Many observers of today’s political environment try to explain away American apathy and ignorance by saying it’s always existed. They point to this quote from John Adams to James Lloyd* where he gave his opinion of American’s support for the Revolution to make their point.
The middle third, composed principally of the yeomanry, the soundest part of the nation, and always averse to warm were rather lukewarm both to England and France…
Debunkers claim that since the letter was written in 1815 it was more than likely about American’s support for the French Revolution. Here’s a link to an example from the Breed’s Hill Institute.
In my young and foolish days, I use to agree. After all, I read what the debunkers wrote, it sounded good, and I thought it made me look smart to correct people when they misinterpreted Adams. As I said, those were my young and foolish days.
Now in my somewhat older and arguably wiser days, I’m just as skeptical of the debunkers.
Here’s the full paragraph pulled from Adams’ 1815 letter to James Lloyd:
Of this ignorance, when I went to Congress in 1774, I can assure you, Sir, I had a most painful consciousness in my own bosom. There I had the disappointment to find, that almost every gentleman in that assembly was, in this kind of information, nearly as ignorant as myself; and what was a more cruel mortification than all the rest, the greatest part even of the most intelligent, full of prejudices and jealousies, which I had never before even suspected. Between 1774 and 1797, an interval of twenty-three years, this ignorance was in some measure removed from some minds. But some had retired in disgust, some had gone into the army, some had been turned out for timidity, some had deserted to the enemy, and all the old, steadfast patriots, weary of the service, always irksome in Congress, had retired to their families and States, to be made governors, judges, marshals, collectors, &c., &c. So that in 1797, there was not an individual in the House of Representatives, in the Senate, or in either of the executive departments of government, who had been in the national controversy from the beginning. Mr. Jefferson himself, the Vice-President, the oldest in service of them all, was but a young and a new man in comparison with the earliest conductors of the cause of the country, the real founders and legitimate fathers of the American republic. The most of them had been but a very few years in public business, and a large proportion of these were of a party which had been opposed to the revolution, at least in the beginning of it. If I were called to calculate the divisions among the people of America, as Mr. 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.
For even more context, access the complete letter at the Online Library of Liberty.
I don’t see how anybody can come to the conclusion that Adams was writing about the French Revolution. Recency hardly explains it. Yes, the French Revolution ended in 1799 and the American Revolution in 1783, but is a difference of only 17 years enough to create such an inference? If you want to draw from the time period in which he wrote and the reference to France, he might just as well been writing about the Napoleonic Wars.
|Reign of Terror|
copyright tag: PD-old-70
To me, the context of the paragraph shows that he was talking about the American Revolution. He might have been alluding for a moment when he says in 1797… but, by then the Revolution was drawing to a close. I have to believe The Reign of Terror would have turned most Americans against the French Revolution, if they thought much about it at all.
If you still believe Adams was talking about the French Revolution, I’d love to hear why.
That said, I don’t necessarily believe Adams either. He wasn’t a pollster, and I doubt he hung out at the taverns with the yeomanry. Furthermore, time can dull a man’s recollections as can his mood at the moment. Adams wasn’t exactly known for his sparkling personality and optimism. A certain negative slant might have led him to recollect the American Revolution as being less popular than it was in.
Even more to the point, if you study the history of events leading up to the Revolution, you know how wildly popular opinion swung as events either drove people toward the cause or away from it.
In the end, I don’t think the Revolution would have ended the way it did without the support of the people, especially the latter third.
*I’m still trying to figure out who James Lloyd was. He might have been this Senator from Massachusetts. Anybody know for sure?