The Continental Congress: John Adams
In our first lecture we looked at Boston as the scene of the triggering incidents that led, step by step, from incidents of friction between British soldiers and American civilians, to all-out conflict between the British army and Massachusetts militias. We also emphasized the distinctive political culture of New England, one strand of which, the Puritan, goes all the way back to 1630. But if the revolution had been restricted to New England it would have fizzled. It had to enlist the support of Patriots in all of the thirteen colonies, and to fuse them into a single Continental Army, which could draw on support, financial and military, from Britain's enemies in Europe. But the other colonies had their own distinctive cultures. In this lecture, we'll examine them, and then we'll turn to the problem of fusing these diverse cultures together on a "continental" scale.
More than any of the other revolutionaries Adams represented the political and constitutional side of the American Enlightenment: Thoughts on Government, 1776, the Massachusetts Constitution of 1780. His basic conviction: government bore an intimate relation to society, and no society, not even the U.S., could be truly egalitarian, and he attempted to come to terms with this fact as no other revolutionary did. History had taught that "Public Virtue is the only Foundation of Republics." Americans possessed as much public spirit as any people in the world. Nevertheless, he had seen all through his life "such Selfishness and Littleness even in New England" that the cause seemed imperiled. The Revolution had unleashed a flood of passions: "Hope, Fear, Joy, Sorrow, Love, Hatred, Malice, Envy, Revenge, Jealousy, Ambition, Avarice, Resentment, Gratitude," creating a whirlwind up and down the Continent. There was, he told Mercy Warren in 1776 "so much Rascality, so much Venality and Corruption, so much Avarice and Ambition, such a rage for Profit and Commerce among all Ranks and Degrees of Men" that republicanism seemed a precarious experiment. Within a few years it was clear that there was "no special providence for Americans, and their nature is the same as that of the others." Americans, Adams now believed, were as driven by the passions for wealth and precedence as any people in history. Ambition, avarice, and resentment, not virtue and benevolence, were the stuff of American society. Those who argued that Americans were especially egalitarian were blind to reality. Every people, he contended, possessed inequalities "which no human legislator can eradicate."
Gordon S. Wood,
The American Revolution: A History,
Simon & Schuster,
Here is the best biography of John Adams that can possibly be imagined. In addition it brought forth the magnificent HBO video saga version that you should watch while you are studying all of this with Prof. Thompson. Paul Giamatti's John Adams is his greatest performance.
Review From Publishers Weekly
Here a preeminent master of narrative history takes on the most fascinating of our founders to create a benchmark for all Adams biographers. With a keen eye for telling detail and a master storyteller's instinct for human interest, McCullough (Truman; Mornings on Horseback) resurrects the great Federalist (1735-1826), revealing in particular his restrained, sometimes off-putting disposition, as well as his political guile. The events McCullough recounts are well-known, but with his astute marshaling of facts, the author surpasses previous biographers in depicting Adams's years at Harvard, his early public life in Boston and his role in the first Continental Congress, where he helped shape the philosophical basis for the Revolution. McCullough also makes vivid Adams's actions in the second Congress, during which he was the first to propose George Washington to command the new Continental Army. Later on, we see Adams bickering with Tom Paine's plan for government as suggested in Common Sense, helping push through the draft for the Declaration of Independence penned by his longtime friend and frequent rival, Thomas Jefferson, and serving as commissioner to France and envoy to the Court of St. James's. The author is likewise brilliant in portraying Adams's complex relationship with Jefferson, who ousted him from the White House in 1800 and with whom he would share a remarkable death date 26 years later: July 4, 1826, 50 years to the day after the signing of the Declaration. (June) Forecast: Joseph Ellis has shown us the Founding Fathers can be bestsellers, and S&S knows it has a winner: first printing is 350,000 copies, and McCullough will go on a 15-city tour; both Book-of-the-Month Club and the History Book Club have taken this book as a selection.
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FURTHER READING FOR THE TEN WEEKS
Here is a PDF document you can download and print with Prof. Thompson's reading for the whole quarter.