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John Adams

Clouds of Revolution

John Adams, Esq. and Husband

War Approaches

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.

On December 19, Adams was appointed to a committee of three–himself, Gridley and Otis–to appear before Governor Bernard and asked that the courts be reopened without stamped papers. The governor vaguely answered the committee but promised nothing. Bowing to public pressure, the Inferior Court reopened in January without using stamps–but the Superior Court accomplished almost nothing until the Stamp Act was repealed. Adams noted in December, "the year 1765 has been the most remarkable year of my life."

Adams continued his letter writing campaign in 1766, signing his letters to the editor, "Clarendon," after a loyalist from the Revolution of 1640. Parliament finally repealed the dreaded Stamp Act in the spring, but at the same time reasserted its right to pass laws governing the colonies–a move that would lead to the Declaration Acts. Without any colonial representation in Parliament, the body misinterpreted the colonists' objections to the Stamp Act and began to pass more external taxes, like customs duties.

In 1767, Parliament passed the Townshend Acts, named after the Chancellor of the Exchequer Charles Townshend. The duties would establish a fund to pay colonial governors. This move, too, was met with strong resistance because one of the few powers the colonial governments could wield was to set the salary of the Crown-appointed governor. The next battle lines had been drawn.

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