Many revere John Adams as a great patriot. Others view him as a big-government tyrant. The truth probably lies somewhere in between.
Adams was a prominent leader during the American Revolution and was one of the most outspoken supporters of independence. His writing in the years leading up American Revolution, rooted in the precepts of natural rights and liberty, was instrumental in developing the philosophical foundation for political thought in America. Later, Adams served as the second president of the United States. He is something of an enigma. In his early years, he was a firebrand for liberty, but as president, he reverted to a big-government power guy and backed an egregious unconstitutional exercise of federal power.
Adams was born in Braintree, Massachusetts on October 30, 1735. His father was a farmer, a deacon in the Congregational Church, and served as a lieutenant in the militia.
In the early years of his schooling, Adams wasn’t exactly a model student. He had numerous incidents of truancy and didn’t get along with the schoolmaster. He wanted to drop out and become a farmer, but his parents insisted that he remain in school. He later wrote, “As a child I enjoyed perhaps the greatest of blessings that can be bestowed upon men – that of a mother who was anxious and capable to form the characters of her children.”
Adams went on to graduate from Harvard. Instead of following his father’s wishes and becoming a minister, Adams went on to study law.
ADAMS THE TYRANT
Adams may be best known for his most egregious action – signing the Alien and Sedition Acts into law in 1798. These four laws rank among the most antithetical to the Constitution and liberty in American history, along with the act chartering the First Bank of the United States, the Patriot Act, the Federal Reserve Act, and the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850.
With winds of war blowing in Europe, the Federalist Party majority in power at the time wrote the laws to prevent “seditious” acts from weakening the U.S. government. Federalists utilized fear of the French to stir up support for these draconian laws, expanding federal power, concentrating authority in the executive branch, and severely restricting freedom of speech.
The Sedition Act was arguably the most draconian of the four laws. It declared any “treasonable activity” a high misdemeanor punishable by fine and imprisonment. Treasonable activity included “any false, scandalous and malicious writing” against the government or its officials. In effect, it criminalized criticism of the federal government. It was a clear violation of the First Amendment.
Enactment of the Alien and Sedition Acts sparked a firestorm of opposition and was largely the reason Thomas Jefferson defeated Adams in the 1800 election. In fact, the act ultimately led to the demise of the Federalist Party.
Mercy Otis Warren went as far as to accuse Adams of becoming a monarchist.
After the war, Adams was appointed ambassador to Great Britain. As Warren put it in her book “History of the Rise, Progress, and Termination of the American Revolution,” Adams “became so enamored with the British constitution, and the government, manners, and laws of the nations, that a partiality for monarchy appeared.”
“After Mr. Adams’s return from England, he was implicated by a large portion of his countrymen, as having relinquished the republican system, and forgotten principles of the American revolution, which he had advocated for near twenty years.”
ADAMS THE PATRIOT
But prior to this, Adams was a stalwart for liberty and is often known as “The Atlas of Independence.”
Adams rose to prominence as an opponent of the Stamp Act. In 1765, he drafted the Braintree Instructions, laying out why the Stamp Act should be opposed. The town meeting of Braintree approved the instructions and sent them to their representative in the Massachusetts General Court.
Adams wrote that some of the “late acts of Parliament divest us of some of our most Essential Rights and Liberties.” The instruction argued that the Stamp Act denied two fundamental rights guaranteed to Englishmen – to be taxed only by their own representatives and to be tried by a jury of peers.
The Braintree Instructions went on to call for noncompliance with the law.
“As these Sir are our Sentiments of that Act we the Freeholders and other Inhabitants Legally assembled for that Purpose must enjoin it upon you to comply with no Measures or Proposalls for countenancing the same or assisting in the Execution of it but by all Lawfull means consistent with our allegiance to the King and Relation to Great Britain to oppose the Execution of it till we can hear the Success of the Cries and Petitions of America for relief.”
Adams made an even more emphatic statement against the Stamp Act before Governor Francis Bernard. In an argument against the Stamp Act, Adams insisted that it was “utterly void, and of no Binding force upon Us.”
“It is against our Rights as Men, and our Priviledges as Englishmen. An Act made in Defiance of the first Principles of Justice: an Act which rips up the foundation of the British Constitution, and makes void Maxims of 1800 years standing.”
He went on to say that the act “was made where we are in no Sense represented, therefore no more binding upon Us, than an Act which should oblige Us to destroy One half of Our Species.”
In effect, this was an early articulation of the principle of nullification. As Jefferson would later put it in the Kentucky Resolutions of 1798, “Whensoever the general government assumes undelegated powers, its acts are unauthoritative, void, and of no force.” Ironically, Jefferson penned those words in response to Adams’ Alien and Sedition Act.
That same year, Adams wrote of series of articles for the Boston Gazette under the pen name Humphrey Ploughjogger that were reprinted in the London Chronicle under the title “True Sentiments of America, or A Dissertation on the Canon and Feudal Law.” The tract included a vigorous defense of natural rights. Adams wrote, “Be it remembered, however, that liberty must at all hazards be supported. We have a right to it, derived from our Maker.”
As tensions with the British increased in the 1770s, Adams became one of the most radical spokesmen for independence.
For instance, in 1774 and 1775, Daniel Leonard wrote a series of essays under the penname Massachusettensis asserting Parliament’s unlimited authority in the colonies. Massachusettensis trivialized the colonists’ grievances, calling them a “distraction owing to parliament’s taking off a shilling-duty on tea and imposing threepence.” Adams penned a lengthy rebuttal titled Novanglus. Adams’s arguments for limits on British imperial authority were extremely influential in the colonies.
Adams opened with a list of complaints that went well beyond the tax on tea.
“Is the threepence upon tea our only grievance? Are we not in this province deprived of the privilege of paying our governors, judges, &c.? Are not trials by jury taken from us? Are we not sent to England for trial? Is not a military government put over us? Is not our constitution demolished to the foundation? Have not the ministry shown, by the Quebec bill, that we have no security against them for our religion, any more than our property, if we once submit to the unlimited claims of parliament? This is so gross an attempt to impose on the most ignorant of the people, that it is a shame to answer it.”
But even if these were just minor violations of the colonists’ rights, Adams insisted they must stand up against them.
“Obsta principiis,” he wrote; a Latin phrase meaning, withstand beginnings, or resist the first approaches or encroachments. Colloquially, we would say, “nip it in the bud,” which is exactly the phraseology Adams used.
“Nip the shoots of arbitrary power in the bud, is the only maxim which can ever preserve the liberties of any people.”
Adams recognized an important truth. When you allow a government to chip away at the limits of its power, eventually the dam will burst. You will end up with a government exercising virtually unlimited authority – arbitrary power. At that point, it becomes difficult, if not impossible, to rein it back in.
“When the people give way, their deceivers, betrayers, and destroyers press upon them so fast, that there is no resisting afterwards.”
As one of the more radical revolutionaries, Adams gave the Boston Tea Party his full support, calling it the “grandest Event” in the history of the colonial protest movement. In his diary, he wrote that it was an “absolutely and indispensably” necessary action.
Adams was an influential member of the First and Second Continental Congresses. He formed the Committee of Five that drafted the Declaration of Independence and pushed for Thomas Jefferson to serve as the primary penman.
On June 7, 1776, Adams seconded the Lee Resolution, declaring that the colonies were “free and independent states.”
Adams was the author of another influential pamphlet titled Thoughts on Government, outlining the vision of republican self-government. He asserted that the “happiness of society is the end of government, that government must be by consent, and most significantly, he emphasized the sovereignty of the people.
“The foundation of every government is some principle or passion in the minds of the people. The noblest principles and most generous affections in our nature then, have the fairest chance to support the noblest and most generous models of government.”
Adams suggested a separation of powers between the legislative, executive and judicial branches, and he insisted that if they were to form a continental government, “Its authority should sacredly be confined to these cases, viz. war, trade, disputes between Colony and Colony, the Post-Office, and the unappropriated lands of the Crown, as they used to be called.” In effect, he was advocating for a general government with limited, enumerated powers.
Adams was able to put his constitutional theories into practice 14 years later as the primary drafter of the Massachusetts Constitution of 1780.
Both the Massachusetts Constitution and Thoughts on Government influenced the drafting of the U.S. Constitution.
Was Adams a hero or a villain?
The answer is yes.
Adams left a complex legacy. The young John Adams was a great American patriot and advocate for liberty. The older John Adams became something of a tyrant.
This is perhaps a lesson in the corrupting influence of power. When Adams was under the thumb of an arbitrary power, he fought valiantly against it standing on rock-solid principles. But when he got a taste of power, he was more than happy to wield it. Principles went out the window.
Nevertheless, we can take the good from Adams’s legacy without downplaying the bad. People are complex and so is history. It’s up to us to learn from the good and refuse to repeat the bad.
John Adams may have summed it up best himself, writing “trust no Man living, with Power to endanger the public Liberty.”
That means, trust no one with power, including the people who tell us to trust no one with power.
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