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Conversations with America: It's Hard to Love the Puritans

Updated on April 24, 2011

John Adams Doesn't Get Invited to Dinner

No one wants to live with a saint. Certainly, no one wants to live with someone who spends their entire day proving they are a saint, volubly, seriously, and without forgetting to point out the many less than saintly people they have met. Saints, like our Puritan ancestors, are not noted for their sense of humor, and I suspect they, like our Puritan ancestors, made bad neighbors.

We remember of the Puritans so very little, and think in that little we have captured the truth of them: a dour, narrow, joyless sort of people, reducing the world to a bleak, dull gray, killing all not quite bleak enough to suit them. They were a people of sermons and righteousness, that kind of righteousness that breaks other men's heads.

There was that in Puritans, of course. It takes that sort of commitment and uncompromising virtue to applaud "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God" or detect God's hand in the destruction of one's (Native American) neighbors. I do not think I would be comfortable at a Puritan dinner party, nor would a Puritan have a pleasant evening at my table. One or the other of us would have a black eye before the dishes cleared.

Yet, there was more to the Puritans than this, and their descendents put commitment and uncompromising virtue to good use. We have only to look to John Adams to find the value of the Puritans in America. John Adams is the Founding Father we respect from a distance, but do not love, as we love Thomas Jefferson despite his inconstancy and George Washington despite his dull silence. There is something off-putting about Adams, something too severe for our comfort in his character. It is easier to feel affection for other Founders, but Adams was a better man than most of them.

The Adams family of Braintree, Massachusetts, was started in 1638, when Henry Adams, his wife, and their 9 children arrived in the town, part of the Puritan migration that followed the founding of Massachusetts Bay Colony. The youngest son of this large family, Joseph, remained in Braintree, had a son also named Joseph. Joseph the Younger married Hannah Bass with whom he had 11 children, including one John, born in 1691. John married Susanna Boylston, a woman above his station with a fiery temper, and their first child, born October 19, 1735 by the Old Calendar, October 30 by the Gregorian calendar adopted by England in 1752, was named John for his father1.

John Adams was proud of his ancestry, their moral strength, their independence, their will to work right and well. His father had great plans for him, convinced that his intelligence merited an investment. He sent John to Harvard on a partial scholarship when John was 15. Harvard introduced John Adams to society, which he found he enjoyed, books, which he found he could not live without, the sciences and his own talent for debate2. His interest in science had a solid Puritan base, for the Puritans, despite our dour picture of them, were certain that God had given man reason in order to understand the world and the world's beauty for man's pleasure. The wonder of the world confirmed the glory of God, and to appreciate it was man's duty and his honor.

Harvard also convinced Adams that he did not want to be a minister, and he thought law a good alternative. However, he did not have the money required to pay an attorney to guide him in the reading of law, and so, to earn the fee, he went to work as a teacher in Worcester3. In the summer of 1756 he could wait no longer. Life was moving on without him. He placed himself under James Putnam, a young attorney who allowed him to pay the agreed upon $100 fee when convenient to him, continued teaching during the day, and read law with an eye to mastering it. In 1758, he went home to Braintree. He was admitted to the bar in Boston, November 6, 17594.

Adams was, then, a lawyer who worked his own farm and dreamt of gaining distinction and renown, of playing some great role in the world while retaining his honor. He was a shy, nervous, awkward, proud man, with a brilliant mind, bleak moods, a remarkable memory, a liking for amiable society, and a fierce loyalty to friends, despite strains and disagreements. He was also, strangest of all, an honest man, and a man honest with the one person with whom it is most difficult, and most necessary, to deal forthrightly--himself. Thomas Jefferson was not. George Washington was far too busy shaping himself into a Roman in the New World to be so. Adams recognized his faults, and worried over them, seeking ways to amend the flaws in his character; he could, and did, disturb others by stating their flaws and ways in which they might be amended. His candor could be chilling.

He married well. Abigail Smith was his equal in character, intelligence, and conviction. She did not shy from stating her beliefs, and her beliefs tended to mirror and reinforce his own. They shared a moral standing, a way of looking at the world, though she was less harsh on others and he more in need of the support of affection, from his best friend-wife, but also from acquaintances in the world outside. He wanted to be loved and admired, but his honesty told him that this could not be so, not all the time, not with his flaws and failings. When the rumblings of the revolution began, Adams was a married farmer-lawyer, devoted to his family, loyal to his friends, still waiting for his moment, for his chance at greatness, for the one thing that would summon all his talents in its service.

That one thing was not new, after all, but independence, a virtue he had always believed in, writ large over all the colonies and against the tyranny of Britain, the evils of the Stamp Act, Britain's first attempt to tax the colonists directly. Here was Adams's moment, and he came at it as a lawyer, with A Dissertation on the Canon and the Feudal Law, published in England as The True Sentiments of America, in which he claimed the freedoms Americans claimed were rights established in British law and strengthened by their own sacrifice and courage over generations5.

The Dissertationwas followed by instructions from Braintree's freeholders to their General Court [the legislature of the Massachusetts colony], printed in October and rapidly adopted by forty towns. These Instructions again deployed legal argument in the furtherance of independence: 'no taxation without representation', Adams proclaimed, was a principle of English law, and he rejected the juryless trials of the Admiralty Court as a means of enforcing a law, even one as incendiary as the Stamp Act. Now Adams, the small-town lawyer, had been found by his moment, and acted for a great and honorable cause in the company of the great men of Boston. That December, Adams wrote in his journal: "The enormous engine fabricated by the British Parliament for battering down the rights and liberties of America, I mean the Stamp Act, has raised and spread through the whole continent a spirit that will be recorded to our honor, with all future generations"6.

The Stamp Act was repealed and Adams returned to his Braintree law practice, handling cases high and low, dealing with and observing the men of Massachusetts in all their occupations and varied character. In 1768, he established a Boston office and took under his wing two clerks, Jonathan Austin and William Tudor, who paid him £10 each to read law under his direction. This year also witnessed the military occupation of Boston, as Parliament, anticipating resistance to a new series of taxes, sent British soldiers to maintain order in the mob-happy city. The military occupation and the restive Bostonians provided John Adams with what he later described as "one of the most gallant, generous, manly and disinterested actions of my whole life, and one of the best pieces of service I ever rendered my country"7.

The Boston Massacre in March 1770 provided America with its first Revolutionary martyrs and roused Boston to a fever of indignation and anger. Captain Preston and eight soldiers were tried for their actions that day, and John Adams, committed to liberty, defended them all. He knew when he accepted the case, and the only money he would ever receive for it, ten guineas, that by doing so he was risking his reputation, the faith of others in his principles and love of liberty, and the admiration of which he was so inordinately fond. However, he believed that in a free society every man accused had a right to counsel and to a fair trial, and he had the courage of his beliefs even when these came at great personal cost.

Captain Preston was tried in October. It was not proven that he gave an order to shoot, and he was acquitted. In December the eight soldiers were tried in two days. Adams' defense lay the blame for the incident squarely on the mob which began the attack, and on the English government which by quartering soldiers in the city had made the mob and the clash between the two inevitable. The soldiers had acted in self-defense. He appealed to the jurors to attend to the facts, not their passions and inclinations:

"Facts are stubborn things and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictums of our passions, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence"8.

He declared the principle which has fed the most noble actions of defense lawyers throughout the history of this country:

"it's of more importance to community, that innocence should be protected, than it is, that guilt should be punished"9.

Six of the eight soldiers were acquitted, the two others convicted of manslaughter and their thumbs branded. Adams had done his job, and done well by his country as well, providing an answer to the passions of the massacre in the exercise of disinterest and reason in the service of justice.

Gordon S. Wood characterizes Adams as defiant:

"No one prided himself more on his independence, on being his own man, under obligation to no one. He defied his father in choosing a career as a lawyer rather than as a clergyman. In 1770 he took on the defense of the soldiers who had killed five of his countrymen in the 'Boston Massacre'. He defied many of his fellow patriots in 1774 by defending a Loyalist victim of a mob. In Europe, negotiating the peace in the early 1780s, he defied everyone: Congress, his colleagues, and the country's French ally. He had not guile whatsoever and seemed to take a stubborn pride in the snubs and sneers that he often received for his cantankerous and outspoken opinions"10.

He was defiant, and that very defiance, that willingness to be on the 'wrong' side when his principles, intellect, and passions commanded it, are qualities necessary to the existence of a principled minority, a loyal opposition, in a functioning republic. For he did not place himself apart without reason, and he rarely allowed his public positions to be determined by passion alone; he was too aware of himself, too attentive to his own psychology and dangerous vanity, to play the game of opposing without plan, advocating destruction with no means of creation. Adams may have been less fun at a dinner party than Thomas Jefferson, although that may testify more to our lack of understanding for the man than to his character as friend and guest, but his defiance, his commitment to principle and to the steady work of reason, not only to its brilliant play, is as fundamental to a functioning democracy as the ideals to which Jefferson so ably gave voice.


John Adams has been brought out of obscurity and the shadow of his wife, Abigail, by David McCullough'sJohn Adams(Simon & Schuster, 2001), recently the basis for an HBO series. This biography is my main source for this essay, supplemented by letters between John and Abigail Adams, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, and Gordon S. Wood's essay on Adams in hisRevolutionary Characters: What Made the Founders Different(Penguin Group, 2006).

  1. McCullough, p. 29-30
  2. McCullough, p. 34
  3. McCullough, p. 37
  4. McCullough, p. 42
  5. McCullough, p. 59
  6. McCullough, 61-3
  7. qtd. McCullough, p. 68
  8. qtd. McCullough, p. 68
  9. qtd. McCullough, p. 68
  10. Wood, Gordon S.Revolutionary Characters: What made the Founding Fathers Different. Penguin Group Inc., 2006. p. 176.

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