Adams, John (1735–1826)

Author:Merrill D. Peterson

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Massachusetts lawyer and revolutionary leader, first vice-president and second President of the United States, John Adams was also a distinguished political and constitutional theorist. Born in 1735, the descendant of three generations of hardy independent farmers in Braintree, Massachusetts, near Boston, he attended Harvard College and after graduation studied law for several years, gaining admission to the bar in 1758. The practice of a country lawyer held no charms for him. He took delight in the study of law and government, however, and this scholarly pursuit merged imperceptibly with the polemics of the revolutionary controversy, which probed the nature and history of the English constitution. Adams made his political debut in 1765 as the author of Braintree's protest against the Stamp Act. Increasingly, from the pressures of politics as well as of business, he was drawn to Boston, moving there with his young family in 1768. Unlike his cousin SAMUEL ADAMS, he was not an ardent revolutionist. He worried about the "mischievous democratic principles" churned up by the agitation; he braved the popular torrent to defend Captain Thomas Preston and the British soldiers accused of murder in the Boston Massacre. For several years he was torn between Boston and Braintree, and the different worlds they represented. Only in 1773 did he commit himself fully to the Revolution.

The next year, during the crisis produced by the Intolerable Acts, Adams was elected one of the Massachusetts delegates to the FIRST CONTINTENTAL CONGRESS, in Philadelphia. Events had shaken his lawyerlike stance on the issues, and he championed the patriots' appeal to "the law of nature," as well as to the English constitution and COLONIAL CHARTERS, in defense of American liberties. He wrote the crucial fourth article of the congress's declaration of rights denying the authority of Parliament to legislate for the colonies, though acquiescing in imperial regulation of trade as a matter of convenience. Back in Boston he expounded his views at length in the series of Novanglus letters in the press. TREASON and rebellion, he argued, were on the other side?the advocates of parliamentary supremacy abroad and the Tory oligarchy at

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home. He had no quarrel with George III, and he lauded the English constitution with its nice balance between king, lords, and commons and its distinctly republican character. Unfortunately, the constitution was not made for colonies. Denied REPRESENTATION in Parliament, they were deprived of the constitution's best feature. The proper relationship between the colonies and the mother country, Adams said, was the same as Scotland's before the Act of Union, that is, as an independent government owing allegiance to a common king. Had America been conquered, like Ireland, imperial rule would be warranted; but America was a discovered, not a conquered, country, and so the people possessed the NATURAL RIGHT to make their own laws as far as compatible with allegiance to the king.

In the Second Continental Congress Adams lost all hope of reconciliation on these terms, and he became a leading advocate of American independence. Although a member of the committee to draft the DECLARATION OF INDEPENDENCE, he made his greatest contribution when it came to the floor for debate. Before this he co-authored and championed the resolution?"a machine to fabricate independence" in opposition eyes?calling upon the colonies to form new governments. Nothing was more important to Adams than the making of new constitutions and the restoration of legitimate authority. He had read all the political theorists from Plato to Rousseau; now he reread them with a view to incorporating their best principles into the foundations of the polity. Government was "the divine science"?"the first in importance"?and American independence opened, in his eyes, a grand "age of political experiments." It was, he declared, "a time when the greatest lawgivers of antiquity would have wished to live. How few of the human race have ever enjoyed an opportunity of making an election of government?more than of air, soil, or climate?for themselves or their children!" To aid this work Adams sketched his ideas in an epistolary essay, Thoughts on Government, which was destined to have wide influence. Years later, in his autobiography, Adams said that he wrote to counteract the plan of government advanced by that "disastrous meteor" THOMAS PAINE in Common Sense. Paine's ideas, which gave shape to the new PENNSYLVANIA CONSTITUTION OF 1776, were "too democratical," mainly because they concentrated all power in a single representative assembly without mixture or balance. Adams, by contrast, proposed a "complex" government of representative assembly, council (or senate), and governor, each endowed with a...

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