The Importance of Understanding Communications in the Revolution

 E Pluribus Unum

 

 

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 of Americans..

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: Reading, Writing, Speaking, Picturing, Celebrating, Revolutionizing, Institutionalizing, 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 printers.

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.

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The E Pluribus Unum Project is funded by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. It is co-directed by Dr. John McClymer, Professor of History, Assumption College; Dr Lucia Knoles, Professor of English, Assumption College; and Dr. Arnold Pulda, Director of Gifted and Talented student programs for the public schools in Worcester, MA. Visitors are encouraged to send inquiries or suggestions.