Papers of John Adams, volume 18

Thomas Barclay to the American Commissioners

To John Jay

From John Adams to Rufus King, 29 November 1786 Adams, John King, Rufus
To Rufus King
Dr Sir— Grosvenor Square Nov 29 17861

The tumultuous Conduct of many People in New England which is mentioned in your obliging Letter of the 3d of October, does not I hope arise from any Competitions for the Government. If the People who wish for Hancock, or those who prefer Bowdoin, those who vote for Sullivan—or such as desire Langden, are Capable of exciting such kinds of Discontent, and Convulsions in order to keep out—or to get in one or Another it will portend a long Course of Unhappiness and never will be remedied by making one or the other hereditary and that must produce hereditary Senates. But before the Body of the People Should be convinced of the Necessity of this, I Suppose they would go on pulling down the Governor—Senate, and Committing all to a Single House, for this is the Hobby horse of too many of Our People and too many of Our Clergy.2 According to this Calculation we may have half a Century of Anarchy to End at best in a limited Monarchy with an hereditary nobility— But I trust our People have Understandings to Comprehensive to Suffer the Present Disorders to proceed—

Giving the Choice of Captains Lieutenants and Ensigns to the soldiers of the Militia in our Constitution was a Capital Mistake3 and the overthro of every democratical Constitution heretofore has 512 been Occationed by some such Little matter that nobody thought of much Importance at first

with much Esteem I am yours &c—

LbC in AA2’s hand (Adams Papers); internal address: “The Honble Mr King—”; APM Reel 113.


This letter and those of 30 Nov. to John Jay and Thomas Jefferson, both below, are the first extant letters containing observations by JA on Shays’ Rebellion. In mid-October letters from Charles Storer of 15 Aug. to AA ( AFC , 7:321–322) and 19 Aug. to JA , above, had likely arrived. But they, and the newspapers that Storer probably enclosed with his letter to JA, reported on the grievances proceeding from the county conventions. In fact, the only other letters reporting on the disturbances in Massachusetts that JA had received to date were King’s 3 Oct. letter, above, and Jay’s of 4 Oct., for which see note 2 to the King letter. Both of those letters seemed to indicate that the crisis was stabilizing owing to decisive action taken by the governments of Massachusetts and New Hampshire.

The only London newspaper report on events in Massachusetts that JA had likely seen was that in the 22 Nov. London General Advertiser, which contained the resolves adopted by the Hampshire County convention that met from 22 to 26 August. AA mentioned those resolves in her 22 Nov. letter to JQA, describing them as “a disgrace to our annals” ( AFC , 7:395, 396), but there is no indication that either she or JA had seen the more disturbing account of the 12 Sept. effort to close the court at Concord (from Storer, 16 Sept., and note 2, above), which appeared in the 25–28 Nov. London General Evening Post and the 28 Nov. London Morning Post and Daily Advertiser.

This dearth of information probably explains JA’s muted reaction in his letters to King, Jay, and Jefferson, which should be compared with his comments in letters written in mid-Jan. 1787 when more detailed information had been received from correspondents in Massachusetts. See, for example, his letters to James Warren of 9 Jan. and to Richard Cranch of 15 Jan., both below.


Of all of the innovations proposed by the protesters, the creation of a unicameral legislature in Massachusetts probably most disturbed JA. See his comments on the dangers of such an institution in his Thoughts on Government (Philadelphia, 1776), for which see vol. 4:88–89.


The Massachusetts Constitution of 1780 restricted the governor to naming the adjutant general and designating ranks of seniority for elected officers. Only militiamen could elect officers, and major generals were chosen by the two legislative houses (vol. 8:268).