What turned Adams and Jefferson into Revolutionaries?

John Turnball’s painting Declaration of Independence, Library of Congress

As Founding Fathers, they went together like a hand-thrown, ceramic pitcher and a French porcelain teacup. Neither was afraid to break some China. After all, they were poised to upset the 18th century world order. Their political differences surfaced early on–fierce disagreements about the size and cost of government–but for the sake of the Revolution, they soldiered on. What turned these solid, British subjects trained in the English legal system into firebrand Revolutionaries?

Ambitious men, both Adams and Jefferson benefited from their links to the Crown prior to the Indominable Acts, which taxed and punished the Colonists for failing to be subservient to England. Some would say the Boston Tea Party, when white men dressed up as Native Americans to dump expensive English tea into the harbor, showed the ire of the Colonists.

Mounting Fury and Ambition

Pictured by some as Mutt and Jeff–Adams the pudgy midget straining to reach five foot compared with Jefferson, the ramrod six footer. Adams struggled to show up in a proper powdered wig and tidy attire, while Jefferson made certain his dress mirrored the image of a suive squire entering the drawing room. Adams, the simple New England farmer of moderate means who through the force of character became an outstanding, affluent lawyer who inspired and moved legislative bodies to action with his oration. The younger Jefferson rarely rose to speak in any legislative body, saving his ideas for smaller groups, but he had a wicked, mighty pen–a talent Adams recognized soon enough.

In February 1770, a mob attacked the residence of an informer for the Custom service, who fired on the crowd and killed a young boy. The next week off-duty soldiers and dock workers lost control and a brawl ensured near the water. The Sons of Liberty in London, who supported the Colonists, warned, “America is on the point of bursting into flames.” (1)

The following month the Boston Masacre took place on March 5, 1770. Bostonians were protesting economic restraints outside the Customs House when five people were killed and others injured by British soldiers. Sdams called it the “slaughter in King Street,” others referred to it as the Boston Massacre. (2) King George retreated from all except the tax on tea. Adams thought the protests would recede and never surface again.

Adams Defends British Soldiers in Court

Protesters led by John’s cousin, Samuel, sought to have John defend the soldiers, not wanting the trial appear to be a sham. John accepted, but not for a grand fee, he said he earned around 18 guineas (about the cost of a pair of shoes). (3) Rather he believed the soldiers deserved a fair trial, but he also knew the trial would showcase his ability as a defense attorney, raising his reputation as one of the most distinguished lawyers in the country.

He’d been bitten by the political bug an sought a seat in the Massachusetts Legislature. Political payoff it may not have been, but before the trial ended, one of Boston’s four legislators resigned his assembly seat and Adams was elected as his replacement.” (4) He began by getting the trial postponed, allowing tempers to cool. Adams kept up his end of the argain, according to one in the audience delivering “the finest speech I ever heard in my life–equal to the greatest orator that ever spoke in Rome or Greece.” (5)

Wear and Tear of the Circuit

Like Lincoln in Illinois sixty years later, Adams rode a jusicial circuit prior to the Revolution from Maine to Boston and Cap Cod to the western frontier in Berkshire Count. He called this a “maked, barren journey” of a vagabond that “starved his soul.” (6) During the French and Indian War, Adams became caught up in the spirit of the British Army and wanted to join it in his youth, but followed the law as a career.

In 1761 British customs officials in Boston demanded pament from Americans in the form of “writs of assistance.” Pervasive searches of cargo attempted to discover smuggled goods in violation of imperial trade laws. Adams attended the subsequent trial, saying his concept of American independence came out of those trials. He began to picture Britain as a “haughty, powerful nation who held us in great contempt.” (7)

Adams realized that a collision with Great Britain could be inevitable, but at the time he focused on his practice and his courtship of Abigail. By 1765, Adams feared that his legal reputation would sufer if he openly criticized the mother country. (8) Two years later Britain had won Canada and everything east of the Mississippi River, but struggled mightily to pay for the war, so looked to the Colonies to help reduce the British debt through the Sugar Act of 1764 and the Stamp Act of 1765.

The Sugar Act did not amount to much bu the Stamp Act unleashed the furor lurking below the surface. Stamp distributors were threatened and acts of violence forced several out of office. Economic boycotts began and the Virginia House of Burgesses denounced them. Yet Adams still doubted the staying power of the crisis, seeing the potential to become “an ecormous Engine fabricated. . .for battering down all the Rights and Liberties of America.” (9)

“We are in no Sense represented”

Cousin Samuel named John to a panel to urge Governor Francis Bernard to reoped the provincial courts closed by the stamp Act. Adams told the governor that the tax was unconstitutional because it was enacted “where we are in no Sense represented. . . A Parliament of Great Britain can have no more Right to tax the Colonies than a Parliament of Paris.” Paris.” (10)

Adams, who began life philosophically closer to the British from his stud o the law, said this situation turned him into a revolutionary. (11) In 1766, relieved when the British repealed the Stamp Act, Adams began his climb up the political ladder on Braintree’s Board of Selectment, following in the footsteps of his father, who help the office for nine terms. John achieved this post just seven years into his legal career at thirty.

But the British weren’t done punishing the Colonists and imposted the Townshend Duting on glass, lead, paint, paper, and tea imported into America and created a board of customs to enforce them. In New York the assembly was suspended for falling to house the British army, bu only minor resistance occurred initially. Then the British impounded the ship of patroit John Hancock’s slook, Liberty, and charged him with smuggling. From early on he’d used his wealth to support patriot causes. This action seemed a retaliation by the British. Adams defended Hancock in court and the charges were dropped. Bostonians erupted immediately when Hancock’s ship was seized and the economic boycott of Britain began in Boston, New York, and Philadelphia. (12)

Washington stepped up in 1770, now bored with foxhunting (perhaps the 18th century Virginia plantation equivalent of golf) and his daily tours of his plantation on horseback. He invited his neighbor and noted legislator george Mason over to draft a boycott plan. Washington also joined the assembly committee to strengthen enforcement of the boycott.

Jefferson Rises

As a twenty-two year old law student in 1765, Jefferson listened in the hallway to Patrick Henry’s attack on the Stamp Act, he immediately learned of Henry’s capacity to move men to action. Jefferson later spoke of the “torrents of sublime eloquence” that sparked “the dawn of the Revolution.” He signed Washington’s embargo, but obviousl was not totally onboard as he ordered a mahogany piano and windows from England, saying the piano would be stored until the embargo ended. (13)

When Henry spoke at the Second Virginia Convention March 23, 1775, at St. John’s Church in Richmond, he moved Jeffersona nd his countrymen to action, whether they be from Vrginia, Pennsylvanie, New York, or New England.”I am not a Virginian,” he said.”I am an American,” pushing for solidarity that spoke to his countrymen and may be slipping away for some today. Henry motivated the Colonies to law aside their unrealistic visions that the British would come around, but now they prepared to fight. (14)

“Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery?” He held his wrists together for his audience, as though they were in chains.”Almighty God! I know not what cause others might takebut as for me, give me liverty,” and he grasped an ivory penknife and thrust it into his chest, “or give me death.” Thereafter Virginians established militia in each county to prepare themselves.Concord and Lexington occurred in Massachusetts less than a month later on April 19, 1775, opening the Revolutionary War. (15)

Stay tuned for more Tales of the Founders in Past Becomes Present next week.

(1) John Ferling, Setting the World on Fire, (New York: Oxford Press, 2000)  p. 77.

(2) (3) Ibid.

(4) L. H. Butterfield, et. al, eds, The Dairy and Autobiography of John Adams, 4 vol. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Press, 1961), 3:292-94.

(5) Ferling, p. 57.

(6) Ibid, 58.

(7) Ferling, 69.

(8) Ibid, p. 64.

(9) Ferling, p 70.

(10) John Adams, “A Dissertation on the Canon and Feudal Law.”

(11) Ferling,p.71.

(12) Ibid., 74.

(13) John Ellis, American Sphinx, (New York: Alfred Knopf, 2000), p. 28, 32-33.

(14) Ferling, p. 76

(15) Ibid, p. 78.

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