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Browsing: Diary of John Adams, Volume 3


Docno: ADMS-01-03-02-0016-0012

Author: Adams, John
Date: 1765

[The Stamp Act, 1765]

This Year 1765 was the Epocha of the Stamp Act....1 I drew up a Petition to the Select Men of Braintree, and procured it to be signed by a Number of the respectable Inhabitants, to call a Meeting of the Town to instruct their Representatives in Relation to the Stamps.2 The public Attention of the whole Continent was alarmed, and my Principles and political Connections were well known.... I prepared a Draught of Instructions, at home and carried them with me: the cause of the Meeting was explained, at some length and the state and danger of the Country pointed out, a Committee was appointed to prepare Instructions of which I was nominated as one. We retired to Mr. Niles House, my Draught was produced, and unanimously adopted without Amendment, reported to the Town and Accepted without a dissenting Voice. These were published in Drapers Paper, as that Printer first applied to me for a Copy.3 They were decided and spirited enough. They rung thro the State, and were adopted, in so many Words, As I was informed by the Representatives of that Year, by forty Towns, as Instructions to their Representatives. They were honoured sufficiently, by the Friends of Government with the Epithets of inflammatory &c. I have not seen them now for almost forty Years and remember very little of them. I presume they would now appear a poor trifle: but at that time they Met with such strong feelings in the Readers, that their Effect was astonishing to me and excited some serious Reflections. I thought a Man ought to be very cautious what kinds of fewell he throws into a fire when it is thus glowing in the Community. Although it is a certain Expedient to acquire a momentary Celebrity: Yet it may produce future Evils which may excite serious Repentance. I have seen so many fire brands, thrown into the flames, <especially> not only in the worthless and unprincipled Writings of the { 283 } profligate and impious Thomas Paine and in the French Revolution, but in many others, that I think, every Man ought to take Warning. In the Braintree Instructions however, If I recollect any reprehensible fault in them, it was that they conceeded too much to the Adversary, not to say Enemy. About this time I called upon my Friend Samuel Adams and found him at his Desk. He told me the Town of Boston had employed him to draw Instructions for their Representatives: that he felt an Ambition, which was very apt to mislead a Man, that of doing something extraordinary and he wanted to consult a Friend who might suggest some thoughts to his mind. I read his Instructions and shewed him a Copy of mine. I told him I thought his very well as far as they went, but he had not gone far enough. Upon reading mine he said he was of my Opinion and accordingly took into his, some paragraphs from mine.4
On the fourteenth of August this Year, The People in Boston rose, and carried Mr. Oliver who had been appointed Distributor of Stamps, to Liberty Tree where they obliged him to take an Oath, that he would not exercise the office.5 The Merchants of Boston could not collect their debts, without Courts of Justice. They called a Town Meeting, chose a Committee of thirty Gentlemen to present a Petition to the Governor and Council, to order the Courts of Justice to proceed without Stamped Papers, upon the principle that the Stamp Act was null because unconstitutional. This Principle was so congenial to my Judgment that I would have staked my Life on the question: but had no suspicion that I should have any thing to do with it, before the Council, till a Courier arrived with a Certificate from the Town Clerk that I was elected by the Town, with Mr. Gridley and Mr. Otis, to argue the Point the next morning. With so little preparation and with { 284 } no time to look into any books for analogous Cases, I went and introduced the Argument but made a very poor figure. Mr. Gridley and Mr. Otis more than supplied all my defects. But the Governor and Council would do nothing. The Court of Common Pleas, however were persuaded to proceed and the Superiour Court postponed and continued the Question till the Act was repealed. At an Inferiour Court in Plymouth, Mr. Paine and I called a Meeting of the Bar, and We laboured so successfully with our Brothers that We brought them all to agree in an Application to the Court to proceed without Stamps, in which We succeeded.
1. Here and below in JA's account of the Stamp Act crisis, the suspension points are in the MS.
2. No text of such a petition has been found.
3. Adopted in town meeting on 24 Sept. (Braintree Town Records, p. 404–406), the Braintree Instructions were first printed in Draper's Massachusetts Gazette and Boston News Letter, 10 Oct. 1765, and later elsewhere; see note on Diary entry of 18 Dec. 1765. JA's rough draft (Adams Papers) has never been printed, and the Instructions as a whole deserve closer textual study than they have yet received.
4. Samuel Adams' biographer pointed out that this was a mistaken claim, since Boston had adopted its instructions to its representatives on 18 Sept. and published them on the 23d, whereas the Braintree Instructions were not even adopted until the 24th (Wells, Samuel Adams, 1:65, note; see also Samuel Adams, Writings, 1:7–12; Boston Record Commissioners, 16th Report, p. 155–156). Despite the argument from chronology it is perfectly possible that the cousins conferred together on this occasion. It would have been characteristic of them both to do so, and especially characteristic of JA to have been ready with a public paper, or at least wellformed ideas for it, in the expectation of being asked to write it. A comparison of the texts of the two sets of instructions shows no identical paragraphs, but the arguments and occasionally the phrasing of the Boston Instructions are enough like those from Braintree to give some color to JA's claim.
5. Andrew Oliver's house had been mobbed on 14 Aug. 1765, but it was not until the following 17 Dec. that he was forced to renounce his post as stamp distributor. On these and subsequent events alluded to here, see JA's Diary entries of 15 Aug. 1765 (and note 2 there), 19 Dec. 1765 and following.

Docno: ADMS-01-03-02-0016-0013

Author: Adams, John
DateRange: 1765-07 - 1767-12

[1765–1767]

On the 14 day of July of this Year 1765, Mrs. Adams presented me with a Daughter and in her confinement in her Chamber, I was much alone in <the Parlour below> my Office of Evenings and Mornings. The Uneasy State of the public Mind, and my own gloomy Apprehensions, turned my Thoughts to writing. Without any particular Subject to write on, my Mind turned I know not how into a Speculation or rather a Rhapsody which I sent to the Boston Gazette, and was there published without Title or Signature, but which was afterwards reprinted in London under the Title of a dissertation on the Cannon and Feudal Law. It might as well have been called an Essay upon Forefathers Rock. Writings which appear mean enough at the present day, were then highly applauded, in proportion to their Zeal rather than their Merit, and this little production had its full Share of praise.1
After the 14 of August this Year 1765, I went on a Journey to Martha's Vineyard, on the Tryal of a Cause before Referees, between Jerusha Mayhew and her Relations. The keen Understanding of this Woman, and the uncontroulable Violence of her irascible Passions, had excited a quarrell of the most invidious, inveterate and irreconcileable nature between the several Branches of the Mayhew Family, which had divided the whole Island into Parties. The Rancour of that fiend the Spirit of Party had never appeared to me, in so odious and dreadfull a Light, though I had heard much of it, in a Contest between Roland Cotton and Parson Jackson at Woburne: and had remarked enough of it in the Tryal between Hopkins and Ward at Worcester.2 { 285 } In all these cases it seemed to have wrought an entire metamorphosis of the human Character. It destroyed all sense and Understanding, all Equity and Humanity, all Memory and regard to Truth, all Virtue, Honor, Decorum and Veracity. Never in my Life was I so grieved and disgusted with my Species. More than a Week I think was spent in the Examination of Witnesses and the Arguments of Council, Mr. Paine on one Side and I on the other. We endeavoured to argue the cause on both Sides, as well as We could, but which of Us got the cause I have forgot. It was indeed no matter: for it was impossible for human Sagacity to discover on which Side Justice lay. We were pretty free with our Vituperations on both Sides and the Inhabitants appeared to feel the Justice of them. I think the Cause was compromised.3 —I forgot to mention that while We were at Falmouth waiting to be ferried over to the Island the News arrived from Boston of the Riots on the twenty fifth of August in which Lt. Governor Hutchinsons House was so much injured.
The Stamp Act was repealed, and the Declaratory Act passed: but as We expected it would not be executed, good humour was in some measure restored. In the year 1766 [1767]4 Mr. Gridley died, and to his last moment retained his kindness for me, recommending his Clients to me, with expressions of confidence and Esteem too flattering for me to repeat. For several Years before, he had insisted on my Meeting him in a little Clubb once a Week, for the Sake of Sociability, litterary Conversation and reading new publications as well as the Classicks in concert. Many Things were produced and some were read: but his { 286 } Conversation was too amusing and instructive to leave Us any very earnest Wishes for Books. He had frequently invited me to visit him at his Country Seat in Brooklyne, on Saturdays, and to remain with him till Monday. I went but once, though he urged so much and so often that I was afraid he would take offence at my Negligence. On that Visit he produced to me, the first Copy of Blackstones Inaugural oration and Analysis, which ever appeared in America I believe. Mr. Thomas Oliver had received it, very early from a Friend in England, and lent it to Mr. Gridley. It was much admired and great hopes were conceived of what was to follow, which when the History of Magna Charta and especially the Commentaries made their Appearance were not disappointed. Mr. Gridley thought the Analosis excellent, as great an Improvement on Hales, as his had been upon Noy's. The Day was spent, partly at Church, partly in conversation, and partly in Reading some passages in Puffendorf, with Barbeyrac's Notes, after We had read Blackstone. He was a great Admirer of Barbeyrac: thought him a much more sensible and learned Man than Puffendorf. I admired the facility with which he translated and criticised the Greek Passages in the Notes.5
This Year6 also died Dr. Mayhew, whose Loss I deplored, as I had but lately commenced an Acquaintance with him, which was likely to become a lasting and intimate Friendship.
In the Years 1766 and 1767 my Business increased, as my Reputation spread, I got Money and bought Books and Land. I had heard my father say that he never knew a Piece of Land run away or break, and I was too much enamoured with Books, to spend many thoughts upon Speculation on Money. I was often solicited to lend Money and sometimes complied upon Land Security: but I was more intent on my Business than on my Profits, or I should have laid the foundation of a better Estate.
1. An early, fragmentary draft of this essay appears in JA's Diary and is printed there under the assigned date of Feb. 1765, q.v., with the notes and references there.
2. The political, religious, and personal feud between Rev. Edward Jackson of Woburn and his Harvard classmate and parishioner Roland Cotton during the 1740's was long regarded as “the classic example of New England cantankerousness,” to give it no worse a name; see Sibley-Shipton, Harvard Graduates, 6: 301, 322–323. On the Hopkins-Ward feud in the neighboring province of Rhode Island, see JA's Diary entry of 1 Jan. 1766 and note 3 there.
3. This passage alludes to a whole complex of cases which were in litigation for years and divided the great Mayhew clan on the island of Martha's Vineyard into warring camps. One side was endeavoring to recover a boy whose father, Abel Chase, and mother, Mercy (Mayhew) Chase, had separated; the boy himself had been put out by indenture, until he reached a certain age, to his grandmother, Bethiah (Wadsworth) Mayhew. The grandmother, her Amazonian daughter Jerusha, and others in the household succeeded for some time in foiling all attempts by the sheriff and other officers to recover the boy. But the administration of justice on the island was also in the hands of Mayhews, and Jerusha was in Oct. 1762 seized and carried off to jail, though not before numerous scuffles and some actual shooting had taken place. Jerusha now sued one of her captors for assault and battery and false imprisonment, and thus the suits multiplied almost unendingly. Jerusha finally prevailed and won a judgment for damages against JA's clients, the law-enforcing officers, in May 1766. A statement of the facts and minutes of the testimony and of R. T. Paine's arguments in two of the cases (Jerusha Mayhew v. Robert Allen; Cornelius Bassett v. Wadsworth Mayhew et al.) are among JA's legal papers (M/JA/6, Adams Papers, Microfilms, Reel No. 185). See also Suffolk co. Court House, Early Court Files, &c., Nos. 83471, 85247, 86474, 144133, 144145, 144187, 144233; Quincy, Reports, p. 93 and note; R. T. Paine, Diary (MHi), 27–31 Aug. 1765.
4. The correct year, here bracketed, was inserted in the MS by JQA.
5. JA's copy of Pufendorf, Of the Law of Nature and Nations .... To Which Are Added All the Large Notes of Mr. Barbeyrac ..., 4th edn., London, 1729, folio, remains among his books in the Boston Public Library (Catalogue of JA's Library).
6. 1766.
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.
http://www.masshist.org/apde2/