Commentary Magazine

The Spirit of '75?

On July 30, 1815, John Adams wrote to Thomas Jefferson: “Who shall write the history of the American revolution? Who can write it? Who will ever be able to write it?” With Benjamin Franklin and George Washington, Adams and Jefferson are the most renowned of the Founding Fathers. Although both Adams and Jefferson were consummate political men and men of parts, neither was a man of action in the manner of Washington, who was the young nation’s supreme war hero before becoming a statesman. Not martial prowess but eloquence and intellectual combativeness were their life’s blood. These two men, learned in many ways and endowed with extraordinary energy, wanted to know and to do everything—except engage in combat, which they left to those who were better suited. And yet they agreed, some 40 years after the events that made them immortal, that the true and full account of these events would be impossible to write. Replying to Adams on August 10, 1815, Jefferson answered his friend’s question: “Nobody.” He added that all the Revolution’s “councils, designs and discussions, having been conducted by Congress with closed doors, and no member, as far as I know, having even made notes of them, these, which are the life and soul of history, must for ever be unknown.”

The two great statesmen believed that the real history of their country’s founding revolution consisted in what they and the other great (if less great) statesmen who deliberated on policy in Congress had to say. These intellectual prodigies believed that their words shaped events more tellingly than did their countrymen’s bravery on the battlefield. In their reckoning, the names of places and events redolent of American military heroism—Lexington and Concord, Bunker Hill, the crossing of the Delaware, Valley Forge—should figure less prominently in our history than the political ideas that undergird the Republic. And that is pretty much how it has been.

The words of political men of genius, who make or who write history, can indeed be potent as mighty deeds, and can live as long, or longer. In a 1777 letter to his nine-year-old son, John Quincy, Adams observes that the boy will probably find their country’s current war more interesting in years to come, and that future wars, too, will occupy his attention, so that he ought to prepare early “for the Part which may be allotted you to act on the Stage of Life.” He continues: “There is no History, perhaps, better adapted to this usefull Purpose than that of Thucydides….You will find it full of Instruction to the Orator, the Statesman, the General, as well as to the Historian and the Philosopher.” The lesson is clear: The leading men of the American republic must be passionate, meticulous, purposeful intellectuals.

In Thucydides’s history of the Peloponnesian War, we read Pericles’s funeral oration. The great Greek leader pointedly declares that he will not speak of the military achievements of Athens but emphasize “by what form of government we have advanced the state to this greatness.” That form of government, furnishing “a pattern to others,” is democracy: All Athenian citizens stand equal before the law, men’s virtue rather than accident of birth determines the “conferring of dignities,” and each man is free to follow “his own humor,” without fear of his fellow citizens’ disapproval. The genius of the Athenian lawgivers ultimately inspires the men who fight so fiercely for the city, and are willing to die for her.

Here is the teaching that informs Adams’s and Jefferson’s understanding of their own role in history: They are the indispensable men of their time, and are indeed men for all time; the words they have spoken and written shall be the pattern for countless generations to come, in America and in the rest of the world, which will take the fledgling Republic as its model of equality and freedom.

Such a mood of exaltation overtook Adams as the signing of the Declaration approached that he wrote his wife Abigail: “The Second Day of July 1776, will be the most memorable Epocha, in the History of America.—I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated, by succeeding Generations, as the great anniversary Festival. It ought to be commemorated, as the Day of Deliverance by solemn Acts of Devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with Pomp and Parade, with Shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more.”

Adams miscalculated slightly: The vote for independence took place on July 2, but the final text of the Declaration was ratified and sent to the printer on the Glorious Fourth. Although Adams goes on to allow that a fearsome struggle awaits before the states are truly independent, that prospect does not dent his enthusiasm. His is the dauntless extravagant Spirit of ’76, and he was prescient in his assertion that Americans shall always revere, above any other day, the one in which the Founders declared independence was ours. Now everyone celebrates the Fourth of July; relatively few recall that war went on into 1781 and the peace treaty with Britain was not signed until 1783. The Founders’ words, and especially those of Jefferson in the Declaration—though his original draft was extensively revised by committee—have overshadowed the sacrifices and victories of America’s soldiers that actually secured independence.

The history of the American Founding has been principally that of a select band of outstanding men, with the emphasis on their blazing words rather than on martial valor. Popular biographies of the Founders abound, many of them estimable, by journalists such as Richard Brookhiser, professors such as Joseph J. Ellis and Daniel Boorstin, and the dean of serious large-public historians, David McCullough. Works that focus on the provenance of the documents that ordered the republican regime—what Jefferson and Adams and Hamilton and Madison read, and how that influenced what they wrote—have come to occupy pride of place among the academic histories written in the past century. Carl Becker’s The Declaration of Independence: A Study in the History of Political Ideas (1922) highlights the natural-rights tradition derived from John Locke that pervaded the mental world of the 18th century and colored Jefferson’s every word in the Declaration. Forrest McDonald’s Novus Ordo Seclorum (1985) demonstrates how deeply the Founders and Framers were steeped in Greek and Roman history, English political institutions and common law, and political theory; at the Constitutional Convention in 1787–88, they delivered hours-long disquisitions on these subjects and their significance for the nascent American regime. 

An ambitious new book by Kevin Phillips called 1775: A Good Year for Revolution (Viking, 656 pages), defies the prevailing wisdom. Not the select heroes of 1776 but the forgotten multitudes of 1775, Phillips maintains, deserve the honor belonging to the Founders. Phillips argues: “In many respects, 1775 was more important than 1776. The earlier year’s cocky optimism, its advance guard of hundreds of new grassroots Patriot committees, its political gambles, and its unsung military successes enabled and entrenched de facto American independence.” He contends that the Revolution arose from the passions of ordinary people, whose desire to get out from under the British boot heel had many causes, varying from colony to colony, from one religious denomination to another, from one trade or profession to the next.

Phillips’s account mostly ignores all the leading men of the time but one. Samuel Adams, John Adams’s cousin, whom Phillips calls “the Patriot faction’s leading Machiavellian,” manned the controls of public discontent against British taxation in Massachusetts. Britain responded to the uproar by deploying 4,000 armed redcoats in Boston, a city of 15,000, and on March 5, 1770, eight British soldiers, threatened by an agitated crowd, opened fire and killed five. Samuel Adams played the impact of the Boston Massacre shrewdly, leading the outcry to have the British garrison removed from the city, while calling on his cousin John to defend the shooters in court.

In October 1772, he initiated the Boston Committee of Correspondence, to establish communication among Massachusetts’s hundreds of towns. This quietly subversive system spread word among New Englanders of “a hundred rights of which they had never heard before and a hundred grievances which they never before had felt.” By 1774—Phillips describes “a long 1775,” which extends from the previous year into the spring of the year after—there were committees in most Massachusetts towns, and other colonies followed their example in due course, eventually forming what one scholar, cited by Phillips, calls “the most formidable revolutionary machine that was created during the American Revolution.”

The Boston Tea Party of December 1773, in which patriots disguised as Indians dumped £13,000 worth of tea into Boston Harbor to protest against the tea tax and the East India Company’s monopoly on importation, bore Samuel Adams’s imprint. And he conducted the aftermath with political mastery, writing a speech that John Hancock delivered on the fourth anniversary of the Boston Massacre that called for a Continental Congress, pointed out the virtues for a well-ordered militia, and steeled Massachusetts for war. The British followed in short order with the Coercive Acts, gutting local government in Massachusetts, giving the British military governor oppressive new powers, and permitting officers of the Crown charged with capital crimes to be tried in England. American patriots dubbed these the Intolerable Acts, and for many this was the affront that would not stand.

Nothing less than righteous bloodshed would do. “Such was the arousal and spirit of 1775 that rage militaire—a patriotic furor, a passion for arms—swept the thirteen colonies that spring and summer, giving the American Revolution its martial assurance and its vital, if somewhat delusionary, early momentum,” Phillips writes. The actions of nameless fighting men would precede the canonical fighting words of those few commonly known as the leading revolutionaries.

At Lexington and Concord, on April 19, Massachusetts militia encountered British infantry and Royal Marines sent to destroy American military stores, and the Americans pursued the redcoats back to Boston, inflicting serious pain. According to legend, one of the Minutemen valiantly commenced hostilities with the “shot heard round the world.” But since the First Continental Congress in the previous year had decreed that the other colonies would come to Massachusetts’s aid only if the British drew first blood, Samuel Adams promptly went to work to establish in the public record that the redcoats had fired first. Newspapers from New York to Georgia swiftly carried the reports, often spiced with apocryphal details of British atrocities.

There was no stopping the war now. In June, the British won the Battle of Bunker Hill, but at an extortionate cost in casualties; the battle inflamed both sides. Congress named Washington commander-in-chief of the Continental Army. King George III proclaimed the Americans were rebels. The Royal Navy took to seizing Yankee ships and bombarded coastal towns throughout New England. The Americans countered with highly maneuverable small craft such as whaleboats to bedevil large British warships, cumbersome and vulnerable in shallow waters. Eventually, patriot commotion in Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia compelled the royal governors to abandon their posts there and seek refuge aboard British ships. By the end of the year, only Boston remained under British control.

“This emphasis on arms, mass demonstrations, explosive trade goods, and even mob psychologies puts my pages somewhat at odds with John Adams’s famous contention of a more cerebral transformation,” Phillips writes. He tosses off a snide sketch of “the rotund Massachusetts lawyer” who never served in a militia and fought strictly with reasoned arguments. John Adams failed to comprehend, in Phillips’s words, “the continuum, the seamlessness, between war and politics that…many others have perceived and explained.”

The story Phillips tells, as he says himself, was not unknown, only insufficiently studied, at least in sum. He has compiled his account of 1775 from hundreds of specialized secondary sources—monographs mostly by obscure scholars that gathered dust for years in library stacks. It is an impressive synthesis. But he is given to overstatement—a problem he has had throughout his decades-long career as a contemporary political analyst—and has critical blind spots. It is true enough that John Adams attributed a greater importance to the Founders’ words than to feats of arms. But Phillips nevertheless underestimates the political men of ’76—the talkers, the writers. “Bluntly put,” Phillips writes, “much of ‘the history’ of the American Revolution suffers from distortion and omission tied to the twentieth century’s excessive immersion in 1776 as a moral and ideological starting point.”

Yet it is not the 20th century that enshrined the great political men of 1776, and particularly the words of July 4, as the most significant in our country’s history. Abraham Lincoln did it at Gettysburg: “Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”

Lincoln, the greatest of war presidents even though he (like Adams) never served in a war, invoked the Spirit of ’76 again and again as he strove to fulfill for all Americans the unmet promise of the Declaration. “I have never had a feeling politically that did not spring from the sentiments embodied in the Declaration of Independence,” he said at Independence Hall on February 22, 1861.

I have often pondered over the dangers which were incurred by the men who assembled here and adopted the Declaration of Independence—I have pondered over the toils that were endured by the officers and soldiers of the army, who achieved that Independence. I have often inquired of myself, what great principle or idea it was that kept the Confederacy so long together. It was not the mere matter of the separation of the colonies from the mother land; but something in that Declaration giving liberty, not alone to the people of this country, but hope to the world for all future time. It was that which gave promise that in due time the weights should be lifted from the shoulders of all men, and that all should have an equal chance. This is the sentiment embodied in that Declaration of Independence.

 These momentous words honor Jefferson’s momentous words, embodying the “great principle or idea” that united the states for so long. More than 25,000 Americans lost their lives in the Revolution—nearly 1 percent of the population. In our nation’s history, only the carnage of the Civil War has exceeded that proportion. Many more have sacrificed their lives since then so that the Founders’ proposition, to which the United States was dedicated at its conception, should be preserved here and sown throughout the world. Few words have ever had such an impact upon the course of universal history. The men who wrote and signed them must be remembered among the political geniuses of all time. There have been rebellions throughout history. There was a rebellion in 1775. The spirit of democratic revolution is preeminently the Spirit of ’76.

About the Author

Algis Valiunas is a frequent contributor to Commentary and a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

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