Happy birthday, Samuel Adams!

September 27th, 2012

On September 27, 1722, the American patriot Samuel Adams was born in Boston. Intensely interested in politics–often at the expense of his business ventures–in 1748 Adams helped to launch the Independent Advertiser, a weekly newspaper to which he would contribute essays arguing in favor of the colonists’  rights as British citizens. In 1765, Adams was elected to represent Boston in the Massachusetts House of Representatives, in which he argued vehemently against the British Stamp Acts and other precursors to the Intolerable Acts. After taking a leading role in organizing the famous Boston Tea Party in December of 1773, Adams joined others in calling for the creation of an intercolonial congress to meet in September of 1774. This meeting became known as the First Continental Congress, of which he was a member. Two years later, he also served as a member of the Second Continental Congress, signing the Declaration of Independence in July of 1776 and working to draft the Articles of Confederation, which were sent to the states for ratification in November of 1777. He retired from the Congress in 1781, returning to Massachusetts to serve as the president of the state senate. In 1788, as a member of the Massachusetts ratifying convention, he voted for the adoption of the United States Constitution, with the understanding that a Bill of Rights would soon be added to it. In 1789, he was elected lieutenant governor of Massachusetts, and in 1793 he became governor of the state. He retired from public office in 1797, and died in October of 1803.

In this article, published in the Boston Gazette on February 27, 1769, after British troops had arrived to occupy Boston, Adams argues for the rights of the colonists:

At the [English Civil War], the British constitution was again restor’d to its original principles, declared in the bill of rights; which was afterwards pass’d into a law, and stands as a bulwark to the natural rights of subjects. “To vindicate these rights, says Mr. Blackstone, when actually violated or attack’d, the subjects of England are entitled first to the regular administration and free course of justice in the courts of law–next to the right of petitioning the King and parliament for redress of grievances–and lastly, to the right of having and using arms for self-preservation and defence.” These he calls “auxiliary subordinate rights, which serve principally as barriers to protect and maintain inviolate the three great and primary rights of personal security, personal liberty and private property.” […]

How little do those persons attend to the rights of the constitution, if they know anything about them, who find fault with a late vote of this town, calling upon the inhabitants to provide themselves with arms for their defence at any time; but more especially, when they had reason to fear, there would be a necessity of the means of self preservation against the violence of oppression. — Every one knows that the exercise of the military power is forever dangerous to civil rights; and we have had recent instances of violences that have been offer’d to private subjects.. Such violences are no more than might have been expected from military troops: A power, which is apt enough at all times to take a wanton lead, even when in the midst of civil society; but more especially so, when they are led to believe that they are become necessary , to awe a spirit of rebellion, and preserve peace and good order.

No wonder that a resolution of this town to keep arms for its own defence, should be represented as having at bottom a secret intention to oppose the landing of the King’s troops: when those very persons, who gave it this colouring, had before represented the peoples petitioning their Sovereign, as proceeding from a factious and rebellious spirit […]

In the article (which you can read in its entirety here), Adams decries the loss of liberties leading up to the English Civil War (1642-51) as well as the failings of subsequent English monarchs. Nonetheless, his arguments relied on British common law and the English Bill of Rights of 1689. Why does Adams frame his argument as an appeal to British liberties, while simultaneously criticizing the government? How does this approach foreshadow the arguments made in the Declaration of Independence? What specific grievances does Adams cite as violation of British rights? Adams mentions both “civil and rights” and “natural rights.” Does he distinguish between the two types of liberties?

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