Legal Papers of John Adams, volume 2

Adams' Minutes of the Winslow Trial

Editorial Note

Pierce v. Wright: 1768–1769 Pierce v. Wright: 1768–1769
Pierce v. Wright
Editorial Note Editorial Note
Editorial Note

Colonial Massachusetts is often charged with having supported a religious establishment. As Green v. Washburn, No. 37, indicates, there is a sense in which this charge is all too well-merited. The “establishment” which existed in the 18th century, however, was far from being the state-controlled church administering a rigid dogma which the term suggests. Indeed, local autonomy was the very essence of the Congregational faith of the Massachusetts Puritans. The “establishment,” whatever support it may have received from the state, was only the sum of several hundred self-sufficient congregations which subscribed to certain common principles but were jealously independent in defining their faith within the limits of those principles and in governing their own temporal affairs. Fundamental to this spirit of independence was the jurisdiction of each church over the conditions of its membership. Deacon Thomas Pierce's suit for defamation against Samuel Wright arose from the latter's invocation of this jurisdiction in the Church of Christ in Wilmington, to which they both belonged.1

In September 1767 Pierce and Wright had, with Philemon Chandler, served as arbitrators in a dispute between Jeremiah Bowen and Zacheus Hibberd over the division of certain timber which they had jointly ar-21ranged to have cut and sawed. The award of the arbitrators had provided, among other things, that Bowen should receive “all the Ship Timber and half the Boards they got Sawed,” as well as certain “Coals,” presumably charcoal. According to later witnesses, after the award was read to the parties, Wright further said that Bowen was to understand that he was not thereby entitled to take any of the “plank” cut, which had been reserved for the floor of Hibberd's barn. Pierce and Chandler did not object to this statement and indicated by later comments that it represented their understanding as well.2 The next stage in the proceedings occurred two or three weeks later before Justice of the Peace Josiah Johnson, where Hibberd was suing Bowen. It is not clear whether the original arbitration had been conducted as part of this suit, or whether the suit was newly brought on some phase of the award. In any event, the issue seems to have been the right to the “plank.” Thomas Pierce was called as a witness and apparently testified that the arbitrators had intended that all of this commodity should go to Bowen.3

After an unsuccessful effort to change Pierce's position, Wright submitted a formal complaint against him to Isaac Merrill, pastor of the Wilmington church. The complaint charged that Pierce when under oath had solemnly declared “Things contrary to Truth and contrary to his holy Profession. And . . . dishonorary to God and Religion.”4 After the service on 11 October, the complaint was read to the assembled members, and Wright stated that he had meant to charge Pierce with perjury. Ten days later Pierce demanded in writing that Wright give him “Christian satisfaction” (that is, a retraction and apology before the congregation), threatening otherwise “to seek after it in a Legal Way.”5


No retraction seems to have been forthcoming, because Pierce brought an action of the case against Wright at the November 1767 term of the Middlesex Inferior Court, with separate counts in libel and slander, alleging £500 damages. The declaration (Document I), probably drawn by Jonathan Sewall, counsel for Pierce at the trial, is a classic example of the common-law form in such matters, complete with inducement, colloquium, innuendo, and all.6 On a plea of the general issue the suit went to the jury at the March 1768 session. Although Benjamin Kent was counsel of record for Wright, Adams argued his case, unfortunately without success. Pierce won a verdict of £3 and both parties appealed to the Superior Court. There at the October 1768 term, with James Putnam joining Sewall, and Adams again appearing for Wright, Pierce obtained a second verdict. On a motion in arrest of judgment the case was continued, but at the April 1769 term judgment for £9 damages and £28 13s. Id. costs was entered for Pierce on the verdict.7

Adams' undated minutes (Document II) have been assigned to the March 1768 Inferior Court trial.8 They are chiefly of interest because they record an argument in which Adams presented the defense of privilege. He first demonstrated that the Cambridge Platform of 1648, the traditional governing ordinance of the Congregational churches, gave to members the right to accuse before the congregation brothers whom they felt had strayed from the ways of righteousness.9 This procedure, Adams argued, was necessary to the principal end of the church, the mutual encouragement and preservation of godliness. No action for defamation should lie against one who sought to exercise the right. The possibility of liability would discourage members from coming forward, and the church could not protect itself against the unrighteous. There would be no abuse in the absence of a civil remedy, however. One who sought deliberately to injure another with false charges would be discovered and punished in the 23course of the trial of his own accusations. As a separate point Adams also contended that Wright's written complaint was not actionable, drawing an analogy to English authority which held that documents in legislative and judicial proceedings, including those in spiritual courts, were privileged.10

Modern theory recognizes two branches of privilege—the absolute privilege to defame regardless of motive that is accorded to participants in judicial and legislative proceedings as a matter of public necessity, and the qualified privilege which exists in certain other circumstances and may be defeated on a showing that the defamer acted with “malice”—that is, abused the privilege by publishing defamation to serve an interest other than that meant to be protected. In the modern view members of religious and other groups have a qualified privilege to defame other members in the course of their proceedings.11

At the time of Pierce v. Wright, as Adams' authorities show, the common law had long known the absolute judicial and legislative privilege. But the concept of a qualified privilege in other matters was barely in its infancy. It first appeared in something like its modern form in a dictum of Lord Mansfield's in 1769 to the effect that a master was qualifiedly privileged in describing a former servant to a prospective employer.12 In several early 19th-century American decisions the courts extended a qualified privilege to church deliberations, but the reasons given are confusing. The servant cases were usually cited, as well as a very brief opinion in an English criminal libel proceeding which seemed to give the privilege to church members on the grounds that the affair was “merely a piece of discipline.” Courts and counsel relied heavily upon the older judicial-privilege authorities, however, and the opinions are really framed on the analogy of church to court proceedings.13


This last analogy runs throughout Adams' argument and is express in his reference to the judicial-privilege cases. His suggestion that abuse of privilege was to be remedied by action within the church shows that he did not envision the modern concept of qualified privilege. Nevertheless, his argument contains a principle that goes far beyond the unrealistic church-court analogy drawn by later cases. In emphasizing the constitution and aims of the church he anticipated the basis of the modern grant of privilege to church members. It is not the judicial nature of the deliberations, but the right of the members to protect or advance the common interests for which they have banded together that requires their proceedings to be privileged.14 If Adams did not fully articulate the modern theory, he at least saw the significance of the relationship which underlies it more clearly than did the 19th-century judges.

Although a general verdict and the lack of any record of the court's charge make it impossible to know the precise legal bases of the decision in Pierce v. Wright, the result would indicate that Adams' arguments were not accepted.15 With the notion of privilege based on common interests still undeveloped in England, it is not surprising that a Massachusetts court should reject a defense based upon it. That the analogy to judicial and legislative privilege also failed suggests that, to the 18th-century judges and jury at least, the “established” church was not so much a creature of the state that its deliberations had the character of public proceedings.


For an example of the establishment charge, see Jacob C. Meyer, Church and State in Massachusetts from 1740 to 1833 1–31 (Cleveland, 1930). As to the force and effect of Congregational autonomy, see Edmund S. Morgan, The Puritan Dilemma 76–82 (Boston, 1958). For the doctrinal problems, see Perry Miller, The New England Mind: From Colony to Province (Cambridge, Mass., 1952). The diversity of Congregationalism has most recently been expounded by Clifford K. Shipton in his paper, “The Locus of Authority in Colonial Massachusetts,” delivered at the Conference on Colonial History, April 1964, published in George A. Billias, ed., Law and Authority in Colonial America: Selected Essays (Barre, Mass., in press). Mr. Shipton goes somewhat further in exculpating Massachusetts than would the present editors. See No. 37. Autonomy was recognized in the first statute creating an “establishment.” See id., note 2. The Act of 4 Nov. 1692, c. 26, §3, 1 A&R 62, provided “That the respective churches in the several towns within this province, shall at all times hereafter, use, exercise and enjoy all their privileges and freedoms respecting divine worship, church order and discipline, and shall be encouraged in the peaceable and regular profession and practice thereof.” For a list of Deacons and members of the Wilmington church, see Articles of Faith and Covenant, Ecclesiastical Principles, Standing Rules, and List of Members, of the Orthodox Congregational Church, Wilmington, Mass. 16–20 (Woburn, Mass., 1857). See also Daniel P. Noyes, Historical Addresses Delivered in the Meeting-House of the Church of Christ in Wilmington, Mass., Sept. 25, 1880 (Boston, 1881).


See copies of the award and various depositions in SF 147706. As an instance of the other arbitrators' understanding, the deposition of John Richardson, sworn in the Charlestown Inferior Court, 16 March 1768, records that after the award was read,

“Mr. Chandler the other Arbitrator went into the Kitchin and gave Mrs. Hebberd the Wife of the above said Zacheus a slap on her Knee and said are you affronted Mrs. Hebberd. She answered, no I am not affronted at you, but Bowin has run away with all my Husband's Winter's Work and his own too, he has got all the Ship Timber and most of the Coal. Said Chandler answered and said your Husband has got the Plank and the Crop clear and she answered and said what are the Plank, them are but a Trifle.” Ibid.


No detailed account of the proceedings before Justice Johnson has survived. The nature of Pierce's testimony has been deduced from the declaration (Doc. I) and from conflicting statements in the depositions of witnesses favorable to one or the other of the litigants. SF 147706.


The complaint is set out in full in the declaration (Doc. I). A copy of the original document appears in SF 147706. See also deposition of Mary Tucker, Wilmington, 29 Feb. 1768. Ibid.


As to the church meeting, see the declaration (Doc. I), and the testimony of various witnesses, text at notes 14–16 20–23 below. Pierce's demand is in SF 147706. The church ultimately postponed consideration of the matter until after the resolution of the civil suit. See note 4 20 below. As to the jurisdiction of the church in such matters, see Emil Oberholzer, Delinquent Saints 172–185 (N.Y., 1956). See also Haskins, “Ecclesiastical Antecedents of Criminal Punishment in Early Massachusetts,” 72 MHS, Procs. 21 (1957–1960).


The formal parts of a declaration in libel or slander were the inducement, a prefatory allegation of the plaintiff's reputation and surrounding circumstances; the colloquium, an allegation that the defamation was “of and concerning the plaintiff”; the statement of the defamatory matter and its publication; the innuendoes, allegations which pointed out expressly the defamatory meaning of the remarks; and the damages resulting from the defamation. See 1 Chitty, Pleading 381–383, 385; 2 id. at at 304–313.


See the pleadings and Inferior Court judgment in SF 147706. JA's Dockets for the Middlesex Inferior Court, Nov. 1767 and March 1768, show that he was retained by Wright. Adams Papers, Microfilms, Reel No. 182. See also note 2 17 below. For the Superior Court proceedings, see Min. Bk. 88, SCJ Cambridge, Oct. 1768, C–7, C–11; Charlestown, April 1769, C–7, C–8. SCJ Rec. 1769, fols. 42–44. Pierce was awarded further costs in Wright's appeal of £2 3s. 0d. As to the motion in arrest of judgment, see No. 3, note 10.


See note 2 17 below.


The Platform, although not formally binding, remained the primary instrument of church government until well into the 19th century. See Edward Buck, Massachusetts Ecclesiastical Law 76–78 (Boston, 1866); Williston Walker, The Creeds and Platforms of Congregationalism 157–188 (N.Y., 1893); Avery v. Inhabitants of Tyringham, 3 Mass. 160, 165, 170, 182–183 (1807). JA's citations appear at notes 10-16 26–32 below.


See note 18 34 below.


See Fowler V. Harper and Fleming James Jr, The Law of Torts, 1:419–430, 442, 450–456 (Boston, 1956); Annotation, 63 A.L.R. 649 (1929); Oberholzer, Delinquent Saints 244–245.


See Fifoot, History and Sources 134–136. For Lord Mansfield's formulation, see Hargrave v. LeBreton, 4 Burr. 2422, 2425, 98 Eng. Rep. 269, 271 (K.B. 1769). Dictum became holding in Mansfield's decision in Weatherston v. Hawkins, 1 Term Rep. 110, 99 Eng. Rep. 1001 (K.B. 1786).


See M'Millian v. Birch, 1 Binn. (Pa.) 178 (1806); Jarvis v. Hatheway, 3 Johns. (N.Y.) 180 (1808); Remington v. Congdon, 2 Pick. (Mass.) 310 (1824). The criminal libel case relied upon in these opinions was King v. Hart, 1 W. Bl. 386, 96 Eng. Rep. 218 (K.B. 1762). This decision may have been available to JA in 1768, although Sir William Blackstone's Reports were not published until 1781. 1 Sweet and Maxwell, Legal Bibliography 293. The case was reported in slightly different form in Richard Burn, Ecclesiastical Law , 2:175–178 (London, 2d edn., 1767). The “quasi-judicial” character of church disciplinary proceedings was relied upon to support the privilege in John Townshend, A Treatise on the Wrongs Called Slander and Libel 376–378 (N.Y., 2d edn., 1872). An earlier English treatise equated the privilege granted to church proceedings with that for “confidential communications of friendship,” and all “charges as necessarily exclude the suspicion of malice.” The only case cited was King v. Hart, above. See Francis L. Holt, The Law of Libel 226–228 (London, 2d edn., 1816).


1 Harper and James, Torts 442.


It is possible that the court accepted the privilege argument but found that privilege here was defeated by malice. The facts do not support such a finding, however, and there is no indication that the question was argued. Moreover, JA's suggestion that the remedy for abuse lay in the hands of the church indicates that this aspect of qualified privilege was not recognized. For a much earlier Massachusetts case in which there was a verdict for the plaintiff in a suit for slander in church proceedings, the defense of privilege apparently not having been raised, see Mansfield v. Hathorne and Longley v. Hathorne, 3 Essex Quarterly Court Records 24, 30 (Essex Co. Ct. 1663), in Mark DeWolfe Howe, Readings in American Legal History 133–137 (Cambridge, Mass., 1952).

Thomas Pierce’s Writ and Declaration<a xmlns="" href="#LJA02d012n1" class="note" id="LJA02d012n1a">1</a>: Middlesex Inferior Court, Charlestown, November 1767 Pierce, Deacon Thomas Thomas Pierce’s Writ and Declaration: Middlesex Inferior Court, Charlestown, November 1767 Pierce, Deacon Thomas
Thomas Pierce's Writ and Declaration1
Middlesex Inferior Court, Charlestown, November 1767
To the Sheriff of Our County of Middlesex, his Under-Sheriff or Deputy, Greeting.

WE Command you that you summon Samuel Wright of Wilmington in our said County Yeoman (if he may be found in your Precinct) to appear before Our Justices of Our Inferior Court of Common Pleas 25to be holden at Charlestown within and for Our said County of Middlesex on the last Tuesday of November next, Then and there in Our said Court to answer to Thomas Peirce of Wilmington aforesaid Gentleman in a Plea of Trespass on the Case for that whereas the Said Thomas is and from his Nativity has been a Person of good Name, Fame and Reputation and free from the atrocious Crimes of false Swearing and Perjury, and by his pious and virtuous Behaviour had so far obtained the Esteem and good opinion of the Church of Christ in Wilmington aforesaid as to have been received and to have continued for the Space of fifteen years last past a Member in full Communion with the said Church and also had so far obtained their Esteem and good Opinion as that in the month of February A. Dom. 1766 he was elected and appointed one of the Deacons of the Same Church in which office he has ever since continued; Nevertheless the said Samuel, not ignorant of the Premises, but maliciously minding and contriving to injure the said Thomas in his good Name, Fame and Reputation and to deprive him of the Esteem and good opinion of the Members of the same Church and of all the other Churches of Christ throughout this and the neighbouring Provinces and thereby to deprive him of the Benefits and Comforts of the holy ordinance of the Lords Supper and also to expose the said Thomas to the Pains and Penalties by Law appointed for those who are guilty of wilfull and corrupt Perjury, did on the tenth Day of October instant at Wilmington aforesaid make and publish the following false defamatory scandalous and malicious Libel of and concerning the said Thomas, Vizt.,

“To the Reverend Mr. Isaac Merrill Pastor of the Church of Christ in Wilmington, please to communicate the following Complaint of me the Subscriber against our Brother Deacon Thomas Peirce a Member of the Church in this Place, Vizt: For that I heard the said Thomas Peirce when under the Solemn Oath of God administered by Mr. Justice Johnson about the middle of September last, say and solemnly declare Things contrary to Truth and contrary to his holy Profession, and as I apprehend dishonorary to God and Religion, as I understand the Matter. I also say that I have proceeded with him according to the Gospel Rule; but can obtain no Satisfaction; Wherefore I remain uneasy and dissatisfyed with our Said Brother; Therefore I desire that the Church of Christ in this Place may have an opportunity to hear and inquire further into the matter as the Gospel requires as soon as conveniently may be. Samuel Wright. Wilmington October 10th, 1767.”

Meaning that he the said Samuel had heard the said Thomas commit 26wilfull and corrupt Perjury in a Tryal of a Cause wherein one Zacheus Hibberd was Plaintiff and one Jeremiah Bowen was Defendant at a Court held about the middle of September last before Josiah Johnson Esq. a Justice of the Peace for the County aforesaid, being a Court of Record, and that he the Said Thomas had refused to make Christian Satisfaction therefor when thereto required by the said Samuel, and that therefore he the said Samuel was dissatisfied and uneasy and desired the said Church would deal with the said Thomas according to the Rules prescribed in the Gospel with all convenient Speed.

And the said Samuel afterwards, to wit, on the eleventh Day of October instant at Wilmington aforesaid of his further Malice had against the Plaintiff and still further intending and maliciously contriving to injure that Plaintiff did, in the Presence and hearing of diverse of our leige Subjects being members of the Church of Christ aforesaid with a loud Voice speak and publish the following Words, Vizt: “I” (meaning the said Samuel) “meant thereby” (Speaking of and meaning the Libel aforesaid) “to charge him,” (meaning the said Thomas) “with Perjury.”

By means of which Libel so made and published by the said Samuel as aforesaid, and by the Means of the Words spoken and published by the said Samuel as aforesaid the said Thomas has sustained great Injury in his good name, Fame and Reputation and has been and yet is exposed and in Danger of being deprived of the Blessings, Benefits and Comforts of Church Communion and the holy ordinance of the Lords Supper and has been and yet is exposed to the Infamy and Disgrace of being degraded from his said Office of Deacon of the Church aforesaid and of being excommunicated or Suspended from Communion with all and every of the Churches of Christ thro' the Land and has been and still is exposed to the Pains and Penalties of the Law for Perjury, from all which he has suffered grievous Pain and Anxiety of Mind and has been compelled to expend divers Sums of Money to manifest and make known his Innocence in the Premisses.

All which is To the Damage of the said Thomas as he saith the Sum of five hundred Pounds, which shall then and there be made to appear, with other due Damages; And have you there this Writ, with your Doings therein. Witness Samuel Danforth Esq; at Cambridge the twenty sixth Day of October In the eighth Year of Our Reign, Annoque Domini, 1767.


Copy on a printed form in the hand of Thaddeus Mason, Clerk of the Inferior Court. SF 147706. The caption, return, subsequent pleadings, and attestations are omitted.

27 Adams’ Minutes of the Trial and Notes for His Argument<a xmlns="" href="#LJA02d013n1" class="note" id="LJA02d013n1a">1</a>: Middlesex Inferior Court, Charlestown, March 1768 JA Adams’ Minutes of the Trial and Notes for His Argument: Middlesex Inferior Court, Charlestown, March 1768 Adams, John
Adams' Minutes of the Trial and Notes for His Argument1
Middlesex Inferior Court, Charlestown, March 1768
Pierce vs. Wright.

Sewall. 2

Action of slander. Not directly charging Perjury.

Things contrary to Truth and contrary to his holy Profession. Dishonorary to God, and Religion. I mean to charge him with Perjury. 3


Buck. Charge in Writing. Mr. Morrill said the Charge was Perjury. Gave a Jogg. Let it go. I meant it so, and am able to prove it with several Aggravations. Church could not finish the Matter. Church did not refuse.4 Have done nothing. I took it he spoke to Mr. Merrill.

Captn. Walker. Wright said Charge must be read. If I understand Grammar you have charged Pierce with Perjury. I meant it so, and can prove it with several Aggravations.

Benja. Jaquith. Deposition. Vide.5

Joseph Lewis. Do you mean to charge him with Perjury or false swearing, or any thing of that sort. Answer, Yes, and I told them so yesterday.


Moses Baron. Idem. Dont know but what Boin Bowen feed them.6 They did take a false oath.

Revd. Mr. Morrill. Delivered Copy to Pierce. Wright had been according to Gospell Rule.

Rich and Tucker. Satisfaction in a Christian Way.7

Sewall. Identicall Words unnecessary.

Words of same import as those in the Declaration. Same Reason, as Declaration on a Promise.

Q. Whether there is any such Thing as slandering a Man in the Church. Absurd Doctrine. Dangerous. The Worst Men may ruin the Characters of the best. And establishing Slander by a Law. Wreak Malice and Vengeance. Without are slanderers Lyars and Backbiters, not within. Should have been heard in the Church. What Right had the Church to try Perjury. Platform. All goes upon the supposition that the Charge is true, Q. about Writs, Petitions.

Sewall. Definition of Libells. Bacon. Written Scandal, held in greatest Detestation.8

Eg o .9 The Question that is made is Whether there is any such Thing as slander in the Church?

Platform, Page 12, §2. Church Power is in the People.10


Page 24, §3. This Government is a mixed one.11

Page 25, §5. The Prerogative or Priviledge of the Church, in Choosing officers, in Admission of Members. Case of offence, any Brother hath Power to convince and admonish, and to take one or two, and to tell the Church. Admonition or Excommunication.12

Page 27, §9. It belongs to Elders to receive Accusations brought to the Church and to prepare them for the Churches Hearing, and to pronounce sentence with the Consent of the Church.13

Page 39. Of Excommunication and other Censures.14

Page 40, §3. Offence public, of an heinous and criminal Nature.15


Page 42, §8. Toleration of Profane and scandalous Livers, a great sin.16

In order to determine the Question, let us consider and enquire what a Church is? A Church is a voluntary society of Christians.17 Voluntary, because no Man is compellable to join with the Church. A society, a Body politick, framed for certain Ends. What are those Ends? Why their mutual Advancement in Knowledge, and their Growth in Piety and Virtue. Their Connexion is therefore spiritual, merely. No Concern with the Lives, Liberties, Estates or Reputations, of the Members any further than these have Relation to another, a future state. Jesus Christ is the great Head and Law giver of his Church. And Kings, Princes Parliaments and Judicatories, have no Concern with them as Church Members. One End of Church society, and Government is mutual Watch and Jealousy over each other, mutual Advice, Admonitions Censures, and that all evil Examples may be suppressed. And the only Punishment they have in their Power is Admonition or Excission. Thus the fundamental Principle of Ecclesiastical Polity is that as every Member is a Volunteer, if he will not submit to their Rules he shall be cut off. Come into our Company if you are qualified and will continue to be qualified i.e. continue in the Faith and order of the Gospell, but We will have the Right to examine your Qualifications before we admit you, and We will also hold the Right of observing your Life and Conversation, and if that should become sinfull and scandalous, we will expell you, and if you are not willing to submit to this, dont join Us. The Candidate agrees to this, and takes the Covenant.

But when the Church assembles to admit and receive him, I say that every Church Member has a Right to object to him. And to give his Reasons. Now suppose a vicious Man should assert propound his Desires to come into full Communion. Would not the Church Members have a Right to go to the Minister and object, and to tell the Minister his objections. When the Church assemble would he not have a Right to tell the Church, that at such a Time he heard him tell a Lie, at such a Time he saw him drunk. At such a Time he heard him swear, and perjure himself. According to Mr. Sewall he would be liable to an Action of slander, if he did. If he is liable to an 31Action will not this forever cutt off the Priviledge of Church Members to object to the Admission of new ones. It is the same after Admission. Every Member may complain against every other. But says the Gentleman it will put it in the Power of the worst Men, to wreak their Malice and Revenge on the best? To this I answer, is it common for the worst Men to be Church Members! By no Means. Church Members are generally much more virtuous, and benevolent than others. It is not to be supposed that Churches will admit such malicious and revengefull Men to their fellowship. But if such an Instance should happen, that a wicked, malicious Man should deceive the Church, and be admitted, and should bring a malicious and false accusation against his Brother, He must do it publickly. He cant propagate his malicious Whispers in secresy. It must come before the Church, and be examined, and the Complainant must prove his accusation, and if he cannot, but appears to have done it from a factious malicious Spirit, he will himself fall under the Censure of the Church. The accused will be honourably acquitted, and the Accuser will be censured. And is not a Church a Competent Judge? Is not the Vote of a Church, concerning a fact, as good, after Examining Proofs as the Verdict of a Jury? Juries try Perjuries, Forgeries, Murders, Treasons, Blasphemies, and why should not the Churches try the same?

Every Writing that contains a false Charge and Accusation vs. a Person is not a Libell. Writs and Declarations, Petitions to the General Court. Libel in the Spiritual Court.18


In JA's hand. Adams Papers, Microfilms, Reel No. 185. The MS is undated, but appears in a leaflet with other cases from the court and term to which it has been assigned. The dating is supported by JA's docket entry which shows that he was retained by Wright for the Inferior Court trial and by the fact that the minutes record no argument by James Putnam, who was of counsel with Sewall in the Superior Court. See note 7 above. “Wright v. P[ierce],” the title of the companion action in the Superior Court (note 7 above) is written very faintly in JA's hand at the top of the first page, partly superimposed on “Pierce v. Wright,” the title printed here. This suggests the possibility that JA may have used the minute for reference in the Superior Court trial.


Jonathan Sewall, counsel for Pierce.


These three statements convey the sense of the defamatory words alleged in the declaration (Doc. I).


Presumably a reference to a decision of the church on 27 June 1768 to postpone consideration of Wright's charges “Till it be settled by the Court or between themselves.” SF 147706. In a much earlier Massachusetts case church and civil court arrived at contrary decisions that could not be reconciled. See Mansfield v. Hathorne and Longley v. Hathorne (Essex Co. Ct. 1663), cited in note 15 above.


See deposition of Benjamin Jaquith, sworn in the Inferior Court, Charlestown, 16 March 1768: “Benjamin Jaquith of lawful Age testifies and says that being in the Meeting House in Wilmington some time in October last, after the publick Services were ended, Samuel Wright exhibited a Complaint against Deacon Thomas Peirce, and that after said Complaint was read, the Revd. Mr. Merrill said, if it meant any Thing it was Perjury, the above said Samuel stood up and said let it go, so I meant to have it so and can prove it with several Aggravations.” SF 147706.


Thus in MS. The word is probably “fee'd,” i.e. paid a fee to. Bowen was one of the litigants out of whose dispute the problem arose. See text at notes 2, 3, above.


This is a reference to a communication from Pierce to Wright, dated 21 Oct. 1767, and witnessed by Thomas Rich and William Tucker:

“To Mr. Samuel Wright a Member of the Church of Christ in Wilmington, as you have laid a Sad Complaint against me the Subscriber, before this Church of which I also am a Member, and have charged me with a high Crime, as I apprehend without Foundation, upon which I am greatly dissatisfyed with you, I think I have a Right to Christian Satisfaction, and desire you would give it me before next Saturday night, otherwise you may expect I shall Seek after it in a Legal Way.” SF 147706.


See 3 Bacon, Abridgment 490 note:

“[A libel] is termed libellus famosus seu infamatoria scriptura, and from its pernicious Tendency has been held a public Offense at the Common Law; for Men not being able to bear having their Errors exposed to public View, were found by Experience to revenge themselves on those who made Sport with their Reputations; from whence arose Duels and Breaches of the Peace; and hence written Scandal has been held in the greatest Detestation, and has received the utmost Discouragement in the Courts of Justice.”

The query raised in the preceding paragraph may be JA's.


That is, the Latin “I,” signifying that what follows is JA's own argument.


This and the citations following through note 16 32 below are references to the Cambridge Platform of 1648. See note 9 above. The edition of the Platform cited by JA has not been found. Quotations in this and the following notes are from Williston Walker's reproduction (N.Y., 1893) of the first edition, Cambridge, 1649. The passage here referred to is apparently ch. 5, §2: “

Ordinary Church powr, is either the power of office, that is such as is proper to the eldership: or, power of priviledge, such as belongs unto the brotherhood. The latter is in the brethren formally, and immediately from Christ, that is, so as it may according to order be acted or exercised immediately by themselves: the former, is not in them formally or immediately, and therfore cannot be acted or exercised immediately by them, but is said to be in them, in that they design the persons into office, who only are to act, or to exercise this power.” Walker, Creeds and Platforms 210.


Cambridge Platform, ch. 10, §3:

“This Government of the church, is a mixt Government (and so hath been acknowledged long before the term of Independency was heard of). In respect of Christ, the head and King of the church, and the Soveraigne power residing in him, and exercised by him, it is a Monarchy. In respect of the body, or Brotherhood of the church, and powr from Christ graunted unto them, it resembles a Democracy, In respect of the Presbytery and powr comitted to them, it is an Aristocracy.” Walker, Creeds and Platforms 217–218.


Cambridge Platform, ch. 10, §5:

“The power graunted by Christ unto the body of the church and Brotherhood, is a prerogative or priviledge which the church doth exercise: I, In Choosing their own officers, whether Elders or Deacons. II, In admission of their own members and therfore, there is great reason they should have power to Remove any from their fellowship again. Hence in case of offence any one brother hath power to convince and Admonish an offending brother; and in case of not hearing him, to take one or two more to sett on the Admonition, and in case of not hearing them, to proceed to tell the church; and as his offence may require the whole church hath powr to proceed to the publick Censure of him, whether by Admonition or Excommunication; and upon his repentance to restore him again unto his former communion.” Walker, Creeds and Platforms 218.


Cambridge Platform, ch. 10, §9:

“It belongs also unto the Elders . . . to receive the accusations brought to the Church, and to prepare them for the churches hearing. In handling of offences and other matters before the Church they have power to declare and publish the Counsell and will of God touching the same, and to pronounce sentence with the consent of the Church.” Walker, Creeds and Platforms 219.


The title of Cambridge Platform, ch. 14, in which the sections quoted in notes 15 31 and 16 32 below appear. Walker, Creeds and Platforms 227.


Cambridge Platform, ch. 14, §3:

“But if the offence be more publick at first, and of a more heinous and criminall nature, to wit, such as are condemned by the light of nature; then the church without such graduall proceeding, is to cast out the offender, from their holy communion, for the further mortifying of his sinn and the healing of his soule, in the day of the Lord Jesus.” Walker, Creeds and Platforms 227–228.

The preceding section dealt with private offenses, providing essentially the procedure for dealing with them which was set out in ch. 10, §5 (note 12 28 above). Id. at 227.


Cambridge Platform, ch. 14, §8: “The suffring of prophane or scandalous livers to continue in fellowship, and partake in the sacraments, is doubtless a great sinn in those that have power in their hands to redress it; and doe it not.” Walker, Creeds and Platforms 229.


This and the following sentences are a paraphrase of the famous passage from Locke's Essay on Toleration, part of which is quoted in No. 37, note 8 31 .


This paragraph seems to be based on 4 Bacon, Abridgment 499–500, a section which sets out various cases holding that no action lies for defamatory words contained in pleadings or other proceedings in court or in petitions to Parliament. The section includes this abstract of Westover v. Dabbinet, 1 Rolle, Abridgment 33:

“A. libels [i.e. commences an action] in the Spiritual Court against B for Defamation, and produces C. as a Witness. Hereupon B. makes an Allegation in Writing, as the Course of that Court is, that C. who was perjured in a Cause between E. and F. at the Assizes at G. ought not to be received as a Witness. Although this Allegation is false, yet, as the Court had Jurisdiction in the original Matter, C shall not have an Action against B. for, if he might, it would prevent the Detection of bad Witnesses.”

The case is also reported as Weston v. Dobniet, Cro. Jac. 432, 79 Eng. Rep. 369 (K.B. 1618).