Revolutions

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One of the most impressive items in the FORBES Magazine Collection is a wonderful letter that John Adams wrote in June 1817 to a historian named William Tudor. In it the aging Revolutionary looks back across half a century to assess which of his old comrades had been most valuable to the cause. It’s pure Adams —of a piece with the spikily eloquent assessments that glitter throughout Joseph Ellis’s article about Adams and Jefferson in this issue. “It is the Opinion of the World in the present century,” writes Adams, “was so of the last, and will probably be so of all future ages, that Franklin and Washington were the two great Agents in the American Revolution; the two Guardian Angels.…” Forget it! “This opinion, if I have any knowledge of any thing, I know to be a delusion.” All their glory was reflected: “They were Moons illuminated by Suns concealed from the sight of Nations.” They were often “usefull Instruments,” he concedes, “but to my certain knowledge they were as often terrible Embarrasments. They were both not only Superficial but ignorant.”

Who, then, were Adams’s “Suns”? “James Otis, Samuel Adams and John Hancock were the three most essential characters; and Great Britain knew it; though America does not.”

What’s interesting about this is the fact that these, “the first Movers,” all made their contributions so early in the game. Sam Adams had become a divisive meddler even before he put his name to the Declaration, and James Otis had fallen into madness by the end of the 1760s.

My era’s revolution was about other matters. As a New York City college student in the latter half of the 1960s, I was endlessly assured by the press that I was right there in the front lines of the sexual revolution (though in fact, Miltonic, I mostly served by standing and waiting). It seemed to me at the time that this particular revolution had formed itself spontaneously—or, more accurately, that it had been uncorked fully matured by the great national tensions of the day. So I was surprised, going through the manuscript of David Halberstam’s big new book on the 1950s, to come across a section on the sexual revolution. It seemed to me he’d got his decades mixed up.

He hadn’t, of course, and I read with increasing absorption his history of a change in human consciousness told through the biographies of the men and women who helped bring it about.

We received Halberstam’s manuscript long after we had scheduled the essay on Adams and Jefferson, but in reading the stories through, I was struck at how satisfyingly they complement each other. They remind us that revolutions are brought about by people rather than by the mere torrent of history, and that a change in the world often precedes the knowledge that there has been one—the Spirit of ‘76 grew from the Spirit of ‘66, just as what seemed to me the newly minted mores of the late 1960s were the end, and not the beginning, of a process.

And, actually, not the end either. The two articles also suggest that any revolution worth the name keeps on going (an idea that, in the end, Adams embraced more readily than Jefferson did). Our Revolution was more about being American than about not being British, and being American is a thing that, like the tenets of our sexuality, will be redefining itself forever.

Richard F. Snow