On this page you will find a series of excerpts from "A
Dissertation on the Canon Feudal Law," which was written
by John Adams but originally published anonymously in an issue
of The Boston Gazette.
Many of the arguments used by John Adams in this piece were
frequently used by other patriot writers and speakers. All shared
a common arsenal of ideas and arguments
that probably only gained greater force through repeated use.
When contemporary audiences heard Adams indicting England as
a cruel and unnatural mother, their response might have been
triggered not only by the emotional images he presented but
also by all of the other similar stories and sentiments they
remembered reading or hearing on other occasions.
Use the passages below to see if you can identify the types
of arguments Adams used. Remember that you may sometimes find
several arguments combined in a single passage or even a single
sentence. As you're reading, you will probably find it useful
to pay attention not only to the ideas being developed, but
also to the key terms and phrases that seem central to the issue.
You may also find it interesting to think about which of these
arguments you find most persuasive, and to consider which might
have been most appealing to Americans in the 1770's.
You can find an outline of some of the core arguments that
were part of the rhetorical reportoire of Amerian patriots in
the revolutionary era as well as lists of the key words that
sometimes signal their use at: A
Rhetoric of Rights:
The Arguments Used to Defend American Freedoms
- I say RIGHTS, for such [common people] have, undoubtedly,
antecedent to all earthly government, — Rights, that cannot
be repealed or restrained by human laws — Rights, derived
from the great Legislator of the universe.
- It was not religion alone, as is commonly supposed; but it
was a love of universal liberty, and a hatred, a dread, a horror,
of the infernal confederacy before described, that projected,
conducted, and accomplished the settlement of America.
- [The first settlers] knew that government was a plain, simple,
intelligible thing, founded in nature and reason, and quite
comprehensible by common sense. They detested all the base services
and servile dependencies of the feudal system. They knew that
no such unworthy dependencies took place in the ancient seats
of liberty, the republics of Greece and Rome; and they thought
all such slavish subordinations were equally inconsistent with
the constitution of human nature and that religious liberty
with which Jesus had made them free.
- Rulers are no more than attorneys, agents, and trustees for
the people; and if the cause, the interest and trust, is insidiously
betrayed, or wantonly trifled away, the people have a right
to revoke the authority that they themselves have deputed, and
to constitute abler and better agents, attorneys, and trustees.
- Have not some generals from England treated us like servants,
nay, more like slaves than like Britons? Have we not been under
the most ignominious contribution, the most abject submission,
the most supercilious insults, of some custom-house officers?
Have we not been trifled with, brow-beaten, and trampled on,
by former governors, in a manner which no king of England since
James the Second has dared to indulge towards his subjects?
- Be it remembered, however, that liberty must at all hazards
be supported. We have a right to it, derived from our Maker.
But if we had not, our fathers have earned and bought it for
us, at the expense of their ease, their estates, their pleasure,
and their blood.
- We have been told that "the word rights is an offensive
expression;" "that the king, his ministry, and parliament,
will not endure to hear Americans talk of their rights;"
"that Britain is the mother and we the children, that a
filial duty and submission is due from us to her," and
that "we ought to doubt our own judgment, and presume that
she is right, even when she seems to us to shake the foundations
of government;" that "Britain is immensely rich and
great and powerful, has fleets and armies at her command which
have been the dread and terror of the universe, and that she
will force her own judgment into execution, right or wrong."
. . . Is not this representing your most gracious sovereign
as endeavoring to destroy the foundations of his own throne?
Are you not representing every member of parliament as renouncing
the transactions at Running Mede, (the meadow, near Windsor,
where Magna Charta was signed;) and as repealing in effect the
bill of rights, when the Lords and Commons asserted and vindicated
the rights of the people and their own rights, and insisted
on the king's assent to that assertion and vindication? Do you
not represent them as forgetting that the prince of Orange was
created King William, by the people, on purpose that their rights
might be eternal and inviolable?
- Is there not something extremely fallacious in the common-place
images of mother country and children colonies? Are we the children
of Great Britain any more than the cities of London, Exeter,
and Bath? Are we not brethren and fellow subjects with those
in Britain, only under a somewhat different method of legislation,
and a totally different method of taxation? But admitting we
are children, have not children a right to complain when their
parents are attempting to break their limbs, to administer poison,
or to sell them to enemies for slaves? Let me entreat you to
consider, will the mother be pleased when you represent her
as deaf to the cries of her children, — when you compare
her to the infamous miscreant who lately stood on the gallows
for starving her child, — when you resemble her to Lady
Macbeth in Shakespeare, (I cannot think of it without horror,)
who "Had given suck, and knew How tender 't was to love
the babe that milked her,"
but yet, who could "Even while 't was smiling in her face,
Have plucked her nipple from the boneless gums, And dashed the
- Let us banish for ever from our minds, my countrymen, all
such unworthy ideas of the king, his ministry, and parliament.
Let us not suppose that all are become luxurious, effeminate,
and unreasonable, on the other side the water, as many designing
persons would insinuate. Let us presume, what is in fact true,
that the spirit of liberty is as ardent as ever among the body
of the nation, though a few individuals may be corrupted. Let
us take it for granted, that the same great spirit which once
gave Cesar so warm a reception, which denounced hostilities
against John till Magna Charta was signed, which severed the
head of Charles the First from his body, and drove James the
Second from his kingdom, the same great spirit (may heaven preserve
it till the earth shall be no more) which first seated the great
grandfather of his present most gracious majesty on the throne
of Britain, — is still alive and active and warm in England;
and that the same spirit in America, instead of provoking the
inhabitants of that country, will endear us to them for ever,
and secure their good-will.
- Let . . . all become attentive to the grounds and principles
of government, ecclesiastical and civil. Let us study the law
of nature; search into the spirit of the British constitution;
read the histories of ancient ages; contemplate the great examples
of Greece and Rome; set before us the conduct of our own British
ancestors, who have defended for us the inherent rights of mankind
against foreign and domestic tyrants and usurpers, against arbitrary
kings and cruel priests, in short, against the gates of earth
and hell. Let us read and recollect and impress upon our souls
the views and ends of our own more immediate forefathers, in
exchanging their native country for a dreary, inhospitable wilderness.
Let us examine into the nature of that power, and the cruelty
of that oppression, which drove them from their homes. Recollect
their amazing fortitude, their bitter sufferings, — the
hunger, the nakedness, the cold, which they patiently endured,
— the severe labors of clearing their grounds, building
their houses, raising their provisions, amidst dangers from
wild beasts and savage men, before they had time or money or
materials for commerce. Recollect the civil and religious principles
and hopes and expectations which constantly supported and carried
them through all hardships with patience and resignation. Let
us recollect it was liberty, the hope of liberty for themselves
and us and ours, which conquered all discouragements, dangers,
and trials. In such researches as these, let us all in our several
departments cheerfully engage, — but especially the proper
patrons and supporters of law, learning, and religion!
- Let the pulpit resound with the doctrines and sentiments of
religious liberty. Let us hear the danger of thralldom to our
consciences from ignorance, extreme poverty, and dependence,
in short, from civil and political slavery. Let us see delineated
before us the true map of man. Let us hear the dignity of his
nature, and the noble rank he holds among the works of God,
— that consenting to slavery is a sacrilegious breach
of trust, as offensive in the sight of God as it is derogatory
from our own honor or interest or happiness, — and that
God Almighty has promulgated from heaven, liberty, peace, and
good-will to man!
- Let the bar proclaim, "the laws, the rights, the generous
plan of power" delivered down from remote antiquity, —
inform the world of the mighty struggles and numberless sacrifices
made by our ancestors in defense of freedom. Let it be known,
that British liberties are not the grants of princes or parliaments,
but original rights, conditions of original contracts, coequal
with prerogative, and coeval with government; that many of our
rights are inherent and essential, agreed on as maxims, and
established as preliminaries, even before a parliament existed.
Let them search for the foundations of British laws and government
in the frame of human nature, in the constitution of the intellectual
and moral world.
- There seems to be a direct and formal design on foot, to enslave
- — These are not the vapors of a melancholy mind, nor
the effusions of envy, disappointed ambition, nor of a spirit
of opposition to government, but the emanations of a heart that
burns for its country's welfare. No one of any feeling, born
and educated in this once happy country, can consider the numerous
distresses, the gross indignities, the barbarous ignorance,
the haughty usurpations, that we have reason to fear are meditating
for ourselves, our children, our neighbors, in short, for all
our countrymen and all their posterity, without the utmost agonies
of heart and many tears.
Recommended Resources on Other Sites:
to the Political Theory of John Adams Vindiciae Contra Tyrannos,
by Prof. Stanley Bamberg. -- This essay provides a thoughtful
analysis of the sources that influenced John Adams' rhetoric,
and the way that rhetoric changed over time.
Related Resources on This Site:
A Rhetoric of Rights: Arguments
Used in the American Conversation in the Era of Revolution
Reread the excerpt from Connecticut
GovernorJonathan Trumbull's Fast-Day Proclamation of 1775
in order to see how many of the core arguments it contains.
Guide to Constructing Quick Analyses of Revolutionary-Era Texts
A particularly interesting example of the
way one group of Americans used these core arguments to petition
for freedom can be found in Slave
Petition to the Governor, Council, and House of Representatives
of the Province of Massachusetts, 25 May 1774: The Petition of
a Grate Number of Blackes of this Province who by divine permission
are held in a state of Slavery within the bowels of a free and
christian Country at The
Founders Constitution by permission of the Massachussets Historical
Society. Here you will find a case in which the debate is going
on not between the colonists and the English but between a group
of African-Americans and a ruling group of white Americans. To
delve more deeply into the question of how the American conversation
on race and slavery related to the conversation on rights, see
Expanding the Revolution: If All
Men are Created Equal, What About African-Americans?
And if you have not already done
so, you may want to view the materials available on The
American Conversation and the 1770's Communication Circuit.
See particularly: What
is Rhetoric? Conversation and Debate in the Era of the Revolution.