HIST 116: The American Revolution

Lecture 25

 - Being an American: The Legacy of the Revolution


Professor Freeman discusses when we can consider a revolution to have ended, arguing that a revolution is finally complete when a new political regime gains general acceptance throughout society - and that, for this reason, it is the American citizenry who truly decided the fate and trajectory of the American Revolution. Yet, in deciding the meaning of the Revolution, the evolving popular memory of its meaning counts as well. Founders like Thomas Jefferson and John Adams frequently told younger Americans not to revere the Revolution and its leaders as demigods, insisting that future generations were just as capable, if not more so, of continuing and improving America’s experiment in government. Professor Freeman concludes the lecture by suggesting that the ultimate lesson of the American Revolution is that America’s experiment in government was supposed to be an ongoing process; that the Revolution taught Americans that their political opinions and actions mattered a great deal - and that they still do.

Transcript Audio Low Bandwidth Video High Bandwidth Video

The American Revolution

HIST 116 - Lecture 25 - Being an American: The Legacy of the Revolution

Chapter 1. Introduction: The End of the Revolution [00:00:00]

Professor Joanne Freeman: Okay. Wow. So this is my last true confession to you, my class, and it’s a true — I always give you true confessions. I never lie to you, my class, but this is a truly true confession because the fact of the matter is, I actually really couldn’t figure out how to end the course. [laughs] I couldn’t figure out what this last lecture was supposed to be, and I really wondered about it, agonized over it. It’s the last lecture. There’s all this pressure. Several of you have e-mailed me and said, “Looking forward to the last lecture.” [laughs] How can I live up to the expectation?

So I decided that I would do two things in the lecture, and the first thing that I’m going to do is talk about the end of the American Revolution, which is not an easy thing to do, and I’m not going to be so good as to actually put my finger on the moment when the Revolution ends, but I’m at least going to suggest a couple things about that. And then at the end you’ll see I’m going to come back around and hopefully magically just tie the whole course together by the end of the lecture. You will for sure notice that some of the things I’m talking about now have references to things I talked about way at the beginning of the course. So I’m trying for symmetry — course symmetry.

And if you think back in the distant ages of time when this course started I talked on that first — I think the very first lecture — I did — I used a quote from John Adams and I used a quote from Benjamin Rush. Those are the quotes that are on the top of the syllabus. And both of them talk about when the Revolution supposedly began. So Adams, writing in 1815, said that he thought the Revolution began “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.” So he says the war, quote, “was no part of the Revolution.” And then the other quote I read was Rush, who in 1776 basically agreed that the war and the Revolution were two different things but then says, “The American War is over: but this is far from being the case with the American Revolution.” “We have changed our forms of government, but it remains to effect a revolution in our principles, opinions, and manners, so as to accommodate them to the forms of government we have adopted.”

Chapter 2. Change and Acceptance of Revolutionary Principles between the 1770s and 1790s [00:02:21]

Okay. So when I quoted those at the very beginning of the course, I basically was quoting them to kind of shake up your assumptions about what the American Revolution actually was. If the Founders can’t even agree, that kind of opens things broadly for us to really talk about what the Revolution was. Today I’m mentioning them because I actually do want us to think a little bit about, if that — if there’s all that confusion about when it starts, what can we say about when a Revolution ends?

And there’s definitely a hint about how to discuss that question in both of those quotes, even though they don’t necessarily agree, because both men in one way or another saw the revolution as being fundamentally about what Rush called “principles, opinions and manners” and Adams called a “change in the minds of the people.” So in a way they’re both saying that a real Revolution, a full revolution, involves some kind of a fundamental change in principles. And, as both men suggest, obviously this isn’t something that happens instantly like a declaration of war or a surrender on a battlefield, that it’s a process and it takes place over years, maybe even over decades.

Now obviously if you think about what a revolution is, formally speaking, it’s a change of forms of government more than anything else. So it involves some kind of a large-scale transfer of power after some kind of a struggle between competing groups. Right? So it’s a major shift in sovereignty of some kind. But for the struggle and the instability of the Revolution to come to a close, obviously there had to be some kind of a shared agreement about the nature of whatever this new regime was going to be, about what its ideals were, about what its shape was going to be. And without that kind of shared agreement on those kinds of things, this new regime would really stay in a state of flux and would be vulnerable to all kinds of continued dramatic and potentially revolutionary change. So in a sense, what I’m saying here is that revolutions involve both deconstruction and reconstruction, and that basically it’s one thing to rebel against something, and it’s quite another thing to construct something in its place that manages to get some kind of general acceptance. And a revolution can’t be said to have ended until both parts of that equation have been met.

And I think if you think back over the course of the semester, you can see that during the semester we’ve looked at both parts of that equation, in a sense. We’ve looked, at the very beginning of the course when we were getting toward the beginning of the war, we’ve seen how Americans generally agreed about what they protesting against, but the 1770s, 1780s, 1790s revealed they weren’t necessarily in agreement about what they were fighting for; they didn’t necessarily agree about what the most desirable outcome would be. And we’ve watched this over the course of the semester. We’ve seen people basically just figuring out what this new regime is going to be. So, we looked at the 1770s, we saw how people tried to create constitutions that would reflect whatever this new regime was going to be, and we saw how those constitutions pretty much distrusted centralized power.

Unfortunately, the 1780s revealed that that first wave of reform wasn’t quite right, that there were some pretty important problems that weren’t solved, that there were some new problems that seemed to be erupting that maybe hadn’t been anticipated before, and then we’ve seen the result. We’ve watched Continental Army officers sort of vaguely threatening some kind of coup and saw the mighty power of George Washington’s glasses. We saw soldiers sticking their bayonets through the windows of the Pennsylvania state house to demand their pay from the Confederation Congress. We saw indebted farmers in Massachusetts joining in protest to close down the courts, and then of course we saw the Independent Republic of Vermont and my favorite, the State of Franklin.

So clearly there was some pretty widespread discontent, and some of the elite also, as we heard, were not particularly happy. Many of them wanted some kind of economic stability. Some of them were none too pleased about what they saw as this sort of widespread social instability. So in one way or another, all of these groups felt that the promise of the Revolution wasn’t really being fulfilled, and the political system that had been put into place during the Revolution not only was incapable of dealing with the problem, but in many ways it was fueling the problem.

Now of course everything in one way or another added up to lead to the Constitutional Convention, which we discussed. And as we discussed in the course, a new Constitution was by no means a done deal, and in fact there was some pretty fervent debate over whether or not some individual states even wanted to participate in the whole Convention at all. And we’ve seen some of what people were scared of in those debates about whether or not to go to the Convention. A stronger government or even just a new government might open the door to things like an established aristocracy, monarchy, tyrannical centralized power, the rise of a privileged few over an impoverished many.

So in essence, these people are seeing that there might be a big change happening, they don’t know what the change is going to be, and anything seems possible, and all of those things obviously would represent going back on what the Revolution had just gone forth for. So in essence, you see people who had absolutely no sense of political stability or permanence, no sense of what was going to come, no real consensus about the best way to fix things.

Now following the 1780s came a period that obviously we don’t cover in this course. My other lecture course covers it, and that’s the 1790s, which saw yet another wave of reform and this time it has to do with the rise of the Federalist party. And the Federalists in one way or another were largely about centralizing power even more, and strengthening the national government even more, and controlling and channeling the protests and politicking of the populace; they’re not all that comfortable with ongoing popular politicking.

And here again, in the 1790s with this sort of counter-wave, you also see more instability, more of a sense that there’s some kind of potentially drastic change that might be happening just around the corner. So throughout the 1790s, people have things in their letters, throwaway lines like: ‘If this government lasts another five years, here’s what I think we should do.’ You can almost feel in some of these letters how frightened, in a sense, some of these people were who were stepping onto the stage of a new government in this sense of amazing instability.

I’m going to offer three quotes because it’s amazing to me how similar they are. They all use the same image. It’s almost like they went into a room and said, ‘How shall we describe being scared in 1789? Oh, I know.’ So James Madison says in 1789, “[W]e are in a wilderness without a single footstep to guide us.” George Washington in 1790: “I walk on untrodden ground.” And good old Pennsylvania senator William Maclay, who offered us that quote way at the beginning of the course, sitting next to Virginians at dinner and saying that all they talked about was alcohol and horses. Maclay says, “The whole world is a shell, and we tread on hollow ground every step.” Now that’s kind of interesting to me, that all of those quotes are all saying the same thing, which is basically all of these guys literally are saying, ‘Wow. I’m on this really unstable ground and I have no idea where I’m supposed to be going or what a safe path is going to be.’ So throughout the 1790s, the Federalists countered their sense of social disorder by trying to legislate and administrate their way into order and control. And the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798, which I’m sure you probably studied in high school, are two of the most extreme examples along those lines.

This brings us to Thomas Jefferson and the presidential election of 1800. Now significantly, for the purposes of this class, Jefferson years later, very modestly called his own election to the Presidency, quote, “the Revolution of 1800.” Right, not modest at all: ‘ah, yes, when I came to power it was the Revolution of 1800.’ And not only that — he said it was “as real a revolution in the principles of our government as that of 1776 was in its form.” Okay. He’s talking serious revolution; ‘my rise to power was just as significant as 1776.’ Thank you, Thomas Jefferson. But you can kind of see that, given what was happening in the 1790s — in my amazingly quick and dirty, frighteningly condensed version of the 1790s that I just gave you — given what the Federalists seemed to represent, you could see why Jefferson would have thought that his rise to the Presidency was some kind of a return to core principles, or Revolutionary principles.

Now this change of principles wasn’t easy, and actually I think it was the whole intensity of the experience of that 1800 election that led Jefferson to experience and describe his election as a revolution that was fought and won. His rise to the Presidency came after a seemingly deadlocked tie vote in the Electoral College that was thrown into the House of Representatives to decide. So deadlocked was the election and so extreme were the fears and expectations on all sides that if the wrong person got the office, the entire nation would come crashing to ruin, that two states — in two different states — and in one state I believe the governor was in on it — people were stockpiling arms because they were going to march on Washington and take the government for Jefferson. That’s amazing. That’s America, in a sense, on the brink of some sort of civil war — if the people are marching on the government to take it for the person who they think should be President.

Massachusetts Federalist Fisher Ames, at that time, thought about this and believed that he understood why this was happening. And I’ll mention here only because it’s been a continuing theme in our course: we’ve seen lots of crying guys over the semester. Washington’s really good at reducing people to tears apparently. And I have to mention here — partly because I just really like Fisher Ames, because he’s sort of an intriguing character who always says quotable things. But he also — he was in Congress in the 1790s and the thing that he’s most known for is he made a speech about the Jay Treaty and everybody started to cry. So he reduced Congress to tears, which to me is kind of a terrifying image, Congress crying.

So Fisher Ames, mighty orator, reducer to tears. Here’s what he says in 1800, when he’s looking around and he’s trying to figure out what this all means.

“The fact really is, that … there is a want of accordance between our system [of government] and the state of our public opinion. The government is republican; opinion is essentially democratic. … Either, events will raise public opinion high enough to support our government, or public opinion will pull down the government to its own level. They must equalize.”

That’s really interesting. So here, watching what’s happening in 1800, Ames is kind of confirming what Adams and Rush were suggesting in the quotes that I started out by discussing. For a revolution to end, forms and public opinion have to equalize in some way, and before they do, things remain unstable.

So in a way, what all of these guys are saying, is that revolutions end when public opinion conforms with new post-revolutionary forms of governance, and until that happens, revolutionary change is still entirely possible. Once that happens, once the sort of new car smell has dissipated from a new government and the government can be taken for granted as kind of the normal state of affairs and it’s endorsed by a majority, then it becomes much harder to stage some kind of full-scale revolution from outside of the government. So in essence, revolutions end when the public mind declares that they do; it’s up to the public.

Chapter 3. Gauging Change in Public Opinion and Acceptance of New Governance: Eyewitness Accounts [00:15:01]

Now that’s a nice, big, broad general discussion about defining the bounds of the American Revolution, but what does that really mean? What are we really saying here and how could we show it? How do you actually show public opinion changing and eventually conforming with a new government? Well, one way that you can begin to do this is to find a wonderful primary source that includes all kinds of eyewitness testimony about one person’s ideas and how they changed over time.

So I bring to you today the recorded recollections of George Robert Twelves Hughes, a New England shoemaker. I know he’s popped up once or twice in one or two of the books we’ve read. And he’s popped up once or twice for good reason, because it’s hard — it’s harder to find comments from people who are not lofty Founders. It’s hard to find recollections and memories and thoughts about the Revolution in a broad sense from average Americans because, number one, they don’t spend a lot of time often sitting down and musing on paper, and number two, their papers don’t get saved as often as an elite politician’s papers get saved.

So people always quote George Robert Twelves Hughes because he’s there and he’s thoughtful and he actually went back and talked about his entire life, and his life spans this entire period. He was born in 1742. He dies in 1840, so he lives a really long time. And he ended up being one of the last surviving veterans of the Revolution, or at least that people knew about. So because of that, in the 1830s, he was interviewed so that he could talk about his recollections, things of his life that he saw as being significant.

So let’s look for a minute at what Hughes can show us. For one thing, you can see in some of the stories that he told and the way that he tells them some kind of subtle but actually pretty significant changes in the public mind that were unleashed by the Revolution. So for example, one of Hughes’s earliest memories was of having to bring a pair of shoes to John Hancock. And as he recalled the occasion all these years later, he was terrified, and he says he’s first ushered into the kitchen where his type of person belongs — and then Hancock says, ‘No, no. Actually, I’d like to thank this guy personally,’ so then he’s ushered into the sitting room, and he mumbles a little speech. He didn’t quite know what he was supposed to say or how to say it, and he’s really embarrassed, and then Hancock actually asked him to sit down, which terrifies him even more. And then worst of all, Hancock says, ‘Let me drink to your health’ — and wants to do the whole glass-clinking thing, and Hughes said, ‘I’ve never done the glass-clinking thing. [laughs] I didn’t know what I was doing. We did the glass-clinking thing.’ And then he basically ran away as soon as he could without being rude.

Now, Hughes’s memory of this whole episode, even all of these years later, shows really sort of colonial era deference at work. Right? This is not someone who’s just respectful of John Hancock. This is someone who’s scared of interacting with someone who’s that above him in society.

Now Hughes lived in Boston in the 1760s and 1770s. This is very handy for us obviously, because then he offers us eyewitness testimony about other kinds of sort of floating-in-the-air opinions that were developing at the time. So he — certainly, you can see when he’s talking about his experiences — shared the feelings of many of his neighbors in Boston in the 1770s. In his later years, he remembered how much he really hated the British soldiers that were occupying Boston. He actually remembered that one of them had a pair of shoes made and then never paid for them, so it’s a really specific I-hate-the-British memory. He also remembers watching an eighteenth-century mugging in which a soldier knocked a lady down and stole her bonnet and stole her muff. So he remembers ugly-British-soldier moments from Boston.

And then on March 5, he says that when he heard noise in the street he ran to see what was happening, and he saw British soldiers firing on American civilians, and his response really says something, because he immediately ran home to arm himself. He grabbed a cane and he ran back to the uproar, and when a soldier tried to grab the cane out of his hands, Hughes insisted that he had a right to carry whatever he pleased.

Now that’s really interesting, because here you see Hughes — He’s defending his fellow Bostonians literally and physically, and he’s clearly — I suppose in insisting that he has a right to hold on to that cane — defending his rights too. But what you see is that he’s taken action almost instinctively. It’s not like he saw what was happening and said, ‘This is a Revolutionary moment. I must go home and grab my club so that I can say I was there at the beginning phases of the American Revolution.’ He just sees what’s happening in the street, he’s upset, it’s his neighbors, it’s people from Boston who are getting shot at, and he instinctively is just drawn in to what’s happening. So clearly, his sense of involvement in unfolding events is growing, particularly given that he next took part in the Boston Tea Party. Obviously, that’s a very deliberate choice to take part in a protest. And then he fights as a soldier during the Revolution, which I guess is the ultimate way in which you show that you’re part of a cause. And then he went back to being a shoemaker, and then he became an aged veteran of the Revolution.

Oh — and one thing I can’t help mentioning, only because whenever I talk about George Robert Twelves Hughes I always mention this, because I just love the fact that it exists: He had, I think — Well, actually I know, he had fifteen children. But what’s wonderful about that fact is that his eleventh son was named Eleven [laughter] and his fifteenth son was named Fifteen [laughs] and I just love the guy. George Robert Twelves Hughes has the humor. I don’t know if his sons were really thrilled about being named Eleven and Fifteen, [laughter] but I just love the fact that he did that and that we know that. That makes me even happier.

Okay. So what does Hughes show us besides very bizarre naming habits? For one thing, his recollections offer a great example of the ways in which the Revolution inspired average Americans to become politically active. He was literally drawn into the action, first defending his neighbors and his town, but over time obviously feeling like he was taking part in some kind of a larger cause. So in essence, he helps us see how the Revolution could politicize someone. And you kind of see this in action.

Obviously, with the Hancock story, you can see what a real sense of pre-revolutionary deference felt like. Now of course, the Revolution didn’t just stamp out deference, but a politicized public was a public that understood that it had rights and that it could demand them. And eventually, the American people would not show that kind of fear and trembling before a member of the supposed elite, so basically, eventually the American public would find their voice. And this idea that the public had a voice and had a right to express it is the sort of general changing of public opinion that would ultimately connect to the nation’s new form of government. So basically, you see the sort of beginning of a chain reaction that might actually lead to the end of the Revolution. You can see patterns unfolding that represent pretty major changes over a long stretch of time.

Now obviously, it’s not just average American citizens who are being shaped by the Revolution. The elite were profoundly affected by it as well. And for one obvious thing — suddenly, they were presented with this opportunity to create and shape a new government for a new nation, and they knew that this was a pretty rare opportunity. So even as they’re doing it, they know that this is not something that happens very often. Just listen to how John Adams discussed what he felt like was the change that he experienced over the course of his life. And this is in one of the letters — I mentioned this at the beginning of the course — these great letters they write to each other in their old age. So here, writing to Jefferson, Adams says,

“When I was young, the Summum Bonum [or the sort of ultimate height] in Massachusetts, was to be worth ten thousand pounds Sterling, ride in a Chariot [a carriage], be Colonel of a Regiment of Militia and hold a seat in His Majesty’s Council. No Mans Imagination aspired to any thing higher beneath the Skies.”

So Adams is thinking back, and he’s here basically suggesting that the Revolution and its aftermath expanded the horizons of an entire generation. Now, he’s talking about the elite, but you could expand this to include the American citizenry as well, because in a variety of ways the Revolution shook things up, and in doing so it expanded people’s horizons.

Now I use the word “citizenry” — and I did that really deliberately, because all Americans did not have their horizons expanded during the Revolutionary war, and this is something clearly we talked about in class and we’ve talked about in sections that’s linked to some of the discussions that we’ve been having about how radical the Revolution was or wasn’t. So the elite, like everyone else, were profoundly affected by the Revolution, but of course they’re not the people who get to decide the fate of the Revolution. It’s the American public who gets to make that decision. It’s their opinions of the new government that are going to either make or break the government and the Revolution. And during the period covered by this course we’ve seen the beginnings of a long period during which public opinion would continue to change, sometimes really dramatically, concerning just what this new government and this new nation was supposed to be.

Chapter 4. Reconstructing and Remembering the American Revolution: The Founders’ Reflections [00:24:30]

Now, I’m not going to end by continuing here to talk about the end of the Revolution, because it isn’t just the events of the Revolution that mattered, even when they’re ending. It’s actually how we remember them that matters, because the way that we remember history obviously really determines its meaning and its impact. So basically, history — and how we understand our history — can have a profound effect on the here and now. In a way, this is what Jefferson referred to — I think a couple lectures back — I’ve talked about the dead hand of the past; Jefferson wanting to — every nineteen years, ‘let’s make a new constitution.’ That’s kind of linked to that Jeffersonian idea of the dead hand of the past — and since history could have that impact on the present, depending on how you understand it. And that dead hand of the past can be a pretty heavy hand.

At this point, basically I need — I need to tell you an anecdote. I actually do need to tell you an anecdote. As I was writing the lecture this morning, I was writing about the dead hand of the past, and I guess whenever I use that phrase, I think of this one particular letter I found — which actually is relevant, so I’m not being completely random. It does have something to do with the dead hand of the past and history. It actually also has nothing to do with the American Revolution, but it really shows you how the past can have an enormous weight on the present. And it’s also just an amazing little piece of paper that I found.

And it has to do with this letter that I found when I was rummaging through the Adams family correspondence, which is indeed what it’s called: the Adams family. So the John Adams family correspondence — and I found this letter from John Quincy Adams. I wasn’t looking for it, but I found this letter. And he was overseas when his father was running for President and he — clearly he really wants to know if his father won. And it takes a long time for news to make it across the ocean, so what I found was first one letter in which he’s writing, ‘Do you know what happened in the election?’ And then I found a lot of them. He’s writing to people and writing to people saying, ‘Do you know? Do you know? Has my father won the election? Who’s won the election? What’s happened in the election?’ So, I can’t help it. Now I’m following the trail, because I have to find the letter where he finds out. Right? And you would assume — I assumed — that when I found that letter, he would say something like, ‘Oh, this is a great day for America’ or — I don’t know — something, something lofty and visionesque, sort of looking out — ahh — sort of John Quincy Adamsesque.

So finally I find the letter, and I’m going to paraphrase it with my own bad paraphrasing here, but the point will be true. He basically says, ‘Oh, God. I’ll never live up to this.’ [laughter] It is like — the first thing he thinks is: now I’m going to have to be President too. [laughter/laughs] That was amazing to me. I really felt for John Quincy Adams. You suddenly got a quick flash of what it felt like to be an Adams, [laughs] or particularly — the Adams family had a habit of picking one Adams per generation and then dumping all of their expectations on that one Adams. Clearly, John Quincy Adams is this generation’s guy, so it certainly gives you a sense of — I want to say dead hand of the past; I guess it’s the live hand of the past, because it’s his father, this poor guy. Anything his father does he’s clearly like: ‘oh, damn, [laughs] now I have to be President to’ [laughs] — which is amazing, but concrete — a concrete example of what I’m talking about here. And it certainly shows how the next generation beyond the Founding generation really felt like they had to live up to the achievements of what had gone before them.

Now, as far as the people who had gone before them, as far as the Fathers are concerned, they knew that they were becoming history, and so they thought about the making of history and the writing of history a lot. To me, the most concrete example of people becoming history is something that happened to poor Thomas Jefferson in his old age. I wonder if any of you have ever seen a life mask. You know there’s death masks and life masks. Death masks are obvious, but there do exist life masks as well.

So again, in Jefferson’s old age, someone went to Monticello and they wanted to make a life mask of him. I don’t know who this guy was, but he wasn’t good at his job, so whatever he did he did it wrong. And his daughter later said she came into the room to see the guy with a hammer and chisel trying to chip the plaster like: ‘oh, my God, I killed him.’ [laughs] The plaster hardened and they couldn’t get it off [laughter] so Jefferson’s basically thinking, this is so bad; [laughs] this is really bad. He really was terrified that that was the end for him. He literally almost became history. He was history. He was gone. [laughter] Luckily, they got the plaster off and he survived.

But aside from the fact that he almost melted into plaster, obviously that whole cohort of people had really strong feelings about the story of the Revolution, about how that story should be told, and they were not in love with the whole idea that the Founding period is some kind of golden age of patriotic perfection. They did not see the Revolution as some kind of divine strike of providence; they did not see themselves as demigods.

And here I’m going to turn to John Adams, which always makes me happy — who did a really good job in his old age of answering letters from strangers who wanted to know: ‘Tell us about the Revolution. What really happened?’ And in answering, he did a great job of basically popping bubbles of myths. He basically said over and over again in one way or another, ‘You know, the Revolution wasn’t some kind of golden, wonderful moment.’ Now, like the other Founders — He actually lived to be ninety, so unfortunately he had a lot of these letters. I think Jefferson — I think — I was about to say Jefferson, I think got more, which obviously would make Adams really mad. Like: ‘even now [laughter/laughs] they’re thinking about him more than me’ — but I think all of these guys were getting these letters from people, basically in one way or another saying, ‘Tell us. What was it really like? What was it like? What happened you signed the Declaration? What happened? What was it really like?’

Jefferson in particular was driven crazy. Jefferson doesn’t normally emote on paper in a deep kind of sincere, he’s-not-thinking-hard way. You always get a sense he’s thinking really carefully about how he expresses himself, but when he’s writing to Adams in their old age, he really sort of vents about this whole strangers-writing-letters-and-asking-about-history thing. So he says — he complains: “From sunrise to one or two o’clock, and often from dinner to dark, I am drudging at the writing table. And all this to answer letters into which neither interest nor inclination on my part enters; and often from persons whose names I have never before heard.” And in this letter, Jefferson estimates that in 1822 he got 1,267 of these letters from people — just strangers: ‘tell us about the Declaration.’ He called it “the burthen” of his life.

And then at one point in this letter [correction: from a letter in 1822; the quote above is from 1817] — and this is where I felt like he really hit Jeffersonian bottom — he’s whining and whining and he’s going on, ‘I hate this. I hate this. Will they stop?’ Probably Adams was thinking, ‘send some to me; [laughter] I have something to say.’ But finally at this point in the letter, Jefferson just writes: “Is this life?” [laughter] I just thought — that’s so weirdly modern. That’s like something we have probably all said at one point: Is this life? Please stop writing me the letters.

His life actually got worse on this front. You got to — You’re feeling bad for the Founders here. People didn’t just deluge him with random letters. Strangers made pilgrimages to Monticello. It became like a tourist attraction and he was still living in it. And so strangers would come and just swarm around Monticello, peering in the windows [laughter], like: ‘oops, I broke the glass’ — [laughter] like trampling the garden. [laughter] He got so overwhelmed by this that he basically after a while left Monticello and lived in one of his other homes for a while, like: ‘I just can’t take it. [laughs] I’m abandoning my house to the strangers; I’m going to go live in my other house for a little while.’

And that’s why, actually those of you who have been to Monticello and you’ve seen his little sanctuary — There’s a little area that’s really his and he has sort of all his books and his bed and it — really there are doors that can lock it off to everything, which is really there for a real reason, because that was — that literally was his sanctuary. That was like: the swarms are outside, lock, lock, lock, lock, like, you’re not coming in. So, I think it wasn’t fun being a Founder basically. I think that’s what Jefferson is showing us here.

But whether or not they were happy old Founders, the Founding types who were answering these letters were really trying to shape the telling of the history of the Revolution. And different Founders I’m sure had different messages, and some were probably happier than others or more optimistic than others. I think James Madison was optimistic to the end. Adams, as I said before, spent a lot of time sort of punching holes in myths about the Revolution, that already were circulating in the 18-teens and the 1820s. So over and over and over again, he told people that there had not been some kind of unanimous patriotic, glorious moment, as it seemed to have been, looking from the distance of time.

So in response to one letter, he insisted that the Revolution was not a big wave of unanimous patriotism. As he put it, “Every measure of Congress from 1774 to 1787 inclusively, was disputed with acrimony, and decided by as small majorities as any question is decided these days” — actually saying, ‘It’s not we were like, yes, independence!’ He’s saying, ‘Sometimes it’s one or two votes that we decided this, and it goes out into history and all that people know is we voted yes and it seems unanimous, and it really wasn’t.’

Even iconic revolutionary moments, he thought, should not be viewed as the sort of glorious moments of triumph. He — In one letter, he recalled what he was thinking as he watched people, his fellow congressmen, sign the Declaration of Independence. And he said, “I could not see their hearts, … but, as far as I could penetrate the intricate foldings of their Souls, I then believed, and have not since altered my Opinion, that there were several who signed with regret, and several others, with many doubts and much lukewarmness.” So he’s saying, ‘Okay. Even while they’re signing the Declaration, I don’t think some of these people actually really wanted to be signing it at all. And some of them, I think, kind of wished they were somewhere else not signing it’ — which is not the image that’s floating around at this point about what the Revolution was. So people were disagreeing, he’s saying, back in the Revolutionary era. They caved to the majority. They weren’t sure about what they were doing. They didn’t even like what they were doing sometimes, and their decisions weren’t always good.

He of course had something to say about that as well, so he said in a different letter, “I say we do not make more mistakes now than we did in 1774, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9.” He’s clearly making a point here. When I was copying this I was like: how many more years? “80, 81, 82, 83.” I get your point. [laughs] We made a lot of mistakes through the whole Revolution, he’s saying. “It was patched and piebald … then, as it is now, … and ever will be, world without end.”

Nor were battlefields any more sacrosanct. As Adams put it, “We blundered at Lexington, at Bunker’s Hill. … Where, indeed, did we not blunder except Saratoga and York[town], where our Tryumphs redeemed all former disgraces?” So Adams is insisting, much of the time: we weren’t all that great. We made mistakes back then. We didn’t always entirely believe what we were doing. It wasn’t that different from how it is now. The Revolution was not some golden age of perfection.

And Adams summed all of this up in a letter that I like, because in some way — I don’t know — it seems a little more direct than some of these other letters, and I suppose — well, you’ll hear the way he phrases it. He wrote this letter in 1811, and he said to this one correspondent — who said, ‘I revere the Fathers. I want to be like them. Ahhh.’ — all the things he’s getting in all of these letters. And he says, “I ought not to object to your reverence for your fathers… . But, to tell you a [very] great secret, as far as I am capable of comparing the merit of different periods, I have no reason to believe we were better than you are.” He was being really straightforward about this.

Now, all of those quotes of course are from the sort of lofty Adams, the far-seeing Adams, the sage Adams. They’re not from the Adams I was just referring to a few minutes ago, which is the I-don’t-get-any-respect John Adams, and he’s there too. Both of those things are there at the same time, which also tells you something. When you read the correspondence of his old age, he’s sort of veering back and forth between: I am a lofty Founder. Why won’t anyone recognize me as a lofty Founder? I am a lofty Founder. Please, someone recognize me. He has all these letters where he’s like: ‘no one will ever make a monument to me, John Adams’ [laughter] — like: so, so sorry. But my point here is that, to Adams and to many others, you’re not supposed to look at history at this sort of golden, perfect moment that’s drastically different, in that sense, from everything since.

In a sense, to these people, worshipping the founding era, or worshipping the American Revolution, as a golden age actually did more harm than good. The Revolution had been all about beginnings, about beginning traditions and patterns of governance, about beginning new constitutions, but these beginnings were actually supposed to go someplace. They were supposed to lead to something that actually would survive and be shaped by future generations. So I think to this whole generation, this idea of sort of worshipping the Founding era as a golden age made it seem as though the time for that kind of work had ended — as though there was a glorious, wonderful creative moment when things could really be done, and now that time is gone.

And you could see that in Adams’ letters too — that he says often about the future: ‘Well, maybe it’ll be a brighter page or maybe it’ll be a darker page. I don’t know. It’s up to you.’ But he assumes — obviously — that what they’ve been doing isn’t some dead-end moment at which who knows what’ll happen next. He actually assumes they started something that in one way or another they assume is going to continue. So clearly, the time for that kind of creative political work hadn’t ended whenever the random date is that we decide the American Revolution ended, and in a sense it hasn’t ended.

As the Founding generation well knew, American citizens are always responsible for their government. They control its destiny. Right? They decide when revolutions start. They decide when revolutions stop. They control the destiny of the aftereffect of revolutions.

Chapter 5. Revolution Runs in the People: A Conclusion [00:39:27]

So I guess in a sense — And this is where I was really struggling this morning. I was like: what would be the ultimate message I give to you? It’s so hard when you teach courses on the Founding period because everything you say has weird resonance in the present — as I’m kind of saying here — and I don’t want to have weird resonance in the present [laughs]. I just want to sort of give something to you guys. So related to what I’m saying here, maybe the ultimate message, the sort of ground-level message of this course is: your opinions matter and your actions out there in the world politically and otherwise are going to matter too. That’s in essence what these Founders are saying, when they’re saying, ‘Don’t treat us like demigods, like we’re some lofty population that will never come again. We set something in motion and the whole point of the thing that we set in motion is that you’re supposed to make it run.’ Right? It’s actually about you. We may be memorable guys. I might want to be a more memorable guy than I am, but it’s all about you; it’s all about you.’ That’s what’s supposed to keep it running in the end.

Okay. I want to first of all thank you for laughing at my jokes all semester. [laughter] Obviously, one of my favorite things to do is to tell stories, and lecture courses are moments where you’re completely my hostage and I get to — Sometimes as I’m writing a lecture, as today, I’m like: oh, this isn’t related but I’ll find a way to rope it in to the lecture so then I can give it to you. So, I have greatly enjoyed myself this semester. You’ve been wonderfully receptive. You asked — When I went to sections you asked wonderful questions. You engaged with the material. After lectures you guys kept coming up to me and asking good questions, which was impressive and doesn’t always happen in a lecture course. So I want to thank you because it makes me really happy if you guys are really engaged with what I’m talking about here. So, thank you very much. [applause]

[end of transcript]

Back to Top
mp3 mov [100MB] mov [500MB]