Skip to content

John Adams Dissertation

The end of the French and Indian War had firmly established Britain as the dominant power in New England and the colonies. Likewise, the English throne had ended the days of salutary neglect and now saw in the colonies a chance to generate additional revenue. Between 1760 and 1776, the British Parliament, with the backing of King George III, began passing a series of controversial measures that simultaneously stretched both the mother country's authority in the New World and the patience of its colonists. In the first instance, England began to allow customs officials to issue the writs of assistance, rather than specific warrants. These writs allowed for widespread search and seizures by royal appointees. However, the writs were only valid from the time of issue until six months after the death of the reigning monarch. Thus, when King George II died in 1760, it set the groundwork for a crisis the following year. All officials had to apply for new writs and colonist James Otis, a fellow lawyer, challenged the constitutional validity of the writs.

John Adams and virtually every member of the Boston bar packed a courtroom in 1761 to watch Otis argue in front of the Superior Court. Adams and others understood the imposition on their natural rights. As he later wrote, the Revolution was not a wild usurpation of power by the colonists but the even attempts to appeal to English precedent and the "old rights" already guaranteed them. If the King and the Parliament were to abandon the rights of an Englishman, then the American colonists would step forward to reassert them.

The attempts to squeeze revenue from the colonies began in 1764, when the American Act became the first to directly raise monies from the colonies. The following year, the colonies reacted angrily to the passing of the Stamp Act, which required everyone to purchase special paper for newspapers and legal documents. The internal tax faced significant opposition, and helped build organizations like the Sons of Liberty. John Adams' cousin, Samuel Adams helped found the Boston chapter of the Sons of Liberty. Coupled with the earlier Sugar Act, which placed tight restrictions on trade and organized jury-less trials for smugglers, the Stamp Act made clear a sea change in the approach of the Crown to the colonies. Adams and other colonists were more concerned by the blatantly unconstitutional Stamp Act–since English law required that no freeman be allowed to be taxed without his, or his proxy's, consent. Moreover, since violators of the act would be tried in Admiralty Courts, where a single judge presided with no jury, it was an alarming infringement upon fair trials in the colonies.

Bostonians arose in anger. When word came that Andrew Oliver, the provincial secretary, had been appointed stamp distributor, a mob burned him in effigy and burned his warehouse. The loyalist lieutenant governor, Thomas Hutchinson, became worried by the actions. Across the country, similar riots occurred and stamp distributors and stamp collectors were forced to renounce their offices under threat of death. However, businessmen across the region had to proceed with the stamps for fear of losing their business, and England responded to the unrest by closing many courts as commerce slowed to a standstill. Adams wrote a piece called "Braintree Instructions" declaring the new law unconstitutional.

The year 1764 was momentous for Adams for other reasons as well. He was elected to serve as surveyor of highways in Braintree, his first child, Nabby (named for Abigail Adams's nickname), was born, and his longest political essay yet, "A Dissertation on the Canon and Feudal Law," had been published in Boston. Professionally, Adams was excelling too. Samuel Fitch and his friend Jeremiah Gridley had approached Adams to ask for his help in founding a law club for the debate and celebration of law.

The "Dissertation" helped lay down some of Adams's feelings at the time, and explained some of the themes that Adams's liked as his law career grew and Revolution neared: Adams believed strongly in natural rights, that is, those rights that are inalienable or unchangeable. The "Dissertation," later criticized for being juvenile and naive, did express how Adams felt at the moment and is helpful in understanding his participation in the upcoming Revolution.

Liberty, that has been compelled to skulk about in Corners of the Earth, and been everlastingly persecuted by the great, the rich, the noble, the Reverend, the proud, the Lasey, the Ambitious, avaricious, and Revengeful, who have from the beginning constituted almost all the sons of Adam. Liberty, that complication of real Honour, Piety, Virtue Dignity, and Glory, which has never been enjoyd, in its full Perfection, by more than ten or twelve Millions of Men at any Time, since the Creation, will reign in America, over hundreds and Thousands of Millions at a Time.

In future ages, when the Bones and sinews that now direct this Pen, shall become indistinguishable from the rest of Mother Earth, and perhaps incorporate into some Plant or other Animal, Man shall make his true Figure, upon this Continent, He shall make that great and happy Figure among Intellectual and sensible reigns that his great Creator intended he should in other Countries before his Ruin was effected by the Lust of Tyrants.

When science, Literature, Civility, Politeness, Humanity, [every?] Christian grace and Virtue shall be well understood by all Men, when <> one shall not be able to deceive a Thousand and two because 10,000 of their Souls and Bodies then will be the Aera of human Happiness.

Knowledge monopolized, or in the Possession of a few, is a Curse to Mankind. We should dispense it among all Ranks. We should educate our children. Equality should be preserved in knowledge.

Property monopolized or in the Possession of a few is a Curse to Mankind. We should preserve not an Absolute Equality.—this is unnecessary, but preserve all from extreme Poverty, and all others from extravagant Riches.1

The Happiness of a Milion is in the sight of God, and in the Estimation of every honest and humane Mind, of more Importance, than that of 20 or an Hundred. Even tho the former may be called the Mob, the Vulgar, or the Herd, and tho the former may be called the reverd or right reverend, the honourable, or excellent, or noble, or puissant, or royal—for Happiness is Happiness to every human Creature, and they all feel nearly the Like Sensations from Hunger, Frost, from broken Bones, and bruised Flesh, notwithstand[ing] all such Accidental Titles of Dignity or Reproach.

Let us reverence, with hearty Gratitude, the Memory of the late Chief Justice Dudley,2 for his noble Foundation of a Lecture on the Validity of Presbyterian ordinations, an Institution, that will redound more to his Honor and that of his family, than all the offices, that could have been bestowd upon him by the Crown or the People, an Institution that has given every Friend to unsullied Liberty, a great Idea both of his foresight and Public Spirit.

MS (Adams Papers). These notes are located amidst a group of draft newspaper letters which JA wrote in 1763 and which CFA docketed: “Original Draughts of Newspaper Articles, signed U. 1763” (Adams Papers, Microfilms, Reel No. 343). However, internal evidence, particularly that of a thematic nature, indicates that they were actually written by JA in 1765 in conjunction with the composition of “A Dissertation on the Canon and the Feudal Law.” Like the published “Dissertation,” although in much more summary style, the notes deal with the themes of the natural dichotomy between power and liberty and the role of popular education in the preservation of freedom. Also like the published “Dissertation,” they pay tribute to the institution of the Dudleian Lecture at Harvard College. Because JA was heavily influenced by the Dudleian Lecture delivered by Jonathan Mayhew on 8 May 1765 (see below, No. IV, note 3, and No. V, note 2), there are good grounds for assuming that JA jotted down these notes no earlier than that date.

1. Although JA expounded at some length in his draft and in the finished version on the dangers of monopolized knowledge, he did not develop the theme of the dangers of monopolized property and of the extremes of wealth and poverty. His concentration on the monopolization of knowledge probably grew out of concern over the Stamp Act with its taxes on newspapers, college diplomas, and the like.

2. Paul Dudley (1675–1751) graduated from Harvard in 1690. He served as attorney general of Massachusetts from 1702 to 1718, Superior Court justice from 1718 to 1745, and chief justice of the same court from 1745 until his death. In his will he endowed Harvard with the funds for an annual lecture, soon known as the Dudleian Lecture, every fourth one of which was to be devoted to “the detecting and convicting and exposing the Idolatry of the Romish Church, Their Tyranny, Usurpations, damnable Heresies, fatal Errors, abominable Superstitions, and other crying Wickednesses in their high Places; And Finally that the Church of Rome is that mystical Babylon, that Man of Sin, That Apostate Church spoken of, in the New-Testament” (Sibley-Shipton, Harvard Graduates description begins John Langdon Sibley and Clifford K. Shipton, Biographical Sketches of Graduates of Harvard University, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Cambridge and Boston, 1873– . description ends , 4:42–53).