by Chidem Kurdas
The July 3rd, 1776, letter John Adams wrote to his wife, Abigail, after voting for the declaration of independence, is justly famous for his prediction that the occasion will be celebrated “by succeeding Generations, …..solemnized with Pomp and Parade, with Shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more.”
In fact the letter starts with a complaint about the ill effects of the decision being delayed for seven months. It ends with the admission that independence carries a high cost in “Toil and Blood and Treasure.” This is the sort of thing that gave John Adams the reputation of being grumpy.
Then you realize that his words are like gold, no matter how crotchety he gets. Between his pride in the declaration and annoyance that it took so long, he provides a model of how major national decisions should be made.
In the letter, Adams blamed the delay for America’s failure to form alliances with other countries and take over Canada, though he blamed also a smallpox epidemic in the army—“a Frown of Providence upon Us, which We ought to lay to heart…”
Then he switched to a cheerier mood and looked at the bright side of the delay. It allowed the population to discuss and think through the question of independence, coming to a ripe judgment. People not only talked the matter over at formal meetings, they were sufficiently engaged to have private chats about it.
“Time has been given for the whole People, maturely to consider the great Question of Independence and to ripen their judgments, dissipate their Fears, and allure their Hopes, by discussing it in News Papers and Pamphletts, by debating it, in Assemblies, Conventions, Committees of Safety and Inspection, in Town and County Meetings, as well as in private Conversations…” Adams wrote.
While intellectuals certainly had their say, there were debates at all levels that led to a ballpark consensus. Had this not been the case, had independence been declared by political players without widespread agreement, the result might have been less happy. Adams, an early proponent of the cause, feared social “Convulsions.”
So he was glad that agreement was reached, that “People in every Colony of the 13, have now adopted it, as their own Act.”
One could object to his definition of “People.” It did not include Indians – many of them allied with the British – or Africans. Abigail, John’s correspondent, could not express her opinion in a vote, though she seems to have expressed it every other way. Nevertheless, Adams set out well-informed near-consensus as the model for national decision making.