Poor John Adams. In his lifetime he was abused and taunted and ignored. He had little charisma and bad personal skills. He suffered from arthritis, baldness, heartburn — oh, and he contracted smallpox from a vaccine. For nearly two centuries, poor Adams was the forgotten slice of American cheese sandwiched between thick slabs of Washington and Jefferson. As the Park Ranger at the Adams National Historical Site told us, “If anyone had claimed that John Adams was their favorite president before John McCullough’s biography, I’d have called them a liar.”
Which brings us to this false quote. It’s said that Adams claimed that during the American Revolution, “One third supported the war, one third opposed it, and one third had no opinion.” We had the good fortune to see Mr. McCullough at a 92nd Street Y event for his book 1776 and ask him to debunk this for the audience.
This quote first appeared in George Sydney Fisher’s, The True History of the American Revolution (1902), and is actually a paraphrase of something Adams wrote to James Lloyd in 1813. The key phrase is “the war.” Adams was not referring to the American Revolution but the French Revolution, and how Americans felt about that.
Here’s the full quote: “If I were called to calculate the divisions among the people of America, as Mr. Burke did those of the people of England, I should say that full one third were averse to the revolution. These, retaining that overweening fondness, in which they had been educated, for the English, could not cordially like the French; indeed, they most heartily detested them. An opposite third conceived a hatred for the English, and gave themselves up to an enthusiastic gratitude to France. The middle third, composed principally of the yeomanry, the soundest part of the nation and always averse to war, were rather lukewarm to both England and France…”
In context, it’s clear that Adams was talking about the French Revolution, and indeed other reports at the time of the revolution — our revolution — prove that the colonies were overwhelmingly united in opposition to the British. Not only did our forefathers manage to fight a guerrilla war against His Majesty’s forces from Georgia to the then-territory of Maine, but the Continental Army even launched an invasion of Canada in an effort to take the war to the British on their home turf. That wouldn’t have been possible with only a third of the population in support of independence.