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Browsing: Papers of John Adams, Volume 1

Docno: ADMS-06-01-02-0054-0001

Editorial Note

Although “A Dissertation on the Canon and the Feudal Law” was John Adams' first contribution to the literature of the American Revolution, the Braintree Instructions about the Stamp Act were the first defense of American rights publicly recognized as having come from his pen. These Instructions, drafted in the first instance by Adams, then approved with modifications by a Braintree town meeting, and finally broadcast through Massachusetts in the Massachusetts Gazette and the Boston Gazette with additional variations, vigorously denounced the Stamp Act for depriving Americans of their rights as Englishmen to be taxed only with their consent and to be tried by juries of their peers. Adams advanced no novel principles and recommended no particularly radical mode of opposition to parliamentary authority. Nevertheless, his instructions deserve more than passing commentary because of the opportunity they offer both for textual analysis of one of the more significant documents of the early Revolutionary period and for a critical appraisal of the author's own subsequent account of their history.
Writing in his Autobiography almost forty years after the events in question, Adams composed the only extended description of the provenance of the Braintree Instructions known to exist (Diary and Autobiography, 3:282–283). According to this account, Adams became alarmed by the Stamp Act sometime in 1765 and thereupon secured the approval of his fellow townsmen in Braintree for a petition he had drawn up, calling for a town meeting in order “to instruct their Representatives in Relation to the Stamps.” When this meeting convened, on 24 September, the towns people chose Adams and four others to be a committee to prepare a set of instructions for the town's representative. This committee immediately repaired to the home of Samuel Niles, one of its members. There Adams presented his colleagues with a draft set of instructions about the Stamp Act, which he had written some time prior to the town meeting and { 130 } which that same day were “unanimously adopted [by the committee] without Amendment, reported to the Town and Accepted without a dissenting Voice.” Several days later, Richard Draper, printer of the Massachusetts Gazette, asked Adams to furnish him with a copy of the Braintree Instructions—an indication, perhaps, of the extent to which Adams' authorship was already known. Adams readily complied with Draper's request, and the Instructions appeared in the 10 October 1765 issue of the Massachusetts Gazette—from which they were taken and reprinted four days later in the Boston Gazette. Once in print, Adams went on to recall, the Braintree Instructions made a profound impression upon the freemen of the province. Forty other towns adopted them, “in so many Words,” to guide their representatives during the session of the General Court which began in the fall of 1765; even Samuel Adams, that master of propaganda, saw fit to incorporate “some paragraphs” from the Braintree Instructions into those which he wrote at this time for the town of Boston.
Although Adams' memory served him well in the reconstruction of some features of this episode, it was either deficient or misleading in regard to at least three others. He only partially explained the fundamental question of motivation, or what exactly prompted him to write these particular Instructions at this particular time. That he acted out of opposition to the Stamp Act, as the Autobiography implies, is indisputable. But the question remains of why he waited till the fall of 1765 to call for a town meeting to protest an act of Parliament that he had known about since the preceding spring. This delay between awareness and action becomes comprehensible, when two events that Adams forgot to mention in his Autobiography are taken into account. The first was Governor Bernard's issuance of a proclamation, on 6 September, ordering a meeting of the General Court for the 25th of the month, and the second, the arrival in Boston, on 21 September, of the first consignment of stamp paper (Boston Post-Boy, 9, 23 Sept. 1765). While the one gave the voters their first opportunity after the riots and tumults of the preceding August to reaffirm their opposition to the Stamp Act through their regularly elected representatives, the other made it technically possible to implement this measure on 1 November 1765, the date it was scheduled to go into effect. The forthcoming session of the General Court provided Adams with the occasion for writing the Braintree Instructions, and the arrival of the stamps almost certainly lent a note of urgency to this work. The conjuncture of these two events, combined with Adams' prior opposition to the Stamp Act, elicited these Instructions.
If Adams said too little in the Autobiography about specifically why he wrote the Braintree Instructions, he claimed too much for their impact upon Massachusetts. His assertion that they were adopted, “in so many Words,” by forty other towns in the fall of 1765 does not stand up. A scrupulous examination of the town instructions printed in the Boston newspapers (Boston Gazette, Boston Evening-Post, Boston Post-Boy, Massachusetts Gazette) for the period October–December 1765 reveals { 131 } that a few towns voted instructions that might have been inspired by those of Braintree, but that many more did not. Thus, it is highly unlikely that Adams' Instructions were nearly so effective in 1765 as he claimed in 1804.
Caution must also be observed with respect to Adams' version of the influence he exercised over the writing of cousin Samuel's Boston Instructions. These received the approval of the Boston town meeting, 18 September 1765, and were printed in the Boston Gazette five days later, thereby raising the possibility that it was Samuel who influenced John, and not vice versa (Boston Record Commissioners, 16th Report, p. 155–156; Boston Gazette, 23 Sept. 1765). Besides preceding the Braintree Instructions in time, the Boston Instructions show no evidence of the specific sort of influence which Adams described in his Autobiography and during his controversy with Mercy Warren in 1807. In the first he asserted that Samuel Adams had incorporated into the Boston Instructions “some paragraphs” from a “Copy” of the Braintree Instructions furnished him by cousin John; and in the second, that “Boston, whose instructions were drawn by Mr. Samuel Adams, had, in the main essential point of all, adopted the sentiment and the very expressions of my instructions” (JA, Diary and Autobiography, 3:283; same to Mercy Warren, 20 July 1807, MHS, Colls., 5th ser., 4 [1878]:341). But a close comparison of the two sets of instructions shows that Boston's have absolutely none of the “paragraphs” and only several of the “expressions” of Braintree's. The best one can say, therefore, is that although Adams might have had some influence on the drafting of the Boston Instructions, it was neither of the magnitude nor of the type that he claimed in his Autobiography.
In contrast, the textual history of the Braintree Instructions is considerably more involved than one would gather from Adams' autobiographical account of it. There are three distinct texts of the Instructions—Adams' own undated draft (No. I, below); the instructions approved by the town meeting of Braintree on 24 September 1765 (No. II, below); and the two identical newspaper printings of them (No. III, below). All express substantially the same general arguments—that the Stamp Act was unconstitutional because it deprived Americans of their rights to taxation by consent and trial by jury, and inexpedient because of the economic problems it would produce in Massachusetts—but in several significant respects each one differs from the others in content, tone, or phraseology. Consequently, one cannot accept Adams' statement that Braintree approved his draft Instructions without any amendments, or his insinuation that the newspapers printed them without any changes (JA, Diary and Autobiography, 3:282).
Adams' draft instructions breathed defiance. In addition to stating constitutional and economic objections to the Stamp Act, they indirectly but unmistakably criticized recent parliamentary acts affecting trade; reminded one and all that the august Parliament was made up of mere men; questioned the learning and probity of some of the admiralty judges; { 132 } and, most of all, descried a conspiracy of Parliament to enslave Americans.
Adams' draft was evidently too radical for his committee colleagues, or the members of the town meeting, or both. In any case, the Instructions the town approved retained the principal arguments against the Stamp Act that Adams had formulated, but omitted his pointed allusion to recent parliamentary economic regulation as well as his sharp comments about M.P.'s, admiralty judges, and enslavement. These changes made the officially adopted Instructions less radical than Adams' draft in content and in tone; yet the net effect was still a forthright defense of colonial rights against an allegedly unconstitutional exercise of parliamentary authority. Whether these modifications were made with or without Adams' consent is impossible to determine. Nor are there any specific explanations, contemporary or otherwise, for why they were made at all. Conceivably they might have resulted from the publication, twelve days before the town meeting convened, of news from England of the formation of the Rockingham ministry, which was known to be sympathetic to America (Massachusetts Gazette, 12 Sept. 1765). But this is only speculation.
The variations between the Instructions in the newspapers and in the Braintree Town Records are verbal rather than substantive, except for some sentences printed out of order. In at least this respect, the newspaper text differs significantly from the other two. Once again, however, it is impossible to say whether these variations originated with Adams as he was making a copy of the official Instructions for Draper's use, or with Draper as he was putting this copy through the press for publication in the Massachusetts Gazette. In two instances a word appears in the newspaper that is in Adams' draft but not in the voted Instructions. Clearly, Draper saw the draft or Adams supplied the words verbally.
Charles Francis Adams included in his edition of John Adams' Works (3:465–468) only the text of the Braintree Instructions from the 14 October 1765 Boston Gazette. So that the intricate evolution of one of Adams' more important early public writings may be followed, the present editors have reprinted John Adams' draft, the Instructions adopted by the Braintree town meeting, and the Instructions printed in the Massachusetts Gazette, 10 October 1765. Benjamin Franklin sent the Braintree Instructions as well as those of Boston for publication in the London Chronicle, where they appeared in January 1766. Franklin's accompanying note explained that American opposition to the Stamp Act had not occurred out of “niggardliness” (Franklin, Papers, 13:26–28).

Docno: ADMS-06-01-02-0054-0002

Author: Adams, John
Date: 1765-09-24

I. Adams' Original Draft

[addrLine] To Ebenezer Thayer Esqr1

[salute] Sir

[addrLine] To Ebenezer Thayer Esqr1

In all the Calamities, which have ever befallen this our dear native Country, <since our the first settlement> within the Memory of the { 133 } oldest of Us all, We have never felt So <great and> sincere a Grief, and Concern or So many Allarming Fears and Apprehensions, as at the present Time. We have many of Us lived to see, both Pestilence and Scarcity, and the Encroachments And <Depredations,> Hostilities of <French and Indian> bitter, subtle and powerful Enemies, but We never yet apprehended, our Liberties and Fortunes and our very Being, in any real Danger, till now. It was the Saying of a great Statesman that “Britain, could never be undone but by a British Parliament.” In the same Manner We may truly say, that such is our affectionate and dutiful Loyalty <to our King> and Devotion to our most gracious King, such our profound Reverence and Veneration for both Houses of Parliament, and such our Love, Esteem, and Friendship to all our fellow subjects in Britain, that it is that Country and that Parliament only, <that and by means of our> that could enslave and destroy us.2 And We can no longer forbear complaining, that, to our infinite astonishment We Apprehend we have Reason to fear, that <Designs> Plans have been formed in that Country, and Measures pursued with a direct and formal Intention to enslave Us. We apprehend that great Evidence of such a Design may be deduced from the late Acts of Parliament restricting, and burdening and embarrassing our Trade: but We shall confine ourselves at present chiefly to the Evidence that Results, from what is called the stamp Act.3
By this Act a very burdensome, and in our apprehension, unconstitutional Tax is to be laid upon us all.—and by the same Act we are all of Us subjected to numerous and enormous Penalties and Forfeitures, for Violations of that Act, seventy shillings to fifty Pounds Sterlg. which are at the option of an Informer to be prosecuted, sued for and recovered in a Court of Admiralty, without a Jury.4
We have called this a burdensome Tax, because, the Duties are so numerous and so high, and the Embarrassments to Business, in this infant Country, sparcely settled as it is, would be so great that it would in our opinion be totally impossible for the People to subsist under it, even if We had no Controversy at all about the Right and Authority of imposing it. We have Reason to think that the Execution of that Act for <much less space than one year> a short Space of time, considering the present Scarcity of Money, would dreign the Country of <every shilling of> its Cash, <and reduce Multi> strip Multitudes of the poorer People of all their Property and reduce them to absolute Beggary. And what the Consequences of so sudden a shock and such a convulsive Change in the whole Course of our Business, and subsistence, would be to the Peace of the Province, we tremble to consider.
{ 134 }
We further apprehend this Tax to be unconstitutional. By the great Charter of Liberties, no Amerciament is to be imposed, but by the oaths of good and lawful Men of the Vicinage, and no Freeman is to be disseized of his Freehold &c but by the Judgment of his Peers &c or Law of the Land.—And We have always understood it to be a grand and fundamental Principle of the British Constitution that no Freeman should be subjected to any Tax to which he has not given his own Consent in Person or by Proxy. And indeed, the Maxims of the Common Law, as we have hitherto received them, are to the same Effect that a Man and his Property cannot be seperated but by his own Act or fault. And we have heard and read in <History> the History of other Countries, now groaning under the Iron scepter of Tyranny, that they were always able to vindicate their Rights and Liberties, as long as they maintained stedfastly the aforesaid Maxims, but that cruel, and arbitrary Government, commenced in those Countries from the very Period, when the Right and Power of Taxation was surrendered by the People.5 We take it clearly therefore to be inconsistent with the Spirit of the Common Law, and with the essential Fundamental Principles of the British Constitution, that We should be subjected to any Tax, imposed by the British Parliament, which with all its transcendant Power, and truly respectable and venerable Character and Authority, is but an Assembly of Men,6 and an Assembly in which, we are not represented, in any Sense unless it be by a Fiction of Law, as insensible and irrational in Nature, as it will be injurious in fact if so cruel a Taxation should be grounded on it.
But the most cruel, and grievous, and as we esteem it, unjust Innovation of all, in the Act aforesaid, is the alarming Extension of the Powers of Courts of Admiralty, in the Plantations. In these Courts one Judge alone, presides.—No Juries, have any Concern there.—The Judges Commissions are only during Pleasure.—Nay, the most mischievous of all immaginable Customs has become established there, that of taking Commissions on all Condemnations—so that the Judge, single and dependant as he is, is under a pecuniary Temptation always against the subject. Now if the Wisdom and spirit of liberty of the Mother Country has thought the impartial Administration of Justice of so great Importance, as to render the Judges independant of every Power on Earth, independant of the King, the Lords, the Commons, the People, nay independant in Hope and Expectation of the Heir apparent to the Crown, by continuing their Commissions in Force even in the Case of a Demise of the Crown, what Justice and Impartiality are we, at three thousands miles distance from the fountain, to { 135 } expect from a single Judge, without a Jury, dependant, perhaps ignorant perhaps wicked—for <all these> some of these are certain, many of them probable, all of them possible Cases.7 We have all along thought, the Late Acts relative to Trade in this Respect a Grievance, to the Persons concerned and of Consequence to the whole Community: But the Stamp Act has created a vast Number of Sources of new Crimes and offences, which may, be committed by every Man in the province, and cannot but be committed by Multitudes, and prodigious Penalties and Punishments annexed and all these are to be tryd by the Judge described before. What after all this can be wanting but the Appointment of a weak or a wicked Man for a Judge, which may happen by Accident or Design, without any fault of any Branch or Member of Parliament, to render Us the most sordid and forlorn Slaves who live upon the Earth.
We cannot help Observing therefore that this Act, “will make such a Distinction, and create such a Difference between <great Britain and America> the subjects of our most gracious sovereign, in Great Britain,” and those in “America,” as would have come more consistently, from “an Enemy to both,” than from the wise, and noble and Royal Guardians of Liberty in Both.”
As these, Sir, are our Sentiments of that Act, We must enjoin it upon You, to comply with no Measures or Proposals <for> Countenancing, and assisting, in the Execution of that Act, but by all lawful Means to oppose, the Execution of it, till We can hear, the success of the Cries and Petitions of America, for Relief. Nor can We think it adviseable to agree to any extraordinary, or expensive, Exertions for the Protection of Stamped Papers or Stamp officers.—There are already good and wholesome and sufficient Laws for the Preservation of the public Peace and for the Protection of all Persons and goods—and We apprehend there is no danger of further Tumults and Disorders, to which we have a well grounded aversion; and We therefore take it that Extraordinary steps would tend rather to exasperate, and endanger the public Peace rather than the Contrary.
And indeed We cannot too often inculcate upon you, our Desires, that all, extraordinary and expensive, Grants and Measures may upon all occasions be avoided. A great Part of the Public Money is Toil and labour of the People, who are under many uncommon Difficulties and Distresses, at the present Time. So that all reasonable frugality ought, by all Means to be observed: and We must recommend Particularly, { 136 } a careful Enquiry, and the Utmost firmness and Caution to prevent all unconstitutional Draughts upon the public Treasury.8
And We cannot avoid saying, upon this occasion, that if a particular Enquiry into the state of that Treasury should at the first Leisure opportunity be promoted, and an exact state [there]of published to the People, it might have a very good and Useful Tendency.
We should think ourselves guilty of great Impiety to the Memory of our Fore fathers, of cruel Inhumanity to our Posterity and of great Injustice to our selves, nay We should dishonour the Name and Character of British subjects, in which we glory, and should even blush before our fellow subjects in great Britain if we tamely and silently saw our Rights and Liberties wrested from Us.—We cannot but recommend therefore the most clear and explicit Assertion and Vindication of our Rights, to be entered on the Public Records, that the World may know both in the present and all future Generations, that We have a just and clear Knowledge of those Rights and Liberties, and that We have the jealous Watchful Spirit of true Britons, over all Attempts to take them from Us and that with submission to divine Providence we never can be slaves.
Dft (Adams Papers); docketed by JA in his late hand: “Instructions to the Representative of Braintree against the Stamp Act 1765,” and by CFA: “First draught—the instructions as adopted are to be found in the Boston Gazette 14 October 1765.”
1. Capt. Ebenezer Thayer Jr. (1721–1794), Braintree's representative in the Massachusetts General Court from 1760 to 1775.
2. In the Instructions as voted by the Braintree town meeting (No. II, below), the quotation about Parliament and the two clauses following “our fellow subjects in Britain” were omitted.
3. In the voted Instructions, the reference to “Plans ... to enslave Us” and to legislation affecting trade is softened to “many of the measures of the late ministry and Some of the late Acts of Parliament have a Tendency in our apprehension to divest us of some of our most Essential Rights and Liberties.”
4. By making vice-admiralty courts an alternative to common law courts with their juries, Parliament at a stroke expanded their powers—jurisdiction over offenses committed on the high seas—to include trying violations against the Stamp Act, making these courts “revenue courts, with powers which in England were delegated to the Court of the Exchequer, a common-law tribunal” (Carl Ubbelohde, The Vice-Admiralty Courts and the American Revolution, Chapel Hill, 1960, p. 75–76).
5. In the voted Instructions this entire passage on the record of history is omitted.
6. JA's characterization of Parliament is omitted from Braintree's Instructions.
7. JA's characterization of some admiralty judges is omitted from Braintree's Instructions.
8. The reference here is probably to any unconstitutional attempt to secure compensation to the sufferers from the Stamp Act riots. In his speech to the General Court, Governor Bernard was to warn that compensation be freely made lest a requisition be made on the legislature (Hutchinson, Massachusetts Bay, ed. Mayo, 3:94, 337).
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, 2018.