Conference Paper (unpublished)

John Adams and The British Question



Nicolson C & Dudley Edwards O (2014) John Adams and The British Question. British Group in Early American History Annual Conference, University of Edinburgh, 04.09.2014-07.09.2014.

On 18 Sept. 2014 the Scottish people will exercise a “sovereign power” to determine their own future (Sillars); they also will be shaping the future of the Great Britain. While colonial Americans did not have the concision of a nationwide referendum, before the Continental Congress declared independence communities seized opportunities to vote on their futures (Maier). The British Question—whither the constitutional future of the United Kingdom—was as central to the American debates as it is to the Scottish. It exercised Americans’ minds as much the ideological imperatives and the politics of fear generated by the Independence Question. John Adams’s twelve Novanglus essays serialized in the Boston Gazette 23 Jan.-17 Apr. 1775 are a fecund if abstruse source to examine the transformation in American views on the British Question. Revolution historiography has tended to assume that Novanglus reveals more about ideology than constitutional law or British history and Adams biographers have yet to consider in detail how engagement with the British Question aided Adams’s transformation into a revolutionary. Drawing upon a book in progress, we offer the following points for discussion (Nicolson and Edwards) First, writing Novanglus made John Adams (1735-1826) a revolutionary, for he ended up justifying revolution to himself. Adams did not yet openly advocate independence; in keeping with mainstream American Patriot aspirations he initially envisaged rolling back a decade of British policies. But in the course of twelve weeks writing Novanglus Adams came to deny the legal existence of the British Empire. Second, Adams proposed a much-altered constitutional between America and Britain, stripping the British parliament of any authority within America. Adams made a compelling case for colonial autonomy under British monarchy via extended tours of British constitutional law and the comparative histories of Massachusetts, England, Wales, Ireland, and Scotland. Yet, in making his case, Adams effectively dismantled the constitutional apparatus that bound Americans and Britons, undermined monarchy itself, excoriated the British for abandoning English constitutional principles, and justified colonial popular sovereignty and the right of revolution. Third, Adams’s meanderings were impelled by anxiety for country, family, and friends but historians have ignored the personal dimensions in the writing of Novanglus. Adams was replying primarily to the Loyalist Massachusettensis letters, which he assumed was authored by close friend Jonathan Sewall (1729-96), the Massachusetts attorney general; historians have since concluded that Massachusettensis was work of another Loyalist lawyer, Daniel Leonard. XXXXXX. Fourth, we conclude that the friendship dimension shaped Adams’s thoughts and writings on the British Question. The writing was manifestly intellectual, cathartic and personal; the prose lucid yet both artful and candid, the arguments both logical and emotional. In January 1775, Adams was not so much entering a fresh contest as aiming to crown a long standing friendly rivalry with Sewall. “Novanglus” became John Adams’s alter ego, helping him choose independence over empire, and put his country before king and friends. The argument, therefore, was conducted on two conscious levels: (a) a formal debate between two literary personae (“Novanglus” and “Massachusettensis”) who pondered the British Question and the Independence Question as lawyers, friends, and adversaries; Adams endeavored to prevent his friend becoming his enemy, while Sewall strove to prevent Adams succumbing to treason and a rebel’s punishmentXXXXXXX

John Adams; American Revolution; Novanglus; Massachusettensis; debate; ideology; constitutional history; Britain and the American Revolution; sovereignty; conquest

Publication date31/12/2014
Related URLs
Publisher URL…nce/2014prog.pdf
ConferenceBritish Group in Early American History Annual Conference
Conference locationUniversity of Edinburgh

People (1)


Dr Colin Nicolson
Dr Colin Nicolson

Senior Lecturer, History

Files (1)