In a series of letters from 1811 to 1818, John Adams explained how the American Revolution began not in Lexington in 1775, or in Philadelphia in 1776, but in Boston in 1761 with a speech by James Otis.
In a letter to Richard Sharp dated February 27, 1811, Adams responded to Sharp's proposal for writing a history of the American Revolution: "But, give me leave to Suggest that the Period you have defined from 1775 to 1783 was by no means the most important nor the most interesting Eight Years of the Revolution. The Revolution was indeed effected in the Period from 1761 to 1775. I mean a compleat Revolution in the Minds of the People. A total Change of the Opinions and Affections of The People, and a full Confidence in the practicability of a Union of the Colonies. All this was done and the Principles all established and the System matured before the year 1775. The War and the Peace followed of Course."
In a letter to Jedidiah Morse dated November 29, 1815, Adams repeated this idea that the American Revolution began long before the military conflict with Great Britain: "An History of military Operations from April 19th, 1775 to the 3rd of September 1783 is not an History of the American Revolution, any more than the Marquis of Quincy's Military History of Louis 14th, though much esteemed is a History of the Reign of that Monarch. The Revolution was in the Minds and Hearts of the People, and in the Union of the Colonies, both of which were Substantially effected before Hostilities commenced." He asked: "When, Where, by what means, and in What manner, was this great intellectual, moral, and political Change accomplished?"
He began his answer to this question by saying that the American Revolution began in Boston in 1761 when James Otis gave a long speech in a courtroom arguing that the British use of "writs of assistance" in the colonies would violate the natural rights of the colonists. Writs of assistance were general search warrants that would allow British customs officers to search for smuggled goods in any house without specifying the house or the goods, which Otis identified as a violation of the right to property.
In a letter to Thomas Jefferson dated August 24, 1815, Adams repeated this claim about the start of the Revolution: "As to the history of the Revolution, my Ideas may be peculiar, perhaps Singular. What do We mean by the Revolution? The War? That was no part of the Revolution. It was only an Effect and Consequence of it. The Revolution was in the Minds of the People, and this was effected, from 1760 to 1775, in the course of fifteen Years before a drop of blood was drawn at Lexington."
William Tudor was writing a biography of James Otis, and he wrote to Adams to ask for any information he might have about Otis and his place in the Revolution. Adams responded by emphasizing the importance of Otis's speech in 1761. He exclaimed: "Otis was a flame of fire! With a promptitude of Classical Allusions, a depth of research, a rapid summary of historical events & dates, a profusion of Legal Authorities, a prophetic glance of his eyes into futurity, and a rapid summary of impetuous Eloquence he hurried away all before him. American Independence was then & there born. The seeds of Patriots & Heroes to defend the Non sine Diis Animosus Infans; to defend the Vigorous Youth were then & there sown. Every Man of an immense crouded Audience appeared to me to go away, as I did, ready to take Arms against Writs of Assistants. Then and there was the first scene of the first Act of opposition to the Arbitrary claims of Great Britain. Then and there the Child Independence was born. In fifteen years i.e. in 1776, he grew up to Manhood, & declared himself free."
Adams's interpretation of the American Revolution suggests at least three questions. How was America's revolutionary political independence achieved prior to 1775? Why did the American revolutionaries turn to violent resistance in 1775 and 1776? What was the intellectual and moral content of the "revolution in the minds and hearts of the people" prior to 1775?
John Locke helps us to answer all three questions. Locke's answer to the first question would be that revolutionary resistance to tyrannical government is an exercise of the "executive power of the law of nature"--the natural right to punish those who threaten our natural rights to life, liberty, and property. That natural punishment can be violent resistance to tyranny, as in a revolutionary war. But it can also be expressed through nonviolent resistance, as in the popular refusal to obey the governmental rulers and popular protests against the government. From 1761 to 1775, the American revolutionary resistance was mostly nonviolent--popular demonstrations of resistance, boycotts of imported British goods, writings and speeches criticizing the government, refusal to pay taxes, and the creation of extralegal congresses and conventions as revolutionary governments.
Indeed, some of the recent theorists of nonviolent resistance as the best form of revolutionary activity have drawn attention to John Adams's interpretation of the American Revolution, and they have written about the history of the revolution "before Lexington" as showing the effectiveness of nonviolent tactics for revolution. (See David Toscano, Gene Sharp, Ronald McCarthy, and Walter Conser, eds., Before Lexington: Resistance, Politics, and the American Struggle for Independence 1765-1775 [Boston: Albert Einstein Institution, 2015].)
But if the nonviolent strategy was successful, why did the American revolutionary leaders turn to violent military measures in 1775 and 1776? Theorists of nonviolent resistance who have studied the American Revolution have suggested six possible answers. First, there might have been changes in the revolutionary movement so that military action became their last resource. Second, the nonviolent strategy might have proven to be inadequate to the revolutionary cause. Third, there might have been a particularly violent party within the movement--with people like Samuel Adams and Patrick Henry--who pushed them into violence. Fourth, one might say that the Second Continental Congress was confronted with a fait accompli after the battles of Lexington, Concord, and Bunker Hill and the seizure of Ticonderoga, so that they had no choice but to push ahead with military forces. Fifth, the revolutionary leaders might have decided that they needed to form a military as a symbol of sovereignty before the world. Sixth, we might say that what we see in 1775-1776 is a mistaken premature abandonment of a nonviolent strategy that could have been followed to victory, so that when Great Britain launched a full invasion of the colonies in 1776, the Americans could have defeated the invaders through nonviolent resistance. The most fervent proponents of nonviolent resistance--people like Gene Sharp and Erica Chenoweth--would probably favor the last explanation.
In June of 1775, when the Second Continental Congress appointed George Washington as general and commander-in-chief of the Continental Army, the Americans decided to make what Locke called an "Appeal to Heaven"--that is, an appeal to the God of Battles to decide the dispute with Great Britain. In fact, this was made explicit when the "Appeal to Heaven" flag became a flag for the Continental Navy. I have written about this. I have also written about how the Americans won the war of independence by not losing to the superior military power of the British.
Adams also suggested, however, that the American war of independence would not have been successful if the intellectual and moral revolution that began in 1761 had not formed a revolutionary mind that understood the Lockean principles of natural liberty and equality. Those principles were first taught by James Otis in his appeal to the Lockean state of nature. I will write about that in my next post.