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Loyalists and Patriots Debate the American Revolution

As C. Bradley Thompson notes in the Liberty Fund edition of Adam’s Revolutionary Writings: Upon his return from the Continental Congress in the fall of 1774, Adams was met with a series of powerful and lucid essays in the Massachusetts Gazette defending the principles and policies of British officialdom and challenging the claims of the American Whigs. Writing over the pseudonym Massachusettensis, Daniel Leonard argued that the constitutional authority of Parliament did and must extend to the colonies. Theoretically, the colonies must be under the sovereignty of Parliament, Leonard insisted, because “two supreme or independent authorities cannot exist in the same state.” Such an imperium in imperio was absurd and a contradiction in terms. According to Leonard, there could be “no possible medium between absolute independence” on the one hand, and “subjection to the authority of Parliament” on the other. Historians have long recognized the importance of Adams’s Novanglus letters to the Revolutionary cause. They were not only a close, point-by-point refutation of Leonard’s argument, but they represent the most advanced Patriot argument against British imperial policy. The “Novanglus” letters were a systematic attempt by Adams to describe the origins, nature, and jurisdictional boundaries of the imperial British constitution. The central question that sparked Adams to write was clear and simple: Does the authority of Parliament extend to the colonies? In exhaustive and sometimes painstaking detail, Adams plumbs the depths of English and colonial legal history to demonstrate that the provincial legislatures are fully sovereign over their own internal affairs, and that the colonies are connected to Great Britain only through a modified feudal allegiance with the person of the King.

For additional information about the American Founding see the following:

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