J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

Follow by Email

Friday, July 11, 2008

John Adams Misquoted on Loyalist Numbers

In January 1815, former President John Adams wrote a letter to James Lloyd that said, in part:

If I were called to calculate the divisions among the people of America, as Mr. [Edmund] Burke did those of the people of England, I should say that full one third were averse to the revolution. These, retaining that overweening fondness, in which they had been educated, for the English, could not cordially like the French; indeed, they most heartily detested them. An opposite third conceived a hatred of the English, and gave themselves up to an enthusiastic gratitude to France. The middle third, composed principally of the yeomanry, the soundest part of the nation, and always averse to war, were rather lukewarm both to England and France; and sometimes stragglers from them, and sometimes the whole body, united with the first or the last third, according to circumstances.

The depredations of France upon our commerce, and her insolence to our ambassadors, and even to the government, united, though for a short time, with infinite reluctance, the second third with the first, and produced that burst of applause to the administration...
This letter was published in 1856 in the multi-volume set of Adams’s autobiography and memoirs edited by his grandson.

The former President’s references to French attacks on American ships and “insolence to our ambassadors” make clear that he was talking about a period other than the Revolutionary War, when France was the U.S. of A.’s strongest ally. The whole correspondence shows that Adams was writing to Lloyd about the period when his administration was steering between Great Britain and France, with some Americans clamoring for an alliance with one or the other warring power. Adams’s estimate that “one third were averse to the revolution” refers to the French Revolution as seen from America.

However, in the early 1900s, the historian Sydney George Fisher quoted parts of the first paragraph out of context, having convinced himself that the former President had been writing about American attitudes toward their own Revolution. And since then many other authors have stated, on Adams’s authority, that only a third of all Americans supported the independence movement, and an equal number opposed it.

The letter to the Boston Globe I quoted yesterday is one recent reflection of this notion; it stated, without evidence, that “two-thirds [of rural Massachusetts men] were either unsympathetic or indifferent to the war effort.” In fact, Massachusetts farmers’ actions showed that they overwhelmingly supported the war effort, though they weren’t always ready to leave their farms to fight and they did grumble about wartime deprivations.

Historians have long recognized the true context of the Adams quote above, and how it doesn’t address the notion of a large Loyalist population. That debunking is a centerpiece of Prof. William Marina’s essay “The American Revolution and the Minority Myth,” first published in 1975. But the factoid survives in many books because it seems so interesting. And, to be fair, Adams wrote similar things on other occasions.

TOMORROW: Adams’s other statements on how many Loyalists there were.

(The Gilbert Stuart portrait of the elderly Adams above belongs to the Museum of Fine Arts. Another version hangs in the National Gallery in Washington, and I got to see it last Saturday.)


Anonymous said...

I believe sir your view on the interpretation of Adams remarks is not correct. Adams was indeed referring to the American revolution as a preface to his latter remark concerning that boost of support to his administration, resulting from the French revolution and French intrusion into American affairs. Even if he was referring specifically to the french revolution the numbers would still convey the samr thought.

J. L. Bell said...

I don’t follow your logic, Anonymous. Adams wrote about Americans’ attitudes toward “England and France.” His mention of “The depredations of France upon our commerce, and her insolence to our ambassadors” can only refer to the 1790s. He was clearly “referring specifically to the French Revolution.” I don’t see how one could express doubt about that.

That being the case, I also don’t see how one could logically apply Adams’s thoughts on that topic to a very different topic.

Anonymous said...

Sorry for the confusion...my point is: I believe Adams was providing a general observation about the entire revolutionary period, because the attitudes in America were the same in the 1790`s as they were during the Revolution. I believe these sentiments persisted in America up to the “era of good feelings” which occurred after the war of 1812. When Adams wrote these words in 1815, America was so happy the entire conflict in Congress and European interference was finally at an end. How would a losing conflict (war of 1812) finally make everyone so happy? Could it be because most in America didn’t support the war, which is well documented, and the result was essentially what America wanted in the first place?
I believe the resentment between Patriots and America Loyalists, who substantially represented Canada after the Revolution, is relatively distorted in the face of evidence that for the most part they cooperated immediately in areas of mutual interest. Commencing with the fact these apparent Loyalists did not take up arms against America during the Revolution, we also forget the 1st Canadian Regiment who fought on America’s side. The “era of good feelings” transcended America’s border, similar feelings in Canada flourished; the period defines North America in general. I believe the entire narrative needs a review; we seem more focused on what divided us as opposed to what united us. Canada and America was created on the same day, and few seem to acknowledge that from 1783, through to the Jay Treaty, and throughout the period Jefferson ceased trade with both France and Britain causing severe depression in America, eventually leading to the war of 1812, Canada was America’s most important trading partner and both sides refused to let politics interfere with it; in spite of British designs and divisions in Congress these communities “smuggled” and did whatever was necessary to get needed goods and food supplies across the border; especially during Jefferson’s Administration when supplies were crucial. The attitudes of American and Canadian colonists were remarkably similar, even during the Revolution, and their otherwise less published actions throughout this entire period should speak louder than the rhetoric we are otherwise confronted with.
John Ferling identifies some good reasons why Adams gravitated toward Britain; and I believe his action to preserve Canada, contrary to Franklin, and Shelburne’s desire to give it away, has been remarkably overlooked. Adams never harboured any affection for the Crown; rather it was always about preserving trade to address the depression and to preserve the Union in America. In my view Adams was America’s greatest leader, because his vision for America, and indeed Canada, was uniquely his vision in conjunction with 2nd Marquis of Rockingham in Britain and John Wentworth in Canada. It seems unfair he is usually drawn to controversy rather the notion he more than anyone else shaped America, such as it is today. He succeeded, or it otherwise became a reality because that’s what the majority of Americans wanted.
Thanks for the discussion. W.Byard

J. L. Bell said...

I sense that you wish to make some larger point about Canada and Canadian-American relations rather than on the topic of this posting, which was how Adams’s estimate of American leanings for and against France in the 1790s have been quoted and requoted as if it were an authoritative description of the American Loyalist population decades earlier.

As I noted in the posts that followed this one and other items on John Adams, he:
a) had a tendency to exaggerate the size and strength of the opposition that he remembered lining up against him.
b) liked to break groups down into thirds.

I therefore take all of Adams’s estimates about the popular strength of parties in controversies he was involved in with a grain of salt.

In January 1815 Adams could not have known that the War of 1812 “was finally at an end.” Word of the treaty that his son helped negotiate with Britain didn’t reach America until the following month.

I don’t know what “Canada and America was created on the same day” means.

Anonymous said...

Mr. Bell,
You are correct on two points; Adams was directly responding to Edmund Burke’s work on the French Revolution, and my response to the issue of whether he was “misquoted” goes beyond the argument somewhat. I believe most historians make the mistake of convoluting his remarks because his analysis - in my view and the view of many others - perfectly reflects the attitudes of colonists during the Revolution. We can never know what the actual numbers were, regardless of the period in question, and we only have Adams’s estimates which identifies divisions did indeed exist. I suppose it was his reference to the British, or otherwise the affections of Americans thereto, that creates the problem.
I read the article “the American revolution and the minority myth” and have one final comment. In my view I would suggest the vast majority of North American Colonists were in favour of the Revolution; the arguments proceeded over it should be achieved. A good example of this was Gov. John Wentworth of New Hampshire, the infamous Loyalist, who contrary to his apparent loyalty to the Crown clearly represented a populist “disgust” with British policy. If one looks at the politics in Canada immediately after the treaty in 1783, we discover that “disgust” continued to fester, which ultimately led to Canada’s separation from Britain. I agree that’s another story, but it must be acknowledged to fully understand the attitudes in North America concerning this period; we can’t ignore they were indeed Americans too.
My reference to Canada was an attempt to demonstrate that resentment between these groups was not as great as we imagine, which Adams suggests some reasons why. They were “born on the same day” resulting from the treaty of 1782, and the stark resistance to British policy in Canada immediately following the treaty seems to suggest a large measure of independence.
Best regards