While there has yet to be a female president, first ladies have been important in shaping many presidencies and their policies. In the start of a new series, Kate Murphy Schaefer goes back to the late 18th century and considers the importance of Abigail Adams to America and Founding Father John Adams.

A painting of Abigail Adams by Gilbert Stuart.

A painting of Abigail Adams by Gilbert Stuart.

With the recent passing of former first lady Barbara Bush, Americans are once again allowed to indulge in a favorite pastime: memorializing and waxing rhapsodic about their most public citizens. This is second only to the most popular pastime: ridiculing those same citizens for what they did and did not do. Presidents are elected; to some degree they understand and accept the level of scrutiny they will be under for the rest of their lives. First ladies are, as Barbara Bush’s daughter-in-law Laura said, “elected by one man,” but have to live under the same microscope as their husbands.[1]

A first lady must be “a showman and a salesman, a clotheshorse and a publicity sounding board, with a good heart, and a real interest in the folks,” explained Lady Bird Johnson.[2] If any of those traits seem contradictory, that is the point. There are no set guidelines outlining a first lady’s role and duties, but Americans expect them to conform to expectations that change quickly and often. Within this White-House-shaped cage, they are judged for what they wore, said, and did, and also for what they did not wear, say, or do.

Still, first ladies are privileged because their words and actions are considered important enough to include in the historical record. For most of American history, women were expected to be silent observers as men shaped the world in which they lived. Their stories were beneath notice, and therefore ignored and forgotten. America’s earliest first ladies were considered important because they were connected to important men. Abigail Smith Adams, wife of President John Adams, provides an excellent example.

 

The Political “Pest”

Born in 1744, Abigail Smith was raised in a family that was politically aware and active. Her maternal grandfather, John Quincy, held several positions in the Massachusetts government and encouraged his daughter and granddaughters to keep abreast of what was going on in the world outside the home. She was not formally educated, but her correspondence demonstrates she was extremely well-read and had an agile, searching mind. “In an age when women were content to take a backseat to their husbands and keep their mouths shut,” wrote historian Cormac O’Brien, “Abigail gave free rein to her extraordinary intellect.”[3]

Abigail was most outspoken in her correspondence with husband John. When Adams left for Philadelphia for the Continental Congress in 1776, he left a very curious wife at home. Abigail “pestered the politicians for news” and asked her husband for updates in lengthy letters. “(T)ell me if you may where your Fleet are gone? What sort of Defence Virginia can make against our common Enemy? Whether it is situated as to make an able Defence?” she asked in a letter dated March 31, 1776.[4] She was a stalwart defender of the Revolution and her husband, and was emboldened by her husband’s respect for her views. One of her most famous letters encouraged her husband to “remember the ladies” in the drafting of the Declaration of Independence.

 

“Remember the Ladies”

                  “(I)n the new Code of Laws which I suppose it will be necessary for you to make I desire you would Remember the Ladies, and be more generous and favourable to them than your ancestors. Do not put such unlimited power in the hands of the Husbands. Remember all Men could be tyrants if they could.”[5]

 

In three sentences, Adams set forth the radical idea that protection under the law also applied to women. Use of the word tyrant was deliberate and effective, recalling John Locke’s warning that “wherever law ends, tyranny begins.”[6] She intimated American men were no better than the British if they did not include the needs and opinions of women in the nation they created. She went so far as to predict women would “foment a Rebelion (sic)” if the new government did not grant them a voice, prompting John’s reply, “(a)s to your extraordinary Code of Laws, I cannot but laugh.”[7]

The female rebellion did not come to pass, but the Adams’ correspondence laid bare a distressing truth about the American experiment. Revolution created a new nation, but not a new society. Race, class, and gender narrowed the founders’ definition of who was entitled to the rights of life, liberty, and property. They overthrew the British colonial “tyrants” and took up the mantle themselves. “I have sometimes been ready to think that the Passion for Liberty cannot be Eaqually (sic) Strong in the Breasts of those who have been accustomed to deprive their fellow Creatures of theirs,” wrote Abigail.[8] These liberal views were exceptionally progressive during her time. It can be argued they were progressive two hundred years later as women campaigned for equal protection under the law with the Equal Rights Amendment.

Her opinions on women’s rights kept private, it was Abigail’s vocal support of her husband, that “tireless promoter of liberty and…abrasive pain in the ass,” that most influenced popular opinion of the first lady.[9] As Adams and Thomas Jefferson squared off in the 1790s, Abigail was often caught in the crossfire. Her perceived influence on the President was exaggerated and therefore useful to political adversaries. They had no problem remembering the lady, calling her “Mrs. President” behind her back and arguing behind closed doors that she had “queenly aspirations.”[10]

 

“My pen runs riot”

By 1797, Abigail well understood her position’s lack of privacy. “My pen runs riot. I forget that it must grow cautious and prudent. I fear I shall make a dull business when such restrictions are laid upon it.”[11] Her fear was unfounded as she most certainly did not find being first lady a “dull business.” She expressed relief to finally leave the public eye when her husband left office. She never fully left the limelight, however. The first lady became “first mother” upon the election of her son President John Quincy Adams, namesake of the grandfather who had inspired her so many years before.

Abigail Adams spoke at a time women were supposed to be silent, and was politically aware when women were supposed to look no further than home and hearth. Her mind and opinions were extraordinary, so we are lucky her words were preserved. We should not forget that she was included in the historical record because of her connection to a powerful man. Though Abigail was far from ornamental in life, historians rendered her so after death. As historians continue studying the founding of our nation, they must work to “remember the ladies,” understanding the roles women played could be both hidden and important. For every woman recorded in the history books, the names and contributions of thousands more were lost. Would including women’s stories fundamentally alter our historical understanding of the American Revolution and the Early Republic? Probably not. But remembering the ladies would add new life to a history too long seen as cut and dried.

 

What do you think of the article? Let us know below.

 

[1] Laura Bush quoted in Kate Anderson Bower, First Women: The Grace and Power of America’s Modern First Ladies (New York: Harper Collins, 2017), 7.

[2] Lady Bird Johnson quoted in Ibid, 4.

[3] Cormac O’Brien, Secret Lives of the First Ladies (Philadelphia: Quirk Books, 2005), 18.

[4] “Letter from Abigail Adams to John Adams, 31 March - 5 April 1776,” Adams Family Papers: An Electronic Archive, Massachusetts Historical Society, https://www.masshist.org/digitaladams/archive/doc?id=L17760331aa.

[5] Ibid.

[6] John Locke, “Chapter XVIII: Of Tyranny,” Two Treatises of Government, Book II, section 202.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] O’Brien, 21.

[10] Ibid.

[11] “Letter from Abigail Adams to John Adams, 29 January 1797,” Adams Family Papers: An Electronic Archive, Massachusetts Historical Society, https://www.masshist.org/digitaladams/archive/doc?id=L17970129aa.

Sources Cited

Bower, Kate Anderson. First Women: The Grace and Power of America’s Modern First Ladies. New York: Harper Collins, 2017.

“Letter from Abigail Adams to John Adams, 31 March - 5 April 1776,” Adams Family Papers: An Electronic Archive, Massachusetts Historical Society, https://www.masshist.org/digitaladams/archive/doc?id=L17760331aa.

“Letter from Abigail Adams to John Adams, 29 January 1797,” Adams Family Papers: An Electronic Archive, Massachusetts Historical Society, https://www.masshist.org/digitaladams/archive/doc?id=L17970129aa.

Locke, John. Two Treatises of Government. (1689).

O’Brien, Cormac. Secret Lives of the First Ladies. Philadelphia: Quirk Books, 2005.

Posted
AuthorGeorge Levrier-Jones

In 1788, John Adams left London, never to return to Europe. His son, John Quincy Adams, would assume his father’s post at the Court of Saint James 27 years later. While both men represented the United States in Great Britain after wars, JQA had a more successful time in establishing stronger ties between the two nations than his father had. This article by Steve Strathmann follows the first in the series here and details the ups-and-downs of John Quincy Adams’ time in London.

 

The Experienced Diplomat

John Quincy Adams first came to Europe with his father during the Revolutionary War. In addition to working for his father, he spent three years in Russia serving as secretary for an American mission at the tender age of fourteen. After graduating from Harvard, he was appointed Minister to the Netherlands by George Washington. During his time in The Hague, he travelled frequently to London on business, where he met his future wife Louisa Johnson, the American daughter of a Maryland father and English mother. In fact, the church where they were married, the Church of All Hallows Barking, still stands today near the Tower of London and has a plaque outside marking the occasion.

JQA would later serve terms as American minister to Prussia and Russia. While at St. Petersburg, he was asked to join the American group negotiating to end the War of 1812. After the Treaty of Ghent was signed, he hoped to return home, but was asked to serve as President Madison’s Minister to the Court of St. James. The offer was too tempting for Adams to refuse and he crossed the English Channel in May 1815.

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   John Quincy Adams by Gilbert Stuart, 1818 (The White House Historical Association) .

John Quincy Adams by Gilbert Stuart, 1818 (The White House Historical Association).


Official Relations with Britain

John Quincy Adams presented his credentials to the Prince Regent on June 8, 1815. The prince did not seem prepared for the meeting, at one point even asking if JQA “was related to Mr. Adams, who had formerly been the Minister from the United States here.” The new minister established an office on Charles Street and rented a house outside of London in the village of Ealing. While in Britain, John Quincy and Louisa would have their whole family (sons George, John and Charles) together for the first time in six years.

Adams maintained good relationships with both Prime Minister Lord Liverpool and Foreign Secretary Lord Castlereagh. His primary mission was to help negotiate a treaty of commerce with the British. The result of these negotiations would only be a commercial convention, but the Americans did make some gains. These included a prohibition on discriminatory duties, the opening of British East Indies ports to American shipping and ‘most favored nation’ status for the United States.

There were still outstanding issues left over between the two nations after the War of 1812. These included the impressment of sailors, the return of slaves that fled to the West Indies with British help during the war, and the opening of Canadian waters to American fishermen. Castlereagh said in response that these were issues that could be dealt with at a later date when the Anglo-American relationship was stronger. Adams did not press the foreign secretary, especially over the escaped slaves. A life-long abolitionist, Adams only brought up the topic because his diplomatic instructions called for it.

One area where significant gains were made was on the Canadian border of the United States. On January 16 and March 21 of 1816, Adams proposed to Castlereagh that there should be a reduction of arms on the Great Lakes. The foreign secretary agreed and the negotiations that followed led to the Rush-Bagot Agreement of 1817. This pact reduced the two lake fleets to four ships apiece that were to primarily deal with customs issues. This agreement was “the first reciprocal naval disarmament in the history of international relations”, according to historian Samuel Flagg Bemis. Others have added that it is also the most successful and longest-lasting deal of its kind.

 

Outside the Office

In addition to his good relations with Liverpool and Castlereagh, Adams struck up friendships with other notable Brits. One was the philosopher Jeremy Bentham. Though the two men had differing views on certain topics, they became friends due to their appreciation of each other’s intellect. John Quincy and Louisa also were invited to a wedding held at the Duke of Wellington’s home.

Adams enjoyed going to the theater and opera in London, especially to see the works of William Shakespeare. He read Shakespeare often, and his diaries contain reviews of London performances of Richard the Third and A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

John Quincy and Louisa were thrilled to have their family together and being able to watch their sons’ growth. George and John were enrolled in an Ealing boarding school, while Charles attended school during the day. While he loved his boys, JQA worried that they did not focus enough on their studies. According to biographer Fred Kaplan, he hoped that someday they “would be his intellectual companions” much like he was to his father.

Unfortunately, Adams did have to deal with some health issues during his London tenure. He injured his writing hand and also had several eye infections. These afflictions were especially hard on a man who was a vociferous reader and writer. Louisa helped during this period by taking dictation and reading aloud to her husband. Adams eventually healed and was able to resume all of his diplomatic duties.

In April 1817, Adams received a message from President James Monroe, asking him to return to Washington and become Secretary of State. Though John Quincy hesitated, the rest of his family were excited about the prospect of returning to the United States, including his elderly parents. He eventually decided that he would accept the cabinet post, and on June 10, 1817, the family left London for the long journey home.

In 1861, Charles Francis Adams would return to take the post that his father and grandfather held before him. His primary duty: keep the British out of the American Civil War. But that’s for next time…

 

We shall have the next article in this series next month.

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Sources

Kaplan, Fred. John Quincy Adams: American Visionary. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2014.

Remini, Robert V. John Quincy Adams. New York: Times Books, 2002.

Unger, Harlow Giles. John Quincy Adams. Boston: De Capo Press, 2012.

Posted
AuthorGeorge Levrier-Jones

Thomas Jefferson is today known as one of America’s greater presidents. So much so that both Democrats and Republicans claim him as their own. But he also undertook another remarkable feat – he re-wrote the Gospels to make them less miraculous. William Bodkin explains.

 

Few people in American history have been picked over as much as Thomas Jefferson. Of the Founding Fathers, he is considered second only to George Washington, and of the presidents, only Abraham Lincoln may have had more written about him. This is all with good reason. Jefferson, alongside John Adams, formed the original American frenemies; together they forged the creative relationship that gave birth to the United States. Their influence, and conflicts, remain to this day. The United States runs for political office in the language of Jefferson, that of personal freedom and self-determination, but governs in the language of Adams, that of a technocratic elite managing a strong central government.

A portrait of Thomas Jefferson. Circa 1791.

A portrait of Thomas Jefferson. Circa 1791.

In my last post, I considered John Adams’ Declaration of Independence, the May 15, 1776 resolution he believed to be the real Declaration, consigning Jefferson’s to a mere ceremonial afterthought.[1] Adams, eyes firmly locked on posterity, seemed to compete for immortality with Jefferson. However, despite recent efforts to rehabilitate the image of the second president, Adams, who knew he had made himself obnoxious to his colleagues[2], has largely lost this battle.

Jefferson, by contrast, is beloved as the genius Founding Father whom everyone claims as their own.  The Democrats revere him for founding their party, one of the oldest in the world. The Republicans, and the tea party movement in particular, love to quote his language of personal freedom and revolution, like invoking his statement that “the tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.”[3] All agree that his “ceremonial afterthought” should be celebrated for all time.

And yet, though he has won history’s affections, there’s an excellent chance Jefferson would be irritated by being worshiped or followed today.  After all, Jefferson had “sworn eternal hostility” against “any form of tyranny over the mind of man,”[4] believing that one generation of humanity could not bind another with its ideas, or even its laws. Jefferson said that it was “self-evident” that “the earth belongs to the living.”[5] Indeed, were he alive today, he would probably encourage us to discard things such as the “original intent” of the Founding Fathers much in the same way he discarded the work of the Evangelists who wrote the Christian Gospels.

 

REWRITING THE GOSPELS

Jefferson was not known for his devotion to religion. Abigail Adams wrote, after Jefferson had defeated her husband John Adams for the presidency, that the young nation had “chosen as our chief Magistrate a man who makes no pretensions to the belief of an all wise and supreme Governor of the World.” Mrs. Adams did not think Jefferson was an atheist. Rather, Jefferson believed religion to only be as “useful as it may be made a political Engine” and that its rituals were a mere charade. Mrs. Adams concluded that Jefferson was “not a believer in the Christian system.”[6]

Jefferson, who always professed a high regard for the teachings of Jesus, found the Gospels to be “defective as a whole,” with Jesus’ teachings “mutilated, misstated, and often unintelligible.”[7] Jefferson seemed most offended by the accounts of miracles. The Gospels could be improved, he concluded, by removing the magical thinking - that is, anything that could not be explained by human reason.

Following his presidency, Jefferson reconciled with John Adams once Adams had recovered from the bitter sting of presidential defeat. Jefferson confided in his old friend about the project he had undertaken to rewrite the Gospels. Jefferson wrote to Adams that “by cutting verse by verse out of the printed book,” he was able to separate out “the matter which is evidently his (Jesus’),” which Jefferson found to be “as distinguishable as diamonds in a dunghill.”[8] Adams responded favorably to Jefferson’s project, commenting “if I had eyes and nerves I would go through both Testaments and mark all that I understand.”[9]

Jefferson, though, was not finished. He believed the effort he described to Adams was “too hastily done”.  It had been “the work of one or two evenings only, while I lived in Washington.”[10] Think, for a moment, how astounding that is. Jefferson’s first effort at reworking the Gospels came while he “lived in Washington,” meaning while he was president. So for fun, after steering the American ship of state, he rewrote the Gospels.

 

A NEW WAY OF THINKING

While working on his second Gospel revision, Jefferson described his complete disdain for the Evangelists. He found their work to be underpinned by “a groundwork of vulgar ignorance, of things impossible, of superstitions, fanaticisms and fabrications.” Yet he still believed that “intermixed with these” were “sublime ideas of the Supreme Being”, “aphorisms and precepts of the purest morality and benevolence,” that had been “sanctioned by a life of humility, innocence and simplicity of manners, neglect of riches, absence of worldly ambition and honors.” All had been expressed, by Jesus, “with an eloquence and persuasiveness which have not been surpassed.” Jefferson could not accept that Jesus’ purest teachings were the “inventions of the groveling authors who relate them.” Those teachings were “far beyond the powers of their feeble minds.” Yes, the Evangelists had shown that there was a character named Jesus, but his “splendid conceptions” could not be considered “interpolations from their hands.” To Jefferson, the task was clear once more. He would “undertake to winnow this grain from its chaff.”  It would not “require a moment's consideration”, as the difference “is obvious to the eye and to the understanding.”[11]

At the end of this process, Jefferson, in his seventy-sixth year, had completed his Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth, extracted from the Gospels in Greek, Latin, French & English, an account of the life of Jesus, bereft of any mention of the miraculous. No wedding feast at Cana, no resurrection of Lazarus, and ending with the disciples laying Jesus in the tomb, rolling a great stone to the door, and then departing.

Jefferson’s rewriting of the Gospels is a perfect distillation of his belief that each generation could take and shape the meaning of the Gospels, or really, anything, for their own purposes. Jefferson took these beliefs to his gravestone. Prior to his death, he chose to list there, of all his accomplishments, his three great contributions to the freedom of thought: “Author of the Declaration of American Independence and the Virginia Statutes on Religious Freedom; Father of the University of Virginia.” Jefferson hoped, perhaps, to inspire successive generations not to follow his words, but rather, to live by his example, and cast off the intellectual bonds of the past in order to create a new way of thinking.

 

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[1] See, Ellis, Joseph, Revolutionary Summer: The Birth of American Independence, Chapter 1 , “Prudence Dictates.” (Knopf 2013).

[2] Id.

[3] Letter of Thomas Jefferson to William Stephens Smith, Novmeber 13, 1787.

[4] Letter of Thomas Jefferson to Dr. Benjamin Rush, September 23, 1800.

[5] Letter of Thomas Jefferson to James Madison, September 6, 1789

[6] Letter of Abigail Adams to Mary Cranch (her sister) dated February 7, 1801.

[7] Jefferson, Thomas. “Syllabus of an estimate of the merit of the Doctrines of Jesus, compared with those of others.” College of William and Mary, Digital Archive (https://digitalarchive.wm.edu/handle/10288/15130).

[8]Letter of Thomas Jefferson to John Adams, October 13, 1813.

[9] Letter from John Adams to Thomas Jefferson, November 14, 1813.

[10] Letter from Thomas Jefferson to Rev. F.A. van der Kemp, May 25, 1816.

[11] Letter of Thomas Jefferson to William Short, August 4, 1820.

Posted
AuthorGeorge Levrier-Jones

John Adams was one of the Founding Fathers of the USA. After US independence was achieved, he served in a number of positions, including as the US Minister to Britain, a crucial role at the time. Here, Steve Strathmann looks at how Adams fared while in London.

 

After the American Revolution and throughout the nineteenth century, Anglo-American relations saw many highs and lows. While the United Kingdom and the United States only went to war once during this period (War of 1812), tensions were always close to the surface. This situation made the position of United States Minister to the Court of St. James’ one of the most important in the US State Department. Among the many men who held this post (including five future presidents), three members of the Adams family served in London at points during or after times of war. John, his son John Quincy and his grandson Charles Francis all faced challenges during their terms, but each contributed to the slow but steady strengthening of bonds between the British and their former American colonies. This first of three articles will deal with the first American minister to London, John Adams.

A portrait of John Adams, circa 1792. By John Trumbull.

A portrait of John Adams, circa 1792. By John Trumbull.

Meeting George III

At the time of his appointment to London in 1785, John Adams had been in Europe for about three years. During that period, he had served as ambassador to the Netherlands (a post he would continue to hold while in England) and served on the committee that negotiated the Treaty of Paris, which ended the war with Britain.

He presented his credentials to King George III on June 1, 1785. In his speech to the king, Adams stated that he hoped that he could help restore the “good old nature and good old humor between people who... have the same language, a similar religion, and kindred blood.”

John Adams later reported that George III seemed very affected by the meeting. In his response, the king stated that he was the last person to agree to the breakup between Great Britain and the American colonies. On the other hand, since it was now fact he “would be the first to meet the friendship of the United States as an independent power.”

 

Public Reception of Minister Adams

The choice of Adams as the chief American representative in Britain was widely scorned by the London press. This was no surprise, given Adams’ roles in promoting American independence and negotiating the treaty which achieved that end. According to historian Joseph J. Ellis, the press reaction to Adams was “much like the Vatican would have greeted the appointment of Martin Luther”. Adams took the way that some people acted towards him during his term as showing guilt and shame, as opposed to anger. He wrote in his diary after one awkward party in March 1786: “They feel that they have behaved ill, and that I am sensible of it.”

John’s wife, Abigail, had joined him in Europe. She helped fortify him against the attacks, but also had to deal with slights of her own. For example, the wife of an MP once asked her, “But surely you prefer this country to America?” John Adams’ official relations with British authorities were more cordial than with the press and some of the public, but that didn’t necessarily show up in any kind of diplomatic results.

 

Diplomatic Standoff

John Adams’ primary goals while in London were to settle violations of the Treaty of Paris and arrange a trade agreement between the two nations. Among the violations, British troops continued to occupy posts along the Great Lakes. When this was brought up to Foreign Minister Lord Carmarthen, he countered that prewar debts owed by American farmers to British creditors had yet to be paid, also a treaty violation. This is one example of the stalemate on treaty issues that Adams was unable to break during his tenure.

Adams also made no progress on a trade agreement with the British. The trade balance was firmly in London’s favor at this time. They felt no need to make concessions on items such as opening their West Indies ports to American ships. Unfortunately for Adams, he had just as many problems dealing with his own government as with Lord Carmarthen and the British.

This was because of the rules set forth under the Articles of Confederation. Congress had no power over foreign trade, so it could not help in arranging any trade agreement with Great Britain. The military was so weak under this system that it could do nothing about British forces on the Great Lakes even if it wanted to. Congress also proved slow in providing instructions to its ambassadors. In fact, when Adams requested to be relieved of his European posts in order to return home on January 24, 1787, Congress didn’t approve his request until October 5. Due to the slow pace of communications across the Atlantic Ocean, Adams didn’t receive this news until mid-December, almost a year after sending his request.

 

Progress Elsewhere

Though John Adams may have struggled in his negotiations with the British, this period was not unproductive for him. He, along with Thomas Jefferson, did finalize deals with several other nations. Prussia signed the only trade agreement that the Americans were able to complete during Adams’ term on August 8, 1786. A treaty with Morocco was signed in early 1787, in which the United States agreed to pay for the protection of American shipping. They also secured additional loans for the United States from the Dutch.

John Adams also made his thoughts known back home over the future of the United States government. The weakness of the Confederation Congress had led many to call for changes to, or an entire replacement of, the Articles of Confederation. Adams’ contribution to this debate was A Defense of the Constitutions of Government of the United States of America, which he had published in London and shipped to America. In this book, Adams argued for a bicameral legislature (as opposed to the single Confederation Congress) and an executive branch empowered to carry out the laws and defend the nation. The book was well received in the States, and James Madison wrote that it would be “a powerful engine in forming the public opinion.”

 

Return to America

John Adams made so little headway during his three years in London that his post would remain vacant for the next four years. In his final meeting with George III, the king assured him that when the Americans met their treaty obligations, his government would as well. After Adams left London on March 30, 1788, the Westminster Evening Post reported that he “settled all his concerns with great honor; and whatever his political tenets may have been, he was much respected and esteemed in this country.”

No one knew at the time, but this would not be the last time an Adams would represent his nation in the Court of St. James. In 1815, following another Anglo-American war, John Quincy Adams would assume his father’s former position in the diplomatic corps.

 

Read more about John Adams and why Independence Day may not actually be on July 4. Click here now!

References

Butterfield, L.H. et al., eds. Diary and Autobiography of John Adams, Vol. 3. Cambridge, MA: Belkamp Press of Harvard University Press, 1962.

Ellis, Joseph J. First Family: Abigail Adams & John. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2010.

Holton, Woody. Abigail Adams. New York: Free Press, 2009.

Madison, James. Volume 1 of Letters and Other Writings of James Madison. Philadelphia, PA: J.B. Lippincott & Company, 1865. Accessed June 21, 2014. http://books.google.com/.

McCullough, David. John Adams. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2001.

United States Department of State. “The United Kingdom-Countries-Office of the Historian.” http://history.state.gov/countries/united-kingdom. Accessed June 15, 2014.

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AuthorGeorge Levrier-Jones
CategoriesBlog Post

Was America’s independence really on July 4? Or was it actually on July 2? Or maybe May 15? Here, William Bodkin looks at John Adams’ life in 1776 and explains why American Independence Day may not really be on July 4…

 

The beginning of July brings with it the United States of America’s foremost holiday, Independence Day, on July Fourth. Some contrarians like to note, however, that the U.S. celebrates on the Fourth because it is the date written on the Declaration of Independence, while actual independence occurred on July 2, 1776, when the Continental Congress voted to approve the resolution declaring independence.

Voting for Independence during the Second Continental Congress.

Voting for Independence during the Second Continental Congress.

But to be a real contrarian, one could argue that “Independence Day” came not even in the month of July, but on May 15, 1776.  No less an authority than the Second President of the United States, John Adams, would likely agree, since he called a resolution the Congress passed on May 15, 1776 the “most important resolution that was ever taken in America.”[1]

What was the May 15 resolution? It was the preamble to a resolution that the Congress had previously passed on May 10, 1776.  It read:

Whereas his Britannic Majesty, in Conjunction with the Lords and Commons of Great Britain, has, by a late Act of Parliament, excluded the Inhabitants of these united Colonies from the Protection of his Crown and Whereas No Answer whatever has been given or is likely to be given to the humble Petitions of the Colonies for Redress of their Grievances and Reconciliation with Great Britain: but on the Contrary, the whole Force of the Kingdom, aided by foreign Mercenaries, is to be exerted for our Destruction

And Whereas it is irreconcileable to Reason and good Conscience, for the People of these Colonies to take the oaths and affirmations, necessary for the Support of any Government under the Crown of Great Britain and it is necessary that the Exercise of every Kind of Authority under the Said Crown should be totally Suppressed, and all the Powers of Government under the Authority of the People of the Colonies, exerted for the Preservation of internal Peace, Virtue and good order, as well as to defend our Lives, Liberties, and Properties, from the hostile Invasions, and cruel Depredations of our Enemies. Therefore, Resolved that it be recommended to the several Assemblies and Conventions, to institute such Forms of Government as to them Shall appear necessary, to promote the Happiness of the People.[2]

 

WHY MAY 15?

The prose is unmistakably Adams: bombastic and strident. The May 15 resolution indicts Great Britain’s King George III for his treatment of the colonies and sets forth the remedy that colonial citizens could institute new governments to promote the happiness of its people. But why May 15, 1776? The answer lies in the ongoing battle of wills between those colonial leaders, like Adams, who were vociferously promoting Independence, and those, like John Dickinson of Pennsylvania, who opposed it.

On May 10, 1776 Adams and Richard Henry Lee of Virginia introduced a resolution meant to support pro-independence colonists working to overthrow the colonial government of Pennsylvania, which, like its representative Dickinson, opposed Independence. Pennsylvania was a pivotal colony, as it strongly influenced the votes of the other middle colonies (New York, New Jersey, and Delaware). Since it opposed independence, writing and voting on a Declaration was close to impossible.[3]  As pro-independence militias prepared to march, Adams maneuvered to get the May 10 resolution passed. The May 10 resolution stated:

Resolved, That it be recommended to the respective assemblies and conventions of the United Colonies, where no government sufficient to the exigencies of their affairs have been hitherto established, to adopt such government as shall, in the opinion of the representatives of the people, best conduce to the happiness and safety of their constituents in particular, and America in general.[4]

 

Dickinson saw through Adams’ scheme. Instead of opposing it, however, he embraced it, arguing that the resolution could not possibly apply to his colony. Pennsylvania had a working representative government in place, one firmly committed to the rights of its citizens (but not independence from Great Britain). The resolution passed, with the understanding that Pennsylvania was exempt.[5]

But the Congress also agreed to the appointment of a three member committee to draft a preamble to the resolution made up of Adams, Lee and Edward Rutledge of South Carolina. May 10 was a Friday. Adams worked through the weekend, and on Monday, May 13, he returned with a draft of the May 15 resolution. The preamble clearly, unmistakably defined a “non-working” colonial government as one that was loyal to the King and his government. James Wilson of Pennsylvania argued against it, claiming that the Continental Congress was overreaching and that there would be uprisings in the streets of Philadelphia, where, of course, the Congress was assembled. Dickinson, who had so effectively thwarted the intent of the May 10 resolution, was absent from the Congress. Wilson’s arguments were in vain.[6]

 

A PLACE IN HISTORY

Adams, as always, was uniquely aware of his role in this unfolding history.  Following passage of the May 15 Resolution, he wrote to his wife Abigail:

[Great Britain] has at last driven America, to the last Step, a compleat Seperation from her, a total absolute Independence, not only of her Parliament but of her Crown, for such is the Amount of the Resolve of the 15th.

Confederation among ourselves, or Alliances with foreign Nations are not necessary, to a perfect Seperation from Britain. That is effected by extinguishing all Authority, under the Crown, Parliament and Nation as the Resolution for instituting Governments, has done, to all Intents and Purposes. Confederation will be necessary for our internal Concord, and Alliances may be so for our external Defence.

I have Reasons to believe that no Colony, which shall assume a Government under the People, will give it up. There is something very unnatural and odious in a Government 1000 Leagues off.  A whole Government of our own Choice, managed by Persons whom We love, revere, and can confide in, has charms in it for which Men will fight.[7]

 

May 15, 1776 was an important day in America’s walk toward independence, but was it the definitive one?  Perhaps, but Adams was perhaps more effusive in his assessment of July 2, 1776 and the passing of the resolution declaring independence, stating in a letter to his wife Abigail that

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.[8]

 

And while Adams was right about the annual celebrations commemorating American Independence, he was, of course, off by two days, due in no small part to Thomas Jefferson’s peerless prose in the Declaration of Independence, which defined the Americans’ struggle for the wider world and served as a foundational document for the burgeoning republic. Adams’ assessments of the events as they unfolded were not wrong, they simply serve to illustrate the difficulty, if not outright futility, of assessing history as it unfolds to determine which day will be viewed by subsequent generations as the definitive one of an era.

 

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1. Letter, John Adams to James Warren, May 15, 1776.  Papers of John Adams, Digital Collection, Volume 4 (www.masshist.org/digitaladams ).

2. Id.

3. Was May 15, 1776 Independence Day? Hysteriography, William Hogeland’s commentaries on populism, liberalis, and conservatism in American history, politics, and poetics (http://williamhogeland.wordpress.com)(“Hogeland”).

4. The Resolutions and Recommendations of Congress, Continental Congress May 10, 1776 (www.digitalhistory.uh.edu, Digital History ID 3940).

5. Hogeland

6. Hogeland

7. Letter from John Adams to Abigail Adams, 17 May 1776 [electronic edition]. Adams Family Papers: An Electronic Archive. Massachusetts Historical Society. (http://www.masshist.org/digitaladams/).

8. Letter from John Adams to Abigail Adams, 3 July 1776 [electronic edition]. Adams Family Papers: An Electronic Archive. Massachusetts Historical Society. (http://www.masshist.org/digitaladams/).