Papers of John Adams, volume 1

IV. “A Dissertation on the Canon and the Feudal Law,” No. 2, 19 August 1765 JA Boston Gazette (newspaper)


IV. “A Dissertation on the Canon and the Feudal Law,” No. 2, 19 August 1765 Adams, John Boston Gazette (newspaper)
IV. “A Dissertation on the Canon and the Feudal Law,” No. 2
Monday, 19 August 1765

THUS accomplished were many of the first Planters of these Colonies. It may be thought polite and fashionable, by many modern fine Gentlemen perhaps, to deride the Characters of these Persons, as enthusiastical, superstitious and republican: But such ridicule is founded in nothing but foppery and affectation, and is grosly injurious and false. Religious to some degree of enthusiasm it may be admitted they were; but this can be no peculiar derogation from their character, because it was at that time almost the universal character, not only of England, but of Christendom. Had this however, been otherwise, their enthusiasm, considering the principles in which it was founded, and the ends to which it was directed, far from being a reproach to them, was greatly to their honour: for I believe it will be found universally true, that no great enterprize, for the honour or happiness of mankind, was ever achieved, without a large mixture of that noble infirmity. Whatever imperfections may be justly ascribed to them, which however are as few, as any mortals have discovered their judgment in framing their policy, was founded in wise, humane and benevolent principles; It was founded in revelation, and in reason too; It was consistent with the principles, of the best, and greatest, and wisest legislators of antiquity. Tyranny in every form, shape, and appearance was their disdain, and abhorrence; no fear of punishment, not even of Death itself, in exquisite tortures, had been sufficient to conquer, that steady, manly, pertenacious spirit, with which they had opposed the tyrants of those days, in church and state. They were very far from being enemies to monarchy; and they knew as well as any men, the just regard and honour that is due to the character of a dispenser of the misteries of the gospel of Grace: But they saw clearly, that popular powers must be placed, as a guard, a countroul, a ballance, to the powers of the monarch, and the priest, in every government, or else it would soon become the man of sin, the whore of Babylon, the mystery of iniquity, a great and detestable system of fraud, violence, and usurpation. Their greatest concern seems to have been to establish a government of the church more consistent with 116the scriptures, and a government of the state more agreable to the dignity of humane nature, than any they had seen in Europe: and to transmit such a government down to their posterity, with the means of securing and preserving it, for ever. To render the popular power in their new government, as great and wise, as their principles and theory, i. e. as human nature and the christian religion require it should be, they endeavored to remove from it, as many of the feudal inequalities and dependencies, as could be spared, consistently with the preservation of a mild limited monarchy. And in this they discovered the depth of their wisdom, and the warmth of their friendship to human nature. But the first place is due to religion. They saw clearly, that of all the nonsense and delusion which had ever passed thro' the mind of man, none had ever been more extravagant than the notions of absolutions, indelible characters, uninterrupted successions, and the rest of those phantastical ideas, derived from the common law,1 which had thrown such a glare of mystery, sanctity, reverence and right reverence, eminence and holiness, around the idea of a priest, as no mortal could deserve, and as always must from the constitution of human nature, be dangerous in society.2 For this reason, they demolished the whole system of Diocesan episcopacy and deriding, as all reasonable and impartial men must do, the ridiculous fancies of sanctified effluvia from episcopal fingers, they established sacerdotal ordination, on the foundation of the bible and common sense. This conduct at once imposed an obligation on the whole body of the clergy, to industry, virtue, piety and learning, and rendered that whole body infinitely more independent on the civil powers, in all respects than they could be where they were formed into a scale of subordination, from a pope down to priests and fryars and confessors, necessarily and essentially a sordid, stupid, wretched herd; or than they could be in any other country, where an archbishop held the place of an universal bishop, and the vicars and curates that of the ignorant, dependent, miserable rabble aforesaid; and infinitely more sensible and learned than they could be in either. This subject has been seen in the same light, by many illustrious patriots, who have lived in America, since the days of our fore fathers, and who have adored their memory for the same reason. And methinks there has not appeared in New England a stronger veneration for their memory, a more penetrating insight into the grounds and principles and spirit of their policy, nor a more earnest desire of perpetuating the blessings of it to posterity, than that fine institution of the late chief justice Dudley, of a lecture against popery, and on the validity of presbyterian 117ordination.3 This was certainly intended by that wise and excellent man, as an eternal memento of the wisdom and goodness of the very principles that settled America. But I must again return to the feudal law.

The adventurers so often mentioned, had an utter contempt of all that dark ribaldry of hereditary indefeasible right—the Lord's anointed—and the divine miraculous original of government, with which the priesthood had inveloped the feudal monarch in clouds and mysteries, and from whence they had deduced the most mischievous of all doctrines, that of passive obedience and non resistance. They knew that government was a plain, simple, intelligible thing founded in nature and reason and quite comprehensible by common sense. They detested all the base services, and servile dependencies of the feudal system. They knew that no such unworthy dependences took place in the ancient seats of liberty, the republic of Greece and Rome: and they tho't all such slavish subordinations were equally inconsistent with the constitution of human nature and that religious liberty, with which Jesus had made them free. This was certainly the opinion they had formed, and they were far from being singular or extravagant in thinking so. Many celebrated modern writers, in Europe, have espoused the same sentiments. Lord Kaim's,4 a Scottish writer of great reputation, whose authority in this case ought to have the more weight, as his countrymen have not the most worthy ideas of liberty, speaking of the feudal law, says, “A constitution so contradictory to all the principles which govern mankind, can never be brought about, one should imagine, but by foreign conquest or native usurpations.” Brit. Ant. P. 2. Rousseau speaking of the same system, calls it “That most iniquitous and absurd form of government by which human nature was so shamefully degraded.” Social Compact, Page 164.5 It would be easy to multiply authorities, but it must be needless, because as the original of this form of government was among savages, as the spirit of it is military and despotic, every writer, who would allow the people to have any right to life or property, or freedom, more than the beasts of the field, and who was not hired or inlisted under arbitrary lawless power, has been always willing to admit the feudal system to be inconsistent with liberty and the rights of mankind.

MS not found. Reprinted from the (Boston Gazette, 19 Aug. 1765).


A printer's error for canon law, corrected in reprintings.


In JA's copy of True Sentiments . . . , containing the “Dissertation,” penciled in the margin opposite the beginning of this sentence are the words “omit No Papist” and a shaky line is drawn down the passage to include the whole sentence.


JA's praise of Dudley's gift to Har-118vard may have been prompted by Jonathan Mayhew's Dudleian Lecture of May 1765, in which he not only denounced Catholic doctrine but warned that the Church was a threat to civil liberty as well. In a manner strikingly parallel to the argument of JA's “Dissertation,” Mayhew declared that “Our controversy with her [Rome] is not merely a religious one. . . . But a defence of our laws, liberties and civil rights as men, in opposition to the proud claims of ecclesiastical persons, who under the pretext of religion and saving mens souls, would engross all power and property to themselves, and reduce us to the most abject slavery. . . . Popery and liberty are incompatible; at irreconcileable enmity with each other” (Popish Idolatry . . . , cited in Charles W. Akers, Called Unto Liberty: A Life of Jonathan Mayhew, 1720–1766, Cambridge, 1964, p. 195–196).


Henry Home, Lord Kames (1692–1782), Scottish judge and philosopher, wrote Essays upon Several Subjects concerning British Antiquities . . . , Edinburgh, 1747, one section of which dealt with the “Introduction of the Feudal Law into Scotland” ( DNB ). The third edition of this work (Edinburgh, 1763) is listed in Catalogue of JA's Library ; JA was thoroughly familiar with Kames before he began to write the “Dissertation” ( Diary and Autobiography , 1:254).


Jean Jacques Rousseau, A Treatise on the Social Compact; or the Principles of Politic Law, London, 1764 ( Catalogue of JA's Library ). The sentence begins, “The notion of representatives is modern, descending to us from the feudal system, that most iniquitous.”

V. “A Dissertation on the Canon and the Feudal Law,” No. 3, 30 September 1765 JA Boston Gazette (newspaper)


V. “A Dissertation on the Canon and the Feudal Law,” No. 3, 30 September 1765 Adams, John Boston Gazette (newspaper)
V. “A Dissertation on the Canon and the Feudal Law,” No. 3
Monday, 30 September 1765 1

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 their King, as their sovereign Lord, and to him they were willing to render homage: but to no mesne and subordinate Lords, nor were they willing to submit to any of the baser services. In all this, they were so strenuous, that they have even transmitted to their posterity, a very general contempt and detestation of holdings by quit rents: As they have also an hereditary ardor for liberty and thirst for knowledge.

They were convinced by their knowledge of human nature derived from history and their own experience, that nothing could preserve their posterity from the encroachments of the two systems of tyranny, in opposition to which, as has been observed already, they erected their government in church and state, but knowledge diffused generally thro' the whole body of the people. Their civil and religious principles, therefore, conspired to prompt them to use every measure, and take every precaution in their power, to propagate and perpetuate knowledge. For this purpose they laid, very early the foundations of colleges, and invested them with ample priviledges and emoluments; and it is 119 120 remarkable, that they have left among their posterity, so universal an affection and veneration for those seminaries, and for liberal education, that the meanest of the people contribute chearfully to the support and maintenance of them every year, and that nothing is more generally popular than projections for the honour, reputation and advantage of those seats of learning. But the wisdom and benevolence of our fathers rested not here. They made an early provision by law, that every town consisting of so many families, should be always furnished with a grammar school. They made it a crime for such a town to be destitute of a grammar school master, for a few months, and subjected it to an heavy penalty. So that the education of all ranks of people was made the care and expence of the public in a manner, that I believe has been unknown to any other people ancient or modern.

The consequences of these establishments we see and feel every day. A native of America who cannot read and write is as rare an appearance, as a Jacobite or a Roman Catholic, i. e. as rare as a Comet or an Earthquake. It has been observed, that we are all of us, lawyers, divines, politicians and philosophers.2 And I have good authorities to say that all candid foreigners who have passed thro' this country, and conversed freely with all sorts of people here, will allow, that they have never seen so much knowledge and civility among the common people in any part of the world. It is true, there has been among us a party for some years, consisting chiefly not of the descendants of the first settlers of this country but of high churchmen and high statesmen, imported since, who affect to censure this provision for the education of our youth as a needless expence, and an imposition upon the rich in favour of the poor—and as an institution productive of idleness and vain speculation among the people, whose time and attention it is said ought to be devoted to labour, and not to public affairs or to examination into the conduct of their superiours. And certain officers of the crown, and certain other missionaries of ignorance, foppery, servility and slavery, have been most inclined to countenance and increase the same party. Be it remembred, however, that liberty must at all hazards be supported. We have a right to it, derived from our Maker. But if we had not, our fathers have earned, and bought it for us, at the expence of their ease, their estates, their pleasure, and their blood. And liberty cannot be preserved without a general knowledge among the people, who have a right from the frame of their nature, to knowledge, as their great Creator who does nothing in vain, has given them understandings, and a desire to know—but besides this 121they have a right, an indisputable, unalienable, indefeasible divine right to that most dreaded, and envied kind of knowledge, I mean of the characters and conduct of their rulers. Rulers are no more than attorneys, agents and trustees for the people; and if the cause, the interest and trust is insidiously betray'd, or wantonly trifled away, the people have a right to revoke the authority, that they themselves have deputed, and to constitute abler and better agents, attorneys and trustees. And the preservation of the means of knowledge, among the lowest ranks, is of more importance to the public, than all the property of all the rich men in the country. It is even of more consequence to the rich themselves, and to their posterity. The only question is whether it is a public emolument? and if it is, the rich ought undoubtedly to contribute in the same proportion, as to all other public burdens, i. e. in proportion to their wealth which is secured by public expences. But none of the means of information are more sacred, or have been cherished with more tenderness and care by the settlers of America, than the Press. Care has been taken, that the art of printing should be encouraged, and that it should be easy and cheap and safe for any person to communicate his thoughts to the public. And you, Messieurs Printers,3 whatever the tyrants of the earth may say of your paper, have done important service to your country, by your readiness and freedom in publishing the speculations of the curious. The stale, impudent insinuations of slander and sedition, with which the gormandizers of power have endeavor'd to discredit your paper, are so much the more to your honour; for the jaws of power are always opened to devour, and her arm is always stretched out if possible to destroy, the freedom of thinking, speaking and writing. And if the public interest, liberty and happiness have been in danger, from the ambition or avarice of any great man or number of great men, whatever may be their4 politeness, address, learning, ingenuity and in other respects integrity and humanity, you have done yourselves honour and your country service, by publishing and pointing out that avarice and ambition. These views5 are so much the more dangerous and pernicious, for the virtues with which they may be accompanied in the same character, and with so much the more watchful jealousy to be guarded against.

“Curse on such virtues, they've undone their country.”6

Be not intimidated therefore, by any terrors, from publishing with the utmost freedom, whatever can be warranted by the laws of your country; nor suffer yourselves to be wheedled out of your liberty, by any pretences of politeness, delicacy or decency. These as they are 122often used, are but three different names, for hypocrisy, chicanery and cowardice. Much less I presume will you be discouraged by any pretences, that malignant's on this side the water will represent your paper as factious and seditious, or that the Great on the other side the water will take offence at them. This Dread of representation, has had for a long time in this province effects very similar to what the physicians call an hydropho, or dread of water. It has made us delirious. And we have rushed headlong into the water, till we are almost drowned, out of simple or phrensical fear of it. Believe me, the character of this country has suffered more in Britain, by the pusillanimity with which we have borne many insults and indignities from the creatures of power at home, and the creatures of those creatures here, than it ever did or ever will by the freedom and spirit that has been or will be discovered in writing, or action. Believe me my countrymen, they have imbibed an opinion on the other side the water, that we are an ignorant, a timid and a stupid people, nay their tools on this side have often the impudence to dispute your bravery. But I hope in God the time is near at hand, when they will be fully convinced of your understanding, integrity and courage. But can any thing be more ridiculous, were it not too provoking to be laughed at, than to pretend that offence should be taken at home for writings here? Pray let them look at home. Is not the human understanding exhausted there? Are not reason, imagination, wit, passion, senses and all, tortured to find out satyr and invective against the characters of the vile and futile fellows who sometimes get into place and power? The most exceptionable paper that ever I saw here, is perfect prudence and modesty, in comparison of multitudes of their applauded writings. Yet the high regard they have for the freedom of the Press, indulges all. I must and will repeat it, your Paper deserves the patronage of every friend to his country. And whether the defamers of it are arrayed in robes of scarlet or sable, whether they lurk and skulk in an insurance office, whether they assume the venerable character of a Priest, the sly one of a scrivener, or the dirty, infamous, abandoned one of an informer, they are all the creatures and tools of the lust of domination.

The true source of our sufferings, has been our timidity.

MS not found. Reprinted from the (Boston Gazette, 30 Sept. 1765).


This section was printed in the Gazette with a prefatory note to readers that it was a “Continuation of the Piece begun [in] our Paper of August the 12th, and continued in that of the 19th, upon the Canon and Feudal Laws,” the first suggestion for a title for the essay.


This observation was made by Jonathan Mayhew when he wrote, “It may be added, that the common people in New-England, by means of our schools, and the instructions of our 'able, learned, orthodox, ministers,' are, and have all along been, philosophers and divines in 123comparison of the common people of England, of the communion of the church there established” (Observations on the Charter and Conduct of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts . . . , Boston, 1763, p. 45, Evans, No. 9441).


Benjamin Edes (1732–1803) and John Gill (1732–1785), printers of the Boston Gazette ( DAB ).


JA's copy of True Sentiments has a marginal correction in JA's hand of their to his.


A marginal correction of views to Vices in JA's hand.


Joseph Addison, Cato, Act IV, scene iv. JA substituted such for his.