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John Adams, Revolutionary and Man of Law

Historian R. B. Bernstein examines how John Adams brought English Constitutionalism to America
By R.B. Bernstein
Published on August 4, 2020

Education of John Adams

People often forget that John Adams was a lawyer. To be sure, he never went to law school, but in the days before the American Revolution there were no law schools in the American colonies.

Most American lawyers studied law in apprenticeship to a senior member of the bar. They had to read the writings of such learned English jurists as Sir Edward Coke and Sir Matthew Hale, commentaries on the law of wills and estates by Gratian and Justinian, the writings and orations of Cicero, and law reports from medieval and early modern England. They also had to copy pages and pages of legal pleadings and arguments, absorbing the hard way the kinds of papers - writs, deeds, orders, contracts, depositions, and letters - that lawyers had to prepare and analyze as part of their practice.

Some lawyers were lucky enough to have learned and industrious mentors, such as Thomas Jefferson who revered his mentor George Wythe. Others were not so lucky.

John Adams was one of the unlucky ones. His mentor, the Worcester lawyer James Putnam, was lackadaisical and indifferent in supervising John Adams's legal studies. Adams soon realized that he could not rely on Putnam, despite the fees he had paid him. He would have to teach himself the law. And so he did, in two long bouts of self-guided legal study, during which he constantly upbraided himself for not working harder.

What was the law that he taught himself? In essence, it was the common law of England, as adapted to the conditions of Massachusetts. At its core was a bewilderingly complex set of legal concepts known as the forms of action at common law. Each kind of lawsuit had to correspond to the right form of action. You began a lawsuit by filing a writ, and each and every element of that writ had to match the appropriate form of action. The least mistake could result in a court's dismissal of the writ, a nonsuit, which would put out the unlucky party's lawsuit, or defense to that lawsuit, like a candle. That, in fact, was what happened to John Adams's first lawsuit, and he chewed himself out for weeks thereafter.

Constant reading and study trained the young John Adams to avoid similar mistakes. In tandem, he built one of the richest private libraries in the colonies and the best and most active legal practice in New England.

Adams was one of the first American lawyers to subscribe to the first American edition of Sir William Blackstone's Commentaries on English Law, and in his defense of the British soldiers on trial for the Boston Massacre he quoted the Italian law reform advocate the Marquis Cesare do Beccaria's On Crimes and Punishments, showing that his legal thinking also drew on cutting-edge thinking of the European Enlightenment. Decades later, when his youngest son Thomas Boylston Adams began the study of law, the elder Adams presented him with a copy of Beccaria.

But closest to Adams's heart was the unwritten English Constitution. It was the foundation of his earliest pamphlet, A Dissertation on the Canon and the Feudal Law (1765), and of his powerful polemical series of essays, Novanglus. Even in one of his early cases, when he sued a master on behalf of an apprentice, he grounded his arguments on the need for an Englishman to be educated to exercise his rights and responsibilities under that Constitution. Similarly, he framed all his arguments for the American cause within the intellectual framework of English Constitutionalism and English law. Indeed, when he drafted a resolution for the Second Continental Congress instructing the colonies to write new state constitutions, he argued that George III had forced this step on the Americans by violating his duties under the British Constitution. Jefferson made the same point in his draft of the Declaration of Independence; they drew on the same body of ideas and arguments.

John Adams was a special kind of revolutionary -- one acting on behalf of the principles of the unwritten constitution of England. And he did so in the constructive work of revolution, as well as the destructive work of revolution. When in 1779 he got to prepare the draft of the Constitution of Massachusetts, adopted in 1780, he applied and gave voice to the lessons that he had learned as a Massachusets lawyer and revolutionary advocate, applying the wisdom codified in his greatest pamphlet, Thoughts on Government, Applicable to the Present State of the American Colonies. That pamphlet, a great guide to the constructive side of revolution, influenced the framing and adoption of many of the state constitutions, and indirectly the framing and adoption of the Constitution of the United States in 1787-1788. So did his Massachusetts Constitution of 1780, which became a source for the U.S. Constitution. Thus, John Adams, an "absent framer" of that Constitution, was always a spokesman for the ideals and principles of English Constitutionalism that he had studied and taught for so long.

R. B. Bernstein, who teaches politics and law at the City College of New York, is author most recently of The Education of John Adams, published by Oxford University Press in 2020.

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