Papers of John Adams, volume 1

Introduction Introduction
An Overview of the General Correspondence and Other Papers of John Adams

No family in three generations has contributed so much to American history as the Adamses. John, John Quincy, and Charles Francis, despite recurring periods of doubt about themselves, knew that history, if not their contemporaries, would credit them with solid accomplishments. In their diaries and family correspondence the doubts as well as their just claims for recognition are set forth. Series III of The Adams Papers presents the more public record.

Aside from the Legal Papers of John Adams , published in 1965, the present two volumes are the first in the series that will eventually comprise the non-family correspondence, writings, and official papers of all three Adams statesmen. Volumes 1 and 2 of the Papers of John Adams include letters to and from friends and acquaintances, reports of committees on which he served, his polemical writings, published and unpublished, and state papers to which he made a contribution, such as instructions to representatives and messages to the royal governor.

Obviously even this multivolume edition of John Adams' writings will have to be selective. The governing principles of selection are described under “Editorial Method,” which follows. The principles for future volumes will be developed as the editing proceeds, the editors keeping in mind the injunction of the Adams Manuscript Trust when the papers were turned over to the Massachusetts Historical Society for scholarly use: “a document . . . selected for printing . . . should be printed, whole and entire, no single word expunged.”1 In making a selection, one confronts problems posed by documents to which John Adams, in his capacity as president of the Board of War, for example, routinely signed his name or documents signed by Adams and others which are being printed by other contemporary editorial enterprises such as the Papers of Thomas Jefferson. Decisions about such matters must be postponed.


Much of John Adams' early correspondence, that before 1774, is missing. Volume 1, covering the period from September 1755 to October 1773, includes hardly more than a dozen letters written to him, even though we have been able to find over thirty sent by him. In his youth, while he was teaching school and studying law in Worcester, and afterwards, when he felt his isolation in Braintree as he tried to get his law practice started, he was eager for correspondents. He begged letters from classmates who could revive the golden Harvard years and from struggling young lawyers who could comment upon cases and legal treatises. As his practice increased with his traveling on circuit and as he assumed the responsibilities of citizenship and family life, he found less time and perhaps less need for letter writing. Rubbing shoulders with fellow attorneys in the courts and after hours provided the professional fellowship he craved. His marriage to Abigail Smith in 1764 gave new steadiness to his life; he had fewer moments of doubt and uncertainty about his direction and his worthiness to pursue the goals he had set for himself. With the development of the Revolutionary crisis, his writing energies were largely consumed in the composition of lengthy newspaper pieces and formal statements to be adopted by Braintree, Boston, and the General Court.

As Adams' fame spread, and particularly when he began to spend long weeks away from home attending the Continental Congress, his personal correspondence increased rapidly. As one of the Massachusetts representatives in Philadelphia, he was hungry for advice and for facts. He wanted his friends to write regularly and often, even though he apologized for his own replies, which had to be brief and unrevealing because of the secrecy imposed by the congress. Still, on occasion he wrote frankly, irritated by the caution and foot-dragging of some of his colleagues. Volume 2, covering the period from 17 December 1773 to 14 April 1775, shows a sharp increase in correspondence, containing more than twice as many letters as Volume 1. The greater number is owing partly to the awareness of Adams and his friends that they were participating in great events and that their letters were worth preserving. By 1776 Adams began more or less systematically to keep letterbook copies of what he wrote. Nonetheless, in relative terms the correspondence is sparse for these early years. Even so, John Adams' first editor, his grandson Charles Francis Adams, printed only a fraction of it; and the few letters he did include were almost an afterthought in volume 9 of The Works of John Adams . The present editors have included over one hundred, xixnot counting about a dozen which are in the form of caption or calendar entries.

Steady growth in correspondence was the pattern for the future. As Adams assumed more duties for the colonies—administrative and diplomatic—his correspondence grew in almost geometric proportion, much of it official of course. In addition to the letters, the number of reports, messages, dispatches, and speeches swelled, leaving him with less time for producing instructive essays on political issues, which fill much of these first two volumes.

Adams' personal letters written to classmates or friends of longstanding reveal that he could unburden himself outside the family circle. Those to his law clerks glow with kindly, paternal warmth. His wit could be playful as well as mordant, and with some few his feelings ran deep. His disillusionment when Jonathan Sewall, one of his closest friends, seemed to Adams to betray their friendship by becoming a persistent and public defender of the prerogative party is apparent in a letter of 1763 that Adams probably did not send:

Such senseless, such pittyful Stuff and Trash, I did not expect from thee friend Jonathan. I do not blame thee at all for satirizing and execrating one side, that side I believe as fully as thou dost, deserves it. But I blame thee, for praising the other. Both Parties deserve Curses. Both Parties will sacrifice the good of their Country, to their own Malice, Envy, Revenge, Avarice, Ambition, or Lust. Thou knowest this to be true, and God knoweth it to be true. And yet to talk as thou dost—thou art almost a Devil.2

In a different mood is this, from a 1755 letter to Richard Cranch:

But the school is indeed a school of affliction, a large number of little runtlings, just capable of lisping A.B.C. and troubling the Master. But Dr. Savil tells me for my comfort, “by Cultivating and pruning these tender Plants in the garden of Worcester, I shall make some of them, Plants of Renown and Cedars of Lebanon.” However this be, I am certain that keeping this school any length of Time would make a base weed and ignoble shrub of me.3

Adams' writings on the Stamp Act and some of his newspaper pieces, written to challenge the positions of defenders of the colonial and imperial administrations, are well represented in Charles Francis Adams' edition of The Works , but the scale of the present edition permits the inclusion of drafts and all of John Adams' newspaper writings xxso far as we can identify them. “A Dissertation on the Canon and the Feudal Law,” for example, which is not only found in The Works but has been republished in full or in part many times elsewhere, exists in two fragmentary drafts in the Adams Papers as well; and the newspaper letters entitled “Governor Winthrop to Governor Bradford,” also printed in The Works , were only part of a whole series of pieces written in various styles, but all designed to answer Jonathan Sewall's defense of Governor Bernard.4 Even the Novanglus letters did not stop at twelve; a thirteenth has been conflated by the editors from a draft in the Adams Papers with a fragment in the Robert Treat Paine Papers.

The Adams Papers and other collections at the Massachusetts Historical Society constitute the main source for the letters here printed, but as Adams' correspondence grows the number and range of the depositories will increase with it. For newspaper writings we have depended heavily upon the Boston Gazette, and for committee reports, messages, and the like, upon the printed records of towns, legislative bodies, and the congress, as well as the Massachusetts Archives. Even in these early volumes a few items have come from a distance—from the Clements and Huntington libraries and the British Museum. The search for Adams materials, which began over twenty years ago, continues here and abroad. Hardly a week goes by that some hitherto unknown item does not turn up in a dealer's catalogue. Or, more rarely, a library whose holdings were searched long ago reports an item or two earlier overlooked or newly acquired. Systematic searches have yet to be completed in some of the foreign archives and for our later period, in the National Archives itself. The Adams Papers, like other major editorial enterprises, has friends and well-wishers here and in western Europe, those acquainted with archival holdings as well as those just interested in the Adamses, who are pleased to call to our attention materials we may have missed. We are very grateful to them all.

John Adams as Public Servant

The editors of the Legal Papers in their introduction remark upon “the analytical and organizational abilities, the knowledge of the workings of daily affairs,” which are brought out in the student and the xxipractitioner of law.5 Adams is generally conceded to have become one of the most able and learned lawyers of his day, so it is not surprising that Braintree and Boston called upon his services and that fellow whigs found his keen mind and fund of legal knowledge useful, in some instances indispensable. Adams, impatient and his mind teeming with ideas, did not always wait to be called upon. He put his mind to both humble and large matters. Thus, he took it upon himself to investigate the methods of taxing for highway repair as an alternative to relying on the old system of calling upon all able-bodied males in the town to do their share of the work. His interest and findings put him on a Braintree committee to draft a suitable proposal for paying for highway maintenance. The outcome was that the town went over to a taxation system. In Braintree, Adams also served on committees to sell off the South Common and to lay out individual plots in the North Common. In the fall of 1765, at a town meeting called as a result of his petitioning effort, he presented a draft of instructions for Braintree's representative in the forthcoming session of the General Court, at which the stamps were certain to be an issue. Although there was nothing original in the line of argument Adams laid down in opposition to the Stamp Act, the instructions as amended in the town meeting became widely known through their publication in two Boston newspapers.

In December 1765, when Adams had been a practicing barrister for only three years, the town of Boston called upon him and two others to act in its behalf to urge the opening of the courts even though stamps and stamped paper were not available. Adams appeared before the Governor and Council with two of the most distinguished lawyers in the province, James Otis and Jeremiah Gridley. Sidestepping the arguments of the three barristers, the Governor and Council declared that the decision to open the courts without stamps lay in the hands of the judges of the several courts, that Boston's appeal ought to be directed to them. For a time the issue became the first concern of the citizens. Despite the renown he was gaining outside his hometown, Braintree did not choose Adams as its representative to the General Court in the spring elections of 1766, as Samuel Adams had anticipated it might do. John had to be satisfied with being chosen a selectman, an office he filled a second year as well, but refused when it was offered a third time.

Not until 1770 was Adams elected to the House of Representatives, and then not from Braintree but from Boston, where he had xxiimoved with his family in 1768. Actually his law practice had made him in some sense a citizen of that town before he moved there, for he had come to know and had been accepted by some of its leading men during the Stamp Act crisis. Diary entries for periods when he was attending the courts record numerous stimulating evenings during which Adams participated with Samuel Adams, James Otis, Thomas Cushing, Jeremiah Gridley, and others in lively discussion of politics and general topics.6 After his move to Boston, Adams served on town committees, twice on those chosen to draft instructions for the town's representatives—in 1768 and again in 1769.

Adams' year in the provincial legislature was a frustrating one in that much of the time of the House was taken up by a running quarrel with the Governor over his right to move the General Court to Cambridge. Until October 1770 the House steadfastly refused to conduct business until its meeting place returned to Boston. “Absolute necessity” finally forced the House to yield, although Adams thought the concession should not have been made. Not counting ceremonial ones, Adams served on at least sixteen committees during his year as a representative. He did not find the experience enjoyable and in later years dismissed his service as “drudgery” and “fatiguing.”7 Unfortunately, not enough evidence has been found to assess the exact contribution he made to committees, which ranged in significance from that appointed to draft a bill for the lieutenant governor's salary to that named to recommend action on Parson Merrill's petition that he be permitted to accept his parsonage from Haverhill in fee simple.

For Adams it was a disappointing year. He summed up his feelings in his Diary: “I wish to God it was in my Power to serve them the people of Boston, as much as it is my Inclination.—But it is not.—My Wishes are impotent, my Endeavours fruitless and ineffectual, to them, and ruinous to myself.”8 Adams longed to get back to his law practice and to husbandry as his main concerns and to bid farewell to politics. His return to Braintree did not last long; by November 1772 he had his family back in Boston.

John Adams had meant to bid farewell to politics only in the sense of keeping out of conspicuous public office. He could not, and did not, ignore the political issues dividing the people of Massachusetts into opposing camps. In early 1773 he engaged in newspaper debate with William Brattle over the independence of judges. At the same xxiiitime he acted as consultant to a committee of the House of Representatives desirous of refuting Governor Hutchinson's pronouncement that between absolute dependence upon Parliament and complete independence from the British Empire no middle ground could be defined. At the spring elections in 1773 he was elected a councilor by the General Court, but along with others, was rejected by the Governor, who exercised his veto a second time in the elections of 1774. That same spring Adams had undertaken a massive review of the boundaries of Massachusetts, particularly those contested by New York. Technically he worked as one of a committee appointed by the General Court, but the labor was all his. Within Massachusetts, however, this was not a controversial assignment. Citizens of whatever stripe could agree on using every legal argument to get as generous an interpretation of the boundaries of the province as possible. Adams did not hesitate to put to good use materials prepared by Hutchinson some years earlier.

The town of Boston, however, was not to be denied the services of one of the most articulate and able lawyers in the province—not when it was facing the greatest crisis in its history, the closing of the port by act of Parliament. Adams served on the Ways and Means committee, created to find sources of support for those suffering hardship because they were dependent upon the port and activities related to it. Extant records indicate no more than that he served, giving no indication of his contribution to the various schemes proposed. We have even less information about Adams' role on two other committees for which no reports at all have been found: a committee to consider the situation of the town's lands in and around the fort, and one to prepare instructions for Boston's representatives to the General Court in 1774. We do know that John Adams served as moderator of the meeting on 17 June after the services of neither James Bowdoin nor John Rowe could be obtained. But, again, no account of how he performed his duties has come to light. Being absent on circuit caused Adams to miss the two most exciting meetings in the summer of 1774, those in which loyalists sought to censure the town's Committee of Correspondence for adopting the Solemn League and Covenant.

Boston was not the locale of John Adams' most important political activity. In June 1774 the General Court in a closed-door session named him, along with Thomas Cushing, Samuel Adams, Robert Treat Paine, and James Bowdoin, who did not serve, as a delegate to the Continental Congress, which met in Philadelphia in September 1774. Notwithstanding the assurances of friends to whom Adams xxivturned for ideas and guidance, he had grave doubts about his fitness to participate in so formidable a task as working out a common policy of opposition to British measures. But he grew in confidence as he met many well-wishers on his journey to the congress and took the measure of the men who were to serve with him. For the first time, because of the notes he and others kept, we gain some true insight into the role Adams played as a member of a public body. There is no need here to repeat the analysis given with the documents except to say that his contribution on several committees and in general debate was important and in keeping with the positions he had developed in Massachusetts.

Adams had scarcely returned from Philadelphia when he was chosen as one of Braintree's representatives to the Provincial Congress. His actual service in that extralegal body was too brief to be of much relative significance, however. The presence of all of the Massachusetts delegates to the Continental Congress was thought desirable, so that the Massachusetts congress could be fully informed about the proceedings in Philadelphia. The Provincial Congress was so satisfied with the performance of the delegation that it renamed all of them to go to the Second Continental Congress, adding John Hancock as chairman of the delegation.

Before Adams could get to the second congress, Braintree put him to work on town affairs, although he told a friend that he never attended town meetings.9 He was on the committee that drew up Braintree's version of the Continental Association. This was in large part a verbatim copying of the original, but it contained some interesting modifications discussed in connection with the document itself. He was named chairman of a committee to find ways to encourage men to enlist in companies of minutemen. The town also chose him as one of nine selectmen; clearly the voters did not anticipate a long absence in Philadelphia.

In the period between 1762, when he served on his first town committees, and 1775, when he was about to enter on the momentous work of the Second Continental Congress, Adams at first sought public office as recognition of his abilities and his concern for the public good. As the confrontation with Britain sharpened, however, he drew back temporarily, fearful that his political ambition would destroy his career and thus the means to provide adequately for his growing family. But there was no drawing back. Adams' fellow townsmen and then the province would have his services. The crisis had xxvbecome so serious that not to do what he could plainly would have been to shirk his civic responsibilities, however many doubts he might have about his fitness or the effect public service would have upon his personal fortunes. For Adams there could be no turning away from the path marked out by duty.

John Adams as Revolutionist

In the period covered by these two volumes Adams does not go the whole way to independence, to complete and permanent separation from Great Britain, but he advances and supports a revolutionary interpretation of the British system. The idea of a commonwealth of states under the king that Adams espoused was not solely his own, but he was one of its earliest proponents. His argument, moreover, was unique in the massive support he gave it from legal sources. Adams would not have considered his interpretation of the British system revolutionary in any modern sense; he saw it as a return to the right view of things in terms of legal precedents. For him it was revolutionary in eighteenth-century terms, when “revolution” meant restoring ancient liberties.10 The Glorious Revolution of 1688 had been glorious because it successfully re-established liberties threatened by the tyranny of James II. Corruption and even conspiracy in Great Britain threatened American liberties in the 1760's; a penetrating analysis of history and of learned commentaries on judicial decisions revealed that Parliament, a sink of corruption, was playing a role in the affairs of the American colonies for which there was no precedent. Denial of power to Parliament overseas would restore liberty.

Adams did not arrive at this position all at once. He had been stimulated to think about the powers of Parliament when he took copious notes on the argument of James Otis in the writs of assistance case of 1761.11 Otis had argued that the writs, which were general search warrants, were in violation of the British Constitution, and that therefore the act of Parliament creating them was void. In short, there was a higher law to which Parliament must conform. Although later in life Adams liked to say that Otis had initiated the Revolution with this argument, the case actually made little impact at the time. Otis lost the decision, but he left a deep impression on the mind of Adams, xxviwho had been admitted to the bar but three years earlier. That the powers of Parliament were not absolute was a principle that remained with him.

The next step in Adams' developing thought was “A Dissertation on the Canon and the Feudal Law.” He had begun this as a general attack on the tyranny of the law of the Church and the law of feudalism meant to enlighten some of his fellow attorneys who had formed a discussion club, the Sodality. Before Adams finished his exposition, which appeared in 1765 in installments over a period of months in the Boston Gazette, he shaped it to deal with the threat to liberty posed by the Stamp Act. His argument that British liberties were original rights antecedent to Parliament and that rulers were merely trustees of the people who could revoke their grant of authority if rulers betrayed the trust were familiar ideas to Americans. But Adams' emphasis on the role of knowledge in freeing the people from canon and feudal law, and, more particularly, his praise for the Puritans in establishing schools and a college gave his essay a New England flavor. The stamp taxes, falling as they did on newspapers, college diplomas, and the like, would inhibit the diffusion of knowledge.

Although these features of Adams' “Dissertation” have claimed the attention of scholars, and rightly so, one other passage deserves more notice than it has received, for it was one of the building blocks of his theory of independent states under the king. In writing about the Puritans, Adams commented, “To have holden their lands allodially, or for every man to have been the sovereign lord and proprietor of the ground he occupied, would have constituted a government, too nearly like a commonwealth. They were contented therefore to hold their lands of the King, as their sovereign Lord and to him they were willing to render homage.”12 Thus, from the beginning, the early settlers had a special relationship to the King, but they rejected any of the other trappings of feudalism. This passage makes no mention of Parliament. Despite Adams' attack on the tyranny of feudalism, he somewhat illogically accepts a feudal relationship between liberty-loving Puritans and their sovereign.

Adams' next public pronouncement on the system of British government came at the end of 1765, when he served with Gridley and Otis as counsel for Boston in the effort to get the province courts opened without stamps. Lining up a variety of legal principles taken largely from a beginner's handbook, Adams insisted that because the xxviiStamp Act was against reason and impossible to enforce, it could have no validity. Here he was influenced by the line of argument James Otis had taken in the writs of assistance case.

Not only was Parliament's power over the colonies limited, but in early 1767 Adams came close to saying that the English legislature had a coequal of sorts in the assemblies of the American colonies. This implication is found in his criticism of Governor Bernard for withholding the oath of office from two representatives from Newbury. Bernard refused the oath because Newbury was supposed to elect only one representative, but the cry went up immediately that the Governor was interfering with the right of the House to be a judge of elections to it. In one of his newspaper pieces discussing the episode, Adams declared that “for the King himself to attempt to judge of the elections, returns or qualifications of the members of the House of Commons, or of the house of Representatives, would be an invasion of their privilege.”13 He does not say that the royal governor cannot interfere, but that the king himself must keep hands off, just as he must in England. An American house of representatives was as privileged as the House of Commons.

Adams did not yet view Parliament as simply a coequal of the Massachusetts House. In Boston's instructions to its representatives in the General Court, drawn up in June 1768, which he helped to draft, a proper respect for Parliament is expressed—in ritualistic language, to be sure, and in words capable of varied interpretation. The instructions mention “a reverence and due subordination to the British Parliament as the supreme legislature in all cases of necessity, for the preservation of the whole empire.”14 What was “necessity”? What was “preservation”?

There the matter stood for a while. Adams had taken the position that Parliament was not absolute but subject to a higher law; he had insisted that in the matter of privileges the colonial assembly was its equal even in direct relationship to the king; and yet he had acknowledged that Parliament was the supreme legislature in some respects, not too precisely defined.

In early 1773 Adams moved a long step ahead in the development of his ideas on the role of Parliament in the British Empire. The occasion was the Crown's decision to pay the salaries of superior court judges. Here was a challenge that threatened the whole system of law in which John Adams had placed his faith. If judges received royal sal-xxviiiaries rather than being paid through appropriations of the General Court, judges would, it was feared, become mere creatures of the Crown. When William Brattle tried to argue that the source of judges' salaries made no difference, because colonial as well as English judges served during good behavior, Adams demonstrated that neither common nor statute law threw a cloak of protection around judges and that judges paid by the Crown were ultimately dependent upon monies raised by Parliament. He refrained from drawing the obvious conclusion. His readers could well enough anticipate what a Parliament might do that was now revealed to have yet additional sources of overweening power.

While Adams engaged in newspaper debate with Brattle, he acted as consultant to a House committee designated to answer Governor Hutchinson's claim that “no Line could be drawn between the Supreme Authority of Parliament and the Total Independence of the Colonies.” The House, refusing to be caught in this dilemma, insisted that it was quite possible for the colonies to be “distinct States” “united in one Head and common Sovereign.”15 The legal support for this position came from John Adams, who argued cogently from his sources that allegiance was to the person, not to the public character of the king. It pleased him to be able to confound Hutchinson by citing, as one of his authorities, Moore's Cases, a work not generally known among the province's lawyers. In Adams' view the North American colonies were “an Acquisition of foreign Territory, not annexed to the Realm of England, and therefore at the absolute Disposal of the Crown.” Parliament had no role at all. Building on the assertion of a modified feudal relationship between the king and the settlers described in “A Dissertation on the Canon and the Feudal Law” in 1765, Adams whittled away at the absolute powers of Parliament until nothing was left. There was more to dread from an “absolute uncontrouled Supreme Power,” as the Declaratory Act made Parliament, than there was from “total Independence.” And the whittling away was done without sacrificing the legal tradition which Adams revered; indeed, that legal tradition furnished him with the ammunition he needed.

Two problems remained. Was a special relationship between the colonies and the king sufficient protection for the liberties of Americans? Was it practical to eliminate Parliament from an empire rang-xxixing from India to North America? Adams answered this first question theoretically, the second politically. As English whigs interpreted history, the liberties of Englishmen, which Americans claimed as their own, had emerged from Parliament's long struggle with the king. Americans generally had three answers to this question of whether dependence upon the king alone was sufficient protection for liberty. They were protected by natural law, which existed before government; by the British Constitution, itself based on natural law with accretions from Magna Carta and English laws passed to confirm the principles of the great charter; and by their charters. As Adams saw it, “though we hold our Lands agreeably to the Feudal Principles of the King; yet our Predecessors wisely took Care to enter into Compact with the King that Power here should also be equally divided”—divided, that is, between king and representatives of the people according to “the original fundamental Principles of the English Constitution.”16 As a lawyer, Adams preferred legal precedents to abstract political theory—if they could be made to serve. When Judge Trowbridge twitted him about his effort to find in the English constitution the hidden powers that would make impeachment of Chief Justice Peter Oliver possible because Oliver accepted a salary from the Crown, Adams was ready with his answer: “I should be very happy if the Constitution could carry us safely through all our difficulties without having recourse to higher Powers not written.”17

The second question, respecting the practicality of eliminating Parliament from a role in governing the overseas colonies, was answered politically by the First Continental Congress, when it asserted that the colonists claimed exclusive right to legislate “in all cases of taxation and internal polity,” but “cheerfully” consented to Parliament's regulating trade out of “regard to the mutual interest of both countries.”18 The initiative came from the colonies; no right to Parliament was being conceded. Adams had supplied the wording, under circumstances explained in the Editorial Note about his service in the Continental Congress. He took considerable satisfaction from this outcome, for he wanted to avoid bloodshed. When the sword was drawn, deaths on both sides would demand revenge; the imperatives of war would rule out any but an imposed solution.19

That Adams was sincere cannot be doubted, for otherwise one could xxxnot explain the tremendous expenditure of intellectual energy that went into the Novanglus letters. With greater research and vigor than ever before, he demonstrated that the colonies were not part of the realm and were thus outside Parliament's jurisdiction; that their allegiance to the king as feudal overlord was to his person, not to him in his political capacity. Parliamentary regulation of trade was possible only because the colonies as a practical matter freely consented to it. These ideas were not new in Adams' thought; but the evidence he assembled, reviewing the situation of Ireland, Wales, the Channel Islands, Chester, and Durham, was new. Also new was his denial that there was an empire or an imperial Crown. The British system was made up of states dependent upon a king.

In the Novanglus letters Adams twice denied that he was seeking independence.20 Had he sought only to conceal a desire for independence, there would have been no need for such a formidable display of legal learning. His argument ran to so many pages and the thickets of legal learning were so dense that one can only believe he sought to satisfy his own need for an utterly convincing brief and the need of those few lawyers willing to follow where he led. He wanted what he could justify: a commonwealth of states under the king.

No Englishman accepted then, or does now, Adams' analysis of the British system.21 And, with the notable exception of Charles H. Mcllwain, no American historian believes he proved his point.22 Adams was inconsistent in retaining a vestige of feudalism, whose law he declared to be tyrannical, and vulnerable in putting reliance upon a compact made between settlers and king as the shield of liberty. Not only had legal action vacated the original Massachusetts charter, but most of the colonies had no charters at all. When the British did adopt a commonwealth theory, they did so for political, not theoretical reasons. The principle of independent states under a common king was revolutionary in the sense of being novel and promoting wider participation in the political process, but in Adams' eyes it was merely xxxiwhat had to be, given history and legal precedents. Independence was forced upon Americans by a mother country deaf to reasoned argument and determined to prevail by use of force.

The Editorial Method
Materials Selected and Their Arrangement

Volumes in Series III, like those in Series II, will have to be selective, and the selection will become more rigorous as the amount of material grows with John Adams' increasing responsibilities. Some items, like notes of hand and brief memoranda of various kinds, have been routinely excluded without notice to the reader except as they may be useful in annotation. These are available on the microfilm of the Adams Papers, the filming of which was completed in 1959 in 608 reels. The Adams Papers editorial office can direct scholars to the nearest depository at which they may consult the film. Only the body of documents given by the Adams Manuscript Trust is on the microfilm; copies of Adams documents accessioned over the years are not included.

Generally speaking, documents concerning Adams' legal career and cases handled have also been omitted from these volumes; the texts and information on them can be obtained from the Legal Papers . To be of service to scholars, however, the present volumes take notice of some documents concerning Adams' practice of law if they have not already been dealt with in annotation in published Adams volumes. Letters and other documents in the Adams Papers or among materials accessioned for the editorial enterprise may be calendared or, if they furnish insight into Adams' attitudes or seem otherwise significant, printed in full. These include the Suffolk County Bar Book, 3 January 1770 – 26 July 1774; to John Lovell?, 15 December 1770. Documents in the hands of MS dealers and not available except in catalogue listings, like those not concerned with legal matters, appear as caption or calendar entries if they seem important enough.

In the period covered by these first two volumes, all letters known to the editors, with the exceptions noted, which went to or from John Adams, whether personally or as a member of a group or committee, and which do not meet the criteria for inclusion in Adams Family xxxii Correspondence have been printed or taken notice of by captions. Letters by caption only are those already printed in the diaries or those still in the hands of dealers or collectors; we calendar those advertised letters that appear in facsimile or with extensive quotation. Future volumes will not be able to include all such letters. To mention but two examples, letters substantially identical but written by Adams to several different correspondents or routine letters of transmittal, acknowledgment, or acceptance will by handled in the annotation. As the editing goes forward, further criteria will be developed.

Documents other than letters present many complexities, although relatively few in the present volumes. The editors have included all the known polemical writings, whether they actually saw print or not; when drafts seemed to add a dimension or throw light on Adams' thinking, they have been included as well. The only exception to this inclusiveness is those writings already published in the Diary and Autobiography ; these appear by caption only or are taken notice of in the annotation. Future volumes will not reprint long works like A Defence of the Constitutions of Government or Discourses on Davila. As explained by L. H. Butterfield, these require bibliographic treatment rather than reissue.23

Documents to which Adams was only one of several contributors—committee reports, resolutions, messages to the Governor, and the like—have been printed in full if evidence indicates that Adams contributed significantly to the thinking or the wording. If Adams was but a signer, so far as we can tell, or the records indicate only that he was on the committee, then the decision on printing in full, calendaring, or simply mentioning the document is made on the basis of usefulness as perceived by the editors. For example, we have not included the Continental Association as adopted by the Continental Congress although Adams signed it, for it is readily available in modern sources. We have included Braintree's version of the Association drafted by a committee of which Adams was one of eight members, and to which his contribution is unknown, because the Braintree document is not readily available and shows some interesting variations from the Continental version. On the other hand, all committee reports produced while Adams was in the House of Representatives have been calendared as a way of illustrating the role he played in that body. Here the emphasis is on Adams as legislator, not on the documents themselves, which relate only peripherally to the large issues of the day. Adams' public service in Boston and the First Provincial Congress has xxxiiibeen similarly handled. Perhaps not wholly consistently, the editors have included in full Braintree committee reports signed by Adams that illustrate his earliest involvement in the town's affairs. The first steps need most careful scrutiny.

Third-party documents, those involving Adams personally in some way though not by him or directed to him, are included on the basis of the editors' judgment of their intrinsic worth. Thus, the will and the inventory of the estate of John Adams' father are included. One very interesting and perhaps influential document, whose authorship is still unidentified, has been printed simply because its preservation in the Adams Papers suggests that Adams himself thought it was worth keeping.24 The present volumes contain only three or four such documents. In future volumes it is unlikely that any fixed principle can be developed to make such decisions routinely; each such document will probably have to be treated on an ad hoc basis.

The editors do not depart from chronological order except to treat appropriate documents thematically. Thus newspaper pieces and drafts collectively known as “A Dissertation on the Canon and the Feudal Law” have been brought together in chronological order and introduced with a headnote, even though the last three pieces are dated later than some of the documents that follow the grouping. Other examples are the documents assembled to define Adams' role in the House of Representatives and the First Continental Congress. In such instances, the date of the first document determines the position of the whole group. Headnotes allow the editors greater opportunity than footnotes to relate one document to another and to demonstrate the growth in Adams' thought and the contours of his career.

Enclosures in letters pose a different problem. They will be placed in chronological order if they are directed to Adams or if he played some role in their composition; annotation will explain whether other documents were sent or received with them and whether a covering letter of a later date accompanied them. Enclosures of any other kind will be printed with the letter enclosing them. Letters of transmittal, if they are only that and without other significance, will be accounted for in the footnotes to enclosures. Letters of transmittal that also deal with other matters will appear chronologically.

In short, cross-reference will be the means by which the reader will learn when several enclosures were received or sent and when they had their impact. If intervals of weeks separate the dates of enclosures and those of forwarding letters, the reader will be put to the incon-xxxivvenience of looking back to remind himself of the substance of enclosures; he will have to be on guard against assuming that details were known to correspondents sooner than they were. On the other hand, as he reads along he will know when documents were written, and this knowledge has its usefulness in understanding correspondence and other documents contemporaneous with them; he will not have to jump ahead for the text of a document referred to. There are gains and losses in any approach.

Treatment of the Texts

The general textual policy of The Belknap Press edition of The Adams Papers is described in the Introduction to the Diary and Autobiography of John Adams , p. l`v–lix. For the handling of personal letters particularly, see the Introduction to the first volume of Adams Family Correspondence , p. xliii–xlv. The only exception to the procedures there outlined is our treatment of enclosures.

A word is necessary about captions for correspondence. When John Adams was the recipient or the author, the caption reads, From James Warren or To William Tudor. The caption for a group, committee, or commission of which Adams was a member names both the author and the recipient: Sons of Liberty to John Wilkes. Correspondence directed to Adams in his official capacity names the author and gives Adams' title: General Gates to the President of the Board of War.

Captions for public documents, such as reports and messages, indicate the type of document and its subject and may also give the authors or originators and recipients or addressees: Report of the Braintree Committee for Repairing Highways. Since the committee was reporting to its parent body, the town meeting, the recipient is omitted. Captions for newspaper pieces are those given by the newspapers; when no caption was given and the piece is in letter style, author and recipient are included: Humphrey Ploughjogger to the Boston Gazette.

Documents that are grouped together for thematic purposes have a common caption to show their relationship, and each member of the group has its own caption preceded by a roman numeral. (Cross-references to a document within a group give the common caption and the appropriate numeral.) Each grouping is preceded by a table of contents listing each document by number and caption except groups which consist entirely of calendar entries or of documents so xxxvsimilar in form that no table is necessary. See Replies to Philanthrop, Defender of Governor Bernard ante 9 December 1766 – 16 February 1767; Adams' Service in the Continental Congress, 5 September – 26 October 1774; The Letters of Novanglus, 23 January–April 1775.

Dates of letters and documents, placed flush right at the head of the document, are as given by the author or in brackets if editorially supplied. Dates for grouped documents are inclusive and placed under the common caption; dates for individual documents in such groups are given both in the accompanying table of contents and at the head of each one. If the author has not supplied the date of composition for a newspaper letter or essay, the date of the newspaper is given in brackets.

Documents included only as caption entries contain a standardized place-and-date line followed by a reference to the printed source that gives the document in full. Occasionally the editors direct the reader to pertinent annotation that may not be found in the inclusive pages or to another document that may add meaning to the caption entry.

Documents that are calendared begin with a standardized place-and-date line followed by the information given in the usual descriptive note: location of the MS and the printed source if available; endorsement; enclosures; physical description of the MS. If the calendar entry is for a committee report, the date of the committee's appointment is followed by the names of members in the order listed in the records; the name of the member giving the report is added if known. A summary of the document's highlights follows.


A detailed account of the principles governing annotation of The Adams Papers is found in the Introduction to the Diary and Autobiography of John Adams , p. lx–lxii and that to Adams Family Correspondence , p. xlv–xlvii. Generally speaking, annotation of names, titles, and other subjects is done only to make the text more meaningful for readers, including those who are not specialists in the period. This means that persons written up in the DAB or the DNB may have a sentence or two devoted to them to provide information pertinent to their mention in the text. The source of biographical data is also given so that the reader may find out more if he wishes.

A Note on the Status of The Adams Papers

Division of The Adams Papers into three series—diaries of the statesmen, family correspondence, and general correspondence and other papers of the statesmen—has meant that editorial work takes place on several shifting fronts. Energies are redirected from time to time as one unit reaches a stopping point or as changes in staff, and thus interests, occur.

Currently editorial work on Adams Family Correspondence , published in four volumes through September 1782, and the Diary of Charles Francis Adams, in six volumes through 11 June 1836, is being held in abeyance in order to start the editing of the Papers of John Adams . Because his Diary and Autobiography has been completed and the family correspondence well started, some catching up was indicated. Quite naturally, the editors were helped to this decision by the Bicentennial of the American Revolution.

Meanwhile retirements and resignations have brought in a wholly new editorial staff. Now two editors are occupied with the public career of John, and a third has joined us in order to begin the editing of the long-awaited complete Diary of John Quincy Adams. These two projects will have priority for some years to come, but family correspondence will not be ignored. There is more to the Adams Papers enterprise than readying volumes for the press. New materials are digested and filed away, corrections in published volumes are noted, and the requests of scholars are given attention. The editors play no favorites among the three statesmen; and the members of their families, whether admirable or pathetic, continue to afford the delight all but the jaded must feel in learning about the conduct of men and women.


Remarks of Thomas B. Adams in The Adams Papers: A Ceremony Held at the Massachusetts Historical Society on September 22, 1961. . . , Boston, 1962, p. 5.


On Political Faction, Man's Nature, and the Law, 3 March – 5 Sept. 1763, No. II.


To Richard Cranch, 2 Sept. 1755.


Replies to Philanthrop, Defender of Governor Bernard ante 9 Dec. 1766 – 16 Feb. 1767.


JA, Legal Papers , 1:lxxxiv.


JA, Diary and Autobiography , 1:266, 270, 293, 294.


Same, 3:295.


Same, 2:6.


To James Warren, 15 March 1775.


See Hannah Arendt's interesting discussion in On Revolution, N.Y., 1963, p. 34–40.


See JA, Legal Papers , 2:106–144.


A Dissertation on the Canon and the Feudal Law, 21 May–Oct. 1765, No. V.


Replies to Philanthrop, No. XI.


17 June 1768.


All the quotations in this paragraph are from Constitutional Debate between Thomas Hutchinson and the House of Representatives, 26 Jan. – 2 March 1773, No. I.


Same, No. III.


JA, Diary and Autobiography , 3:301.


John Adams' Service in the Continental Congress, 5 Sept. – 26 Oct. 1774, No. IV, Article 4.


To James Burgh, 28 Dec. 1774.


In letters Nos. IV and VIII.


Several English radicals insisted that the American colonies were not under the authority of Parliament, that their sole connection with Great Britain was their sharing a common king with it, but they based their argument on natural rights. See John Cartwright, American Independence the Interest and Glory of Great Britain, London, 1774, in Paul H. Smith, comp., English Defenders of American Freedom, Washington, 1972, p. 133–192. Also Granville Sharp, A Declaration of the People's Natural Right to a Share in the Legislature, London, 1774. Cartwright specifically ruled out resort to “mouldy parchments” (p. 137, 138).


Charles H. Mcllwain, The American Revolution: A Constitutional Interpretation, N.Y., 1923.


JA, Diary and Autobiography , 1:xl.


To the Boston Committee of Correspondence Sept.? 1774 .