One of the most common question successful revolutionaries ask themselves afterward is ‘what have I done?’ During their retirement John Adams and Thomas Jefferson grappled with the question of what actually happened during the Revolution. Jefferson’s answer was that no one could ever describe it. “Nobody; except merely it’s external facts. All it’s councils … which are the life and soul of history must be forever unknown.”
Adam’s memorable response was to question whether the Revolution happened when people thought it did. Their exchange frames the great debates of today in the most striking form. Where is this crisis leading? And when is it happening? To some extent the crisis is unfolding in the change in attitudes that are taking place today. It is entirely possible that today is the revolution.
As elder statesmen, reconciled correspondents, and avid readers, it is not surprising that Adams and Jefferson, in their retirement, periodically asked and offered their individual reflections and informed thinking on their own historical reading. One such exchange between the men in the summer of 1815 ensued over who was best able to write a history of the American Revolution, the important epoch in the nation’s history in which they had each invested their sacred honors and much political capital. How did they see the history of the Revolution being writ ten and whom did they deem worthy to write it? Was such history the domain of its firsthand participants and actors, those heroes of the battlefield and politicians of the chamber, or was history within the purview of more distant observers and spectators? Who, they pondered, had the right to carry the mantle of the Revolution?
Jefferson replied from Monticello to Adams’s query: “On the subject of the history of the American revolution, you ask Who shall write it? Who can write it? And who ever will be able to write it? Nobody; except merely it’s external facts. All it’s councils, designs and discussions, having been conducted by Congress with closed doors, and no member, as far as I know, having even made notes of them, these, which are the life and soul of history must be forever unknown.”
Jefferson’s observation that the full ramifications of what they achieved “must be forever unknown” demonstrates his intuitive understanding of emergent events. It was as if he himself stood on the threshold of the mystery of his own creation; or rather the joint creation of many. It had been born almost like a human, full of tendencies and hidden currents that would only become known with the passage of years. Adam’s response demonstrated something else: that Revolution may not have taken place in the obvious “external facts”. It had a secret history that was even more impenetrable.
“As to the history of the Revolution, my Ideas may be peculiar, perhaps singular. What do we Mean by the Revolution? The War? That was no part of the Revolution. It was only an Effect and Consequence of it. The Revolution was in the Minds of the People, and this was effected, from 1760 to 1775, in the course of fifteen Years before a drop of blood was drawn at Lexington. The Records of thirteen Legislatures, the Pamphlets, Newspapers in all the Colonies ought to be consulted, during that Period to ascertain the Steps by which the Public Opinion was enlightened and informed concerning the Authority of Parliament over the Colonies.”
“The Revolution was in the Minds of the People, and this was effected, from 1760 to 1775, in the course of fifteen Years before a drop of blood was drawn at Lexington.” Here, nearly 250 years ago, was Adams talking about memes and cognitive warfare, and the possibility that changes in attitudes and modes of thinking were in fact where America was born. Today the world is by increasingly perceived as being in the throes of a huge change. Who can write the history of it? And where and when are these events taking place?