Academic journal article Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation

The Invention of a Public Machine for Revolutionary Sentiment: The Boston Committee of Correspondence

Academic journal article Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation

The Invention of a Public Machine for Revolutionary Sentiment: The Boston Committee of Correspondence

Article excerpt

What do we mean by the American Revolution? Do we mean the American War? The Revolution was effected before the War commenced. The Revolution was in the minds and hearts of the people, a change in their religious sentiments of their duties and obligations .... The people of America had been educated in a habitual affection for England as their mother country; and while they thought her a kind and tender parent (erroneously enough, however, for she never was such a mother) no affection could be more sincere. But when they found her a cruel beldam, willing, like Lady Macbeth, to "dash their brains out," it is no wonder if their filial affections ceased and were changed into indignation and horror. This radical change in the principles, opinions, sentiments and affections of the people was the real American Revolution. . . .

The colonies had grown up under constitutions of government so different; there was so great a variety of religions; . . . their customs, manners, and habits had so little resemblance; and their intercourse had been so rare and their knowledge of each other so imperfect that to unite them in the same principles in theory and the same system of action was certainly a very difficult enterprise. The complete accomplishment of it in so short a time and by such simple means was perhaps a singular example in the history of mankind. Thirteen clocks were made to strike together; a perfection of mechanism which no artist had ever before effected.1

In this justly famous passage from a letter to a newspaper editor in 1818, John Adams links political revolution to a "radical change" in the "minds and hearts of the people." To convey the pervasiveness of this revolution in popular sentiments, Adams describes a metamorphosis worthy of gothic fiction: England, as the "mother country" of the colonist, had appeared to be their "kind and tender parent," who was worthy of "habitual affection;" but she turned out to be a "cruel beldam," which the OED defines as "[a] loathsome old woman, a hag; a witch," who was willing, "like Lady Macbeth, to 'dash their brains out.'" The misogynistic excess of this representation of England offers a way to transport the violence of revolutionary sentiments to a later epoch, when the American Revolution had become an object of study and commemoration. However, a revolution in sentiment does not a political revolution make. So Adams also describes the single greatest obstacle to revolution: the many, historically ingrained differences (of government, religion, custom, manner, etc.) that divided the thirteen colonies from each other. In order to oppose England and make a revolution, it was necessary to "unite them in the same principles in theory and the same system of action." Assuming the posture of a student of the "history of mankind," Adams wonders that this unity was achieved with unprecedented speed ("so short a time") and economy ("by such simple means"). Adams's striking mechanical analogy for contriving this unity of action, "Thirteen clocks were made to strike together," suggests the practice of political craft (in Greek, tedine) that is unprecedented: "a perfection of mechanism which no artist had ever before effected." But how was such ideological unity (of "principles in theory") secured? How was such synchronous unity of action achieved? In this essay 1 will argue that the Town of Boston's invention of the standing committee of correspondence provided an interface for arousing and unifying sentiments and translating them into concerted action. In the first part of this essay, I will describe the formation of the Boston Committee and the success of its address to the other towns of Massachusetts, and consider why contemporaries admired or excoriated it. In the second part of the essay, I will read the rhetoric of the committee's pamphlet, the first popular declaration of the revolutionary era, to understand how its articulation of sentiments could fuse many of it adherents into a "we" that took consequential action. …

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