Did You Know…John Adams & William Daniels!

Here is our Did You Know…posting for July and it features two likely July characters, President John Adams and his shadow, actor William Daniels!

I’m sure everyone knows John Adams was the second president of the United States. He followed George Washington who, unquestionably, was a hard act to follow. And there are volumes of tomes and tomes (another great word!) you can read on John Adams – but many of them are a bit weighty and more accessible to history fans and scholars than to regular readers.

So this Did You Know…posting is going to focus on some accessible and fun materials you can check out to learn more about John Adams and his family without having to wade through thousand page books on the subject!

And if you’re scratching your head and wondering…

“What on earth does an actor named William Daniels have to do with John Adams?”

Wonder no more!

William Daniels is an American actor who has portrayed John Adams numerous times on the stage and screen and this posting will offers some fun suggestions about those performances – namely where you can find them on DVD (Hint – your local public library!)

And without further ado, here we go!

Firstly regarding John Adams…

Did you know that the HBO mini-series John Adams is based upon the bestselling, and easy to read, biography, of John Adams written by David McCullough?

It is!

The Book John Adams written by David McCullough:

The HBO Mini-Series John Adams based upon the McCullough book:

David McCullough wrote the book John Adams which was published in 2001, and in 2008 HBO released a mini-series based upon the book – starring Paul Giamatti as John Adams and Laura Linney as Abigail Adams.

The mini-series opens just before the Boston Massacre and ends with John Adams’s death in 1826; and in-between those two events Adams defended the British soldiers who shot into the crowd during the Boston Massacre (and got them off!), he attended the Continental Congresses, signed the Declaration of Independence, was the first U.S. Ambassador to Great Britain after the Revolutionary War (bet that was fun!), was George Washington’s vice president for two terms, president for a term and then an intellectual gardener who wrote Thomas Jefferson dozens of letters from his home in Quincy, Massachusetts – and more! He was a rather busy individual during his life time!

And now, linking the historical figure John Adams to the career of the actor William Daniels…

Did you know that William Daniels portrayed John Adams in the musical play 1776 both on stage and screen?

He did!

The play 1776 was written by Sherman Edwards and Peter Stone. William Daniels starred in the Tony Award Winning play while it was on Broadway and then reprised his role for the 1972 film version.

The 1776 story opens in Philadelphia in May of 1776 where the second continental congress is meeting. John Adams (William Daniels) is the first character introduced and he demands of Ben Franklin, when does he think the congress is ever going to get around to declaring independence anyway!

Adams goes on to say he can’t make a proposal for colonial independence to the congress because he is “obnoxious and disliked.” And Franklin notes, that some new delegates have just arrived and perhaps they should have a talk with them on the subject of declaring independence. And lo and behold, one of the delegates just happens to be Thomas Jefferson of Virginia! Shortly thereafter another Virginia delegate, Richard Henry Lee, rides home to get approval from the colonial Virginia Assembly to put forth a motion for independence to the Congress. Lee returns, puts the proposal in front of Congress, Adams seconds it and the musical debate begins!

Some of the other actors/actresses in the film include: Howard DaSilva as Ben Franklin, Blythe Danner as Abigail Adams, Ken Howard (White Shadow) as Thomas Jefferson, John Cullum (Northern Exposure) as John Dickinson and David Ford (Dark Shadows) as John Hancock

Songs include: Piddle, Twiddle & Resolve, The Lees of Old Virginia, The Egg, He Plays the Violin, Cool Considerate Men and Is There Anybody There?

If you haven’t seen the film – it is great fun and a perfect DVD for July viewing!

And did you further know…

That in addition to appearing in the both the Broadway and film versions of 1776, that William Daniels went on to portray John Quincy Adams, son of John & Abigail Adams in the PBS mini-series The Adams Chronicles?

He did!

The Adams Chronicles video mini series was played on PBS in the 1970s and can now be checked out of the library:

As can the Jack Shepherd book of the same name on which the miniseries is based:

The story of the Adams Family is fascinating and fun! And the Emmy Award Winning miniseries, was indeed based upon the book The Adams Chronicles: Four Generations of Greatness written by Jack Shepherd and published in 1976. The story opens in the last 1750s and follows as a young John Adams as he finishes law school, starts a law practice and begins to court the love of his life Abigail Smith. The story takes viewers through the lives of family members during the colonial era, focusing first on John Adams – his time in the Continental Congress, through his diplomatic missions in Europe to his time as vice-president, then president and then the main focus switches to the covering the life of John Quincy Adams (William Daniels). And John Quincy Adams had quite a life! He was, among other things, Thomas Jefferson’s private secretary, a U.S. diplomat, Secretary of State, President of the United States (and a skinny dipping president at that!) and, the only president to-date, to go back into government after he left office. John Quincy Adams, who initially retired after he was defeated for a second presidential term in 1828, was elected to Congress in 1830. John Quincy was a an erudite individual, a passionate speaker, and, decidedly against slavery. And his great debating skills earned  him a nickname bestowed upon him by his fellow congressmen – “Old Man Eloquent.” J. Q. Adams suffered a stroke while in the House of Representatives in 1848 and died hours later. He is also the earliest president we have a photo of – his photo was taken in 1843, the year Adams turned 76.

After John Quincy’s death the mini-series goes on to follow John Quincy’s son Charles Francis Adams during his time  in Massachusetts state government, his time as a U.S. Congressman and as U.S. Ambassador to the United Kingdom during the American Civil War. The fourth generation followed in the series consists of the six children of Charles Francis and his wife Abigail Brown Brooks –the children included Civil War soldiers John Quincy Adams II and Charles Francis Adams Jr. and the historian Brooks Adams and you get the idea – it is the story not just of individuals but of a family too.

And on a final did you know note…

Going full-circle and back to John Adams…

You probably already know the third most famous thing about John Adams, after the fact that he was President of the United States and signed the Declaration of Independence – is that he died on the same day as his friend, the third President of the United States – Thomas Jefferson and on the fiftieth anniversary of the singing of the Declaration of Independence – July 4, 1826.

But did you know that after both men left the presidency and went into retirement the former friends, turned political rivals, became friends again and wrote dozens of letters to each other in their retirements?

They did!

After a bitter falling out in the 1790s they actually never spoke to each other again!

However, in 1812 a mutual friend, and fellow signer of the Declaration of Independence, Dr. Benjamin Rush, urged Adams to write to Jefferson – and he did!

Thus friends once more, the two men wrote dozens of letters to each other in the last 14 years of their lives. Both men were exceptionally well read and – and there is, as David McCullough observed “great charm in the letters.” It is apparent in reading the letters that the men both knew they were writing, not just to each other – but to posterity.

As an example consider this Adams – Jefferson Letter:

“1812, January 21: Jefferson to Adams_____________ A letter from you calls up recollections very dear to my mind. It carries me back to the times when, beset with difficulties and dangers, we were fellow laborers in the same cause, struggling for what is most valuable to man, his right of self-government. Laboring always at the same oar, with some wave ever ahead threatening to overwhelm us and yet passing harmless under our bark, we knew not how, we rode through the storm with heart and hand, and made a happy port.”

The Adams Jefferson Letters are compiled in a book – should you wish to request it!

And on a final William Daniels note – you may recognize the actor from some of the many other roles he has had during the years. He is an excellent actor and whichever character his is portraying – his is worth watching! Along with his wife he was regular on St. Elsewhere portraying the grouchy Dr. Mark Craig, he portrayed Benjamin Braddock, the husband of Dennis Hoffman’s Mrs. Robinson in the Graduate, appeared as Howard in the Jack Finney and Audrey Hepburn movie Two for the Road and was the voice of KITT the car in the David Hasselhoff Knight Rider series. And the library has all the aforementioned videos (I love that word too — “aforementioned” –  a great word!)

And here are few related neat and fun video clips to watch!

From The HBO Series John Adams – Scenes showing the Adams Jefferson correspondence 

David McCullough on the Adams Jefferson Letters

Have a great month and a Happy Fourth of July!

Linda, SSCL


About the Adams-Jefferson Letters:

Full Title: The Adams-Jefferson letters; the complete correspondence between Thomas Jefferson and Abigail and John Adams – Adams, John Quincy, 1767-1848.

The collection, which you can check out of the library as a print book or eBook contains 380 letters

Their complete correspondence, which contains 380 letters written between 1777 and 1826, is known as the Adams-Jefferson Letters. The collection also includes a number of letters written before their post-Revolutionary War political falling out. However, the best of the letters, in the opinion of this humble history fan, are the ones they wrote between 1812 and 1826.

From The Correspondence of John Adams & Thomas Jefferson on Life, Religion, and the Young Republic

Click to access adamsjeffersoncor.pdf

John Adams. Thomas Jefferson Foundation. Online. Accessed June 29, 2018.


The John Adams LIbrary at the Boston Public Library. John Adams Historical Society. Online. Accessed June 29, 2018.

Plain Speaking Review (2001, May 27). The New York Times. Accessed June 29, 2018.


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