This evening I watched the first two parts of the HBO Series John Adams, based on the book by David McCullough, and for a long time after the credits have finished, I continue to feel overtaken by wonder at the task shouldered by these few men, and then an entire union of people.
I grew up well versed in the talking points of the Revolutionary War. The Boston Tea Party, Paul Revere, the Declaration of Independence, the crossing of the Delaware, and so on. I dutifully created dioramas and replicated the first flag. I wrote letters and dunked them in tea to make them look authentic.
But I did not know that John Adams defended the British troops involved in the Boston Massacre because of his utmost belief in the necessity of law, the importance of facts and the right to a defense. I did not know that George Washington was so tall, nor how strong was the sense of duty that led him to accept the position of general of a fledgling army. I did not know how truly horrific the American practice of tar and feathering was, and how its cruelty smears even the most noble of intentions. I did not know what it would be like for Abigail Adams to be left alone with four children, to make the risky decision to vaccinate her family against smallpox and to know she couldn’t rely on her partner, who was in Congress, arguing with all of his power to liberate the colonies from tyranny.
They were a group of people who were by no means perfect. The Boston masses that began the cries for representation did not look like a crowd I’d ever want to be caught in, and many of the Congressmen were egoists who liked to hear themselves talk, not unlike that annoying kid in your English class. Nor did they create a perfect system of government, much less grant universal freedoms. But to consider the courage that it took to stand up to the greatest power in the world, to persevere as a congress after being branded traitors, and to ultimately vote for independence, is staggering.
Whether or not you already knew all of this, or agree with the direction the country has taken since, I think that these are very important things to be reminded of. That ideas can turn to actions that change the course of history. That there are some truths that are the rights of everyone. That the seemingly impossible can happen. As the film’s character of John Dickensen, a delegate from Pennsylvania, so aptly phrased it, to fight for independence from Britain was “to brave the storm in a skiff made of paper.” And yet, they succeeded.