Adams on the American Revolution

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Source: Editor's Introduction to The Revolutionary Writings of John Adams, Selected and with a Foreword by C. Bradley Thompson (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2000).

Fiat Justitia ruat Coelum

[Let justice be done though the heavens should fall]

John Adams to Elbridge Gerry

December 6, 1777

To Henry, Samuel, and Islay


Modern scholars of the American Revolution have published countless books on Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, Benjamin Franklin, and George Washington. Surprisingly, John Adams has not fared so well. On the whole, historians have neglected Adams’s Revolutionary thought, and a one-volume collection of his political writings has not been available for several decades. This anomaly in the scholarly literature is curious because Adams is often regarded as the most learned and penetrating thinker of the founding generation, and his central role in the American Revolution is universally recognized. Benjamin Rush thought there was a consensus among the generation of 1776 that Adams possessed “more learning probably, both ancient and modern, than any man who subscribed the Declaration of Independence.” Another contemporary is reported to have said that “The man to whom the country is most indebted for the great measure of independence is Mr. John Adams. … I call him the Atlas of American independence.”1

John Adams witnessed the American Revolution from beginning to end: he assisted James Otis in the Writs of Assistance case in 1761, and he participated in negotiating the peace treaty with Britain in 1783. As a Revolutionary statesman, he will always be remembered as an important leader of the radical political movement in Boston and as one of the earliest and most principled voices for independence in the Continental Congress. Likewise, as a public intellectual, Adams wrote some of the most important and influential essays, constitutions, and treatises of the Revolutionary period. If Samuel Adams and Patrick Henry represent the spirit of the independence movement, John Adams exemplifies the mind of the American Revolution.

Despite his extraordinary achievements, Adams has always posed a genuine problem for historians. From the moment he entered public life, he always seemed to travel the road not taken. Americans have rarely seen a political leader of such fierce independence and unyielding integrity. In debate he was intrepid to the verge of temerity, and his political writings reveal an utter contempt for the art of dissimulation. Unable to meet falsehoods halfway and unwilling to stop short of the truth, Adams was in constant battle with the accepted, the conventional, the fashionable, and the popular. He would compromise neither with Governor Thomas Hutchinson nor with the Boston mob. From his defense of English soldiers at the Boston Massacre trial to his treaty with the French in 1800, he had a way of shocking both his most ardent supporters and his most partisan opponents. To some, however, the complexity of the man and his thought are the very reasons why he is worth studying.

John Adams was born on October 19, 1735, in Braintree, Massachusetts. His father, Deacon John Adams, was a fifth-generation Massachusetts farmer, and his mother, the former Susanna Boylston, descended from another old New England family. The young man’s sense of life and moral virtues were shaped early by the manners and mores of a Puritan culture that honored sobriety, industry, thrift, simplicity, and diligence.

After graduating from Harvard College, Adams taught school for three years and began reading for a career in the law. To that end, he adopted a strict daily regimen of hard work and Spartan-like austerity. In his diary, he implored himself to “Let no trifling Diversion or amuzement or Company decoy you from your Books, i.e., let no Girl, no Gun, no cards, no flutes, no Violins, no Dress, no Tobacco, no Laziness, decoy from your Books.” He was always demanding of himself that he return to his study to tackle the great treatises and casebooks of the law.

Labour to get Ideas of Law, Right, Wrong, Justice, Equity. Search for them in your own mind, in Roman, grecian, french, English Treatises of natural, civil, common, Statute Law. Aim at an exact Knowledge of the Nature, End, and Means of Government. Compare the different forms of it with each other and each of them with their Effects on Public and private Happiness. Study Seneca, Cicero, and all other good moral Writers. Study Montesque, Bolingbroke [Vinnius?], &c. and all other good, civil Writers, &c.2

Adams was admitted to the Boston bar in 1758 and soon settled into a successful career in the law. In 1764 he married Abigail Smith to whom he was devoted for fifty-four years. Despite many years of separation because of his duties to the American cause at home and abroad, theirs was a love story of almost fictional quality. Together they had five children.

The passage of the Stamp Act in 1765 thrust Adams into the public affairs of colony and empire. In that year, he published his first major political essay, A Dissertation on the Canon and Feudal Law, and he also composed the influential “Braintree Instructions.” Both pieces attacked the Stamp Act for depriving the American colonists of two basic rights guaranteed to all Englishmen by Magna Carta: the rights to be taxed only by consent and to be tried only by a jury of one’s peers.

Adams’s understanding of the Patriot cause is revealed in two decisions that he made during the early years of the imperial crisis. In 1768 he refused a request from Governor Bernard to accept the post of advocate general of the court of admiralty. Despite the lucrative salary and “Royal Favour and promotion” associated with the position, he declined to accept on the grounds that he could not lay himself “under any restraints, or Obligations of Gratitude to the Government for any of their favours.” Nor would he sanction a government that persisted “in a System, wholly inconsistent with all my Ideas of Right, Justice and Policy.” Two years later, Adams risked falling out of favor with the Patriot movement by accepting the legal defense of Captain Preston in the Boston Massacre trial. He took the case in order to defend the rule of law and because “Council ought to be the very last thing that an accused Person should want in a free Country.” Every lawyer, he wrote, must be “responsible not only to his Country, but to the highest and most infallible of all Trybunals.”3 In word and deed, Adams always chose to act in ways that he thought right and just, regardless of reward or punishment.

Between 1765 and 1776, Adams’s involvement in radical politics ran apace with the escalation of events. In 1770, he was elected to the Massachusetts House of Representatives, and he later served as chief legal counsel to the Patriot faction and wrote several important resolutions for the lower house in its running battle with Governor Thomas Hutchinson. He also wrote a penetrating essay on the need for an independent judiciary, and his Novanglus letters are generally regarded as the best expression of the American case against parliamentary sovereignty. By the mid-1770s, Adams had distinguished himself as one of America’s foremost constitutional scholars.

The year 1774 was critical in British-American relations, and it proved to be a momentous year for John Adams. With Parliament’s passage of the Coercive Acts, Adams realized that the time had come for the Americans to invoke what he called “revolution-principles.”4 Later that year he was elected to the first Continental Congress. Over the course of the next two years no man worked as hard or played as important a role in the movement for independence. His first great contribution to the American cause was to draft, in October 1774, the principal clause of the Declaration of Rights and Grievances. Adams also chaired the committee that drafted the Declaration of Independence, he drafted America’s first Model Treaty, and, working eighteen-hour days, he served as a one-man department of war and ordnance. In the end, he worked tirelessly on some thirty committees. “Every member of Congress,” Benjamin Rush would later write, “acknowledged him to be the first man in the House.”5

Shortly after the battles at Lexington and Concord, Adams began to argue that the time had come for the colonies to declare independence and to constitutionalize the powers, rights, and responsibilities of self-government. In May 1776, in large measure due to Adams’s labors, Congress passed a resolution recommending that the various colonial assemblies draft constitutions and construct new governments. At the request of several colleagues, Adams wrote his own constitutional blueprint. Published as Thoughts on Government, the pamphlet circulated widely and constitution makers in at least four states used its design as a working model.

Adams’s greatest moment in Congress came in the summer of 1776. On June 10, Congress appointed a committee to prepare a declaration that would implement the following resolution: “That these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be free and independent states; that they are absolved, from all Allegiance to the British Crown; and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain, is and ought to be totally dissolved.” On July 1, Congress considered final arguments on the question of independence. John Dickinson argued forcefully against independence. When no one responded to Dickinson, Adams rose and delivered a passionate but reasoned speech that moved the assembly to vote in favor of independence. Years later, Thomas Jefferson recalled that so powerful in “thought & expression” was Adams’s speech, that it “moved us from our seats.” Adams was, Jefferson said, “our Colossus on the floor.”6

In the fall of 1779, Adams was asked to draft a constitution for Massachusetts. Subsequently adopted by the people of the Bay State, the Massachusetts Constitution of 1780 was the most systematic and detailed constitution produced during the Revolutionary era. It was copied by other states in later years, and it was an influential model for the framers of the Federal Constitution of 1787.

Adams spent much of the 1780s in Europe as a diplomat and propagandist for the American Revolution. He succeeded in convincing the Dutch Republic to recognize American independence and he negotiated four critical loans with Amsterdam bankers. In 1783, he joined Benjamin Franklin and John Jay in Paris and played an important role in negotiating the Treaty of Peace with England. Adams completed his European tour of duty as America’s first minister to Great Britain.

It was during his time in London that Adams wrote his great treatise in political philosophy, the three-volume A Defence of the Constitutions of Government of the United States of America (1787–88). Written as a guidebook for American and European constitution makers, the Defence is a sprawling historical survey and analysis of republican government and its philosophic foundations. The Defence represents a unique attempt in the history of political philosophy to synthesize the classical notion of mixed government with the modern teaching of separation of powers. We know that the book was influential at the Constitutional Convention in 1787 and that it was used by French constitution makers in 1789 and again in 1795.

After his return to America in 1788, Adams was twice elected vice president of the United States. The eight years that he served as Washington’s second in command were the most frustrating of his life. He played virtually no role in the decision-making processes of the administration and he was forced daily to quietly preside over the Senate. In fact, Adams’s most notable accomplishment during this period was the publication in 1790–91 of his philosophical Discourses on Davila. His purpose in these essays was to lampoon the initial phase of the French Revolution and the influence that its principles were then having in America.

Adams’s elevation to the presidency in 1796 was the culmination of a long public career dedicated to the American cause. Unfortunately, the new president inherited two intractable problems from George Washington: an intense ideological party conflict between Federalists and Republicans, and hostile relations with an increasingly belligerent French Republic. This last, known as the Quasi-War, became the central focus of his administration. Consistent with his views on American foreign policy dating back to 1776, Adams’s guiding principle was “that we should make no treaties of alliance with any European power; that we should consent to none but treaties of commerce; that we should separate ourselves as far as possible and as long as possible from all European politics and war.” However, in order to protect American rights, Adams was forced to walk a hostile gauntlet between pro-French Republicans and pro-English Federalists.

Adams angered Republicans first by proposing a series of recommendations for strengthening the American navy and for a provisional army in response to France’s insulting treatment of American diplomats and its depredations of her commerce. He then delivered a stinging rebuke to the high Federalists of his own party by announcing the appointment of an American commissioner to negotiate a new peace treaty with France. The crowning achievement of his presidency was the ensuing peace convention of 1800 that reestablished American neutrality and commercial freedom. When Adams left office and returned to Quincy in 1801, he could proudly say that America was stronger and freer than the day he took office.

The bitterness of his electoral loss to Thomas Jefferson in 1800 soon faded as Adams spent the next twenty-five years enjoying the scenes of domestic bliss and a newfound philosophic solitude. During his last quarter century he read widely in philosophy, history, and theology, and in 1812 he reconciled with Jefferson and resumed with his friend at Monticello a correspondence that is unquestionably the most impressive in the history of American letters. In his final decade Adams experienced both tragedy and triumph. On October 28, 1818, his beloved Abigail died, a loss from which he would never quite recover. His only consolation during his last years— indeed, it was a moment of great pride—was the election in 1824 of his son, John Quincy, to the highest office in the land.

As the fiftieth anniversary of the Declaration of Independence approached, the ninety-one-year-old Adams was asked to provide a toast for the upcoming celebration in Quincy. He offered as his final public utterance this solemn toast: “Independence Forever.” These last words stand as a signature for his life and principles. John Adams died on July 4, 1826, fifty years to the day after the signing of the Declaration of Independence.

A great many books have been published in this century on the causes of the American Revolution. The important question that most attempt to address is why the colonists acted as they did. What drove this remarkably free and prosperous people to react so passionately and violently to the seemingly benign if not well-intended actions of English imperial officials? One obvious place to look for answers to these questions is in the major speeches and pamphlets of the Revolutionary era. But abstruse arguments derived from natural and constitutional law are no longer thought to have determined the outcome of the Revolution one way or the other. John Adams thought otherwise. During his retirement years, he was fond of saying that the War for Independence was a consequence of the American Revolution. The real revolution, he declared, had taken place in the minds and hearts of the colonists in the fifteen years prior to 1776. According to Adams, the American Revolution was first and foremost an intellectual revolution.

To assist us in recovering this forgotten world of John Adams, we might begin by considering several questions: Why did Adams think there was a conspiracy by British officials to enslave America? What evidence did he produce to demonstrate a British design against American liberties? Was Adams an irrational revolutionary ideologue, or did his political thought represent a reasoned response to a real threat? How did he understand the constitutional relationship between colonies and Parliament? Was Adams a conservative defender of traditional colonial liberties or was he a revolutionary republican advancing Enlightenment theories of natural law? What principles of liberty and equality, justice and virtue, did he think worth defending?

Central to Adams’s political philosophy is the distinction that he drew between “principles of liberty” and “principles of political architecture.” The first relates to questions of political right and the second to constitutional design. The chronology of Adams’s writings during the Revolutionary period mirrors this distinction. In the years before 1776, he debated with American Loyalists and English imperial officials over the principles of justice and the nature of rights. In the years after Independence, he turned to the task of designing and constructing constitutions. Because he wrote so much over the course of sixty years and because it is important that his writings be read unabridged, the selections in this volume have been limited to those essays and reports written during the imperial crisis and the war for independence.

John Adams had an enormous influence on the outcome of the American Revolution. He dedicated his life, his property, and his sacred honor to the cause of liberty and to the construction of republican government in America. The force of his reasoning, the depth of his political vision, and the integrity of his moral character are undeniable. From the beginning of his public career until the very end he always acted on principle and from a profound love of country. In his later years, though, Adams lamented that “Mausoleums, statues, monuments will never be erected to me. … Panegyrical romances will never be written, nor flattering orations spoken, to transmit me to posterity in brilliant colors.”7 The present volume erects no statues to Adams nor does it portray his life in brilliant colors. Readers must judge for themselves whether he is deserving of such accolades. We can say with confidence, however, that no study of the American Revolution would be complete without confronting the political ideas of John Adams. He was, after all, the “Atlas of American independence.”

C. Bradley Thompson
Department of History and Political Science
Ashland University

[1. ]Benjamin Rush quoted in Joseph J. Ellis, The Passionate Sage: The Character and Legacy of John Adams (New York: W. W. Norton, 1994), 29; Richard Stockton quoted in The Works of John Adams, Second President of the United States, ed. Charles Francis Adams, 10 vols. (Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1850–56), 3:56.

[2. ]The Diary and Autobiography of John Adams, ed. L. H. Butterfield et al. 4 vols. (Cambridge, Mass.: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1961), 1:72–73.

[3. ]Ibid., 3:287, 292.

[4. ]Adams, “Letters of Novanglus,” in Papers of John Adams, ed. Robert Taylor et al. (Cambridge, Mass.: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1977–), 2:230.

[5. ]The Autobiography of Benjamin Rush: His “Travels Through Life” Together with His Commonplace Book for 1789–1813, ed. George W. Corner (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1948), 140.

[6. ]6. “Notes on a Conversation with Thomas Jefferson,” in The Papers of Daniel Webster: Correspondence, ed. Charles M. Wiltse (Hanover, N.H.: The University Press of New England, 1974), 1:375.

[7. ]John Adams to Benjamin Rush, March 23, 1809, in The Spur of Fame: Dialogues of John Adams and Benjamin Rush, 1805–1813, ed. John Schutz and Douglass Adair (San Marino, Calif.: The Huntington Library, 1966), 139.