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Monday, April 14, 2008

John Adams and the Midnight Judges

Last night's episode of HBO's John Adams covered Adams's one-term presidency, focusing primarily (spoiler alert) on his ultimately successful efforts to avoid full-out war with France and to remain above the fray of partisanship between Hamilton's Federalists and Jefferson's Republicans. Adams is shown firing two cabinet members, Secretary of State Timothy Pickering and Secretary of War James McHenry, because both were too in thrall to Hamilton (whom Adams clearly disliked) and to the Federalist Party and too committed (rather openly) to furthering Federalist goals at the expense of the goals of the United States.

Unfortunately, this narrative of "Adams, the Non-Partisan," caused the show to omit what was, indirectly, his long-lasting legacy: The appointment of John Marshall (prominently featured as Adams's second Secretary of State) as Chief Justice and, as his term ended, the appointment of the "Midnight Judges," which together led to Marbury v. Madison. The latter act, in particular, appears to have been a fairly naked example of Adams's Federalist leanings and desire to keep at least part of the national government in Federalist hands.

Admittedly, this is probably too lawyerly an element for a mainstream popular mini-series. Still, it would have been interesting to see a dramatization of Adams's thought processes as he took care of partisan business on his way out the door.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on April 14, 2008 at 08:36 AM | Permalink


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I watched this episode a few nights prior to my Con law final. At the very end, when Adams is tossing loads of papers into the fire as John Marshall looks on, I couldn't help but think that the writers--whether McCollough or the teleplay adaptors--were being a bit revisionist re: Marbury v. Madison.

When Adams pulled a mistakenly disposed paper out of the fire and stomped on it as if it was very important to him that it be preserved, could this have been Marbury's commission? If so, in HBO world, the facts of Marbury--that Marshall simply forgot to deliver Marbury his commission--seem to cover up for Adams's carelessness.

Of course, I didn't employ this conspiracy theory on my exam.


Posted by: Mike | May 7, 2008 12:54:59 PM

I was watching the HBO series John Adams tonight and there was a nod at George Washington's false teeth. It made me laugh because I remembered that those teeth are on display in Baltimore at The National Museum of Dentistry. Not only that, the map that the American delegation in France used to identify the United States of America at the Treaty of Paris, the actual map from George III’s library, is on display at the Maps exhibitions running at The Walters Art Museum. Check it out http://www.visitmybaltimore.com/video/438/

Posted by: Anna | Apr 14, 2008 2:37:36 PM

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