Scribbling for his country
He was short and stout, loquacious and irritable, a lawyer rather than a soldier. He was as smart as anybody he ever met, he read as voraciously as Jefferson, he had the moral courage of Washington, and he could work like ten men. His judgment was usually good, often exceptional – he was among the first to see that the colonies had no middle ground between submission and “independency”; he was the man who picked Washington for command; he was the man the new state governments turned to for advice on how to shape their legislatures and their courts.
He longed to be popular, but he didn’t have the trick. His personality seems to have been all downright planes and angles, with little softening. Who knows how different his life would have been, if he had been born the strong silent type, tall and handsome, with a few drops of diplomacy in his makeup, and Washington’s iron self-control? But that wasn’t his life. He was born – he made himself – honest John Adams, unable to truckle, to prevaricate, or to insinuate.
The odd thing, the sad thing, is that the extent and importance of his work for the revolution is nearly forgotten except by historians. Even at the time, he could feel it happening. He himself had proposed George Washington for the leadership of the Continental Army, and he knew it was the right thing to do, but he couldn’t help feeling a little envy when he saw the fame Washington won in the field. Pity the poor scholar, he said in effect somewhere, “scribbling for his country.”
That scribbling for his country had an enormous effect. Let us, for the moment, forget about his courageous defense of the British soldiers accused of murder in the Boston Massacre, and leave aside his entire political and diplomatic career. If he had never sailed for Europe, if he had never become vice-president or president, his impact on our history would still be as considerable, if not as obvious, as that of Washington or Jefferson, Madison or Hamilton.
In his old age, a friend recalled to him the days of the Continental Congress, when, he said, “you and Thomas Jefferson thought for us all.” So he did. He was a constitutional lawyer and a careful scholar, who marshaled historical examples to carry his points, and showed a continent how to reshape its legislative and judiciary institutions to function without kings.
The forerunner was 1772, in his work “Two Replies of the Massachusetts House of Representatives to Governor Hutchinson,” in which he wrote that the colonies were not, and never had been, subject to Parliament, but to the king. Then he wrote Novanglus (Latin for New England, of course), subtitled A History of the Dispute with America, From Its Origin, in 1754, to the Present Time. Here, using his extensive knowledge of English and colonial legal history, he systematically described the origins, nature, and jurisdiction of the unwritten British constitution, and argued that the colonies were connected to Great Britain only through the King, hence were sovereign over their own internal affairs.
These writings made his name among patriots. Massachusetts sent him to the Continental Congress as one of its representatives. There, in June, 1775, he nominated Washington to lead the new army. But he performed an even greater service in responding to requests from other representatives on how to reshape their state governments into republican institutions. His advice came out as “Thoughts on Government,” a pamphlet printed in April, 1776 that became a recognized authority, referred to by those who formed every state government. Among his recommendations, new for the time, were bicameral legislatures and a clear separation of executive, legislative, and judiciary powers. (Sound familiar?)
When it came time for the Declaration of Independence, a majority of the five-man committee thought Adams should be the one to write it, but Adams persuaded them to choose Jefferson instead. Then Adams argued for it in Congress until it won adoption.
That wasn’t the end of his scribbling, however. In September and October, 1779, between his first and second trips to France as envoy, he was one of three men who drafted the constitution of Massachusetts. That constitution included several firsts. It was the first to be written by a special committee and ratified by the people, and the first with a bicameral legislature, and a distinct executive with a partial veto (requiring a two-thirds vote to override), and a separate judicial branch.
From London in 1787, Adams published A Defense of the Constitutions of Government of the United States, defending bicameral legislatures in state governments and arguing for a system of checks and balances. “Power,” he wrote, “must be opposed to power, and interest to interest,” and it is said that Adams did as much as anyone to put the idea of “checks and balances” on the intellectual map. What is even more to the point in our day (because unpopular and often undreamed of) is his contention that any good government must recognize that every political society will include social classes. Hence, a stable government would be one that found a way to balance the principles of monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy (that is, Yeats’ “the one, the few, and the many”).
In Thoughts on Government, Adams said that “the very definition of a republic is an empire of laws, and not of men.” He did as much as any one man could to help bring that republic into being. Even disregarding his services as war minister, diplomat, vice president and president, John Adams did as much for his country as any other man of his generation, scribbling.