Papers of John Adams, volume 1

Editorial Note Editorial Note
Editorial Note

The issue addressed by John Adams and William Brattle in this exchange in the pages of the Boston Gazette was a narrow one: the degree to which English judges had historically been dependent upon the Crown and its ministers. But this question arose as part of a broader debate in contemporary Massachusetts politics: the provision for Bay Colony judges in the royal civil list. The General Court had registered strong protests in 1771 when it became known that the governor was to receive his salary from the Crown rather than from the provincial legislature (see Adams' Service in the House, 7 June 1770–16 April 1771, 2d calendar entry for 10 April 1771, above). Opposition to this extension of the civil list, however, was comparatively mild, for, as one historian has remarked, “it was at least logical that the King's servant be paid by the King” (Brown, Revolutionary Politics , p. 52). That moderation ended when Boston received reports in the fall of 1772 that superior court judges were to get crown salaries as well.

The Boston town meeting took the lead in investigating these reports and exploiting them as a political issue. After vain attempts to obtain clarification of the rumors from Governor Hutchinson, the town met on 2 November and named a committee of correspondence “to communicate 253their Sentiment to other towns” (Boston Record Commissioners, 18th Report , p. 93; for an able summary of the exchanges between the town meeting and Hutchinson, Oct.–Nov. 1772, see Brown, Revolutionary Politics , p. 48–57; see also Editorial Note, The Constitutional Debate between Thomas Hutchinson and the Massachusetts House, 26 Jan. – 2 March 1773, below). The committee's work bore fruit in Boston's adoption of two reports on rights and an accompanying letter for other Massachusetts towns, all bound together as The Votes and Proceedings of the Town of Boston. This pamphlet soon brought action in Cambridge.

A number of freeholders petitioned the Cambridge selectmen for a town meeting at which the issue of crown salaries for the judges might be discussed. The warrant for the meeting on 14 December included an article responding to the petition. When the town met, Maj. Gen. William Brattle, widely regarded as a staunch defender of colonial liberties, was elected moderator.

At the meeting Brattle displayed a startling political about-face. A wealthy landowner who had dabbled in medicine, theology, and the law before winning recognition as a military administrator, Brattle emerged that day as a defender of crown measures. (For a sketch of Brattle, see Sibley-Shipton, Harvard Graduates , 7:10–23.) More than forty years later, Adams described him as one who, before the Cambridge meeting of December 1772, “had acquired great popularity by his zeal, and I must say, by his indiscreet and indecorous ostentation of it, against the measures of the British government.” He ascribed Brattle's conversion to Hutchinson, and especially to Jonathan Sewall (to Jedediah Morse, 22 Dec. 1815, JA, Works , 10:194).

Although Adams' explanation of the General's behavior may well be oversimplified, there is no doubt that a conversion had taken place. Brattle used all his considerable authority and influence to discourage discussion of the judges' salaries at the Cambridge meeting. When the letter from the Boston town meeting was read, he objected to taking any action on the communication, for the article in the warrant had not specifically mentioned the letter from Boston.

Brattle's objections were not limited to technicalities. He argued that the town would be “too premature in acting upon this matter at present” and that the next packet from England would probably “give us more light in the affair.” As it was, he continued, “no man in the province could say whether the salaries granted to the judges were durante bene placito, or quamdiu bene se gesserint, as the judges of England have their salaries granted them.” Brattle told the meeting that he “supposed” the salaries were to be granted in the latter fashion, that is, during good behavior, and argued that this would make the judges “independent both upon the king and the people.” He was “very far from thinking there was any necessity of having quamdiu bene se gesserint in their commissions; for they have their commissions now by that tenure as truly as if said words were in,” He closed his arguments for accepting the new method which he sup-254posed would govern the judges' salaries by remarking “that by the charter and common law of England, there is no necessity of their having any commission at all; a nomination and appointment recorded is enough; nomination and appointment are the words of the charter, a commission for them not so much as mentioned in it” (Brattle to the Massachusetts Gazette , 16 Dec.; JA, Works , 3:516–517).

Brattle's harangue had little effect. The town appointed a committee of correspondence and adopted instructions to the Cambridge representative, Thomas Gardner, which described the judges' salaries as “so great a Grievance, especially when added to the many other Grievances we have been so long groaning under, as to be almost insupportable” (Boston Gazette, 21 Dec.).

Here the matter might have ended had not Brattle decided to live up to his promise to protest the illegality of any action on the Boston letter. Within days of the Cambridge meeting he carried the dispute to the press, summarizing his town meeting oration in a letter dated 26 December and published in the Massachusetts Gazette of 31 December. When his position was questioned in the Boston Gazette, Brattle replied in the Massachusetts Gazette on 7 January, offering to answer those who had leisure to dispute the line of argument he had laid down.

In his autobiographical writings, Adams offers two slightly different versions of why he decided to enter the dispute. In his Diary, he mentions Brattle's publication of 31 December as one of the topics of conversation for Adams' friends the next evening. Adams neglected his Diary for the next nine weeks, and on resuming on 4 March, he explained: “The two last Months have slided away. I have written a tedious Examination of Brattle's absurdities.” Adams described Brattle's pieces in the newspapers of 31 December and 7 January as “vain and frothy Harrangues and Scribblings,” which “would have had no Effect upon me, if I had not seen that his Ignorant Doctrines were taking Root in the Minds of the People” ( Diary and Autobiography , 2:77–78). This explanation, which implies that Adams did not begin drafting his reply to Brattle until he had seen the Massachusetts Gazette of 7 January, seems unlikely since Adams' first essay appeared in the Boston Gazette on 11 January.

Adams had more personal reasons for accepting Brattle's challenge. During the Cambridge meeting, Adams recalled, Brattle had said the complete independence of the judges “I averr to be Law, and I will maintain it, against any Body, I will dispute it, with Mr. Otis, Mr. Adams, Mr. John Adams I mean, and Mr. Josiah Quincy. I would dispute with them, here in Town Meeting, nay, I will dispute it with them in the Newspapers” (same, 2:78).

In his Autobiography, Adams recalled that perhaps he would have said nothing publicly about Brattle's argument had Brattle not “the Week before . . . challenged me by name, to dispute the point with him” (same, 3:297). This version, which suggests that Adams accepted the challenge as soon as he saw Brattle's essay in the Massachusetts Gazette of 31 Decem-255ber, is more credible. Of course, Adams could have completed two or more of his essays before the first was printed in the Gazette; any more precise dating is impossible considering the complete lack of manuscript versions of Adams' essays and of any dates appended to the published letters. All of Adams' contributions printed below are taken from the Gazette and are given the dates on which they appeared in that paper.

Before he had answered Brattle to his own satisfaction, Adams produced seven learned essays. These appeared in weekly installments along with Brattle's only contribution to the debate he had courted so eagerly. Probably the General despaired of defending himself against Adams' “torrents of law, records and history.” Adams himself did not know whether Brattle's failure to write more rose “from Conviction, or from Policy, or Contempt” (same, 2:78). And although Adams dismissed his own effort as a “tedious Examination,” one suspects that he relished the “delightful work of quotation,” at times losing sight of his opponent in his enthusiasm for exhausting every legal consideration.

These essays, published without title in 1773, appear in Charles Francis Adams' edition of his grandfather's works under the title “On the Independence of the Judiciary” (JA, Works , 3:519–574). John Adams himself, however, referred to them consistently as being “On the Independence of the Judges” (to Cotton Tufts, 3 May 1789, MH:Schaffner Collection; Diary and Autobiography , 3:298). The present editors have chosen to revive Adams' title.

More accurately, Adams should have called his essays “On the Dependence of the Judges,” for he employed English history and legal treatises to demonstrate that the celebrated “independence” of the judiciary was a comparatively recent innovation, resting on limited statute law rather than on common law or time-honored tradition, as Brattle had claimed. Adams left his readers to draw their own conclusions about the dangers of such a system.

These lessons were all the more obvious to his audience since Adams' newspaper series coincided with a full-scale debate between the Governor and the House on constitutional issues involving the judiciary. In the weeks in which he penned the concluding numbers of his series, he was engaged as well, but not publicly, in drafting the central portions of the replies of the House to Governor Hutchinson on the broader issues raised by the prospect of crown salaries for the judges (see 26 Jan. – 2 March 1773, below). These newspaper pieces, to which Adams signed his name, are the first public papers since “Sui Juris” (23 May 1768, above) which he is known to have composed as an individual, rather than as a member of a public committee.

The moral of these essays, the need for a judiciary whose independence was guarded from changing public opinion and legislative whim, proved clearer to Adams than to his countrymen. Shortly after taking office as vice president, Adams suggested that his letters to Brattle be republished. Sixteen years after accepting the General's challenge, Adams 256reflected ruefully, the essays “contain Information that is much wanted. The Constitutional learning on that head is very little known, excepting to those few who read those Letters in their Season. Younger Gentlemen and the rising Generation, know nothing of it, and nothing is of more Importance and Necessity, in order to establish the New Government. . . . Many of the States have their Judges elective, annually, an awful defect in any Constitution” (to Cotton Tufts, 3 May 1789, MH:Schaffner Collection).

I. To the <hi rendition="#italic">Boston Gazette</hi>, 11 January 1773 JA Boston Gazette (newspaper) I. To the <hi rendition="#italic">Boston Gazette</hi>, 11 January 1773 Adams, John Boston Gazette (newspaper)
I. To the Boston Gazette
Monday, January 11, 1773 To the PRINTERS.

GENERAL BRATTLE, by his rank, station and character, is intituled to politeness and respect, even when he condescends to harrangue in town-meeting, or to write in a news-paper: But the same causes require that his sentiments when erroneous and of dangerous tendency, should be considered, with entire freedom, and the examination be made as public, as the error. He cannot therefore take offence at any gentleman for offering his thoughts to the public, with decency and candor, tho' they may differ from his own.

In this confidence, I have presum'd to publish a few observations, which have occured to me, upon reading his narration of the proceedings of the late town meeting at Cambridge. It is not my intention to remark upon all things in that publication, which I think exceptionable, but only on a few which I think the most so.

The General is pleased to say, “That no man in the province could say whether the salaries granted to the Judges were durante bene placito, or quam diu bene se gesserint, as the Judges of England have their salaries granted them.” “I supposed the latter, tho' these words were not expressed, but necessarily implied.” This is said upon the supposition, that salaries are granted by the crown to the judges.

Now, it is not easy to conceive, how the General or any man in the province could be at a loss to say, upon supposition that salaries are granted, whether they are granted in the one way or the other. If salaries are granted by the crown, they must be granted, in such a manner as the crown has power to grant them. Now it is utterly deny'd, that the crown has power to grant them, in any other manner than durante bene placito.

The power of the crown to grant salaries to any judges in America is derived solely from the late act of parliament, and that gives no 257 258 power to grant salaries for life, or during good behaviour.1 But not to enlarge upon this at present.

The General proceeds. “I was very far from thinking there was any necessity of having quam diu bene se gesserint in their commissions: For they have their commissions now by that tenure, as truly as if said words were in:”

It is the wish of almost all good men, that this was good law. This country would be forever obliged to any gentleman who would prove this point from good authorities, to the conviction of all concerned in the administration of government, here and at home. But I must confess that, my veneration for General Brattle's authority, by no means prevails with me, to give credit to this doctrine. Nor do his reasons in support of it, weigh with me, even so much as his authority. He says, “What right, what estate vests in them, (i.e. the Judges,) in consequence of their nomination and appointment, the common law of England, the Birth-right of every man here, as well as at home, determines, and that is an estate for life, provided they behave well:” I must confess I read these words with surprize and grief. And the more I have reflected upon them the more these sentiments have increased in my mind.

The common law of England is so far from determining, that the Judges have an estate for life in their offices, that it has determined the direct contrary. The proofs of this are innumerable and irresistable. My Ld. Coke in his 4th institute,2 74, says, “Before the reign of E. 1. the chief justice of this court, was created by letters patents, and the form thereof (taking one for all) was in these words.

“Rex, &c. Archiepiscopis, Episcopis, Abbatibus, Prioribus, Comitibus, Baronibus, Vice-comitibus, Forestariis, et omnibus aliis fidelibus Regni Angliae, salutem, cum pro Conservatione nostra, et tranquilitatis Regni nostri, et ad Justitiam universis et singulis de Regno nostro exhibendum constituerimus dilectum et fidelem nostrum Philippum Basset Justiciarium Angliae quam diu nobis placuerit capitalem.—&c.”

And my Lord Coke says, afterwards in the same page, “King E. I. being a wise and prudent prince, knowing that cui plus licet quam par est plus vult quam licet (as most of the summi justiciarii did) made three alterations, 1. By limitation of his authority. 2. By changing summus justiciarius to capitalis justiciarius. 3. By a new kind of creation, viz. by writ, lest if he had continued his former manner of creation, he might have had a desire of his former authority, which three do expressly appear by the writ, yet in use, viz. Rex, &c. E.C. militi salutem, sciatis quod constitumus vos justiciarium nostrum 259capitalem, ad placita coram nobis tenenda, durante beneplacito nostro teste, &c.” Afterwards in the same page Ld. Coke observes, “it is a rule in law, that ancient offices must be granted in such forms and in such manner, as they have been used to be unless the alteration were by authority of parliament. And continual experience approveth, that for many successions of ages without intermission, they have been, and yet are called by the said writ.” His Lordship informs us, also in the same page, that “the rest of the Judges of the King's bench have their offices by letters patent in these words. Rex omnibus ad quos presentes literae pervenient, salutem, sciatis quod constituimus dilectum et fidelem Johannem Doderidge militem unum justiciariorum ad placita coram nobis tenenda durante beneplacito, nostro, teste, &c.”

His Lordship says indeed, from Bracton, that “these Judges are called Perpetui by Bracton, because they ought not to be removed without just cause.” But the question is not what the Crown ought to do, but what it had legal power to do.

The next reason given by the General in support of his opinion, is that these points of law have been settled and determined by the greatest sages of the law formerly and more lately. This is so entirely without foundation, that the General might both with safety and decency be challenged, to produce the name of any one sage of the law ancient or modern, by whom it has been so settled and determined, and the book in which such determination appears. The General adds, “It is so notorious that it becomes the common learning of the law.” I believe he may decently and safely be challenged again; to produce one Lawyer in this country, who ever before entertained such an opinion, or, heard such a doctrine. I would not be misunderstood; there are respectable Lawyers, who maintain that the Judges here hold their offices during good behaviour; but it is upon other principles, not upon the common law of England. “My Lord chief justice Holt settled it so, not long before the statute of William and Mary, that enacts that the words quam diu bene se gesserint, shall be in the Judges Commissions.” And afterwards he says, that “the commissions as he apprehends, were without these words inserted in them, during the reigns of King William, Queen Mary and Queen Ann.”

This I presume must have been conjectured from a few words of Lord Holt in the case of Harcourt against Fox, which I think are these. I repeat them from memory, having not the book before me at present. “Our places as judges are so settled, determinable only upon misbehaviour.”3

Now, from these words I should draw an opposite conclusion from 260the General, and should think that the influence of that interest in the nation which brought King William to the throne, prevailed upon him to grant the commissions to the Judges, expressly during good behavior. I say, this is the most natural construction, because it is certain, their places were not at that time, viz. 5 Wm. and Mary, determined by an act of parliament to be determinable only upon Misbehavior, and it is as certain, from Lord Coke, and from all history, that they were not so settled by the common law of England.

However, we need not rest upon this reasoning, because we happen to be furnished with the most explicit and decisive evidence, that my conclusion is just, from my Lord Raymond.4 In the beginning of his second volume of reports, his lordship has given us a list of the chief officers in the law at the time of the death of King William the third 8 March 1701, 2. And he says in these words, that “Sir John Holt, knight, chief justice of the King's bench, holding his office by writ, though it was quam diu se bene gesserint, held it to be determined by the demise of the King, notwithstanding the act of 12 & 13 Will. 3d.5 And therefore the Queen in council gave orders, that he should have a new writ, which he received accordingly, and was sworn before the lord keeper of the great seal the Saturday following, viz. the 14th of March, Chief Justice of Kings Bench.” —From this several things appear,

1. That General Brattle is mistaken in apprehending that the Judges commissions were without the clause quam diu bene se gesserint, in the reign of King William and Queen Mary, and most probably also in the reign of Queen Ann, because, it is not likely that Lord Holt would have accepted a commission from the Queen during pleasure, when he had before had one from King William during good behaviour. And because if Queen Ann had made such an alteration in the commission, it is most likely Lord Raymond would have taken notice of it. 2. That Lord Holt's opinion was, that by common law he had not an estate for life in his office, for if he had, it could not expire on the demise of the King. 3. That Lord Holt did not think the clause in the statute of 12 & 13 Wm. 3. to be a declaration of what was common law before, nor in affirmance of what was law before, but a new law and a total alteration of the tenure of the Judges commissions, established by parliament, and not to take place till after the death of the Princess Ann. 4. That in Lord Holt's opinion it was not in the power of the Crown, to alter the tenure of the Judges commissions, and make them a tenure for life determinable only upon 261misbehaviour, even by inserting, that express clause in them, quam diu se bene gesserint.

I have many more things to say upon this subject, which may possibly appear some other time.

Mean while I am, Messi'rs Printers, Your humble Servant, JOHN ADAMS

The preamble to the Townshend Revenue Act of 1767 stated explicitly that the revenues raised in America under this statute would be used “for making a more certain and adequate Provision for defraying the charge of the Administration of Justice, and the Support of Civil Government, in such Provinces where it shall be found necessary” (7 Geo. III, ch. 46).


Sir Edward Coke's Institutes of the Lawes of England is represented in JA's library by volumes from two editions. The first and fourth Institutes in his set are from the edition printed in London, 1628, while the second and third are from the 6th edition, London, 1681 ( Catalogue of JA's Library ).


This passage from the opinion of Chief Justice Sir John Holt (1642–1710) appears in Sir Bartholomew Shower, Reports of Cases Adjudged in the Court of King's Bench, in the Reign of ... King William III, with Several Learned Arguments, London, 1708, 1:535. The case of Harcourt v. Fox is discussed by JA at length in No. VI, below.


Sir Robert Raymond, 1st Baron Raymond, Reports of Cases Argued and Adjudged in the Courts of King's Bench and Common Pleas, in the Reigns of the Late King William, Queen Anne, King George the First, and King George the Second, 2d edn., 3 vols., London, 1765, 2:747. Entered in Catalogue of JA's Library .


That is, the Act of Settlement of 12 June 1701, 12 and 13 Wm. III, ch. 20.