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.
The Boston Massacre—defense of the Soldiers—relations to the Patriots Down to June, 1774
Could any person, gifted with adequate powers of sense, though with not more than ordinary intelligence, have been lifted, on the evening of the 5th of March, to a point above the earth high enough to take in at a glance events occurring at places widely distant from each other in the British empire, he would have been at no loss to comprehend the causes which were so soon to effect a disruption of its parts. Such a position, denied to contemporaries, always too near the scene to measure exactly the relations of things, is supplied to their successors, who, if they do not look down, can at least look back, and calmly survey at the same moment all the parts of the picture of the past which the recorded testimony of actors and witnesses has combined to paint for them. The incidents of that night were of momentous importance to the nations of both hemispheres. “On that night,” said Mr. Adams, many years afterwards, “the foundation of American independence was laid.”1 Perhaps it would be more correct to say that the foundation already laid then first began to rise to the sight. However this may be, the consequences to Mr. Adams himself were decisive. On both sides of the Atlantic, within the same hour, occurrences were taking place, which conspired to fix him in the career he was destined afterwards to pursue. It was the moment, in London, of the appearance of a new prime minister to explain to the Parliament and to the nation his ideas of an American policy. It was the moment in the little town of Boston, one of the most remote of British dependencies, of an exposition, on the part of America, of the effects produced by that of his predecessors. Of these, during the ten years that George the Third had reigned, there had already been several; but not one had succeeded in maintaining himself in office, not one had been supposed to represent the true disposition of the sovereign, his master. The accession of Lord North was the signal of a new era. All the Whig leaders had been tried in turn, and all had equally failed to please. North was not a Whig, nor prominent for family, or wealth, capacity, services, or experience. His recommendation to the king was that he would consent to serve him as a screen from the tyranny of those aristocratic families to which his own had owed the crown. Thus dependent upon the royal favor for his place, the inference was general that he at least would truly reflect the royal views. Hence the unusual assemblage on the benches of the Commons this evening. Hence the curiosity to learn the principles upon which a question was to be treated which had been steadily increasing in difficulty of solution until even the most obtuse began to suspect that it needed a master mind.
At the time when the youthful ruler, in assuming the crown, announced to his people the gratifying fact that at last they had a sovereign, “born and educated among them, who gloried in the name of Briton,” it did seem as if the all-subduing energy of William Pitt had succeeded in setting him on a pinnacle higher than any of his predecessors had ever reached. Especially, in America, had the minister completely gained his point in crushing the power of France forever, and in fixing the British sway upon what might have been presumed imperishable foundations. Yet but few days elapsed before it became certain that gratitude was not among the most shining qualities of the new monarch, and that his servant’s genius was too towering to be otherwise than painfully oppressive to his own dogged mediocrity. Pitt consequently retired before he had had time to cement the edifice he had so laboriously constructed; and the men who took his place, instead of understanding his work, soon contrived, without intending it, to sap all its foundations. The first of the series was George Grenville, whose skill consisted in applying, on a sudden, the arithmetic of the counting-house to the gorgeous statesmanship of his relative and predecessor. Without a single precaution, and scarcely dreaming of objections, he ventured to point out America as an unfailing resource for future extravagance in Great Britain. His Stamp Act served no purpose other than to spread alarm from one end of the colonies to the other. Resistance unexpectedly followed, when other causes stopped Grenville in mid career, and brought in the Marquis of Rockingham—a feeble advocate of a compromising policy, which removed the obnoxious act that created, without retracting the doctrine that justified, the alarm. A new turn of the wheel brought up Charles Townshend, the favorite of the Commons, who held the measure of colonial rights in small esteem by the side of the smiles of that assembly. But death soon removed him; and the next leader was Lord North, the fourth in five years, whose duty led him to the treatment of the momentous question of colonial interests, and who was now called upon to untangle the skein, by this time made somewhat intricate, and to show, in answer to the anxious London merchants, what the course of the thread was thereafter to be.
Surely this brief review of the manner in which so great a subject had been treated, does little honor to the judgment or penetration of those to whose hands the administration had been entrusted. Yet Burke and Gibbon, the finest minds of their age, though differing in almost every thing else, have concurred in presenting to posterity, in the most attractive forms, the public men of these times as belonging in the front rank of British statesmen. Such a beautifier of imperfect figures is the illusive mirror of national pride! Could they have utterly forgotten the maxim of one of an earlier time, but of incomparably wider reach of mind, that “nothing destroyeth authority so much as the unequal and untimely interchange of power pressed too far, and relaxed too much”?1 Can those who in ten short years succeeded in toppling down the edifice which a real statesman had laboriously erected, and that without a single adequate motive, truly deserve eulogy? Grenville had ventured an empire upon a question of pounds and shillings. Townshend had staked it upon the pride of the country gentlemen. Neither of them had a conception of the true nature of the prize he was throwing away. Townshend’s bravado had laid duties, simply for the sake of laying them. Of the four articles selected to repeat the experiment of taxation, glass, paper, paint, and tea, only the last typified more than the shadow of an event. That was, indeed, a reality. It prefigured a system; but it did so in a most unfortunate shape. For it stood out alone, a clear, simple, unfortified object of assault. Had the minister designed to provoke resistance, he could not have chosen a more tempting object. Tea was a product purely foreign, easily identified, even if not brought over in the manner it was, in large masses, filling the ships that conveyed it. To the introduction of such an article, so offered, nothing was more easy than successful opposition. At Boston, a few persons subsequently threw it into the dock. Elsewhere, it perished by a mere process of isolation. Nowhere did it elude pursuit. The consequence was that authority appeared to have been triumphantly defied. But it was not the risk of tea which had roused the sensibility of the merchants and manufacturers. Agreements not to import any thing at all, carried with them to their minds far more dire results. It was the alarm caused by the news of these popular combinations, that stimulated the petition from the city of London, upon which the House of Commons was now to act.
This petition prayed for the repeal of all the duties. But not for reasons affecting the interests of those expected to pay them, or touching, in the remotest degree, the right of Parliament to impose them. The motive assigned was that the act had injured the traders of London. The colonists were associating for the purpose of cutting off the consumption of goods manufactured in and supplied by the mother country. The effect was injurious to the prosperity of the island, and therefore they prayed for repeal. But, as for the manner in which the act affected any rights of their brethren on the other side of the Atlantic, it was as little thought of as if these had belonged to the flying island of Laputa.
The disturbed state of things in America had been precipitated mainly by the vacillations of government policy. Such had been the advancing and then retreating, so manifest the good-will to propose, and so trifling the energy to execute, that power had crumbled in the process. To Lord North nothing was left but to build up the edifice anew. His success depended upon his ability to appeal to single and positive ideas. In the condition of America, little could be hoped from halfway measures, which had been already tried, with no good result. A stronger man would have repealed every restriction, and relied upon kindness alone to restore good-will, or else he would have adhered to all that had been done, and sent out an armed force large enough to look down opposition. North did neither. In the cabinet, opinions were equally divided. A moiety stood for concession. But for this he was not prepared. The king did not like it, and it was his disposition to please the king. His voice turned the scale in favor of the policy pursued, so that on him, next to George the Third, must the greatest share of responsibility for what followed, rest. It was the same middle path, the perpetual resource of second-rate statesmen, which his Rockingham predecessors had equally tried to tread. They had, surely, stumbled enough to supply him with a warning. But that was what North cared not to understand. His glance shot no further than the confines of the court or the circle of the ministerial benches. The arguments marshaled by him for use on this memorable night faithfully portray his later policy. “Paper, paint, and glass,” said he, “three of the four articles taxed, are the product of British industry. The manufacture of them is to be encouraged, and the sale promoted. To tax these has been a commercial mistake. For this reason the prayer of the petitioners may be granted, to the extent of repealing the duty on those articles. But with tea, the case is different. It is not produced within the British islands. The London factor has no interest in it beyond the charges of forwarding it from the producer to the consumer, both out of the limits of Great Britain. The tax falls on them; and, being collected from the colonists, may very properly become a source of revenue, out of which the officers of their governments, civil and judicial, can be made, in pursuance of the original design, to derive a support wholly independent of their good-will.”
This was to him a sufficient reason for refusing to rescind the tax; but he had another and a stronger one. The right to tax was affirmed in the preamble to Townshend’s bill. It had been denied in America. The words must, therefore, remain upon the statute-book as a test of principle, at least until the time when all the combinations formed against it should be dissolved. “For his part,” he added, “he had little doubt that this time would very soon come. Necessity would break the rule, and habit might be relied upon to do the rest. The latest accounts were very favorable to this expectation, and only perseverance was needed to dissipate the remnants of opposition. In any event, however, he was not to be moved, so long as a whisper of a threat could be heard from across the water.”
Such was the exposition made by the new premier, purblind to the rights of a continent, whilst he applied a microscope to the interests of a few hundred manufacturers and merchants of London. The Commons listened with profound attention, even though the king’s friends stood ready to confirm without hearing. Yet, through the long and tedious debate which followed, indicating little suspicion of the precipice which was opening under their feet, peers out here and there a symptom of mistrust that the right way had been chosen. Many went home without voting. Some wavered to the last. Dr. Franklin, who sat anxiously watching the issue, affirms that it finally turned upon the assurances given by North, that the colonists were yielding. Two hundred and three sustained him against one hundred and forty-two dissentient. The minister retired, complacently reflecting on the happy issue of this his first trial; and his supporters went home yielding to the illusion he had raised, that the fissure, which had been opening in the empire, was on the point of closing forever. A little spirit would do every thing. So said George in his earliest note to his new minister. “It was all that was needed to restore order to his service.”
Yet, during the very time that this imposing scene was enacting in the parliamentary halls, another, very different, but not less interesting, was passing in one of the places most to be affected by the decision. Little had his Majesty’s faithful Commons taken note of the interests, the principles, or the passions of those on the earnings of whose labor, in the vast region of North America, they had persisted in claiming the right to draw at pleasure. Still less had the premier imagined that whilst he was calmly assuring his followers of the approaching dispersion of further opposition, events were happening which marked significantly enough the fact that the eyes of the American colonist no longer saw in the British soldier either a brother in arms, or a protector of his hearthstone. To be sure, the town of Boston in New England, relatively to the densely populated metropolis on the Thames, was but a speck. Scarcely sixteen thousand souls could be counted within its limits, and the times had not, for many years, favored an increase. They had had so little to tempt avarice, that, for a century and a half, the people had been suffered, with little obstacle, to take care of themselves as they pleased, at home. Whatever restraints had been put upon their trade by the mother country, in pursuance of the selfish commercial theories of that age, had been observed where there had been no temptation to break through them, and tacitly set aside where their interests had prompted a different course. And this had been done so long with impunity, that habits of mind favorable to entire personal freedom had been formed even among a large class who seldom get so far as to an analysis of principles. The notion of the existence of any physical power in the state, beyond the little necessary to prevent the commission of common offenses against the order of a small community, was scarcely brought home to them. It was amidst a people nurtured in these habits of self-reliance and self-government, that the ministers of the young monarch commenced experiments upon their patience, by requiring them to submit cheerfully to questionable as well as odious demands. After they discovered that they had been too sanguine, and that something more certain than the good-will of the governed was necessary to carry out their plan, first had come a few, gradually increased to some hundreds of soldiery, trained to war only with enemies of the state, whom timid official agents, enlisted in the task of establishing the unwelcome enactments, had begged as a protection in executing their work. Such an influence, too weak to subdue, proved strong enough to develop the evil passions which the earlier policy had engendered. It was not now as it had been on former occasions, when, though always supercilious in their bearing, the regulars had been joyfully hailed, by colonists, as friends and allies in the labor of subduing dangerous neighbors. That terror had passed away; but, in its place, had grown up something akin to it as respected these friends themselves. The interests, once united, now began to look diverse. The presence of a British soldier was no longer the sign of an external enemy to be crushed. He could be needed only for one object, and what that was, it was becoming not difficult to conjecture. In case of a possible conflict of will with the mother country, it was clear that the unarmed hand would be driven to the wall. With these ideas, it was impossible that the presence even of a few soldiers should not excite uneasiness and displeasure. From being dignified as “His Majesty’s regulars,” they gradually degenerated, in the colonial vocabulary, into red-coats, lobsters, bullies, and outlaws hired abroad to cut off the chance of resistance to wrong. Every accidental occurrence furnished its aliment to the jealousy that had thus been roused; every personal quarrel or casual altercation in the streets became the symbol of impending tyranny. Thus had matters been going from bad to worse, until, on this very evening, whilst Lord North was assuring his friends that all would soon be harmony in America, an event occurred, suddenly revealing, in its full extent, the wide alienation of the colonial heart.
At about nine o’clock of the night on which Lord North declared himself impassible to menace, a single sentry was slowly pacing his walk before the door of the small custom-house in King Street, then, as ever since, the commercial center of the town of Boston. It was moonlight, and a light coating of fresh snow had just been added to the surface of the ground, commonly covered at that time of the year with the condensed remnants of the winter’s ice. There had been noise and commotion in the streets, particularly in Cornhill, now Washington Street, and at Murray’s barracks, in what is now Brattle Street, where the twenty-ninth regiment was stationed. The passions of soldiers and town’s people, which had been steadily rising, now found free vent in violent language and menacing gestures towards each other. Nothing remained to prevent a collision but the hesitation generally visible in crowds, as to who will venture the first stroke. The danger, however, had been avoided, through the energy of the officers, at the barracks, where it appeared the most imminent; and the probability is that it would have passed away, for this night at least, but for the intervention of one of those accidents which set at naught the precautions even of the wisest. The sparks of social conflagrations are not infrequently found among the weakest and least regarded portions of the community. Sometimes they are boys, who, forever haunting scenes of popular excitement, reflect, in an exaggerated form, the passions of their elders, without comprehending the causes which roused them, or the necessity of keeping them under control. In this case, it was a barber’s boy whose thoughtless impertinence opened the floodgates of passion in the town. The resentment of the sentinel and the complaints of the boy drew the attention of stragglers, on the watch for causes of offense, to the soldier’s isolated condition, which soon brought his fears to the point of calling upon his comrades for support. A corporal and six men of the guard,1 under the direction of Captain Preston, came to his relief, and ranged themselves in a semi-circle in front of his post. The movement could not take place without exciting observation, the effect of which was the collection around them of forty or fifty of the lower order of town’s people, who had been roving the streets armed with billets of wood until they began to gather around the main-guard, scarcely averse to the prospect of a quarrel. This small array of red-coats, separated from their companions, though it might have appeared formidable enough to deter them from a direct assault, hardly availed to dispel a temptation to resort to those less palpable, though quite as irritating, forms of annoyance, which are always at the command of every mob. What begins with jeering and profanity not seldom ends in some shape or other of deepest tragedy. Forty or fifty of the coarsest people of a small trading town and eight hirelings of an ordinary British regiment can scarcely be imagined as types of any solid principle or exalted sentiment, and yet at the bottom lay the root of bitterness which soon afterwards yielded such abundant fruit. This was the first protest against the application of force to the settlement of a question of right. This comparatively slight disturbance, going on by the peaceful light of the moon in a deserted street of an obscure town, was the solution of the problem which had been presented on the same night to the selected representatives of the nation, assembled in one of the ancient and populous and splendid capitals of the world.
Encouraged by impunity, the rioters proceeded from invective to defiance, and from defiance to the use of such missiles as the street afforded. Agitated as well by anger as by fear for their own safety, seven of the soldiers, either under orders or without orders, successively discharged their pieces upon their assailants. It is worthy of remark that every one of these shots took effect. Each musket was loaded with two balls. Five men fell mortally wounded, two of them receiving two balls each. Six more were wounded, one of whom, a gentleman, standing at his own door, observing the scene, received two balls in his arm. This accounts for all the balls.1 So fatal a precision of aim, indicating not a little malignity, though it seems never to have attracted notice, is one of the most singular circumstances attending the affray. No wonder, then, that peaceable citizens of a town, until now inexperienced in events of the kind, should, in their horror of the spectacle, have called the act a massacre, and have demanded, in tones the most absolute, the instantaneous removal of the cause. The armed hand, which had done this deed, was that of England. It was not that of a friend or guardian. The drops of blood then shed in Boston were like the dragon’s teeth of ancient fable—the seeds, from which sprung up the multitudes who would recognize no arbitration but the deadly one of the battle-field.
It was, indeed, an anxious night to most of the staid citizens of the town, who probably saw in it only the immediate annoyance to their peace. On the one side, various strollers, who had learned the issue of the conflict they had gone out to provoke, made its usually silent streets resound with the roll of drums and the cry to arms. “Town-born, turn out, turn out.” On the other, a drummer from the main guard beat the alarm to the rest of the twenty-ninth regiment, to prepare them to defend their comrades as well as themselves. The several companies were rapidly formed and brought up from their quarters to the scene of conflict. The street, which had been almost empty, was now filling so fast, that the commanding officer, Captain Preston, had deemed it prudent to remove his men to the station of the main guard, opposite to the north side of the town-house, a place where the street was narrowest, and where the access from above and below could be most easily commanded. Here the regiment was drawn up in three lines, extending across the street, and facing towards the east, where it greatly widens, and where the crowd of town’s people had gathered. The front rank was ordered to kneel, and the whole to be prepared to fire at the word of command. The other regiment, the fourteenth, though not ordered to the spot, was put under arms at its barracks, not far off, and made ready for action. Every thing portended a new and far more terrible conflict, when Lieutenant-Governor Hutchinson, now acting as Governor, the very man who had been most active in procuring the presence of the troops, repaired to the scene to quell the storm he had raised. Once the most popular citizen of the place, even the change to the side of persecution, which had worked his official advancement, had not yet quite destroyed the force of old associations. His fellow-townsmen now looked to him for redress. He began by interrogating Captain Preston. But the noise was too great to permit of hearing the answer, and the impatient crowd pressed so hard upon the town-house as to force their way in, and carry the speaker with them up at once into the council-chamber. From this room a balcony opened upon the street, of which he took advantage to pledge himself to those outside that he would see justice done, and to exhort them, in that confidence, to go home, at least for the remainder of the night. At the same time, Lieutenant-colonel Carr, commanding the regiment, was advised to withdraw his men to their barracks. Their retirement was the signal for the somewhat reluctant dispersion of the crowd. The immediate hazard was over; yet, so great was the exasperation, that Hutchinson remained at the council-chamber a great part of the night in consultation with the commander of the troops, Lieutenant-colonel Dalrymple, whilst a court of justices of the peace forthwith set about taking testimony to ascertain the offenders. The result was the issue of process against Captain Preston. But it was not until after three o’clock the next morning that the intelligence of that officer’s surrender of himself, and of his committal to prison, quieted the anxieties roused by this novel and painful agitation.
This was, however, only satisfaction for the past. It was no security for the future. That point came up for consideration with the dawn of the next day. The lieutenant-governor had summoned the council at an early hour; but before it met, a number of the respectable and solid men of the town waited upon him to represent, in the strongest terms, the necessity of immediately removing the troops. At eleven o’clock, Faneuil Hall filled with people rushing to a meeting called to hear from eye-witnesses what they could tell of the affray. The distorted and impassioned narrations given only stirred their indignation still more against the whole military array, to which they gave vent by unanimously instructing a committee of fifteen, with John Hancock, Samuel Adams, and Joseph Warren of the number, to go to the governor and council with their deliberate opinion that it was impossible for the soldiers and the town’s people to live longer with safety together. Conscious of the drift of his own letters to Great Britain, which had brought in the troops to overawe the spirit of liberty in the town, and yet without courage openly to brave so strong a popular excitement, Hutchinson fell upon the device, not uncommon with men of his stamp, of shifting the burden from his shoulders. Not venturing to dispute the reasonableness of the application, he evaded it by pleading want of authority over the king’s forces. The effect was to throw upon Colonel Dalrymple, then senior in command, the responsibility for all the disastrous effects that might follow a refusal, whilst it yielded him no support from authority to justify his consent. That officer, very naturally, sought to escape a position so perilous. He at once offered to remove the most obnoxious regiment to the castle, at least until the arrival of orders from the commander-in-chief at New York, provided the governor and council would approve it. But that was more than Hutchinson was prepared to do. With his mind still fixed upon the tenor of his letters then under the eyes of ministers at home, he could not bring himself to an admission so mortifying to his sagacity. He answered the committee only by acquiescing in Dalrymple’s offer, and rose for the purpose of breaking up the council. But that body, who probably suspected little of what was going on within his breast, and whose sympathies not less than their fears prompted union with their fellow-citizens, quailed under the trial to which he was subjecting them. They joined with the colonel in begging for an adjournment till afternoon, with such earnestness that they extorted rather than received consent.
During the interval, on the one hand, Dalrymple gave the council to understand that he would venture to act without an order, if the executive would only express “a desire” that he should, and, on the other, the committee of fifteen reported to the town meeting, now so much reinforced in numbers that it had been transferred to the largest edifice in the town, the Old South meeting-house, the answer to their application. Stimulated rather than disheartened, a new motion was carried to send back seven of the committee, fortified by a second unanimous declaration from the increased thousands there assembled, that nothing would satisfy them but the removal of all the troops. It is the scene of the afternoon session of the governor and council, when the smaller committee appeared to reiterate the popular demands, which John Adams, in a letter to Judge Tudor, late in life, so vividly delineated. There was Hutchinson, with the words still on his memory, which he had secretly penned and sent to England only the year before, “five or six men-of-war and three or four regiments disturb nobody but some of our grave people, who do not love assemblies and concerts, and cannot bear the noise of drums upon a Sunday;” how was he to stultify himself by the act of ordering away a much smaller force? There were the council, in the morning, divided in sentiment, a part yet anxious, if possible, to follow their chief, now so hemmed in by the conjoint cries of the whole community around them, as to have become unanimous for concession; the ever faithful secretary, too, the captain of one of the frigates in the harbor, and the commanding officers of both regiments, all honestly anxious to escape the ominous alternative which seemed to impend over a perseverance in refusal, joined in their solicitations that he would give way. Hutchinson was left alone. Their former idol was now to encounter the risk of the bitter curses of his townsmen, should blood be again shed in their streets by reason of his obstinacy. The trial was too great for his nerves. Again he returned to his expedient, and pleaded the want of power. The device only served the more to discomfit its contriver. The stern logic of Samuel Adams at once removed the obstacle already half demolished. “If the power existed to remove the twenty-ninth, it was equally able to remove the fourteenth, and a refusal to do both would be at their peril.” The law of physical strength was broken; the moral victory won. The rod of oppression, which Hutchinson had been secretly and cunningly preparing, snapped in his hand.
But not satisfied with this triumph, the passions of the people took another direction. From the partial evidence thus far given in, it appeared as if this had been a cruel, wanton massacre of innocent and unoffending citizens. Hence it followed that the perpetrators of this crime should be visited with the extreme penalty of the law. The captain who had ordered and the seven soldiers who fired the fatal shots, should meet with condign punishment. They were oppressors, bullies, hireling cut-throats. The slain were martyrs in the cause of liberty. A prodigious concourse attended the ceremony of their interment, and measures were taken to keep alive the popular passions, by the establishment of an annual commemoration of the tragic event. The current thus setting towards the final condemnation of the prisoners was so strong as to bid fair to overawe justice even in the highest tribunal of the State. In the deep-wrought feeling of the moment, to doubt the truth of the wildest charge which malignity or folly could invent, was regarded as equivalent to siding with the tyrant minister who had caused the massacre. Thus it happened that the soldiers were considered, by most persons, as having acted from deep-settled malice aforethought, with the intent to kill, maim, or injure unoffending people against whom they entertained a personal hate. The superior court, before which they were to be brought for trial, happened to be commencing its term the next week. The judges, sensible of the injustice to the prisoners of entering upon the case in the midst of so great an excitement, at first determined to postpone the trial until the first week in June. But overawed by the attendance of a large committee, with Samuel Adams and Joseph Warren at their head, appointed by the town to watch the prosecution, they rescinded their decision, and at once named a day, to which they adjourned the court. Such, at least, is the statement of Hutchinson, who is seldom inaccurate.1 Yet the fact is certain that the actual day of trial did not come on for more than seven months.
In the general disgust, at the introduction of troops into the town, John Adams had largely shared. Only the May before this event, at the head of a committee of his fellow-citizens, he had prepared the instructions for their representatives to the General Court, in which these words occur. “It will be natural to inquire into all the grievances we have suffered from the military power; why they have been quartered on the body of the town, in contradiction to the express words, and, as we conceive, the manifest intention of an act of Parliament; why the officers who have thus violated our rights have not been called to an account, and dealt with as the law required . . . . why the repeated offenses and violence committed by the soldiery against the peace, and in open defiance and contempt of the civil magistrate and the law, have escaped punishment in the courts of justice.” Entertaining such dispositions, whilst he could not concur with the extreme views of the cause of the riot taken by his fellow-townsmen, nothing was further from his thought than the idea of being called to confront their passions. This, however, was to be the first occasion to test the firmness of his principles, by placing them between the forces now hastening to collision. Notwithstanding the guarded language of Hutchinson, it may be safely inferred from his account, that the course taken to aid Captain Preston was suggested by him. Presaging the contingency in which he might be summoned, in the last resort, to breast the popular storm, by giving a pardon after conviction, it was not unlike him to contrive a plan to thrust in leading professional men of the patriot side between himself and the danger he apprehended. Neither is it any cause of surprise to find him relying upon pecuniary considerations, as an inducement to the assumption of so uninviting a duty. No such ideas seem, however, to have weighed a feather with the persons to whom Preston and the others had recourse. Of the few lawyers known to be warmly engaged against the government policy, John Adams and Josiah Quincy, junior, were now, by all odds, the most prominent in Boston. The former had been at the bar twelve years. The latter, the junior of Mr. Adams by nine years, had, however, in his shorter service, succeeded in gaining credit with his fellow-citizens as well for his professional skill as for his personal character.
To them the prisoners applied. Timid or crafty men would have devised excuses to avoid the duty. They were not of either class. Mr. Adams framed his answer solely upon professional grounds, for thus far he had never ceased to regard his life as that of a lawyer only. A riot had no necessary connection, in his mind, with the maintenance of his political principles. It was enough that the applicants had reasonable grounds of justification, and had called for assistance, for him to determine that it should not be withheld. Mr. Quincy, on his part, acted with not less promptness, though not without mature consultation with judicious friends more advanced in years, as became so young a man. Of this number was Mr. Adams himself, with whose advice he consented to engage.1 The decision was regarded by many townsmen as little short of a willful design to screen murderers from justice. The father of Quincy wrote to his son in terms of vehement remonstrance. The son’s reply is in the vein which so often raises the annals of these times above the ordinary level of history. “To inquire my duty, and to do it, is my aim,” he wrote, and with that moral second sight which sometimes reflects the light of future generations back upon the mind of one yet living in the midst of doubts and difficulties, he added: “I dare affirm that you and this whole people will one day rejoice that I became an advocate for the aforesaid criminals, charged with the murder of our fellow-citizens.”
Yet, though there can be little uncertainty of the nature of the popular feeling at this time, it would not be just to represent the town so carried away by passion as to leave none of the citizens conscious that the question was not without difficulty on its merits. In the same letter, Mr. Quincy names Hancock, Molineux, Cushing, Warren, Pemberton, and Cooper, than whom there were no warmer patriots in Boston, as approving what he had done. Captain Preston publicly acknowledged, in the newspapers, his obligations for the sympathy he had met with in his adversity. And an occasion happened a few weeks later for the people to show that the determination of Mr. Adams to defend the prisoners had in no way impaired their confidence in his principles. James Otis, junior, the fiery and daring pioneer, whose will, however fitfully exerted, had yet done wonders in concentrating the opinions of the colony, was now reluctantly admitted to be past further service. In the place which he had held so long, James Bowdoin had been substituted, at the annual representative election held in May. But, on the assembling of the General Court, it appeared that the accession of Hutchinson to the place of Bernard, had been the signal for some variation of policy. Mr. Bowdoin was no longer excluded from the council by the exercise of the governor’s negative, as he had been. As a consequence of this transfer to the other branch, a vacancy was created in the House of Representatives, to fill which a precept was issued to the town of Boston. A special election was held on the 6th of June, just three months after the riot in King Street, and Mr. Adams was chosen by four hundred and eighteen out of five hundred and thirty-six votes.
In his “Autobiography,” Mr. Adams has described his feelings upon this occasion too clearly to need further exposition. His words are remarkable, as indicating that he considered his act of accepting this post to be the first material departure from his preconceived plan of life.1 Up to this moment he had labored, as few men of his day labored, to make himself a distinguished lawyer. After years of dogged perseverance, he had at last reached a station in the front rank. Business, which had fluctuated in the season of the Stamp Act, now came in steadily and abundantly, promising, ere long, to reward him with what, in the simple New England habits of those days, might be reckoned a handsome independence. Although led alike by his principles and his feelings to engage in public questions, it is a great mistake to suppose him to have participated in the counsels or the action of the patriots at this time, at all in the manner customary with his older kinsman, Samuel Adams. Unlike him, John never attended town meetings, nor did he mix much in the private assemblages or clubs which gave shape and direction to the public counsels. The faculty of combining the sentiments of numbers into some definite form of action, which particularly distinguishes party leaders, belonged, in a high degree, to Samuel, but it was never either possessed or prized by John. This distinction, which has not infrequently been overlooked, it is of some importance to keep in mind. It was not as a politician, but as a lawyer, that John Adams was first drawn into public life. The patriotic party stood in need of a legal adviser at all times, but never more than now, that they were summoned to contend with the shrewdness and the skill of Hutchinson, just transferred from the highest judicial to the highest civil post of the province. From the rise of the troubles, as a general thing, the lawyers, following the natural instincts of their profession, had either studiously remained neutral, or had leaned, decidedly, to the side of prerogative. Oxenbridge Thacher, the first exception, had now been dead several years. Otis, long an energetic, though not uniformly a consistent counselor, had just sunk, a victim to his own irregularities and the vindictiveness of his enemies. Joseph Hawley, the pillar of the party in western Massachusetts, was not at all times at hand, nor did his temperament, ever prone to melancholy, incline him to assume undivided responsibility. Both he and Samuel Adams saw in John Adams the person now wanted to step into the vacant place. Neither is it unlikely that a fear of possible influences upon the mind of the latter, from the relations formed in the course of Preston’s trial, may have prompted the plan of fixing upon him, without further loss of time, some sort of political obligation. Be this as it may, the fact is certain that, from this date, whether in or out of public station, John Adams was looked to as a guide in those measures in which questions involving professional knowledge were to be discussed with the authorities representing the crown.
The sessions of the General Court for 1770 were not among the most memorable of this preparatory period. Yet they show clearly enough, at every step, the onward march of revolution. Trifles, which in ordinary times would have been passed over without notice, now produced irritation, and that bred contention with Hutchinson, who stood as the mark for every attack. The court had been summoned to meet at Cambridge, instead of Boston, for the sake of punishing the contumacy of the latter town. The change, in those days without bridges over the Charles River, was inconvenient to all, whilst it served rather to provoke than to frighten those whom it was designed to affect. It was made by Hutchinson himself, for the ministry had left him a discretion to act as he thought best. The process of reasoning which decided him, has been exposed to the world.1 It is quite characteristic of the man. His unconciliatory spirit very naturally bred its like in the opposition, and the consequence was an almost endless dispute. If it be conceded that he ultimately proved his act of transfer to be legal, the question will yet recur whether more was not lost by the contention than victory was worth. Just so was it with another and a more subtle question that succeeded, touching the enacting style used in the provincial laws. Somewhere about 1740, Colonel Bladen, a member of the board of trade and plantations, had seen, in the form then practiced, beginning, “Be it enacted by the Governor, Council, and House of Representatives in General Court assembled, and by authority of the same,” words of fear to the prerogative of the monarch of Great Britain. So he obtained an order, to be placed in the standing instructions of the governor, that the ominous terms should henceforward no longer appear. And they had been accordingly disused until now, when the House had revived them.
Governor Hutchinson called their attention to his instructions as forbidding the variation. The House proceeded to argue the case. There can be little doubt that in their management of both these questions the House greatly relied upon the advice of Mr. Adams. Hutchinson, in his account, dwells upon their trifling nature, as if the blame of raising them rested exclusively with his opponents. But if so trifling, the question naturally arises why he gave them such prominence by his mode of dealing with them. And a solution is afforded by the knowledge of the fact that he was using the positions assumed by the House as an argument with ministers, for taking steps to annul the charter itself. This explains the reason why he invited so many disputes, and showed so little desire of conciliating his opponents, in carrying them on. So long as they furnished him the means of ingratiating himself at home, and of recommending the arbitrary policy upon the success of which he desired to stake his fortunes, he was content. For the rest, he rather enjoyed the little vexations to which he had it in his power to subject his enemies. He alludes to the futile efforts of the selectmen of Boston to keep up the usual ceremonies of election day, in spite of the removal of the General Court, very much as a pedagogue would gloat on the inability of a refractory scholar to conceal the pain his chastisement gave, and not as a philosopher who traces great events to minute causes. Frivolous as might be the origin of many differences that took place, they all had their share in bringing on the great catastrophe. A sudden and violent quarrel seldom breeds permanent division between friends. Anger and love are not incompatible passions, and they often succeed each other with equal violence in the same breast. But the slow and gradual wear and tear of irritations often recurring upon trivial matters, by associating a sense of relief with the idea of separation, is what most surely leads to irrevocable alienation. Such was the natural effect of the strife excited and continued by Bernard and Hutchinson. It was they who taught the people of Massachusetts to feel as if no peace would be found in their household so long as Great Britain had it in her power to protect the instigators of the annoyances not less than the injuries to which they were perpetually exposed.
In all these discussions, Mr. Adams, although entirely a novice in legislation, was at once called to take an active part. His name appears upon almost every important committee, and his turn of thought, as well as his technical skill, is to be traced in many of the controversial papers of the session. This was a school in which he was forming himself for the struggles of the future both in the province itself and afterwards upon a wider theater. Among the committees alluded to there are two, which, for particular reasons, deserve to be specially mentioned. One was directed to mature a plan for the encouragement of arts, agriculture, manufactures, and commerce, to be reported at the next session. The other was organized to correspond with the agent and others in Great Britain, and also with the speakers of the several assemblies or the committees of correspondence of the other colonies. It does not appear that much was done that year in prosecution of either object, and Mr. Adams retired from the House at its close. But the latter, however imperfectly it may have been carried into execution, certainly shows the first proposal of the kind during the struggle—a fact which has been overlooked by Mr. Jefferson, and by later writers following his authority, who have ascribed the paternity of the suggestion to the assembly of Virginia.
In the midst of the dispute about the enacting style, came on the trial of Captain Preston, which called Mr. Adams away to another scene. It was commenced the 24th and lasted until the 30th of October. No report of it was ever published. The favorable verdict was not unexpected, for it was scarcely possible to prove that he had given any orders which caused the men to fire. The other and more difficult case followed a month later; and so great was the interest felt in it that a stenographer undertook, what in that day was a gigantic task, a report in full. Unlike the indefatigable men of the same class in this age, he gave way, completely exhausted, before he reached the end. The published report, confessedly imperfect, makes a volume of more than two hundred closely printed pages. It is better in every part than in the arguments of the counsel for the defense, a deficiency which Mr. Adams, for his own share, has thus explained. When the notes were submitted to him for revision, he perceived so many misconceptions of his meaning, as to make the manuscript difficult to correct without rewriting the whole. Having no leisure for such a task, he preferred to strike out the greater part, and substitute a mere list of the legal authorities upon which his argument rested. There is, therefore, no record remaining of his real speech. A small part only of these original notes has been preserved, and that is remarkable only for one attempt at correction, which will be noticed in its proper place.
The most favorable circumstances for the eight soldiers subjected to this trial were just those which seemed most to threaten at the outset. A “Narrative,” prepared by a committee of the town upon the ex parte testimony of heated individuals, taken at the moment, had been printed and quite extensively circulated both in England and America, which seemed to justify the notion that the prisoners, in their action on that night towards the people of the town, had been actuated by purely malicious intentions. The evidence given in on the trial, after the lapse of several months, and subjected to the tests usual in courts of law, put a different face on the matter. So far from being in any way assailants in the affray, it was shown that much provocation had been given by the town’s people, both in word and deed. So far from promptly resorting to arms, it admitted, at least, of doubt, whether any resource was left to save their lives when they fired. Much of the testimony in the “Narrative” now looked extravagant, and some was positively perjured. The alleged firing from the windows of the custom-house turned out to be fiction. Hence had sprung up a partial reaction in the popular judgment. This had been skilfully improved by Mr. Quincy, in his opening, so that when Mr. Adams’s turn came to close the defense, he had little left to do beyond a clear recapitulation of the principles of the common law in cases of homicide, to complete the case. In mere rhetorical declamation, his mind was too direct and his character too downright to take pleasure, in any part of his life. His natural energy carried him at once to the main subject; but when that was grasped with firmness, he delighted in placing it in every light of which it was susceptible. His desire was to convince the jury that the act done was not murder; but in order to effect it, he carefully confined himself to a pure appeal to their reason. His exordium and his peroration each consisted of a brief quotation, not inaptly introduced to justify his peculiar situation. In his “Diary,” months before, in connection with cases of successful defense made by him,1 a passage is noted from a celebrated work then quite new, which he now introduced, with great effect, to shield himself with the sympathy of the assembly around him. He began thus:—
“May it please your Honors, and you gentlemen of the Jury,—
“I am for the prisoners at the bar; and shall apologize for it only in the words of the Marquis Beccaria: ‘If I can but be the instrument of preserving one life, his blessing and tears of transport shall be a sufficient consolation to me for the contempt of mankind.’ ”
Individuals who heard Mr. Adams, carried with them to the end of their lives a most vivid recollection of the thrill which spread through the auditory upon the repetition of these few and simple words.1 The mysterious chain of human sympathy is not infrequently electrified the most with the least artificial preparation. It was always so with Mr. Adams as an orator, whose rhetorical effects were never any thing but the legitimate offspring of his own strongly excited emotions. Probably no ornament which he could have woven into his speech, would have had one half the effect either upon the jury or the audience, that was produced by the conviction inspired that his heart and his head were equally engaged in the duty he had assumed.
Content with this laconic introduction, the speaker at once addressed himself to the task of explaining the law which should govern the case. He enlarged upon the principles applied to the discrimination of human conduct, and, particularly, in all the various forms in which men do mortal harm to one another. This brought him gradually and naturally to the consideration of cases of homicide occurring in the course of self-defense, and to the rules of interpreting motives which the wisdom of judicial tribunals has cautiously educed from an extended survey of the reciprocal obligations of mankind. At every step he was careful to avoid resting upon affirmations of his own, rather preferring to reinforce his argument by a constant appeal to the power of authority over the minds of the jury. “I have endeavored,” he said, “to produce the best authorities, and to give you the rules of law in their words; for I desire not to advance any thing of my own. I choose to lay down the rules of law from authorities which cannot be disputed.” From this he passed to an explanation of the nature and various forms of provocation to injury, with which portion of his subject the argument of the first day was concluded. This formed the doctrinal part of the speech. The next day was devoted to an application of the principles thus laid down to the strongest parts of the evidence that had been elicited in the course of the examination. It is at the outset of this review that the single corrected passage of the reporter’s notes occurs, which has been already alluded to. It is plain from it that the prescient mind of the orator was already floating far over the ocean of the future, watching, not without dismay, the signs of tempest that were accumulating around the horizon. The words are these:—
“If Heaven, in its anger, shall ever permit the time to come when, by means of an abandoned administration at home, and the outrages of the soldiery here, the bond of parental affection and filial duty between Britain and the colonies shall be dissolved, when we shall be shaken loose from the shackles of the common law and our allegiance, and reduced to a state of nature, the American and British soldier must fight it out upon the principles of the law of nature and of nations. But it is certain such a time is not yet arrived, and every virtuous Briton and American prays it never may. Till then, however, we must try causes in the tribunals of justice, by the law of the land.”
After an elaborate analysis of the testimony, as given in the order of the witnesses, Mr. Adams then came to his conclusion in the same simple, straight-forward, and passionless style in which he had commenced:—
“Facts are stubborn things,” said he, “and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passions, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence. Nor is the law less stable than the fact. If an assault was made to endanger their lives, the law is clear; they had a right to kill in their own defense. If it was not so severe as to endanger their lives, yet if they were assaulted at all, struck and abused by blows of any sort, by snowballs, oyster-shells, cinders, clubs, or sticks of any kind, this was a provocation, for which the law reduces the offense of killing down to manslaughter, in consideration of those passions in our nature which cannot be eradicated.
“To your candor and justice I submit the prisoners and their cause. The law, in all vicissitudes of government, fluctuations of the passions, or flights of enthusiasm, will preserve a steady undeviating course. It will not bend to the uncertain wishes, imaginations, and wanton tempers of men. To use the words of a great and worthy man, a patriot and a hero, an enlightened friend of mankind, and a martyr to liberty, I mean Algernon Sidney, who, from his earliest infancy, sought a tranquil retirement under the shadow of the tree of liberty with his tongue, his pen, and his sword:—
“ ‘The law no passion can disturb. ’Tis void of desire and fear, lust and anger. ’Tis mens sine affectu, written reason, retaining some measure of the divine perfection. It does not enjoin that which pleases a weak, frail man, but, without any regard to persons, commends that which is good, and punishes evil in all, whether rich or poor, high or low. ’Tis deaf, inexorable, inflexible. On the one hand, it is inexorable to the cries and lamentations of the prisoner; on the other, it is deaf, deaf as an adder, to the clamors of the populace.’ ”
In the perfect simplicity of this argument lay its greatest power over the minds of a people, who, however attached to liberty, had inherited, from their ancestors on both sides of the water, scrupulous veneration for the sacredness of law. All the series of hateful measures which had led to the catastrophe, the coarseness and occasional arrogance of the soldiers themselves in their relations with the town’s people, had been carefully kept in the background; and the single image of justice, clothed in all her sternness, and yet pure and divested of human passion, had been put forward and relied upon to determine the issue. The calculation was not a mistaken one. Each of the four judges who sat in the case, not disinclined to mercy, but fearful of the popular indignation if he indulged it, encouraged by the impression made by the defense, delivered his charge strongly in favor of the prisoners. The jury remained out about two hours and a half. On their return they acquitted six of the eight soldiers, against whom no specific act had been proved. They were, accordingly, discharged. The other two, Killroy and Montgomery, against whom, as having caused the death of Attucks and Gray, the evidence most strongly pointed, were found guilty of manslaughter. They immediately prayed for the benefit of clergy, according to the old forms of the English law, which was at once granted; and having been publicly burnt in the hand, agreeably to the sentence pronounced by the court, they were, likewise, suffered to depart. Could the same facts have been proved on their companions, they would have fared no worse. The idea of malicious intent was in either event entirely precluded.
Thus ended the first and the lightest of the four moral tests which occurred in the course of Mr. Adams’s public life. The prisoners had not been compelled to throw themselves upon executive clemency, and Hutchinson was relieved. The town was released from danger of censure for vindictive ferocity, and the people, though not universally convinced that the verdict was according to law and testimony, had ceased to be in a temper to obstruct its operation. Mr. Adams had borne himself so manfully, that whilst he gained a great addition to his professional reputation, he lost little of the esteem of his political friends. Gordon, the historian, affirms that his argument had the effect of altering their policy. No longer giving countenance to petty and profitless brawls with straggling soldiers, they turned their attention to improving the organization of the local militia, as a means of defense, against the uses to which they might, as troops, be put. However this may have been, Mr. Adams never looked back upon his share in this transaction without satisfaction, not only because he had himself performed what he believed his duty, in the face of popular clamor, but because he had done his part to furnish for Boston a memorable example of self-control under extraordinary provocation, as well as of cheerful submission to the ultimate decree of law. Of how much value this has been as well to the town as the whole country, in the opinion of the world, and not simply whilst the friends of prerogative were straining every nerve to excite a contrary impression, but ever since, it is only necessary to open any account purporting to be a history of these times, fully to understand.
The year had been one of great labor; and the sedentary habits incident to a town residence, to which Mr. Adams was not used, began to threaten his health. His profession was yet the exclusive object of regard. He determined at once to bid adieu to politics, and sacrifice his position as a representative of Boston, by returning to the rural life of his native place. For himself, this decision seems to have cost him not a particle of hesitation; but as to the public, his feelings were more in conflict with his judgment. His “Diary,” for the two following years, betrays the state of his mind, vacillating between his devotion to his profession and his anxiety at the increasing embarrassments of the popular cause. The great struggle between authority and liberty, prerogative and principle, was not going on without frequent symptoms of varying fortune. The dispute with Hutchinson about holding the General Court at Cambridge had, unluckily, sowed the seeds of discord in the patriot ranks. Samuel Adams and John Hancock were no longer friends, and their difference spread a spirit of animosity among their respective followers. Encouraged by this strife, the friends of government once more rallied in Boston in the hope of defeating the reelection of Samuel Adams to the House. And though in this attempt they signally failed, the softened tone of Hancock kept up their spirits with an expectation that his influence at least might soon be expected to turn on their side. Neither was this altogether without reason, as Hancock gave many signs of discontent with the cause of the patriots, one of which consisted in the transfer of his legal business from the hands of John Adams, whom he had employed for some years, into those of Samuel Quincy, well known as the solicitor general, and on the side of the crown. Hutchinson’s interesting narrative, as well as his confidential correspondence, clearly shows the hopes which he at this time cherished of yet establishing his system and himself in the teeth of all opposition, whilst, on the other hand, Mr. Adams’s “Diary” displays the apprehensions entertained by the patriots of his success. There is no knowing how far he might have prevailed, had not his own imprudence contributed the means wherewith to dash all his devices. The detection of his secret letters healed at once all the dissensions, for it showed him to the colonists exactly what he was. It left no shadow of doubt of the source of the crafty policy through which their chartered rights were in danger of being annulled, and the executive and legislative departments withdrawn from their sphere of influence, and subjected exclusively to that of the crown. This end could not be attained so long as the pecuniary support of the officers continued in any way dependent upon the good-will of the colonial representatives. To suppose that the judges, men raised from among themselves, would be induced to uphold any odious system of arbitrary measures, so long as their salaries continued at their mercy, was scarcely consistent with reason or experience. Nobody knew this better than Hutchinson, and that if any thing was to be gained to the side of power, it was to be through an enlargement of the means of dispensing favors, to command which the government at home must be made henceforward the exclusive source from which they should flow. It was in the prosecution of this idea that the project had been set on foot by him of furnishing a salary, first for the governor, and afterwards for the justices of the superior court, from the crown. And its execution had gone on so far to success in the former case as to render the prospect of it in the latter by no means unlikely. As a consequence of the exposition made of this aggressive spirit in the secret letters, the contest assumed, in 1773, a new and more vehement form.
But it was the rumor that the judges might soon be taken into the pay of the crown, that spread incomparably the greatest alarm in the hearts of the patriots. If this should be accomplished, the greatest barrier to Hutchinson’s schemes would be forever removed. The committee of correspondence in Boston had early sounded the note of remonstrance, which was soon echoed far and wide from the smaller towns. That on a dependent bench servility was sure to become the rule and manliness the exception, was a lesson too freshly received from the annals of the Stuart reigns to be yet obliterated in America. Neither had the tendencies of the legal profession, with certain marked exceptions, in Massachusetts, been altogether such as to correct these early impressions. An instance presented itself at Cambridge, where lived William Brattle, a man of respectable character and extended influence, once a declared opponent of the Stamp Act, now soothed by the narcotics of Hutchinson to a state, at best, of suspicious apathy. At a town meeting, where the majority of the people had voted instructions to their representative to exert himself to the utmost against the proposed change, Brattle ventured publicly to advocate it. His defense was ingenious and plausible. He maintained that it would insure a greater independence of the judges from all exterior influences whatsoever. But in order to make good his argument, he was obliged to assume that the tenure of their offices was during good behavior. Granting this, his conclusion was sound, that the effect would be only to make them more at liberty from control alike of sovereign and of subject. This assumption was not inconsistent with the general opinion. It was further fortified in this instance by a challenge to the lawyers of the patriotic side in general, and to John Adams in particular, to uphold the contrary.
This speech came to Mr. Adams’s ears, and it had an instantaneous effect. “My own determination,” he says in his “Diary,” “had been to decline all invitations to public affairs and inquiries. But Brattle’s rude, indecent, and unmeaning challenge of me in particular, laid me under peculiar obligations to undeceive the people, and changed my resolution. I hope that some good will grow out of it. God knows.” The consequence was the production of a series of papers in the columns of the “Boston Gazette,” during the early part of 1773, which are inserted in the third volume of the present collection. They will be found to abound in professional learning, which soon closed the mouth of his antagonist, a man little able, in other respects, to cope with him in controversy. They have now, comparatively, little interest. But at the time, they served the purpose of establishing in the popular mind two propositions. The first, the importance of assuring the independence of the judges of all temporary extraneous influences, by making them hold office during good behavior; the second, that no such tenure had ever actually existed in Massachusetts. Hence, should the payment of their salaries be taken from the colony, the control of the crown over them would become exclusive and complete. The demonstration so ably made in these papers had its desired effect. It was not without force on public opinion, and even upon Hutchinson himself. For he not long afterwards wrote to government at home, urging that all uneasiness on this score should be quieted by consenting to establish the tenure during good behavior.
But it was not this controversy alone which counteracted Mr. Adams’s designs of retirement. Almost at the same moment, the voluntary act of the governor created a strong demand for the precise order of qualifications which he, more than any other man in the province, at that time possessed. Roused by the tightening network of organization woven around him by the indefatigable assiduity of Samuel Adams, in the committees of correspondence, as well as by the doctrines given out by the same person from the center in Boston, unequivocally denying the supreme authority of parliament over the colonies in all cases whatsoever, Hutchinson boldly determined himself to go in advance of the attack, by presenting to the General Court, at its opening in 1773, an elaborate argument to sustain it. This, he thought, it would be beyond the power of his opponents satisfactorily to answer; and if not so answered, he relied upon the fact to produce an extensive reaction in the public feeling. Neither was it out of his mind that his former judicial station, which he had only left to become governor, would be of material service to clothe with authority the positions which he should take. Laying aside all the ordinary topics of an annual address, he opened at once upon the consideration of the cause of the disordered state of the province. He affirmed it to be the late denial, for the first time, of the supreme authority of Parliament. For his part, he could see no medium between the admission of that authority and the independence of the colony. In every state, but one supreme power could be found. In the present instance, it was either in America or it was in Great Britain. If it was in America, what claim had Massachusetts upon Great Britain for protection? And what would be its prospect, but for that protection, of maintaining its independence of other powers? But protection on the one hand implied obedience on the other. By the law of nations, the principle had been established that the colonies emanating from a state did not cease thereby to be a part of that state. Yet although subordinate, they might enjoy powers more or less extended of their own. Particularly was this possible under the institutions of Great Britain, the free spirit of which infused itself into those of all its dependencies. But however ample these powers, it was obvious that they could never be exclusive. The greatest of them, for example, that of legislation, must be controlled by the higher jurisdiction exercised by Parliament, in all matters touching the common interest which were applicable to them.
But if it should be objected to this reasoning that, by express compact between Great Britain and Massachusetts, the people of the latter were guaranteed the same rights and privileges of Englishmen which they would have enjoyed had they remained at home, the question would arise what were those rights and privileges. It could be demonstrated that they were not everywhere the same, not even in all parts of England itself. Adroitly substituting the general idea of natural rights for the specific rights of which he had been treating, the governor went on to show that even representation was an abridgment of these, yet that a complaint on account of such abridgment would be an objection not to any particular form, but to government itself. Just so was it with the English colonist, whose voluntary removal from that sphere in which alone he could exercise the rights and privileges guaranteed to Englishmen, necessarily placed him on an inequality with his brethren at home. The charter secured him only the partial rights it was practicable for him to enjoy where he was, whilst it saved him the opportunity of resuming the enjoyment of them in their full extent whenever he should incline to return to Great Britain, where it could be done.
Such is the substance of this somewhat celebrated paper, intended by its author to place the cause of Britain upon an immovable base; a paper, the argument of which, he himself affirms, met with the hearty approbation of one who rose to be lord-chancellor, Thurlow, at the time, and which has been declared unanswerable by better legal and political authority1 at this day. Yet it would not seem quite impossible to trace serious defects in this much vaunted foundation. Is it so essential to the construction of any social system that the idea of absolute, supreme authority, resting in it somewhere, should be assumed to be necessary at all? Supreme power, obtaining obedience without qualification, can be acknowledged only in association with the conception of absolute excellence which can command no wrong. The ideas are united in the notion of the Supreme Being, the creator and preserver of all things, but not in any common form of humanity, as experience has taught us to know it on earth. Authority which proves not to be limited by justice and right reason, which is enlisted to the end of inflicting evil upon any portion of the human race, has no basis to rest upon beyond the physical force adequate to enforce its decrees. And this physical force, when purely aggressive in action, being out of the pale of mere moral considerations, is not susceptible of any argument in justification of its use. It is a fact in dynamics, and nothing more. “Bad laws,” said Burke of his own country, Great Britain, “are the worst sort of tyranny. In such a country as this, they are of all bad things the worst; worse, by far, than anywhere else; and they derive a particular malignity even from the wisdom and soundness of the rest of our institutions.” There can be little security to private rights in any form of social organization, and least of all in those of the most popular kind, where the axiom is not well established in the general mind that all shapes which power may be made to assume, from the greatest to the least, are not only limitable, but limited to the purposes for which they were especially created.
Assuming this proposition to be sound, the dilemma so confidently offered by the governor is at once avoided. It would have been quite as easy at any time to reconcile the powers vested in the government of Great Britain with those appropriate to the colonial legislatures, as it has since proved to be with analogous powers under the federal and the state governments of the United States. Neither would that officer have been driven, under such a hypothesis, to the deplorable necessity of surmounting the obstacle presented in the chartered guarantee of the rights of Englishmen to men removing from England, by advancing the absurdity that this guarantee applied only in cases of return to the place where no grant was necessary to secure them.
But though this speech was not without its defects, as well in moral as political reasoning, it so far fell in with established ideas, and seemed to rest on so confident a claim of authority, as to render the party in opposition not a little uneasy under the pressure. Hutchinson affirms that measures were instantly taken by the committee of the House charged with the duty of reply, to obtain the aid of those persons in the other colonies who had most distinguished themselves in the former controversy on the validity of the Stamp Act. Both Mr. Dulany, of Maryland, and John Dickinson, of Pennsylvania, are said to have been applied to, and to have declined to engage. This statement rests upon the authority of a single individual, and may fairly be doubted. At any rate, they did not act. Yet the fact is certain that an unusual delay took place in reporting an answer, and that, when it came, it furnished proofs of great labor in the preparation. Unlike most of the papers of the kind, it grappled at once with first principles. It disputed the right, thus far generally conceded in Christendom, of seizing the lands occupied by the heathen, by virtue of authority vested in the head of the Catholic Church, and granting them to any Christian monarch whose subjects might be the first to discover them. But should that title be conceded to be valid, it was one which vested in the sovereign, who, in the present instance, had voluntarily entered into an agreement with certain persons among his subjects, clothing them with powers to enter upon new countries not annexed to the realm of England, and subjecting them to restrictions specified on the face of the compact. The question was then no longer one of natural rights, but of liberties proper to those free and natural subjects of Great Britain, who, under the protection of this grant, had come to America, had compounded with the natives for their lands, and had gone on to do all the acts necessary to constitute themselves a state. Among other things, they had undertaken to make laws for their own government, subject, however, to the only condition attached to their contract, that they should be in no wise repugnant to the laws of England. In other words, they had guarded against a conflict between their own legislation and that body of jurisprudence, under the fundamental principles of which all British subjects, wherever placed, enjoyed their rights, and the king himself put on his crown.
The power of the monarch to enter into a similar compact had never been disputed. Under his own hand, he had guaranteed to the colonists the liberties of British-born subjects, not at home, where they already exercised them without his interference, but in the desolate foreign region to which they were transferring themselves. One of those liberties consisted in being governed by laws made by persons in whose election they had a voice. That the members of the British Parliament were such persons, was not simply untrue in fact, but it was in the nature of things that they could not be made so. The only practicable form of enjoying this right was through a body constituted within the limits of the colony, capable of making laws which would be binding upon them, provided only that they were in no wise repugnant to the laws of England. There was no other limitation whatsoever; and even the right of determining what fell within this limitation was wholly reserved to the crown, and by no means vested in the Parliament.
This masterly paper then entered into a keen analysis of the governor’s argument upon precedents, disputed his assertion that the supreme authority of Parliament had never before been denied, and, with great adroitness, turned upon him several extracts from his own “History” of the colony, which certainly go far to establish the contrary. Although secondary in their application to determine the merits of the question at issue, these positions were of the first importance to invalidate the authority of their antagonist, which was one of the most serious difficulties the patriots had been summoned to confront.
Much question has been had of the authorship of this paper. In his account of the transaction, Governor Hutchinson gives the impression prevailing at the time, that “it was drawn up by Samuel Adams and Joseph Hawley, with the aid of John Adams, not then in public life, but of well established reputation in the law.” Elbridge Gerry, a member of the same General Court, initiated in the secrets of the popular party, in a letter of reminiscences of much later date, incidentally ascribes its authorship to John Adams, as a fact well known to him. The brief note of Samuel Adams, calling upon John to sustain, in a reply, a position which had been taken upon his authority in the first paper, and which he found himself unable to maintain, is inserted in the second volume of the present work.1 Lastly, the autobiography and letters of Mr. Adams himself, at different periods in later life, giving many particulars of the controversy, when the recollection of it had ceased to be of interest, varying in minor details, uniformly treat the legal positions of the paper, together with the authorities, as his own. Such is the extent of the direct testimony on this point. A closer analysis of its internal structure is calculated to confirm the impression of Hutchinson, that it was the work of more than one person. The reasoning from abstract principles on the authority of the Pope, the Crown, and the Parliament, shows the action of a mind long trained in the study of legal distinctions, and resembles that contained in the Dissertation on the canon and feudal law, the dispute with Brattle, and the subsequent controversy with Massachusettensis. On the other hand, the objection of Hutchinson, that words are not everywhere used in the same technical sense, is not without its force; besides which, the course of the style is more even, the sarcasm more pointed, and the sentences more epigrammatic than was usual with John, and rather betray the characteristics of Samuel Adams. The rough drafts of James Otis had, in like manner, been customarily submitted to his polishing pen, when Otis was the source from which he obtained his points of controversy. Neither is it at all improbable that even the argument personal to Hutchinson may have come from him, for in that warfare he had been long experienced, and was familiar with it. The marked difference in the minds of the two kinsmen is to be found in the breadth and the comprehensiveness of their ratiocination. But Samuel possessed a quality peculiarly his own. He knew how to avail himself of the resources of other men, as well in the realms of thought and acquired knowledge, as in the combinations that result in action. He was the centre around which all the movements of the patriots turned; and if he did not always originate the reasoning or the specific forms of proceeding, he is exclusively entitled to the merit of connecting them into one system, and infusing into the scattered efforts of many, all the life and energy which belongs to a single will.
The effect of the reply was to leave the controversy in a state very different from what the governor had expected. Instead of a victory decisive enough to resuscitate the expiring embers of loyalty, he failed not to be sensible of the necessity imposed upon him to resume his labor, even if it were only to maintain his own reputation. This time, he addressed himself almost entirely to the House. Avoiding the issue which had been equally joined with him by the council, he now appealed to the general principle of the feudal law vesting all land titles in the crown, as establishing the fact that British subjects, whether in or out of the island, took their grants not from the person of the sovereign, but from the crown of Great Britain. Hence he insisted that their service was due to the king as head of the authority established in the realm, legislative as well as executive, and not as an individual. Then, springing upon what he considered the weakest point in the committee’s reply, he challenged their use of the word realm as equivocal, and perplexing the argument. “I do not charge you,” he said, “with any design; but the equivocal use of the word realm, in several parts of your answer, makes them perplexed and obscure. Sometimes you must intend the whole dominion, which is subject to the authority of Parliament; sometimes only strictly the territorial realm to which other dominions are or may be annexed. If you mean that no countries but the ancient territorial realm can constitutionally be subject to the supreme authority of England, which you have very incautiously said is a rule of the common law of England, this is a doctrine which you never will be able to support. That the common law should be controlled and changed by statutes, every day’s experience teaches, but that the common law prescribes limits to the extent of the legislative power, I believe has never been said upon any other occasion. That acts of Parliaments for several hundred years past have respected countries which are not strictly within the realm, you might easily have discovered by the statute-books.”
He proceeded to sustain his views by the examples of Wales and Calais, Guernsey, Jersey, &c., all of them holden as parts of one dominion. The plantations formed no exception. Being expressly holden by the terms of the charters as feudatory of the imperial crown of England, they were, in like manner with the rest, under the government of the king’s laws and the king’s courts, in cases proper for them to interpose. Having thus restated his argument, he concluded with a labored effort to do away the force of those passages of his own “History,” which had been so skilfully directed against him, in the answer of the House.
It should be observed that the position taken in the second speech is, in some material points, quite different from that assumed in the first. This one had contained no allusion whatever to the feudal tenure as the source of the power of Parliament, but had traced it rather from the application of an abstract proposition, then generally conceded and not yet quite exploded, that absolute power must rest somewhere in every state, to the constitution of Great Britain. This power had been vested, by the sense of the kingdom, in Parliament and nowhere else, and the terms of the charter were to be construed accordingly. The later speech, on the contrary, annexed all acquisitions of territory, however made, to the state, as feudal dominions of the crown, which might be granted by it to individuals, subject only to the legislative authority of the empire of which the king was the head. The earlier argument dwelt little on the king, whether as a person or a sovereign, but much on the supremacy of Parliament as the all-sufficient answer to determine every question of liberty. The second showed forth the king as the source of power, and insisted upon the distinction between his official station as wearing the imperial crown, and his mere individual condition. It was by the station, and by that alone, that he held his authority over the various portions of the empire, none of which could be separated or alienated solely at his pleasure. As a specimen of reasoning, the latter must be conceded to be the stronger production, though it rather avoids than surmounts the obstacles which had been placed in his way. At any rate, it was imposing enough to call for a grave reexamination of the whole ground taken by the House. Fourteen days elapsed before that body replied. The casual note of Samuel Adams, already alluded to, shows that John Adams was required to furnish the rejoinder, at least in that particular upon which the governor had pounced with such assurance of victory. He had supplied the position, and he was now to vindicate it, “if vindicable.” These words betray the impression which Hutchinson had made even upon the writer of the note, and the little confidence he had in his own resources to meet the issue he had been the agent to present. This makes it probable that the reply which closed the controversy is more exclusively the work of John Adams, in manner as well as matter, than the earlier paper. With his characteristic boldness of abstract speculation, already once publicly exercised on the same subject, it begins by striking at feudal tenures as “a system of iniquity, which, aided by the canon law, at one time prevailed to the almost utter extinction of knowledge, virtue, religion, and liberty, in one part of the earth.” Then conceding to the governor that his position was historically and legally correct, and that feudal principles were to be applied in the case of the colonial grants, it denies, with great force, the admission of any idea of Parliament, as sharing the smallest portion of the power. “ ‘The Lord was, in early times, the legislator and judge over all his feudatories,’ says Judge Blackstone.” “If our government be considered as merely feudatory, we are subject to the king’s absolute will, and there is no authority of Parliament, as the sovereign authority of the British empire.” After quoting a variety of authorities, illustrating the correctness of this position, it proceeds to defend the position which the governor had so boldly assaulted, and which Samuel Adams had feared was not vindicable.
“Your Excellency has misinterpreted what we have said, ‘that no country, by the common law, was subject to the laws or the Parliament, but the realm of England;’ and is pleased to tell us, ‘that we have expressed ourselves incautiously.’ We beg leave to recite the words of the judges of England, in the before-mentioned case, to our purpose. ‘If a king go out of England with a company of his servants, allegiance remaineth among his subjects and servants, although he be out of his realm, whereto his laws are confined.’ We did not mean to say, as your Excellency would suppose, that ‘the common law prescribes limits to the extent of the legislative power,’ though we shall always affirm it to be true of the law of reason and natural equity. Your Excellency thinks you have made it appear that the ‘Colony of Massachusetts Bay is Holden as feudatory of the imperial crown of England,’ and, therefore, you say, ‘to use the words of a very great authority in a case in some respects analogous to it, ‘being feudatory, it necessarily follows that it is under the government of the king’s laws.’ Your Excellency has not named this authority; but we conceive his meaning must be, that, being feudatory, it is under the government of the king’s laws absolutely; for, as we have before said, the feudal system admits of no idea of the authority of Parliament; and this would have been the case of the colony, but for the compact with the king in the charter.
“Your Excellency says, that ‘persons thus holding under the crown of England, remain or become subjects of England,’ by which we suppose your Excellency to mean, subject to the supreme authority of Parliament, ‘to all intents and purposes, as fully as if any of the royal manors, &c., within the realm, had been granted to them upon the like tenure.’ We apprehend, with submission, your Excellency is mistaken in supposing that our allegiance is due to the crown of England. Every man swears allegiance for himself, to his own king, in his natural person. ‘Every subject is presumed by law to be sworn to the king, which is to his natural person,’ says Lord Coke. ‘The allegiance is due to his natural body;’ and he says: ‘In the reign of Edward the Second, the Spencers, the father and the son, to cover the treason hatched in their hearts, invented this damnable and damned opinion, that homage and oath of allegiance was more by reason of the king’s crown, that is, of his politic capacity, than by reason of the person of the king; upon which opinion, they inferred execrable and detestable consequents.’ The judges of England, all but one, in the case of the union between Scotland and England, declared that ‘allegiance followeth the natural person, not the politic,’ and ‘to prove the allegiance to be tied to the body natural of the king, and not to the body politic, the Lord Coke cited the phrases of divers statutes mentioning our natural liege sovereign.’ If, then, the homage and allegiance is not to the body politic of the king, it is not to him as the head, or any part of that legislative authority, which your Excellency says ‘is equally extensive with the authority of the crown throughout every part of the dominion’; and your Excellency’s observations thereupon must fail.”
Nothing could be more triumphant than this retort; which was followed up by further quotations from the highest professional authorities, proving, beyond all question, that the limits of the legislative power of England and of allegiance of subjects to the king of Great Britain had not been regarded as identical; and hence the governor’s assumption that the colonists were necessarily subject to the supreme authority of Parliament, because subject to the king only as the head of it, could not be sustained.
Having in this manner met the objections of the governor, the committee went on to restate their position. The first colonists, proceeding on the assumption that the lands in America were out of the bounds of the realm of England, had applied to the king for liberty to go out and settle them. The king, concurring in their view, had entered into a contract with them by his charter, reserving allegiance to him in his natural capacity, and securing to them the rights and privileges of British subjects, but not the title to their lands. In approaching here the most perplexing part of the whole question, they say: “If it be difficult for us to show how the king acquired a title to this country, in his natural capacity, or separate from his relation to his subjects, which we confess, yet we conceive it will be equally difficult for your Excellency to show how the body politic and nation of England acquired it. Our ancestors supposed it was acquired by neither; and therefore they declared, as we have before quoted from your history, that, saving their actual purchase, from the natives, of the soil, the dominion, the lordship, and sovereignty, they had, in the sight of God and man, no right and title to what they possessed. How much clearer, then, in natural reason and equity, must our title be, who hold estates dearly purchased at the expense of our own as well as our ancestors’ labor, and defended by them with treasure and blood!”
Here, again, is visible the most striking characteristic of Mr. Adams’s mind, his resort to first principles, and his departure from mere authority, whenever his discriminating sense perceives them to begin to separate. Proceeding in the same path, the paper confronted the governor with a series of extracts, first from writers of elementary law and then from the historians of the province, not excepting Hutchinson himself, all directed to the overwhelming establishment of the main position. It then concluded with the following eloquent paragraph:—
“The question appears to us to be no other than whether we are subjects of absolute unlimited power, or of a free government formed on the principles of the English constitution. If your Excellency’s doctrine be true, the people of this province hold their lands of the crown and people of England; and their lives, liberties, and properties are at their disposal, and that even by compact and their own consent. They were subject to the king as the head alterius populi, of another people, in whose legislative they have no voice or interest. They are, indeed, said to have a constitution and a legislative of their own; but your Excellency has explained it into a mere phantom, limited, controlled, superseded, and nullified, at the will of another. Is this the constitution which so charmed our ancestors, that, as your Excellency has informed us, they kept a day of solemn thanks-giving to Almighty God when they received it? And were they men of so little discernment, such children in understanding, as to please themselves with the imagination that they were blessed with the same rights and liberties which natural-born subjects in England enjoyed, when, at the same time, they had fully consented to be ruled and ordered by a legislative, a thousand leagues distant from them, which cannot be supposed to be sufficiently acquainted with their circumstances, if concerned for their interest, and in which they cannot be in any sense represented?”
Thus terminated the most remarkable controversy which preceded the Revolution. The governor found himself without the laurels which he so confidently expected to twine around his brows, and earning the reproaches instead of the applause of the chiefs beyond the water, into whose favor it had been his purpose to ingratiate himself. He himself admits that the ministry looked coldly upon his experiment. In point of fact they gave him no thanks for volunteering in a duty which they did not care to see performed. The discussion of first principles was a matter for which neither by habit nor inclination, by capacity or by taste, any of them had the smallest predilection. They saw in the Americans only a set of troublesome factionists, who were to be treated with no more consideration than was due to their imagined power to do mischief with impunity. And if things should come to the worst, all that would be necessary to set them right at last would be the mission of a few more British regiments. To reason about the rights of Great Britain was, in their view, beneath the dignity of Englishmen. And it must be conceded that Governor Hutchinson, by inviting a discussion, placed his principals in a dilemma from which extrication was not easy. If the authority of Parliament was implied in the use of the term imperial crown, according to the second speech, then it followed that it was bound by the limitations and restrictions set forth in the royal charter. If, on the other hand, it was not so implied, then the charter was a compact with the king alone, to which Parliament was not a party further than might be expressed by the terms of it.
It is more easy, however, to refute his reasoning’s than to maintain any consistent affirmative on the opposite side. The subject is full of difficulties growing out of the anomalies of the constitutional system of Great Britain. The bundle of habits and customs which make what is called its common law, grew out of the necessity of providing for immediate contingencies occurring in the common course of events. It molded itself around circumstances, instead of being molded in advance of them. Beginning in a day of small things, and of authority vaguely defined, it sometimes took its shape from accident, and much oftener from necessity than foresight. Originally confined within the narrow limits of England proper, it had been gradually accommodated to the ever enlarging sphere of the national acquisitions. Colonization, conquest, and compact, all came in turn, introducing new modifications into the system not reducible to any general law. Each case may be said to have been regulated by some special necessity of its own. And all the fine threads of authority, thus woven out of the most dissimilar materials and gathered into various knots in the course of many generations of collective activity, present to the curious observer rather a happy agglomeration of inconsistencies difficult to reconcile, than one plan resolvable into a few principles, and matured by the joint experience and forecast of the most elevated genius.
But out of all the extensions of the British empire, none presents more difficulties of analysis than that effected by the colonization of North America. Carried away by the adventurous spirit of the age which followed the discovery of a hemisphere, the monarchs of Europe vied with each other, not in originating national enterprises, but in stimulating the private and voluntary undertakings of their subjects. They showed themselves quite ready to share the advantages of success, without hazarding by any means a proportionate loss from failure. To this policy the sovereigns of Great Britain most of all adhered. The Stuarts made no scruple of granting powers without stint, to take territories which did not belong to them, to individuals whose presence within the kingdom was considered more burdensome than advantageous. As a consequence, the religious schismatics abounding in that day, persecuted at home, eagerly snatched the opportunity to lay in other climes the foundations of new communities, where they fondly hoped to perpetuate the cherished principles of their peculiar faith. Thus sprung into existence colonies whose motive was to indurate and extend forms of opinion not in unison with those which continued to prevail in the mother country. The seeds thus sown were not to produce the fruit of the parent tree, but a progeny differing more and more with the descent of time. Unlike the colonization of the Greeks, the first as it is the best and most consistent of the systems ever devised, the relations growing out of this exodus were not harmonious, but discordant. Hence it is that at no time was any spirit of cordial good-will towards their American dependencies visible in the people or government of the mother country. In its best form, it approximated the patronage of contempt. Yet the grants of powers and privileges, which cost less than the paper on which they were written, had been lavish, whilst ignorance combined with indifference to the results, in leaving the recipients to develope their own resources almost without restraint. Neither was the first attempt to impose a curb the consequence of a conflict of principle. It came from the exclusive commercial jealousy of nations in the last century, which viewed every advantage of industry gained by others as just so much loss suffered by themselves. The mercantile and manufacturing temper of Great Britain regarded the people of the colonies not as friends and brethren, but as strangers who might be made tributaries. The idea of civil rights was not in question any more than if the country had been conquered by arms. And in a conflict of interests there was no notion of settling them by compromise or concession. The entire sacrifice was to be made by the Americans. The commercial definition of the term colony all over Europe, after the discovery of the new world, made it a dependency not for the benefit of the offshoot, but only to strengthen the parent stem.
Had the people who settled in America all come over under the influence of these purely commercial ideas, there might have been no difficulty in settling this matter in time. But so far from it, they had been trained in the very opposite schools of religious and political heterodoxy. Contention was a familiar idea; resistance a matter of habit, as well as of principle. The spirit thus nursed could not be like that which comes from trade, a spirit of negotiating equivalents, for there were no such things as equivalents in their vocabulary. It had lived through all sorts of moral trials. When, therefore, the struggle came down to a mere pecuniary imposition, they carried into it the generalizations of higher levels of thought. When they had grown strong enough to be taxable, they had likewise grown strong enough to deny the right under which they were expected to contribute the tax. Hence the whole conflict of the Revolution. It had a more lofty source than local law, or the caprice of a monarch, though it received a great impulse from both. The commercial school of British statesmen construed colonization as implying subjection. The theological democracy of the colony twisted it into virtual independence, with relations of mutual good-will. Between these two extremes there was little likelihood of coming to a settlement upon the uncertain basis presented by Hutchinson, the only consequence of whose labor was to expose its shallowness. The matter could be disposed of by concession or by force, but not by reasoning. It was not then without cause that the British ministry censured his officiousness, even though they might maintain that in some of the technicalities of his argument he had not been and could not be fully refuted.
A few days after the close of this controversy, the waning influence of Hutchinson received its final blow under the exposure, by an agency in England never fully disclosed, of his secret instigation of the odious policy under which the colony was groaning. Mr. Adams received the packet of letters containing it from Thomas Cushing, the speaker of the House, to whom it had been transmitted by Dr. Franklin,1 in London; and it is said that he took it with him in one of his customary professional circuits. His meditations upon it are fully shown in his private “Diary.” That one of the few natives ever advanced to the chief place in the colony should have been the one to suggest, that “there must be an abridgment of what are called English liberties,” was revolting enough, to be sure. “These cool projectors and speculators in politics will ruin this country,” indignantly breaks out Mr. Adams: “Bone of our bone; born and educated among us! Mr. Hancock is deeply affected; is determined, in conjunction with Major Hawley, to watch the vile serpent, and his deputy serpent, Brattle. The subtlety of this serpent is equal to that of the old one.” Prior to the submission of these papers, however, to the new General Court, it seems that the popular party had determined to place a further check upon the governor by introducing Mr. Adams into the Council. His secret thoughts upon the eve of this event are such as could come only into the mind of a disinterested statesman. But the pledge, which is one not infrequently taken, on the threshold of public life, by men who are yet found to faint by the wayside before the end of the journey, was by him fully redeemed in every part down to the latest hour of his career.
1773, May 24. “To-morrow is our general election. The plots, plans, schemes, and machinations of this evening and night will be very numerous. By the number of ministerial, governmental people returned, and by the secrecy of the friends of liberty relating to the grand discovery of the complete evidence of the whole mystery of iniquity, I much fear the elections will go unhappily. For myself, I own, I tremble at the thought of an election. What will be expected of me? What will be required of me? What duties and obligations will result to me from an election? What duties to my God, my king, my country, my family, my friends, myself? What perplexities, and intricacies, and difficulties shall I be exposed to? What snares and temptations will be thrown in my way? What self-denials and mortification’s shall I be obliged to bear?
“If I should be called, in the course of Providence, to take a part in public life, I shall act a fearless, intrepid, undaunted part at all hazards, though it shall be my endeavor, likewise, to act a prudent, cautious, and considerate part. But if I should be excused by a non-election, or by the exertions of prerogative, from engaging in public business, I shall enjoy a sweet tranquility in the pursuit of my private business, in the education of my children, and in a constant attention to the preservation of my health. This last is the most selfish and pleasant system; the first, the more generous, though arduous and disagreeable.”
His prognostication of executive interference proved correct. The governor put his negative upon him, because of “the very conspicuous part he had taken in opposition,” though he had not been prominent in any other manner than by avowing his opinions and giving advice. But events were now running too rapidly to a crisis, to render a like exercise of authority any thing more than a provocative. The thunder which had muttered during the preceding session, against those judges who should profit of the crown grants of salaries, now burst with violence over the head of Hutchinson himself. By a resort to an expedient of a kind which parties not infrequently adopt to cover a useful wrong, his secret counsels transmitted to the other side of the water were published by the General Court to the world; and then they were made the basis of a formal remonstrance to the king against the conduct of Thomas Hutchinson, governor. Andrew Oliver, the lieutenant-governor, whose letters had likewise been betrayed, was involved in the same complaint. And a prayer was added, that his Majesty would be pleased to remove them both from the government of the province forever. However unlikely that this prayer would be heeded, a doubt could scarcely remain that the usefulness of Hutchinson, as an instrument to carry out any ministerial policy, was at an end. Not a great while after, his suit for permission to repair to England, in order, in person, to explain his course more fully than he could do by letter, was granted. He embarked the next year, never again to look upon the native land which he loved, and yet which he had so grievously betrayed. Even at that moment he undoubtedly cherished visions of a restoration in power and glory, after the shock of the conflict should have passed away, and the rebellious temper of his opponents should have been atoned for by chastisement and in chains. No such reality was in store for him. His cherished villa upon Milton hill passed into the hands of those opponents, and neglect and isolation in the country to which he had sacrificed himself, came to add poignancy to the domestic afflictions of his later days. Such was the reward of cold and ambitious selfishness! The natural pity excited by a close of life like his is checked by the thought of what evils the success of his schemes would have imposed upon multitudes then unborn. It is not often, under the imperfect dispensations of justice upon earth, that its political annals present so instructive a lesson of moral retribution.
But although the man was about to be removed, it was by no means clear that the absolute system which he had contributed to introduce would not become gradually confirmed by time. The judges of the superior court had betrayed no reluctance to the proposed change of the source of their emoluments from an uncertain and capricious legislative assembly to the steady patronage of the crown. Several efforts made in advance to deter them from accepting the apprehended overtures had not been attended with such success as to quiet the popular uneasiness. A later and more menacing tone extorted the fact that the chief justice had already availed himself of his Majesty’s grant for eighteen months’ salary; that three of the justices, though intimidated for the moment, could not be depended upon permanently to decline it; and that but one was disposed, in good faith, to abide by the good-will of his fellow-citizens, according to ancient forms. This view of the case was not a little discouraging. It betokened the ultimate union of the executive and judiciary powers on this side, sustained by all the official power of the crown on the other side of the Atlantic, against the popular party. The issue, at best a very doubtful one, depended for a favorable turn mainly upon the extent to which unanimity of sentiment at home could be preserved. The open secession of the judges would be soon followed by that of many leading lawyers, whose leanings were not misunderstood; and thus a foundation would be laid for divisions fatal to all hopes of ultimately establishing the popular cause.
The secret discouragement of the patriot leaders, whilst reflecting upon the means of counteracting this subtle policy, has been sufficiently set forth by Mr. Adams, in his “Autobiography.1 ” They had pushed their attack upon the chief justice as far as they thought it could be carried. The House had drawn up a remonstrance demanding his removal, which they had formally presented to the governor and council for their decision, and had gone so far as to vote the adjournment of the superior court for three days after the regular commencement of the term, in order to prevent his sitting whilst it remained unacted upon. But the governor had very quietly set at naught both of these measures, by interposing his negative to the one, and rejecting the other without even communicating it to the council. Indeed, he could scarcely have done otherwise in a case in which the chief justice was complained of for obeying an act prescribed by the authority of the king himself, whose representative in the colony he was. A further petition and remonstrance was tried, enlarging the grounds of complaint so as to include the governor’s action independently of the advice of his council. But that met with no better success.
In the mean time the court had been adjourned from day to day, the chief justice only awaiting the issue of the controversy to show the impotence of the attack by taking his seat and claiming the victory. The embarrassment was serious, for delays could avail but a little while longer. The extrication from it was due to Mr. Adams, and to him alone. This is one of the instances in his life in which the extraordinary force of his will gave a decided turn to events. He saw at once that it was no moment to listen to half-way expedients, that nothing would avail but a determined blow at the source of the judicial authority. He proposed at once the impeachment of the chief justice. Such a measure had not been without precedent in the colony, though it had not been provided for by the terms of the charter. At first it struck the other patriot lawyers with surprise at its boldness, and they questioned its practicability. Mr. Adams was not unprepared for objections. He had meditated the subject, had traced the sources of the power of impeachment in the mother country, had analyzed the nature of the personal security guaranteed to the native-born British subject, and extended to the colonist by the charter, and was ready to maintain that the only safeguard against the abuses of the judicial power in Massachusetts was by process of impeachment, by the House of Representatives, before the council.
The presumption that this body, either in its origin or its functions, bore any analogy, as a tribunal, to the House of Lords, was certainly violent. Elected annually by the votes of the lower House, and subject to the negative of the executive, it had few elements which could make it an independent arbiter, in the last resort, of the delinquencies of the highest judicial officers. On the other hand, if this body could not act, it was clear that there was no protection against abuse. An early act of Parliament had made the governor amenable, in cases of malfeasance, to the court in Westminster Hall, but its provisions applied to no other officer. Neither would they have availed, had they embraced the judges. Justice transferred to tribunals beyond sea, and, consequently, delayed indefinitely, is equivalent to justice denied. It can hardly be presumed that a court, were it to be signalized by the enormities of a Scroggs, or the butcheries of a Jeffreys, might have been lawfully imposed upon a community entitled to English liberties, without some more effective restraint than the tardy interference of a jurisdiction wholly foreign from their social organization. Such a conclusion would have thrown even the most ardent loyalist upon his natural rights, as the only way to secure his personal safety.
The construction of the law given by Mr. Adams avoided this necessity. The charter of William and Mary had granted to the General Court of the province the power to establish courts of justice, and to the governor and council that of appointing the judges. Here, if anywhere, the judges were amenable in cases of delinquency. Hence it followed, by a very natural analogy, that, in the absence of all other adequate authority, upon the House of Representatives must devolve the responsibility of embodying the grievances which the people might suffer in the administration of justice; and, for the same reason, the governor and council, the only remedial institution remaining capable of hearing a complaint in the last resort, must be the tribunal to pronounce upon their guilt.
The opinion of Mr. Adams was canvassed by the other lawyers on the patriot side, and was even submitted to the only judge on the bench supposed to sympathize with them. Trowbridge showed himself not averse to it, although he cautiously avoided committing himself. The substance of the dialogue, as given by Mr. Adams, is characteristic enough on both sides. “I see,” said the judge to him, “you are determined to explore the constitution, and bring to life all its dormant and latent powers, in defense of your liberties, as you understand them.” To which he replied, that “he should be very happy if the constitution could carry them safely through all their difficulties, without having recourse to higher powers not written.” It was doubtless in this spirit that his advice was taken by his friends, and the necessary measures accordingly prepared, by which to present Peter Oliver, chief justice of the superior court, guilty of high crimes and misdemeanors, as set forth in the proper forms of impeachment. The result was, that they were adopted by a vote of ninety-two members of the House against only eight dissentients. Notwithstanding all the skill of Hutchinson, interposed to parry the force of this shaft, it struck its object with unerring aim. Oliver, the sternest and most resolute of his coadjutors, was from the instant disabled from further cooperation. A tribunal more potent than the governor or the bench took up the matter, and refused to recognize the chief justice as a rightful officer until the charges brought against him should have been acted upon. It was in vain that the court was opened in all the customary forms, that the judges declared themselves ready to hear and the counsel to speak. When those who had been drawn to act as jurymen were summoned to qualify in the usual form, not a man could be found to consent. Each individual, as his name was called, assigned as his reason for declining, that the presiding officer, having been charged with high crimes and misdemeanors in office, by the legislative power of the province, could not be recognized as a suitable person to hold the court, whilst the charges remained unacted upon. Such was the unanimity of sentiment that even Oliver quailed before it, and the highest court of the province was, from this moment, effectually closed.
Under this last shock perished the elaborate policy woven from the subtle brain of the fourth and last provincial governor of the native stock of Massachusetts. The web was torn to atoms, and not a shred remained with which to begin anew. From this time Hutchinsons and Olivers, and their ignoble train of followers, are completely obliterated from the record. Unlike every other struggle of the kind in the province, this one had been stimulated by suggestions of domestic origin. No social and political connection of similar power and extent had ever before been organized on the side of prerogative, none which promised so fair ultimately to reconcile the temper of the people at least to a material abridgment of their ancient liberties. For thirteen years had the contest been carried on, with various results, generally with the appearance of success on the popular side, but not without frequent misgivings of its strength seriously undermined in secret. The power, which was applicable to change the fortunes of the day, was great enough. It only needed to be used with more system and harmony to a given purpose at the same time on both sides of the Atlantic, to be likely to triumph. Neither was it the less effective, because its operations were generally underhand. Fortunate was it that no minister came forth to give the force of a strong will and energetic unity to the execution of these designs. It cannot be disputed that the ever fluctuating state of the home government, weakening the confidence of Hutchinson in the steadiness of the support he might receive in difficult cases, contributed largely to paralyze his policy. The party dissensions in England dismayed the Tories as much as they encouraged the Whigs. Whenever the voice of Chatham rang out, it was as the sound of a trumpet to those to whose opinions, in their full extent, even then nobody would have been more decidedly adverse than he; whilst it spread consternation among the official tribe and the waiters upon Providence, never sure that the next ship might not bring news of his elevation to a place, where it was of some consequence to them that their advice should not be too clearly on record against them. Thus it happened that the field had been lost, and the defeated forces retired, never again to renew the contest in the same way.
Here occurs an epoch in the Revolution. Up to this moment the trial had been purely one of moral power, carried on under the restraint of constitutional forms. It was soon to become one of physical force. Reason was exhausted, and nothing was left but arms. With the violent destruction of the tea, and the advent of General Gage, opens the active drama of the Revolution. The position of Mr. Adams becomes, likewise, correspondingly altered. Thus far he had been for the most part a counselor. Henceforth he is to be seen as a leader in the most difficult action of the times.
[1 ]“I refused an engagement, until advised and urged to undertake it by an Adams,” &c. This is the language of Mr. Quincy’s letter. To ascribe such advice to Samuel Adams, in view of his known convictions respecting the soldiers, scarcely does him credit either as a friend or a citizen.
Letter to Lord Hillsborough, Almon’s Remembrancer for 1775, p. 46.
[1 ]A copy of Dr. Franklin’s letter to Cushing is found in Mr. Adams’s handwriting, in conjunction with one, taken at the same time, of Hutchinson’s most objectionable letter. The former has never been printed in any other form than that used by Franklin himself in the explanation of the transaction drawn up in London at the time of the duel, and first introduced by W. T. Franklin into his biography of his grandfather. It is probable that that must have been taken from an imperfect draft remaining in his hands; for the fact is undeniable that it differs from this copy in several places. The differences are, moreover, somewhat material. The letter, as it appears in Mr. Adams’s copy, is placed in the Appendix to this volume, (A.)