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CHAPTER V: John Adams: Political Scientist as Historian - Trevor Colbourn, The Lamp of Experience 
The Lamp of Experience: Whig History and the Intellectual Origins of the American Revolution (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund 1998).
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John Adams: Political Scientist as Historian
For men anxious to pursue a path of legality, for men seeking security for property against British depredations, for men looking for stability at home and abroad, John Adams was a logical and a persuasive leader. Educated at Harvard (class of 1755), trained in law (under James Putnam), Adams earned his reputation as a patriot and Revolutionary in a series of remarkable essays. His Dissertation on the Canon and Feudal Law, his Novanglus papers, his Thoughts on Government, and his Defence of the Constitutions are among the most important patriot writings of his generation.1
Adams has long been regarded as a New England Thomas Jefferson, more conservative than his Virginia colleague, but possessed of the same intellectual vigor and curiosity. The comparison does little justice to either Adams or Jefferson. They were both unique. They both deserve to be judged as individuals who studied similar problems. Adams may have bought somewhat fewer books than Jefferson, but he read more. Adams was always reading, always taking notes, always referring to his recent reading in his writings. When he found time he scribbled marginal notes of varying length in over a hundred of his books.2 Adams had an acute sense of intellectual duty and lectured himself repeatedly on his educational obligations: in 1759, reproaching himself for imagined sloth, he had “Virtue” give him the following orders:
Rise and mount your horse by the morning’s dawn, and shake away, amidst the great and beautiful scenes of nature that appear at that time of the day, all the crudities that are left in your stomach, and all the obstructions that are left in your brains. Then return to your studies, and bend your whole soul to the institutes of the law and the reports of cases that have been adjudged by the rules in the institutes; let no trifling diversion, or amusement, or company, decoy you from your book; that is, let no girl, no gun, no cards, no flutes, no violins, no dress, no tobacco, no laziness, decoy you from your books. … But keep your law book or some point of law in your mind, at least six hours in a day.
After admitting he was “too minute and lengthy,” he concluded his admonition: “aim at an exact knowledge of the nature, end, and means of government; compare the different forms of it with each other, and each of them with their effects on public and private happiness. Study Seneca, Cicero, and all other good moral writers; study Montesquieu, Bolingbroke, … and all other good civil writers.”3
Adams aimed well. He frequently grew wordy—and probably alienated potential biographers in the process—but his scholarship is undeniable. Anxious to seek the law as best he could “in its fountains” (the very words of Blackstone’s recommendation of the same goal), Adams determined to furnish himself “at any sacrifice with a proper library.” With typical modesty he described how by degrees he had procured the best private library of law in Massachusetts.4 Law led him directly to history, the study of which he soon discovered indispensable. While English history was important to him, numerous volumes on the Greek and Roman past—Thucydides, Herodotus, Tacitus, Sallust, Livy—crowded Adams’s bookshelves, leaving little room for less useful literature. Possibly the one exception Adams cared to make was in favor of Scottish and German romances which “show in a clear light the horrors of the feudal aristocracy.”5
Adams read many of the same legal and historical authorities other Americans read. The real mark of Adams’s individuality is found less in his initial selection of reading than in his frequent return to certain books and his highly personal conclusions. When he later reviewed his educational experience, Adams minimized his college years: here was the ordinary routine of classical studies, endured while exploring the more fascinating worlds of mathematics and natural philosophy. When he began his law studies, he found his reading obligations too vast to allow outside interests; the law of nations, civil law, and common law demanded all his time and energies. But he was happy to add in his seventy-fourth year that “classics, history, and philosophy have, however, never been wholly neglected to this day.”6
The entries in his diary constitute an introductory inventory of Adams’s intellectual resources: in February 1756 he “staid at home reading the Independent Whig”; in March he was transcribing Bolingbroke; in April he read Milton, whose genius “was great beyond conception, and his learning beyond bounds”; in 1759 he was reading Sidney’s Discourses and often dipped into them instead of dutifully reading law briefs; in 1760 he reproached himself for having read “Coke’s Commentary on Littleton” only once—“I must get and read over and over again.” But he seems to have found Coke as dreary as did Jefferson, and he often preferred to neglect his law books and return to Bolingbroke instead—indeed he later confessed to having read Bolingbroke’s Works five times.7 There was no need to return to Coke that often, since a few years after beginning law practice Adams was introduced to William Blackstone’s writing. Charmed by this modern review of English law, Adams bought both the Law Tracts and the Commentaries as soon as they became available.8 As a useful supplement to Blackstone—for whom Adams later recommended gratitude without adoration—he read the admirable Lord Kames, author of the illuminating Historical Law Tracts.9
Adams was always a ready critic. He reported reading Clarendon in 1758 and found him an informed but “very partial Writer.” Hume was worse. “A conceited Scotchman,” was Adams’s description. In another exchange with Jefferson, Adams explained his dislike of Hume’s “elegant Lies” which “had nearly laughed into contempt Rapin Sydney and even Lock[e].” Rapin and Sidney were among Adams’s preferred authors, along with Nathaniel Bacon, Harrington, Roger Acherley, Thomas Gordon and John Trenchard, Burnet, and, to a lesser degree, Mrs. Macaulay and James Burgh. Adams was no stranger to what he called the fashionable reading of colonial politicians in the 1760s and 1770s.10
By 1774 Adams, deeply involved in the colonial crisis with the ministry, concluded that his seventeenth-century heroes alone—Sidney, Harrington, Milton, Nedham, Burnet—“will convince any candid mind, that there is no good government but what is republican.”11 He also liked the eighteenth-century temper of Mrs. Macaulay, with whom he corresponded. Her History of England Adams read at one time “with much admiration.” She wrote with the proper perspective, since her plan, which, said Adams, “I have ever wished to see adopted by historians,” was “to strip off the gilding and false lustre from worthless princes and nobles, and to bestow the reward of virtue, praise, upon the generous and worthy only.”12 James Burgh sent Adams a copy of his Political Disquisitions; it arrived in 1774 as he was writing the Novanglus papers. Adams found these volumes every bit as timely as did his associates in the First Continental Congress. “I cannot but think,” he wrote Burgh, that “those Disquisitions [are] the best service that a citizen could render to his country at this great and dangerous crisis.”13
Adams studied history more from a sense of critical curiosity than from a desire for substantiation of colonial claims, although his selective reading sifted out whiggish views in support of American doctrines about the historic rights of Englishmen. Essentially pessimistic in his appraisal of man, Adams found little evidence of the human progress discovered by others. History for Adams was at least in part a record of human errors. He arrived at his own conclusions about the causes of political catastrophes in the past; and since he did not anticipate any great change in human nature, he laid plans to compensate for human weakness. The greater part of Adams’s historical investigations were devoted to studying governments which had failed, he believed, because of their unbalanced structure. Adams moved from the study of history as it reflected on colonial relations with England to the study of history as it illuminated his political philosophy. He found history, law, and philosophy relevant to an examination of colonial rights, but after independence he shifted the emphasis of his historical studies to other political problems.
Like most Americans, Adams was a contented subject of the new king in 1760. After reading Bolingbroke’s Patriot King, he was particularly impressed with the grand promises of George III—“to patronize religion, virtue, the British name and constitution … the subjects’ rights, liberty.” These, Adams concluded, “are sentiments worthy of a king;—a patriot king.”14 Disillusionment soon set in. The Stamp Act, enacted in 1765, seemed to Adams a clear invasion of colonial rights and an occasion for examining whether or not “protection and allegiance [are] reciprocal.” If the King would not protect his American subjects from unconstitutional Parliamentary taxation, “are we not discharged from our allegiance? Is it not an abdication of the throne?”15 To questions such as these Adams addressed himself in his Dissertation on the Canon and Feudal Law.
First discussed in the privacy of Gridley’s Sodalitas Club and later published in the Boston-Gazette in 1765, Adams’s Dissertation was a notable exploration of colonial rights which anticipated many of the political arguments of James Wilson, John Dickinson, and Thomas Jefferson. Yet in the Dissertation Adams did not arrive at any strongly defined conclusion. As Charles Francis Adams noted later, it was a searching, analytical sketch, with hints for future inquiries.16 John Adams was feeling his way, following the lines of thought prompted by growing sensitivity to the political implications of his reading. If there is a fundamental and unifying theme to his essay, it must be Adams’s awareness of the importance of political education. At the very outset he referred to ignorance as a principal cause of the ruin of mankind. His mission was to combat ignorance with information. He wanted fellow colonists to know their rights, and he wanted fellow Englishmen to know that the colonists would resist encroachments upon such rights. Education was vital for Englishmen on both sides of the Stamp Act controversy.
The fundamental question of 1765, as Adams saw it, was enveloped in history. In a historical review which he later described as superficial, Adams analyzed Old World tyranny as deriving from two chief sources: canon law and feudal law. The former he identified with the “astonishing constitution of policy … framed by the Romish clergy for the aggrandisement of their own order.” For illustration he pointed to Robertson’s newly published History of Charles V. Feudal law was similar, employed “for the same purposes of tyranny, cruelty, and lust.” Originally, it was “a code of laws for a vast army in a perpetual encampment,” and its corollary was the investment of the monarch with all the lands within his kingdom. All men held their lands of the king, and the common people lived in “a state of servile dependence.” While either system was evil enough, history points to a worse calamity, namely the union of the two. Liberty, virtue, and knowledge “seem to have deserted the earth” until the first glimmer of light came in the form of the Reformation. The English became enlightened and rose against “the execrable race of Stuarts” to break the yoke of feudal and religious tyranny.17
This was Adams’s description of the historical setting for the colonization of America. His colonial ancestors came not for religious reasons alone, but out of “a love of universal liberty, and a hatred, a dread, a horror, of the infernal confederacy before described.” The Puritan leaders succeeded because they were educated, knowledgeable men—“some of them have left libraries that are still in being, consisting chiefly of volumes in which the wisdom of the most enlightened ages and nations is deposited.”18 Being educated men, the Puritans knew the evils of even a diluted religious tyranny as represented by a “diocesan episcopacy,” so they took care to found their colony on the solid ground of “the Bible and common sense.” They also repudiated feudalism: “They detested all the base services and servile dependencies of the feudal system. They knew that no such unworthy dependencies took place in the ancient seats of liberty.” And modern New Englanders, Adams added, should note the writings of Lord Kames (“a Scottish writer of great reputation”), who termed feudal law “a constitution so contradictory to all the principles which govern mankind” that it could be secured only “by foreign conquest or native usurpations.” Since Americans were not a conquered people, feudalism had no place in the colonies. Americans, who could claim to hold their lands allodially, had chosen instead to go through the form of holding their lands from the Crown “as their sovereign lord.” This, Adams insisted, should be a form only. It was no right of entry for feudal tyranny.”19
Adams kept returning to his theme that knowledge was the road to freedom. The colonists would maintain their freedom because of “their knowledge of human nature, derived from history and their own experience.” They had an obligation to make known their knowledge, and to express resentment of British misrule. England surely would respond when suitably informed of her errors: to say otherwise would be to represent “every member of parliament as renouncing the transactions at Runing Mede.” England surely recalled “that the prince of Orange was created King William by the people, on purpose that their rights might be eternal and inviolable.” It was true, Adams conceded, that some in England had become “luxurious, effeminate, and unreasonable.” But “let us presume,” he added, “that the spirit of liberty is as ardent as ever among the body of the nation, though a few individuals may be corrupted.”20
Americans were under a historical obligation to protest invasions of their rights and to resist any resurrection of canon and feudal tyranny. Adams concluded his essay with a dramatic series of injunctions to his readers: they must persist in their search for political wisdom; they must study history; they must examine the British constitution; they must review the examples of past British defenders of freedom; they must look again at the fortitude of their immediate forefathers, who first settled America; the colonial clergy should make “the pulpit resound with the doctrines and sentiments of religious liberty”; the colonial lawyer should (like Adams) “proclaim ‘the laws, the rights, the generous plan of power’ delivered down from remote antiquity”; quoting his favorite Bolingbroke (but not identifying his source), Adams reminded fellow lawyers to “let it be known, that British liberties are not the grants of princes or parliaments, but original rights, conditions of original contracts”; and finally, the colleges should “join their harmony in the same delightful concert”; academic orations and essays should dwell upon “the beauty of liberty and virtue, and the deformity, turpitude, and malignity, of slavery and vice.”21 All colonial energies should be directed toward creating a universal concern with freedom: the youngest and most tender mind should receive proper political education.
Adams was seeking something more than an informed measure of colonial protest. He wanted a colonial populace suitably sensitized to and properly informed on its rights. He was thinking in terms of historical parallels: the last major occasion for resistance to tyrannical encroachments had been in the seventeenth century, which “by turning the general attention of learned men to government … produced the greatest number of consummate statesmen which has ever been seen in any age or nation.” Who would ever have heard of a Milton, a Harrington, a Sidney, or a Locke, had it not been for the political circumstances which drew these men from other activities? Perhaps, mused Adams, Americans could match their performance. At least the colonists should not be “driven blindfolded to irretrievable destruction.” The plain fact was, “there seems to be a direct and formal design on foot, to enslave all America.” The initial step would be the introduction of the canon and feudal law, which “though greatly mutilated in England, are not yet destroyed,” and the Stamp Act was a devious effort to begin the process. Since the Stamp Act taxed such avenues to knowledge as newspapers and college diplomas, it could destroy the colonists’ opportunity to investigate their actual rights. Americans had better seek wisdom while they might and employ it against this “direct and formal design” of the misguided mother country.22
Adams’s Dissertation was not limited to the tyranny represented by the Stamp Act. He also outlined his reflections on the historical and constitutional questions raised by the measure. He sought to define the origins of the rights to which he laid claim. They were, he said, God-given, “antecedent to all earthly government,” and yet supported by the British constitution. This was not, as Randolph G. Adams once contended, “a mere confusion of intellectual and political philosophy, [that] we can profitably dispense with.”23 John Adams was turning his attention to the historic exercise and recognition of man’s natural rights. Under the British constitution as Adams came to see it “all men are born equal; and the drift of the British constitution is to preserve as much of this equality as is compatible with the people’s security.”24 And the “grand,” the “fundamental principle” of the constitution is in Magna Charta: “that no freeman should be subject to any tax to which he has not given his own consent.”25 The Stamp Act was a historic departure from the constitution to which Adams gave allegiance. He and other American colonists had no representation in Parliament. The Stamp Act was invalid, “it not being in any sense our act, having never consented to it.”26
Pursuing the lines of inquiry thus begun, Adams noted the contrast between the England of King John and that of King George III. “The ancient barons who answered with one voice, ‘We will not that the laws of England be changed, which of old have been used and approved,’ ” now “seem to have answered that they are willing those laws should be changed with regard to America in the most tender point and fundamental principle.”27 He looked at the history of England to discover “how many arbitrary reigns do we find since the conquest.” Even Queen Elizabeth had tried to infringe Parliamentary privilege, only to be rebuffed by a sensitive Commons. The Stuarts, to their shame, failed to digest the lessons of Tudor history and created the need and opportunity for men like Algernon Sidney, “an enlightened friend of mankind, and a martyr to liberty.”28 Sidney fascinated Adams. He represented so many of the qualities Adams would have liked to become known for himself. At the Boston “massacre” trial, where he served as defense attorney for Captain Thomas Preston and the eight British soldiers of the 29th Regiment, Adams proudly cited Sidney’s respect for law as “written reason.”29 He shared the general whig distaste for mercenary troops, and portrayed the Boston “massacre” as “the strongest proof of the danger of standing armies.”30
In his exchange with William Brattle, published in the Boston-Gazette in 1773, Adams began an examination of ancient history. He acknowledged his indebtedness to Coke and Blackstone in a review of the history of the British common law he admired so much. The codification of Edward the Confessor he described as “no more than a fresh promulgation of Alfred’s code.” Common law “is of higher antiquity than memory or history can reach.” The rights supported by Alfred “have been used time out of mind.” Even the Norman conquest could not crush the rights incorporated in the English common law—“William the Conqueror confirms and proclaims these to be the laws of England … and took an oath to keep them inviolable himself”—and Magna Charta “was founded on them.”31
Unlike many of the historians he studied, Adams did not insist on the antiquity of Parliament in the course of his admiration for the antiquity of common law. Parliament was presently oppressing Americans, and Americans should know that its pretension to authority was relatively recent. He praised his Saxon ancestors as “one of those enterprising northern nations,” but charged that they “carried with them … the customs, maxims, and manners of the feudal system” to England, where they “shook off some part of the feudal fetters, yet they never disengaged themselves from the whole.” There had indeed been a “wittenagemote, or assembly of wise men,” but the Saxon monarchs only condescended to take its advice “in some few instances.” Such “particular examples of royal condescension could form no established rule.” The fact was, Adams concluded, the king in Saxon times “was absolute enough” to control the judiciary, and unhappily the King in the 1770s was trying to repeat the accomplishment in America.32
Adams had read critically enough to doubt the real meaning of pre-Norman English history. He found evidence to refute Brattle’s claim that in Saxon times royal judges received appointments and estates for life, but he had to admit he would not “lay any great stress on the opinions of historians and compilers of antiquities, because it must be confessed that the Saxon constitution is involved in much obscurity.” Adams noted how Saxon history had become a political football: “the monarchical and democratic factions in England, by their opposite endeavors to make the Saxon constitutions swear for their respective systems, have much increased the difficulty of determining … what that constitution, in many important particulars, was.”33 He was therefore much happier to turn to Rapin, Mrs. Macaulay, and Burgh on recent English history than on the Saxon period, and so in his final reappraisal of the colonial case, Adams dwelt on a past in which he had more confidence.
The first occasion was an exchange of addresses between Governor Hutchinson and the Massachusetts General Court in 1773. The immediate controversy was over the British decision that crown officials would henceforth receive their salaries from the royal exchequer. Bostonians denounced this as a further step toward complete slavery. Hutchinson in turn attempted to reconcile his fellow colonists with the British concept of the empire and its constitution: it was, he told the Assembly, “the sense of the Kingdom” that when Massachusetts was settled it was “to remain subject to the supreme authority of Parliament.” John Adams, charged with drafting the response of the House of Representatives, carefully eschewed the “popular talk” about “democratical principles”; arguments based “on nature and eternal and unchangeable truth” ought to be “well understood and cautiously applied.”34 Instead he concentrated upon “legal and constitutional reasonings,” and submitted a documented treatment of American colonization. The colonies, he contended, were never annexed to the English realm; their charters specified an allegiance to the English Crown. The colonies were part of the empire, but not an appendage of the kingdom; Parliament therefore had no legal right to legislate for Massachusetts. The charter was a grant of the King and vested the authority in the legislature to make laws which should be conformable to the principles of the English constitution and the statutes existing when the charter was granted. Adams noted that “no acts of any colony legislature are ever brought into Parliament”—they are laid before the King for his approval. History showed that Charles I had denied Parliament’s right to legislate for the colonies, because “the colonies were without the realm and jurisdiction of Parliament.” And before that James I had insisted “America was not annexed to the realm and it is not fitting that Parliament should make laws for these countries.” Adams was convinced that “no country by the common law was subject to the laws of Parliament, but the realm of England.”35
The second opportunity for Adams’s historical review of the place of the colonies in the imperial structure came with the patriotic need for a response to Daniel Leonard’s “Massachusettensis” letters, a plea for submission to Parliamentary authority. John Adams began his reply—the famous Novanglus papers—in the January 23, 1775, issue of the Boston-Gazette. What followed was more than a “History of the Dispute with America, from its Origin in 1754 to the Present Time, 1774.” It was a careful study of the constitutional history of the British empire and the dominions which comprised that empire. Adams pointed to the relationship between Edward I and Henry VIII: in the thirteenth century Wales had been annexed to the dominions of the English Crown by a royal decree, not an act of Parliament; Wales was unrepresented in Parliament and was not subject to that body until new legislation was enacted under Henry VIII in 1536. Scotland supplied a similar example: for a century after the accession of James I the English Parliament lacked authority in Scotland, until the enactment of the Act of Union in 1707. So too with Ireland: although conquered by Henry II, Ireland was not subject to Parliament until the enactment of Poynings’ Law under Henry VII. No such legislation had ever been enacted for America. And if Wales, a conquered country, could know independence from Parliament, so too should an unconquered America. Each of the American colonies was a separate realm of which the King was sovereign.36
In establishing from a study of history the colonies’ independence of Parliament, Adams did not leave the door open for royal despotism. Delving into Coke’s Institutes, Adams demonstrated that while the King might “rule the divers nations and kingdoms of his empire” in his political capacity, he had “to govern them by their distinct laws.” Specifically, the King was subject to the British constitution. “There is no fundamental or other law that makes a king of England absolute anywhere, except in conquered countries.”37 A king who abuses his sovereignty forfeits his title.
Perhaps Adams’s most effective point was scored against the contention of “Massachusettensis” that resistance was futile. The colonists, claimed Adams, could not possibly lose in their contest: “If they die, they cannot be said to lose, since death is preferable to slavery.” And as they resist they can take heart from history; if Charles I had not been challenged by the Puritans, he “would undoubtedly have established the Romish religion, and a despotism as wild as any in the world.” Cromwell’s usurpation of power may have been unfortunate, but even so his government was infinitely more glorious and happy than that of his Stuart predecessor. Every effort against tyranny had had beneficial results. “Did not the English gain by resistance to John, when Magna Charta was obtained?” Did not the Dutch in their revolt against the Spanish? The Swiss against the Austrians? The Romans against Tarquin? The English against James II? Indeed, Adams added proudly, Americans took part in the Glorious Revolution of 1688 when they rose against the regime of Sir Edmund Andros. And just as the English had contracted with William and Mary to rule in place of James II, so did Americans make a compact acknowledging the new sovereigns. “The oaths of allegiance are established by a law of the Province,” further demonstrating that “our allegiance to his majesty is not due by virtue of any act of a British parliament, but by our own charter and province laws.”38
Adams buttressed his claim to English rights by referring to the well-known Pleas of the Crown of William Hawkins. According to the Novanglus papers a monarch could forbid his subjects from emigrating; but once permission was given, a colonist carried his rights with him. “Our ancestors were entitled to the common law of England when they emigrated, that is, to just so much of it as they pleased to adopt.” In reality, “our ancestors, had a clear right to have erected in this wilderness a British constitution … or any other form of government they saw fit.”39 Both King and Parliament seemed not only to forget their obligations, but to overlook the basic nature of the government of which they were parts. Adams argued that he was not attacking the British empire because there was no such thing. Citing Aristotle, Livy, and Harrington, he declared “the British constitution is much more like a republic than an empire.” A republic was “a government of laws, and not of men.” According to this definition, “the British constitution is nothing more or less than a republic, in which the king is first magistrate.” But an empire on the other hand “is a despotism … a stretch of tyranny beyond absolute monarchy.”40 Rome in her republican (pre-Emperor) stage illustrated Adams’s argument. Roman colonies were allowed “the privilege of cities,” which gave them Roman rights without Roman subjection. In this respect Adams thought “that sagacious city” of Rome revealed an awareness of difficulties “similar to those under which Great Britain is now laboring. She seems to have been sensible of the impossibility of keeping colonies planted at great distances, under … absolute control.”41
The explanation of England’s historical and political blindness lay with the contemporary condition of the mother country. In his Novanglus essays Adams agreed that Americans presently enjoyed “the British constitution in greater purity and perfection than they do in England,” and inquired: “Whose fault is this? Not ours.” Fresh from reading the second volume of Burgh’s Political Disquisitions, a book which he proclaimed “ought to be in the hands of every American who has learned to read,” Adams declared that modern England “is loaded with debts and taxes, by the folly and iniquity of its ministers.” Her virtue was gone. “When luxury, effeminacy, and venality are arrived at such a shocking pitch in England; when both electors and elected are become one mass of corruption; when the nation is oppressed to death with debts and taxes, owing to their own extravagance and want of wisdom, what would be your condition under such an absolute subjection to parliament?” Corruption was now so deeply implanted in England “as to be incurable, and a necessary instrument of government.” England needed revenue from America, not because of legitimate expenses incurred in the late war with France, but because of waste and political depravity: “Corruption, like a cancer … eats faster and faster every hour. The revenue creates pensioners, and the pensioners urge for more revenue. The people grow less steady, spirited, and virtuous, the seekers more numerous and more corrupt, and every day increases the circles of their dependents and expectants, until virtue, integrity, public spirit, simplicity, and frugality, become the objects of ridicule and scorn, and vanity, luxury, foppery, selfishness, meanness, and downright venality swallowing up the whole society.”42
These, then, were “the most melancholy truths” of contemporary England. The English people were depraved, the Parliament and government venal and corrupt. Even if Americans were given direct representation in this sort of Parliament, “a deep, treacherous, plausible, corrupt minister would be able to seduce our members to betray us as fast as we could send them.” The British in their iniquity aimed for the total destruction of colonial charters, and English liberties. The British constitution—in England—had arrived “nearly to that point where the Roman republic was where Jugurtha left it, and pronounced it ‘a venal city, ripe for destruction.’ ”43
From reading Harrington, Adams recalled an observation on colonies weaning themselves “when they come of age.” Adams felt obliged to conclude his Novanglus analysis with an observation that “the colonies are now nearer manhood than ever Harrington foresaw.”44 In fact, maturity was now being thrust upon Americans by their declining mother country.
Between 1761 and 1776 Adams traveled a long and difficult road. He had begun with the questions: “Where are the rights of Englishmen! Where is the spirit that once exalted the souls of Britons?”45 He had examined the history of “English liberties” and concluded that they were “but certain rights of nature, reserved to the citizen by the English constitution, which rights cleaved to our ancestors when they crossed the Atlantic.” He had become familiar with the major English writers on contemporary England, and while he could still in 1774 express to Burgh the hope “that in spite of bribery, some alteration in the House of Commons for the better might be made,” his reading of Burgh confirmed his belief “that every trick and artifice of sharpers, gamblers, and horse-jockies, is to be played off against the cause of liberty in England and America.” In reality “no hopes are to be left for either but in the sword.”46 England was tottering on the edge of a precipice, and Adams had no desire to join her in any game of eighteenth-century brinkmanship. As Adams told John Avery less than a year after the Declaration of Independence, there was indeed “abundant evidence of a fixed design to subjugate America.” Any reasonable acquaintance with England’s recent history demonstrated “how completely their government was corrupted.”47 Separation had been, and was, essential.
But independence was not enough. The American colonies could learn from history not only in substantiating their claims against England but also in ensuring their political survival. Adams saw that independence demanded skilled political craftmanship in erecting a new polity. He knew what he wanted to avoid, and he offered a historical exposition of how best to prevent the sins of the English fathers being visited upon American descendants. Radical in his language against England, he was yet conservative in his domestic political expression. “I dread the Spirit of Innovation,” wrote Adams anxiously a few weeks before independence.48
In a lengthy letter in 1776 to George Wythe on the importance of constitution making, subsequently published as Thoughts on Government, he called for a popularly elected assembly, a council chosen by the legislature, and a governor elected by both bodies; judges were to be named by the governor, and there would be provision for a people’s militia, public education, and even sumptuary laws to foster frugality. He was vigorously opposed to a unicameral legislature—Turgot’s admiration for one stimulated Adams to pen his extraordinary Defence of the Constitutions a decade later—because it made for an unbalanced government. As a convenient and familiar example he cited the Long Parliament of Cromwell’s time. It was too easy for an all-powerful assembly to either emerge as an oligarchy itself, or abdicate its power to a single tyrant like Cromwell.49 Another safeguard against England’s current condition would be rotation of all offices and frequent elections. Obadiah Hulme’s Historical Essay had identified annual elections as the keystone of Saxon government, and upon its title page ran the slogan: “Where annual Election ends, there Slavery begins.”50 John Adams in his Thoughts on Government declared that there was not “in the whole circle of the sciences a maxim more infallible than this, ‘where annual elections end, there slavery begins.’ ” Adams confirmed his attachment to this principle not only in his letter to John Penn of North Carolina in 1776, but also in his 1779 Report of a Constitution for Massachusetts, where he called for annual elections of senators, representatives, and the governor.
Whether or not Adams quoted Hulme accurately by accident or had been rereading the first volume of Burgh’s Disquisitions (where Hulme’s maxim was slightly misquoted), he was obviously still familiar with his Saxon history.51 Well aware of the corruptibility of man, he thought annual elections might discourage it. Sumptuary laws might at least impede the growth of luxury and corruption. Public education would assure dissemination of knowledge, and knowledge, Adams reminded Joseph Hawley in August 1776, “is among the most essential foundations of liberty.” Within a year Adams was discussing this theme with his ten-year-old son. Urging a careful study of history on young John Quincy, he suggested a comparison of the American Revolution with others that resembled it: “The whole period of English history, from the accession of James the First to the accession of William the Third will deserve your most critical attention.” In addition to England, Adams recommended attention to “the history of the Flemish Confederacy,” along with the independence of the Swiss from Austria. He also singled out Sir William Temple’s treatment of the United Provinces and the Abbé Vertot’s accounts of the revolutions in Portugal, Sweden, and Rome. Clearly, he intended that his young son should acquire some insight into his father’s idea of “the most essential foundations of liberty.”52
As Adams contemplated the problem of maintaining American political integrity, of applying the principles of politics to the reconstruction of popular authority during and after the War for Independence, he turned again to his knowledge of English history and political science, modifying in some respects his high regard for English whig writing but not his opinion that “nine tenths of the [American] people were high whigs.”53 It was one thing to agree to name the first American warship Alfred “in honor of the founder of the greatest navy that ever existed,”54 but it was another to argue—as he believed Burgh and Mrs. Macaulay had—that an omnipotent popular assembly would be a political cure-all. Annual elections might reduce the human proclivity for corruption, but a revival of the so-called Saxon system would, in Adams’s view, be unwise. In his continued contacts with the English reformers, Adams expressed his honest doubt about this construction of an ideal constitution. To Richard Price he explained why in 1787 he undertook his Defence of the Constitutions: his fellow Americans were “running wild, and into danger, from a too ardent and inconsiderate pursuit of erroneous opinions of government.” These dangerous ideas “had been propagated among them by some of their ill informed favorites, and by various writings which were very popular among them … particularly Mrs. Macaulay’s History, Mr. Burgh’s Political Disquisitions, Mr. Turgot’s letters.” All were “excellent in some respects,” but all were “extremely mistaken in the true construction of a free government.”55 The common mistake was the same one which endangered eighteenth-century England—an unbalanced government. An unrestrained popular assembly would be as dangerous as an unrestrained despot, and any unicameral legislature, virtual or otherwise, contained this basic weakness.
Adams’s most sustained analysis of balanced government—The Defence of the Constitutions of Government of the United States of America—comprised a three-hundred-duodecimo-page study of the lessons of “the history of Europe, and of England in particular,” in which Adams demonstrated his continuing familiarity with the past and his awareness of its value as an instrument of statecraft.56 The Defence, Adams’s major work, is a compendium of readings; three-quarters of volume one, nine-tenths of volume two, and the first half of volume three were made up of excerpts from other authors. Here we see Adams as a connoisseur of history as an art and as a science, deeply interested in how history was written and keenly aware of its limitations. And yet, as he frantically copied away from books on republican governments, he seems to have really believed that by piling up such examples of recorded experiences he was showing his countrymen how to frame a foolproof constitution. The constitution-makers, meeting at Philadelphia a few months later in 1787, employed a similar technique, reviewing past constitutions for their flaws and weaknesses in an effort to discern the most stable composition for American national needs.57
Antedating the new Federal Constitution by a few months, Adams’s review took the form of a retort to M. Turgot’s praise of unicameral legislatures; it was a legal and historical brief for his political contentions. He combed over the whole range of history to deny the effectiveness of investing a single assembly with all the functions of government. Although he stated flatly that “there can be no free government without a democratical branch in the constitution,” he was equally emphatic in his declaration that “a simple and perfect democracy never yet existed,” and never would. Many professed democracies—such as the Swiss cantons—were really aristocratic republics; where such a republic enjoyed a careful system of checks and balances between the three branches of government (executive, legislative, and judicial), it succeeded. Throughout history there was a definite trend toward hereditary self-entrenchment in office; human beings, whether English, American, Greek, or Roman, were much the same. If the aristocracy dominated, the balance was destroyed and oligarchy resulted, and this could be prevented only by an alliance of the executive and the popular power. “If there is one certain truth to be collected from the history of all ages,” Adams stressed, “it is this; that the peoples’ rights and liberties, and the democratical mixture in a constitution, can never be preserved without a strong executive, or, in other words, without separating the executive from the legislative power.” Where there was a weak executive—as Adams noted with the Dutch when he served as American minister to the United Provinces—a strong hereditary oligarchy held political power. Frequently a monarch served as an effective balance against the nobility, as in the regal republic of England after 1688; but when the Crown allied with the aristocracy, the corrupted modern English condition would be the result.58
Ranging far and wide in his historical survey, Adams insisted that Americans should be more conversant with ancient Greece. He used Greek history in one instance as a vehicle to explain the uses of the past:
The history of Greece [he wrote] should be to our countrymen what is called in many families on the continent a boudoir, an octagonal apartment in a house, with a full-length mirror on every side, and another in the ceiling. The use of it is, when any of the young ladies or young gentlemen if you will, are at any time a little out of humor, they may retire to a place, where, in whatever direction they turn their eyes, they see their own faces and figures multiplied without end. By thus beholding their own beautiful persons, and seeing, at the same time, the deformity brought upon them by their anger, they may recover their tempers and their charms together. A few short sketches of the ancient republics will serve to show, not only that the orders we defend were common to all of them; but that the prosperity and duration of each was in proportion to the care taken to balance them.59
Actually Adams’s sketches were neither short nor few, but they handsomely demonstrated his anxiety for balance. The miseries of ancient Greece derived directly from its lack of political balance: the political pendulum “was forever on the swing.”60
When he moved to Rome, the story was similar; Polybius supported the view that “the best government is that which consists of three forms, regis, optimatum, et populi imperio.”61 So long as Rome balanced “the powers of the consuls, senate, and people,” she maintained her greatness.62 But while in Greece the aristocracy usually toppled the state, in Rome “corruption began with the people sooner than in the senate,” and in this the Romans enjoyed something in common with “the Teutonic institutions described by Caesar and Tacitus.” In Germany there was no fixed balance, but a continual pulling and hauling between hereditary kings and nobles for power; “the people sometimes claimed it, but at last gave it up to the king, as the least evil of the two, in every country except England.”63
Having resided in London for two years before writing his Defence, Adams was prepared to reassess the English situation. He concluded that the British constitution—the pre-1763 whiggish constitution of the Glorious Revolution—for which he had fought so strenuously in the 1770s might yet reemerge in the mother country. It now seemed possible to look for his idealized, and modernized, British constitution in England as well as in America: “The improvements to be made in the English constitution,” wrote Adams, “lie entirely in the house of commons.” If there were a substantial measure of electoral reform—much along the lines urged by English reformer John Cartwright—and the popular arm of the legislature thus strengthened, “it would be impossible to corrupt the people of England.” It was up to the people of England to “take care of the balance, and especially their part of it.” The fundamental structure was sound enough. Following De Lolme’s imaginative view, Adams described the English constitution as a perfect blend of feudal institutions (he now described Hume’s treatment of feudalism as an “admirable” account) and the better features of the Greek and Roman republics. The outcome was “that noble composition which avoids the inconveniences, and retains the advantages of both.”64 The balance of powers between Crown, aristocracy, and people in England made “the English constitution … the most stupendous fabric of human invention.” Americans had translated its best features to their own needs, and they deserved applause instead of the censure of M. Turgot. In this instance, argued Adams, there was virtue in imitation; the English constitution was “the result of the most mature deliberation on universal history and philosophy.” Moreover, the Americans had improved upon the model, initiating in the states annual elections of legislators and governors. “The United States of America,” he declared, “have exhibited, perhaps, the first example of governments erected on the simple principles of nature,” opening a new era in history. “Thirteen governments thus founded on the natural authority of the people alone, without a pretence of miracle or mystery, and which are destined to spread over the northern part of that whole quarter of the globe, are a great point gained in favor of the rights of mankind.” Adams’s Defence of the American constitutions was thus a defense of human rights as well; it “was really written,” he said, “to lay before the public a specimen of that kind of reading and reasoning which produced the American constitutions,” readings, as he said in his preface, “collected from the history of all ages.”65
An ardent, even passionate, advocate of the separation of powers, Adams hammered away throughout the remainder of his life at the necessity in free government for “an effectual control of rivalries,” an effective control of power: “Power must be opposed to power, force to force, strength to strength, interest to interest, as well as reason to reason, eloquence to eloquence, passion to passion.” Occasionally dispirited by his vicissitudes in politics and by the failure of Americans to study his historical materials and their validity, he sometimes succumbed to pessimism. Perhaps, he told Jefferson in 1812, he should have devoted his energies to the study of science instead of history and politics. The time seemed wasted which he had given to Nathaniel Bacon, Roger Acherley, Bolingbroke, De Lolme, Harrington, and Sidney (“with twenty others upon Subjects which Mankind is determined never to Understand”). His favorite writers were not just neglected, but “nearly laughed into contempt,” thanks in part to the popularity of historians like David Hume—with his “elegant Lies.” Hume’s History, Adams told Jefferson, “has been the bane of G[reat] B[ritain]. It has destroyed the best Effects of the Revolution of 1688,” and “disgraced all the honest Historians.” Writers such as Rapin, Sidney, Burnet, and Coke, in Adams’s view, still contained “more honest Truth than Hume and Clarendon and all their disciples and Imitators.” Despairingly he asked Jefferson, “Who reads any of them at this day?”66
Adams’s “honest Historians” retained a wider following than he realized. But their readers reached differing political conclusions. In 1825 Adams, like Jefferson, received an inscribed copy of John Cartwright’s last book, The English Constitution Produced and Illustrated. Cartwright read and admired Adams’s historians but emerged with a plea for a return to a Saxon-styled democracy. Adams conceded Cartwright’s “ardent love for liberty,” but denied he understood the system necessary to secure it. History did not give Adams any confidence in a constitutional structure in which the popular branch dominated. History showed him that the people never succeeded in maintaining their liberties; only a balanced, aristocratically inclined republic would do that. Cartwright was “one of those ardent spirits whose violent principles defeated all their benevolent purposes.”67
Despite his pessimistic backsliding on occasion, Adams remained throughout his life an unreconstructed Whig, and his political purpose—from his Dissertation on Canon and Feudal Law in 1765, through his final letters to Jefferson in the 1820s—was undergirded by his acute reading and writing of history, his accumulation of and commentary on facts about the past. Perhaps the only history in which Adams found real satisfaction in his last years was the history he and his generation had made. A year before his death he wrote to Jefferson and recalled “with rapture” the happier times of the Revolutionary struggle against England. They were “golden days when Virginia and Massachusetts lived and acted together like a band of brothers.” He hoped the world would hear no more of crises such as the Sedition Act in 1798 or the Hartford Convention in 1814. He hoped, he concluded, “it will not be long before they may say redeunt saturnia regna.”68 For the future he advocated a careful study of history and a regard for the guides of the past: “Without wishing to damp the ardor of curiosity,” he told some young Philadelphians in 1798, “or influence the freedom of inquiry, I will hazard a prediction, that, after the most industrious and impartial researches, the longest liver of you all will find no principles, institutions, or systems of education more fit, in general, to be transmitted to your posterity, than those you received from your ancestors.”69
[1.]Adams’s published writings are included in Charles Francis Adams, ed., The Works of John Adams, 10 vols. (Boston, 1850–56). Lyman H. Butterfield is editing The Adams Papers in eighty to ninety volumes which will embrace the enormously productive descendants of John Adams; because of the necessary limitations of this letterpress edition, a complete microfilm copy of the Adams Papers has been made available to academic institutions. Adams still lacks a first-rate complete biography; Page Smith’s John Adams, 2 vols. (N.Y., 1963), has virtues but offers little on Adams’s intellectual environment. [This is not the case with more-recent books on John Adams: John R. Howe, The Political Thought of John Adams (1966); Peter Shaw, The Character of John Adams (1976); and Joseph J. Ellis, Passionate Sage: The Character and Legacy of John Adams (1994).—T. C., 1997.]
[2.]There is a fine summation on the Adams character in Zoltán Haraszti, John Adams and the Prophets of Progress (Cambridge, Mass., 1952), chap. 2. The Boston Athenaeum is the chief repository of the Adams books, most distinguished for the marginalia inscribed by their owner.
[3.]Diary, Jan. 3, 1759, Adams, Works, II, 59.
[4.]Autobiography, Adams, Works, II, 50 n.
[5.]John Adams to Benjamin Rush, Dec. 27, 1810, Worthington C. Ford, ed., Old Family Letters, 2 vols. (Philadelphia, 1898), I, 269.
[6.]John Adams to Shelton Jones, Mar. 11, 1809, Adams, Works, IX, 613.
[7.]Diary, Feb. 15, 16, Mar. 1, 6, Apr. 30, 1756, Nov. 26, 1760, Adams, Works, II, 5, 7, 14, 104; Adams to Jefferson, Dec. 25, 1813, Cappon, ed., Adams-Jefferson Papers, II, 410.
[8.]John Adams to Richard Rush, Apr. 14, 1811, John H. Powell, ed., “Some Unpublished Correspondence of John Adams and Richard Rush, 1811–22,” Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 61 (1937): 432. In his Diary, Nov. 14, 1760, Adams wrote, “I wish I had Mr. Blackstone’s Analysis, that I might compare, and see what Improvement he has made upon Hale’s.” By Nov. 20, 1761, he was gratifying his wish. See Adams, Works, II, 100–101, and Butterfield et al., eds., The Adams Papers (Cambridge, Mass., 1961–), I, 225. Adams was on the list of subscribers to Robert Bell’s 3-volume edition of Blackstone’s Commentaries. See Catalogue of the Library of John Adams (Boston, 1917), 113, 28. The bulk of the Adams law books survive in the Boston Public Library.
[9.]John Adams to Richard Rush, Feb. 16, 1814, Powell, ed., “Adams-Rush Correspondence,” Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 61 (1937): 40. John Adams’s copy of Kames’s Historical Law Tracts was a gift from the author in 1761 (now in the Boston Public Library); see Diary, Feb. 21, 1765, Adams, Works, II, 148.
[10.]John Adams to Benjamin Waterhouse, May 18, 1820, Worthington C. Ford, ed., Statesman and Friend; Correspondence of John Adams with Benjamin Waterhouse, 1784–1822 (Boston, 1927), 154; Adams to Thomas Jefferson, Dec. 25 and July 15, 1813, Cappon, ed., Adams-Jefferson Letters, II, 410, 357; Adams to Richard Rush, Feb. 16, 1814, Powell, ed., “Adams-Rush Correspondence,” Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 61 (1937): 40; Diary, Feb. 16, 1756, Adams, Works, II, 5.
[11.]Thoughts on Government (Philadelphia, 1776), Adams, Works, IV, 194.
[12.]John Adams to Mrs. Macaulay, Aug. 9, 1770, ibid., IX, 332.
[13.]Adams received presentation copies of the first 2 volumes of Burgh’s Political Disquisitions early in 1774 (Burgh’s inscription is dated Mar. 7, 1774); in 1775 Burgh had his publishers send a complete 3-volume set. All 5 volumes are now in the Boston Public Library. John Adams to James Burgh, Dec. 28, 1774, ibid., IX, 350–51.
[14.]Diary, Feb. 9, 1761, ibid., II, 117–18.
[15.]Diary, Dec. 21, 1765, ibid., 162.
[16.]Among Adams’s admirers was Mayhew’s friend Thomas Hollis. Hollis had the Dissertation reprinted in the London Chronicle, and called it “one of the finest productions ever seen from North America.” Ibid., III, 447.
[17.]“Dissertation on the Canon and Feudal Law,” Aug. 1765, ibid., III, 449, 450.
[18.]Ibid., III, 451–52.
[19.]Ibid., 454. In Adams’s view, Kames’s opinions were the more remarkable because their author was Scottish: most Scotsmen “have not the most worthy ideas of liberty,” explained Adams.
[20.]Ibid., 455, 462.
[23.]Ibid., 449; Randolph G. Adams, Political Ideas of the American Revolution … , 3d ed. (N.Y., 1958), 113.
[24.]Boston-Gazette, Jan. 27, 1766 (signed “Clarendon”).
[25.]“Dissertation on the Canon and Feudal Law,” Adams, Works, III, 466.
[26.]Diary, Dec. 20, 1765, Ibid., II, 158.
[27.]Instructions of the Town of Boston to their Representatives, May 15, 1769, ibid., III, 508.
[28.]Boston-Gazette, Feb. 9 and 16, 1767 (signed “Winthrop”). See Adams, Works, III, 489–93.
[29.]Kidder, History of the Boston Massacre, 258–59. Four years later Adams reread Burnet’s History of His Own Time on past martyrs “to English Liberties,” and reflected gloomily on the fate of Hampden, who fell in battle, Sidney who died “on the scaffold, Harrington in jail, etc.” As he told James Warren, “This is cold comfort. Politics are an ordeal path among red hot ploughshares.” See Adams to James Warren, June 25, 1774, Adams, Works, IX, 339; for his comment on reading Burnet, see Adams to Mercy Otis Warren, Jan. 3, 1774, Ford, ed., Warren-Adams Letters, I, 21.
[30.]Diary, Mar. 5, 1773, Adams, Works, II, 317–18.
[31.]“To the Printers of the Boston Gazette,” Feb. 1, 1773, in ibid., III, 540–41.
[34.]Alden Bradford, ed., The Speeches of the Governors of Massachusetts from 1765–1775; and the Answers of the House of Representatives to the Same (Boston, 1818), 339; Autobiography, Adams, Works, II, 310; Adams to William Tudor, Mar. 8, 1817, ibid., 313.
[35.]Bradford, ed., Speeches, 355, 354.
[36.]Novanglus; or, A History of the Dispute with America, from Its Origin, in 1754, to the Present Time; Written in 1774, Adams, Works, IV, 17–18, 156, 123.
[37.]Ibid., 145, 127.
[38.]Ibid., 18, 17, 114.
[40.]Ibid., 106–7. Rather than tinker with his best phrases and thoughts, Adams, like Jefferson, chose to repeat them frequently and without alteration. In his letter to John Penn early in 1776, John Adams again mentioned his allegiance to Sidney, Harrington, Locke, Milton, and Burnet: he reaffirmed that “the true idea of a republic is an empire of laws, and not men; and therefore, as a republic is the best of governments, so that particular combination of power which is best contrived for a faithful execution of the laws, is the best of republics.” Adams concluded that the “only valuable part of the British constitution” is its predominant republicanism. Adams, Works, IV, 204. When Adams was later accused of being an Anglophile and monarchist, it was because his partisan critics either did not understand, or did not care to understand that in Adams’s logic a man could be both a monarchist and a republican if the monarch maintained his role as a first magistrate in an empire of laws.
[41.]Novanglus, 1774, ibid., IV, 102–3.
[42.]Ibid., 116–17, 21, 37, 28, 54, 43.
[43.]Ibid., 54, 139, 78–79, 54–55.
[45.]Diary, Jan.? 1761, ibid., II, 112.
[46.]Novanglus, 1774, and John Adams to James Burgh, Dec. 28, 1774, ibid., IV, 124; IX, 351.
[47.]John Adams to John Avery, Mar. 21, 1777, ibid., IX, 458. John Adams to Abigail Adams, Mar. 19, 1776, Adams, ed., Familiar Letters, 146.
[48.]John Adams to Mr. Hitchbourne, May 29, 1776, Letterbook #2, Adams Papers, Massachusetts Historical Society.
[49.]Thoughts on Government, Adams, Works, IV, 195.
[50.]Hulme, Historical Essay.
[51.]Thoughts on Government, and Report of a Constitution, Sept. 1779, Adams, Works, IV, 197, 234–51; see also Burgh, Political Disquisitions, I, 83. In his letter to John Penn, Jan. 1776, Adams commented that elections “may be septennial or triennial; but for my own part, I think they ought to be annual; for there is not in all science a maxim more infallible than this, where annual elections end, there slavery begins.” Adams, Works, IV, 205 (Adams’s italics).
[52.]John Adams to Joseph Hawley, Aug. 25, 1776, Adams, Works, IX, 434; John Adams to John Quincy Adams, July 27, 1777, Adams, ed., Familiar Letters, 284.
[53.]Novanglus, 1774, Adams, Works, IV, 73.
[54.]Autobiography, Nov. 28, 1775, ibid., III, 12.
[55.]John Adams to Richard Price, May 20, 1789, ibid., IX, 558–59. In Mrs. Macaulay’s opinion a more representative House of Commons would have rescued England from the excesses of a Parliament which had become unbalanced in the favor of the aristocracy.
[56.]A Defence of the Constitutions of Government of the United States of America (London, 1787), in ibid., IV, 298.
[57.]The debates of the Philadelphia convention amply bear this out, as do the efforts of Jay, Madison, and Hamilton to secure the ratification of their Constitution through the Federalist. See Raoul S. Naroll, “Clio and the Constitution: The Influence of the Study of History on the Federal Convention of 1787” (Ph.D. diss., University of California at Los Angeles, 1953).
[58.]Defence, Adams, Works, IV, 289–90. The best recent reviews of Adams’s Defence are found in R. R. Palmer’s The Age of the Democratic Revolution: The Challenge (Princeton, 1959), 271–76; and in Haraszti’s John Adams and the Prophets of Progress, 26–48. I cannot agree with Palmer’s view that Adams was excessively doctrinaire, and that Adams refused to admit the corruption of the British constitution. The constitution Adams admired so extravagantly was that of England in 1688—which he believed ought to be restored and would be. Adams’s model was a constitution which ought to exist in England and did exist in America.
[59.]Defence, Adams, Works, IV, 469.
[61.]Ibid., 383; see also 542–49.
[63.]Novanglus, ibid., IV, 103; Defence, ibid., 297–98, 573.
[64.]Ibid., 468, 298. Adams’s respect for De Lolme was enormous: “the ingenious Genevan” offered “a more intelligible explanation” of the English constitution than any Englishman. Discourses on Davila (1790), in ibid., VI, 396.
[65.]Ibid., IV, 359, 556, 292–93, 290.
[66.]John Adams to Jefferson, Feb. 3, 1812, July 15, 1813, Dec. 16, 1816, Cappon, ed., Adams-Jefferson Letters, II, 294–95, 357, 502.
[67.]Adams to Jefferson, Feb. 25, 1825, ibid., II, 609–10. For a more substantial discussion of Cartwright, see chap. 8, 180–82, below, which describes the very different response made by Jefferson to The English Constitution.
[68.]Adams to Jefferson, Feb. 25, 1825, ibid., II, 609–10.
[69.]John Adams to the Young Men of the City of Philadelphia, the District of Southwark, and the Northern Liberties, Pennsylvania, May 7, 1798, Adams, Works, IX, 188. For a stimulating essay on Adams as a conservative, see Clinton Rossiter, “The Legacy of John Adams,” Yale Review 46 (1957): 528–50. “His sense of history, the greatest of teachers,” writes Rossiter, “was keen; his devotion to tradition, the essence of wisdom, was respectful; his reliance on an unknowable God was a tribute to his ancestors and to his humility.”