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Browsing: Legal Papers of John Adams, Volume 2

This note contained in document ADMS-05-02-02-0006-0002-0003
1. The text that follows is the most complete rendition possible today of JA's “Abstract of the Argument for and against the Writts of Assistance,” probably made by him sometime in the spring of 1761. See text at note 49 above. Five versions of this famous document are here brought together: (1) The text of the Gridley and Thacher arguments from Israel Keith's Common Place Book, as printed in Quincy, Reports (Appendix) 479–482, from a document then (1864) in the possession of John Newell of Pittsford, Vt., and Boston, which recent extensive search has not located; (2) the text of the Gridley and Otis arguments from the Joseph Hawley Common Place Book now in NN:Hawley Papers; (3) the text of the Otis argument as printed in the Massachusetts Spy, 29 April 1773, p. 3, cols. 1–3; (4) the text of the Otis argument as printed in George Richards Minot, Continuation of the History of the Province of Massachusetts Bay, 2:91–99 (Boston, 1803), with paraphrases of the arguments of Gridley and Thacher; (5) Minot's text of the Otis argument as reprinted by CFA with some further minor corrections and the elimination of phrases which JA had described as interpolations, in 2 JA, Works 523–525. All five versions are closely related. The Spy and Minot texts of Otis differ only in corrections of grammar and style, apparently made by Minot, and CFA follows the latter, except for the interpolations. The Hawley version of Otis and that in the Spy are identical, with the exception of material apparently omitted in copying by Hawley and certain touches of style omitted, perhaps for editorial reasons, from the Spy. Gray did not print Keith's text of Otis, but we have his testimony that it closely followed Minot. Quincy, Reports (Appendix) 482. A similar identity prevails among the various texts of the Gridley and Thacher arguments, including Minot's paraphrase.
Although no copy in JA's hand has been found, the evidence that his was the common parent of these five versions seems overwhelming. The similarity in content and phraseology to JA's rough notes has already been pointed out, as have his later recollections that it was his notes which appeared first in the Spy, then in Minot's History of Massachusetts Bay. See text and note 51 above. For other circulation of the “Abstract,” see note 52 above. The best independent evidence of JA's authorship is the Keith Common Place Book. Keith, Harvard 1771, served in the Continental Army and was admitted an attorney in the Superior Court for Suffolk County in March 1780. No record of his clerkship has been found, but he undoubtedly studied law in Boston both before and after his military service. His Common Place Book was said to contain not only the argument on the writs, but other legal notes known to have come from JA. Quincy, Reports (Appendix) 478. On the basis of this evidence it seems a fair conclusion that Keith copied both the argument and the other materials either from JA's own papers, or from a copy by someone who had clerked for him. The history of the Hawley version cannot be so readily traced, but since Joseph Hawley was JA's friend and contemporary at the bar, it seems likely that he too copied the arguments from JA. The only other reasonable hypothesis would seem to be that the Keith and Hawley texts were copied from a summary of the argument which another (perhaps Jonathan Williams Austin, whom JA accused of the 1773 “theft” of the materials, text at note 1 above) had made on the basis of JA's on-the-spot notes, which are indubitably the source of the longer version. This theory seems refuted by the evidence of the diary entry, note 49 above, and by JA's later taking credit for the Spy and Minot texts.
The basic texts followed here are Gray's rendition of the Keith version of Gridley's and Thacher's arguments, and the Massachusetts Spy version of the Otis argument. These are textually the most complete versions and are probably also closest to the missing original. In the footnotes, variations with the other versions have been noted where they seem significant, either as touches of style that might have been JA's, or as examples of later editorial practice.
Cite web page as: Founding Families: Digital Editions of the Papers of the Winthrops and the Adamses, ed.C. James Taylor. Boston: Massachusetts Historical Society, 2014.