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Film Review: “John Adams” – The Reluctant Revolutionary and the Negotiation of the Declaration of Independence

In 1770, John Adams, a farmer and lawyer, was a loyal subject of the English Crown living in the Massachusetts Colony. Despite the strains with the crown, that by that time were already evident, his dedication to the rule of law obligated him to defend British soldiers charged with murder for having fired on frustrated and irate Boston colonists in a mishap that foreshadowed Kent State 200 years later. By 1775, however, as Massachusett’s delegate to the First Continental Congress, John Adams had evolved into one of the strongest, although less recognized, proponents of independence, concluding that British authority was intractable. While the more prominent ‘founding fathers’ are present, this multi-part series, based on the well-received biography of Adams by the prolific American historian David McCullogh (also the series’ technical adviser), features and highlights the role of John Adams. (Simon and Schuster, 2001) It is presently being aired on HBO.

The quality of the writing and production of “John Adams” allows for consideration of the nature of leadership and the varying approaches to conflict management, especially in the person of Adams. We observe his shift from law protector to rebellious law breaker, see his transformation from citizen to leader, and consider his approaches to conflict as at once warrior and negotiator.

The series, with a stellar cast of Paul Giamatti as John Adams and Laura Linney as his wife, Abigail, vividly brings to life a critically important piece of American history. This dramatic rendering would be value enough, but the series goes further and presses viewers to consider a more complex and thoughtful understanding of history, recognizing it as a process and, importantly, diminishing the notion that history is merely the actions of a few great men. In fact, to the credit of McCullogh and the screenwriters, the profound influence and contribution of Abigail Adams does not go unnoticed. She is more than the just the “supportive wife,” she is his editor, political advisor and intellectual sparring partner. In all fairness, the series would be more accurately titled “John and Abigail.”

The series illustrates, the sometimes tedious, difficult process and personal agonies that often surround the unfolding of most significant human events. Those realities seldom survive historical redactions. The formulation of the Declaration of Independence is a prime example of how such an event suffers from the excesses of oversimplification. More often than not, it has been reduced to drivel more worthy of a fairy tale, twisted and contorted by politicians to suit their purposes, or recast by historians to fit a preferred theory.

The notion that the Declaration and resulting successful separation by the Thirteen Colonies from the British Empire was either predictable or inevitable is dispelled. The popular belief in historical destiny, despite being popular, is inaccurate and misleading. Karl Popper, the intellectual historian and philosopher, discussed this flawed human tendency to rework history in his book, The Poverty of Historicism (Harper & Row, 1964), and suggested it was ‘sheer superstition’ to deem events such as the Declaration of Independence as a forgone conclusion, or even more dubious, ordained by God. History is not a rational science that yields clear predictive principles, despite the appeal of the reductive admonition that “those who do not study history are doomed to repeat it.” While the study of history offers deeper understanding of the human character and their actions, its lessons are more parable than formula

Far from being, “they cameth, they decideth, they dideth,” all at once, in unison and of like mind, the idea of independence did not suddenly emerge fully formed. While all agreed that King George was oppressive and unjustified in his acts against the Colonies, there was considerable dissension and disagreement about how to manage the conflict. Many of the representatives of the First Continental Congress has a justified apprehension of the risks and consequences of confronting and challenging the Crown, while others, John Adams now among them, had come to believe “the time for negotiation is past. …the actions of the British are clear enough; blood has been spilled, powder and artillery are the surest form of conciliation with Britain.”

In tension, chaos and confusion of the times many approaches to the conflict between the colonists and the British are evident. At varying times there are petitions, demonstrations, boycotts, riots and confrontations that ultimately result in open warfare. Negotiation is considered and sometimes used to manage and resolve some of those issues, although often as an afterthought and without much plan or design that was discernible. Pennsylvania’s Dickinson held that “caution must prevail, and we must avoid any escalation of the conflict.” John Adams, turned by events from his earlier and earnest commitment to the moderation of the rule of law, became a leading advocate for confrontation and disobedient independence, arguing that “the middle way is no way at all and that if we fail it will be because we grope for the middle way.” This was no academic discussion. King George had already proclaimed them rebels and as the world’s then reigning superpower, began to deployed his professional Hessian mercenary army and overwhelming naval force against them.

Part 2 of the series, “Independence,” is especially instructive and worthy of study by professional conflict managers and negotiators for the thoughtful illustration of specific negotiation strategies, techniques and skills. The series takes pains to show how the Declaration of Independence was an imperfect negotiated document forged by real people, gripped by personal fears and beliefs, and subject to many and various political considerations. It does not shy away from challenging the popular belief that the ‘founding fathers’ were clear, unified and unequivocal in their ‘original intent’ and that they all shared a common vision. The representatives of that first Continental Congress had to work through their own considerable differences in values and beliefs. One of the more poignant examples is a scene in which Benjamin Franklin suggests to Thomas Jefferson the use of “self evident” instead of “sacred” to describe “these truths.” A more common and pedestrian docudrama might have smoothed over or avoided showing the negotiations of those rifts. Not only is there the risk that ambiguities might slip out and be unresolved, but also because untidy many think the negotiation process lacks dramatic appeal, kind of like “watching paint dry.”

This “John Adams” series, in addition to being good drama, helps to break down the still present resistance to negotiation. To this day, many people remain leery of negotiation, especially those who have little tolerance for ambiguity. They feel vulnerable and at risk of being played for a fool, and if they are right, why should they compromise their principles by negotiating? For those who believe the Declaration of Independence was bestowed upon Americans by the ‘founding fathers’ just as The Ten Commandments were delivered by Moses from God to all ‘mankind,’ there is little room or need for negotiation. Although not enough in itself, “John Adams” allows people to see the historical importance of negotiation. And, even though most viewers know how it ends, there is considerable dramatic tension in watching that negotiation process play out.

There are a number of good examples of negotiation strategies and techniques.

-Early on during the tedious deliberations of the Continental Congress, Benjamin Franklin offers the overly strident and intense John Adams some sage advice: “I do not believe one should necessarily say what they mean… thinking aloud is a bad habit; while it may be perfectly acceptable to insult someone in private, in public they tend to think you are serious….go gently….diplomacy is seduction in another guise—it improves with practice.” With this proffer of a constructive piece of deception, the elder Franklin helped Adams to reflect on his style and moderate himself accordingly.

-Abigail Adams similarly tempers and helps her husband to harness and use his passion constructively. She reminds him of a key principle of negotiation, “…it is better to guide men to think the decisions they make are their own rather than to attempt forcing conclusions upon them.”

-For his own part, in one of the most powerful examples of sophisticated negotiation strategy, practiced all too seldom even to this day, John Adams does a careful assessment of himself and how he is perceived. He recognizes that he would do best to stay back and employ others, thereupon drawing on the considerable talents of Thomas Jefferson to prepare the first of many drafts of the Declaration of Independence. He knows of himself, as he says to Jefferson, that he is viewed as “….obnoxious, suspect and unpopular, and that you are viewed otherwise.” He goes on to say, “I am not drawn by nature a humble man but circumstances sometimes force a change of habit.”

In the end, the negotiated Declaration of Independence was not the bright and shining statement of principle it is often presented to be by many current day historicists who would have us believe the ‘founding fathers’ were of a super-human variety. They well may have been exceptional people, but they, and the document they crafted, were the products of difficult realities and a down and dirty process. Much to the consternation of some, pressing for an end to slavery was deemed politically unwise and dropped out of inclusion; likewise, as Abigail Adams clearly observed, women continued to be disenfranchised and were sacrificed to the political realities of the day.

Ultimately, John Adams and the others recognized the enormity of their action and the risk entailed by declaring independence from Britain and knew that such a course of action done with anything less than unanimous consent would be compromised and weakened. Obtaining that unanimity, however, required considerable deal-making acumen. As with many difficult, important and complex agreements, a measure of subterfuge was required. Employing the classic “don’t ask, don’t tell” technique, Adams brokered a deal with Pennsylvania’s Dickinson, still a fierce opponent of declaring independence and the passage of the Declaration as a matter of principle, whereby he chose to absent himself from the vote, allowing others in the Pennsylvania delegation to register support. Similarly, the New York delegation was encouraged to abstain instead of formally objecting, so as to avoid obstructing a unanimous vote.

In the end, it is just that hard scrabble process of negotiation that makes the Declaration of Independence and birth of United States of America all the more remarkable. While ideology and principle are clearly important, often overlooked but no less important, is the practical negotiation process that lashthose ideas to reality. In the shadow of “live free or die” is the necessity of “negotiate to survive.”

March 20, 2008


Robert Benjamin

Robert Benjamin, M.S.W., J.D., has been a practicing mediator since 1979, working in most dispute contexts including: business/civil, family/divorce, employment, and health care. A lawyer and social worker by training, he practiced law for over 25 years and now teaches and presents professional negotiation, mediation, and conflict management seminars and… MORE >

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