John Adams’s Rule of Thirds

Portrait of John Adams, circa 1816, by Samuel Morse
Portrait of John Adams, circa 1816, by Samuel Morse. Current location: Brooklyn Museum

Dear Mr. History:

I often hear that John Adams estimated that one-third of Americans supported the Revolution, one-third opposed it, and one-third was neutral.  That doesn’t seem right to me.  Does that mean that the Loyalist and Patriot efforts were about equal?  Was Adams correct in this?  Sincerely, One-third Skeptical

Dear One-Third:

Don’t hang your tri-cornered hat on those percentages.  This famous quote comes from a letter Adams wrote in 1815 to Massachusetts Senator James Lloyd, saying “I should say that full one third were averse to the revolution…. An opposite third… gave themselves up to an enthusiastic gratitude to France.  The middle third,… always averse to war, were rather lukewarm both to England and France;….”  Truth is, Adams was not addressing America’s rebellion – he was writing about American attitudes towards the French Revolution, when Americans grappled with either supporting France or maintaining commercial ties with Britain.  The mistake appears to stem from historian Sydney George Fisher, who misinterpreted Adams’s meaning in his 1908 book, The Struggle for American Independence, Volume I.  Others, reading the quote without the full context of Adams’s letter, have repeated the error ever since.  In Fisher’s defense, it is easy to get the context of the passage wrong because it’s buried in the middle of a somewhat windy paragraph that jumps around with references to multiple topics, years, and other correspondence.  And that paragraph is buried in the middle of a somewhat windy letter (at 2,105 words) which also jumps around with references to multiple topics, years, and other correspondence.  Fisher may have missed the point because he got tired of looking for it.

Some insight into Adams’s thoughts on popular support of the American Revolution – and into the differences of opinion on the subject – is in an 1813 Adams letter of his to old Continental Congress friend, Delaware’s Thomas McKean.  McKean was writing about the Revolution and proposed that “The great mass of the people were zealous in the cause of America” during the Stamp Act crisis, but Adams disagreed with the statement.  He reminded McKean about the strength of Loyalist sentiment in America and added, “Upon the whole, if we allow two thirds of the people to have been with us in the revolution, is not the allowance ample?”  Modern studies allow us to put a finer point on Adams’s estimate.  Fair warning to any readers who are, like me, former infantrymen – the next two paragraphs have a lot of numbers.

Let’s start with some basics.  According to the U.S. Census Bureau the population of the 13 American colonies in 1770 was 2.1 million people, including about 459,000 slaves.  In 1776, the population of the colonies (then the United States) had grown to 2.5 million.  In 1780 it was 2.7 million.  Such growth makes figuring general percentages of Loyalists a challenge because the population baseline was a moving target.  Sentiments also varied by region, opinions about the Rebellion changed over time, and loyalties shifted.  And with a population of over 2 million, in an era before the emergence of political opinion polling (that occurred in the nineteenth century), the views of most Americans went unrecorded because nobody ever asked them what they thought.  Knocking on doors and polling about loyalties would not have been a wise practice during the Revolution anyhow.  At best, you’d get a door slammed in your face.  At worst you could wind up tarred and feathered, which made for messy record keeping.

But you can still draw some conclusions through a review of period records and the application of statistical analysis, ratios, and other mathematics that I failed in high school. Historian Thomas Fleming offers that there may have been 75,000 to 100,000 Loyalists in America during the Revolution and that 60,000 to 80,000 fled after the war.  In a thorough 1968 study, historian Paul H. Smith estimated that Loyalists comprised about 16% of America’s total population and a precise 19.8% of free citizens.  And historian Robert Calhoon wrote that probably 15 to 20% of adult white males remained loyal to Britain, and that 40 to 45% of the free population, “at most no more than a bare majority” actively supported the Patriots.

Let’s add some context to the numbers, because even the U.S. Census Bureau – the oracle of counting people – has called statistics “a valuable adjunct to historical analysis,” (my emphasis).  Minority though they were, the Loyalists still presented significant opposition to the Patriots.  In his 1813 letter to McKean, Adams acknowledged the difficulties of overcoming Loyalist opposition in New York, Pennsylvania and in the South.  About 19,000 men served in American provincial regiments according to Paul Smith, and they fought with conviction.  Loyalists played major roles in the New York campaign, on the frontier, raiding Connecticut, in the Mohawk Valley, and especially at battles such as Camden, King’s Mountain, Cowpens, and Guilford Court House, among others.  But in comparison to their numbers, note that over 100,000 men served in the Continental Army over the course of the war, not counting the militia.  In this light the Loyalist and Patriot efforts were nowhere near equal.

The bottom line is that although significant divisions existed in America during the Revolution, the Loyalists never coalesced into an opposition group with the same strength as the Patriot cause.  John Adams pointed to one legacy from the Loyalist population when he told Thomas McKean, “Divided we ever have been, and ever must be.” When you wonder if America is “divided” today, it’s good to remember that we’ve been that way since the beginning.

Of course you’ll want to read up on this yourself.  To fully understand Adams you can’t do better than David McCullough’s biography, John Adams.  For a detailed study on the strength of Loyalists, read “The American Loyalists: Notes on Their Organization and Numerical Strength,” by Paul H. Smith, in the William and Mary Quarterly 25 (1968), available on JSTOR.  For a great fictional account of the Revolution from a Loyalist standpoint, check out Oliver Wiswell, by Kenneth Roberts.

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  • In other writings Adams repeated the estimate, saying that “about a third of the people in the colonies were against the revolution,” Thomas McKean to John Adams, Jan. 1814, John Adams, “The Works of John Adams, Second President of the United States: with a Life of the Author, Notes and Illustrations,” ed. Charles Francis Adams (Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1856), X, 187; also, Adams stated that British ministries had “seduced and deluded nearly one third of the people in the colonies,” John Adams to Dr. J. Morse, 22 Dec. 1815, ibid., X, 193; finally, describing the membership of the First Continental Congress, Adams said “To draw the characters of them all . . . would not be considered as a caricature-print; one-third tories, another whigs, and the rest mongrels.” John Adams to Thomas Jefferson, 12 Nov. 1813, ibid., X, 79.

  • Let’s face it, Americans love grouping things into thirds nearly as much as they love lists. It’s simple organization. Historian J. L. Bell pointed to Adams’s memories of the Boston Massacre as evidence that Adams tended to exaggerate the number of strength of the people opposed to him. And that’s nothing new for the time. In my study of American Revolution-era newspapers, the most common propaganda tactic was to inflate the number of your enemy and deflate your own.

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