Wednesday, July 11, 2012


"The American Revolution and the Minority Myth"

In the 1980s I read Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States and I remember being surprised, yet credulous, when I read in chapter five: "John Adams had estimated a third opposed, a third in support, a third neutral." The estimate, according to Zinn, was in reference to colonial/American support for the Revolutionary War while it was ongoing or in its immediate aftermath. The claim can be found on page 77 of the hardcover, 20th anniversary edition of the book (HarperCollins, 1999). There are no annotations in the book and no primary source reference to Adams in the bibliography to chapter five so it is unclear what Zinn's source on Adams was.

Below you will find excerpts (notes omitted) from "The American Revolution and the Minority Myth" attributed to William F. Marina and purportedly published on January 1, 1975 in Modern Age. Marina does not cite Zinn but he does cite Herbert Aptheker as a "Marxist" historian who "exposed the myth, certainly in terms of the misreading of the letter of Adams." I make note of Marina's mention of Aptheker because a different work by Aptheker is the first source in Zinn's bibliography to chapter five.
THE AMERICAN PEOPLE are now in the midst of a great celebration of the Bicentennial of the American Revolution. It is tragic that this celebration is giving added emphasis in the mind of the general public to at least one myth which a few historians have tried without apparently great success to lay to rest. That failure says much about the present state of the academy in this country and the virtual breakdown of communications within and between important segments of the society.

The widespread, persistent, and dangerous myth to which I should like to call attention here is the notion that the American Revolution was carried out by only a minority of the people. The supposed source for such an estimate is John Adams. Among the many who have cited this view is Daniel Ellsberg, who called attention to "John Adams' [sic] well-known estimate that one third of the population in America supported the rebels, one third the British ... and one third were [sic] neutral." The history of this citation goes back to 1902, to George Sydney Fisher's, The True History of the American Revolution. It has been repeated countless times since then, in books, articles, and other media. Without attempting to give a comprehensive listing of citations since 1902, let me give just a few recent sources making this point, which will serve to demonstrate the persistence of the idea.

In 1971 it was mentioned by the colonial historian Darrett B. Rutman, the next year by Ellsberg, and, at a conference which I attended, by the conservative social critic Irving Kristol, as well as by Alistair Cooke in his "America" series on television, and the book of the same name, though Cooke changed the neutral third to one that did not "give a damn." In 1974 it was cited by Thomas H. Greene in his book on comparative social revolutions where he was in turn quoting Karl Deutsch; the next year several times by the columnist Sydney B. Harris, and, in the Bicentennial year in the excellent new study of the Revolution by Page Smith, which otherwise is a magnificent source to show the Revolution was a majority movement (he reconciles this by saying Adams was referring to the beginning of the Revolution). The above examples ought to be sufficient to make the point that this view is widespread and has considerable appeal to many intellectuals.

When any citation is offered for this "well known" estimate, it is to a letter which Adams wrote to James Lloyd, dated January, 1813 [sic; the letter is actually dated January, 1815 -VFPD]. A close examination of that letter should convince an intelligent reader that John Adams never said any such thing! It is clear that Adams, in point of fact, was writing about American opinion of the French Revolution [1789–1792 -VFPD] and the subsequent struggle between England and France which had a considerable impact on the United States in the 1790's during the period of his presidency from 1797 to 1801.
My own reading of John Adams' letter to James Lloyd is that Marina and Aptheker got it right, Zinn and the others got it wrong. In the work cited by Marina, The American Revolution, 1763-1783 (New York: International Publishers, 1960), Aptheker (pp. 53-54) does indeed refute the minority support reading of the Adams letter to Lloyd. Later, referring to an 1815 letter from Adams to Dr. Jedidiah Morse, Aptheker concludes:
[John Adams -VFPD] says nothing at all about indifference and neutrality; rather the inference from his letter would appear to be that he felt that (approximately) seventy percent of the American population favored the Revolutionary cause. ... My own view would go along with that kind of a reading of this Adams letter, and I agree with Professor Alden that a clear majority of the colonial population favored the revolutionary effort.
O1 May 2016 Addendum: In an August 31, 1813, letter to Thomas McKean, Adams writes:
You say that at the time of the 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.

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