far too independent-minded. He doubts that his name would help their cause at this time. He has lost half his clients. He says he served a term on that Council and that it made him ill and unable to carry on his practice. He thanks them for offering and says his family takes precedence. Robert Treat Paine (Brennan Brown) says that many families cannot make a living. They are required to import British goods and pay for the privilege. Gerry says that they taxed their paper, glass, the lead in their paint, and even their playing cards and dice. John says those taxes have been repealed. Sam says they have spoken out against them, and they would like to have his support. John says he is sorry.
While dining Sewall says that the office of advocate general in the court of admiralty has become vacant and that he has spoken to the Governor about John Adams. They agree that he would be the ideal candidate. Adams says he is flattered. Sewall says that the King has agreed and that the appointment is his and brings privileges and power. This would help him into the most profitable business in the colony. Sewall asks what he says to this. Abigail says that he does not speak against it, and Sewall takes that as his willingness to have his name put forward to George III.
Later John and Abigail are in bed, and he says his father was a shoemaker and his mother could not read; but he has been singled out by the King of England. He is for the law, but the law is invested in the King. He would be the King’s man and all that carried with it.
In 1773 John Adams is walking in the street by the harbor with Sam Adams who tells him that John Hancock wants his legal advice. Sam says it has to do with the business of the three ships that have arrived with cargoes of tea that the King demands the citizens of Boston unload and pay taxes on. John Hancock (Justin Theroux) talks to the customs man who says it is a legitimate cargo. Hancock challenges that and says that no other tea is allowed to land in Boston. He accuses Hancock of being a smuggler, and Hancock tells him he is an honest man who is being strangled by a monopoly. Sam shouts shame on the man, and other men repeat it. Hancock proposes that they tar him, and they take up the chant, “Tar him!” The man runs through the crowd to try to get away, and John Adams tells Sam shame on him for this barbarism. Men take all the man’s clothes off, and they pour a bucket of tar over him. They throw feathers which stick to the tar. John Adams asks Sam if he approves of this. The crowd carries the man on a platform.
At home John Adams tells Sewall they must chart their course carefully together. Sewall says the colony does not dictate to Parliament or to the King. If the King says it is to be taxed, it will be. He asks John if he would have the empire bankrupted and explains that the war they fought to expand their territory has to be paid for. John does not question the need for taxes but how they are imposed. Sewall says that Massachusetts must pay its share of the burden. John says they are being treated as second-class citizens without the rights of the English. Sewall says that liberty in this colony is tainted by anarchy. Sewall says his offer still stands, and he has a high opinion of him.
John tells Abigail that the Crown is misguided but not despotic. Abigail says that his cousin Sam and his many friends disagree. John says Sam is trying to take the government into his own hands. John says people need strong government because most men are weak, evil, and vicious.
British soldiers are marching in the street and stand to keep people away from a building as an official on a balcony reads a proclamation by the King. Because dangerous insurrections have been fomented in Boston no goods may come in or go out of Boston to any other colony or country. Because of riots anyone disturbing the peace will be transported to England for trial. Any British soldier or officer charged with a capital crime will also be transported to England for a fair hearing. The Council of Massachusetts is disbanded, and the British troops may be quartered among the citizens. General Gage with four regiments has been dispatched to enforce these measures.
John and Sam Adams walk and discuss the plight of Massachusetts which has been made a martyr. Sam says they have weapons and know how to use them; but John asks if they can stand up to the British empire. Sam says that Congress will be meeting in Philadelphia to determine how to fight for their liberties and that he has nominated John to be one of the five to represent them. John asks if the Congress has any legal authority. He doubts it does because all assemblies have been outlawed.
In his home Sewall tells John Adams that Massachusetts is in open rebellion. The have abused customs officers, and vandals disguised as Indians dumped 342 chests of tea into the harbor. He says the time for gentle methods has passed. Adams says these acts strip them of their rights to self-government. They have replaced officers with those loyal to the Crown. The very position he offered him he could no longer have now because he is not a Tory. Sewall says the Crown believes the courts of Massachusetts are biased and can no longer deliver justice. Adams asks if Captain Preston and his soldiers did not receive justice. Sewall says the Crown has ruled, and he believes the only reasonable course is to obey. He tells Adams to act accordingly, and Adams says good day to his old friend and goes out.
At night at home John is writing at his desk. Abigail looks at what he has written.
At a meeting Sam Adams is speaking to people and says that they have heard that the House of Burgesses in Virginia has sent deputies to the Continental Congress. He announces that the representatives they are sending to the Congress in Philadelphia are John Hancock, Robert Treat Paine, and Elbridge Gerry. He says they have a new man known for his eloquence and prudence, John Adams. He gets up and reads his speech. He speaks about liberties and rights that are agreed upon and essential. He says we have a right to them from our maker. A few nobles do not have the right to inherit the Earth. He says all are as entitled to food and air as the King. He declares that liberty will reign in America. They applaud, and he returns to his seat. Abigail says they have chosen their new delegate wisely, but John doubts that the New England men have seen beyond Boston. They all stand and sing the hymn “Chester.”
At home John is packing and instructs his children to obey their mother. They see a procession outside with a carriage that is announced as a gift from the Sons of Liberty. Adams shouts from the window that his old horse will suit him fine. The man announces a plain horse for the plain John Adams. Outside John says goodbye to Abigail and asks if they will be safe. She says they will go to the farm and won’t let anyone steal the land that has been in his family since Charles II. He kisses her and embraces her. She tells him to go, and he gets on his horse. He asks her to forgive him and she asks for what. He says goodbye to his children. He rides behind the carriage which has men on horses guarding it. They see British soldiers marching in the other direction.
At the Continental Congress bored delegates listen to the closing speech by John Dickinson (Zeljko Ivanek) as to the declarations and resolves they have taken to challenge the abuses of the British government by peaceable measures that include a non-importation and non-exportation agreement in regard to British goods. John Adams says this Congress has achieved nothing.
At a dinner Adams differs with Dickinson and says nothing has been made plain. He says every man is trying to show that he is a great man with their oratory. He satirizes their way of debating. Dickinson says then their adjournment did not come too soon. He offers a toast that Boston’s troubles may end soon and that liberty may be restored. Then he says, “God save the King.”
In 1775 on the Adams farm the children are working with their father John who shows Johnny how to make compost from manure and other things. Johnny says he wants to be a farmer too. John says it is a noble profession, but the law is meant for him. A man on a horse rides by and says the British are coming. John tells his family to get in the house.
John Adams rides his horse and sees the results of fighting. He sees Dr. Warren and asks him what happened. Warren says that General Gage sent British soldiers to seize their arms at Concord; but hundreds of the militia turned out, and the British got nothing. Adams asks if they are close by, and Warren says they are chasing the British back to Boston and will keep them there.
Adams returns to his farm, and Abigail comes out. He says there is no mistaking British intentions now.
Inside John tells her about the army of country boys he saw with shining faces. He says they must support them with guns and leadership and faith in what they do. She tells him to say that to the Congress. He says he will, and this time Congress will act. She says men used to think they made their own decisions. He says they do not have time to coddle. He says the men in Philadelphia like to hear themselves talk.
Benjamin Franklin (Tom Wilkinson) gets out of his sedan chair and tells the men from Massachusetts that they violated the rules of warfare by not letting the British win. Edward Rutledge (Clancy O’Connor) asks why has to be so extreme. Franklin says he is an extreme moderate. He says anyone not in favor of moderation and compromise should be castrated. Rutledge walks away, and Franklin says they scared him off. Franklin bows to Adams and says he is very glad to have them with us.
In the Congress young Rutledge is speaking, and Adams makes fun of him. Sam Adams reminds him that Massachusetts blood has been shed. While they debate, their militia is left without arms and support. Dickinson says that one colony cannot be allowed to take its sister colonies into war. He says they should seek conciliation, and he proposes a petition to His Majesty to accommodate the disputes. Adams says the time for negotiation is past after the battles at Lexington and Concord. He says if they want to regain their rights, they must fight for them. Dickinson says he has looked for their rights in the laws of nature but finds them only in political writings and in the English constitution. He agrees that their rights have been violated, and they must persuade Parliament to restore their rights. Adams says that his family lives near the British soldiers and asks if they should sit and wait for the British to take away their home, their possessions, and their lives. He says powder and artillery are the measures they can adopt. Dickinson says he has blood on his hands. Adams says that to hold out an olive branch to Britain is imbecility. Dickinson says if New England opposes their measures of reconciliation, they will have to break off from them and carry on the opposition in their own way. Adams says he does not judge any man’s religion, but he believes his Quaker sensibilities are doing them a gross disservice. He says groveling before power in abject surrender is not turning the other cheek, and he has no stomach for it. Dickinson says they will exhaust all peaceful approaches without the help from Boston’s insurrectionists. The chair calls for a vote on Dickinson’s proposal to send a petition to George III. The four colonies of New England vote no, but all the others vote yes.
In the evening Adams finds Franklin sitting a table with Dr. Benjamin Rush (John Dossett) and asks for a private word with him. Franklin gets up and goes with Adams to another table. Adams says he thought he was with him and asks why he did not speak out. Franklin says he is with him. He explains that politics is the art of possible. The motion was carried despite their opposition; all they did by opposing it was to make enemies and make himself feel better. Adams asks if he believes in saying what he thinks. Franklin says he is very much against it because it is responsible for much of mankind’s misery. He refers to Saint Thomas a Becket. He says Adams insulted Dickinson in public, and Adams asks if he should insult him in private. Franklin says that can be better. Adams says he feels hated in this town. Franklin says he is a guest in Philadelphia; he says fish and visitors stink after three days. He urges Adams to seek out the men of Virginia which must be won. Franklin says he thinks they are of the opinion of Adams. Franklin says his opinion is that he has no opinion.
Outside Franklin tells Adams that diplomacy is an art that improves with practice. He introduces Adams to Richard Henry Lee (Paul Fitzgerald) of Virginia. Adams says Lee is known as the Cicero of Virginia. Lee says like him they are arming themselves, but Virginia has given them no instructions beyond that. They have Col. George Washington (David Morse) come over to them. Adams notices that he is in mourning, and Washington says he is in mourning for Massachusetts. He says an attack made on one of our sister colonies is an attack on all of us. Adams wishes all of Congress agreed with him. Washington says he is prepared to raise a thousand men at his own expense and march them to relieve Boston. Adams says they may need his generosity, but Washington calls it duty. Adams walks with Franklin and says that man is a natural leader. Franklin says as the tallest man in the room he is likely to end up leading. Thomas Jefferson (Stephen Dillane) joins them and asks Adams when they will leave this city. Jefferson and Adams agree that they would rather be in their own country.
At night the those in the Adams family can hear the artillery, and the three children go to bed with their mother. They walk outside to a hill and see flames in Boston.
Wounded and ragged American soldiers walk past the Adams farm and receive water. Abigail asks about the flames by the harbor. The man says they held them back at Bunker Hill. Abigail sees wounded men in a cart and recognizes a face.
Adams announces in Congress that General Warren was killed at Bunker Hill. He was his physician. He says British atrocities are too hard to relate. He says 400 patriots died, but they took more than a thousand British soldiers and a hundred officers with them. Adams says they may be defenseless, and he moves that Congress adopt the Massachusetts militia immediately. Dickinson says that he is asking them to form an army, not for one colony, but for all thirteen. He says they all mourn the loss of the brave men, but he argues that caution must prevail while they wait for a reply from the King. Adams says the situation is perilous, and they need one able man to lead the new continental army. Dickinson says they are moving too quickly. Adams proposes that they make George Washington commander-in-chief. This is seconded, and Franklin commends his selection as the most able soldier in America. Washington says if they see fit to honor him with the command, he will serve. Hancock says the two motions are to adopt the Massachusetts militia and to make Washington commander of the Continental Army. Washington leaves the room.
Adams comes out and congratulates General Washington who says he does not think himself equal to the command. Adams says his men await him at Cambridge, and he will see him there.
In the snow Abigail asks John if General Howe will attack again. She asks if the King has replied to their petition. She suggests sending some women to Congress, but John says it is a question of politics. She asks if she is not living politics when she lacks food and supplies. She says women and slaves are as badly treated as what the British do to the Americans. He says she is harsh, and she says she is cold and frightened. She is afraid this war will never end. He puts his arm around her and says he has tried. No matter how much he talks he cannot carry the Congress. He prays for guidance in all their endeavors wherever they lead us. He thinks they are heading toward complete independence.
Adams is walking with Washington in the camp in Boston. Washington says he can only call on 5,000 fit troops to fight. Adams says he thought he had 20,000 under his command. Washington says many have gone home, and they may not be able to conceal their weakness from the British much longer. They are decimated by the bloody pox. Adams says he will make the situation known in Philadelphia. Washington says nothing has come so far from the promises of Congress. Adams says he will recommend an alliance with France and Spain. He will also propose a declaration of independence. Washington says independence will mean war throughout the colonies. He says first they must free Boston, and then the rest will follow.
Abigail is washing the floor as John comes in. She says so many have been carried away by the bloody pox, and they cannot risk infection in their house. He hopes she will survive the blockade. He says he should go before the weather changes, but he would like to take a walk with her. She says no more.
As John leaves on his horse in the snow, little Charles says he hates the Congress.
Adams is telling the Congress that General Washington is still awaiting their reply on re-enlistments. He asks for a salary for his soldiers equal to their sacrifices; but he has no money to pay them or to buy supplies. He says they were sent fifty crates of rifles without the flints needed to shoot them. Chairman Hancock reads a proclamation by George III which says they have rebelled and become traitors. All royal offices are to suppress the rebellion and bring the traitors to justice. If they admit their errors, he will receive them with mercy; but those who persist in rebelling will be punished with death by hanging. This was dated on October 26, 1775. Hancock says, “God save the King.” Sam Adams says, “God damn the King.” As they walk out, Franklin says, “God bless the King” because no one else could have brought them into a spirit of unity. He says now they must all hang together, or they will hang separately. Adams says the question is not whether they will have independence but when. Franklin says that independence without unanimity means nothing, and Adams agrees. Lee says the Virginia convention must free them to act, and Adams says they must all act at the same time.
At home Abigail and the children are melting lead to make bullets. They hear something, and Charles runs outside. Abigail with a rifle sees Americans coming down the road. She recognizes General Henry Knox (Del Pentecost) and asks what they are doing. He says they captured British guns at Ticonderoga and have brought them for General Washington to use. It starts raining, and she goes inside.
At dawn Washington looks at Boston with a telescope as they prepare defenses for a battle.
Adams is walking in the street, and Robert Treat Paine says that when General Howe saw the guns Knox brought, he said that Washington had his men do in one day what his army took three months to do. Adams tells Lee that now is the time with his good news from Virginia. Lee says the honor is his. Adams tells Jefferson that they are about to take a leap in the dark. Jefferson says he would be glad to help sink the entire island of England in the ocean. Adams says he has not heard him say three words in the Congress. He wishes he would make his passion plainly known, but Jefferson says he has no gift for oratory.
Lee is recognized in the Congress and proposes that the united colonies are and ought to be free and independent states and that they be absolved from their allegiance to the Crown and that all political connection between them and Great Britain be totally dissolved. Adams seconds the motion. Rutledge asks if Virginia has freed its delegates to propose this measure, and he learns that they have because of the liberation of Boston. James Duane (Ed Jewett) warns them that General Howe is going to be getting Hessians as reinforcements and that they could attack New York and this city. He asks where their navy is and why should they tear the house down before they have built another. Adams says the middle way has not worked. He says if they fail, it will be because they tried to grope for the middle way. Dickinson asks Franklin to speak based on his knowledge of England. Franklin says it taught him that given the choice between doing what is right and what is not right, the King will take the latter course every time. He says the King has branded them rebels. He says the question is whether they should declare a fact what already exists. Dickinson says only the people can declare independence, but Adams says the people depend on them to lead the way. Adams says they must not wait to lead them. When asked who will join them, he says France because England is also their enemy. He says that Washington’s army needs arms and men. King Louis cannot acknowledge them until they have acknowledged themselves as a sovereign power. Franklin agrees and says they should send an envoy to France while their affairs are hopeful. Dickinson asks what happens if no alliance comes. Rutledge says they will not vote for independence now or ever.
They are still debating at night by candlelight. Adams says that he would be agreeable to reconciliation, but he sees no prospect for it. He cannot abide the hypocrite who pretends to expect peace when he does not believe it will come. Duane says they have no right to pass such a declaration, and he advises them to avoid over-reaching. When Adams starts talking about Demosthenes and the Greek confederation, Hancock interrupts him and tries to bring him back to the present problem. Rutledge makes fun of Adams as Demosthenes. Adams says that some men in Philadelphia care more for a ship than a city and consider a few barrels of flour more important than a thousand lives of other men. Dickinson calls that an outrageous slander. The chairman calls for the vote. South Carolina asks for a postponement of twenty days to seek instruction, and they agree to reconvene on July 1. Adams suggests they choose a committee to prepare a statement for the people should they vote for independence. This is accepted, and Adams is told to select a committee.
In her home Abigail asks General Washington if he is so certain of defeat. He says that against 17,000 Hessians and the British he does not know how his men will do. He says that General Howe was willing to withdraw in peace rather than destroy the city, but New York may not be so fortunate. She wonders if such evil befalling people could be punishment for the sin of slavery. He says he cannot say. He says they are being gloomy, but he had hoped this visit would be a respite from what weighs upon him. He asks if he can do anything for her family. She asks him to help her get her letters through to her husband. He takes the bundle of letters and says he will send them with his courier to Philadelphia. He says her advice is greatly valued by Mr. Adams. The more quickly he receives it, the more good it may do.
Jefferson tells Adams that his time is being taken up with his work on a new constitution for Virginia. Adams says they must have a declaration of principles. Jefferson asks Adams why he does not write it. Adams says he does not have time because he heads the board of war and serves on 22 committees, and he has to lead the debate on the floor. Jefferson asks why him. Adams says he is a Virginian. Second, Adams is obnoxious and unpopular, and Jefferson is the opposite. Third, he has read Jefferson’s “Summary View of the Rights of British America,” and he admires the eloquence of his pen, and none of his own. Jefferson says he is too modest, and Adams says he usually is not but sometimes he is. Jefferson accepts that Adams has decided.
Outside her door Abigail talks with a doctor about the risks of inoculation against the pox. He says sometimes death occurs.
Franklin and Adams are reading what Jefferson has written. Adams says it is a declaration of the rights of all men and that it is well written. They notice that he has blamed the King for the evils of slavery. Franklin says if the slave trade is banned, the slaves that still exist will become even more lucrative. Jefferson says he did not intend that. Slavery is an abomination and must be proclaimed as such, but he admits that he nor anyone else has any immediate solution to the problem. Franklin says the issue before them is independence, not emancipation. He says they will debate the issue, but he doubts that they will accept an attack on slavery. Franklin recommends they change “sacred and undeniable” as too religious and suggests that the truths are self-evident. They agree on “self-evident.” Franklin says he shares his sentiment. Jefferson says every word was precisely selected. Franklin says they will try to alter it and may succeed. Adams says he will defend every word of it. Franklin swivels his chair and tells Jefferson his invention is ingenious.
On the Adams farm the doctor has inoculated the family, and he tells Charles to stay inside. He takes a little flesh from a man with the pox to make the serum he uses to put into a cut in their arms. Abigail is the first, and Charles volunteers to go next. Abigail has Nabby get the inoculation. She says she wants papa, but Abigail says they must depend on themselves.
Before the session Adams talks with Franklin about their hopes. Hancock opens the debate. Dickinson says the consequences are of great magnitude. He suspects this will be the final blow to his diminished popularity. He refuses to vote away the health and happiness of his countrymen. He says independence may expose their soldiers to additional cruelty and the full fury of British wrath. They will also have to fight the Indians and rebelling slaves. If they got foreign assistance, he asks at what cost it will be. He says they may sacrifice but change only for another alien power. He asks how thirteen colonies will keep from breaking up. He says they are unprepared for independence.
Adams says that objects of the most stupendous magnitude that affects the lives of millions born and unborn are before them. They must be prepared to expend blood; but they must remember that a free constitution and civil government is more precious than anything this side of Jerusalem. He refers to the eloquence of Dickinson and his grim prognostication. Adams says he sees hope, a new nation ready to take its place in the world, a republic of laws and not men. He says they are in the middle of a revolution more remarkable than any in the history of the world. No one has ever had the opportunity of choosing for themselves a new government. He believes the hour has come, and his judgment approves this measure. His whole heart is in it; all that he is and has in this life he is ready to stake upon it. While he lives, he wants to have a free country. Others applaud and stand up.
Adams and Franklin are sitting on a bench, and Franklin says he was carried out of himself. Sam Adams tells them that they have nine votes against four opposed, but John says it must be unanimous. Adams asks what happened to Rodney, and he is told he went back to Wilmington to deal with the Tories there. Adams says they will never win Delaware without him, and he gets up to ask someone to send for him. Rutledge asks John Adams for a private word, and they go outside and sit on a bench. Rutledge says that South Carolina will vote with the majority, and Adams is surprised. Rutledge says that South Carolina has never opposed independence only too much haste in declaring it. Adams says the time calls for action, and he suspects that he wants to ask him for something in exchange for his vote. Rutledge wants his assurance that there will be no dissent from the other states. Adams says he has it. Rutledge says that gentleman can always reach agreement.
At a table in a tavern Duane tells Adams that General Howe has 150 ships near Manhattan Island, and he is asking them to consent to their own destruction. Adams says that thirteen states are stronger than one. He does not ask him to join them but only that he not obstruct them. Duane says that New York would agree to this if he can deliver Pennsylvania.
Franklin and Adams are talking with Dickinson who says he cannot compromise his beliefs. Adams says a man of his stature should never do so. Dickinson says they will be driven to independence, but now is not the time. Franklin suggests that if Dickinson was indisposed tomorrow, then the Pennsylvania vote would be different.
Abigail checks on her children and washes the poxes on Nabby’s face. Nabby says she is hot, and her mother tries to cool her face with a damp cloth. She shows her a toy that Charles gave her.
Hancock calls for a vote in Congress on Lee’s resolution for independence. Twelve states vote yes, and New York abstains.
Outside Independence Hall the Declaration of Independence is read aloud to the people gathered.
In bed Nabby reads the Declaration to the Adams family. Abigail reads the rest of it.
At the conclusion in Philadelphia they say, “God save our American states.”
John Adams writes to Abigail that the will of heaven is that Britain and America be driven asunder. He is aware of the toil, blood, and treasure it will take to defend the declaration and these states; but he can see rays of light and glory, that posterity will triumph in that day’s transaction.
John and Abigail Adams are walking in the snow on their farm. She was afraid that she had lost him when the British took Philadelphia. She reminds him they have been married for fourteen years, and they have only been able to live together for less than half that time. She says he is here now, and she hugs him.
In 1777 in bed Abigail says to John that he is not staying and asks where Congress is meeting. He says they are meeting in New York, but he is going to France to help get French ships and assistance. She says that is Franklin’s job. Congress wants to send him as Franklin’s aide. He feels he is needed in Paris, but she says he is needed there with the children. She needs him too and asks how he can give her back all those years. He says it is not his wish. She asks how long he will be gone, but he cannot say. She says there is a cost to love from absence and distance.
Abigail is sitting by the fire and asks John when he will leave. She asks him to take Johnny with him. John says he could be taken by the British, but she insists that he get this opportunity. John holds a candle and wakes up Nabby. He says he will take a picture of her with him. She says she will remember to be good and do good. He kisses her. Charles asks why Johnny gets to go and not he. John makes him give him a kiss. Abigail is telling Johnny that he is accountable to his maker for all his actions, and he says he will remember. Abigail tells John to come back to her, and he kisses her. She wishes them Godspeed.
On the ship at sea in a storm John is seasick while Johnny studies French. On a clear day they are on the deck, and they see a British ship. Captain John Tucker (Neal Huff) says they cannot outrun her and asks for permission to engage her. John Adams approves and tells Johnny to go below. The captain gives orders to prepare to fight, and he insists that Adams go below because of his responsibility for his safety. Below John tells Johnny to stay there, but he takes a musket and finds a porthole and shoots at the British ship. Their cannons are firing. A man is badly wounded, and Adams drags him below where he is given medical attention. Adams helps hold the man while a limb is sawed off. Johnny watches. They hear that the British ship has struck her colors and cheer.
Abigail is working in the garden with a hoe. Nabby asks when they will know, and Abigail tells her to put her faith in God. She asks if he will like Paris, and she is sure he will. Nabby asks why the boys have all the fun, and Abigail says it is because we let them.
John Adams and his son are riding in a carriage and arrive at a palace. Adams with Johnny calls for Dr. Franklin and looks around. They find Benjamin Franklin on a porch, and he introduces his secretary, Edward Bancroft (Sean McKenzie), and the sculptor Houdon who is working on a bust of Franklin. Adams introduces his son John Quincy and says he has never been sculpted because he does not sit still. Franklin says they can rest because General Burgoyne lost his army of 7,000 at Saratoga. He says the treaty with France is a fait accompli. Adams asks why he was not told, and Franklin says news travels slowly over the ocean. Adams asks about the treaty, and Franklin says the French have declared themselves our ally and promised to stand in our defense. Adams asks about joint venture, and Franklin suggests that he take a bath. He says the French value hygiene more than other nations. Adams says their mission there requires expedition, but Franklin says in France they must practice the art of accomplishing much while appearing to accomplish little. Adams says he is going to request an audience with King Louis at his earliest convenience because they have much to discuss. Franklin says you do not demand an audience at Versailles; one is invited. Houdon asks Franklin to keep his chin up. Bancroft tells Adams that the maître di inside will show him to his rooms.
John Adams wears a brown wig. Johnny asks his father if the treaty is a good thing, and John agrees. Franklin congratulates Adams on his appearance and asks for the name of his tailor. Franklin says that Americans are perceived there as rustics, and his performance has been well received. Franklin is wearing a fur coat and a beaver hat. Adams says he is ready, and Franklin says they should not keep Madame Helvétius waiting. Johnny stays at a desk studying, and his father advises him that Terence is difficult but that he is a model for good morals and fine Latin.
By a fountain of a palace an orchestra is playing as courtiers talk. Franklin advises Adams that he is a good man, but Paris likes indecency. He asks him how good his French is, and Adams speaks two words. Franklin says he can remedy that by attending the theater or by taking a mistress. Adams says, “Good heavens!” Franklin advises him not to underestimate the educational potential of the boudoir. Ladies smile at them, and Franklin wishes he were only seventy. He introduces Adams as his colleague to Madame Helvétius (Judith Magre). She asks if he is the famous Sam Adams, and Franklin says no; he is his cousin, John Adams.
Adams sits at a large table and notices a portrait of Franklin on the plate. A Frenchman asks if his name means that he is related to the first man. Adams replies that his family so resembles the first couple in name and frailty that he assumes they are descended from the first couple. Franklin says that Chevalier de la Luzerne (Nicolaus Vaude) is to be the first ambassador in the United States. Adams says that is great and hopes that he presses the King for a greater commitment on their behalf. He says they need the support of the French Navy. Franklin speaks in French that his understanding of the treaty is still cloudy, and the French laugh. He says in English that even in America we like to keep our pleasures unsullied by business. Helvétius asks Adams how Adam and Eve discovered the art of love. He says it was a matter of instinct. Whenever a man approached within striking distance, they would simply fly together like two objects in one of Dr. Franklin’s electric experiments. He picks up the pepper and salt and brings them together. Madame Helvétius says she does not know how it was, but it must have been a happy shock. Luzerne says that she wants to know if he has attended the opera Les Danseurs, and Adams says he has no hear for music. He studies politics and war so that his sons may be free to study mathematics and philosophy. His sons must study navigation, commerce, and agriculture so that their children will have the right to study painting, poetry, and music. Franklin smiles. Helvétius says bravo, and they applaud.
Later they are singing, and Franklin gives Adams a bag of flags and tells him to give one to everyone who gives money. While people sing, they collect money and pass out flags.
At night Abigail looks at the children sleeping.
Franklin and Adams are riding in a carriage.
In the palace of Versailles they enter the court. King Louis XVI (Damien Jouillerot) speaks to Franklin, who says he works hard day and night. Comte de Vergennes (Jean-Hugues Anglade) informs the King that a Mr. Adams is there too. Louis asks Adams if he came from Paris, but he does not answer. Vergennes tells him that Adams does not speak a word of French. The King laughs. As he is leaving, Franklin tells Adams to put his hat on. Vergennes tells Adams that he hopes he will remain in France long enough to learn French. Adams says it would please him to do so. If he were there as a private citizen, he would enjoy the pleasures of France. Vergennes trusts that he will find their alliance agreeable. Adams says that the treaty on amity and commerce is generous, but he feels it is his duty to press for more commitment of French naval power. He is aware of Admiral D’Estaing’s expedition, but he considers it inadequate. Adams says that twelve ships of the line and five frigates will not dislodge the British ships from their shores. Only naval superiority will bring this war to a conclusion. America needs more ships, and General Washington agrees with him. Vergennes reminds him that France is at war with England, and their navy is needed to defend their own shores. He believes the King has been more than generous. Adams stands up and says that their independence cannot be achieved if they are only to be a pawn in France’s game with their common enemy. He respectfully asks that the King be informed of his opinion. Vergennes stands up and speaks to Adams in French that he found the conversation fascinating. Adams looks at Franklin who says nothing and then leaves the room. Franklin apologizes to Vergennes.
Later Franklin asks Adams if it is his purpose to destroy everything he has accomplished and to bring about the recall of D’Estaing’s fleet, or is this a new diplomatic initiative based on a direct insult followed by a petulant whine. He asks Adams what he was thinking of. Franklin says that a good diplomat observes much, acts little, and speaks softly. Adams complains that Vergennes means to keep his hand under their chin to preserve them from drowning but not to keep their heads above the water. Franklin asks if he has learned nothing and warns him not to antagonize and exasperate these people; but Adams says like he did in Philadelphia to gain independence. Franklin says they negotiated independence. Adams says that Franklin may be patient and accommodating, but he will not voluntarily put on the chains of France while he struggling to throw off those of the British. He has raised his voice, and people look around. Adams walks off.
On a ship at night Abigail is dining with Admiral D’Estaing (Jean Brassard) who says they are sailing from Boston tomorrow and hope to engage the British at Newport where the American army awaits them. Sam Adams says that the victory will do much to rally their people, and D’Estaing says it will do much for France too. He tells Abigail that her husband has deceived them because he is not driven by his eagerness to defeat the British as much as it is to be reunited with her that drives him. Dr. Benjamin Rush talks with Abigail about missing her husband while he is in France. She is eager for any news. He believes that Adams has done more for their cause than any man. She notes his warm reception there. Rush says his letters mention the debauchery, and he does not mean that Adams does not have the best character. She says he does not need to reassure her. She asks if he is surgeon general of the army, and he says he has found the condition of their military hospitals is deplorable. At Valley Forge 3,000 men are unfit for duty because Congress allowed their supply lines to wither.
Johnny tells his father about a letter he received from Nabby. She asks why he does not write to her mother more often. Adams asks his son what he should write. He wonders if he should write about his failure and frustration and his idiotic wrangling with Franklin. Bancroft comes in and hands Adams a letter from Philadelphia. Adams opens and reads it. He gets up and walks out of his room into a hall as Bancroft tells him that Dr. Franklin is involved in a delicate experiment and is not to be disturbed. Adams bursts into Franklin’s room despite the warnings and sees Franklin in a bathtub with Madame Helvétius playing chess. Adams turns aside, and Franklin speaks to him. Adams says that the Congress has named Franklin sole minister plenipotentiary to the court of King Louis. Franklin thanks him and asks if there is anything else. Adams leaves the room, and Bancroft closes the doors.
Adams says he has been left in the mire without being able to serve his country or to go home. If he committed some crime, he would like to be told what it was. Bancroft agrees with him. He gets in the carriage with Johnny and says to Bancroft that it is believed that Franklin accomplished their revolution with a wave of his hand. Whatever merits he has as a philosopher, as a legislator he has done very little. The carriage drives off as Bancroft says goodbye.
Abigail is washing windows at night, and she tells Nabby that she should be in bed. Nabby says that can wait and that there will be something from papa tomorrow. Abigail says it does not matter and gets upset with Nabby. She says his letters have become more infrequent, and the last one had no expression of affection. Nabby says he fears his letters will be intercepted. Abigail says she does not care about British ridicule. She feels like he has forgotten them, but Nabby says he has not and hugs her mother.
John Adams is seated in a chair and is speaking to a table full of Dutch leaders that it would be the most natural alliance between the republics of the Netherlands and the United States. He mentions that the Dutch gave asylum to the pilgrims and that New York and New Jersey were first settled by their countrymen. One of the Dutch notes that the Netherlands were a republic long before America was even an idea. Adams acknowledges that and says that America and Holland are so close in history and religion and government that every educated Dutchman must consider the American Revolution just and necessary. A Dutch leader asks him how much money he is seeking from them. Adams says that initially the United States would like to borrow $10 million. He is asked if his Congress has approved this amount, and Adams assures them that they will. The Dutch man says that an American victory would be important, but they note that D’Estaing’s was defeated at Newport, Charleston was lost, and General Arnold betrayed them at West Point. Adams admits these were most unfortunate. A Dutch man says rumors indicate that America would settle for a negotiated peace. Adams says no and that the only acceptable outcome is complete independence. He coughs and says he does not find the climate salubrious. A Dutch man says that American credit is not well established. Adams says that they will establish it, and the Dutch say to each other that he is asking them to imperil the British trade and will encourage their French enemy. The leader says that they are in the business of lending money to those capable of paying them back. Adams says he understands.
In his room Adams is reading aloud to Francis Dana (Pip Carter) a letter from Franklin that describes Adams’ character and mind as inappropriate to proper diplomacy. Dana says that this letter was read before the Congress in the presence of Luzerne. Many in Boston feel that Franklin has greatly wronged him. Adams says he has been left with Holland and asks Dana if he thinks he has failed again. Adams coughs and opens the door. Dana says they have reason to be optimistic because thousands of men under Rochambeau have joined General Washington, and Admiral de Grasse is sailing with a large fleet. Adams says at long last, and he assumes that Dr. Franklin will be amply rewarded and will be celebrated for his statesmanship. Adams coughs, and Dana asks if his health is impaired. Dana says he has been appointed to go to St. Petersburg and would like to have his advice. He does not know French which is used at that court, and he is hoping to engage a secretary to assist him.
Adams tells Johnny that he should not be frightened about going to Russia even though he is only fourteen years old. He says he is already a man and has never been one for childish pursuits. Johnny agrees. His father says he will make both of them proud. Johnny says he would rather stay with his father who would also like to have him stay; but he says it is time for him to begin serving his country with his skills. There are times when we must act against our inclinations and that may cause pain to those we love. He left his mother whom he loves more than anyone in the world in order to shake Europe by the scruff of its neck. That was his choice and his duty. He has always pressed forward with any challenge that has been given to him. Johnny says that he knows that. He knows he tried, and he is sorry. He will do his duty.
As Johnny gets into a carriage, his father tells him to mind Mr. Dana. He wishes them a good journey, and he waves goodbye.
A Dutch physician is bleeding the left arm of Adams as he sits and complains about the reaction of Congress to how he presented himself to the Dutch before they were prepared to receive him. He says the charge of vanity is the last straw, and he gets up and says that he has learned that a man may give offense and yet succeed. He collapses, and the physician catches him and tries to revive him.
A man on a horse says there is glorious news and tosses a paper in the front yard that Abigail reads to her three children about the surrender of Lord Cornwallis to the American forces and to the French fleet. Nabby asks if the war is over, but Abigail says not as long as there is a British soldier in America; but she believes they cannot hold out much longer. She praises God and Washington. Charles asks if papa will be back, and she says yes and hugs him.
Adams is in bed ill as a physician attends to him. He coughs. Four Dutchmen are there, and he calls out to Abigail.
John Adams in his apartment in Holland gets up to answer the door, and his secretary tells him that the British are defeated. Adams kisses his hand and weeps.
Adams is meeting with two Dutchmen, and one tells him that their directors have agreed to loan the United States $2 million at the special rate of 5% interest, and the other Dutchman says he may consider American credit fully established. Adams says he intends to make sure they have a treaty that will recognize their independence. They say he is stubborn, and he agrees he is when he believes he is right.
In 1784 Adams writes to Abigail that the peace treaty is finished; but Congress has instructed him to remain in Paris to secure European commerce. He asks what he should do without his Abigail, and he asks her to come be with him. He writes that their children are old enough now if she arranges for their care and education.
Abigail arrives in a carriage, and John comes out of the house and escorts her into the palatial house. He shows her his office and a room that is not in use. They go upstairs, and from the window they see an extensive lawn. In the bedroom he removes her glove and kisses her hand. They embrace and kiss. He hears someone talking French and closes the door. She sits on the bed, and he kisses her again. He takes off her shoes and stockings and lies on her. They look at each other, and she says she came with harsh words for him. He says his pen was silent not because she was absent from his thoughts but because she was too much in them. He felt his disgrace because of his trials there while she was home alone. He asks her to forgive him. She asks if he thinks she would have thought less of him if he had written of his trials. She asks him to open his heart to her again, and he says it was never closed to her. He says that without her he dismisses his God and becomes weak and vain. She says that they shall have to relieve him of such bad habits. He says she must stay with him always to prevent him from being ruined. He kisses and hugs her.
While sitting at a table outside Thomas Jefferson tells John Adams that his role is to negotiate free trade agreements with anyone who will listen; but no one seems interested in their whale oil. Adams asks if there is a lack of confidence in them in the country. Jefferson asks if they think that they will tire of independence, that their nation is ephemeral. Adams says that his experience has shown that American affairs are of little consequence in European nations. As long as they have to deal with thirteen separate states, they can afford to procrastinate. Abigail comes outside, and John introduces her to Jefferson who says he knows her well because her wisdom and compassion are said to inform her husband. She says he gives her more credit than she deserves. She sits down at the table and asks Jefferson if he is housed as magnificently as they are. He says yes because they are considered significant in the court where the question is not how well qualified for office they are but how many domestic servants they retain. The British ambassador has 50, and the Spanish ambassador has 75. Adams says they are considered impoverished because they have to get along with less than 20. She says if they had more, maybe they would be more successful diplomatically. Adams says he sees little chance of doing anything for the American public worth the expense of maintaining themselves there. Jefferson asks Adams if he invited his wife across the Atlantic to complain of their business affairs, and Adams says he did. Abigail says she is used to his complaints. Jefferson accepts that she is, but he is more interested in hearing her first impressions of France. She says she has not been there long enough to pass judgment. He says that implies that she already has. She will wait until more experience shows her wisdom or the error of her ways. Jefferson commends her admirable caution, and John calls it uncharacteristic. Jefferson is sorry that he will not be able to meet their children. John says that Johnny has returned to go to Harvard, and he does not want to distract him. Abigail offers her deepest condolences to Jefferson and tells him he is welcome there at any time. She hopes he will make it his second home, and he thanks her. He says if ever a city was designed to distract them from their troubles, it would be Paris.
Adams looks at his watch as he waits for Abigail to come down the stairs. She says she feels like an awkward sight, but he calls her the fairest in Christendom.
John and Abigail Adams are attending an opera in the balcony.
While walking outside Abigail tells Jefferson that she was ashamed to be seen looking as such intimacy was displayed. He smiles and says she seems much transported. She admits that she was. Jefferson says he is resolved to renounce embarrassment in favor of enjoyment to see the human body liberated from its earthly shackles. She says Paris is unique, and he says it is best enjoyed in the company of women. She says women would add interest to many things if men would allow it. He agrees that has been his experience. He cannot imagine Monticello without Martha, and she can’t imagine losing a wife and a child in the same year. He says the art of life may be the art of avoiding pain. The best pilot steers clear of the rocks and shoals.
Abigail tells John that for all of his sadness Jefferson is charming. John asks if she finds him captivating. She says he is exceptional, and John asks if he is not exceptional. She says he is if he is not in one of his moods. She dismisses a servant because she can brush out her own hair. He asks if it is possible for a lady or an exceptional man once they have become accustomed to the manners of Europe not to have their heads turned by them. He asks if he is to hear a litany of his faults, they should just have it out. She laughs and calls him “petulant John.” He prefers “exceptional John,” and she calls him “sleepy John.” She says she would not change anything about him.
Outside Benjamin Franklin sits down carefully and apologizes for not getting up for Abigail. He introduces Madame Helvétius who says they are too old for romance. Franklin hands Adams a letter from Philadelphia. Adams reads it and says that Congress has appointed him to the court of St. James, and he is to be in London before King George’s birthday. Jefferson calls him Ambassador Adams and hopes he will be the first of many.
While sitting on a bench Franklin tells Adams that they have had their differences, but he can think of no one better than he to represent the United States in Great Britain. He says the English love an insult because it is the only test of a man’s sincerity. Franklin says that his own days abroad are closing as Jefferson will replace him there quite well. Jefferson says he merely succeeds Franklin because no one can replace him. Franklin says there is talk of a convention in Philadelphia to discuss a binding constitution, and he hopes to attend. Jefferson suspects that any constitution that emerges from Philadelphia will be as compromised as their Declaration of Independence was. Jefferson says that he is convinced that the Earth belongs to the living and that one generation has no more right to command another to its laws and judgments than one independent nation has the right to command another. Adams says that surely the constitution, as the ones they wrote for their states, is meant to establish stability and the long-term legality that is essential to a civilized society. Jefferson says he is afraid it may prove a breach in their revolutionary ideals through which may pour the forces of reaction. Adams says that Jefferson’s pet project is not the artful arrangement of political power but the cordoning off of a space in which there is no power at all. He says he is a walking contradiction, but Franklin says they are all contradictions. Adams asks what is government but the applying of the lessons learned in dealing with the contradictions in our own characters. Jefferson says Adams lacks faith in his fellow man and in himself, but Adams believes that Jefferson has a dangerous excess of such faith. Franklin is sure that they all disagree, and their country is founded on the right to disagree. They must prevail in order to prove Mr. Dickinson wrong that they will not tear themselves apart after the defeat of their common enemy. Adams says they have come too far to be undone by petty rivalries. Franklin says it is not a small thing to build a new world. They have their republic, and they must endeavor to keep it.
A large crowd has gathered for the launching of a large balloon. Adams says it will never fly; but Abigail laughs and says it has already flown many times. Jefferson says that her husband’s caution often blinds him to unanticipated possibilities. Jefferson says he would be sad if John was not affected by his experience in Paris, but he is consoled by the fact that people often do not realize how they have been influenced by a place until they have gone. John says he will miss Jefferson’s company, and Jefferson says he will miss Mrs. Adams’. They all laugh. She says that London is not too far away in the unlikely event that he tires of Paris. He believes it will tire of him first. The fire below it has heated the air in the balloon, and it rises in the air with no ropes restraining. Adams admits that he stands corrected. Jefferson says that the umbilical cord of mankind has been cut for the first time in history, and mankind floats on a limitless plane of air. Adams notes it is hot air.
In a fine room a man informs John Adams that Lord Carmarthen will make the official introduction to the King, and he is to bow three times as he approaches the royal presence. The man asks him to rehearse the bows. The man tells him to bow lower. He says an improper reverence has ruined many a foreign ambassador. He also suggests a change of attire to something more English.
Adams rides in a carriage to the court of St. James. He walks to the palace and goes up long stairs. He is announced as he enters a large room. A door is opened, and Adams enters a nearly empty room with a throne chair and King George III (Tom Hollander) standing next to it. Adams approaches and bows three times. He says that the United States of America have appointed him minister plenipotentiary to His Majesty. He considers himself most fortunate to have the honor to be the first to stand in his presence in a diplomatic character. He would be the happiest of men if he could help restore the confidence and affection between peoples who, though separated by an ocean and having different governments, have the same language and religion and kindred blood. He begs permission to add that this is the position most agreeable to himself that he has ever had. King George III sits on the throne and says that the circumstances of this audience are so extraordinary and the language he has used so appropriate and the feelings he has discovered so well adjusted to the occasion that he receives with pleasure his assurance of the friendly disposition of the United States but also that he is glad that he has been chosen to be their minister. He says he will be very frank in saying that he was the last to consent to the separation; but after it became inevitable he always said that he would be the first to meet the friendship of the United States as an independent power. Adams thanks him. George III says there is an opinion among some people that he, Mr. Adams, is not the most attached among his countrymen to the manners of France. Adams laughs and says he has no attachment to any country but his own. George says that an honest man will never have any other. The King makes a signal, and Adams bows and withdraws. George says that he prays that the United States will not suffer unduly from its want of a monarchy. Adams says they will strive to answer those prayers. The King nods, and Adams backs out of the room.
John reads the London newspaper’s account of his meeting with the King. He is criticized as vain and tongue-tied. He says they always accuse him of vanity. He says there are many kinds of vanity, and one is the vanity that comes from years spent in the service of other men. Of that he is guilty as charged. He laughs and says someone is calling for him to be hanged. Abigail tells a servant to remove the papers, and they are taken away. She says she is sorry.
Abigail is sitting on a sofa, and John comes into the room and asks if she is unwell. She asks if he remembers an estate near their farm, and he recalls it is a grand place. She says it has become available. It is eighty acres and is selling for £600. He asks what brought this on, and she says her body is in one place while her soul is in another. She is worried about the children, and she is tired of this weary place where no one cares for them. He misses the constitutional convention. He says he has a right to demand that the Congress recall him. He says he is finished with pomp and ceremony. She asks if they will grant it, and he hopes so.
Americans cheer John Adams as he gets off a ship, and guns are fired. Charles Adams (Kevin Trainor) bows to his father, and John says he looks fine. John says that Thomas Adams (Samuel Barnett) has grown, and Thomas says it has been a long time. Abigail hugs John Quincy Adams (Ebon Moss-Bachrach) and Charles. Nabby Adams (Sarah Polley) says she was afraid that her father would not know her. He says nonsense, but he is amazed. He introduces Col. William Smith (Andrew Scott) who has been his personal secretary. They get into a carriage.
John Adams and Abigail are sitting and talking with Benjamin Rush who says that the name of Adams has been mentioned for governor, senator, chief justice of the Supreme Court, vice president, and even president of the United States. John says that Washington is the local choice. Rush asks if he would object if he put his name forward. He says he was not meant to sit in the shade of life. John says he will if that is his wish. Abigail says he should not accept anything less than vice president because it would be beneath him.
In their new home on the porch at a table the Adams family drinks a toast to Peacefield. John says he could not have their mother return to the wren-house of their childhoods. Charles says not after the palaces of Europe. John says he has heard disturbing reports of Charles’ behavior—drunkenness and disorderly conduct. Charles says it was only a lark and too much good cheer. He says he was not the first person to appear naked in Harvard yard. John warns him not to let his companions or his amusements get the better of him. He says a scholar is made alone and sober; he must pursue his studies by himself. Charles says his father’s example is always before him. John says after their graduations he will see that they are apprenticed to the most prominent lawyers. He asks how Johnny is doing in his clerkship with lawyer Parsons, and he replies that it is a far cry from the excitement at St. Petersburg. Thomas asks if his courtship of Mary Frazer is not exciting. Abigail asks how long he has been pursuing this courtship, and Johnny says he has known Mary for a year. He says she is lovely, intelligent, and well spoken, and Nabby says she is delightful company. Charles says that nothing so like perfection in human shape has ever been seen before. Abigail asks how old she is, and Johnny says she is fifteen.
John and Johnny are walking on a road by the farm, and John advises his son he is too young and too unestablished to form any romantic attachment whatsoever. To excel in the field of law and be accepted as a man of prominence he must work many long hours and days. Johnny says he is aware of the commitment, but his father shouts over him that he is not. John says he indulges him more than his brothers because he has a strong mind, and he has the temperament to succeed. He has traveled the world and can achieve distinction. He only has to apply himself. He is willing to set him up in his own practice tomorrow with an annual stipend of £100 if he cuts off this romantic attachment immediately. Johnny says he needs some time to consider this offer, but his father says he must decide now. Johnny says very well, and his father approves and slaps him on the back.
On the porch Nabby is talking with Col. Smith who admits he had the honor to command a regiment under General Washington. He would be glad to tell her about his experiences if she does not find them too dull.
John goes outside and shows a paper to Abigail. He says Washington got 68 votes as President, but he got only 34 to be Vice President. She counts ten other names on the list and says that John Jay was third with only 9 votes. John says it would be a stain on his character and that he cannot accept it. She tells him that he is Vice President now, and he agrees. She calls him “Mr. Vice President,” and he laughs.
In a large room John Adams tells a gathering of men that he has always accepted public service, but he feels a difficulty as to how to act as Vice President. He says he is nothing, but he could become everything. They applaud because President George Washington has entered the room. Adams says they are ready to administer the oath of office, and Washington says he is at his service. Washington and Adams walk out on a balcony, and a large crowd in the street cheers. Washington takes the oath as President of the United States, and at the end he adds the words “so help me God.” The people cheer and applaud. Adams shakes hands with Washington and stands beside him.
Vice President John Adams is presiding over the United States Senate and states his belief that Washington should be called with some term of great respect other than merely “President,” but Senator William Maclay (Alan Cox) objects and says he is wasting their time on something unimportant. Adams says there is nothing more important because the office of President should have no equal in the world. He says dignity and authority must be supported by splendor and majesty. Adams suggests the titles His Highness the President, His Esteemed Majesty the President or His Excellency the Supreme Commander-in-Chief. A Senator reminds him that the Constitution states, “No title of nobility shall be granted by the United States.” Adams argues that these are not hereditary titles, but he is recommending titles of merit only for those in positions of high federal responsibility. In a voice vote on the first title all the Senators but one vote no. As they get up to go, Maclay refers to Adams as “His Rotundity, the Vice President and Duke of Braintree.”
In 1790 in Philadelphia in their home John Adams tells Abigail what happened and says the job of Vice President is to advise the President. He was trying to get the Senate to cloak the presidency in the mantle of authority. He has seen what the future will be. He says men, manners, opinions, and principles in this country have changed very much. He believes that authority is their only protection against discord, civil war, and sedition. He says the office of President may be sufficient to establish authority; but they must not be surprised if they find the need a monarch. Abigail gets angry and tells him to keep his thoughts to himself because people will say that his mind has been tainted by foreign courts. She says they have already been saying it in Boston. He says a man cannot go to Europe without being tainted as she well knows. He says that because he went there on the people’s business, they should pay him for the damages. She walks away and says they will finish the conversation when he regains his senses. He follows her and says he was not aware that he had lost them. She says he has. He reaches to hold her and tells her that he will try to be more patient. He looks to her to correct him if he is not. She wishes she had been there earlier, but she cannot always be with him. She says they cannot get by on his salary of $5,000 a year which is hardly worthy of his office. She says the farm brings them an income, but someone must take care of it. He says they will find a tenant. She says there are none to be had, and he tells her to leave the place to the birds and the beasts. He says he needs her as his ballast, and she says he needs to mind his tongue and nothing more. He kisses her and asks her to stay. He says she will see him reform. She says she will stay until Congress adjourns.
At a table Alexander Hamilton (Rufus Sewell) tells Thomas Jefferson that he must be finding Philadelphia changed. Jefferson says it has changed more than he could have imagined. He knows that all cities swallow everything and that is why he abhors them; but he has been in revolutionary France where the streets are filled with the songs of liberty and brotherhood and the overthrow of ancient tyrannies in Europe. To return from there to their cradle of revolution and find that the talk is all about money and banks and authority is an unwelcome surprise. George Washington and others are drinking wine, and Adams is smoking a cigar. Hamilton says it is necessary. Jefferson admits he is uncertain as to what is the purpose of the Treasury Department, though its function will no doubt reveal itself to him in time. Hamilton says that the future prosperity of the nation rests chiefly in trade which depends on the willingness of other nations to lend them money. Jefferson asks how he proposes to establish international credit. Hamilton says the first step will be to incur a national debt, the greater the debt the greater the credit. To that end he has recommended to the President and the Congress that they adopt all the debts incurred by the individual states during the war through a national bank. If the states owe Congress money, then he believes that other nations will be more inclined to lend them money. Jefferson says that if states are indebted to a central authority, that will increase the power of the central government. Hamilton says that is it exactly; the greater the responsibility of the central government the greater its authority. Jefferson notes that the moneyed interest in this country are all in the north, and so the wealth and power would be concentrated there in the federal government at the expense of the south. Hamilton says that is unavoidable if the union is to be preserved. Jefferson is afraid that the revolution would have been in vain if the Virginia farmer is to be in hock to the New York stockjobber who is in turn in hock to a London banker. The opportunities for greed and corruption would be irresistible. Hamilton says it is true, as he has heard, “If men were angels, then no government would be necessary.” Adams says that is well put. He believes that their nation cannot bind together without a powerful central government, but they must also accommodate the needs of their constituent states, north and south. Adams says the power of one must check and balance the other, and for that they must dedicate all their energy and care. Washington stands up and says that he would like to welcome Mr. Jefferson home. All the others in the cabinet stand up and drink a toast to the Secretary of State. Washington says they want to discuss cabinet matters, and he asks Mr. Adams to excuse them. He asks him to convey his regards to his wife. Adams is obviously unhappy and says “Mr. President” as he starts to leave. Washington turns to him and says, “Mr. President and nothing more.” Adams goes out and closes the door.
In the Senate while presiding Adams is reading the Pennsylvania Gazette, Senator Maclay says that the President must not be allowed to remove cabinet offers by a whim. The Senate should advise and consent to the removal as they do to their appointment. Senator Thomas Pinckney (Hugh O’Gorman) says that would be an affront to the authority of the executive branch and would indenture the President to this body’s will. Adams says that the British parliamentary model may be instructive in this case. Maclay reminds Adams that unless there is a tie vote, he has no say in the matter. Another agrees with Maclay that the President should not have unlimited power in cabinet matters.
While sitting at a table under a canopy, Adams says that the role of the Vice President is the most insignificant office ever devised by the mind of man. Benjamin Rush smiles, and Adams says it is punishment to listen to other men talk five hours a day and not be able to talk himself. Rush says it is torture for him for sure. Adams says they are too young and inexperienced, too fractious. He had thought of refusing the vice presidency, and half the electoral college was ready to oblige him. Rush says there are rumors that intrigue was used to withhold votes from Adams so that only Washington would be elected unanimously. Adams asks who the author of this dirty scheme was, and Rush says no one knows for certain. Adams complains he was used so despicably. Rush apologizes for mentioning it, but Adams thanks him for his frankness. He says we are setting an example for the world. He has heard that they are called Federalists now because they believe in a strong central government. Their opponents style themselves Republicans because they believe in the sovereignty of the people. Adams says he dreads the division of their republic into parties, but that is what is happening.
Jefferson is visiting Abigail and John and says that his Monticello home is always in a state of transformation. He wants to build a new portico with four great pillars. She shows the plan to John and asks if it is not magnificent. He says that they feared for Jefferson’s safety in Paris. Abigail says the papers have alarming reports, and John says the head of the Bastille’s commander was carried through the streets on a pike. Other officers were hanged and torn to pieces. Jefferson says that people so long oppressed cannot be expected to be transported from despotism to liberty on a feather bed. He believes the violence will cease as it has here. Abigail asks what will happen if everything is pulled down. Jefferson says that given the divisions they observed in French society he believes the best they can achieve is a limited monarchy with a parliament like the English model. That is what he told the Marquis de Lafayette. Adams asks if he involved himself in revolutionary activities while acting as their ambassador. Jefferson says that Lafayette asked his advice on the drafting of a Declaration on the Rights of Man, and he was happy to oblige. He admits he was in the assembly nationale when it was proclaimed. One could say that the revolution was conceived in his parlor. Adams says these are dangerous grounds. Jefferson says that the French court was aware of his involvement, and they thought that he would be a moderating influence on the more hot-headed members of the assembly. He says they seek only to emulate their experience in America, and he believes they must support them. Adams says he is not as sanguine as Jefferson on the prospects of France. He says if King Louis and his advisors do not deliver on the promised reforms, then the violence could only escalate. The King himself could become a victim. England and Spain will correctly fear the spread of revolution across Europe and will be forced to declare war to protect their monarchies. The American treaty with France could draw them into a conflict they cannot afford. Jefferson says that France is in the throes of a violent birth and that they should rejoice. Adams asks if he is advising the President that we should rejoice. Jefferson says he gives the best advice he can, but it is not always welcomed by the cabinet. Adams says he would know nothing about that, but he trusts that he will find President Washington independent-minded. Jefferson expresses his fear that he has too much power while the Congress has too little; he says he is a monarch in all but name. A chief magistrate once in power rarely leaves it willingly. Adams says he does not believe in monarchy as he knows. Adams says he has seen too many mobs to trust them with government. Jefferson says that the tree of liberty must be refreshed occasionally with the blood of patriots and tyrants as its natural manure.
Later that night Abigail tells John, while he is brushing his teeth, to be careful because she finds Jefferson much changed.
John is dictating a letter to his secretary Col. Smith and tells him that is all for now. Smith asks if he can talk to him about a personal manner he has been wanting to discuss for some time. Adams says he is sorry that he cannot increase his salary. Smith says it is not that. Though he does not have fame or fortune, he aspires to his daughter’s love. Adams is taken aback and asks what he means about his daughter.
Later Abigail asks John if he vetoed Smith’s proposal, and he admits that he did. He says Nabby is still a child; but she asks if he has not noticed that she is a young woman of great sensibility. He thinks she has too much sensibility. She says her mother had much sensibility at her age, and she won his heart. She says Nabby is happy with the match and that they should be too. She walks away.
Adams is sitting in a chair outside a door and listens to the argument going on inside between Jefferson and Hamilton. Jefferson complains that they are subjugating Americans financially. Washington tells him that is enough and comes out of the room followed by Hamilton and Jefferson. Washington angrily points at both of them and scolds them that hereafter they will show more charity to each other’s opinions. He tells Jefferson that he will not have his government undermined by party politics. Hamilton goes back into the room, and another man closes the door. Adams tells Washington that he is sorry to intrude on his affairs but that he came to tell him he is leaving for Peacefield. The yellow fever season is approaching, and his daughter is getting married. Adams says he knows the groom Col. Smith, and Washington acknowledges that he was under his command at Long Island and that he served with great distinction. He congratulates him on a fitting match for his daughter. Adams thanks him and starts to leave; but Washington invites him to join him at his table because he needs reasonable company.
While they dine, Washington tells Adams that the uprising in France places them in a difficult position because they cannot trade with England and support her enemy at the same time. Adams says it is a matter in which the secretaries of State and the Treasury should offer counsel, but Washington says that Hamilton and Jefferson can agree on nothing. He fears that they will be drawn into perpetual European conflict. Adams advises neutrality by avoiding hostilities or any show of support. America must not be beholding to anyone. Washington says it is folly to expect disinterested relations with France or England or any country; but the gangrene of faction must not be allowed to rot this government. Adams says that Washington is the balance that holds both sides together, and without him there would be dissolution. Washington notes that Hamilton and Jefferson do agree on that point. Adams tells Washington that he is indispensible, but Washington asks for how much longer. Washington takes a bite and grimaces, and Adams asks what is the matter. Washington says he is having trouble with his teeth.
Outside at Peacefield a small group witnesses the wedding of Col. Smith and Nabby.
At the dining table Smith says that interesting investment prospects have arisen for him in London. Abigail asks if he is leaving. John says he frowns on speculation as rolling in luxury and on the property of others. He advises him to pursue some profession as his sons have. Smith says he would postpone his trip if he could be of service to the government. He asks John if he could put a word in with General Washington. John asks how he would justify that. Smith says he is now family. John says that he has no say in the matter; even if he did, he would not allow his private views to influence his authority. Nabby tries to speak, and John interrupts and says he has given him his answer. Charles asks Sally Smith (Mamie Gummer) when she will give him her answer. She asks what is the question, and he smiles.
While walking by a river Hamilton urges Adams to return to Philadelphia. He says that if Washington stands for a second term, and Adams interrupts that he has no doubt that he will. Hamilton says it is essential that Adams retain the vice presidency. If he does not stand, then Adams will be the choice of their party. Adams does not see his presence as necessary for the election, but Hamilton says they must be prepared to prevent disruption. Hamilton says that Adams appreciates balance, and that is what they need. Adams is afraid he has little influence. Hamilton says that the Secretary of State suffers from a womanish inclination toward France. Some say that Jefferson is more French than American. Adams says that is an unfair attack on his dear and old friend. Hamilton apologizes if he has misspoken. Adams believes that Jefferson is unbiased. Hamilton says he hopes that Adams, though indifferent to the election results, will not be so to the cause of good government. Their Republican adversaries have been made bold by the arrival of a French envoy who is stirring up sentiment against the British.
John Adams rides on a horse into a crowd of people in Philadelphia who are cheering Edmund Charles Genet (Cyril Descours) who calls for the end of monarchy and the end of tyranny. They cheer as he places a dummy of a king in a guillotine and chops off the head. He shouts that they want a French and an American republic.
President Washington is sitting in a chair and tells Ambassador Genet now that war has been declared between his country and Great Britain, the United States must remain neutral. As a new and independent nation it is best that they keep themselves apart from affairs to which they are not attached. Genet says that surely the affairs of France are the affairs of America and the world. A threat to France is a threat to America. He says they have a treaty that was made when the United States was at war with England. Hamilton reminds him that the treaty was made with King Louis and that his murder renders that contract no longer binding. Genet says that thousands of Americans have called themselves his brother. Since he landed, he has found many willing to fight. Washington tells him that he will refrain from any further efforts to recruit their citizens to belligerent actions. He will not allow him to outfit privateers to join in his war against England. Genet replies that it is not for him to tell him this. Washington warns him to tread carefully. Genet says the people will command him as they command Washington. He stands up and says he will hear from him again. Then he will speak with a million voices, and Washington will obey. Genet bows and walks out. Hamilton says that was famous French diplomacy. Washington tells Jefferson that Genet has taken leave of his senses.
In private Adams tells Jefferson that now he must surely see that he has to compromise because they cannot take either side in this war. The President has decided on strict impartiality, and Adams says he concurs with this wise course. Jefferson says that impartiality is always partial. It will favor the British because Hamilton intends that it should. Adams says that Washington is more independent than any man he ever saw. Jefferson asks John how he can be so blind to Hamilton’s scheming. Adams says he is no man’s puppet. Jefferson says that Hamilton would have them British in their economy, British in their government, British in all but name. He believes that man can only be governed only by force and self-interest. The first is presently unavailable to them, and so he is appealing to their baser instincts, fear and greed. Adams says that their Constitution provides for a strong executive to counter the legislative corruption that he imagines. Jefferson says the Constitution has many good articles and some bad ones, and so far he does not know which will dominate. Adams says that without this government, their republic would have collapsed into anarchy long ago. Jefferson is not sure that it is a republic. He has offered his resignation to the President. He cannot descend into the arena daily to suffer martyrdom on every conflict. Adams touches his hand and says they have been partners, and he urges him to fight together. Jefferson says his departure will be a great relief to him and no loss to the public; but Adams says it will be a great loss to him. Jefferson smiles and offers a toast to the revolution. Adams asks whose, and Jefferson leans forward and says they are one and the same.
Adams knocks on a door and goes in to speak to Washington who says that he could not persuade Jefferson to stay because he wishes to withdraw from public life completely. Washington says that the war between France and England threatens to tear them asunder, and they are poised on the edge of a precipice. They must not allow themselves to be pushed over the edge. Adams says he agrees entirely. Hamilton is sitting at a desk writing and says that Genet’s visit has stirred up a hornet’s nest. The British now consider them a belligerent nation just for having received him. Washington tells Adams that he is going to appoint Chief Justice Jay as a special envoy to London to maintain peace with Great Britain. Adams says he served with Jay at the peace negotiations in Paris and that he is a most honorable man. Washington says that in this crisis America has need for experienced diplomats in foreign stations with his clearness of mind. Adams stammers about being in exile abroad for so long. Washington tells him not to be afraid because he wants to speak about his son. They go into another room and close the door.
John Adams is walking with John Quincy Adams in town and tells him that his writings in support of the administration have been noticed by the President. John Quincy says he was not aware that his provincial scribblings were known in Philadelphia. They go in the house, and John says he may have shown them to Washington. He says the President has appointed him ambassador to the Netherlands. The revolution in France has spilled over into Holland. The Hague will be a listening post for him to keep the President informed. John says he will proudly preside over his confirmation in the Senate. He says England and France may draw all of Europe into this conflict. They must avoid any action that threatens their neutrality. He must be aware of all the disputes with Spain as well and not do anything to be drawn in by the French and keep clear of the English ambassador and the Anglo maniacs. John Quincy wishes the appointment had not been made at all. His father asks if he intends to refuse; but the son tells him not to worry. He knows his duty as an Adams; but he is sorry that he did not consult with him first on the decision. John says that Congress will assign him a secretary, but John Quincy says he would rather have Charles accompany him. John says that the boy is apprenticed to one of the best attorneys in Philadelphia, and he needs to stay there. John Quincy says that Charles does not like the law. John says he said nothing to him, and his son asks his father if he has asked him.
On the porch at the farm John Quincy tells Charles that he wants to have some comfort that he will have security upon his return. He shares their father’s distrust of banking but not of speculation. He says that Charles has opportunities in New York. Charles says that Col. Smith told him that there is money for the taking in property and that he has given him introductions. John Quincy hands his brother $2,000 and tells him to invest it wisely. Charles says he will profit by it. They walk over to Nabby and Sally, and John Quincy says that his tender-hearted and foolish brother has given his family many anxious hours; but Sally says she is happy with him. John tells Thomas that public business must be done by somebody. If wise men decline, others will do it. Abigail hugs John Quincy. John tells John Quincy that he has more prudence at 27 than his father at 58. All his hopes are in him for their family and country, and he asks him not to disappoint them. John Quincy and Thomas get in the carriage and depart.
While a servant is attending to his hair, John tells Charles that he has to cut his visit short because he is needed in Philadelphia. Jay has returned from London, and the news he brought has not been well received. Charles asks if he brought a treaty with England, and his father says he will be pilloried for it. John asks if his practice prospers, and Charles says that he has clients. John advises him to keep them, and he notes that Sally is steady girl. Charles was afraid that he would not give them his blessing. John says that an aspiring lawyer should not marry early, but Charles says his father ignored that advice. Charles asks his father how many anxious hours he did expend on his behalf, before or after he and mother abandoned him to tutors. John asks if he is out of senses. Charles says that during those years when he was in Europe, he was no more than a name at the end of letters full of advice but not of affection. John says he is a frivolous boy who knows nothing of honor. He behaved disgracefully at Harvard and disregarded duty. Charles asks if it was duty or reputation. John shouts angrily that his entire life has been devoted to his country. Charles asks about his family and asks if they merit any of his precious devotion. John says they will never speak of these things again and walks away. Charles asks if they have his blessing, but the door closes.
Adams slams the gavel in the Senate to keep order, and he announces that the vote to ratify the Jay Treaty with England stands at 15 to 15. Maclay says they are still treating them like a colony. Pinckney says that peace is not capitulation. Adams tells him to be quiet and says that he must cast the deciding vote. He sits down and says that the President’s wishes are clear: he votes for ratification.
A crowd outside a building guarded by soldiers is shouting, “No treaty with England!” Inside Washington tells Adams that the hell hounds are crying that he has sold this country by siding with the mad English King over the French republic. Adams speaks of mobs, sedition, slanders and libels with burning torches and the haggard horrors of civil war. Washington says that his desk overflows with petitions from all over the country that are asking him not to sign the treaty. He does not agree with everything in the treaty, but at least it keeps the United States out of their blasted war. Washington tells Adams that he knows what it is to be unpopular and that he is weary of the task.
Abigail says that Washington is an extraordinary man for relinquishing the Presidency after two terms when he could have served for the rest of his life. John says he is heir apparent, and she says whoever follows Washington inherits a devilish load. He says he is not afraid of that. She asks if Jefferson will oppose him, and he says yes. He says that Jefferson believes that in his retirement he will get the reputation of a humble man without vanity, and in that he may have deceived himself. Now that the prospect is open to him, the world will find that he is as ambitious as any man.
At a table by the fire Rush shows John and Abigail printed circulars that call Jefferson a Republican and John Adams a monarchist. Adams says it is the same old charge. Rush says that the south and the west will be firmly for Jefferson. New England will stay true, but New York, Pennsylvania and South Carolina are uncertain. Adams says those three states are fickle. Rush says electors are being urged to support a third candidate—Thomas Pinckney of South Carolina. Adams laughs at his lack of experience. Rush says that Hamilton has been praising Pinckney because he is afraid that Adams will not defeat Jefferson. Hamilton wants to defeat Jefferson at all costs. Adams concludes that it must have been Hamilton who intrigued against him in the first election.
Adams in the Senate reads the results from the electoral college which are Aaron Burr 30, Thomas Pinckney 59, Thomas Jefferson 68, and John Adams 71. A few senators applaud.
John Adams takes the oath as President of the United States. He nods to Washington on his right and to Vice President Jefferson on his left and addresses the Congress. He recalls how he first saw the Constitution of the United States when he was serving in a foreign country. He read it with great satisfaction as an experiment better suited to the character of the country than had ever been proposed. He asks what other form of government can so well deserve their esteem and love. The executive and legislative officers are exercised by citizens chosen by their neighbors to make and execute laws for the general good. This authority springs fresh from the hearts and judgments of an honest and enlightened people. For eight years they have been administered by a citizen through many actions that have been regulated by prudence, justice, temperance, and fortitude. He hopes that the name of Washington will always be a rampart and bulwark against all open and secret enemies of his country’s peace. The senators stand up and applaud, and Washington nods. Adams says with his great example before him and the faith and honor of the American people, for which he has often hazarded his all and never been deceived, he makes the following solemn promises: to do justice at all times and to all nations, to maintain peace, brotherhood and benevolence with all the world, and to lay himself under the most solemn obligations to uphold the Constitution of the United States to the utmost of his power. Washington begins the applause, and others join him as he stands. Adams turns to Vice President Jefferson and thanks him. He says to him that titles have cost him enough. He asks him to call him John. They shake hands, and Jefferson smiles. Washington shakes hands with Adams and says that he is fairly out while Adams is fairly in; they will see who will be the happiest.
A black servant is showing John and Abigail Adams through the mess that remains in the house of the President. John sits down and says he hates speeches, but she says he can do it and has done it. He finds the pains of nature difficult for an old man to acknowledge, and she says then he must count other blessings. Two sons are embarked on diplomatic careers, and another is a lawyer. His daughter has given him a beautiful grandchild, and he has a most patient wife. She starts sweeping the floor. He tells her not to expose his groaning. She says he should not say that as a man of sixty and President too. She tells him to get up. He stands up and faces her.
While walking in formal clothes President John Adams tells Vice President Thomas Jefferson that the French have captured more than 300 of their merchant ships. Adams says they must be reconciled with the French; but Jefferson says they made a pact with England, their sworn enemy and America’s he thought. Adams says it may be difficult, but it is not impossible to maintain neutrality. He does not want to be drawn into a war against France or Britain while their confederation is still so fragile because it would be suicidal and could bankrupt the nation and divide the people even further. He is thinking of sending an extraordinary envoy to the French, and he can think of no one better to engage Talleyrand than Jefferson himself. He would like to rekindle their partnership. Jefferson notes that some say he seeks to remove a rival. He cannot accept this commission. Adams asks if he is speaking as Vice President or head of his party. Adams hopes they can rise above the din of politics. Jefferson says it is still in his own cabinet that he inherited and did not change. He says they are Hamilton’s men and are determined to go to war against France. Adams says he is equally determined to prevent that. He asks Jefferson to stand by him and help him. Jefferson says the threat to their revolution does not come from Paris but from within, and he tells him to put his own house in order. Adams says he told him that he would always have his friendship. Jefferson says he has it now, but Adams says not his support. Adams says he will not trouble him again and says good day. They part.
In 1797 at the President’s house in Philadelphia the Secretary of War McHenry tells President Adams that war is inevitable, but Adams disagrees and says it must be the last resort. He says the guilt of an unnecessary war is very great. He intends to chart an impartial course as General Washington wished. Oliver Wolcott says that they cannot depend on John Marshall having any success in Paris. Adams says that while they are attempting to adjust their differences amicably, they can take measures to build up their defenses which will strengthen their diplomacy and command respect. McHenry says nothing will command respect but a provisional army because the state militias are inadequate. Adams says they should concentrate on their Navy by arming merchant ships, bolstering their harbors, and building frigates. McHenry says that Hamilton considers an army most essential. Adams reminds him that Hamilton is no longer an officer in this government and that he has no need of outside counsel. Timothy Pickering (John Keating) reminds Adams that he spent most of the war abroad while he and McHenry served with Hamilton in the Army and the previous cabinet. Adams says he retained them in their positions for national unity. He would like the cabinet to respect his wishes as it did for General Washington.
In bed Abigail tells John he has been reading the same page for a half hour. He says his thoughts are clear in his mind; but when he speaks, they lose their definition. She says it is not his words that are at fault but the bias of others that distorts what he says. He says they cannot survive a war with England or with France. He says that should be most important, but it is outweighed by factional concerns and men’s ambitions who should be united with him in this cause. He is nearly crying and says he is bereft of counsel. Abigail disagrees and says he must be prepared. They kiss.
Col. William Smith tells Adams in his office that he is offering his support in this crisis. If it comes to war with France, he would be honored to serve on the general’s staff. Adams says the Senate would vote on those matters, and he would not influence them. Smith says he is asking him to vouchsafe his character, and Adams says he can no longer do that. Adams says that he was an able secretary, but he damaged his reputation by seeking easy riches. Smith admits that he made poor investments as have others. Smith complains that Adams did not put in a word for him, but Adams will not countenance his trading on their family name. Smith says he did it for his own sons, and Adams tells him good day.
Smith goes to Abigail and asks if his wife and child can remain at Peacefield because he does not want to see them suffer because of his failures. She says of course. He says when he can, he will take their care upon himself. His wife Nabby says that she does not understand. He says he must leave them because his disappointments have blackened his name. She asks where he will go, and he says he has prospects in the west. He asks Abigail to stay and says there is much to do. He kisses Nabby’s hands, and she goes out.
Under a tree Adams consoles John Marshall for the mistreatment he suffered from the French. Marshall says that Talleyrand would hardly see them. He says they know he wants to preserve peace at all costs, but Adams says they are making that impossible. Marshall urges him not to release the dispatches; but Adams says that if he does not, the Republicans will accuse him of withholding intelligence favorable to the French government which will inflame things further. Marshall says if he seeks support from Jefferson, he may find him more sympathetic.
Jefferson is reading a letter to the President while Adams listens. Money was requested, but Jefferson says that if Talleyrand was indiscreet, it would be wrong to blame the entire French government. Adams laughs and says Talleyrand is the French government. Jefferson wonders about their envoys, but Adams says he knows that Marshall is a man of his word. Adams says their diplomacy cannot succeed now, and they must shield themselves behind a wall of strength. He says Congress is ready to grant his request to arm merchant vessels and fortify harbors. Jefferson asks what else. Adams says that if the need arises, they must be prepared to defend their borders with an army. To that end he suggests employing General Washington to give it gravity. Jefferson says he would be a commander in name only because of his age. Adams does not agree. Jefferson says Washington will defer to Hamilton as he always has, and the result will be an immense provocation here and abroad. Adams asks what is Talleyrand’s contempt but a provocation. Jefferson says that his administration’s policy has been war from the beginning and to pretend otherwise is to be disingenuous, and he turns to go. Adams walks toward him and says if there is to be a war, it will be France’s doing and not his. Jefferson nods and goes out.
In the theater John and Abigail Adams are sitting in the balcony where a large American flag is draped. The actor on stage recognizes the President, and people applaud. The actor sings the patriotic song “Hail Columbia.” The audience joins in the chorus, and they applaud.
With his cabinet Adams is reading the Alien and Sedition Acts passed by Congress, making it a crime to criticize the government of the United States. Pickering says both acts are essential to the security of the nation. Oliver Wolcott urges him to sign them too. Adams says they must prepare for war, but he is duty-bound to keep the peace.
At home Abigail is reading a newspaper that criticizes the “reign of Mr. Adams.” John says it is beneath him to take notice of what Hamilton is getting people to write. She reads more, and he says he is not crippled. She says they would not say those things of Washington; but Adams notes he is toothless, and they laugh.
While sitting at a table Jefferson says that by these measures some in his party hope to silence the opposition. Adams says he is a party of one. Jefferson asks him why he is blackening his reputation in an assault on the freedoms for which they both fought. He asks if he intends to ship the French population from the United States along with those of contrary opinions. Adams says if those opinions threaten the nation, he will do that. Adams says he is interested in the nation’s safety, and these war measures will protect them from insurrection and subversion. Jefferson says there is no war, and Adams agrees that the principle behind these measures is prevention of war. Jefferson says he cannot protect the nation by attacking the right of every man to speak without fear; he is trampling on the Constitution. He says the states will have no alternative but to resist these measures which are an assault on the people’s liberty. Adams says that the people’s representatives demanded these acts. He reminds Jefferson that he is the president of the Senate and that he should respect the rule of the majority as he did. Jefferson says he cannot preside over a reign of witches, and he will go to Monticello. Adams says he does not have that luxury. He is determined to control events, not be controlled by them. Adams gets up and leaves the room.
At night in the bedroom Abigail tells John to sign them because for once in his life the people are with him. He walks to his desk and signs the two bills into law.
In his office Adams tells Hamilton that as President he has authority to decide who are the junior officers. Hamilton accepts that but says that General Washington will only serve on the condition that Hamilton is his second in command. He hands a paper to Adams who looks at it and says it is somewhat irregular but that he will never countermand Washington’s wishes. Hamilton begins to discuss military organization, but Adams says they are going to Peacefield to avoid the yellow fever. Hamilton talks about the colors of the new uniforms, and Adams says it is a question of how the army is used. Hamilton says if they are going to rely on incompetent state militias, they may as well start learning French now. He says a national army binds the country as much as a national bank does. Hamilton says a training manual is essential.
A carriage arrives at Peacefield. In the house John Adams reads a letter from John Quincy and asks Thomas if he is convinced that the French want to talk peace. Thomas says that Talleyrand let it be known throughout the Dutch embassy that another envoy would be received respectfully. He says the situation has changed because General Napoleon Bonaparte has declared himself the sovereign ruler and declared the revolution over. Adams says it is from monarchy to anarchy and back to monarchy. Thomas says that Bonaparte will have little time for America because he must consolidate his power in France and pursue the war with Britain. John says the very note he has been waiting for has been delivered to him by his own son. He tells him well done, and Thomas says to let Jefferson call him a warmonger now. They smile.
In a workshop Abigail asks Nabby if she has any news from her husband, and she says not lately. Abigail says it is not good for her children to be without their father for long. Nabby says she is resigned to it as her mother was. Nabby says he will return when he is able and that she has no reason to doubt his love for the children. Nonetheless Abigail continues to worry. She suggests that Nabby and her children could return to Philadelphia with them or at the new capital. Nabby says she would not live in the capital as the President’s daughter without her husband.
In his new uniform Hamilton tells Adams that current hostilities in Europe demand a firm American response. Adams says he will deliver a response. Hamilton says that if the British are victorious, then the Bourbons are likely to regain the throne of France. He argues that any dealings with the current government would then be considered illegitimate which might lead them back to a war against Britain they could not afford. Adams asks what would happen if the French won, and he notes that Bonaparte has nearly conquered most of Europe. Hamilton says they must be prepared to take over strategic territory. Adams asks if he would seize Spanish Florida and Louisiana. Hamilton goes further and suggests they should detach South America from Spain to keep it from becoming French. He reminds Adams that some in their own country would prefer secession to their continued union. If they were emboldened to act because of French victory, they should be prepared to bring them back by force if necessary. Adams says he never heard a man speak more like a fool. Adams tells Hamilton that his actions would bring about the very thing he is trying to avoid, the dissolution of their nation. Adams says he knows from intelligence that there is no chance of French armies invading their country. Hamilton asks if he is questioning his intelligence, but Adams says he is questioning his insanity and tells him good day. Hamilton reminds him that he became President by three votes before he goes out.
McHenry asks Adams why he did not consult with his cabinet before asking Congress to disband the Army, and Adams says that their advice is not required. He does not intend to enter the new capital with an occupying force. Pickering asks why he did it while they are preparing for war, and Adams says they are preparing for peace. They argue that if the crisis could be prolonged a while, their party’s re-election would be assured; but Adams tells them not to talk to him about politics. Pickering accuses him of surrendering their party to Jefferson’s Republicans, and Adams says they are subservient to Hamilton. He angrily contends that Jefferson is an infinitely better man than Hamilton, and he would rather be vice president under him than be indebted to Hamilton for his position. He tells them that their resignations will be accepted, but Pickering says he does not feel it is his duty to resign. Adams says that he will remove both of them from office, and they go out.
Sally Smith Adams with her two children tells Abigail that Charles is sick and will not help himself. She did not want to leave him, but they could not stay there. Abigail says she did what was necessary for her children. Sally says that when Charles drinks, he forgets himself and does things. The money worries him, and she explains that John Quincy gave him $2,000 to invest which is all gone. He was cheated by speculators. Abigail asks if John Quincy knows, and Sally says Charles cannot bring himself to tell him. Sally says that Charles will be angry when he learns that she came there; but she did not know what else to do.
Adams gets out of a carriage and walks in a poor neighborhood. He asks where Charles Adams lives. He knocks on a door and finds Charles unconscious with his head on a table. Adams with his cane smashes dishes and calls him “Absalom” as Charles wakes and stands up. John says King David’s son had the dignity to die in battle, but his son is a rake. Charles tells his father to rage. John says that his mother is upset to see her aspirations squandered on a miserable drunkard and cheat. Charles tells him to curse because he has made his whole life a curse. John renounces him, and Charles begs for mercy. John turns and walks out, and in the alley he cries.
Abigail tells John that Charles has been a graceless child, but she cannot forsake him. She says their children deserve their attention and that they must do all they can for their welfare. John says they will stay in Philadelphia until he and Abigail leave for the new capital. Then he will make arrangements for them to be moved to Peacefield. Abigail wonders what part they played in all this, but John says they gave them every advantage they could. He says they must bear this disgrace.
African slaves are working in the muddy tree-fallen area in front of the new White House in Washington. John and Abigail Adams arrive in a carriage and walk up wooden steps to the White House. Inside they find a fireplace that is creating much smoke. They look around the unfinished building as slaves are working there. Abigail asks what good can come from such a place. John looks at a portrait of Washington and asks if the old man is welcoming them or showing them the way out.
John Adams is reading a pamphlet by Hamilton that criticizes him and his presidency. John Marshall says that it could damage him in the election if it gets into the voters’ hands. Adams says he made Hamilton’s little army disappear, and he is trying to do the same to him. He sits down on a sofa and asks Marshall if there is still no word from Paris. Marshall says he is sorry that there is not.
John and Abigail are dining, and he says that Hamilton will find his little book a great evil because it will assure the election of the man he dreads. She asks if he is resigned, and he says his decisions were his own and not those of other men. He throws the pamphlet in the fire and says he is prepared to stand by the consequences. He wants nothing else on his gravestone but the message that he took responsibility for peace with France in the year 1800. They drink to that. He prays for blessings on this house and on all those who shall enter it. He says may only honest and wise men rule under this roof.
A carriage arrives at Peacefield, and Nabby welcomes Abigail who asks Sally if he is awake. Nabby warns her mother that his mind is deranged. Abigail finds Charles in bed, sweating in agony. She says she is there and answers his question, saying that John is not there. He reaches for his drink, and she stops him and says that he has a wife and children who need him. She tells him to look into himself and to turn to God and return to them. She asks if he hears her, and he says yes while crying. He asks her to forgive him. She comforts him.
Marshall comes into the White House and tells President Adams that the treaty was signed on October 3 at Mortefontaine, and within a month a copy should arrive for ratification. Adams thanks God. Marshall says that Bonaparte has declared that the differences between France and the United States are only a family quarrel. Adams laughs. Marshall says he is vindicated but that the news comes too late. The ballots have already been cast. Adams says they have an honorable peace although it has cost him.
Abigail kisses Nabby and says that she is going to be with her father until the election results are known, and then they will return there. She asks her to write her about his condition, and Nabby agrees. Abigail tells Sally that she must be strong now more than ever, and she kisses her. Nabby tells her child to say goodbye to their grandmother as Abigail goes out.
John and Abigail are playing checkers in the White House. Marshall tells them that the Electoral College gave Adams 65 votes and that Jefferson and Aaron Burr each received 73 votes, a tie between two Republicans. Adams says that only New England remained true. Marshall says that it was a good showing and that if they had gone to war with France, it might have been different. Adams says that to return to office with blood on his hands would have been no victory at all. Marshall says the President will now be elected by the House of Representatives and that some Federalists are eager to extend the process. Adams asks to what possible end. Marshall says that if they do not choose a President before the end of his term, it will be the President Pro Tem of the Senate who is a Federalist. Adams says that regardless he will no longer occupy the office. He gets up and says he has one pressing matter he must attend to. He is recalling his son John Quincy from his exile abroad, and he asks Marshall to take care of it.
Adams is writing at his desk while Abigail is reading letters. She starts crying and says their son is dead. She says Charles was a poor, unhappy man. John asks that silence reign over his tomb forever. She says he was the delight of her eyes and the darling of her heart, but he says that he will not forgive him. She gets up and leaves the room.
A platform is being constructed for the inauguration. Abigail gets into a carriage and leaves while John looks on from the wooden porch. He goes back inside and closes the door.
Adams is reading when Jefferson comes to see him. They bow to each other and call each other “Mr. President.” Jefferson says he honors him prematurely because the House is still deadlocked after 33 ballots. Adams prays that they may soon reach a decision, and Jefferson says that a word from him would end the uncertainty. Adams says it is for the Congress to decide, and it is not his business. Jefferson says that if the Federalist electors are allowed to defeat this election, there will be forceful resistance with incalculable consequences. Adams tells Jefferson that the outcome of this election is within his power, and he urges him to quiet his revolutionary notions. He says Jefferson only has to promise that he will not turn out the government’s officers, that he will maintain the Navy, that he will honor the national debt, things the Federalists hold dear, and then the government will be in his hands. Jefferson says he will not enter the office without the perfect freedom to follow the dictates of his conscience. Adams says then events must take their own course. They look at each other, and Jefferson walks out after bowing.
Adams is burning papers in the fire and welcomes Marshall who says that Mr. Bayard of Delaware relented on the 36th ballot. He was induced to do so by Jefferson’s agents who told him that the generous concessions Adams recommended would be respectfully considered. Adams says that Jefferson is fortunate that he left him a country at all over which to preside. They cannot criticize him for getting into a ruinous war with France, and he thanks Marshall for serving that end. Adams says he feels relieved of the burdens of office, and he will be a plain farmer at Peacefield. He says it is a good exchange, the virtues and honors of office for simple manure. He realizes he burned a paper he wanted and removes it and tries to stamp out the flames on it. Marshall says he will see him at the inauguration, but Adams says he will not be attending. He does not want to glory in Jefferson’s coronation. Marshall says that he will be missed, but Adams doubts that.
In the dark before dawn John Adams leaves the White House and joins others on a stage coach. An African gentleman helps him get on board. He tells them to stop gawking because he is plain John Adams, an ordinary citizen like themselves.
In 1803 Dr. Benjamin Rush arrives at Peacefield and is welcomed by John and Abigail Adams and taken to see Nabby upstairs. He asks her to describe her complaint, and she says she feels a hardness in her right breast which gives her great pain sometimes. She allows him to examine her and asks him to excuse her for a moment.
Rush goes downstairs and tells Abigail and John that their daughter suffers from a cancer in the breast. He says her entire breast must be removed, and it is now time for the operation. John asks if there is no other remedy, and he says none.
Rush has three assistants while he performs the surgery on her breast.
Downstairs Abigail asks Sally to take the children for a long walk, and Thomas approves.
Rush gives her something to bite on as he cuts.
Abigail tells John to sit down, and he sits beside her. Later Rush comes in and says he never saw such a courageous patient. He says she is resting comfortably. He says if the cancer has not spread, it will not likely harm her. John asks if he can be certain, but Rush says they must put their trust in God.
At the dinner table Thomas reads from a newspaper that tells of articles by Callender satirizing Jefferson for having a black mistress named Sally Hemmings. He also reads that while he was Vice President, Jefferson financed the publication of articles intended to cast doubt on the credibility of President Adams. John asks to see the paper.
While working on a wall John tells Thomas that he taught Jefferson everything that has been good and solid in his political conduct. Thomas says that Callender and Sally Hemmings will be remembered as long as Jefferson, a stain on all of them. John disagrees and says that his administration will be quoted by philosophers as a model of profound wisdom while his will be condemned to everlasting infamy because of the Alien and Sedition Acts. A rock falls on John’s foot, and he screams in pain.
John is sitting on the porch with his bandaged foot up, and Abigail brings him food and a letter from his son John Quincy. He says he is either openly despised or considered irrelevant, but she thinks no one thinks about him at all. He says he is bored. She hoped he would find relief in filling his own days. She suggests he pick up his pen and correct people’s wrong opinions. He says the revolution will be remembered as Dr. Franklin smiting the earth with his electric rod, and out sprang Washington and Jefferson and that they together conducted all the negotiation, legislation and war. She says Jefferson did him great harm. She remembers the place in her heart she had for him, but now that place is empty. He says now he is expanding their territory by brokering a deal with Napoleon. He does not need to justify himself on paper because posterity will judge them as she sees fit.
Thomas is helping John with his papers, and John asks for the Aurora newspapers in April 1798. He says it must be there somewhere. He says some of his posterity may want to see the odious abuse he received in newspapers, pamphlets, and letters in the last thirty years.
Abigail and Nabby are in the garden, and Nabby says she is sure and that there is nothing Dr. Rush can do. She says she can feel that it is worse than before. Nabby stands up and hugs her mother.
Inside Nabby asks her father to promise her that when she is gone, he will not bear her husband ill will. He kisses her forehead, and she tells him not to cry for her.
During the winter Abigail cries, and John comforts her with an embrace. They are sorting out Nabby’s things.
William Smith tells John that his children will not want for anything because he owes her memory that. Abigail says that she never lost her faith in him. He has been crying and says he is sorry that she did not live to see his success because their luck had seemed to change. John says he is sorry too.
John is working on the roof while Abigail removes corn from cobs.
Thomas brings in the portraits of John and Abigail. John says they remind him of his current state of decrepitude. Sally asks when they were painted, and Thomas says they have been in Gilbert Stuart’s studio. Sally says the White House should have them. Thomas says that Stuart offered to deliver them, and John says that he was told that neither Madison nor anyone else in the White House has any interest in them. Abigail says they will keep them here to remind them of all they accomplished.
Abigail is reading papers and asks John to let her finish before she gives her opinion. He takes them from her and says he has little hope that any sketches he writes will be received by the public with any favor or read with any interest by anyone. He asks who would have any use for a seven-volume account of so many impulsive, tactless, and ill-considered things. He calls them rubbish and throws them on the floor. He says if he had it to do over, he would be a farmer, shoemaker, and deacon like his father, though he says he never would have won her.
On the porch Abigail tells Sally that old age is dark and unlovely. Sally says she still has much to be happy about. Abigail and John are about to celebrate 54 years of marriage. Abigail says there was a time when she despaired of not having him with her, but now they have been together longer than they were ever apart. She apologizes to Sally who says her situation does not prevent her from sharing their joy. Abigail tells Sally that she is a lovely and generous girl, and their lives are richer for having her with them. Abigail closes her eyes, and Sally tries to wake her. She calls Thomas and John to come quickly. John comes to her and manages to get her to open her eyes. He helps her go inside.
Abigail is in bed, and John sits by her. He climbs on to the bed and gets close to her. She sees blooming flowers, and he says he knew she would come back to him. She says she is amazed that she is the first to depart. He says he will not let her go. She says she will be there for him. He asks her to wait for him. He has his face next to hers and calls her his friend. Thomas comes in, and John cries. Sally comes in and cries too.
John walks in a field, and Thomas finds him. John says he wishes he could lie down and die with her. He says he cannot conceive how God could create a woman like her to live and die on the Earth. He says that the longer he lives and the more he inquires, the less he seems to know.
John is sitting inside, and Dr. Rush asks if there is anyone else he wants him to notify. John says there are so few left who know them. He asks if Jefferson would want to share his sorrow. John says if he received a letter from him, he would answer it. Rush suggests he write himself, and John says the man did him and his reputation a great insult. He says he honored and hired every villain he could find who was his enemy. Rush says that it is why he should show the magnanimity of great minds. Rush says he always considered Adams and Jefferson the north and south poles of their revolution because they thought for everyone. Adams appears moved, and Rush walks out.
Adams is writing a letter to his dear friend that one trouble never comes alone. He mentions that since their parting he has suffered the loss of his daughter and his wife. He writes as his afflicted friend.
The elderly Jefferson writes back from Monticello on April 6, 1819 to his dear friend and understands his losses because of his own. He writes that it will not be long when they will leave their suffering bodies and ascend to an ecstatic meeting with those they loved and lost and whom they still love. Jefferson asks God to support his friend in his affliction.
Jefferson reads a letter from Adams about what they have experienced, and he suggests that they explain themselves to each other. Jefferson replies that nothing new could be added by them. Adams writes and asks who will write the history of their revolution. Jefferson answers nobody except its external facts. He prefers to look back on those days when Massachusetts and Virginia lived and worked in perfect harmony.
On March 20, 1825 Jefferson writes to congratulate Adams on his son John Quincy becoming President.
On the porch at the farm John Quincy has Louisa Catherine Adams (Caroline Corrie) read the letter from Jefferson about having a son he helped educate be so distinguished by the voice of his country. John says no man who ever served as a president would congratulate anyone for receiving that. John says that letter means more than any other he received from Monticello. He says Jefferson knows his heart as well as any man living, and he writes the truth. John says his boy has made him the proudest father in America, and Thomas proposes a toast to President John Quincy Adams and to President John Adams on his 90th birthday. John says he does not care to be reminded that he is an old dotard, and Sally says neither do they.
Sitting in chairs under a tree John Quincy tells his father that Congress has become indolent and palsied before their constituents, and so he intends to lead strongly. He asks his father if he is listening. He wants to strengthen the federal government. He says they need to raise taxes because the country needs decent roads, canals, a national university, a department of the interior, and a national currency. John says they will call him a monarchist, King Adams II. He warns him that he is moving too fast. John Quincy says they have no time to waste. John advises him to look to his wife for guidance, not to him. He says his mother was always his most faithful advisor and the wisest.
John Trumbull (Buzz Bovshow) tells John Adams and John Quincy Adams that Congress has commissioned him to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the birth of their republic, and his rendition of the signing of the Declaration of Independence will hang in the rotunda of the capital. John examines the painting and says that they are all dead except him and Jefferson. Adams says that a good painter masters the space, and he says he admired the work of Rubens when he was in Holland. He tells Trumbull that he is no Rubens. Adams says his painting is bad history because the scene he depicts never took place. He says there was not one day when all the members of Congress gathered to collect their signatures. He says they were at war, and the delegates were coming and going and signed the hallowed parchment when they were in town. Trumbull asks him to allow the artist some license, but Adams stubbornly refuses to do so. He says the Europeans consider their modern history false, and he says modern American history is worse. He considers the history of the American Revolution as lost forever. John Quincy and John walk away.
On his farm John asks Thomas if he should be preserved or whether he should stumble. He is not weary of life because he still has hope. Thomas suggests they go inside. John says he saw a queen of France with valuable jewels, but no one ever impressed him as much as that little shrub there. When he looks at the smallest thing, his imagination begins to roam the Milky Way. He tells Thomas to rejoice for evermore and says it is a phrase from Saint Paul. He wishes that had always been in his heart and tongue. He says he feels an irresistible impulse to fall on his knees in adoration. He tries to kneel, and Thomas helps him up.
Thomas finds his father asleep in a chair and says it is time for bed. He calls Sally, and she helps him take John to his bed. He says the fourth is tomorrow, and Thomas says that fifty years ago their nation was born. John says he must write a letter to Jefferson. Thomas says he can do it tomorrow.
Jefferson is in bed at Monticello and refuses food.
John Adams is in bed, and Thomas tells him it is July 4.
Jefferson in bed says it is the fourth and tells a slave to fetch the others. Sally Hemmings (Lizan Mitchell) goes to do so.
John Adams is in bed and during thunder asks the child there to help him. He calls to Abigail and says it is time.
Jefferson has died, and those around him weep.
John Adams says that Thomas Jefferson survives, and he dies. Thomas closes his eyes.
This comprehensive biopic shows the highlights of John Adams political career and close relationships with as much accuracy as can be expected from a dramatized story. Adams had a forceful and stubborn personality and a somewhat pessimistic view of human nature, but he worked very hard to improve his world and in collaboration with other great men such as Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, he helped bring forth a new nation conceived in liberty and independence from tyranny that developed a constitutional form of self-government.