A Case of Identity: John Adams and Massachusettensis



Nicolson C, Dudley Edwards O, Macpherson J & Nicolson K (2018) A Case of Identity: John Adams and Massachusettensis. New England Quarterly, 91 (4), pp. 651-682.

This article undertakes an interdisciplinary reexamination of the claims of American revolutionary John Adams (1735–1826) that Jonathan Sewall (1729–96) was a lead author of the influential Loyalist tracts Massachusettensis (Dec. 12, 1774–April 3, 1775). The Massachusettensis letters constitute the most cogent articulation of Loyalist ideology on the eve of the American Revolution. Adams replied with his Novanglus letters (Jan. 23–April 17, 1775). While Adams believed that Sewall was the author or coauthor of Massachusettensis, scholars subsequently attributed sole authorship to Daniel Leonard (1740–1829), a Loyalist refugee who claimed authorship whilst in exile in England. After reviewing the historical and literary evidence and the results of authorship attribution tests, we proffer four historiographical conclusions. First, Massachusettensis was probably coauthored by Leonard and Sewall with Sewall exercising editorial direction over this and other Loyalist propaganda. This validates Adams’s contention that Sewall had a principal role in Massachusettensis’s composition. Second, Adams’s presumption of Sewall’s authorship shaped the writing of both Massachusettensis and Novanglus, as revealed in a critical reading of the debate. Third, Adams biographers and Revolution scholars have underestimated the extent to which the literary contest with “Massachusettensis” was instrumental in John Adams’s radicalization. Fourth, the Novanglus-Massachusettensis debate was shrouded in friendship: publicly it encapsulated the signal ideological differences between Patriots and Loyalists while privately crowning a friendly rivalry between Adams and Sewall of fifteen years’ standing. Their friendship may have facilitated communication between British headquarters and the American rebels in the weeks preceding the outbreak of military hostilities. In sum, this article demonstrates the vitality of friendship as an analytical category for political history. Friendship has been under studied by historians of the American Revolutionary Era but the Revolution was at its most revolutionary in the division of intimate friends like Adams and Sewall.

author attribution methods; Jonathan Sewall; Daniel Leonard; John Adams; Novanglus; Massachusettensis; 1775; authorship

New England Quarterly: Volume 91, Issue 4

Publication date31/12/2018
Publication date online01/12/2018
Date accepted by journal23/08/2018

People (2)


Dr Jamie Macpherson
Dr Jamie Macpherson

Academic Skills Advisor, Administration

Dr Colin Nicolson
Dr Colin Nicolson

Senior Lecturer, History