Legal Papers of John Adams, volume 1

Editorial Note Editorial Note
Editorial Note

This case, an early instance of patriotic violence which disturbed Adams deeply, arose on the night of 19 March 1766 at Scarborough in the District of Maine, when a mob broke into the home and store of Richard King. The rioters terrorized King's pregnant wife and five children (including the future Federalist politician Rufus King), destroyed his windows and furniture, and burned a deskful of papers. The court files and related papers on this and other suits involving King suggest three roots for the townspeople's animus. First, many of them were his customers and owed him money; second, they had suspected that he was a prospective Stamp Act officer; third, they resented his claim that the parish, of which he had been treasurer, owed him money for disbursements.1

Despite threats of death if he sought legal redress, King pressed indictments against the mob members and petitioned the General Court for pecuniary relief (Document I). Meanwhile, in the spring of 1767, the mob had burned another house of his and a barn whose alleged size (72 by 32 feet) suggests King's financial position.

Unsuccessful in his efforts to obtain either vengeance or recompense, in March 1773 King finally commenced a civil action at Falmouth Inferior Court (now Portland) against John Stewart and nine others whom he numbered among his tormentors.2 The subsequent course of the litigation may be traced in King's remonstrance to the Superior Court (Document II) and in the writ of review (Document III) which the defendants obtained after a Superior Court jury at the June 1773 term had awarded King £200 damages for his losses in March 1766. The first Superior Court trial is of interest from the evidentiary standpoint, because testimony 107of parties as to whom the action had been dismissed was allowed, as was handwriting evidence both for and against John Stewart.

Adams first appeared in the case as counsel for King at the trial in review, where King's cross-appeal seeking an increase in the damages previously awarded was also tried. Three of the remaining six defendants had defaulted, perhaps pursuant to an offer of settlement made by King (Document XI).

Adams' minutes (Document XIII) are unusual, because they contain not only a summary of the evidence but what appears to be a complete text of his address to the jury. That he considered this case unusual is strongly suggested by a letter to his wife, written at Falmouth on 7 July 1774 (Document XIV), which echoes the vivid phrases of his address. The two are virtually contemporaneous expressions of his distaste for indiscriminate mob action, apparently high on the eve of the Revolution after nearly a decade of participation in the affairs of the patriotic movement.

Despite Adams' rousing argument, the jury saw fit to increase King's recovery by only £60 10s. Moreover, it reversed the former judgment as to defendant Jonathan Andrews, awarding him £40 10s. to be remitted by King. The verdicts thus left the remaining defendants liable in a total of £260 10s., much less than the ad damnum of £2000 which King had alleged in his writ. Even this relatively modest judgment was not soon to be satisfied, however. As late as 1784 King's widow was still trying to realize upon it.3


As to King, see JA's comments and the editorial note on this case in 1 Adams Family Correspondence 131–134. See also the files of King v. Stewart in SF 139590, 139642, 139645. For King's successful litigation with the Parish, see SCJ Rec. 1768, fols. 219–220; SF 139251, 139254. The undated minutes of a Grand Jury hearing, probably dating from 1766, also suggest that the Stewarts suspected King's servant of killing a horse of theirs. NHi: Rufus King MSS.


See Doc. III. The reasons for King's delay of seven years in bringing this action are not clear. He may have feared the vengeance with which he was threatened, or perhaps he felt that legislative redress was likely to prove more fruitful than an action at law against defendants of doubtful solvency. In any event, King escaped the bar of the statute of limitations by virtue of the Act of 20 Nov. 1770, c. 9, §2, 5 A&R 109, 110, which, extending the period of limitations for trespass to goods from three to six years, provided that such actions might be brought “within six years from the first day of December [1770], or within six years next after the cause of such actions or suits, and not after.” The same statute would have barred King's action if it had sounded in assault and battery, since such actions had to be brought “within one year, next after the first day of December aforesaid, or within four years next after the cause of such actions or suits, and not after.”


See the judgments in SCJ Rec. 1773, fol. 92; id. 1774, fols. 229–231. The actual damages enumerated in the declaration for the night of 19 March 1766 total £1425 3s. 1 1/2d., of which all but £27 was in notes and other obligations destroyed by the mob. The verdict may reflect the fact that King had been able to collect some of the debts represented by the lost papers. He was the successful party in numerous actions appearing in the Superior Court Minute Books for Cumberland and Lincoln counties for the years 1766 through 1774. See also note 12 2 below. The execution which issued to King after his first victory in 1773 was returned unsatisfied, and no execution in his favor issued after the decision in review in 1774. Execution against King issued in favor of Jonathan Andrews in Nov. 1774, but it was returned unsatisfied in May 1775, King having died earlier in the year. SF 119636, 109174. In 1784, King's widow prevailed in two actions of debt on the judgments recovered by her husband in July 1774. See SJC Rec. 1784, fols. 201–202; SF 139893, 139894. The files contain two executions returned in Nov. 1784 partially satisfied in the amounts of £36 8s. 10d. and £17 9s. 2d. SF 119637, 119638. In June 1790 she recovered upon a note for £50 given to her husband in Aug. 1773 by John, Joseph, Samuel, and Timothy Stewart, SJC Rec. 1790, fol. 140; SF 140140. This note, rather than Doc. XI, may have been the basis of the Stewarts' default in July 1774. See notes 35 1 , 40 3 , below.