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TO DR. J. MORSE. - John Adams, The Works of John Adams, vol. 10 (Letters 1811-1825, Indexes) 
The Works of John Adams, Second President of the United States: with a Life of the Author, Notes and Illustrations, by his Grandson Charles Francis Adams (Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1856). 10 volumes. Vol. 10.
Part of: The Works of John Adams, 10 vols.
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TO DR. J. MORSE.
Quincy, 20 January, 1816.
In the order of time, I have passed over a tragical event which excited much interest, and contributed largely to render the sovereignty of parliament odious, detestable, and horrible to the people, and I can conscientiously add, accelerated the catastrophe of the 5th March, 1770.1
In 1769, a little before the recall of Governor Bernard, the British frigate, The Rose, sent a lieutenant, a midshipman, and a pressgang of sailors on board a ship of Mr. Hooper, of Marblehead, then returning from Bilboa, upon the recruiting service. The lieutenant demanded of the captain a sight of his crew. The crew were called. “Are here all?” No answer. “Search the ship,” said the imperious lieutenant. Away flew the midshipman and his gang of loyal soldiers, through every part of the ship to search for hidden seamen. At last the cry was heard, “here they are.” Four sailors had hid themselves in the forepeak of the ship, the place most likely to be overlooked in a search. The forepeak was immediately invaded by the lieutenant, the midshipman, and the whole pressgang armed with swords and pistols. Michael Corbet and Lieutenant Panton argued the cause, but neither being convinced, resort was had to the ratio ultima, and an amiable youth was laid dead at the feet of Michael Corbet. A boat was sent to the Rose, and a strong reënforcement to the pressgang soon broke down all before them, seized the four sailors, one of whom was bleeding with an arm broken by a pistol ball, shot by the midshipman at random among the four, in the first assault upon the forepeak.
A special Court of Admiralty was summoned, according to act of parliament, to try these four sailors for piracy and murder on the high seas, in killing Lieutenant Panton; when in law, truth, and conscience, the commander of the Rose frigate ought to have been prosecuted for piracy and murder on the high seas, in illegally sending a pressgang to enslave freemen, and compelling them in self-defence to destroy their invader and intended destroyer; or in the better language of the boat-swain of the Rose frigate, “to deprive honest men of their liberty.”
The constitution of this Court ought to be stated by a historian. It consisted of the Governors of Massachusetts, Bernard, and New Hampshire, Wentworth: Judge of Admiralty, Auchmuty; Commander of the Navy, Commodore Hood; and counsellors from several colonies, to the number of fifteen. Whether Hutchinson sat as Lieutenant-Governor or as Chief Justice, I know not. When the Court opened, the counsel of the poor prisoners presented pleas to the jurisdiction of the Court, and if that should be overruled, requesting and demanding that a jury should be summoned to try the facts, according to the course of the common law.
What has become of the records of this Court, whether they have been sent to Halifax or to London, whether they remain in any repository in Boston, or whether they have been burned, like most of the records of this world, I know not. But if they exist, they will show four pleas, drawn at great length, stating the laws, principles, and reasonings on which they were founded, and each of them signed by one of the four prisoners, or by his counsel. These pleadings, contemptible as they may appear at this day, cost the counsel many days of painful research, and the mere composition and draught of them cost more than one sleepless night, in the handwriting.
When the prisoners were arraigned, they presented these four pleas to the Court, and their counsel appeared to support them, with his arguments and books of authority, against Mr. Sewall himself and the other counsel for the crown.
But the counsel on neither side were permitted to say a word. Hutchinson started up, and with a countenance, which remains deeply graven on my retina to this hour, expressive of the designs and passions, the fears and apprehensions, that agitated and tormented his soul, moved that the Court should adjourn to the council chamber. No opposition! no reasons pro or con! The countenances of the innocents and the simple on the bench, indicating some surprise, but the knowing ones manifesting a knowledge, or, at least, a pleasing conjecture of the secret. The prisoners were remanded; parties, witnesses, counsel, audience, dismissed; and the Court adjourned to the council chamber, where they remained in secret conclave till late in the evening. When they arose, it was given out and propagated through the town that they had decided in favor of the pleas, and that jurors were to be summoned the next morning, to try the prisoners.
Whether this rumor had any foundation in truth, or whether it was invented and circulated to soften the keen asperity of the public feeling, I know not; but this is certain, the Court met again early next morning in secret conclave in the council chamber; and then it was believed by many, conjectured by more, and reported generally, that Hutchinson and his confidential few had been alarmed at the decision of the preceding evening, and had contrived a secret meeting in the morning to reconsider the vote. Whether there was any truth in these whispers, rumors, and murmurs, I know not. But one thing is certain, that when the Court opened in form, the four pleas, without permitting one word to be said for them or against them by the counsel on either side, were pronounced by the president, Bernard, to be overruled.
The prisoners were now at the bar, and the trial commenced. The witnesses on both sides examined and cross-examined.1 All agreed in every fact and circumstance. No contradictory testimony; British sailors and American sailors all agreed. What morality and what religion, Dr. Morse, in these sons of Neptune! Oh! for the honor of human nature, that I could say the same of the Court!
When the examination was ended and taken down by the clerk and the counsel in writing, the argument of counsel was expected. The counsel for the prisoners had taken great pains to search and research, through every law, human and divine, the doctrine of homicide in all its divisions, distinctions, and limitations. As this was said to be a civil law court, he had ransacked every writer on the civil law, that the town of Boston possessed. He had examined every authority in the laws of England upon the subject, and, superadded to all, he had brought forward that volume of the British Statutes at Large, which contained the act of parliament which expressly prohibited the impressment of seamen in America. All these books were piled up on the table before him, in the sight of the Court, when the counsel arose, in the ordinary course of proceedings, to argue the cause of his clients, the poor prisoners at the bar. After addressing the court in the usual style of respect, he begged their attention to the authorities in law, and to the testimonies, which he should apply, to show that the action of the prisoners in killing Lieutenant Panton could amount to nothing more than justifiable homicide in necessary self-defence.
The words “justifiable homicide” were scarcely out of his mouth, before Hutchinson started up in very indecorous haste, and moved that the prisoners be remanded, and the Court adjourned to the council chamber. The prisoners, the crowded audience, the bar, the counsel, were all thunderstruck. But what were prisoners, audience, bar or counsel, against “sic volo, sic jubeo, stet pro ratione voluntas”? The Court was adjourned to the council chamber, and there inclosed, like a conclave of cardinals, in secret intrigues for the rest of the day.
When the Court opened the next day, and the prisoners ordered to the bar, all the world expected that the trial would commence, and the argument on the law and the evidence proceed. But after a solemn pause and total silence, Governor Bernard, the President of the Court, arose, and with a countenance so solemn and gloomy as made the audience shudder, as if a sentence of death was coming, addressed himself to the prisoners by name, and pronounced, “The Court have considered the evidence in support of the libel against you, and are unanimously of opinion that it amounts only to justifiable homicide; you are accordingly acquitted and discharged from your imprisonment.” Not another word was said, except by Mr. Auchmuty, the Judge of Admiralty, who cried out, “The Court is unanimous in this opinion.”
I will leave to poets and writers of romance to describe the joy that glowed in every heart, and lighted every countenance at this denouement of the tragedy. One circumstance is too characteristic to be omitted. The counsel for the prisoners descending from the chamber where the Court sat, to the lower floor of the Court House, was met at the bottom of the stairs by the boatswain of the Rose. “Sir,” said he, “we are all greatly obliged to you for your noble conduct in defence of these brave fellows; yet, Sir, this is the employment in which I have been almost constantly engaged for twenty years, fighting with honest men to deprive them of their liberty. I always thought I ought to be hanged for it, and now I know it.”
This trial, Dr. Morse, is a mystery never yet explained,—a labyrinth without a clue! an enigma that never can be unriddled. Though all hypothesis must be unavailing in investigating this phenomenon, so strange, so unprecedented in the history of jurisprudence, I must be permitted to suggest a few hints for your consideration and inquiry.
First. Where can you find a secret court of judicature? In courts martial, in the Inquisition, or in the Lion’s mouth at Venice? The star chamber and the high commission court in England, even Jeffreys’s courts were open and public.
Second. Here were the Governor, the Lieutenant-Governor, the Chief Justice, the Judge of Admiralty of Massachusetts, the Governor and counsellors from New Hampshire, counsellors from Rhode Island, and the commander-in-chief of the royal navy, Commodore Hood, now, if alive, Lord Bridport, skulking and hiding in total silence from open court to secret council chamber, like Indians fighting behind bushes, and running in the dark from one bush to another to avoid detection.
Third. Upon what law, upon what principle were the prisoners acquitted of piracy and murder? Nobody knew, nobody could conjecture. Every honest soul was delighted with the decision, but none knew or could surmise upon what grounds it was made.
Fourth. Was the decision according to the law of nature, the law of nations, the civil law, the common law, or the statute law? No man could answer any of these questions. All was darkness, mystery, uncertainty, and confusion. The honest lawyers said, “misera servitus est, ubi jus est vagum aut incognitum.”
Fifth. There was an act of parliament expressly forbidding impressments in America, then lying on the table before the judges, produced by the counsel for the prisoners, and ready to be read at a moment’s warning, which would have justified the decision of the Court, to the king, the English nation, and the American public, without any other authority or argument. Why did not the Court permit this statute to be read or mentioned? Why did they not produce it and read it themselves, if the counsel had through ignorance or forgetfulness omitted it.
Sixth. Can it be credible, that this Court, and all the counsel for the crown, and all the naval and custom-house officers were ignorant of this statute? However incredible it may appear, I have always believed and still believe that not one of them all had the least knowledge or suspicion that such an act existed. There was at that time but one copy of the Statutes at Large in the Massachusetts, and that set had been imported by the counsel for the prisoners.
Seventh. Was the sentence of the Court founded on the principle of the universal illegality of impressment? I sincerely believe it was, and, moreover, that not one judge upon that bench would have dared to give an opinion of its legality. The oracular and equivocal dictum of Lord Chatham had not then been pronounced, nor the opinion of the first Pitt, as ignorant as it was dogmatical, that it was a common-law prerogative of the crown. Candor obliges me to acknowledge that Mr. Sewall conducted this prosecution like a judicious lawyer and a polite gentleman; but Hutchinson appeared hurried between his terror of the crown and its officers on one hand, and his dread of unpopularity on the other.1 No trial had ever interested the community so much before, excited so much curiosity and compassion, or so many apprehensions of the fatal consequences of the supremacy of parliamentary jurisdiction, or the intrigues of parliamentary courts. No trial had drawn together such crowds of auditors from day to day; they were as numerous as those in the next year, at the trials of Preston and the soldiers.
Nevertheless, every thing relative to this great event must remain mysterious. The whole transaction seems totally forgotten. None of our historians appears to have ever heard of it. Mrs. Warren has not remembered it, and Dr. Gordon has taken no notice of it; yet Dr. Gordon has minutely related the action of Mr. Richardson in shooting young Snider, and its effects. Mr. Richardson and his exploit were thought worthy to be recorded, while Panton and Corbet were to be forgotten! And who was Richardson? If there was even a color of justice in the public opinion, he was the most abandoned wretch in America. Adultery, incest, perjury were reputed to be his ordinary crimes. His life would exhibit an atrocious volume. This man was selected by the board of commissioners for a customhouse officer. His name was sufficient to raise a mob, and I had almost said to the honor of the mob. Mr. Richardson and the innocent victim, Snider, ought to have been remembered, but Panton and Corbet ought not to have been forgotten. Preston and his soldiers ought to have been forgotten sooner.
[1 ] The account which follows is in some measure a repetition of what has been already printed in the second volume, pp. 224-226, note, and also in the ninth volume, pp. 317-319. But as it forms one of the series addressed to Dr. Morse, and opens some views of the subject not there touched upon, it has been thought best to retain it.
[1 ] The notes taken by Mr. Adams in this trial have been found since the publication of the prior volumes. They are very full, and entirely confirm the accuracy of this account given from memory nearly half a century afterwards. Hutchinson says, however, that it was he who pronounced the decision of the Court.
[1 ] Hutchinson has explained this whole matter. He admits that the change in the action of the Court upon the application for a jury was owing entirely to his interference; and he rests the final decision upon the fact, that neither the lieutenant nor his superior officer was acting by any warrant or special authority from the lords of the admiralty. This avoided the question of their power to give such authority. History of Massachusetts, vol. iii. p. 232, note.