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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Tuesday, August 01, 2017

The Philadelphia Oration of Samuel Adams

In late 1776 a pamphlet appeared in London with the title:
An Oration Delivered at the State-House, in Philadelphia, to a very numerous Audience, on Thursday the 1st of August, 1776; by Samuel Adams, Member of the **** ******** the General Congress of the ****** ****** of America.
This speech was said to have been first published in Philadelphia and then reprinted in London by J. Johnson. The price was one shilling.

That material was reprinted in the Gentleman’s Magazine and by several other printers in the British Isles. Adams’s descendant and biographer William V. Wells reported that French and German translations appeared during the war. We can read the whole thing in modern typography here.

The text of the oration began with an acknowledgment of being excited about the prospect of American independence:
I will not deny the Charge of my Enemies, that Resentment for the accumulated Injuries of our Country, and an Ardour for her Glory, rising to Enthusiasm, may deprive me of that accuracy of Judgment and expression which Men of cooler passions may possess. Let me beseech you then to hear me with Caution; to examine without prejudice, and to correct the mistakes into which I may be hurried by my Zeal.
The author linked the political changes in America to the venerated Protestant Reformation: “Our Fore-Fathers threw off the Yoke of Popery in Religion; for you is reserved the honor of levelling the popery of Politicks.” The text also drew on history for examples of the corruption of kings.

The pamphlet then jumped forward to the contribution of the colonies to the British Empire and the rise of the North American colonies in population and production. There are few specifics about the ongoing war, the disputes between colonial Whigs and the Crown over the preceding eleven years, or contemporary political issues in Philadelphia. Indeed, the oratory has more to say about the British Parliament:
When a general Election will be nothing but a general Auction of Boroughs; and when the Parliament, the grand Council of the Nation, and once the faithful Guardian of the State, and a terror to evil Ministers, will be degenerated into a body of Sycophants, dependent and venal, always ready to confirm any measures, and little more than a public Court for registering royal Edicts.—Such it is possible, may, some time or other, be the state of Great Britain.—What will at that period be the duty of the Colonies? 
The pamphlet quotes Richard Price’s Observations on Civil Liberty and Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Treatise on the Social Contract, but not the Declaration of Independence proclaimed in Philadelphia less than a month before.

Overall, the text is a well-argued case for American independence as the best way to preserve traditional British liberties. It portrays British institutions as corrupt and in decline. In contrast, North America is rising, and the Caribbean colonies will soon “from necessity wish to enjoy the benefit of our [American] Protection.” It tells the audience that they are and should be in control of their government: “You are now the guardians of your own liberties.” To our modern eyes, this pamphlet seems very forward-looking (once we get past that “Yoke of Popery” stuff).

Unfortunately, this oration was almost certainly not written or delivered by Samuel Adams.

TOMORROW: Suspicious circumstances.

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