Happy Fourth! Today we welcome a guest post from Craig Bruce Smith, author of American Honor: The Creation of the Nation’s Ideals during the Revolutionary Era.
The American Revolution was not only a revolution for liberty and freedom, it was also a revolution of ethics, reshaping what colonial Americans understood as “honor” and “virtue.” As Craig Bruce Smith demonstrates, these concepts were crucial aspects of Revolutionary Americans’ ideological break from Europe and shared by all ranks of society. Focusing his study primarily on prominent Americans who came of age before and during the Revolution—notably John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and George Washington—Smith shows how a colonial ethical transformation caused and became inseparable from the American Revolution, creating an ethical ideology that still remains.
American Honor is available now in both print and ebook editions.
The Minds and Hearts of the People
As we celebrate the Fourth of July and the founding of the United States, it’s worth considering why John Adams, though being on the committee responsible for creating the Declaration of Independence, would downplay the “spirit of 1776.” The American Revolution was more than a war or a single document, and much bigger than one date.
Eighty-three-year-old former president John Adams, writing from his home in Quincy, Massachusetts in 1818, reflected back on the path to American independence. He asked, “But what do We mean by the American Revolution? Do We mean the American War?” Instead he concluded that, “The Revolution was effected before the War commenced. The Revolution was in the Minds and Hearts of the People.”
This “minds and hearts” phrase was a common theme for Adams. Three years earlier, he wrote, “The Revolution was in the Minds and Hearts of the People, and in the Union of the Colonies, both of which were Substantially effected before Hostilities commenced.”
Rather than remembering the Revolution as only conducted with muskets and cannons on battlefields or with quills and debates in state houses, Adams painted a portrait of a cultural and intellectual movement that pervaded all elements of American society. When Adams said the Revolution was in “the Minds and Hearts of the People,” he meant that the cause of liberty was not only driven by elite politicians or military officers, but one that sprang from Americans of all classes in a shared common cause.
The Revolution was a “great intellectual moral and political Change,” wrote the Massachusetts-born lawyer. While the political change from monarchy through the adopting of the Declaration of Independence and later the US Constitution are obvious, Adams believed the Revolution was an idea, a belief, and a collection of “feelings” before it became something politically tangible and put down in writing.
Adams’ idea that the Revolution existed first and foremost in Americans’ hearts and minds has been repeatedly quoted over the centuries. However, these reminisces were written in the early nineteenth century, over four decades after the Battles of Lexington and Concord. As a result, they have recently become easy targets for dismissal. For skeptics with a view towards an elitist and exclusionary American Revolution, Adams is nothing more than an old man glorifying his youthful deeds and nostalgically aggrandizing the spirit of equality. But how does that view change when considering that Adams made a nearly identical claim at the height of the war?
In 1777, John Adams, then a delegate to the Second Continental Congress, wrote to his wife and confidant Abigail, “how deeply this Cause had sunk into the Minds and Hearts of the People.”
Adams traveled frequently around the country, interacting with numerous people from all walks of life. Citing his interactions, of which he “could write you many Anecdotes in Proof,” Adams humorously mentioned a landlady letting him and any “raised up by Providence to be the Saviours of their Country” stay for free as indisputable evidence of his claim. An eyewitness to countless moments in the nation’s founding, Adams professed “every Thing I see and hear, indicates the same Thing.”
Given their long history, Adams’ observations need to be taken seriously. They suggest an expansive definition of just who was a patriot. Adams points to an American Revolution that was not elitist or exclusionary, but one that could be and was embraced widely by a diverse group of Americans.
But if the Revolution predated the start of the war in April 1775 and thereby the Declaration of Independence (signed over a year later), what does that mean for the Fourth of July?
Naturally, Americans have, will, and still rightly celebrate the Declaration today and every July 4th, despite Adams belief that July 2nd (the date of its approval) should be the date of commemoration, rather than the day of its signing. But these Adams quotations point to more expansive and deeper roots of the American Revolution — more than the battlefields or poetic prose offered by Thomas Jefferson.
Does this challenge the place of the Fourth of July as a national holiday? Not at all. But as Nike pulls a sneaker that features Betsey Ross’s famous thirteen stars and stripes, a George Washington mural comes down in a San Francisco school, and the city of Charlottesville, Virginia bans Thomas Jefferson’s birthday as a holiday, it should give pause to all Americans and ask them to consider the ideals of the American Revolution more than one day a year.
Craig Bruce Smith is the author of American Honor: The Creation of the Nation’s Ideals during the Revolutionary Era and an assistant professor of history at William Woods University. For more: www.craigbrucesmith.com Follow him on Twitter: @craigbrucesmith