Papers of John Adams, volume 1

174 Editorial Note Editorial Note
Editorial Note

In the winter of 1766–67, Jonathan Sewall, writing as Philanthrop, took it upon himself to defend Governor Francis Bernard against an unremitting series of attacks being made upon him in Boston newspapers, chiefly in the Gazette, by a number of pseudonymous writers. It is possible that Sewall wrote in hope of preferment, for soon after he had finished his series of letters, Governor Bernard offered him a newly created position, that of Special Attorney General. Yet there seems no reason to doubt the sincerity of Sewall's concern that attacks on the Governor would threaten the stability of the political state (Berkin, Jonathan Sewall , p. 43–44; Sibley-Shipton, Harvard Graduates , 12:311).

Bernard had incurred the hatred of the whig faction for his official support of the Stamp Act, despite his private position, and, later, in May 1751766, for his refusal to approve James Otis Jr. as the choice of the House of Representatives for speaker and his veto of six men, whig supporters all, chosen as councilors by the joint ballot of the House and outgoing Council (Berkin, Jonathan Sewall , p. 36–37). In retaliation, whig writers vilified the Governor in print. He was accused of customs racketeering, with some basis in fact, of greediness, of violation of the privileges of the House, and of undermining the colonists' rights as Englishmen.

Sewall began his defense with a long letter in the Boston Evening-Post for 1 December 1766. Almost every Monday thereafter until early February, Post readers were treated to a vigorous, sometimes slashing attack on Bernard's detractors and a careful presentation, too often written in a superior tone, concerning the Governor's conduct on particular occasions so far as it was known to the author. Sewall did not want for material. His entry into the field raised a regular hornet's nest of critics, signing themselves “A,” “AA,” “B,” “BB”; as Sewall put it, “almost the whole alphabet was conjured up.” And Sewall tried to answer them all. But by spring nearly everyone had said all there was to say. Philanthrop's letter of 9 February did not have a sequel until 2 March; and then there was silence. Joseph Hawley, defending the Lanesborough Stamp Act rioters, whose attorney he was, rekindled the fires in the summer of 1767, with Philanthrop answering him in three long letters (Boston Evening-Post, 6 and 13 July; 27 July; 3 and 10 Aug. 1767).

John Adams, of course, could not keep from replying to his old friend, just as he had answered him some three and one-half years before (3 March – 5 Sept. 1763, above). But Adams had trouble settling upon the literary style of his response. He began in straightforward fashion, addressing himself to “J Phylanthrop,” his addition of “J” suggesting the continuity he saw between Sewall's “J” letters of 1763 and those appearing over Sewall's new pseudonym (No. I, below). His first effort, unpublished and unsigned, was largely an attack on the character of Sewall, whom he called the “old Trumpeter” of “that restless grasping turbulent Crew of Villains” seeking the destruction of the people. Adams accused Philanthrop of ingratitude and of “venemos Bilingsgate.” It is almost as though Adams were working off steam, just as he did with the unfinished and unpublished letter to Sewall in 1763 (No. II, 3 March – 5 Sept. 1763, above). Next, in his diary, Adams wrote a thoughtful analysis of what should be understood by “the better Sort of People,” whom Sewall claimed as supporters of Bernard ( Diary and Autobiography , 1:326–329).

But when he appeared in print, Adams adopted once again the pseudonym he had used before in replying to Sewall, that of Humphrey Ploughjogger. Although he retained a kind of farmerish and common sense approach, most of the dialect and phonetic spelling was dropped. He had perhaps tired of these devices; the cause was too serious for playfulness. Attention was centered upon Philanthrop's contempt for the ordinary run of men and his fallacious belief that sharp criticism of high officials would undermine the due subordination of persons necessary for any kind of 176government. Adams wound up his series of three Ploughjogger letters, of which the first was unpublished, with a kind of rustic condescension toward the craziness of Philanthrop, who reminded Adams of his “little black Ram” (Nos. IIIV, below).

Further Sewall pieces that reproved his critics in what seemed a sweet reasonableness of tone that could be dangerously persuasive led Adams to lift out sentences and phrases from their context so that their sheer depth of spite stood revealed. If Sewall posed as a lover of men, then Adams had perforce to sign himself “Misanthrop.” The new pseudonym set Adams off on a long fantastical narrative in which he sought to expose Philanthrop as greedy for office but made craven by the gnawing of self-doubt. None of the “Misanthrop” performances saw print (Nos. VI and VII, below); they were probably intended for his own amusement.

Finally, and more seriously, Adams assumed the role most natural to him, that of historian. Writing as a figure of history called to life, and thus able to comment with unique perspective on significant developments since his own day, Adams demonstrated the continuity of love of freedom from the time of Governor Winthrop to his own. A common thread in the series of letters from Governor Winthrop to Governor Bradford is the elemental soundness of the people despite the insidious efforts of Philanthrop to lead them astray by appealing to the weaknesses of human nature. The Winthrop letters discern parallels between the tyrannical precepts of the first two Stuarts and those of Philanthrop and warn Bostonians that liberty “has always been surrounded with dangers.” Only men who remain on guard remain free. In the end Adams analyzes at great length the role of Governor Bernard in refusing to administer the oath to two men elected to the House from Newbury and sees a most serious breach of the privileges of that body (Nos. VIIXI, below).

With the exception of his discussion of Bernard's interference in the affairs of the House, Adams confined himself to attacking the more theoretical of Philanthrop's arguments, leaving to others, as he said, the critique of the Governor's conduct. And even here, it was the principle at stake that caught Adams' attention. Philanthrop's defense of Bernard was based upon a concept of government that Adams saw as wholly wrongheaded and subversive of liberty.

I. To J Philanthrop, 9 December 1766 JA Sewall, Jonathan Philanthrop


I. To J Philanthrop, 9 December 1766 Adams, John Sewall, Jonathan Philanthrop
I. To J Philanthrop
ante 9 December 1766 1
To J Phylanthrop

I confess I was in Hopes, that after the Repeal of the ever memorable Stamp Act, The People of this Province would have had a little Respite from the Teasings of that restless grasping turbulent Crew of Villains who have been for many Years past planning their Destruction.—This infamous set of Banditti, in the Course of the glorious 177Struggles of America for her Freedom received So many Mortifications and Disappointments, that for my own Part I felt myself much disposed to commisserate their Distresses, and to let them all sink into a peaceful and perpetual oblivion.—But it seems they now think themselves out of Danger, that the people are settling into Tranquility, and are grown innatentive to their Machinations, and that they may now set about their old Work, of fretting, teasing, lying, vapouring, and deceiving. And for these purposes they have hired their old Trumpeter J. Philanthrop, to start forth. A Champion, forsooth for Truth, Peace, order, Justice, and Civility the supporter of good Government, and the Vindicator of injured Innocence! And is it not very modest in this Author, to begin, with so many pious Lamentations about Party Spirit, Political Jealousies, undue Prejudices &c and to declaim so warmly against, throwing Dirt at respectable Characters, when he begins his Lucubrations with his venemos Bilingsgate upon a Character than which there is none more respectable in this Province,2 and with black malicious, impudent slander upon a Paper,3 without which the People of this Province, would have been ruind and enslaved by his Friends Patrons, Masters and Clients before they would have known or suspected their Danger. This is the very fellow, who but a few years ago, drew the Characters of Bluster, Thwackum, Gamut, Adjutant Trowel, Justice Gripe and Captn. Bluff4 —nay the very Rascall who drew the Character of the reverend Chaplain to the Junto, in which he bespatered with Dirt and Filth falsely and maliciously slanderd one of the politest Gentlemen, accomplished Scholars, and able Divines upon this Continent,5 with unparrallelled Virulence and Effrontery. A Gentleman to whom that very Rascall was under particular and very strong obligations for his Friendship and Charity to him in his needy Circumstances.

I have no more to say at present, but that I know you perfectly well, I know your Name, Character Descent Circumstances, Alliances, your Patrons, Prompters, Views, Temper and Designs,—further I know every syllable you have Scribbled from the first of your Productions which contained the Character of Bluster to the last of them, which appeard in last Mondays Ev. Post, and that unless you desist I will develop the whole black scene—and will expose the whole Faction and all their Views and Designs, from the Time they raised the villanous Clamour against Govr. Pownal6 to this Time that they are endeavouring to preserve, another Govr. of a very different and much worse Character.


MS (Adams Papers); microfilmed as part of a 27-page cluster of MSS under the date Aug. – Sept. 1763 and docketed by CFA: “Original Draughts of Newspaper Articles, signed U. 1763” (Adams Papers, Microfilms, Reel No. 343); but for its actual provenance and date, see Editorial Note, above, and note 1, below.


The fact that specific references to Philanthrop's words are all to those found in the first of his letters, published in the Boston Evening-Post, 1 Dec. 1766, and that JA refers to “last Mondays Ev. Post” means that this letter had to have been written before 9 Dec.


James Otis Jr., whom Philanthrop referred to as “Tertullus haranguing in the Senate” (Boston Evening-Post, 1 Dec. 1766).


The Boston Gazette, which Philanthrop alluded to as “the dirty channel” of popular criticism of Bernard (same).


Nicknames used by Jonathan Sewall in his “J” series of letters published in the Post in 1763 (Editorial Note, 3 March – 5 Sept. 1763, above).


Samuel Cooper (1725–1783), pastor at the Brattle Street church (1746–1783) and ardent whig, “became the moral validation of the policies of the Whigs” (Sibley-Shipton, Harvard Graduates , 11:197). It was his father, William Cooper, however, who helped Sewall financially (same, 12:306).


Thomas Pownall, successor to William Shirley, was Governor of Massachusetts, 1757–1759 ( DNB ).