John Adams and the Rule of Law
On Friday, October 19 Fordham Law School’s Forum on Law, Culture, and Society kicked off its annual film festival at the HBO Theater with a screening of Part One of the mini-series “John Adams.” The evening took on a hint of Hollywood gala as smartly-dressed patrons mingled over drinks and appetizers in the theater’s foyer before the show with the event’s guests-of-honor, Kirk Ellis, who wrote the screenplay for the series, and Judge Denny Chin, of the Federal Court of Appeals.
The festival, which is in its seventh year, seeks to spur discussion of the role of law and lawyers by showcasing films that deal with legal themes. Actors, writers, intellectuals, and members of the legal profession with a connection to the film are invited to help facilitate the discussion after each screening.
This year’s festival drew a capacity crowd for its opening night. As showtime neared and the audience filed into the theater, the room became so packed that even the festival’s lion-haired director, Thane Rosenbaum, had to search for a seat.
As the crowd settled in, Professor Rosenbaum rose to the podium at the front of the theater and, after thanking the people who had made the event possible, posed a question to the audience:
“Why did we choose Judge Chin for this post-show discussion? Why is he the perfect person to speak after Part One of “John Adams”?”
No one even ventured a guess. The answer would have to wait.
It is one of those weird ironies of history that John Adams, our nation’s first vice-president, second president, and a revered founding father, actually represented the British soldiers accused of murder in the Boston Massacre as a young attorney. Part One of the series seizes upon this irony to introduce viewers to the character and deeply-held beliefs of one of America’s most influential political thinkers. Adams, skillfully played by Paul Giamatti, was convinced that men must be governed by laws, and must seek to avoid the passions of the mob. This belief was reflected in his choice to take on the British soldiers’ case when no one else would.
Unsurprisingly, this role puts Adams at odds with many of the revolutionaries he would later work with who were beginning to aggressively agitate for independence, and wanted to see the soldiers hanged.
Despite the pressure from his compatriots, Adams engages in a vigorous defense of the soldiers, arguing that they had acted in self-defense, and that shouts to “Fire!” came not from their commanding officer, but from provocateurs among the demonstrators.
“Facts are stubborn things,” Adams famously declares in his summation, as he implores the jury to rise above the passions of the mob, and decide the soldiers’ fates on the evidence before them.
The soldiers are acquitted.
This theme, of the need for the rule of law to triumph over popular, and perhaps momentary, mood, is the episode’s central focus. It is further explored through contrasting the rowdy, but ultimately civil Boston Massacre trial with a later scene in which a British customs agent is tarred and feathered by a crowd that is incensed over British taxes. The scene is visceral. The man is stripped naked by the unruly throng, has a cauldron of burning-hot tar poured over him, is doused in feathers, and then ridden out of town on a rail. The juxtaposition of the two versions of “justice” illustrates in stark relief Adams’s fear of what happens when the law ceases to be followed, and the passions of the mob win out.
The episode also probes its theme through Adams’s relationship with his wife, Abigail, played in the series by Laura Linney. Abigail is shown to be Adams’ intellectual equal, providing him with comfort and counsel that helps him avoid the pitfalls of his most destructive impulses.
In one scene, she reviews her husband’s proposed summation for the close of the Massacre trial. Acting as a counter to his trial lawyer vanity, she criticizes him for trying to prove his own brilliance, rather than the veracity of his clients’ case, by filling his speech with pompous language. Adams retreats to his desk for a long night of revision.
The tenderness, intimacy, and trust between husband and wife that is so ably captured by Ms. Linney and Mr. Giamatti’s onscreen chemistry, shows, on a deeply personal plane, how a moderating influence is needed to counter man’s worst passions.
After the film, Professor Rosenbaum led a discussion with Mr. Ellis and Judge Chin about the events explored in the episode, and what they reveal about Adams’ life, his dedication to the law, and his political beliefs. Mr. Ellis, a last minute stand-in for Mr. Giamatti, who had to bow out due to a conflict, proved to be a fantastic replacement.
Mr. Ellis said that in the six years it took for him to work on the series he spent time “marinated his brain” in all things Adams.
The fruits of his painstaking research were on full display during the discussion.
Mr. Ellis spoke of the central importance of Adams’ belief, stemming from his Puritan upbringing, that mankind, left to its own devices, will inevitably choose badly. From this belief, Mr. Ellis explained, sprung Adams’ view of the supreme importance of the rule of law. Using the Boston Massacre trial in the first episode, he said, worked as a powerful launching pad to introduce the audience to this crucial aspect of Adams’ philosophy.
Judge Chin shared his experience of presiding over the trial of, and then sentencing Bernard L. Madoff, and as the judge spoke, the answer to Professor Rosenbaum’s question before the screening became clear.
It was his role, the judge explained, to remove himself from the passions of the people while maintaining their faith in the judicial system by delivering a tough, but just, sentence. Judge Chin said that he felt he had fulfilled this role by sentencing Mr. Madoff to 150 years in prison, effectively guaranteeing that the 71-year-old would spend the rest of his behind bars.
Like the British soldiers during their trial for the Boston Massacre, the disgraced financier faced practically universal revulsion. And, as Adams would tell us, the only way to reach justice, especially in cases that rouse the public to anger, is to follow the rule of law.