A comprehensive response to John Adams’ question, “What do we mean by revolution?”
The question posed by Adams in a letter to Thomas Jefferson evokes others such as “What were the roots of the process that led to the Declaration of Independence?” and “What could have –prevented the war that followed? In the same letter, Adams then suggests, “The Revolution was in the minds of the people, and this was effected from 1760 to 1775, in the course of fifteen years before a drop of blood was drawn at Lexington.” In fact, as Thomas Slaughter suggests, its roots were indeed “tangled.”
As early as 1689, colonials were already outraged by the fact that they did not have the same rights and representation as those in Britain did. “Disputes over sovereignty had begun in the seventeenth century with the very first charters on which the colonies based their claims; they continued as the colonies made treaties and waged war with Indians, skirted the Navigation Acts of 1651-1673, and then turned violently against British authority in Bacon’s Rebellion and the colonial uprisings associated with the Glorious Revolution of 1689.”
As I worked my way through Slaughter’s narrative, I kept asking myself, “Why wasn’t independence declared sooner?” Slaughter suggests several reasons, all of them plausible. At one point, he discusses “social processes across the colonies ” that had to be completed. That makes sense but surely there were other factors at play. The aforementioned “rights” that had been denied to colonials, for example, the thoroughly discussed issue of taxation without representation. I tend to view the timing of the Declaration as being about right, after every effort had been to redress various grievances. Those in authority in Britain – including King George – were primarily concerned about controlling the colonies and had little (if any) interest in addressing anything else.
Thomas Slaughter does a brilliant job of untangling various “roots,” while suggesting, “Americans did not win separation from the British Empire, but they declared their independence in 1776, as they had been doing individually and collectively for the first 170 years…Americans continue to seek the independence at the core of our culture. It remains the lodestone of our politics, our ideology, and our wish for the rest of the world, and it I an anchor that inhibits our ability to define community broadly and generously. It is who we are and what we are – a link to our past, a defining feature of our present, and our legacy for the future.”
Those who share my high regard for this book are urged to check out three others: John Ferling’s Setting the World Ablaze: Washington, Adams, Jefferson, and the American Revolution, Edmund S. Morgan’s American Heroes: Profiles of Men and Women Who Shaped Early America, and Bernard Bailyn’s The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution.