Having just discussed a work of Jefferson’s, I’d like to turn now to an essay written by a contemporary/rival/friend/enemy, the irascible, unsinkable John Adams. Specifically, I’d like to look at Adams’ Thoughts of Government, written in the spring of 1776 in response to a petition of the North Carolina Provincial Congress and whose main points became the basis of that state’s first constitution. It’s an interesting document, I think, because it seems to predict the three-part structure that would eventually be adopted by the United States Constitution in 1788/89, shows evidence of the philosophies and historical examples that influenced its author, and illustrates Adams’ at-times conflicted view of the relationship between government and the governed. Neither as radical as Jefferson nor as restrained as Washington, John Adams was a committed revolutionary who was at once enthusiastic about the future he perceived for his countrymen and pessimistic as to their capability of achieving it. Thoughts on Government provides evidence of this contradiction, and shines a spotlight on a turning point in early American history (after the beginning of the Revolution but before the colonies declared their independence).
Since I’ve already discussed, at length, the events that led up to the American Revolution and the drafting of the Declaration of Independence, I’ll confine this post to a discussion of Adams himself and the processes the various colonies went through in drafting each of their first constitutions.
Though often viewed as a relatively ineffective president, and derided by many of his contemporaries as a blustery, egomaniacal monarchist, John Adams was one of the most active figures of the early years of the American Revolution, whose efforts on behalf of the fledgling United States are arguably unequalled. Legislator, lawyer, political philosopher, farmer and diplomat, Adams was born in Braintree, Massachusetts in 1735. The son of a cobbler and Puritan Deacon, Adams was a member of one of the oldest families in Massachusetts and from a young age felt the need to live up to the legacy of his freedom-seeking ancestors. Though raised in relatively modest circumstances he was able to attended Harvard College and graduated in 1755. After spending a few years as a school teacher in Worcester he decided on the law, was apprenticed to local lawyer John Putnam, and was admitted to the bar in 1758. Never as charismatic or popular as his second cousin Samuel Adams, John achieved success through persistence, attention to detail, thorough study of the law, and intense analysis of historical example.
Adams’ path to national prominence began with his vocal opposition to the Stamp Act of 1765. As a member of the Braintree town meeting he penned a series of instructions for the community’s representatives at the Massachusetts General Court (the colony’s legislature) directing them to come out against the Act on the grounds that it violated elements of English law, and certain of the colonists’ established rights. The “Braintree Instructions” were later published in the Massachusetts Gazette and the Boston Gazette, adopted by forty other towns in the colony, and used as a basis for the instructions sent from Boston’s own town meeting. Five years later, Adams lent his services to the eight British soldiers accused of perpetrating the Boston Massacre in March, 1770. Though fearing the damage it would do to his growing reputation, he conducted a thorough defense wherein he called strict attention to the facts of the case (calling them “stubborn things”), asked the jury to disentangle themselves from their lingering bitterness over the ongoing dispute between the colonies and Parliament, and invoked English history and law and the principle of protecting innocence. Adams was ultimately successful in securing an acquittal for six of his clients (two were convicted of manslaughter) and was elected to serve in the Massachusetts General Court.
During his tenure in the legislature Adams continued to speak out against what he perceived as the overreach of the British Parliament and the fundamental sovereignty of the individual colonies, and in 1774 he was sent to preach these same views to the assembled delegates of the First Continental Congress in Philadelphia. He returned to the city in 1775 with the convening of the Second Continental Congress, and during his tenure there he worked tirelessly to promote unity among the colonies (aided by his recommendation of George Washington as Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army) and pushed for their eventual independence. Accordingly, he strongly supported the May, 1776 resolution of Virginian Richard Henry Lee that recommended the colonies draft new governments, a measure he saw as a major step toward complete autonomy from Britain. Well-known for his promotion of republican values, Adams was subsequently asked by a number of his colleagues in Philadelphia for advice on the proper structure of their new colonial governments. In response to a petition of the legislature of North Carolina Adams drafted as essay entitled Thoughts on Government, which was later published and distributed and became a seminal influence on the state constitutions that emerged in the months and years that followed.
Of the Thirteen Colonies that were represented in Philadelphia in 1776 and which became the core of the nascent United States, Connecticut and Rhode Island elected to keep the royal charters they had been granted as colonies in the 17th century, adhering to them in all matters that did not directly contradict their independence from Britain. Connecticut only received a new constitution in 1818, and Rhode Island kept to its original 1663 charter until forced by a popular rebellion to draft a new one in 1843. The eleven colonies that did set about drafting state constitutions in the 1770s did so under different circumstances and by different means.
Among his other instructions, Adams recommended that the colonies convene special conventions for the purpose of drafting their new charters, and that the resulting documents be submitted to the people for ratification. The special conventions, he argued, were preferable to leaving the task to the various state legislatures, as there would be nothing to stop those same representative bodies from altering or abolishing the constitutions at some later date. The calling of special conventions emphasized how unique and important the constitutions were, and the ratification process reinforced the ultimate authority of the general population. His native Massachusetts followed this path in 1779, under his guidance; as did Pennsylvania, Delaware, and Maryland in 1776 (though Maryland’s constitution wasn’t ratified by the people), and Georgia and New York in 1777. Against Adams’ recommendation, Virginia’s constitution was drafted and ratified by the state legislature in 1776. New Hampshire accomplished the same in January of that year, as did South Carolina in March and North Carolina in December. New Jersey’s constitution, intended as a stop-gap measure in the face of imminent British invasion, was composed by a small group of people over the course of five days and ratified by the legislature within forty-eight hours. Interestingly, New Jersey was the only state to allow women to vote (until it was rescinded in 1807, anyway), and in spite of its intended status as temporary the 1776 constitution remained in force for a further sixty-eight years.
These early state constitution varied in their content as well. Some contained a bill of rights similar to the one ratified by the British Parliament in 1689, suitably adapted to republican principles, while others did not. A few, like Pennsylvania’s, described a unicameral legislature (with only a single chamber of popularly elected representatives), while most others were bicameral (containing also a second chamber, usually referred to as a senate or council of state). None of the constitutions allowed for a popularly elected executive, but rather mandated that the legislature elect a president (usually for a single year-long term). Of these eleven documents, most were replaced within a few decades or in some cases only a few years, and Massachusetts’ 1779 constitution is the only one that remains in force (after 120 amendments). That being said, while the influence of Adams’ Thoughts on Government was not always strongly felt in the structure of the new constitutions, it played a significant part in underlying the logic behind their existence and the principles they sought to enshrine.