Education of John Adams, 21 CTBJ, 93 CBJ 398

AuthorHenry S. Cohn
Position93 CBJ 398

The Education of John Adams

No. 93 CBJ 398

Connecticut Bar Journal

January 1, 2021

Henry S. Cohn [*]

–R.B. Bernstein, Oxford University Press, New York, 2020. 349 pages.

R.B. Bernstein, author of several well-received books on American Revolutionary War figures, now turns his attention to John Adams. Adapting his book’s title from his great-grandson’s, The Education of Henry Adams, Bernstein states that he chose The Education of John Adams to emphasize Adams’s position as the most studious and introspective of the nation’s founders. However, Bernstein could have titled this biography The Tragedy of John Adams.[1]

Adams was born in Braintree, Massachusetts on October 30, 1735. He spent his happiest hours at his home there and remained a proud New Englander until the day he died. His father was a financially struggling deacon of the local Congregational Church, as well as a farmer. Yet he managed to send John, his eldest son, to Harvard College. At Harvard, Adams immersed himself in his studies; his favorite teacher was a professor of mathematics and natural history, John Winthrop, a descendant of the first governor of Connecticut, John Winthrop, Jr.

After graduation, Adams taught school in Worcester, Massachusetts. At the same time, he contracted with an attorney to study for the bar. The attorney proved worthless as an instructor, causing Adams to lose his temper, as he often did, and to study on his own. As was usual for a law student in those days, this involved reading Coke, Grotius, and Justinian, as well as collecting briefs of cases, which was known as “common-placing.”

Adams then moved to Boston, where an accomplished lawyer Jeremiah Gridley, gave him formal training, and in 1758, supported his admission to the Massachusetts bar. Adams traveled throughout Massachusetts and became a successful trial attorney. He married Abigail Smith in 1764, and their marriage lasted 54 years.

Until 1774, Adams was not a revolutionary. Although he differed with the government of England and wrote essays in newspapers attacking the sugar tax and the stamp tax, as well as other aspects of Britain’s treatment of the Massachusetts colony, he considered himself a British subject. He did not call for the colonies to separate from England, but argued against the British interpretation of the unwritten English Constitution. Indeed, considering himself British, one of Adams’s most famous cases was his defense of a British captain and soldiers accused of murder in the so-called “Boston Massacre.” The case demonstrated Adams’s commitment to the ethical principle that every accused was entitled to a defense.

Using his courtroom skills at the Boston Massacre trial in October 1770, Adams employed tactics that included rejecting jurors from Boston itself and stressing that the British soldiers had opposed an angry, uncontrolled mob. He suppressed testimony that showed that the presence of British troops in Boston had encouraged bad feelings between the citizens and the soldiers. Adams achieved an acquittal of the captain and all but two of the British soldiers. Two soldiers were convicted of manslaughter and were punished by having their thumbs branded with the letter M.

By 1774, with the British occupying Boston and Parliament passing...

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