The Life of John Adams, by Charles Henry Adams
Editors Note: This is Volume 1 of the 10 Volume “The Works of John Adams”, (Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1856). The author, Charles Henry Adams is John Adams grandson. The copyright for the original text is in the Public Domain because its copyright has expired. The font, formatting, and spelling modernizations of this version of The Works of John Adams, as well as all other Americanist Library and Founders Corner selections are, unless otherwise specified, Copyright © 2011 Steve Farrell.
Study and Practice of the Law until March, 1770.
From the time of the admission of Mr. Adams to the bar, he resided at his father’s house, in Braintree; and, after the decease of his father, which happened on the 25th of May, 1761, he remained with his mother, until his marriage, in 1764. The earlier part of this time was a period of intense anxiety to him with regard to his prospects in life. An obscure village of New England, in a family alike unknown to fortune and to fame, was a scene little adapted to promote his advancement in either. In the following extracts from his journal, the reader will find an exposition of the thoughts which occupied his leisure; of the studies that he pursued; of his constant observation upon men and manners within the contracted circle of acquaintance with whom he habitually associated, and of that severe and rigorous self-examination and censure to which he had accustomed himself, and in which he reduced to effective practice the precept of Pythagoras.
“Æt. xxiii. 1759. The other night, the choice of Hercules came into my mind, and left impressions there which I hope will never be effaced, nor long unheeded. I thought of writing a fable on the same plan, but accommodated, by omitting some circumstances and inserting others, to my own case. Let virtue address me.
“Which, dear youth, will you prefer, a life of effeminacy, indolence, and obscurity, or a life of industry, temperance, and honor? Take my advice; rise and mount your horse by the morning’s dawn, and shake away, amidst the great and beautiful scenes of nature that appear at that time of the day, all the crudities that are left in your stomach, and all the obstructions that are left in your brains. Then return to your studies, and bend your whole soul to the institutes of the law and the reports of cases that have been adjusted by the rules in the institutes. Let no trifling diversion, or amusement, or company, decoy you from your books; i. e. no girl, no gun, no cards, no flutes, no violins, no dress, no tobacco, no laziness.1
“Labor to get distinct ideas of law, right, wrong, justice, equity; search for them in your own mind, in Roman, Grecian, French, English treatises of natural, civil, common, statute law. Aim at an exact knowledge of the nature, end, and means of government. Compare the different forms of it with each other, and each of them with their effects on public and private happiness. Study Seneca, Cicero, and all other good moral writers; study Montesquieu, Bolingbroke, Vinnius, &c., and all other good civil writers.”
“Æt. xxv. 1760. I have read a multitude of law books; mastered but few. Wood, Coke, two volumes Lillie’s Abridgment, two volumes Salkeld’s Reports, Swinburne, Hawkins’s Pleas of the Crown, Fortescue, Fitzgibbon, ten volumes in folio, I read at Worcester quite through, besides octavos and lesser volumes, and many others, of all sizes, that I consulted occasionally without reading in course, as dictionaries, reporters, entries, and abridgments.
“I cannot give so good an account of the improvement of my last two years spent in Braintree. However, I have read no small number of volumes upon the law the last two years. Justinian’s Institutes I have read through in Latin, with Vinnius’s perpetual notes; Van Muyden’s Tractatio Institutionum Justiniani, I read through and translated mostly into English, from the same language. Wood’s Institute of the Civil Law I read through. These on the civil law. On the law of England, I read Cowell’s Institute of the Laws of England, in imitation of Justinian, Doctor and Student, Finch’s Discourse of Law, Hale’s History, and some reporters, cases in chancery, Andrews, &c., besides occasional searches for business. Also a General Treatise of Naval Trade and Commerce, as founded on the laws and statutes. All this series of reading has left but faint impressions, and a very imperfect system of law in my head.
“I must form a serious resolution of beginning and pressing quite through the plans of my lords Hale and Reeve. Wood’s Institutes of Common Law I never read but once, and my Lord Coke’s Commentary on Littleton I never read but once. These two authors I must get and read over and over again. And I will get them, too, and break through, as Mr. Gridley expressed it, all obstructions. Besides, I am but a novice in natural law and civil law. There are multitudes of excellent authors on natural law that I have never read; indeed, I never read any part of the best authors, Puffendorf and Grotius. In the civil law there are Hoppius and Vinnius, Commentators on Justinian, Domat, &c., besides institutes of canon and feudal law that I have to read.1
“. . . Pretensions to wisdom and virtue, superior to all the world, will not be supported by words only. If I tell a man I am wiser and better than he or any other man, he will either despise, or hate, or pity me, perhaps all three. I have not conversed enough with the world to behave rightly. I talk to Paine about Greek; that makes him laugh. I talk to Sam. Quincy about resolution, and being a great man, and study, and improving time; which makes him laugh. I talk to Ned about the folly of affecting to be a heretic; which makes him mad. I talk to Hannah and Esther about the folly of love; about despising it; about being above it; pretend to be insensible of tender passions; which makes them laugh. I talk to Mr. Wibird about the decline of learning; tell him I know no young fellow who promises to make a figure; cast sneers on Dr. Marsh for not knowing the value of old Greek and Roman authors; ask when will a genius rise that will shave his beard, or let it grow rather, and sink himself in a cell in order to make a figure. I talk to Parson Smith about despising gay dress, grand buildings and estates, fame, &c., and being contented with what will satisfy the real wants of nature.
“All this is affectation and ostentation. It is affectation of learning, and virtue, and wisdom, which I have not; and it is a weak fondness to show all that I have, and to be thought to have more than I have.
“Besides this, I have insensibly fallen into a habit of affecting wit and humor, of shrugging my shoulders, and moving, distorting the muscles of my face. My motions are stiff and uneasy, ungraceful, and my attention is unsteady and irregular.
“These are reflections on myself that I make. They are faults, defects, fopperies, and follies and disadvantages. Can I mend these faults, and supply these defects?”
During his residence at Worcester, in 1757, Mr. Adams became personally acquainted with Jonathan Sewall, a young man descended from one of the most distinguished families of the province, but who, like himself, had inherited nothing from his ancestors but a college education and poverty. He was about seven years older than Mr. Adams, but was admitted only a short time before him to the bar. In 1757 and 1758, Sewall, who then resided at Salem, attended the sessions of the superior court at Worcester, and spent his evenings in Colonel Putnam’s office with Mr. Adams, who was then a student there. Congenial tastes and sentiments soon bred a warm and intimate friendship between them, rendered interesting not only by its pleasing and long-continued intercourse of mutual good offices and kindness, but painfully so by its subsequent dissolution occasioned by the different sides which they took in the Revolution of Independence.
In the preface to the republication of the controversial essays, under the respective signatures of Novanglus and Massachusettensis, Mr. Adams, in 1819, so shortly before his own death, gave an account of Jonathan Sewall, and of the friendship which had subsisted between them.1 Of their correspondence, a few small fragments only are known to remain. Mr. Adams, at that time, kept few and imperfect copies of his letters, and of those of Mr. Sewall to him none have been found among his papers. The following extracts from the copies of letters written in 1759, 1760, and 1761, are submitted to the reader as characteristic of their author at that period of his life, and while yet under the age of twenty-five.
[Note, by the Editor. The first of the three letters intended for insertion here has been printed in the “Diary,” in the immediate connection in which the copy of it occurs in the manuscript.2 In the place it was to occupy, one of three early letters of Mr. Sewall, which a closer examination of Mr. Adams’s papers has revealed, is introduced. It is particularly appropriate, as being the one which called out the succeeding letter of Mr. Adams, that made the second of the original series. It is of value on other accounts. It discloses a project entertained at this time by Mr. Adams, though somewhat feebly, it would seem, of removing to Providence, no trace of which is found elsewhere. It likewise explains the purpose of the correspondence, which was mutual improvement, by stimulating the investigation of questions of law. But beyond and above all these, it sets in full light the genuine nature of the bond of sympathy between these young men, brought up in a small town of an obscure colonial settlement, with few objects immediately before them to excite their ambition or to nurse the purest aspirations. In this respect it may reasonably be doubted whether the lapse of time and the great change of circumstances in America, though opening an incomparably greater field of exertion to human abilities, have done any thing to improve upon the motives or principles here shown as setting them in motion.]
JONATHAN SEWALL TO JOHN ADAMS.
Charlestown, 13 February, 1760.
In my last, if I rightly remember, I joined with you in your panegyric on the superior rewards which ancient Rome proposed to application and study, and in your satire on those despicable præmia, which we, whose lot it is to live in the infant state of a new world, can rationally expect. But perhaps we have both been too hasty in our conclusions; possibly, if we pierce through the glare of false glory, too apt to dazzle and deceive the intellectual eye; if, in order to the forming a just estimate, we secrete the genuine from the imaginary rewards, we may find the difference much less than at first sight we are apt to conceive. For, let us, if you please, my friend, consider what was the palm for which the Roman orator ran. It was the plaudit of a people at that time sunk into a most shameful effeminacy of manners, governed by a spirit of faction and licentiousness, to which this father of his country at length fell himself a sacrifice. It was the highest post of honor in that august empire, which hath since fallen an easy prey to Goths, Visigoths, Vandals, and other barbarians and uncivilized nations of the north. It was to be the first man in that Roma Æterna, which but for the names of Brutus, Cæsar, Cicero, Catiline, and a few other patriots, tyrants, orators, and conspirators, which have been perpetuated by the eminence of their owners in their respective employments, had been long since buried in eternal oblivion. To be caressed, applauded, and deified by Roman citizens, to be raised to the highest honors which Rome, the mistress of the world, could give, are rewards, it must be confessed, in their nature more dazzling, and, to an unthinking mind, more captivating and alluring to the toils of indefatigable study and close thinking; and in these, it will be acknowledged, Cicero had greatly the advantage of us. But are these the most striking? Are there not others, which we, as well as Cicero, have in prospect, infinitely superior in their nature, more refined, more lasting? What think you, my friend, of the inward pleasure and satisfaction which the human mind receiveth from the acquisition of knowledge? What of the rational delight which the benevolent man experienceth in the capacity and opportunity of doing good to his fellow-men? What of the heartfelt joy which the man of virtue overflows with, in relieving and supporting distressed innocence and goodness, and in detecting and punishing insolent vice?
But Cicero’s name has been handed down through many ages with admiration and applause. So may yours. “Worth makes the man,” forms the character, and perpetuates his memory. Cicero is not revered because he was Rome’s consul. Had his orations been delivered in the little senate of Lilybæum or Syracuse, yet still they would have been esteemed as they are by all men of learning, and perhaps would have perpetuated the names of Lilybæum and Syracuse for many ages after they shall now be forgotten. And had A—n lived in Rome, it is more than probable we should never have heard his name. It is not the place where a man lives, nor his titles of honor in that place, which will procure him esteem with succeeding generations, though, perhaps, for the present, it may command the outward respect of the unthinking mob, for the most part dazzled with the parade and pomp of nobility. But if, in the estimation of the world, a man’s worth riseth in proportion to the greatness of his country, who knows but in future ages, when New England shall have risen to its intended grandeur, it shall be as carefully recorded among the registers of the literati, that Adams flourished in the second century after the exode of its first settlers from Great Britain, as it is now that Cicero was born in the six hundred and forty-seventh year after the building of Rome?
A man, by will, gives his negro his liberty, and leaves him a legacy. The executor consents that the negro shall be free, but refuseth to give bond to the selectmen to indemnify the town against any charge for his support, in case he should become poor, (without which, by the province law, he is not manumitted,) or to pay him the legacy.
Query. Can he recover the legacy, and how?
I have just observed that in your last you desire me to say something towards discouraging you from removing to Providence; and you say, any thing will do. At present, I only say, you will do well enough where you are. I will explain myself, and add something further, in some future letter. I have not time to enlarge now, for which I believe you will not be inconsolably grieved. So, to put you out of pain, your hearty friend,
P. S. I hope you’ll write me soon. I think you are scrupulously exact in writing only in turn.
P. P. S. I am now going through Coke Littleton again, and I suppose you are likewise. If you make any new observations as you go along, or if any questions arise in your mind, it may possibly be of mutual advantage to communicate them. I shall do the same. This may, in some measure, answer the end of reading him together, which, I am persuaded, would be eminently beneficial, at least to
JOHN ADAMS TO JONATHAN SEWALL.
I am very willing to join with you in renouncing the reasoning of some of our last letters.
There is but little pleasure, which reason can approve, to be received from the noisy applause and servile homage that is paid to any officer, from the lictor to the dictator, or from the sexton of a parish to the sovereign of a kingdom. And reason will despise equally a blind, undistinguishing adoration of what the world calls fame. She is neither a goddess to be loved, nor a demon to be feared, but an unsubstantial phantom, existing only in imagination.
But with all this contempt, give me leave to reserve (for I am sure that reason will warrant) a strong affection for the honest approbation of the wise and good both in the present and in all future generations. Mistake not this for an expectation of the life to come, in the poet’s creed. Far otherwise. I expect to be totally forgotten within seventy years from the present hour, unless the insertion of my name in the college catalogue should luckily preserve it longer. When heaven designs an extraordinary character, one that shall distinguish his path through the world by any great effects, it never fails to furnish the proper means and opportunities; but the common herd of mankind, who are to be born, and eat, and sleep, and die, and be forgotten, is thrown into the world, as it were, at random, without any visible preparation of accommodations. Yet, though I have very few hopes, I am not ashamed to own that a prospect of an immortality in the memories of all the worthy, to the end of time, would be a high gratification to my wishes.
But to return. Tully, therefore, had but few advantages, in the estimation of reason, more than we have, for a happy life. He had greater political objects to tempt his ambition. He had better opportunities to force the hosannas of his countrymen. But these are not advantages for happiness. On the contrary, the passions which these objects were designed to gratify, were so many stings forever smarting in his mind, which, at last, goaded him into that excess of vanity and pusillanimity, for which he has been as often blamed as ever he was praised for his genius and his virtues. It is true, he had abler masters, and more opportunities for instructive conversation, in a city so fruitful of great men. But, in other respects, the rational sources of pleasure have been much enlarged since his day.
In the acquisition of knowledge, without which it would be a punishment to live, we have much greater advantages (whatever some ingenious men may say), than he had or could have. For the improvements in navigation, and the surprising augmentation of commerce, by spreading civilized nations round the globe, and sending men of letters into all countries, have multiplied the means of information concerning the planet we inhabit. And the invention of the art of printing has perpetuated and cheapened the means of every kind of knowledge, beyond what could have been imagined in his day. Besides, Europe has been, ever since his death, the constant theatre of surprising characters, actions, events, revolutions, which have been preserved in a sufficient plenty of memorials to constitute a series of political knowledge, of a greater variety of characters, more important events, and more complicated circumstances, and, of consequence, better adapted for an agreeable entertainment to the mind, than any that the world had ever known in his times. And, perhaps, there never was before, nor has been since his day, a period abounding with greater heroes and politicians, or with more surprising actions and events, than that in which we live.
In metaphysics, Mr. Locke, directed by my Lord Bacon, has steered his course into the unenlightened regions of the human mind, and, like Columbus, has discovered a new world. A world whose soil is deep and strong; producing rank and unwholesome weeds, as well as wholesome fruits and flowers. A world that is incumbered with unprofitable brambles, as well as stored with useful trees; and infested with motley savages, as well as capable of furnishing civilized inhabitants. He has shown us by what cultivation these weeds may be exterminated, and the fruits raised; the brambles removed as well as the trees grubbed; the savages destroyed as well as the civil people increased. Here is another hemisphere of science, therefore, abounding with pleasure and with profit, too, of which he had but very few, and we have many advantages for learning.
But in mathematics, and what is founded on them, astronomy and philosophy, the modern discoveries have done honor to the human understanding. Here is the true sphere of modern genius. What a noble prospect of the universe have these men opened before us! Here I see millions of worlds and systems of worlds, swarming with inhabitants all engaged in the same active investigation of the great system of universal and eternal truth, and overflowing with felicity. And, while I am ravished with such contemplations as these, it imports me little on what ground I tread, or in what age I live.
The intention of the testator, to be collected from the words, is to be observed in the construction of a will; and where any title to lands or goods, or any other act, is devised to any one, without any mention of something previous or concomitant, without which the act or title is not valid, in such case the thing previous or concomitant shall, by implication, be devised too; e. g.
A man devises lands and tenements to A B, the said A B paying £100 out of the same lands to B C. Here are no words of inheritance or of freehold, you see. Yet, since the testator plainly intended that £100 should be paid to B C out of the land, it must be presumed that he knew the rule of law which entitles a devisee of lands incumbered with a charge, to a fee-simple, and, therefore, a fee-simple shall pass by implication. So, also,
A man devised lands and tenements to A B, in trust for C D and his heirs. Here are no words of inheritance; yet, as he has established a trust that may last forever, he shall be presumed to have intended a fee-simple in his devise, and the devisee shall hold the tenement to himself and his own heirs forever by implication, although the cestui que trust should die heirless to-morrow.
Now. En mesure le manner. The testator intended plainly that his negro should have his liberty and a legacy; therefore the law will presume that he intended his executor should do all that without which he could have neither. That this indemnification was not in the testator’s mind, cannot be proved from the will any more than it could be proved, in the first case above, that the testator did not know a fee-simple would pass a will without the word heirs; nor than, in the second case, that the devise of a trust, that might continue forever, would convey a fee-simple without the like words. I take it, therefore, that the executor of this will is, by implication, obliged to give bonds to the town treasurer, and, in his refusal, is a wrongdoer; and I cannot think he ought to be allowed to take advantage of his own wrong, so much as to allege this want of an indemnification to evade an action of the case brought for the legacy by the negro himself.
But why may not the negro bring a special action of the case against the executor, setting forth the will, the devise of freedom and a legacy, and then the necessity of indemnification by the province law, and then a refusal to indemnify, and, of consequence, to set free and to pay the legacy?
Perhaps the negro is free at common law by the devise. Now, the province law seems to have been made only to oblige the master to maintain his manumitted slave, and not to declare a manumission in the master’s lifetime, or at his death, void. Should a master give his negro his freedom, under his hand and seal, without giving bond to the town, and should afterwards repent and endeavor to recall the negro into servitude, would not that instrument be a sufficient discharge against the master?
P. S. I felt your reproof very sensibly for being ceremonious. I must beg pardon in a style that I threatened you with as a punishment, a few letters ago.
Μηδ’ ἔχϑαιρε ϕίλον σὸν ἁμαρτάδος ἕινεκα μικρῆς.
However, it is not ceremony so much as poverty.
JOHN ADAMS TO JONATHAN SEWALL.
You have, perhaps, expected from me, according to the custom of the world, some expressions of my condolence in your loss of Judge Sewall.1 To be plain, I always feel extremely awkward, whenever I attempt, by writing or in person, to console the sorrowful, or to rejoice with those that do rejoice. I had rather conceal my own fellow-feeling in their joys or griefs, at the hazard of being thought insensible, than express any very great degree of either at the risk of being thought insincere.
The loss is certainly great to you and to the province in general; but Providence can neither be resisted, nor persuaded, nor fathomed. Implicit resignation is our greatest wisdom, both as our duty, and as the only sufficient source of tranquillity. Relying on this foundation, we should endeavor to turn our thoughts as much as we can from irretrievable misfortunes, and towards the means of procuring, according to the probabilities of things, future peace and pleasure.
And, in this view, instead of grieving excessively for what can never be avoided nor diminished, I shall be so free as to ask your opinion, and to set you on the search (if at any loss), concerning the following point of law practice. If a writ, triable before a justice, is served within six days, or five, if you please, of the time of trial; or one at court, within twelve or thirteen, what is the proper method of taking advantage of this insufficiency? Must this be pleaded in abatement, or must the action be dismissed? Must advantage be taken by motion or by plea? The law has provided that court writs shall be served fourteen days, and justices, at least, seven days, before the time of trial. And, in general, what is the method of taking advantage of insufficient services and returns?
And quære also. Suppose A leased a house, in 1756, for one year, to B, at ten pounds rent, for that year, and, after that year expired, B continued in the house another year, without any renewal of the lease, or any new contract for any certain rent. Would debt for rent, in the common form, lie, for the year 1757, at ten pounds also for that year?
Should be glad of an immediate answer to these questions, especially the last, as upon that turns an affair of importance to me.1 In the mean time wishing you, amidst all the perplexities and disappointments of this uncomfortable state, as great a share of happiness as your genius and virtues may be said, in the language of mankind, to deserve,2 I subscribe, as usual, your hearty friend,
A project has just started into my mind, of collecting the anecdotes of the lives of all the great lawyers, ancient and modern. The character of Sulpitius suggested it to me. Vide “Middleton,” vol. iii. p. 134.
In the year 1761, arose the question respecting the legality of writs of assistance, argued before the superior court of the province, by James Otis, and which Mr. Adams himself considered as the spark in which originated the American Revolution. It was, with reference to the liberties of the people, in substance the same as that upon general warrants, which, two years later, kindled a flame in the island of Great Britain. The writ of assistance is a process sometimes issued in England by the court of exchequer, and with which the officers of customs are armed with that ever odious privilege of entering private houses, shops, and warehouses, and of breaking open chests and trunks to detect smuggled goods. These writs of assistance were authorized by acts of 12 and 14 of Charles the Second, and by a subsequent statute of 7 and 8 William the Third. The provisions of the act of 14 Charles the Second, were extended to the colonies. Hutchinson, in the third volume of his “History,” published since the decease of Mr. Adams, says that Governor Shirley had been in the habit of issuing, upon his own authority, these warrants, until informed indirectly by Hutchinson himself that they were illegal, and that he then directed that application should be made for them to the superior court. No such process, however, had before issued from that court. It was novel in point of form, and odious in substance. It was sanctioned or recognized by no act of the provincial legislature, and rested upon two acts of parliament, the first passed only two years after the restoration of the Stuarts, in the spirit of the navigation acts, and the second in the reign of William the Third, sixty-five years before the time when it was to receive this new application. There can be no doubt that it was one of Hutchinson’s expedients, adopted for the promotion of his own ambition, by paying sedulous court to the government in England. Mr. Adams had been admitted at that time as a barrister at the superior court; but his practice was still very limited, and his reputation as a lawyer had not reached the capital of the province. He was attending the court as a member of the bar, and heard, with enthusiastic admiration, the argument of Otis, the effect of which was to place him at the head of that race of orators, statesmen, and patriots, by whose exertions the Revolution of American Independence was achieved. This cause was unquestionably the incipient struggle for that independence. It was to Mr. Adams like the oath of Hamilcar administered to Hannibal. It is doubtful whether Otis himself, or any person of his auditory, perceived or imagined the consequences which were to flow from the principles developed in that argument. For although, in substance, it was nothing more than the question upon the legality of general warrants—a question by which, when afterwards raised in England, in Wilkes’s case, Lord Camden himself was taken by surprise, and gave at first an incorrect decision, yet, in the hands of James Otis, this question involved the whole system of the relations of authority and subjection between the British government and their colonies in America. It involved the principles of the British constitution, and the whole theory of the social compact and the natural rights of mankind.
This argument, however, Mr. Otis appears never to have committed to writing; and but for Mr. Adams, no trace of it would, in all probability, have existed at that day. He took a few very imperfect minutes of it, as it was delivered in court. These were afterwards surreptitiously withdrawn from among his papers, and garbled with various interpolations. In that condition they came into the possession of Judge Minot, and were inserted in his “History of Massachusetts Bay,” in 1803.1 Fifty-seven years after the argument was delivered, Mr. Adams, in a series of letters to William Tudor, gave a much more minute and circumstantial account of that memorable event.1 It bears irrefragable internal evidence of its own general accuracy, and has been almost entirely transferred into the “Biographical Memoir of the Life of James Otis,” afterwards published by William Tudor, Junior. No man can attentively read it without observing, in the argument, the seeds profusely scattered of the Revolution of Independence.
The effect of the argument was electrical, although the interest upon which it could immediately operate was necessarily limited to the colony where the question arose. It was not like the Stamp Act, which bore at once upon the property and passions of the people of all the colonies. The introduction of the writs of assistance would, in the first instance, have affected only the rights of a few merchants of Boston and Salem. But the principle of tyranny was in it, and it was the natural precursor of the Stamp Act.
The doctrines of natural and of English freedom brought to bear by Mr. Otis upon this cause, awakened and startled the people of the colony. Their impression upon the mind of Mr. Adams may be imagined by those who read and will compare together the hasty minutes which he took down in court at the time, and the lucid exposition of the whole argument which nearly threescore years afterwards he gave in his letters to Judge Tudor. It is apparent that this argument opened a new world before him; and he entered it with unhesitating step.
It is said, in the third volume of Hutchinson’s “History,” that “the chief justice” (Hutchinson himself) “was desired, by the first opportunity in his power, to obtain information of the practice in England, and judgment was suspended;” that “at the next term it appeared that such writs issued from the exchequer when applied for, and this was judged sufficient to warrant the like practice in the province. A form was settled, as agreeable to the form in England as the circumstances of the colony would admit, and the writs were ordered to be issued to customhouse officers, for whom application should be made to the chief justice, by the surveyor-general of the customs.”2 But no such application was ever made, nor was such a writ ever afterwards issued.
The progress made by Mr. Adams in the practice of his profession was not so rapid but that it left him much leisure for the prosecution of his studies. On the 25th of May, 1761, his father died of an epidemic fever, which at that time prevailed in the neighborhood of his residence, and of which his mother also barely escaped being the victim. After his death, Mr. Adams continued to reside with his mother and his two younger brothers till his marriage, in 1764.
His father, grandfather, and great-grandfather had, in successive ages, served successively in the town offices of surveyor of the highways, selectmen, and assessors. The first office to which he himself was elected was that of surveyor of the highways, the duties of which he discharged with great zeal and assiduity. But he devoted himself, with all the ardor natural to his disposition, to the study of the civil law and of the laws of nature. Mr. Gridley had pointed his attention to the Institutes of Justinian, to the Code, and to the modern commentators upon them. His friend, Jonathan Sewall, was a frequent visitor at Braintree, where he was addressing Miss Esther Quincy, daughter of Edmund Quincy, Esquire, and whom Mr. Sewall afterwards married. At her father’s house the friends often met and conversed together upon general topics of literature and law, maturing their minds at the same time by occasional correspondence upon the subjects thus opened for discussion. Sewall was then a patriot as warm as his friend. The course of events afterwards, the fascinations of Hutchinson, and misunderstandings with James Otis, drew him over to the royal party, and severed, forever, his destinies from those of his native country.
On the 25th of October, 1764, Mr. Adams was married to Abigail Smith, second daughter of William Smith, minister of the first Congregational Church and Society at Weymouth, the town next adjoining to Braintree. Mrs. Adams’s mother was Elizabeth Quincy, daughter of Colonel John Quincy, of Mount Wollaston, many years representative from the town of Braintree in the Provincial Legislature, during a considerable period speaker of the House of Representatives, and afterwards a member of the Council. He had married the daughter of John Norton, the second minister of the Congregational parish at Hingham, and his mother was the daughter of Thomas Shepard, the first of the name minister of Charlestown, one of the most eminent lights of the church at the first settlement of New England. With this maternal line of descent, Colonel John Quincy united that of a parentage from Edmund Quincy and William Tyng, two of the most distinguished inhabitants of Boston at the period of its settlement, and to whom Mount Wollaston, and a large tract of the land around it upon the bay, had been granted while the mount formed a part of the town of Boston. By this marriage, Mr. Adams became allied with a numerous connection of families, among the most respectable for their weight and influence in the province, and it was immediately perceptible in the considerable increase of his professional practice.
It was a connection altogether congenial to his character in other and far more important respects. The clergymen who came over with the first settlers of the Plymouth and Massachusetts colonies were graduates at one or the other of the English universities. They had received scientific educations. They had been bred to religious and metaphysical controversy, and were masters of all the literature of the age. The ruling interest and passion of their lives was doctrinal religion, and, as they were self-exiled from their native country for opinions adverse to their own interests no less than to the established articles of faith of their church, sincerity and fortitude were among the qualities the most prominent in their characters. In such a society it was impossible but that religious controversies should form the source of much dissension, and, in the management of all religious controversy, literature is a primary agent. The ecclesiastics who appear to have exercised so eminent an influence in the settlement of New England were men of learning and of letters. Some of them were among the first scholars of the time. The fondness for literature and learning was transmitted by them to their children. John Harvard, the founder of the college at Cambridge, was one of their own number. The spirit which animated him was ardent in the bosoms of them all. Their children educated there caught the inspiration of the fountain, and it circulated through every vein and artery of their colony. John Quincy was the great-grandson of Thomas Shepard, whose eloquence in sacred oratory was, by the admiration of his contemporaries, denominated seraphic. His wife was a descendant from the family of John Norton, a name not less distinguished among the primitive pilgrims, and the seeds of classical taste and elegant literature, thus handed down through four successive generations, had lost none of their vigor and energy by the connection of his daughter with William Smith, the minister of Weymouth, himself a graduate of Harvard College.
Female education in general had been, and was yet, greatly neglected in comparison with that of the other sex. It was, comparatively, much neglected in England, where a knowledge beyond the common physical wants of the household was rather a passport to ridicule than to renown in the estimate of female reputation. In the frivolous accomplishments of modern times, the daughters of Mr. Smith were little versed, but of the literature which the constellation of poets and moralists of the reign of Queen Anne had disseminated over all the British dominions, they were possessed with a warm relish of the beauties, and with sentiments attempered to the moral principles inculcated by them. With the pages of Shakspeare and Milton, of Dryden and Pope, of Addison and Swift, they were familiar, no less than with those of Tillotson and Berkeley; nor were they unacquainted with those of Butler and Locke. In the taste for these and similar writings, Mr. Adams found in his wife a spirit congenial with his own. Perhaps no writer of any age or nation ever exercised a more beneficent influence over the taste and manners of the female sex than Addison, by the papers of the Spectator, Guardian, and Tatler. With these the daughters of Mr. Smith were, from their childhood, familiar. The sententious energy of Young, sparkling amid the gloom of his Night Thoughts, like diamonds from the lamp of a sepulchre, the patriotic and profound sensibilities of Thomson and Collins, preëminently the poets of freedom, kindling the love of country with the concentrated radiance and splendors of imagination, were felt and admired by Mrs. Adams in her youth, and never lost their value to her mind in mature age. She pointed them out to her children with the first lessons of the alphabet, and as the struggle for independence approached, the writer of this narrative and his brothers, in the days of Lexington and Bunker’s Hill, learnt from her lips, as applied to the fall of Warren, the lines of Collins, on the death of Colonel Charles Ross, addressed to a lady, which, from the memory thence dated, he now repeats.
- O’er him, whose doom thy virtues grieve,
- Aerial forms shall sit at eve
- And bend the pensive head;
- And, fallen to save his injur’d land,
- Imperial Honor’s awful hand
- Shall point his lonely bed.
In the same year of his marriage, Mr. Adams was chosen a selectman and assessor and overseer of the poor of the town of Braintree; the duties of which he discharged, as he before had those of surveyor of the highways, entirely to the satisfaction of the inhabitants. In the earlier part of the year he had gone through the smallpox by inoculation, at Boston, under the charge of Dr. Nathaniel Perkins and Joseph Warren, with the latter of whom he then formed an intimate acquaintance and friendship, and of whose skill in his profession, Mr. Adams and his family continued to enjoy the benefit until within a few weeks of the day when Warren fell, the first martyr to the liberties of his country.
In the spring of 1765, Mr. Adams, at the recommendation of Mr. Thacher, was engaged to attend the superior court at Pownalborough on Kennebec River. That place was then at almost the remotest verge of civilization, and it was with the greatest difficulty that he was enabled to reach it. After encountering the obstructions of nearly impassable roads, through an inhospitable region, and falling sick upon the way, he succeeded in reaching Pownalborough, and gained his cause, much to the satisfaction of his client. It contributed much to promote his interest and his reputation. It induced the Plymouth Company to engage him in all their causes, which were numerous, and required his annual attendance on the superior court at Falmouth for the succeeding ten years.
From the period of the Stamp Act may be dated Mr. Adams’s entrance upon the theatre of politics. He drew up a petition to the selectmen of Braintree, and procured it to be signed by a number of the respectable inhabitants, to call a meeting of the town to instruct their representative in relation to the stamps. He prepared at home a draft of instructions, and carried them with him to the meeting. They were accepted by the town without a dissenting voice, and being published in Draper’s paper, from a copy furnished to the printer at his request, were adopted by forty other towns of the province, as instructions to their respective representatives. Passages from them were also adopted in the instructions from the town of Boston to their representatives, which were drawn up by Samuel Adams.1
In the beginning of the year 1765, Mr. Gridley formed a project of a law club, or Sodality, who were to meet occasionally to read and discuss writers upon the civil law, and upon oratory; the object of which was the mutual improvement of the members. Of this club, Mr. Gridley proposed to limit, in the first instance, the number to three persons besides himself; Fitch and Dudley, practitioners at the bar, residing at Boston, nearly of the age and standing of Mr. Adams, and Mr. Adams himself; who, notwithstanding his residence at ten miles distance, entered, with enthusiastic ardor, into the design.2 The design itself affords evidence of the lofty spirit and comprehensive mind of Jeremy Gridley. His own career was drawing towards its close. He was of a preceding generation, upwards of thirty years older than Mr. Adams, and at the summit of his profession in the province, having been for many years the attorney-general of the crown. He died on the 10th of September, 1767, within less than three years of the institution of this society. They had only a few weekly meetings, at which they read part of the feudal law, in the Corpus juris civilis, and the oration of Cicero for Milo, in the translations of Guthrie and of Davidson. Their readings were intermingled with comments and discussions, and it was in this society that originated the Dissertation upon the canon and feudal law, originally written by Mr. Adams, as an exercise for communication to this club.
At their meeting of the 21st of February, 1765, Mr. Gridley, who had introduced to them the treatise of rhetoric addressed to Herennius, usually printed with the works of Cicero, said: “Our plan must be, when we have finished the feudal law, to read Coke Littleton, and after him a reign, and the statutes of that reign. It should also be a part of our plan to improve ourselves by reading carefully the best English writers, and by using ourselves to writing. For it should be a part of our plan to publish pieces now and then. Let us form our style upon the ancients and the best English authors.
“I hope, I expect to see at the bar, in consequence of this Sodality, a purity, an eloquence, and a spirit surpassing any thing that ever appeared in America.”
After citing this remark of Mr. Gridley, in the journal of that day, Mr. Adams adds: “This Sodality has given rise to the following speculation of my own, which I commit to writing as hints for future inquiries rather than as a satisfactory theory.” This remark introduces the first sketch of the Dissertation upon the canon and feudal law. This paper is interesting for comparison with the Dissertation as finally published. The first essay was short, and it was composed at different times; the subject appearing to enlarge and to expand, from time to time, as the important occurrences of the year suggested new and additional considerations. It was written in several distinct manuscripts, nearly the whole matter of which was finally included in the published essay. There is, however, in the original draft the following passage, relating to the primitive settlers of British America, which is not in the printed Dissertation.
“I always consider the settlement of America with reverence and wonder, as the opening of a grand scene and design in Providence for the illumination of the ignorant, and the emancipation of the slavish part of mankind all over the earth.”
This sentence was, perhaps, omitted from an impression that it might be thought to savor not merely of enthusiasm, but of extravagance. Who now would deny that this magnificent anticipation has been already to a great degree realized? Who does not now see that the accomplishment of this great object is already placed beyond all possibility of failure?1
The act of Parliament, commonly called the Stamp Act, passed that body in March, 1765. So little was there of anticipation of the consequences which it was to produce, so little was there of conception among the legislators of Great Britain of the character and temper of the people upon whom they were undertaking to levy taxes by a body in which they were not represented, that on the passage of the act through the House of Commons, the division in its favor was 294 to 49.
The annual meeting of the General Assembly of Massachusetts Bay was held on the 29th of May. The passage of the Stamp Act in Parliament was then known, but it was to commence its operation on the ensuing 1st of November. In the speech of Sir Francis Bernard, the king’s governor at Boston, to the Colonial Assembly, delivered on the 30th of May, he took no direct notice of the Stamp Act, but began by saying that he had no orders from his Majesty to communicate to them, nor any thing to offer himself but what related to their internal policy. He then descanted to them upon his own exertions to introduce into the province three improvements, namely, potash, hemp, and the carrying lumber to the British markets. After enlarging upon these important topics, which he tells them are proper objects of their concern, he adds that they will have no occasion, as they had hitherto shown no disposition, “vainly to attempt to transfer manufactories from their settled abode; an undertaking at all times difficult, but, under the disadvantage of high-priced labor, impracticable.”
He concluded the speech by an apologetic and monitorial paragraph, informing them that the general settlement of the American provinces, long before proposed, would now probably be prosecuted to its utmost completion. That it must necessarily produce some regulations, which, from their noveltyonly, would appear disagreeable. But he was convinced, and doubted not but experience would confirm it, that they would operate, as they were designed, for the benefit and advantage of the colonies. In the mean time, a respectable submission to the decrees of the Parliament was their interest as well as their duty. That “in an empire, extended and diversified as that of Great Britain, there must be a supreme legislature, to which all other powers must be subordinate.” But he added, “it is our happiness that our supreme legislature, the Parliament of Great Britain, is the sanctuary of liberty and justice; and that the prince, who presides over it, realizes the idea of a patriot king. Surely, then, we should submit our opinions to the determination of so august a body, and acquiesce in a perfect confidence that the rights of the members of the British empire will ever be safe in the hands of the conservators of the liberty of the whole.”
Hutchinson says, “that the House thought it a time for action rather than speculation; and that, contrary to usual practice, they suffered the speech to pass without any address or notice of any sort.”1 They did, nevertheless, on the afternoon of the day on which it was delivered, appoint committees to consider and report on the paragraphs respecting potash, hemp, and lumber. These committees never did report;2 but, on the 5th of June, the Speaker of the House, together with Mr. Otis and three other members, were appointed a committee to take the last paragraph under consideration, to prepare a proper answer and report.
Neither did this committee report; but, on the next day, the House, “taking into consideration the many difficulties to which the colonies were and must be reduced by the operation of some late acts of Parliament,” appointed another committee, consisting of the speaker and eight other members, of whom Otis was one, to consider what measures had best be taken, and make report. The measure had been preconcerted, for the committee reported immediately that it was highly expedient there should be a meeting, as soon as might be, of committees from the houses of representatives or burgesses in the several colonies on this continent, to consult together on the present circumstances of the colonies, and the difficulties to which they were and must be reduced by the operation of the late acts of Parliament for levying duties and taxes on the colonies, and to consider of a general and humble address to his Majesty and the Parliament to implore relief. That the meeting should be held at New York on the first Tuesday of October then ensuing, and that a committee of three persons should be chosen by the House, on the part of the province, to attend the same. Further, that letters should be forthwith prepared and transmitted to the respective speakers of the several houses of representatives or burgesses in the several colonies, advising them of this resolution of the House, and inviting them to join, with their committees, in this convocation. Finally, that a letter upon the whole subject be prepared and forwarded to the agent of the province, in England.
The report was accepted without opposition. The speaker, with Mr. Otis and another member, was appointed to prepare the draft of a letter to the speakers of the other colonial legislative assemblies. The draft was reported, accepted, signed by the speaker by order of the House, and directed to be transmitted. On the same day the House made choice of James Otis, Colonel Worthington, and Colonel Partridge, as the committee to proceed to New York. Colonel Worthington excusing himself, Brigadier Ruggles was chosen to supply his place.
In this measure, it is impossible not to perceive the seminal principle of the subsequent union of the North American British colonies; nor can it be doubted that the credit of having originated it is exclusively due to James Otis. As the acting chairman of the committee, appointed to prepare an answer to the last paragraph of the governor’s speech, he saw that a discussion with the governor about the duty of submission to the decrees of Parliament, and the happiness of acquiescing in perfect confidence that the rights of the colonies would be safe in the hands of the “supreme legislature” and the “patriot king,” would be a superfluous and worse than useless waste of time. The act of Parliament was a grievance. But the principles in the concluding paragraph of the speech required an answer other than of words. The question at issue affected all the colonies alike, and, looking to the struggle which must ensue, it was apparent that the divided efforts of each separate colony must prove fruitless and unavailing. United counsels were the only resource to all the colonies for meeting the approaching crisis, and the answer to the speech was the appointment of the committee of Congress, with Otis at their head.
Here ceased, at that time, the action of the legislature. The popular resistance had not yet commenced. It soon displayed itself with energy beyond the law. The stamps for official papers were transmitted from England, and the very form of such a servitude was as humiliating as the tax levied for the stamps was oppressive. It was known that Andrew Oliver, the secretary of the province, had solicited the office of distributor of the stamps when they should arrive. The person appointed as distributor for the colony of Connecticut arrived, in the beginning of August, from England. The government party received him with an affectation of distinction, and, when he left Boston to proceed to Connecticut, his colleague, the distributor for Massachusetts Bay, accompanied him out of town. In the expectation of a press of official duties, Oliver had erected, near the custom-house, a building for a stamp office. Early in the morning of the 14th of August an effigy of Oliver was found hanging high in air, suspended to a branch of an old tree at the south part of the Main Street of Boston.
By whom it had been placed there never was known, but it soon gathered a crowd of persons round the tree. Hutchinson, as chief justice of the province, ordered the sheriff to remove the effigy, and, if opposition should be made, to report the names of the opposers, that he might issue warrants for their arrest. The sheriff sent some of his deputies to execute the order, but they were overawed by the determination manifested by the people assembled, not to suffer the image to be taken away. The governor convened the council, but they were in consternation, and declined interfering in the affair. He called the council a second time in the afternoon. Still, nothing was done. A crowd of people continued assembled round the tree till late in the afternoon, when the effigy was taken down, placed on a bier, carried in solemn procession amidst the acclamations of a large concourse of people through the long Main Street, and over the floor of the town-house, while the governor and council were in session in a chamber overhead. It was thence taken down to Oliver’s projected stamp office, which, in a few minutes, was levelled with the ground. They next proceeded to Fort Hill, upon which they kindled a fire, and burnt the obnoxious effigy to ashes. Oliver’s house was not far off, and was not spared by the enraged populace. He and his family betook themselves to flight. The fence before the house was broken down, sundry windows demolished, and the furniture of the house was roughly handled. Hutchinson undertook to disperse the rioters, not only without success, but to the imminent danger of his own person. He finally effected his retreat—of which he says not one word in his “History.”
The next day, Oliver resigned his office of distributor of stamps; and gave a declaration, in writing, and under his signature, to be communicated to the inhabitants of the town, pledging himself to transmit his resignation immediately to England, and promising, with earnest asseveration, that he never would act in that capacity. In the evening of the same day the house of the Lieutenant-Governor and Chief Justice, Hutchinson, was surrounded and threatened. The multitude clamorously called for his appearance in the balcony, to make a declaration that he had not been in favor of the Stamp Act. One of his friends expostulated with the people in his favor, and finally assured them that he was not in the house, but had been seen going to his country-seat at Milton; upon which they dispersed, without doing much damage to the house.
But twelve days afterwards, on the 26th of August, on the night of the day upon which he had returned to town, his house was again attacked, and destroyed, he and his family having scarcely time to effect their escape from the fury of the populace. The houses of the register of the admiralty and of the comptroller of the customs, without being absolutely destroyed, were plundered, and rifled, and robbed by
“That worst of tyrants, an usurping crowd.”
The next day the inhabitants of the town, in full town meeting, declared, by a unanimous vote, their utter detestation of the extraordinary and violent proceedings of a number of persons unknown, and charged the selectmen and magistrates of the town to use their utmost endeavors to suppress such disorders for the future. Hutchinson, in his “History,” very significantly remarks, that beyond all doubt many of those who were immediate actors in, as well as those who had been abettors of those violent proceedings, were present at this unanimous vote.
That these proceedings were sincerely disapproved and deeply lamented by Mr. Adams, there is evidence more unequivocal than that of attendance at a town meeting, or concurrence with a unanimous town-meeting vote. His private journal of the 15th of August, the day after the commission of the first popular outrage, contains an earnest and feeling remonstrance against it, with a candid statement of the causes which had been long instigating the resentments of the people against Lieutenant-Governor Hutchinson. He perceived, not without serious reflection and concern, even the enthusiasm excited by his own draft of instructions to the representative of the town of Braintree, and he saw that among the most difficult and dangerous of the patriotic duties which he would be called to discharge, that of resisting, and moderating, and controlling the excesses of the people, even in the cause to which he was himself devoted, would become, perhaps, not unfrequently indispensable.1
These events, and the principles which they contributed to form and establish in his mind, gave a tone to his character, and had an overruling influence on the subsequent history of his life. He saw that the end of all popular movements of violence was destruction, and that they were ill adapted, under any circumstances whatever, to the furtherance of justice. The scenes of the month of August, 1765, were afflictive more to the steadfast and unwavering friends of liberty than to their adversaries. Nor were they confined to that period. They were the signal of dissolution to the authority of the royal government. None of the persons concerned in these outrages were ever punished. Six or eight were apprehended and committed to prison. But before the time of trial, the keys of the prison were extorted from the jailer, and the prisoners were all set at liberty. “People came in (says Hutchinson) from many parts of the country to view the ruins of the lieutenant-governor’s house, outhouses, garden, &c., and, from the shocking appearance, could not help expressing a disapprobation of such acts of violence. Their prejudices, however, were not abated against the Stamp Act. The execution of it must be hindered in some other way.”
It was at this period that the “Dissertation on the Canon and the Feudal Law” was published. At the close of which, after a passing notice of the Stamp Act, the author says: “But I must proceed no further at present. The sequel, whenever I shall find health and leisure to pursue it, will be ‘a disquisition of the policy of the Stamp Act.’ ” This came, however, in a different form from a newspaper speculation.
The stamps for the provinces of Massachusetts Bay, New Hampshire, and Rhode Island, arrived about the 20th of September. The General Court was convened by the governor to meet on the 25th of that month. He opened the session by a speech very ill-adapted to calm the effervescence of the public mind. Disclaiming all intention of dictating to the General Court, the speech was yet altogether composed of menaces, and admonitions of the irresistible power of the British Parliament, and of the wickedness, folly, and danger of attempting to oppose it. The next day, he sent to the House of Representatives a message announcing to them the arrival of a ship with the stamps, and observing that, as the person appointed to distribute them had resigned the office, no present use of them could be made. He had in the speech reminded them that, by the Stamp Act, all papers not duly stamped were to be null and void, and that all persons who should sign, engross, or write any such papers, would forfeit, for each fact, ten pounds; that if stamps should not be used, all public offices must be shut up; and he had desired them to consider what effects the stopping of two kinds of offices only, the courts of justice and the custom-houses, would have upon the generality of the people. After descanting, at some length, upon the consequences of this suspension of the administration of justice and of commerce, he had inquired: “Was it easy to form an adequate idea of a state of general outlawry; and might not the reality exceed the worst idea they could form of it?” And, after a picture as highly colored of anticipations from the stagnation of trade, he had said: “In short, can this province bear a cessation of law and justice, and of trade and navigation, at a time when the business of the year is to be wound up, and the severe season is hastily approaching? These,” he added, “are serious and alarming questions, which deserve a cool and dispassionate consideration.”
The conclusion of the long argument of the speech had an aspect rather ludicrous. It was a proposal that, if they were converted by its eloquence to the faith that it was better to submit to the Stamp Act than to resist its execution, he would grant them a recess, during which they might go home and convince their constituents of the necessity of submission. Immediately after this, followed the message announcing the arrival of the stamps, and asking their advice what should be done with them.
The House appointed a large committee to prepare an answer to the speech, but both Houses made short work with the message. They answered the same day, that as the stamped papers had been brought without any directions to the government of the province, it was the sense of the House that it might prove of ill consequence for them anyways to interest themselves in the matter. They declined, therefore, to give him any aid or assistance therein. This answer sufficiently indicated the temper of the assembly, and the governor, the next day, adjourned their meeting to the 23d of October.
At the meeting of the assembly, in September, Mr. Otis was absent to attend the convention at New York. Samuel Adams first took his seat at the same session, as a representative from Boston, in the place of Oxenbridge Thacher, recently deceased. Adams was appointed on the committee to prepare an answer to the governor’s speech, and it was composed by him. As he had the whole interval of the recess to prepare it, the answer was elaborate and full of the bitterest sarcasm.
Mr. Otis, in his pamphlet on the rights of the British colonies, had explicitly admitted the unqualified right of the British Parliament to enact laws binding upon the colonies, and the right had been as explicitly recognized by the Colonial Assembly. It was denied both by Samuel and John Adams, the former of whom, on this occasion, immediately after the adoption of his answer to the governor’s speech, presented a series of resolutions, fourteen in number, with the following preamble.
“Whereas the just rights of his Majesty’s subjects of this province, derived to them from the British constitution as well as the royal charter, have been lately drawn into question; in order to ascertain the same, this House do unanimously come into the following resolves.”
And they were closed with an order,
“That all the foregoing resolves be kept in the records of the House, that a just sense of liberty and the firm sentiments of loyalty may be transmitted to posterity.”
These resolutions were unanimously adopted by the House, though it is said by Hutchinson that three fourths of the members who voted for them were the same persons who, but one session before, had voted for an address explicitly admitting the right of Parliament to tax the colonies. In the resolutions, the direct issue was first taken upon the question of right. The right of the colonies was traced not merely to the charters, to Magna Charta, and the English constitution, but to the law of God and nature; to the common and primitive rights of mankind. The essence of all the resolutions was contained in the third and the tenth, the first of which declared the principle that representation and taxation are correlative, because no man’s property can be taken from him but with his consent; and the second, that the inhabitants of the colonies are not and cannot be represented in the British Parliament. The fourteenth resolution was a declaration of loyalty and veneration for Parliament, to serve as a salvo for the rest.
The committee to prepare and report these resolutions was appointed on the 24th of October; they reported on the 26th; and, on the 30th, the resolutions were adopted by the House.
On the 1st of November the Stamp Act was to commence. An attempt was made to carry a vote declaring the necessity of proceeding in the business of the courts of justice and the custom-house without stamps. This was defeated, probably by the management of Hutchinson in the council, and, as it became evident to the governor that the longer the General Court should remain together, the more determined and daring would be the spirit of opposition to the government exhibited by them, he, on the 8th of November, prorogued the session till the 15th of January, leaving the question concerning the use of stamps unsettled.
At the custom-house, expedients were found for delivering clearances without the stamps; first, by granting clearances dated before the 1st of November, for vessels which sailed in the course of the whole of that month, and afterwards, at the peril of the merchants who took them out, they agreeing to take the risk of consequences upon themselves. The judges of the inferior courts and the judges of probate in all the counties, except Suffolk, transacted their business as usual, without noticing the Stamp Act; but Hutchinson was chief justice of the superior court and judge of probate for the county of Suffolk, and persisted in preventing the former from being held, and in refusing to hold the other.
A town meeting was held in Boston, at which it was determined that a memorial should be presented to the governor and council, complaining of the closure of the courts of justice, and demanding, as of right, that their sittings should be resumed. The memorial was drawn up by Mr. Samuel Adams, and concluded by requesting to be heard by counsel, which request was granted.
The next day, Mr. John Adams, most unexpectedly to himself, received, by express, a letter from the town-clerk of Boston, William Cooper, informing him that the town, by a unanimous vote, had directed him to apply to Jeremiah Gridley, James Otis, and John Adams, Esquires, to appear as counsel for the town before the governor and council, in support of the memorial of the town, praying that the courts of law in the province might be opened.
It is one of the remarkable incidents in the life of Mr. Adams, that while the inhabitants of Boston, assembled in town meeting, were conferring upon him this distinguished mark of their good opinion and confidence, he was speculating, in his journal, in a tone of discouragement, far, however, from despondency, on the disastrous prospects which this interruption of his professional business brought up before him. It appeared not only to intercept all the promise of fame and fortune, which his industry and enterprise had been assiduously preparing, but it threatened even the prospects of his subsistence.
“I was (says the journal of 18th December) but just getting into my gears, just getting under sail, and an embargo is laid upon the ship. Thirty years of my life are passed in preparation for business. I have had poverty to struggle with; envy, and jealousy, and malice of enemies to encounter, no friends, or but few, to assist me; so that I have groped in dark obscurity, till of late, and had but just become known, and gained a small degree of reputation, when this execrable project was set on foot for my ruin, as well as that of America in general, and of Great Britain.”
On the next day, after receiving the notification from the town-clerk of Boston, his mind recurred to the reflections of the day before, thus:—
“The reasons which induced Boston to choose me, at a distance and unknown as I am, the particular persons concerned and measures concerted to bring this about, I am wholly at a loss to conjecture; as I am, what the future effects and consequences will be, both with regard to myself and the public.”
“But when I recollect my own reflections and speculations yesterday, a part of which were committed to writing last night, and may be seen under December 18th, and compare them with the proceedings of Boston yesterday, of which the foregoing letter informed me, I cannot but wonder, and call to mind Lord Bacon’s observation about secret, invisible laws of nature, and communications and influences between places that are not discoverable by sense.
“But I am now under all obligations of interest and ambition, as well as honor, gratitude, and duty, to exert the utmost of my abilities in this important cause. How shall it be conducted? Shall we contend that the Stamp Act is void—that the Parliament have no legal authority to impose internal taxes upon us, because we are not represented in it—and, therefore, that the Stamp Act ought to be waved by the judges as against natural equity and the constitution? Shall we use these as arguments for opening the courts of law? Or shall we ground ourselves on necessity only?”1
There was little time for preparation. The cause was heard by the governor and council on the evening of Friday, the 20th of December, with the doors of the council chamber closed to all, excepting the counsel of the town who addressed them. At the recommendation of Governor Bernard, they divided between them the points of law and the topics of argument. As the junior counsel, it was the duty of Mr. Adams to open the argument.
“Then it fell upon me, (says he, in his journal,) without one moment’s opportunity to consult any authorities, to open an argument upon a question that was never made before, and I wish I could hope it never would be made again; i. e. whether the courts of law should be open or not? I grounded my argument on the invalidity of the Stamp Act, it not being in any sense our act, having never consented to it. But, lest that foundation should not be sufficient, on the present necessity to prevent a failure of justice, and the present impossibility of carrying that act into execution. Mr. Otis reasoned, with great learning and zeal, on the judges’ oaths, &c. Mr. Gridley on the great inconveniences that would ensue the interruption of justice.”1
Gridley was the attorney-general of the crown; and Otis could not, without inconsistency, assume the ground of the absolute nullity of the act; because he had, in his pamphlet upon the rights of the colony, expressly admitted the right of Parliament to enact laws for the colonies. In all controversies respecting the right of exercising power, the question widens and enlarges as they proceed. So it was in all the progress of the Reformation. So in the political revolutions of England in the seventeenth century. In the American Revolution, the question of legislative power had first arisen from an attempt in the Parliament to exercise it for a purpose of taxation. Chatham, in England, and Otis, in America, assumed a distinction between the powers of taxation and of general legislation. They admitted a general authority in the British Parliament, as the superintending power of the imperial realm, to make laws binding upon the colonies, but they maintained, as a principle of British liberty, that no British subject could be taxed, but by a body in which he was represented. The defect of this system was, that it conceded the question at issue, on one side, while it defended the sound principle on the other. The fourteen resolutions introduced into the House of Representatives of the province, at their recent session, and adopted unanimously by the House, first went to the fountain head of natural right for the principle. By the law of nature, no man has a right to impose laws more than to levy taxes upon another; and the principle of legislation, by a representative body, necessarily interdicts all arbitrary exercise of power. The freeman pays no tax, as the freeman submits to no law, but such as emanates from the body in which he is represented. On this basis, the Parliament possessed no right of enacting laws, binding upon the colonies, and whatever legislative power to that effect had been exercised by the Parliament since the grants of the charters of the respective provinces had been abusive and unlawful. This was the doctrine illustrated by the resolutions of the legislature, and was the foundation of the argument of Mr. John Adams for the opening of the courts of justice.
Neither that argument, however, nor those of Mr. Adams’s able and eloquent associates, succeeded with Governor Bernard and his council. They considered it as a question of law, to be decided by the courts themselves. Hutchinson speaks of the decision as an expedient resorted to with a view to evade the question. But he indicates another reason, doubtless more operative upon his own mind. He considers the people, for whose benefit the courts of justice were instituted, and who must be the sufferers by the interruption of their sessions, as responsible for the riotous proceedings of the mob, and for the weakness of the appointed distributor of stamps. Under the terror of a panic excited by threats of popular violence, Mr. Oliver resigns his office as distributor of stamps, and formally pledges himself, by an oath, that he will never serve in that capacity. Therefore, concluded Mr. Hutchinson, the whole people of the province of Massachusetts Bay shall be punished by a suspension of the administration of justice.
The influence of Hutchinson, however, prevailed only for a short time to interrupt the sessions of the superior court. The inferior courts of common pleas were held in the several counties of the province. So, also, were the courts of probate, excepting in Suffolk, and so odious was Hutchinson becoming, by his obstinacy in refusing to hold them, that he took, at last, an alarm, and actually intimated to Governor Bernard a wish to absent himself by a visit to England, if he would make a temporary appointment of another person to hold the probate courts during his absence. Bernard was willing to make, and, accordingly, did make, a temporary appointment, without requiring the absence of Mr. Hutchinson, who thus beheld another person freely perform the duties of the office of which he was the nominal incumbent. Within a few weeks afterwards the Stamp Act was repealed.
Among the phenomena, which most remarkably distinguish all times of high party excitement, are the shaking of the foundation of morals, by the weakening of the solemn regard for truth in the general estimation of men. Of this, the period which succeeded the enactment and repeal of the Stamp Act, produced numerous examples, which made a deep and indelible impression upon the mind of Mr. Adams. One of these was a cause tried before referees, at Martha’s Vineyard, between a woman by the name of Jerusha Mayhew and her relations. Robert Treat Paine was the counsel of one of the parties in this case; and Mr. Adams of the other. In this cause, as in one between Roland Cotton and a clergyman by the name of Jackson, at Woburn, in the county of Middlesex, and still earlier, in a trial between Hopkins and Ward, at Worcester, he observed that party spirit “seemed to have wrought an entire metamorphosis of the human character. It destroyed all sense and understanding; all equity and humanity; all memory and regard to truth; all virtue, honor, decorum, and veracity.”1 A profound moral sense, a firm unyielding temper, and an assiduous application to the science of ethics, preserved him from the contamination which he so energetically describes. There can be no situation in human life, where the incitements and temptations to depart from the straight line of correct moral principle are so trying as in that of a leader in popular commotions. The ground which, from his first introduction to public life, he took in the controversy between the colonies and Great Britain, was that the Parliament could not lawfully tax the colonies. His whole soul was in the cause. But to him it was not less the cause of order and of justice than of liberty. There is in the support and vindication of popular rights and principles a fascination, constantly tending to the adoption of popular prejudices, and to identify the right with the power of the people. The error of many of the leaders of the American Revolution was that of substituting, at all times, the voice of the people for the voice of God. Statesmen of such a description have no power to conceive or to maintain institutions of government. Their talent consists in destruction. They see nothing but abuses, and oppressions, and tyrannies to be suppressed. They can build up nothing. In the popular disorders and excesses, which distinguished the resistance to the execution of the Stamp Act, and in the dissolution of moral principle, by the contamination of party spirit, Mr. Adams found that it would be among the duties of his life to resist and withstand the errors of his own party, and to come in conflict with the passions of the people, perhaps as much and as often as to defy the power of the tyrant. This characteristic, if not peculiar to him, in the catalogue of revolutionary worthies, belongs, at least, to him in a preëminent degree. We shall find, that in the formation of the institutions, which have secured the enjoyment of orderly freedom to the people of this Union, no individual contributed any thing to be compared with his labors.
Two days after the decision of Governor Bernard and his council, that the question, whether the courts of justice should be reopened, was a point of law which the courts themselves must determine, a town meeting was held to receive the report of their committee upon their memorial. At this meeting, Mr. Adams, though not an inhabitant of the town, addressed them as one of their council. It was unanimously voted that the answer of the governor and council to the memorial was not satisfactory. But, after much discussion what further should be done, the consideration of that important question was deferred to a future day. Suggestions were thrown out, both by Mr. Adams and Mr. Otis, of daring and energetic measures, as worthy of consideration, but not to be precipitately adopted. Hutchinson, in his “History,” bears very unequivocal testimony to the weight and significancy of these resolutions, that the movements of the government were not satisfactory; even when this simple declaration was not followed up by any other proceeding.
The repeal of the Stamp Act was accompanied by an awkward and ungracious declaratory act, asserting the right of Parliament to enact laws, binding upon the colonies in all cases whatsoever. Nothing could be more injudicious; but the colonies were not disposed to waste their energies in a war of words. They received the repeal of the Stamp Act with transports of joy, and disregarded the mere empty declaration of a right which they flattered themselves was never to be exercised. The spirit of resistance immediately subsided, and a general tranquillity prevailed until the project of levying internal taxes upon the people of the colonies by act of Parliament was resumed in England.
Sir Francis Bernard, however, entangled himself in a controversy with the General Court, which survived the repeal of the Stamp Act, and from which his reputation never recovered. His speech, on calling them together, on the 25th of September, provoked a discussion upon the right of Parliament to tax the colonies, and, with an absurd argument, that the best way for the province to obtain the repeal of the Stamp Act was to yield implicit obedience to it, he concluded by offering them a recess, that the members might go home and teach the same lesson of loyalty to their constituents. The House took up both the speech and the Stamp Act with such a spirit that he took an alarm, and, three days after, prorogued the session to the 23d of October. On the 25th of that month they appointed a committee of seven members, on their part, to join a committee of the council, to consider and report some proper methods to prevent difficulties that might arise in the proceedings of courts of justice through the province, and any other matters after the 1st of November, when the operation of the Stamp Act was to commence. This committee reported a resolution, requiring the courts of justice to proceed without the stamps, as if the act of Parliament, prescribing the stamps, had never been enacted. The council, to whom this report was made, sent it to the House, to act upon it first. The report was, on the 30th of October, recommitted by the House, with directions to the committee to sit forthwith, but nothing further was heard from them. On the 5th of November, the governor prorogued the General Court to the 15th of January, with a speech bitterly complaining of the personal injustice done him in the answer of the House of Representatives to his former speech, boasting of his attachment and services to the province, and concluding by a menace, that they will force him to be cautious how he forces his services upon them, and by tauntingly advising them not to cast off any of their natural and professed friends.
The House were precluded, by the prorogation, from answering this speech, but at the adjournment they did not pass it over; their reply was keen and sarcastic, and of that character which imbitters controversy without bringing it to a close.
They appointed a committee of grievances, who reported several resolutions, one of which was, “that the shutting up the courts of justice, particularly the superior court, has a manifest tendency to dissolve the bands of civil society, is unjustifiable on the principles of law and reason, dangerous to his Majesty’s crown and dignity, a very great grievance to the subject that requires immediate redress; and that, therefore, the judges and justices, and all other public officers in this province, ought to proceed in the discharge of their several functions as usual.”
This resolution passed in the House of Representatives, by yeas and nays, 81 to 5; but, by the management of Hutchinson, and the influence of the crown officers, who were members of the council, was evaded in that body.
At the ensuing session of the legislature, in June, 1766, it was known that the Stamp Act was repealed. But Bernard, retaining all his resentments, exercised his negative upon the choice of the House, of James Otis for their Speaker. The House, on their part, in the choice of councillors, left out the lieutenant-governor, Hutchinson, and three other crown officers, and supplied their places with ardent patriots. The governor negatived six of the councillors chosen by the House, and vented his spleen, in his speech, by a bitter complaint and denunciation of the House for excluding the crown officers from the council, a measure by which he exposed the peevishness and impotence of his temper, under a silly delusive hope that the House might be scolded into a subsequent election of the same crown officers whom they had excluded. He thus lost the moment for reconciliation, and the remainder of his administration was one continual snarl of contention with both branches of the General Court, till he was ordered home to England, in June, 1769.
These controversies served to keep alive the disaffection of the people to the British government; but during the two or three years which immediately succeeded the repeal of the Stamp Act, the question of authority between the mother country and the colonies was, in a great measure, suspended. Mr. Adams was constantly and assiduously occupied in the practice of his profession, with a steady increase of business and of reputation. In the spring of 1768, he removed his residence from Braintree to Boston, and, in the course of that year, through his friend, Jonathan Sewall, then attorney-general of the province, Governor Bernard offered him the temporary appointment of advocate-general in the court of admiralty then vacant, and of the confirmation of which, by the king, there could be no doubt. This offer he promptly and decisively declined, although it was tendered with an explicit assurance that no sacrifice of his political sentiments or opinions would be required or expected of him by his acceptance of the place.
The following extract from his “Diary” is characteristic of the state of his mind at that period of his life.
“1768, January 30, Saturday night.—To what object are my views directed? What is the end and purpose of my studies, journeys, labors of all kinds, of body and mind, of tongue and pen? Am I grasping at money, or scheming for power? Am I planning the illustration of my family, or the welfare of my country?
“These are great questions. In truth, I am tossed about so much from post to pillar, that I have not leisure and tranquillity enough to consider distinctly my own views, objects, and feelings. I am mostly intent, at present, upon collecting a library; and I find that a great deal of thought and care, as well as money, are necessary to assemble an ample and well-chosen assortment of books. But, when this is done, it is only a means, an instrument. Whenever I shall have completed my library, my end will not be answered. Fame, fortune, power, say some, are the ends intended by a library. The service of God, country, clients, fellow-men, say others. Which of these lie nearest my heart?
- Self-love but serves the virtuous mind to wake,
- As the small pebble stirs the peaceful lake;
- The centre moved, a circle straight succeeds,
- Another still, and still another spreads;
- Friend, parent, neighbor, first it will embrace,
- His country next, and next all human race.
I am certain, however, that the course that I pursue will neither lead me to fame, fortune, power, nor to the service of my friends, clients, or country. What plan of reading, or reflection, or business can be pursued by a man, who is now at Pownalborough, then at Martha’s Vineyard, next at Boston, then at Taunton, presently at Barnstable, then at Concord, now at Salem, then at Cambridge, and afterwards at Worcester? Now at sessions, then at pleas; now in admiralty, now at superior court, then in the gallery of the House? What a dissipation must this be! Is it possible to pursue a regular train of thinking in this desultory life? By no means. It is a life of here and everywhere, to use the expression that is applied to Othello by Desdemona’s father. Here and there and everywhere—a rambling, roving, vagrant, vagabond life; a wandering life. At Mein’s bookstore, at Bowes’s shop, at Dana’s house, at Fitch’s, Otis’s office, and the clerk’s office, in the court chamber, in the gallery, at my own fire, I am thinking on the same plan.”1
Before his removal to Boston, in the spring of the year 1768, Mr. Adams wrote a letter to the town of Braintree, declining a reëlection as one of their selectmen. He removed into a house in Brattle Square, known by the name of the White House, and in which Mr. Bollan had lived many years before. After his removal, he attended the superior court at Worcester, and the week after at Springfield, then in the county of Hampshire. Here, he was accidentally engaged in a cause between a negro and his master, which he argued in such a manner as engaged the attention of Major Hawley, and introduced an acquaintance, soon after strengthened into a friendship which continued until the death of Mr. Hawley, on the 10th of March, 1788.
During his absence on this circuit, a convention was held in Boston, the commissioners of the customs had arrived, and an army landed. Two regiments had arrived from Halifax, and two more had been ordered from Ireland. The General Court had been dissolved by Governor Bernard, and he had refused to comply with a request from the council to convene a new session of the legislature. The troops were quartered upon the town of Boston, and it was impossible to mistake the purpose for which they had been ordered there. On the 12th of September, the inhabitants of Boston held a town meeting, and invited the people of the province to send delegates to a convention at that place in ten days from that time. The convention, accordingly, met on the 22d of September, and continued about eight days in session. They petitioned the governor to convene the General Court. He refused to receive their petitions, but sent messages to them, to warn them of their danger in their approaches to what he deemed treasonable practices. Upwards of one hundred towns were represented in the convention, and their proceedings marked great moderation and discretion. Hutchinson says, it must be allowed by all that the proceedings of this meeting had a greater tendency towards a revolution in government than any preceding measures in any of the colonies; but observes that they proceeded with less spirit than was expected.1
The assembling of this convention was indeed the most revolutionary measure that had yet been taken in the colonies. But the measure of the British government, in ordering four regiments of soldiers to be stationed in a populous town in time of peace, was also the most offensive provocative to rebellion which had yet been given. So direct a menace of military execution held up in terrorem over the principal town, not only of the province but of all the British colonies, must, necessarily, produce one of two consequences; it must either break down the spirit of the people by intimidation, or it must rouse them to the highest pitch of exasperation, and kindle every spark of energy latent in every bosom. The most urgent want of a people, suddenly placed in such a condition, is of counsel; and the next is sympathy. The immediate danger was pressing only upon the people of Boston. To whom could they fly for refuge or for aid but to their legislature, to the representatives of their neighbors and fellow-citizens of the province? But the royal governor had dissolved the General Court, and refused to convene them. The only alternative left to the people of Boston was submission, or revolutionary resistance, and they resorted, almost by instinct, to the latter. They were justified by the occasion; and the lesson which the royal governor should have drawn from this revolutionary movement was, that regiments of soldiers can carry into execution obnoxious laws, only over a people of slaves.
The first effect of the approach of the troops was to raise angry and inflammatory debates and captious questions of law, not only among the people but in the government itself. Where were the troops to be quartered? For this it was the duty of the governor to provide. He consulted the council. They advised him to apply to the selectmen of Boston, who refused to take any concern in the matter. The council then advised the governor to quarter the troops on Castle Island, within the jurisdiction of the town, but three miles distant from it, and a grave discussion was held between them upon the question of construction of the act of Parliament. The troops could be stationed there, where their artillery and their bayonets would be as harmless and inefficient to overawe the inhabitants of Boston, as if they had been encamped at Blackheath or quartered on Tower Hill in London. The governor insisted that the intention of ordering the troops to Boston was to keep the peace, and suppress the riotous spirit of the people, and that it would be a mockery to quarter them upon an island three miles off. The council contended that the act of Parliament provided that, in towns where there were barracks, the troops must occupy them, and not be quartered upon the inhabitants. There were barracks upon Castle Island, and it was within the town. The troops must therefore be stationed there.
After much altercation between the governor and council, aggravated, after the arrival of the regiments, by the interposition of their commanding officer, Colonel Dalrymple, and of General Gage, the commander-in-chief, who came from New York to Boston, to sustain by his authority the demands of the governor; after successively using, by main force, Faneuil Hall, the representatives’ room, and all the others, excepting the council-chamber, in the town-house, and the manufactory house of the province, for lodgments for the soldiers, and compelled, by the public clamor, to evacuate them all, “no further attempts,” says Hutchinson, “were made to carry the act into execution.” The general found it necessary to hire houses for the troops, which were obtained with difficulty, and to procure the articles required by act of Parliament at the charge of the crown.
The loathing and disgust manifested by the inhabitants of the town at the first appearance of the troops, was succeeded by the bitterest rancor and indignation daily festering to a head, by continual incidents of casual collision between the people and the soldiers. The very sight of the fiery scarlet uniform was as exasperating to the people as that color is said to be to the lion. Mather Byles, the only Tory clergyman of the town, and the most inveterate punster of the province, attempted to turn the public indignation into burlesque, by saying to a Whig, with whom he was standing one day, to see them reviewed on the Common: “Sure, you ought not to complain; for here you see your grievances red-dressed.” The Bostonians laughed at the wit, though spurious, and forgave the witling for this and numberless other jokes with which he entertained them for a long series of years, and for which, though not very compatible with the gravity of a Puritan pulpit, he might have been termed the King’s Yankee jester. They enjoyed the pun and forgave the punster, even while their bosoms boiled to overflowing against their “red-dressed grievances” and their commander.
The officers of the regiments had been ordered to maintain over them a strict and rigorous discipline, and endeavored faithfully to execute their orders. But idle men, as soldiers in time of peace must always be, with arms in their hands, and subject to frequent insults, cannot be otherwise than insolent and licentious. The same inflammatory passions working in hostile spirit upon both classes of the population, the citizen and the soldier, were perpetual stimulants to desperate and fatal collisions between them. The crisis and the catastrophe came on the 5th of March, 1770. The accidental ringing of one of the town-bells at an unusual hour, in the darkness of the evening, called numbers of the inhabitants from their houses into the streets. A sentry standing upon guard was insulted by one of the people of the town—a brawl ensued—a corporal’s guard upon duty, ordered by their commander, Captain Preston, to repair to the aid of their companion, surrounded by a cluster of the inhabitants, not exceeding twenty-five or thirty in number, provoked beyond endurance by the insulting language and missile weapons which assailed them, fired, at the order of the captain, into the midst of the assemblage, and killed five of their number: Crispus Attucks, Samuel Gray, Samuel Maverick, James Caldwell, and Patrick Carr.
No event, in the course of the American Revolution, was more critical and important to the principles in which it originated, and in which it was destined, ultimately, to a triumphant consummation, than this.
The first impression that it made upon the people of the town was of execration and horror at what was deemed a wanton and unprovoked massacre of unarmed, inoffensive, and defenceless innocent citizens. It was called at once the Bloody Massacre; and in the general feeling of the people, it retained ever after that appellation. The first outpouring of the popular resentment was for the punishment of murder to all the men who had fired upon the citizens, and to their commander, Captain Preston. They surrendered themselves to regular warrants of arrest, and were all indicted for the murder of each of the persons who had fallen.
But there was another point of view, in which the transaction was considered by the patriots upon whose leading minds rested the responsibility of regulating and directing the popular movement of the resolution. The continuance of the two regiments in the town after this catastrophe was altogether insupportable. The inhabitants of the town were immediately called together; and a committee was appointed to wait upon the governor, and demand the immediate removal of the troops from the town.1
[1 ]The present plan of publication renders it unnecessary to insert here the large extracts from the “Diary,” originally introduced by the writer. Only such passages are retained as immediately illustrate his views of character. The remainder appear in the “Diary,” as printed in vol. ii. p. 59, et seq.
[2 ]Jonathan Sewall fell a sacrifice to the Revolution. His genius and his virtues, by removal from Massachusetts, lost their proper field of exercise never to gain any other. Fifteen years of isolation and discontent in the mother country were followed by a transfer to the then desolate region of New Brunswick, in which he had not time to reestablish any social relations before he was called to pay the great debt of nature. Among the papers of Mr. Adams, a copy has been found of a letter written by Sewall to a friend, in 1787, after he had come to St. John’s, which presents a vivid picture of the nature of the trials to which he had been subjected, as well as of his own mind under the effect of them. No one could read it without feeling strong sympathy with the sufferer, not unmixed with surprise at the languor displayed by the British government in requiting his loyalty. Even the small salary allowed him as a colonial judge was suffered to run into arrears more than once, whilst the discontinuance of his place altogether was a question left ever hanging over his head. With such examples before the world, small is the encouragement held out to British colonists to take the side of authority in any contest with their brethren.
But what makes this letter particularly interesting in this connection is, that it contains a sketch of Mr. Adams, and an account of the last interview which the friends ever had. Though a little tinged with the feelings natural to the advocate of a losing cause, it is yet a good pendant to the character which Mr. Adams, on his side, has given of Mr. Sewall. Considering the nature of the civil war out of which they had emerged, the sentiments retained towards each other, as thus exhibited, are alike honorable to both. The following is the passage of Mr. Sewall’s letter.
“While I was in London, my quondam friend, John Adams, sent me a complimentary card, and afterwards made me a long friendly visit, as Mrs. Adams soon after did to Mrs. Sewall. And they then earnestly pressed us to take a family dinner with them, in a way so evidently friendly and hearty, that I was sorry I could not comply. But having resolved to make no visits nor accept of any invitations, and having upon this ground previously declined invitations to dine with Sir William Pepperell, your friend Mr. Clark, and several other friends, I was obliged, to avoid giving offence, to decline this. When Mr. Adams came in, he took my hand in both his, and, with a hearty squeeze, accosted me in these words: ‘How do you do, my dear old friend?’ Our conversation was just such as might be expected at the meeting of two old sincere friends after a long separation. Adams has a heart formed for friendship, and susceptible of its finest feelings. He is humane, generous, and open; warm in his friendly attachments, though, perhaps, rather implacable to those whom he thinks his enemies. And though, during the American contest, an unbounded ambition and an enthusiastic zeal for the imagined or real glory and welfare of his country, (the offspring, perhaps in part, though imperceptible to himself, of disappointed ambition,) may have suspended the operation of those social and friendly principles which, I am positive, are in him, innate and congenial, yet sure I am they could not be eradicated. They might sleep, inactive, like the body in the grave, during the storm raised by more violent and impetuous passions in his political career for the goal to which zeal and ambition, united, kept his eye immovably fixed; but a resuscitation must have been the immediate consequence of the peace. Gratified in the two darling wishes of his soul, the independence of America acknowledged and established, and he himself placed on the very pinnacle of the temple of honor, why, the very devil himself must have felt loving and good-natured after so complete a victory; much more, a man in whose heart lay dormant every good and virtuous social and friendly principle.
“Nature must, and, I have no doubt, did break forth and assert her rights. Of this I am so well convinced, that if he could but play backgammon, I declare I would choose him, in preference to all the men in the world, for my fidus Achates, in my projected asylum. And I believe he would soon find it the happiest state; for, if I am not mistaken, now he has reached the summit of his ambition, he finds himself quite out of his element, and looks back with regret to those happy days, when in a snug house, with a pretty farm about him at Braintree, he sat quiet, in the full possession of domestic happiness, with an amiable, sensible wife, and an annual increase of olive-plants round his table, for whose present and future support he was, by his own honest industry, for he was an honest lawyer as ever broke bread, rapidly making ample provision. He is not qualified, by nature or education, to shine in courts. His abilities are, undoubtedly, quite equal to the mechanical parts of his business as ambassador; but this is not enough. He cannot dance, drink, game, flatter, promise, dress, swear with the gentlemen, and talk small talk and flirt with the ladies; in short, he has none of the essential arts or ornaments which constitute a courtier. There are thousands, who, with a tenth part of his understanding and without a spark of his honesty, would distance him infinitely in any court in Europe. I will only add that I found many Americans in London, whose sentiments and conduct towards him were by no means so liberal or polite as I could have wished.”
[2 ]These were joint committees. It would appear that the statement in the text is not quite correct so far as the committee on hemp is concerned. For a report is mentioned as brought down on the 4th of June from the council, where it had been adopted, and, after debate, not accepted by the House. Probably it was not considered as “a proper answer.” Hence a new committee, named the next day, from the House alone, of very different materials.
[1 ]At this point terminates the admirable sketch which had been designed for a picture of his father, by John Quincy Adams. Deeply is it to be regretted that the same hand could not have filled up the coloring, in all its length and breadth, with its vigorous and brilliant touch!