By Amanda M. Norton, Adams Papers
This August marks the 250th anniversary of the publication of the first part John Adams’s “A Dissertation on the Canon and Feudal Law.” This rather arcane title can obscure the profound message that his essay brought to that colonial resistance to the Stamp Act that had been imposed on the colonies in the spring of 1765 by the British Parliament. In this four-part series published in the Boston Gazette from August to October 1765 in the flush of opposition to this new tax, Adams attacked the Stamp Act from a different angle than simply opposition to “taxation without representation.” It was not merely the fact of a tax, but what Britain taxed: “it seems very manifest from the [Stamp Act] itself, that a design is form’d to strip us in a great measure of the means of knowledge, by loading the Press, the Colleges, and even an Almanack and a News-Paper, with restraints and duties.”
Adams, ever the lawyer, looked back over history and examined the two major legal systems that had ruled much of Europe up to the modern age—the canon law, the law of the Roman Catholic Church, and the feudal law, the law of medieval governments. In both of these legal systems, Adams saw a systematic attempt to keep knowledge from the people. In the first part of his essay, he explained how “the great” worked “to wrest from the populace, as they are contemptuously called, the knowledge of their rights and wrongs, and the power to assert the former or redress the latter. I say RIGHTS, for such they have, undoubtedly, antecedent to all earthly government—Rights that cannot be repealed or restrained by human laws—Rights derived from the great legislator of the universe.” In England, an alliance between these two systems had formed and it “was this great struggle, that peopled America. It was not religion alone, as is commonly supposed; but it was a love of universal Liberty, and an hatred, a dread, an horror of the infernal confederacy, before described, that projected, conducted, and accomplished the settlement of America.”
In the final installment of his essay, Adams’s rhetoric soars as he calls for Americans to look into and stand up for their rights. They should use this moment when the British attempted to subjugate America and oppose their efforts through education. “Let us tenderly and kindly cherish, therefore the means of knowledge. Let us dare to read, think, speak and write. Let every order and degree among the people rouse their attention and animate their resolution. Let them all become attentive to the grounds and principles of government, ecclesiastical and civil.” And Adams argued that just as the reigns of James I and Charles I produced some of the greatest British statesmen, “The prospect, now before us, in America, ought in the same manner to engage the attention of every man of learning to matters of power and of right, that we may be neither led nor driven blindfolded to irretrievable destruction.”
John Adams’s continued commitment to education as an essential component in a free society was evident in his draft of the Massachusetts Constitution of 1780, which included a chapter specifically calling for “The Encouragement of Literature” within the commonwealth.
If you want to learn more about the Stamp Act and the coming of the Revolution in Boston, a couple weeks are remaining to view the MHS exhibit, God Save the People! From the Stamp Act to Bunker Hill.