As I described yesterday, John Adams didn’t like how William Wirt’s 1817 biography of Patrick Henry gave the Virginian credit for sparking the American Revolution. Adams wanted Massachusetts to get the credit for being first.
The only problem was that Henry really did deliver incendiary remarks against the Stamp Act in the Virginia House of Burgesses on 29 May 1765. Wirt’s version of that speech ended, “If this be treason, make the most of it!” That may not be accurate, but there was no doubt that Henry attacked the Stamp Act months before Boston’s big public protests in August.
So the only way for Adams to win back Massachusetts’s primary role was to argue that the Revolutionary conflict had begun even earlier than that—with the writs of assistance case in 1761. On 29 Mar 1818 Adams sent his former law clerk William Tudor a long, detailed, and dramatic—at times melodramatic—description of the case, ending:
But [James] Otis was a flame of Fire! With a promptitude of classical allusions, a depth of research, a rapid summary of historical events and dates, a profusion of legal authorities, a prophetic glare of his eyes into futurity, and a rapid torrent of impetuous eloquence he hurried away all before him.Adams allowed that letter to be published in newspapers and a new collection of his “Novanglus” essays, thus making it available to historians just as the fiftieth anniversary of independence approached.
American independence was then and there born. The seeds of patriots and heroes to defend the Non Sine Diis Animosus Infans; to defend the vigorous youth were then and there sown. Every man of an immense crowded audience appeared to me to go away as I did, ready to take arms against writs of assistance. Then and there was the first scene of the first act of opposition to the arbitrary claims of Great Britain. Then and there the child Independence was born. In fifteen years, i.e. in 1776, he grew up to manhood and declared himself free.
In March 1818 the North American Review printed young Jared Sparks’s critique of Wirt’s Patrick Henry, saying it relied too much on “tradition” instead of “truth.” The article listed several ways that Massachusetts instigated the Revolution. (That magazine was, after all, based in Boston.) Sparks went on to edit the first collection of George Washington’s writings.
Over the next couple of years Adams convinced the editor of that magazine, William Tudor, Jr., to write the biography of Otis that he had imagined. The Life of James Otis, of Massachusetts appeared in 1823, quoting heavily from Adams’s letters to the author’s father.
Thus, before he died on 4 July 1826, John Adams had managed to establish a historiography of the American Revolution that starts in Boston in 1761, with James Otis, Jr., delivering the opening speech. Or was that, as Adams had complained about Wirt’s book, largely “a romance”?