Legal Papers of John Adams, volume 1

1 Editorial Note Editorial Note
Editorial Note

The two documents which follow are virtually all that have survived pertinent to Adams' early law studies, except for accounts in his diary. Document I, a fragment entitled “Ld Cokes Sayings,” cannot be dated with certainty, but the content suggests that it is some kind of epitome made by Adams during his early reading of Coke on Littleton.1

Document II is Adams' Commonplace Book, a compendium of hypothetical cases and bits of legal wisdom arranged on a topical plan. In October 1758 Adams recorded in his diary that Peter Chardon, a rising young lawyer, “transcribes Points of Law into a Common-Place Book on Locks Modell.” The “Modell” was a plan devised by John Locke for arranging quotations under topical headings.2 Some time thereafter Adams began to keep the small notebook printed here. It has been tentatively dated 1759, partly on the basis of the Chardon remarks, and partly by the fact that it contains references to Adams' neighbors in Braintree at this time, and to his father, who died in 1761. Moreover, the handwriting is the same as that of Adams' diary entries of 1759.3

Adams did not collect quotations in his Commonplace Book, but what appear to be abstracts of pertinent passages drawn either from his reading in legal works such as Doctor and Student, Instructor Clericalis, and the reports, or from the notebooks of others at the bar. These abstracts Adams occasionally enlivened with hypothetical cases in which he substituted the names of family, neighbors, and acquaintances for the Does and Roes of the law. The passages are arranged alphabetically under key words; thus, an abstract involving more than one point of law may appear in several places in the book, perhaps in slightly different form each time.

The topics covered are a revealing portrayal of the interests of a young lawyer fresh from the traditional struggle with Coke and other repositories of the law of real property and common-law pleading. Of the abstracts only a smattering deal with property and allied problems. There are 2numerous passages dealing with the sufficiency of pleadings, but the bulk of these, and indeed of the whole book, involve matters of contract—sufficiency of consideration and the nature of the actions of debt, covenant, and assumpsit. Adams also devoted much space to the Roman-law concepts of bailment and pledge, which in refined form were an important element of England's developing commercial law.4 Whether Adams' interest in these matters was purely practical, or marked the beginning of his later serious study of the civil law,5 their presence in his Commonplace Book suggests an awareness that the life of the law is less reason or experience than trade. That commercial matters were his principal field of study is confirmed by the complete absence of anything relative to torts outside of this area, or to criminal law.


On JA's study of Coke, see 1 JA, Diary and Autobiography 90–91, 133, 158, 173–174.


1 JA, Diary and Autobiography 47. A similar book of a more formal sort which belonged to CFA is in Adams Papers, Microfilms, Reel No. 312.


See p. 7–13, notes 7, 13, 16, 17, below. In a diary kept in the summer of 1759 JA made several pages of similar notes from Wood's New Institute of the Civil Law and Johannes van Muyden's Compendiosa Institutionum Justiniana Tractatis. See 1 JA, Diary and Autobiography 104–106, 122 note.


See Plucknett, Concise History 479–480. See also p. 6, note 5, below.


See Nos. 43, 46, 56, 57; 1 JA, Diary and Autobiography 173–174.

Adams’ Student Notes<a xmlns="" href="#LJA01d006n1" class="note" id="LJA01d006n1a">1</a>: Ca. 1758 JA Adams’ Student Notes: Ca. 1758 Adams, John
Adams' Student Notes1
Ca. 1758

Nunquam prospere succedunt Res humanae, ubi negliguntur divinae.2

Sex horas somno, totidem des Legibus aequis;

Quatuor orabis, des Epulisque duas.

Quod superest ultro sacris largire Camenis. Co. Lit. sec. 85.3

The student must know how to work into, with Delight these rough Mines of hidden Treasure.4

En la Ley. There be diverse Laws within the Realm of England.5


1. Lex Coronae.

2. Lex et Consuetude Parliament!. Ista Lex est ab omnibus quaerenda, a multis ignorata, a paucis cognita.6

3. Lex Naturae.

4. Communis Lex Angliae, or Lex Terrae.

5. Statute Laws.

6. Consuetudines. Customs reasonable.

7. Jus Belli. The Law of Arms, War and Chivalry, in Republica Maximae Conferoanda, sunt Jura Belli.

8. Ecclesiastical or Canon Law, in Courts in certain Cases.

9. Law Civil, in certain Cases, not only in Courts Ecclesiastical, but in the Court of the Constable and Marshal, and of the Admiralty; in which Court of the Admiralty is observed, la ley Olyron. An. 5. R. 1, because it was published in the Isle of Oleron.7

10. Lex Forestae.

11. The law of Marque and Reprisal.

12 Lex Mercatoriae.

13. The Laws and Customs of the Isles of Jersey, Guernsey and Man.

14. The Law and Priviledge of the stannaries.8

15. The Laws of the East, West and Middle Marches, now abrogated.

A prescious Collection of Cokes sayings.9

Nullum simile quatuor Pedibus currit. Utile per Inutile non vitiatur. Qui ex damnato Coitu nascientur, inter Liberos non computentur.4 Cujus est Solum, ejus est usque ad Caelum. Nescit generosa Mens Ignoratiam pati. Certum est, quod certum reddi potest. Ex Diuturnitate Temporis, omnia presumuntur solemniter esse Actae.

Verba relata hac maxime operantur per Referantiam ut in esse videntur.

Ipsae Legis cupiunt ut jure regantur. Ubi eadem Ratio ibi idem jus.


In JA's early hand. Adams Papers, Microfilms, Reel No. 185. A single leaf, docketed by JA: “Ld Cokes Sayings.”


Coke, Littleton 64b. Part of a discussion of the feudal tenure called frankalmoign, “service due to Almighty God,” which was, according to Coke, the most important tenure, because the other tenures “must all become prosperous and useful, by reason of Gods true religion and service.” Then follows the line in the text, which in translation is “Human affairs never prosper where divine affairs are neglected.” See Black, Law Dictionary .


Following the passage in note 2 above, Coke stated “Wherein I would have our Student follow the Advice given in these Ancient Verses, for the good spending of the day.” The lines in the text are then set out. Coke, Littleton 64b. Editors' translation: “Give six hours to sleep, as many to just laws. Pray for four and give two to feasting. What is left over at the end bestow on the sacred muses.”


Coke, Littleton 5b–6a: “Of all these [ancient terms for topographical features] you shall read in ancient books, charters, deeds, and records, and to the end that our student should not be discouraged for want of knowledge when he meeteth with them . . . we have armed him with the signification of them, to the end he may proceed in his reading with alacrity, and set upon and know how to work into with delight these rough mines of hidden treasure.” A line is drawn across the page in the MS at this point.


The fifteen “Laws” that follow are recited by Coke in substantially this form in Coke, Littleton 11b.


Editors' translation: “This law is inquired into by all, unknown to many, understood by few.”


JA had occasion to take note of this principle in several of his major cases. See Nos. 46, 56, 57. On 29 March 1778, after his hazardous crossing to France, JA lay “becalmed all day in Sight of Oleron,” and not unnaturally expressed “a Curiosity to visit this Island of Oleron so famous in Antiquity for her Sea Laws.” 2 JA, Diary and Autobiography 291. Oleron was the source of a code which became the basis of English maritime law. See 1 Holdsworth, History of English Law 526–527; 5 id. at 120–125.


That is, the customary local law and courts of English mining communities, privileged by the Crown. See 1 Holdsworth, History of English Law 151–165.


The “Sayings,” rendered more or less accurately by JA, are found scattered in Coke, Littleton 3a–10a. Translations from Black, Law Dictionary (with one indicated exception), follow in the same order: “No simile runs upon all fours. The useful is not vitiated by the useless. Those who are born of an unlawful intercourse are not reckoned among the children. Whose is the soil, his it is up to the sky. A cultivated mind does not know how to endure ignorance [editors' translation]. That is certain which can be rendered certain. From length of time all things are presumed to have been done in due form.

“Related words [words connected with others by reference] have this particular operation by the reference, that they are considered as being inserted in those [clauses which refer to them].

“The laws themselves require that they should be governed by right. Where the same reason exists, there the same right prevails.”