In the American character today, there are few things in shorter supply than political courage. Indeed, the depth of partisan conformity in Washington, D.C., has made the very idea of “going against the grain” all but unpalatable. Yet since America’s founding, there has been the occasional profile in stately valor, in which the leaders of the time did what was not merely unpopular, but which carried enormous negative consequences much worse than the prospect of losing the next election.
The first and foremost of these was the founding itself. The 2008 HBO miniseries John Adams, based on the engrossing 2001 book by David McCullough, does many great things in re-imagining the life and times of the most underappreciated of founding fathers, but perhaps the most fundamental is to show the absolute nerve it took to declare independence from the mighty British Empire.
John Adams is packed to the gills with drama and excitement to make even the most casual history buff breathless with curiosity, but the central event in the series—the vote by the Continental Congress to adopt the Declaration of Independence—is so intrinsically significant, and so painstakingly established by the filmmakers, that its dramatic force springs from within. The moment, when it comes, carries a surprising emotional impact, in part because it is so flabbergastingly simple.
Political courage comes in two forms, and John Adams gives voice to both. The first, and by far the most celebrated, was the Continental Congress formally denouncing George III as a tyrant and declaring the thirteen American colonies “Free and Independent States,” just at the moment when the king himself declared that any such insurrection would be met with the execution of every individual who took part. When the rabble-rousers in Philadelphia pledged “our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor,” they were not speaking rhetorically. Lest we forget, the idea of revolution in the summer of 1776 was, by all accounts, neither remotely feasible nor especially popular outside the convention hall.
At the same time, the Continental Congress bore witness to another face of moral daring—that of the skeptics who shared the rebels’ disdain for the king but viewed independence as perilous and foolhardy. Then, as now, speaking against a partisan consensus was no easy task.
The rhetorical leader of this faction, John Dickinson of Pennsylvania, is portrayed in John Adams as an honorable and honest man who believes to his boots that betraying the English crown will lead to ruin for the American colonies, and who concedes publicly that his illustrious reputation will likely be destroyed by his steadfast opposition to the emerging Glorious Cause. Although Dickinson agrees to excuse himself from the final vote—in an eleventh-hour deal to ensure the declaration is passed—he does not compromise his principles. Adams, a man of principle if ever there was one, would never allow such a thing to happen.
The eloquent objections of men like Dickinson—and the seriousness with which they are considered—are essential to the climactic roll call’s effect, punctuating the full significance and audacity of this decidedly treasonous act. As the final, unanimous vote is recorded and the clerk announces, “The resolution carries,” the hall becomes deadly silent, as we are invited to read the curious looks on the various delegates’ faces. Having just made the most momentous decision of their lives, knowing not how things will turn out, their unspoken recognition is that this act might well have been their last.