Novanglus No. II: The Revolutionary Doctrines of John Adams, 1774

Novanglus No. II: The Revolutionary Doctrines of John Adams, 1774

Writing as "Massachusettensis" in the Massachusetts Gazette, Daniel Leonard argued that Parliament had a constitutional right to exercise authority over the American colonies. The denial of this "right" was the central theme of America's revolutionaries; consequently, writing as "Novanglus," John Adams countered "Massachusettensis's" arguments in a series of essays that historians consider to be of signal importance to the Revolutionary movement.

Novanglus No. 2 will eventually be followed by Nos. 3-12. In this series of posts, an attempt will be made to reduce the content to salient thoughts and Revolutionary doctrines. To that end, some posts will be longer and some shorter.

Because of the excerpted nature of this post, I have added several "guide-posts" and explanations in bold-faced type.

August Glen-James, editor

Novanglus No. II begins with Adams characterizing the “tories” as pursing “dark intrigues” and having “wicked machinations” to “enslave this country.” Adams suggested these “wicked machinations” began towards “the close of the last century,” but accomplished little and seemed to be buried with “Andros, Randolph, Dudley” and others until revived by Governor Shirley—an ambitious opportunist seeking aggrandizement for himself, family, and friends.

Shirley’s administration, notably staffed by “Mr. Hutchinson” and “Mr. Oliver” was characterized as a “junto” pursuing a scheme “to have revenue in America, by authority of parliament.” This “scheme” gave rise to the famous cry of “no taxation without representation.”

According to Adams, Governor Shirley communicated this “profound” secret to Benjamin Franklin in 1754 as the French and Indian War was ramping up in America. Adams writes of Franklin, “This sagacious gentleman, this eminent philosopher and distinguished patriot, to his lasting honor, sent the Governor an answer in writing, with the following remarks upon his scheme, remarks which would have discouraged any honest man from the pursuit.”

Adams then quotes Franklin from a source he identified at “Political Disquisitions, pp. 276-9.”

Here is the quote:

“That the people always bear the burdens best, when they have, or think they have, some share in the direction.

“That when public measures are generally distasteful to the people, the wheels of government must move more heavily.

“That excluding the people of America from all share in the choice of a grand council for their own defence, and taxing them in parliament, where they have no representative, would probably give extreme dissatisfaction.

“That there was no reason to doubt the willingness of the colonists to contribute for their own defence. That the people themselves, whose all was at stake, could better judge of the force necessary for their defence, and of the means for raising money for the purpose, than a British parliament at so great a distance.

“That natives of America would be as likely to consult wisely and faithfully for the safety of their native country, as the governors sent from Britain, whose object is generally to make fortunes, and then return home, and who might therefore be expected to carry on the war against France, rather in a way by which themselves were likely to be gainers, than for the greatest advantage of the cause.

“That compelling the colonies to pay money for their own defence, without their consent, would show a suspicion of their loyalty, or of their regard for their country, or of their common sense, and would be treating them as conquered enemies, and not as free Britons, who hold it for their undoubted right, not to be taxed but by their own consent, given through their representatives.

“That parliamentary taxes, once laid on, are often continued, after the necessity for laying them on ceases; but that if the colonists were trusted to tax themselves, they would remove the burden from the people as soon as it should become unnecessary for them to bear it any longer.

“That if parliament is to tax the colonies, their assemblies of representatives may be dismissed as useless.

“That taxing the colonies in parliament for their own defence against the French, is not more just, than it would be to oblige the cinque-ports, and other parts of Britain, to maintain a force against France, and tax them for this purpose, without allowing them representatives in parliament.

“That the colonists have always been indirectly taxed by the mother country, (besides paying the taxes necessarily laid on by their own assemblies); inasmuch as they are obliged to purchase the manufactures of Britain, charged with innumerable heavy taxes, some of which manufactures they could make, and others could purchase cheaper at markets.

“That the colonists are besides taxed by the mother country, by being obliged to carry great part of their produce to Britain, and accept a lower price than they might have at other markets. The difference is a tax paid to Britain.

“That the whole wealth of the colonists centers at last in the mother country, which enables her to pay her taxes.

“That the colonies have, at the hazard of their lives and fortunes, extended the dominions and increased the commerce and riches of the mother country; that therefore the colonists do not deserve to be deprived of the native right of Britons, the right of being taxed only by representatives chosen by themselves.

“That an adequate representation in parliament would probably be acceptable to the colonists, and would best raise the views and interests of the whole empire.”

Editor: Adams closed this part of the essay by writing, “The last of these propositions seems not to have been well considered; because an adequate representation in parliament is totally impracticable; but the others have exhausted the subject.”

Governor Francis Bernard’s Principles of Law and Polity

The next salient part of Novanglus II addresses suggestions by Governor Francis Bernard (1760—1769) for the “reformation of the American governments.” Adams identified several clauses from Bernard’s Principles of Law and Polity which, Adams asserted, exposed the designs of the “junto” working to eliminate American rights thus bringing the several colonies to heel by the British administration.

As a reminder, the basic principle being defended by Adams, the central tenet of the American Revolution, was “no taxation without representation.” Americans believed they were subject to the crown and were content with regulations of their trade, but believed in self-government and taxation by their own representatives for local needs and, moreover, that this was free government . . . the only type of free government that would safeguard the rights of the people. The opposite, centralization/consolidation, was anathema to them.

Here is a summary of the most relevant “Principles of Law and Polity” identified by Adams as troubling:

Proposition 29: “The rule that a British subject shall not be bound by laws, or liable to taxes, but what he has consented to by his representatives, must be confined to the inhabitants of Great Britain only; and is not strictly true even there.”

Proposition 30: “The Parliament of Great Britain, as well from its rights of sovereignty, as from occasional exigencies, has a right to make laws for, and impose taxes upon, its subjects in its external dominions, although they are not represented in such Parliament.”

Propositions 75--79: “Every American government is capable of having its constitution altered for the better. The grants of the powers of government to the American colonies, by charters, cannot be understood to be intended for other than their infant or growing states. Therefore, they must be considered as designed only as temporary means, for settling and bringing forward the peopling of the colonies; which being effected, the cause of the peculiarity of their constitution ceases. If the charters can be pleaded against the authority of parliament, they amount to an alienation of the dominions of Great Britain, and are, in effect, acts dismembering the British empire, and will operate as such, if care is not taken to prevent it.”

Proposition 84: “The splitting America into many small governments, weakens the governing power and strengthens that of the people; and thereby makes revolting more probable and more practicable.”

Proposition 85: “To prevent revolts in future times, (for there is no room to fear them in the present,) the most effectual means would be, to make the governments large and respectable, and balance the powers of them.”

Propositions 88-89: “Although America is not now, (and probably will not be for many years to come) ripe enough for a hereditary nobility, yet it is now capable of a nobility for life. A nobility appointed by the king for life, and made independent, would probably give strength and stability to the American governments as effectually as a hereditary nobility does to that of Great Britain.”

Propositions 91-92: “To settle the American governments to the greatest possible advantage, it will be necessary to reduce the number of them; in some places to unite and consolidate; in others to separate and transfer; and in general to divide by natural boundaries instead of imaginary lines. If there should be but one form of government established for all the North American provinces, it would greatly facilitate the reformation of them; since, if the mode of government was everywhere the same, people would be more indifferent under what division they were ranged.”

Proposition 94: “The present distinctions of one government being more free or more popular than another, tends to embarrass and to weaken the whole, and should not be allowed to subsist among people subject to one king and one law, and all equally fit for one form of government.”

Proposition 97: “This is, therefore, the proper and critical time to reform the American governments, upon a general, constitutional, firm, and durable plan; and if it is not done now, it will probably every day grow more difficult, till at last it becomes impracticable.”

John Adams replies thusly:

My friends, these are the words, the plans, principles, and endeavors of Governor Bernard, in the year 1764. . . . Now, let me ask you, if the Parliament of Great Britain had all the natural foundations of authority, wisdom, goodness, justice, power, in as great perfection as they ever existed in any body of men since Adam’s fall; and if the English nation was the most virtuous, pure, and free that ever was; would not such an unlimited subjection of three millions of people to that parliament, at three thousand miles distance, be real slavery?

There are but two sorts of men in the world, freemen and slaves. The very definition of a freeman is one who is bound by no law to which he has not consented. Americans would have no way of giving or withholding their consent to the acts of this parliament, therefore they would not be freemen. But when luxury, effeminacy, and venality are arrived at such a shocking pitch in England; when both electors and elected are become one mass of corruption; when the nation is oppressed to death with debts and taxes, owing to their own extravagance and want of wisdom, what would by your condition under such an absolute subjection to parliament? You would not only be slaves, but the most abject sort of slaves, to the worst sort of masters!