Papers of John Adams, volume 1

To Samuel Quincy

To Jonathan Sewall

From Jonathan Sewall, 29 September 1759 Sewall, Jonathan JA


From Jonathan Sewall, 29 September 1759 Sewall, Jonathan Adams, John
From Jonathan Sewall
Dear Sir Charlestown 29th. Sepr. 1759

My1 Absence from home for this Week past has occasioned my delaying an Answer to your very agreable Favor of the 14th. Instant.2

It gives me the most sensible Pleasure to find in my Friend so becoming a Resolution to persevere in the sublime Study of the Law, maugre all the Difficultys and perplexing Intricacies with which it seems embarrassed. I call it a sublime Study; and what more sublime! what more worthy the indefatigable Labours and Pursuit of a reasonable Man! than that Science by which Mankind raise themselves from the forlorn helpless State in which Nature leave's them, to the full Enjoyment of all the inestimable Blessings of Social Union, and by which, they (if you will allow the Expression) triumph over the Frailty and Imperfections of Humanity?

Tho' in my last3 I mentioned the Greatness of the Task we have voluntarily set ourselves; and the Shortness of the Time to which by the present Constitution of Things we are confined, as an Apology for my attempting to assist you in your Progress; and to justify you in making Use of Means so vastly disproportionate to the End; I say, tho' I hinted these Things to these Purposes; yet I would not have you conclude from hence; that I am discouraged from the Pursuit. No my Friend, I thank God, I am at present far from a State of Despondency. The Difficultys, 'tis true, are great, but the Motives to Resolution and Diligence are superiour. The Obstacles are surmounted by the Industrious; are insurmountable only to the perversely indolent and effeminately irresolute. For my own part, I am determined, as I have (to return you a Scripture-metaphorical-Phrase) put my Hand 29to the Plough, not to look back, and it is not the smallest Encouragement, that I have found in you a fellow-Traveller who, if at any Time thro' Inattention, Inability or Ignorance I should stop short or deviate, can, and I doubt not will, kindly lend an helping Hand and set me right.

Your Account of Mr. Blackstone's Lectures4 is entirely new to me, but I am greatly pleased with it. The Embellishments of historical and critical Learning, as well as the alluring Ornaments of Language, (too much neglected by Law-writers) would undoubtedly render much more agreable the Study of the Laws of England, in their present System, too abstracted and dry. I could wish Mr. Blackstone, or some other Friend to this invaluable Branch of Knowledge, would undertake to abridge the Reports, that we might not be forced to throw away so much of our Time upon needless Repetitions.

You refer me to Hawkins5 for an Answer to my Question touching Survivorship where a power to sell is devised. I had before consulted Co. Lit., Hawk.6 and Wood,7 who all agree the Law to be the same, but I am not satisfyed. At common Law, it seems, if one Executor refused to sell, the others could not, but this appearing too rigorous and militating with an established Rule, (viz) that in the Construction of Wills the Testator's Intent is to be followed; the Statute of 21. H.8, ch. 4. was made, by which it is enacted, that where one or more refuseth yet the Residue may sell; but no Provision is made by it where one Executor dies, tho it seems to me there is the same Reason for abating the Rigour of the common Law in this Case as in the former; and ubi eadem ratio, ibi idem jus, is a favourite Maxim which I am always pleased to find true in Practice as it undoubtedly is in Theory; and whenever the Law appears to rest on any other Foundation than that of Reason, I find it difficult to retain that Veneration which I am always desirous to preserve in my Mind for the former.

And by the way, I would ask, whether this must not sometimes, if not often, be the Case, while the latest Resolution is Law? But not to ramble, Hawkins in his Abridgment (page 170.) tells us that by a favourable Construction of the (above-mentioned) Statute, where Land is devised to Executors to be sold, and some refuse, yet the others may sell, tho' this is not within the Letter of the Statute, which provides only in Cases where a bare power to sell is devised; but the reason is the same. Whether it would be a Construction of the Statute, too liberal, to extend it to the enabling the Survivors to sell where one Executor dies, I will not take upon me to say; but it seems to me this Construction would not be more forced than Hawkins's; (for the 30Statute provides only in Cases where a bare Trust is devised, and he extends it to the Case where a Trust coupled with an Interest is devised; which two Cases are, I think, as different as these two, where an Executor refuseth to sell, and where an Executor dies and therefore can't sell). If you see any essential Difference you will communicate it. Perhaps you may meet with some Statute in Point which may easily have escaped my Notice. I mentioned the Case one Day to several of my Superiours in the Law, who all seemd to think there was some such Statute, but could not recollect it.

To your Question, what Rule the Superiour Court go by in computing the Degrees of Kindred among Collaterals? I am at a Loss what to answer. The Case you put when I saw you last (which, if my Memory serve's me, was, where a Child died intestate leaving a Father and Brother, the Court adjudged his Estate to the Father) seems primâ Facie, not properly determinable by any Rules for computing the Degrees of Kindred among Collaterals, the Father being in the right Line ascending from the Son, and not in the Collateral Line. But this is a sudden Thought and it is quite supposeable I may be wrong. However, Wood in his Inst. Co. Law.8 (page 354.) says, if a Child dies intestate and unmarried, the Father surviving has the Childs whole Estate at this Day: and cites 1. Williams 48.9 I have not Williams by me; but this Resolution seems to be upon a Clause in the Statute of 1. Ja.2. ch. 17. so that the Superiour Court, I imagine, have determined agreable to the Practice of the Courts in England. Perhaps I have misapprehended your Difficulty; if I have, pray state the Case more fully in your next.

If you should think me deficient in the Number of my Letters I believe you will readily allow that I make ample amends in the Size, and I shall own your Patience is great if it will hold, while, to the Exorbitancy of this in particular I add that, I am your sincere Friend,

Jonath. Sewall

RC (Adams Papers); addressed: “To Mr. John Adams Atty. at Law In Braintree.”


Jonathan Sewall (1729–1796), Harvard 1748, lawyer, crown officer, political journalist, and, until the public issues of the late 1760's and early 1770's divided them, an intimate friend and correspondent of JA. Through his marriage in 1764 to Esther, daughter of Col. Edmund Quincy, Sewall formed a family connection with AA. Eventually he became a loyalist exile and changed the spelling of his name to Sewell. See numerous references to him in JA's Diary and Autobiography and Legal Papers (which has a biographical sketch at 1:cix–cx); also Sibley-Shipton, Harvard Graduates , 12:306–324.


Not found. In 1965 a “book of letters from John Adams to Jonathan Sewall” was reported extant in the hands of Sewall or Sewell descendants in Canada, but it cannot now be located.


Not found.

31 4.

Presumably Blackstone's Analysis of the Laws of England, first published in 1754 as a guide to his lectures at Oxford and anticipating the famous Commentaries, 4 vols., 1765–1769. JA later wrote that he was first introduced to the Analysis by Jeremiah Gridley, who had “the first Copy. . . which ever appeared in America I believe” ( Diary and Autobiography , 3:286).


William Hawkins (1673–1746), serjeant at law ( DNB ). The reference may be to Hawkins' A Treatise of the Pleas of the Crown, first published in 1716; the edition of this work among JA's books in MB is the fourth, 2 vols. in 1, London, 1762 ( Catalogue of JA's Library ).


[William Hawkins], An Abridgement of the First Part of Sir Edward Coke's Institutes, London, 1711. The first part of the Institutes contains Coke's commentary on [Sir Thomas] Littleton.


Presumably the work cited below as Wood's “Institute of the Common Law,” that is, Thomas Wood, An Institute of the Laws of England; or the Laws of England in Their Natural Order, according to Common Use, Published for the Direction of Young Beginners. . . , London, 1720.


See preceding note.


Doubtless William Peere Williams, Reports of Cases Argued and Determined in the High Court of Chancery. . . from 1695 to 1734, posthumously published in 3 vols., 1740–1749.