Although he had played an important role in the exciting
events of the American Revolution, John Adams made no claim to having
a definitive understanding of those times. In a letter to his friend
H. Niles in 1818, Adams wrote:
What do we mean by the American Revolution? Do we mean the American
war? The Revolution was effected before the war commenced. The Revolution
was in the minds and hearts of the people. . . . This radical change
in the principles, opinions, sentiments, and affections of the people,
was the real American Revolution.
Adams was suggesting that the real war took place not on any farmer's
field in Concord or any battlefield at Saratoga but instead in the hearts
and minds of the American people. According to this theory, a fledgling
"American identity" had emerged before the war. The muskets that were
fired in the 1770s were essentially a means of securing the right to
express in speech, print, and action the already-independent ideas of
the American people.
If you accept Adams' proposition that the "alteration in the religious,
moral, political, and social character" of Americans represented the
true revolution, then the weapons in the battle must have been
the conversations, speeches, sermons, engravings, paintings, letters,
newspapers, books, pamphlets, and even posters that won over the hearts
and minds of the people in the period before and during the military
action. In order to understand this revolution, one would need to examine
the way the spoken, written, and printed word (and image) allowed for
the formation of an American identity by bridging the cultural, political,
economic, and geographic gaps that separated the thirteen colonies.
Adams believed that the quest to find the causes and meanings of the
evolution would be the task -- and adventure -- awaiting new generations
By what means this great and important alteration in the religious,
moral, political, and social character of the people of thirteen colonies,
all distinct, unconnected, and independent of each other, was begun,
pursued, and accomplished, it is surely interesting to humanity to
investigate and perpetuate to posterity.
To this end, it is greatly to be desired, that young men of letters
in all the States . . . would undertake the laborious, but certainly
interesting and amusing task, of searching and collecting all the
records, pamphlets, newspaper, and even handbills, which in any way
contributed to change the temper and views of the people, and compose
them into an independent nation.
Adams had the privilege of being part of the generation that won America's
independence. He believed it would be the privilege of later generations
to win a full understanding of the revolution.
The E Pluribus Unum Project: America
in the 1770s invites you to take up John Adams' challenge.
At this site you will already find collected a number of the documents
necessary to take up an investigation of the revolution. You will also
find search engines and links that allow you to follow up on your individual
interests and hypotheses. The topics, essays, and resources of this
exhibit reflect the belief that it is by examining the exchange of ideas
through speech, print, and public performances of the period that can
best help us analyze the origins and meanings of the American Revolution.
Each part of this exhibit will focus on a particular mode of communication:
and eventually Digitizing
the American Revolution. Each section will offer an introduction
to a set of ideas that were circulated, the methods of persuasion used
to promote these ideas, the means by which these were disseminated,and
the ways in which this form of communication also functioned as rhetoric,
that is, as a means of persuasion.
Throughout the exhibit, special attention will be given to the way
ideas evolved and circulated across time and space. For example, American
claims that it was right to refuse the dictates of an unjust king were
based on a long series of precedents which the English had set forth
in charters, essays, and sermons dating back at least as far as the
Magna Carta. And just as the printed records provided the colonists
with access to the arguments and actions over time that had allowed
for the gradual developments of the rights of the individual in England,
it was also print that allowed members of the various colonies to share
the information and ideas that made collective action possible. When
the British closed the port of Boston to punish rebels in that city
for destroying the East India Company's shipment of tea, they found
themselves punished by the collective refusal of most colonies to open
their ports to shipments from English companies. How was it that Virginia
reacted when Boston felt a blow? There had been a remarkable exchange
of correspondence between the "Committees of Correspondence" throughout
the colonies, as well as an exchange of newspapers articles among American
When John Adams outlined his project for future Americans, he imagined
that it would be "laborious, but certainly interesting and amusing."
The business of collecting the written and printed records of the Revolutionary
period had already begun during Adams' lifetime, and today the "records,
pamphlets, newspapers, and even handbills" which document that era can
be found in such institutions as the Library of Congress, the Smithsonian,
the Massachussetts Historical Society, the American Antiquarian Society,
and other repositories. Many of these materials have now been transcribed
and/or digitized so that the circulation of ideas and information continues
to bridge distances of space and time ever more effectively. All of
this opens the adventure of investigation to anyone with access to the
Internet. The canons and muskets of the American Revolution fell silent
long ago, but it is left to us to explore the meanings of the revolution
that took place in the "religious, moral, political, and social character"
of the people that led to the dramatic events of America in the 1770s.
It is our duty and our privilege.