Front Page Titles (by Subject) TO WILLIAM TUDOR. - The Works of John Adams, vol. 10 (Letters 1811-1825, Indexes)
The Online Library of Liberty
A project of Liberty Fund, Inc.
Search this Title:
TO WILLIAM TUDOR. - 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.
About Liberty Fund:
Liberty Fund, Inc. is a private, educational foundation established to encourage the study of the ideal of a society of free and responsible individuals.
The text is in the public domain.
Fair use statement:
This material is put online to further the educational goals of Liberty Fund, Inc. Unless otherwise stated in the Copyright Information section above, this material may be used freely for educational and academic purposes. It may not be used in any way for profit.
TO WILLIAM TUDOR.
Quincy, 29 March, 1817.
Is your daughter, Mrs. Stuart, who I am credibly informed is one of the most accomplished of ladies, a painter? Are you acquainted with Miss Lydia Smith, who, I am also credibly informed, is one of the most accomplished ladies, and a painter? Do you know Mr. Sargent? Do you correspond with your old companion in arms, Colonel John Trumbull? Do you think Fisher will be an historical painter?
Whenever you shall find a painter, male or female, I pray you to suggest a scene and a subject for the pencil.
The scene is the Council Chamber in the old Town House in Boston. The date is in the month of February, 1761, nine years before you entered my office in Cole Lane. As this was five years before you entered college, you must have been in the second form of master Lovell’s school.
That council chamber was as respectable an apartment as the House of Commons or the House of Lords in Great Britain, in proportion, or that in the State House in Philadelphia, in which the declaration of independence was signed, in 1776. In this chamber, round a great fire, were seated five Judges, with Lieutenant-Governor Hutchinson at their head, as Chief Justice, all arrayed in their new, fresh, rich robes of scarlet English broadcloth; in their large cambric bands, and immense judicial wigs. In this chamber were seated at a long table all the barristers at law of Boston, and of the neighboring county of Middlesex, in gowns, bands, and tie wigs. They were not seated on ivory chairs, but their dress was more solemn and more pompous than that of the Roman Senate, when the Gauls broke in upon them.
In a corner of the room must be placed as a spectator and an auditor, wit, sense, imagination, genius, pathos, reason, prudence, eloquence, learning, and immense reading, hanging by the shoulders on two crutches, covered with a great cloth coat, in the person of Mr. Pratt, who had been solicited on both sides, but would engage on neither, being, as Chief Justice of New York, about to leave Boston forever. Two portraits, at more than full length, of King Charles the Second and of King James the Second, in splendid golden frames, were hung up on the most conspicuous sides of the apartment. If my young eyes or old memory have not deceived me, these were as fine pictures as I ever saw; the colors of the royal ermines and long flowing robes were the most glowing, the figures the most noble and graceful, the features the most distinct and characteristic, far superior to those of the King and Queen of France in the Senate chamber of Congress—these were worthy of the pencils of Rubens and Vandyke. There was no painter in England capable of them at that time. They had been sent over without frames in Governor Pownall’s time, but he was no admirer of Charles or James. The pictures were stowed away in a garret, among rubbish, till Governor Bernard came, who had them cleaned, superbly framed, and placed in council for the admiration and imitation of all men—no doubt with the advice and concurrence of Hutchinson and all his nebula of stars and satellites.
One circumstance more. Samuel Quincy and John Adams had been admitted barristers at that term. John was the youngest; he should be painted looking like a short thick archbishop of Canterbury, seated at the table with a pen in his hand, lost in admiration, now and then minuting those poor notes which your pupil, Judge Minot, has printed in his history,1 with some interpolations. I will copy them from the book, and then point out those interpolations.2
. . . . . . . . . . .
You have now the stage and the scenery; next follows a narration of the subject. I rather think that we lawyers ought to call it a brief of the cause.
When the British ministry received from General Amherst his despatches, announcing the conquest of Montreal, and the consequent annihilation of the French government in America, in 1759, they immediately conceived the design, and took the resolution, of conquering the English colonies, and subjecting them to the unlimited authority of Parliament. With this view and intention they sent orders and instructions to the collector of the customs in Boston, Mr. Charles Paxton, to apply to the civil authority for writs of assistance, to enable the custom-house officers, tidewaiters, landwaiters, and all, to command all sheriffs and constables, &c., to attend and aid them in breaking open houses, stores, shops, cellars, ships, bales, trunks, chests, casks, packages of all sorts, to search for goods, wares, and merchandises, which had been imported against the prohibitions or without paying the taxes imposed by certain acts of Parliament, called the acts of trade; that is, by certain parliamentary statutes, which had been procured to be passed from time to time for a century before, by a combination of selfish intrigues between West India planters and North American royal governors. These acts never had been executed as revenue laws, and there never had been a time, when they would have been or could have been obeyed as such.
Mr. Paxton, no doubt consulting with Governor Bernard, Lieutenant-Governor Hutchinson, and all the principal crown officers, thought it not prudent to commence his operations in Boston. For obvious reasons, he instructed his deputy collector in Salem, Mr. Cockle, to apply by petition to the Superior Court, in November, 1760, then sitting in that town, for writs of assistance. Stephen Sewall was then Chief Justice of that Court, an able man, an uncorrupted American, and a sincere friend of liberty, civil and religious. He expressed great doubts of the legality of such a writ, and of the authority of the Court to grant it. Not one of his brother judges uttered a word in favor of it; but as it was an application on the part of the crown, it must be heard and determined. After consultation, the Court ordered the question to be argued at the next February term in Boston, namely in 1761.
In the mean time Chief Justice Sewall died, and Lieutenant-Governor Hutchinson was appointed Chief Justice of that Court in his stead. Every observing and thinking man knew that this appointment was made for the direct purpose of deciding this question in favor of the crown, and all others in which it should be interested. An alarm was spread far and wide. Merchants of Salem and Boston applied to Mr. Pratt, who refused, and to Mr. Otis and Mr. Thacher, who accepted, to defend them against the terrible menacing monster, the writ of assistance. Great fees were offered, but Otis, and, I believe, Thacher, would accept of none. “In such a cause,” said Otis, “I despise all fees.”
I have given you a sketch of the stage, and the scenery, and the brief of the cause, or, if you like the phrase better, the tragedy, comedy, or farce.
Now for the actors and performers. Mr. Gridley argued with his characteristic learning, ingenuity, and dignity, and said every thing that could be said in favor of Cockle’s petition; all depending, however, on the “if the Parliament of Great Britain is the sovereign legislature of all the British empire.” Mr. Thacher followed him on the other side, and argued with the softness of manners, the ingenuity and cool reasoning, which were remarkable in his amiable character.
But Otis was a flame of fire!—with a promptitude of classical allusions, a depth of research, a rapid summary of historical events and dates, a profusion of legal authorities, a prophetic glance of his eye into futurity, and a torrent of impetuous eloquence, he hurried away every thing before him. American independence was then and there born; the seeds of patriots and heroes were then and there sown, to defend the vigorous youth, the non sine Diis animosus infans. Every man of a crowded audience appeared to me to go away, as I did, ready to take arms against writs of assistance. Then and there was the first scene of the first act of opposition to the arbitrary claims of Great Britain. Then and there the child Independence was born. In fifteen years, namely in 1776, he grew up to manhood, and declared himself free.
The Court adjourned for consideration, and after some days, at the close of the term, Hutchinson, Chief Justice, arose and said, “The Court has considered the subject of writs of assistance, and can see no foundation for such a writ; but, as the practice in England is not known, it has been thought best to continue the question until next term, that in the mean time opportunity may be given to write to England for information concerning the subject.” In six months the next term arrived, but no judgment was pronounced, no letters from England were produced, and nothing more was ever said in Court concerning writs of assistance; but it was generally reported and understood that the Court clandestinely granted them, and the custom-house officers had them in their pockets, though I never knew that they dared to produce them or execute them in any one instance.
Mr. Otis’s popularity was without bounds. In May, 1761, he was elected into the House of Representatives by an almost unanimous vote. On the week of his election, I happened to be at Worcester, attending the Court of Common Pleas, of which Brigadier Ruggles was Chief Justice, when the news arrived from Boston of Mr. Otis’s election. You can have no idea of the consternation among the government people. Chief Justice Ruggles, at dinner at Colonel Chandler’s on that day, said, “Out of this election will arise a d—d faction, which will shake this province to its foundation.” Ruggles’s foresight reached not beyond his nose. That election has shaken two continents, and will shake all four. For ten years Mr. Otis, at the head of his country’s cause, conducted the town of Boston, and the people of the province, with a prudence and fortitude, at every sacrifice of personal interest, and amidst unceasing persecution, which would have done honor to the most virtuous patriot or martyr of antiquity.
The minutes of Mr. Otis’s argument are no better a representation of it than the gleam of a glow-worm to the meridian blaze of the sun. I fear I shall make you repent bringing out the old gentleman. Ridendo dicere verum quid vetat?
[1 ] Vol. ii. pp. 89-99.
[2 ] The extract is omitted, as the same speech is printed, with the omission of the interpolations, in vol. ii. of this work, Appendix, p. 523. It was not in the letter as first published.