H105, American History I

John Adams, “A Dissertation on the Canon and the Feudal Law” (Boston Gazette, August 12 - October 21, 1765).

August 12, 1765

‘Ignorance and inconsideration are the two great causes of the ruin of mankind.’  This an observation of Dr. Tillotson, with relation to the interest of his fellow-men, in a future and immortal state:  But it is of equal truth and importance, if applied to the happiness of men in society, on this side the grave.  In the earliest ages of the world, absolute monarchy seems to have been the universal form of government.  Kings, and a few of their great counsellors and captains, exercised a cruel tyranny over the people who held a rank in the scale of intelligence, in those days, but little higher than the camels and elephants , that carried them and their engines to war.

By what causes it was bro’t to pass, that the people in the middle ages, became more intelligent in general, would not perhaps be possible in these days to discover:  But the fact is certain; and wherever a general knowledge and sensibility have prevail’d among the people, arbitrary government, and every kind of oppression, have lessened and disappeared in proportion.  Man has certainly an exalted soul! and the same principle in humane nature, that aspiring noble principle, founded in benevolence, and cherished by knowledge, I mean the love of power, which has been so often the cause of slavery, has, whenever freedom has existed, been the cause of freedom.  If it is this principle, that has always prompted the princes and nobles of the earth, by every species of fraud and violence, to shake off, all the limitations of their power; it is the same that has always stimulated the common people to aspire at independency, and to endeavor at confining the power of the great within the limits of equity and reason.

The poor people, it is true, have been much less successful than the great.  They have seldom found either leisure or opportunity to form an union and exert their strength — ignorant as they were of arts and letters, they have seldom been able to frame and support a regular opposition.  This, however, has been known, by the great, to be the temper of mankind, and they have accordingly laboured, in all ages, to wrest from the populace, as they are contemptuously called, the knowledge of their rights and wrongs, and the power to assert the former or redress the latter.  I say Rights, for such they have, undoubtedly, antecedent to all earthly government — Rights that cannot be repealed or restrained by human laws — Rights derived from the great legislator of the universe.

Since the promulgation of christianity, the two greatest systems of tyranny, that have sprung from this original, are the cannon and the feudal law.  The desire of dominion, that great principle by which we have attempted to account for so much good, and so much evil, is, when properly restrained, a very useful and noble movement in the human mind:  But when such restraints are taken off, it becomes an incroaching, grasping, restless and ungovernable power.  Numberless have been the systems of iniquity, contrived by the great, for the gratification of this passion in themselves:  but in none of them were they ever more successful, than in the invention and establishment of the cannon and feudal law.

By the former of these, the most refined, sublime, extensive, and astonishing constitution of policy, that ever was conceived by the mind of man, was framed by the Romish clergy for the aggrandisement of their own order.  All the epithets I have here given to the Romish policy are just:  and will be allowed to be so, when it is considered, that they even persuaded mankind to believe, faithfully and undoubtingly, that God almighty had intrusted them with the keys of heaven; whose gates they might open and close at pleasure — with a power of dispensation over all the rules and obligations of morality — with authority to license all sorts of sins and crimes — with a power of deposing princes, and absolving subjects from allegiance — with a power of procuring or withholding the rain of heaven and the beams of the sun — with the management of earthquakes, pestilence and famine.  Nay with the mysterious, awful, incomprehensible power of creating out of bread and wine, the flesh and blood of God himself.  All these opinions, they were enabled to spread and rivet among the people, by reducing their minds to a state of sordid ignorance and staring timidity; and by infusing into them a religious horror of letters and knowledge.  This was human nature chained fast for ages, in a cruel, shameful and deplorable servitude, to him and his subsequent tyrants, who, it was foretold, would exalt himself above all that was called God, and that was worshipped.

In the latter, we find another system similar in many respects, to the former:  which, altho’ it was originally formed perhaps, for the necessary defence of a barbarous people, against the inroads and invasions of her neighbouring nations; yet, for the same purposes of tyranny, cruelty and lust, which had dictated the cannon law, it was soon adopted by almost all the princes of Europe, and wrought into the constitutions of their government.  It was originally, a code of laws, for a vast army, in a perpetual encampment.  The general was invested with the sovereign propriety of all the lands within the territory.  Of him, as his servants and vassals, the first rank of his great officers held the lands:  and in the same manner, the first rank of his great officers held the lands:  and all ranks and degrees held their lands, by a variety of duties and services, all tending to bind the chains the faster, on every order of mankind.  In this manner, the common people were held together, in herds and clans, in a state of servile dependance on their lords; bound, even by the tenure of their lands to follow them, whenever they commanded, to their wars; and in a state of total ignorance of every thing divine and human, excepting the use of arms, and the culture of their lands.

But, another event still more calamitous to human liberty, was a wicked confederacy, between the two systems of tyranny above described.  It seems to have been even stipulated between the, that the temporal grandees should contribute every thing in their power to maintain the ascendency of the priesthood; and that the spiritual grandees, in their turn, should employ that ascendency over the consciences of the people, in impressing on their minds, a blind, implicit obedience to civil magistracy.

Thus, as long as this confederacy lasted, and the people were held in ignorance; Liberty, and with her, Knowledge, and Virtue too, seem to have deserted the earth; and one age of darkness, succeeded another, till God, in his benign providence, raised up the champions who began and conducted the reformation.  From the time of the reformation, to the first settlement of America, knowledge gradually spread in Europe, but especially in England; and in proportion as that increased and spread among the people, ecclesiastical and civil tyranny, which I use as synonimous expressions, for the cannon and feudal laws, seem to have lost their strength and weight.  The people grew more and more sensible of the wrong that was done them, by these systems; more and more impatient under it; and determined at all hazards to rid themselves of it; till, at last, under the execrable race of the Steuarts, the struggle between the people and the confederacy aforesaid of temporal and spiritual tyranny, become formidable, violent and bloody.

It was this great struggle, that peopled America.  It was not religion alone, as is commonly supposed; but it was a love of universal Liberty, and an hatred, a dread, an horror of the infernal confederacy, before described, that projected, conduct, and accomplished the settlement of America....

August 19, 1765

Thus accomplished were many of the first Planters of these Colonies.  It may be thought polite and fashionable, by many modern fine Gentlemen perhaps, to deride the Characters of these Persons, as enthusiastical, superstitious and republican:  But such ridicule is founded in nothing but foppery and affectation, and is grosly injurious and false.  Religious to some degree of enthusiasm it may be admitted they were; but this can be no peculiar derogation from their character, because it was at that time almost the universal character, not only of England, but of Christendom.  Had this however, been otherwise, their enthusiasm, considering the principles in which it was founded, and the ends to which it was directed, far from being a reproach to them, was greatly to their honour:  for I believe it will be found universally true, that no great enterprize, for the honour or happiness of mankind, was ever achieved, without a large mixture of that noble infirmity.  What imperfections may be justly ascribed to them, which however are as few, as any mortals have discovered their judgment in framing their policy, was founded in wise, humane and benevolent principles; It was founded in revelation, and in reason too; It was consistent with the principles, of the best, the greatest, and wisest legislators of antiquity.  Tyranny in every form, shape, and appearance was their disdain, and abhorrence; no fear of punishment, not even of Death itself, in exquisite tortures, had been sufficient to conquer, that steady, manly, pertenacious spirit, with which they had opposed the tyrants of those days, in church and state....

September 30 1765


They were convinced by their knowledge of human nature derived from history and their own experience, that nothing could preserve their posterity from the encroachments of the two systems of tyranny, in opposition to which, as has been observed already, they erected their government in church and state, but knowledge diffused generally thro’ the whole body of the people.  Their civil and religious principles, therefore, conspired to prompt them to use every measure, and take every precaution in their power, to propagate and perpetuate knowledge.  For this purpose they laid, very early the foundations of colleges, and invested them with ample priviledges and emoluments; and it is remarkable, that they have left among their posterity, so universal an affection and veneration for those seminaries, and for liberal education, that the meanest of the people contribute chearfully to the support and maintenance of them every year, and that nothing is more generally popular than projections for the honour, reputation and advantage of those seats of learning.  But the wisdom and benevolence of our fathers rested not here.  They made an early provision by law, that every town consisting of so many families, should be always furnished with a grammar school.  They made it a crime for such a town to be destitute of a grammar school master, for a few months, and subjected it to a heavy penalty.  So that the education of all ranks of people were made the care and expence of the public in a manner, that I believe has been unknown to any other people ancient or modern.

The consequences of these establishments we see and feel every day.  A native of America who cannot read and write is as rare an appearance, as a Jacobite or a Roman Catholic, i.e. as rare as a Comet or an Earthquake.  It has been observed, that we are all of us, lawyers, divines, politicians and philosophers.  And I have good authorities to say that all candid foreigners who have passed thro’ this country, and conversed freely with all sorts of people here, will allow, that they have never seen so much knowledge and civility among the common people in any part of the world.  It is true, there has been among us a party for some years, consisting chiefly not of the descendants of the first settlers of this country but of high churchmen and high statesmen, imported since, who affect to censure this provision for the education of our youth as a needless expence, and an imposition upon the rich in favour of the poor — and as an institution productive of idleness and vain speculation among the people, whose time and attention it is said ought to be devoted to labour, and not to public affairs or to examination into the conduct of their superiours.  And certain officers of the crown, and certain other missionaries of ignorance, foppery, servility and slavery, have been most inclined to countenance and increase the same party.  Be it remembred, however, that liberty must at all hazards be supported.  We have a right to it, derived from our Maker.  But if we had not, our fathers have earned, and bought it for us, at the expence of their ease, their estates, their pleasure, and their blood.  And liberty cannot be preserved without a general knowledge among the people, who have right from the frame of their nature, to knowledge, as their great Creator who does nothing in vain, has given them understandings, and a desire to know — but besides this they have a right, an indisputable, unalienable, indefeasible divine right to that most dreaded, and envied kind of knowledge, I mean of the characters and conduct of their rulers.  Rulers are no more than attorneys, agents and trustees for the people; and if the cause, the interest and trust is insidiously betray’d, or wantonly trifled away, the people have a right to revoke the authority, that they themselves have deputed, and to constitute abler and better agents, attorneys and trustees.  And the preservation of the means of knowledge, among the lowest ranks, is of more importance to the public, than all the property of all the rich men in the country.  It is even of more consequence to the rich themselves, and to their posterity....

Be not intimidated therefore, by any terrors, from publishing with the utmost freedom, whatever can be warranted by the laws of your country; nor suffer yourselves to be wheedled out of your liberty, by any pretences of politeness, delicacy or decency.  These as they are often used, are but three different names, for hypocrisy, chicanery and cowardice.  Much less I presume will you be discouraged by any pretences, that malignant’s on this side the water will represent your paper as factious and seditious, or that the Great on the other side the water will take offence at them.  This Dread of representation, has had for a long time in this province effects very similar to what the physicians call an hyropho, or dread of water.  It has made us delirious.  And we have rushed headlong into the water, till we are almost drowned, out of simple or phrensical fear of it.  Believe me, the character of this country has suffered more in Britain, by the pusillanimity with which we have borne many insults and indignities from the creatures of power at home, and the creatures of those creatures here, than it ever did or ever will by the freedom and spirit that has been or will be discovered in writing, or action.  Believe me my countrymen, they have imbibed an opinion on the other side the water, that we are an ignorant, a timid and a stupid people, nay their tools on this side have often the impudence to dispute your bravery.  But I hope in God the time is near at hand, when they will be fully convinced of your understanding, integrity and courage....

The true source of our sufferings, has been our timidity.

October 21, 1765

We have been afraid to think.  We have felt a reluctance to examining into the grounds of our privileges, and the extent in which we have an indisputable right to demand them against all the power and authority on earth....

The cause of this timidity is perhaps hereditary and to be traced back in history, as far as the cruel treatment the first settlers of this country received, before their embarkation for America, from the government at Home.  Every body knows how dangerous it was to speak or write in favour of any thing in those days, but the triumphant system of religion and politicks.  And our fathers were particularly, the objects of the persecutions and proscriptions of the times.  It is not unlikely therefore, that, although they were inflexibly steady in refusing their positive assent to any thing against their principles, they might have contracted habits of reserve, and a cautious diffidence of asserting their opinions publickly.  These habits they probably brought with them to America, and have transmitted down to us .... These peculiar causes might operate upon them; but without these we all know, that human nature itself, from indolence, modesty, humanity or fear, has always too much reluctance to a manly assertion of its rights.  Hence perhaps it has happened that nine tenths of the species, are groaning and gasping in misery and servitude.