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.

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Saturday, July 12, 2008

John Adams’s Thirds

Yesterday I discussed how a passage from one of John Adams’s letters has been quoted out of context to indicate that he believed that only a third of Americans supported the Revolution, another third opposed it, and the remaining third was neutral. He was actually writing about American attitudes toward the French Revolution during his administration in the late 1790s. So we can all go home now, right?

Actually, the situation’s not that simple. On other occasions Adams wrote similar—but not identical—things about the divisions in American loyalties. And on still other occasions he wrote or said different things. For example, when he was American minister to Holland during the Revolutionary War, he assured the Dutch government that only one in twenty Americans still supported the British government. Of course, he then had a strong motivation to minimize the Loyalist movement.

Many years later, on 31 Aug 1813, Adams wrote this to Thomas McKean:

You say that at the time of the [Stamp Act] Congress, in 1765, “The great mass of the people were zealous in the cause of America.” “The great mass of the people” is an expression that deserves analysis. . . .

Upon the whole, if we allow two thirds of the people to have been with us in the revolution, is not the allowance ample? Are not two thirds of the nation now with the administration? Divided we ever have been, and ever must be. Two thirds always had and will have more difficulty to struggle with the one third than with all our foreign enemies.
And on 12 Nov 1813, describing the First Continental Congress of 1774 to Thomas Jefferson, Adams wrote:
To draw the characters of them all would require a volume, and would now be considered as a caricature-print; one third tories, another whigs, and the rest mongrels.
So what do these comments tell us? My only definite conclusion is that John Adams really liked to divide groups into thirds.

In another letter to Jefferson, dated 24 Aug 1815, Adams famously argued that the Revolution occurred before the Revolutionary War:
What do we mean by the Revolution? The war? That was no part of the Revolution; it was only an effect and consequence of it. The Revolution was in the minds of the people, and this was effected, from 1760 to 1775, in the course of fifteen years before a drop of blood was shed at Lexington.
Thus, Adams’s judgment that one in three American colonists supported the London government during the Stamp Act controversy of 1765 wouldn’t necessarily apply to the situation during the war. Indeed, the implication of Adams’s later letter is that by 1775 more Americans had turned against London than before—i.e., that by then Loyalists were less than a third of the population.

As for Adams’s judgment of the First Continental Congress, he obviously had an expansive notion of what made men “tories.” That Congress was clearly organized to protest Parliament’s recent acts, and few strong supporters of royal authority participated. I’ve read that of all the men at that meeting in Philadelphia, only Joseph Galloway and the Rev. Jacob Duche (whom Samuel Adams proposed bringing in to lead a prayer) became Loyalists—i.e., left America to remain in the British Empire. Adams probably considered all delegates who argued for anything less than total defiance as “tories.”

Finally, as I discussed in regard to Adams’s memories of the Boston Massacre, he tended to exaggerate the number or strength of the people opposed to him. He was probably doing the same thing when he looked back on Loyalism during the Revolution, however he defined that position: he was likely to remember the number of Loyalists and their fervor as bigger than they really were.

Even so, Adams never claimed that the Patriot cause had support from only a third of the American population.

TOMORROW: Estimates of the number of New England Loyalists.


pilgrimchick said...

My inclination is that Adams was in part correct if he did make this assumption, which as you illustrate, is debatable. It seems rather important to take into account that prior to the American Revolution, the concept of separating a colony from a mother-country-entity was unheard-of. To say that a huge majority of the colonists ultimately supported something that, in their minds without retrospect, did not exist is hard to justify in any kind of historical context.

J. L. Bell said...

Yes, there had to be some evolution in people’s views over time. There was also a chance in the questions they were considering, from whether to march in a Stamp Act parade even if the royal governor wouldn’t like it to whether to remain part of the British Empire.

Some men who were part of the Whig movement in 1765 or 1770 dropped out and became Loyalists by 1776.

pilgrimchick said...

One of my chief fascinations with this subject has to do with tracing its roots to the late 17th/early 18th century when the Dominion of New England, for example, prompted Massachusetts citizens to argue that they were taxed without representation in a parliamentary body. Perhaps the view regarding the number of loyalists versus revolutionaries changes when we reconsider how long many were displeased with involvement by the English Crown, including in the case of New England particularly, the Navigation Acts.