Adams Papers

[In Congress, January–June 1776]
[from the Autobiography of John Adams]

[In Congress, January–June 1776]

I returned to my daily routine of Service in the Board of War,1 and a punctual Attendance on Congress, every day, in all their hours. I returned also to my almost dayley exhortations to the Institutions of Governments in the States and a declaration of Independence. I soon found there was a Whispering among the Partisans in Opposition to Independence, that I was interested, that I held an office under the New Government of Massachusetts, and that I was afraid of loosing it, if We did not declare Independence; and that I consequently ought not to be attended to. This they circulated so successfully that they got it insinuated among the Members of the Legislature in Maryland where their Friends were powerfull enough to give an Instruction to their Delegates in Congress, warning them against listening to the Advice of Interested Persons, and manifestly pointing me out, to the Understanding of every one. This Instruction was read in Congress.2It produced no other effect upon me than a laughing Letter to my Friend Mr. Chace, who regarded it no more than I did.3 These Chuckles I was informed of and witnessed for many Weeks, and at length they broke out in a very extraordinary Manner. When I had been speaking one day on the Subject of Independence, or the Institution of Governments which I always considered as the same thing, a Gentleman of great Fortune and high Rank arose and said he should move, that No Person who held any Office under a new Government should be admitted to vote, on any such Question as they were interested Persons. I wondered at the Simplicity of this motion: but knew very well what to do with it. I rose from my Seat with great coolness and deliberation: So far from expressing or feeling any resentment, I really felt gay, though as it happened I preserved an unusual Gravity in my countenance and Air, and said Mr. President I will second the Gentlemans Motion, and I recommend it to the Honourable Gentleman to second another, which I should make, vizt. that No Gentleman who holds any Office under the Old or present Government, should be admitted to vote on any such question, as they were interested Persons. The moment when this was pronounced, it flew like an Electric Stroke through every Countenance in the Room: for the Gentleman who made the Motion, held as high an Office under the old Government, as I did under the new, and many other Members present held Offices under the Royal Government. My Friends accordingly were delighted with my retaliation, and The Friends of my Antagonist were mortified at his Indiscretion in exposing himself to such a retort. Finding the house in a good disposition to hear me, I added I would go farther and chearfully consent to a Self denying Ordinance, that every Member of Congress before We proceeded to any question respecting Independence should take a solemn Oath never to accept or hold any Office of any kind in America, after the Revolution. Mr. Wythe of Virginia rose here and said Congress had no Right to exclude any of their Members from voting on these questions. Their constituents only had a right to restrain them. And that no Member had a right to take, nor Congress to prescribe any Engagement not to hold Offices after the Revolution or before. Again I replied that whether the Gentlemans Opinion was well or ill founded, I had only said that I was willing to consent to such an Arrangement. That I knew very well what these Things meant. They were personal Attacks upon me, and I was glad that at length they had been made publickly where I could defend myself. That I knew very well, that they had been made secretly, and circulated in Whispers not only in the City of Philadelphia and State of Pensilvania, but in the Neighbouring States particularly Maryland, and very probably in private Letters throughout the Union. I now took the Opportunity to declare in Public, that it was very true, the unmerited and unsolicited, though unanimous good Will of the Council of Massachusetts had appointed me to an important Office, that of Chief Justice. That as this Office was a very conspicuous station and consequently a dangerous one, I had not dared to refuse it, because it was a Post of Danger, though by the Acceptance of it, I was obliged to relinquish another Office, meaning my Barristers Office which was more than four times so profitable. That it was a Sense of Duty, and a full conviction of an honest cause, and not any motives of Ambition or hopes of honor or profit which had drawn me into my present course. That I had seen enough already in the course of my own Experience, to know that the American Cause was not the most promising road, to Profits, honours, Power or Pleasure. That on the Contrary a man must renounce all these and devote himself to labour, danger and death, and very possibly to disgrace and Infamy, before he was fit, in my Judgment in the present State and future prospect of the Country, for a Seat in that Congress. This whole Scaene was a Comedy to Charles Thompson whose countenance was in raptures all the time. When all was over he told me he had been highly delighted with it, because he had been witness to many of their Conversations in which they had endeavoured to excite and propagate Prejudices against me, on Account of my Office of Chief Justice. But he said I had cleared and explained the thing in such a manner that he would be bound I should never hear any more Reflections on that head. No more indeed were made in my presence, but the Party did not cease to abuse me in their secret Circles, on this Account as I was well informed.

Not long afterwards, hearing that the Supream Court in Massachusetts was organized and proceeding very well on the Business of their Circuits, I wrote my Resignation of the Office of Chief Justice to the Council, very happy to get fairly rid of an Office that I knew to be burthensome, and whose Emoluments with my small fortune would not support my family.4

1A mistake of memory. The Board of War and Ordnance was not established until 12 June 1776, and JA was appointed chairman of it next day (JCC description begins Worthington C. Ford and others, eds., Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774–1789, Washington, 1904–1937; 34 vols. description ends , 5:434, 438).

2On 11 Jan. 1776 the Maryland Convention sitting at Annapolis voted instructions to its delegates in Congress of a very conservative character. They declared that the sole purpose for which the Colonies were “associated” was “the redress of American grievances,” that reconciliation should therefore be aimed at, and that no proposition looking toward independence, foreign alliances, or confederation should be assented to by the delegates of that colony before recurring to the Convention itself. All this ran directly counter to the program of JA and the independence party in Congress. And a further instruction required the Maryland delegates to move and try to obtain “a resolve of Congress, that no person who holds any military command, . . . nor any person who holds or enjoys any office of profit under the Continental Congress, or any Government assumed since the present controversy with Great Britain began, ... or who directly or indirectly receives the profits of such command or office, shall, during the time of his holding or receiving the same, be eligible to sit in Congress” (Force, Archives description begins [Peter Force, ed.,] American Archives: Consisting of a Collection of Authentick Records, State Papers, Debates, and Letters and Other Notices of Publick Affairs, Washington, 1837–1853; 9 vols. description ends , 4th ser., 4:653–654).

On 30 Jan. Robert Alexander, a member of the Maryland delegation, acknowledged these instructions, declared himself “much pleased with them,” and reported that “the Farmer [i.e. John Dickinson] and some others to whom in Confidence they were shown” also highly approved of them (Burnett, ed., Letters of Members description begins Edmund C. Burnett, ed., Letters of Members of the Continental Congress, Washington, 1921–1936; 8 vols. description ends , 1:334). Just when the instruction that JA believed was aimed at him personally was read in Congress is unknown. But a motion to prohibit members from holding lucrative offices was introduced late in April; see William Whipple to John Langdon, 29 April (same, description begins Edmund C. Burnett, ed., Letters of Members of the Continental Congress, Washington, 1921–1936; 8 vols. description ends p. 434–435 and notes). The immediate occasion of it was the nomination of John Langdon, a New Hampshire delegate in Congress, as a naval agent of Congress, and although it was undoubtedly the same motion that JA says below he seconded and foiled (and so prevented its being entered in the Journal), it could have been only indirectly aimed at him. JA’s sensitivity being what it was (he had been a very vocal critic of the Hutchinsons’ and Olivers’ pluralism in office), he immediately resigned his seat on the Massachusetts Council (JA to James Otis Sr., 29 April 1776, printed, from a MS not found, in Works description begins The Works of John Adams, Second President of the United States: with a Life of the Author, ed. Charles Francis Adams, Boston, 1850–1856; 10 vols. description ends , 9:374; see also JA to James Warren, 12 May 1776, MHi, printed in Warren-Adams Letters description begins Warren-Adams Letters: Being Chiefly a Correspondence among John Adams, Samuel Adams, and James Warren (Massachusetts Historical Society, Collections, vols. 72–73), Boston, 1917–1925; 2 vols. description ends , 1:242–243).

3JA to Samuel Chase, 14 June 1776, which briefly relates JA’s brush with an unidentified Maryland delegate in terms similar to those in the following account (LbC, Adams Papers; JA, Works description begins The Works of John Adams, Second President of the United States: with a Life of the Author, ed. Charles Francis Adams, Boston, 1850–1856; 10 vols. description ends , 9: 396–398).

4As JA predicted, it proved extremely difficult to find persons willing to serve on the Superior Court of Judicature. But at length in June 1776 the Court held a session in Ipswich with three justices (William Cushing, Jedidiah Foster, James Sullivan) on the bench; in September it sat in Braintree to try Suffolk cases; and at the beginning of 1777 a fourth justice, Nathaniel Peaslee Sargeant, who had previously declined to serve, joined the others (Quincy, Reports description begins Josiah Quincy Jr., Reports of Cases Argued and Adjudged in the Superior Court of Judicature of the Province of Massachusetts Bay, between 1761 and 1772, ed. Samuel M. Quincy, Boston, 1865. description ends , p. 340, note; AA to JA, 15 Sept. 1776, available in Adams Family Correspondence, volume 3, and previously printed in JA-AA, Familiar Letters description begins Familiar Letters of John Adams and His Wife Abigail Adams, during the Revolution. With a Memoir of Mrs. Adams, ed. Charles Francis Adams, New York, 1876. description ends , p. 227). On 10 Feb. JA submitted his resignation as chief justice in a letter to the Massachusetts Council, appending the following note to his retained copy: “Wrote another Letter the same day to Portia [i.e. his wife], ... informed her of the above Resignation [and] that I was determined that whilst I was ruining my Constitution both of Mind and Body, and running daily Risques of Life and Fortune in defence of the Independency of my Country, I would not knowingly resign my own” (JA to Deputy Secretary Avery, enclosing a letter to the Council, letter and enclosure both dated 10 Feb. 1777, letterbook copies, Adams Papers; enclosure printed in JA, Works description begins The Works of John Adams, Second President of the United States: with a Life of the Author, ed. Charles Francis Adams, Boston, 1850–1856; 10 vols. description ends , 3:25).

Index Entries