Within the scope of this research, we will discuss the American revolution, with particular stress put on two major figures that influenced the Revolution – Jefferson and Adams. One significant difference separated how Adams and Jefferson viewed the American Revolution. Adams believed that an earlier revolutionary transformation had preceded the revolutionary events of his time. He concluded that a revolution had occurred in the course of the century after the beginning of the English settlement of America. During the seventeenth century the colonists had conceived and infixed their liberties, and gradually embraced a republican outlook. He saw his generation's struggle with the parent state as a battle for the preservation of long-cherished liberties and republican ideals. Furthermore, Adams argued that the American Revolution culminated on July 4, 1776, with the decision to separate from Great Britain. (Morgan 44)
In contrast, Jefferson saw the Revolution as part of a flow of history that had originated in the sixteenth century. He believed that the Renaissance, Reformation, and the Age of Enlightenment had expanded individual opportunities and freedoms, ushering in an “honorable” epoch in which humankind had become better educated and “softened and corrected.” (White 66) He argued that the American Revolution had been brought on by these trends, and it in turn had advanced these same currents by sparking new reforms after 1776. Moreover, while Adams was largely indifferent to the example set for others by the American Revolution, Jefferson boasted that the strife in America had inspired revolutionary struggles elsewhere. Like the “city on a hill” that Adams's forbearers had set out to erect in New England, the Revolutionary United States, Jefferson hoped, would inspire people everywhere to believe that the “engines of despotism” could not prevail forever. (Morgan 50) In the last letter he wrote, Jefferson reiterated his belief that the American Revolution would prove to be “the signal of arousing men to burst the chains under which monkish ignorance and superstition had persuaded them to bind themselves, and to assure the blessings and security of self-government.
” (White 100)
Although Adams and Jefferson steadfastly applauded the legacy of the American Revolution, both in their latter years, like Washington, were beset by a brooding apprehension for the survival of the Union that they had hazarded their lives to create. Each saw the American rebellion and the American union as inextricably linked, for the United States was the superstructure on which rested the great gains made by the American Revolution: national security, republican government, expanding prosperity, and the endurance and extension of human liberty. By 1815 America's future presaged peace and prosperity to a degree unimagined since independence, yet it was in this most hopeful of times that a new and menacing storm gathered. As never before, Adams and Jefferson despaired because each understood that the Union might be wrecked on the shoals of southern slavery. (White 106) The American Revolution, which had held the promise of natural rights for humankind, had not ended slavery in the United States. Within a few months of Washington's death every northern state had abolished slavery, either gradually or immediately.
However, not only had no southern state terminated slavery, but beginning in Washington's presidency the institution had expanded with unparalleled rapidity, sweeping first across the Appalachians into Kentucky and Tennessee, and later throughout the burgeoning cotton kingdom in the lower South. Abolitionism had been unwelcome in the Continental Congress, the Constitutional Convention, and the halls of Congress in the new national government in the 1790s. Lest southern slave owners be offended, the very northern representatives who had been hospitable to antislavery in their own states happily consented to sacrifice abolitionism at the national level for the sake of preserving the Union. During the American Revolution, some had willingly demurred in the belief that the post-Revolutionary generation of southerners would act to end slavery. However, by 1815 no southern state had yet acted, and both Adams and Jefferson understood that the slavery issue could not be kept out of national politics much longer.
In addition, both knew that the issue held the potential of becoming an abiding political menace that could divide, and ultimately destroy, the national house.
As a younger man Adams, probably like most white colonists, unthinkingly assimilated much of the racism of the time. His occasional references to blacks in his diary and correspondence hint at bias. (Jensen 93) Later, as a congressman, he resisted the enlistment of blacks in the Continental army, expressing doubts that they could become effective soldiers. Yet however bigoted Adams may have been, he hated slavery. He thought it a crime against humanity that begat multiple horrors, including sexual exploitation. He once remarked that he believed every Virginia planter, presumably including Jefferson, had fathered children through his female chattel. Adams never considered purchasing slaves, although by the early 1770s he possessed the financial means to do so. He later remarked that those had been times “when the practice was not disgraceful, when the best men in my vicinity thought it not inconsistent with their character, and when … I might have saved by the purchase of negroes at times when they were very cheap, ” utilizing slave labor rather than more expensive free labor to work his farm. (Purvis 77)
Adams never publicly expressed his feelings about slavery during the American Revolution. His first object was to win the war and maintain the fragile Union, not to interject an issue that might imperil both goals. Like most in his generation, he thought slavery an issue that had to be dealt with by each state, and he was confident that Virginia, in due time, would emancipate its slaves. He also appears to have believed that Jefferson would play a leading role in the destruction of slavery in Virginia. In the 1780s Adams praised what his friend had written about slavery in Notes on the State of Virginia. “The passages upon slavery, are worth Diamonds,” he exclaimed. “They will have more effect than Volumes written by mere Philosophers.” (Bernstein 133)
Adams remained silent on slavery issues during his vice presidency and presidency. He once suggested that he had not spoken out because he feared that abolitionism would trigger slave insurrections in the southern states. He said that he was “terrified” by the prospect of “Armies of Negroes marching and countermarching in … shining …Armour.” (Countryman 70) He also explained his silence by saying that because he had never lived in the South, or ever been south of Washington and Baltimore, he felt that he did not adequately understand the many ramifications of emancipation. Once he pledged to Jefferson never to support legislation affecting southern slavery to which his friend objected. “I must leave it to you,” he added. (Bernstein 135) Adams also remained silent during much of his retirement, at first probably from fear that he might damage the ascendant political career of his son, John Quincy.
But Adams's silence, and that of many other Founders from northern states, had arisen from the misguided belief that the South was making progress toward the eventual termination of slavery. Some changes in fact had occurred. In the course of the American Revolution several southern states banned the foreign slave trade and made it easier for slave owners to manumit their chattel. As a result, between 1776 and 1810 the percentage of the free black population increased sevenfold in Virginia and tripled in the Lower South. Furthermore, in 1808 the South consented to federal legislation—enacted during Jefferson's presidency and with his blessing—that prohibited slave imports. (Bernstein 120) Otherwise, the signs were disappointing. Not only did private manumissions decline after 1790, but no southern state acted to abolish slavery. By early in the nineteenth century the Revolutionary generation's attack on slavery was being replaced by the South's first sustained defense of its peculiar institution. (Alden 109) As hope waned that the South would eradicate slavery, some in the North grew restive.
Adams was among the first to discern the gathering storm clouds. He told Jefferson that the slavery question would give his son's generation greater difficulty in sustaining the Union than the Revolutionary generation had faced in creating it.
He even told Jefferson that he feared the Union would survive only if slavery was abolished. (McDonald 112) Before 1819, however, Adams always told Jefferson that he did not know how to deal with slavery. Adams claimed that he had wrestled with the issue for half a century without discovering an acceptable solution for eradicating slavery, save for abolition at the behest of the white South. He only knew, he said, that if and when the South turned to abolition, the rights of the emancipated should be protected. (McDonald 114) This led him to oppose colonization, as he thought it unconscionable to contemplate the exile of unwilling African Americans.
In time the legend grew that Adams and Jefferson lived to regret the American Revolution. In fact, in 1816, at age seventy-three, Jefferson gushed at the liberating times in which he had lived. In the eighteenth century, he said, “the sciences and arts, manners and morals, had advanced to a higher degree than the world had ever before seen.” (Greene 140) The American Revolution witnessed the flowering of the most progressive political ideals of this “Heroic age,” as he labeled his century. (Greene 140) The true meaning of the great epoch was that a break had been made with the past. The Revolution was not won until his election and subsequent presidency, what he called the “revolution of 1800.” Only then had monarchy, with its distasteful royal prerogatives and limitations on personal freedoms and rights been quashed, and only then had a republican system that hinged on a “direct and constant control of the citizens been firmly established.” (Greene 142)
Adams and Jefferson supposedly represented the “North and South Poles of the American Revolution,” as a contemporary remarked. (Alden 118) The two did differ in their understanding of the Revolution. More fervently than Jefferson, Adams insisted that the real merit of the American Revolution stemmed from its salvation, and institutionalization, of the best features of the pre-1776 colonial world—those advances made in America by emigres from English tyranny and persecution. Nevertheless, in his old age the core of Adams's feelings about the legacy of the American Revolution hardly differed from those of Jefferson.