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.This letter was published in 1856 in the multi-volume set of Adams’s autobiography and memoirs edited by his grandson.
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...
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.)