Only 1/3rd of Americans Supported the American Revolution?

Fact & Fiction

Published on 8-8-05

The late William Marina was a Research Fellow at the Independent Institute, Oakland, CA, and Professor Emeritus in History at Florida Atlantic University.

This Fourth of July marks the the 228th anniversary of the signing of the American Declaration of Independence. Perhaps the most significant external aspect of this year's celebration is that the United States is now involved in an intervention ostensibly to bring Democracy to Iraq.

Yet, many Americans, even many scholars and intellectuals, believe that the the American Revolution was itself not a democratic movement. If that is true, then it is legitimate to ask, "what exactly is it that we are celebrating on July 4th?"

The most common piece of evidence cited in numerous books about the Revolution is a letter of John Adams indicating that one third of the Americans were for the Revolution, another third were against it, and a final third were neutral or indifferent to the whole affair.

Oddly, this is the view of the Revolution essentially held by the British at the time. English leaders appeared to believe that only a minority of rebellious Americans, although well organized, desired independence from the Mother Country. Both times British armies ventured into the interior, it was on the assumption there were large numbers of Loyalists there who would support the King's cause.

Significantly, for over a century, a number of American intellectuals, ranging recently from Daniel Elsberg of Vietnam War Pentagon Papers fame, to Irving Kristol, the "Godfather" of today's Neoconservative Iraq Hawks, have cited the Adams' letter as gospel.

A close reading, however, of Adams' letter indicates just the opposite. The "well-known" letter of Adams was to James Lloyd, dated January, 1813. Written so many years after the American Revolution, it becomes clear that Adams was actually discussing American opinion about England and the French Revolution during his presidency, 1797-1801:

"The middle third, composed principally of the yeomanry, the soundest part of the nation, and always averse to war, were [sic] rather lukewarm both to England and France...."

It really boggles the imagination to suggest that Adams would have regarded a neutral third so highly with respect to the American Revolution. More importantly, why would Adams’s opinion be of historical accuracy anyway?

To paraphrase the historian Carl Becker, the American Revolution was both a war ultimately for Independence, but also about the nature of the American nation which would emerge after the war.

There were in fact at least three distinct phases relating to what we can in general call the American Revolution. The first of these was in the debate over American liberties prior to the war itself. The second involved the issue of Independence and the the war to win it. Finally, there was the question of establishing an American nation afterwards, which really was not decided ultimately until the later Civil War.

No one disputes that in the Stamp Act crisis of 1765, Americans were overwhelmingly against that legislation. In the debates which followed, the great contemporary American historian Mercy Otis Warren focused on one event as a day that would "live in infamy," although Franklin D. Roosevelt and his speechwriters gave her no credit when they expropriated that phrase on December 8, 1941.

That event was the British decision to send an army from Halifax to occupy Boston in October, 1768. This was an affront to the Standing Army Act, and the Americans thought, of the Constitution itself. The violence of such an occupation led to the Boston Massacre in 1770, the Tea Party in 1773, and the Intolerable Acts a year later.

In such struggles, a "loss of legitimacy" is a key event as has happened to American forces recently in Iraq. Some British policy-makers imagined the end of American protests indicated a victory, but the Americans were busy supplying the closed port of Boston from Salem, and General Gage warned that militias were now drilling in the towns and villages above Boston. Lexington and Concord were less than a year away.

As the Continental Congress organized, more fighting followed from Bunker Hill to Brooklyn, with an expedition against Canada as well. A large British army of over 30,000 troops convinced even George Washington of the virtues of a “protracted conflict.”

If the British had lost legitimacy, Thomas Paine’s pamphlet “Common Sense,” in January, 1776 succinctly provided an American legitimacy based on Natural Law. Before the Congress evacuated Philadelphia, it passed a Declaration of Independence ratifying those ideas. Abigail Adams was quite right to question her husband’s statement about just all “men” being created equal.

But talk and paper are cheap, and a long and bloody struggle lay ahead. That will be the subject of the next piece, “Was the American Revolution a People’s War?” intended to end the Minority Myth view.

comments powered by Disqus

More Comments:

Andrew D. Todd - 7/7/2004

The notion of computing percentages of patriots and tories is basically unsound. For one thing, there were a number of seriously conflicted individuals. Benedict Arnold and Ethan Allen come to mind, not "middle-of-the-roaders," but "men-of-both-extremes." Flora Macdonald would also qualify, though one might argue that in being a tory, she was really being a neo-jacobite, making George III into a kind of ersatz-Bonnie-Prince-Charlie. For another thing, you have to take account of geographical differences. It is not valid to average New England together with the South. Furthermore, the boundaries of the United States did not exist a priori. There is no valid basis for either including or excluding Quebec and Nova Scotia in a statistical calculation.

William Marina - 7/5/2004

I doubt anyone can establish the figures with such precision.
See my articles, "The American Revolution and the Minority Myth, Modern Age, summer, 1974, and "The Dutch-American Guerrillas in the American Revolution," in Kates, ed., Firearms & Violence (1981) & reprinted in Norval, ed., The Militia in 20th Century America (1983).
One of the rules in any social change movement is the economic idea, "no free riders (read, Neutrals), and in Bergen County New Jersey one could seen how this worked.

Ben H. Severance - 6/29/2004

Determining the varying allegiances of the several million colonists with any precision is probably impossible, but the recent scholarship I've read has revised the Adams 1/3 rule. Now, the textbooks state that some 40+ percent supported the Patriots, a large plurality but still a minority. Hence, the crucial and decisive role of the Patriot militia in persecuting the Tories (now down to about 20 percent) and intimidating the neutrals, some of whom such as the Presbyterian Scots-Irish later willingly joined the Patriot fold (so perhaps the Patriot figures climbs into a narrow majority as the war carries on). Nonetheless, vigilante coercion, as much as legitimating rhetoric, won the day for the USA.