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This terse paper will examine the 1765, A Dissertation on the Canon and Feudal Law, by John Adams. His essay is an argument against the March 22, 1765, Stamp Act, issued to the American colonies, by King George III and the British Parliament. By using a lens focused on Adam’s use of philosophical ideals, natural rights, liberty, and freedom, it will be demonstrated these concepts are derived by, and have life breathed into them via education, which in turn can be used to establish and govern civil societies, in essence power; both individual and civil. Thus, it is through education that society can create rational laws and legislate the necessary powers to restrain oppressive tactics of their governing rulers. This paper will also examine how Adams was inspired by a few of his political influences, Cicero (106-43 BC), John Locke (1632), The Whig Party, and Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826).

A Dissertation on the Canon and Feudal Law

Adams feared the Stamps Act’s true measure was to usurp the existing legal system within the colonies and instill a type of European feudal system. He started his essay with “Ignorance and inconsideration are the two great causes of the ruin of mankind.”[1] He also dictates, “the canon and the feudal law” … [are] the two greatest systems of tyranny.”[2] Moreover, he stressed, the Act denies “liberty and the rights of mankind”, and stated men have divinely given natural rights to “life”, “property”, “freedom”, and “that liberty must at all hazards be supported”.[3] Additionally, he highlighted this law was intended to “strip… great measures [of] knowledge” of her citizens by placing “restraints” on the press and the education system. Furthermore, he indicated the law “wrest … the knowledge of their rights and wrongs” [keeping them] in a state of total ignorance of every thing [sic] divine and human.” [4] [5]

Furthermore, he emphasized,

liberty cannot be preserved without a general knowledge among the people, who have a right, from the frame of their nature, to knowledge, as their great Creator, who does nothing in vain, has given them understandings, and a desire to know; but besides this, they have a right, an indisputable, unalienable, indefeasible, divine right to that most dreaded and envied kind of knowledge, I mean, of the characters and conduct of their rulers.[6]

He explained the lack of education within the general populace would deny them a basic understanding of their rights; natural or civil, thus they would be compelled to accept any wrongs committed by the king or others with similar powers Adams strongly proclaimed,

“RIGHTS… undoubtedly, antecedent to all earthly government… cannot be repealed or restrained by human laws… derived from the great Legislator of the universe.” [7]

Consequently, he declared, these rights are of a divine origin which no earthly power can rightly strip from another human being. By attempting to do so, it would subjugate the weaker individual or community into a state of slavery, thus a state of feudalism. Moreover, he compared how the Stamp Act is similar to the laws that caused the Puritans to flee their homeland, implying, “they detested all the base services and servile dependencies of the feudal system.”[8]

Additionally, he claimed, many of the leading Puritan men, “laity and clergy”, were men of “sense and learning”, who had read and understood the Greek and Roman “historians, orators, poets, and philosophers… and era, of “enlightenment “and “wisdom.”[9]

John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and other founding fathers, including some of the Puritans, were well versed in the philosophies of the ancient Greeks and Romans. Adams said in a letter to Jefferson, July 16, 1813,

“I should first take a general View of the moral doctrines of the most remarkable of the ancient Philosophers, of whose Ethicks We have sufficient information to make an estimate; say of Pythagoras, Epicurus, Epictetus Socrates, Cicero, Seneca, Antoninus. I should do justice to the branches of Morality they have treated well, but point out the importance of those in which they are deficient.”[10]

It is clear from this statement that both Adams and Jefferson were well read in the Greek and Roman philosophers. Moreover, Adam in another letter to Jefferson on Sept. 03, 1816, discussed how Mark Anthony, after the tyrant Caesar’s death, set out to “destroy the Republick, to establish the Empire, and to proscribe Cicero.”[11] Thus, implying the Greek educated Cicero and his political thinking was a danger to the new Caesar and his recently created Empire, one which replaced the 500-year-old Republic.

Jefferson writes to Adams, Dec. 10, 1819,

“Your intimacy with their history, antient, middle and modern, your familiarity with the improvements in the science of government at this time, will enable you, if any body [sic], to go back with our principles and opinions to the times of Cicero, Cato, and Brutus, and tell us by what process these great and virtuous men could have led so unenlightened and vitiated a people into freedom and good government..”[12]

Additionally, in the same letter, Jefferson stated, “I ask myself What was that government which the virtues of Cicero were so zealous to restore, and the ambition of Caesar to subvert?[13]

Cicero

One of Cicero’s writings which many political thinkers have read, including Adams, is De Officiis – On Duties, a letter of instruction to his son at university in Athens. In it, he explained he was a follower of Socrates and Plato, and he emphasized a proper education is needed to be a good citizen and civic leader and it was through his own studies of histories, laws and language, he learned to speak with “propriety, clearness, and elegance.” Additionally, he explained education would allow him to take heed against the

“ambition for glory; for it robs us of liberty, and in the defense of liberty a high-souled man should stake everything”.[14]

In his Republic, he stated,

 

“nature has given to mankind such a compulsion to do good, and such a desire to defend the well-being of the community, that this force prevails over all the temptations of pleasure and ease.”[15]

Moreover, in On the Commonwealth and On the Laws, Cicero dictated,

“the character of any commonwealth corresponds to the nature or the desire of its ruling power. And so in no other state than that in which the people has the highest power does liberty have any home… which nothing can be sweeter, and which, if it is not equal, is not even liberty.”[16]

And in his essay, The Nature of the Gods, he writes,

“I assert then, that the universe, with all its parts, was originally constituted, and has, without any discontinuance, been ever governed by the providence of the gods… it must follow the world is governed by their wisdom…everything is under the direction of an intelligent nature, which has produced that beautiful order in the world.”[17]

Based on these excerpts, it is not a stretch to see how Cicero’s writings on divine natural rights, liberty, and education, would have affected Adams and other political thinkers, thus causing them to trust in divinely inspired inalienable rights, along with an understanding that a proper education was needed to unlock the power within these ideas.

James Farrell, in his article, New England’s Cicero: John Adams and the Rhetoric of Conspiracy, considered Adams to be New England’s very own Cicero.[18] According to R. B. Bernstine, in his book, The Education Of John Adams, indicated Adams considered himself an intellectual colleague of Cicero, Aristotle, and other ancient philosophers in the “great enterprise—“ the divine science of politicks.”[19] Moreover, in another letter between Adams and Jefferson, Adams wrote on June 28th. 1813,

“In favour [sic] of these general Principles in Phylosophy[sic], Religion and Government, I could fill Sheets of quotations from Frederick of Prussia, from Hume, Gibbon, Bolingbroke, Reausseau and Voltaire, as well as Neuton and Locke: not to mention thousands of Divines and Philosophers of inferior Fame.”[20]

These brief excerpts indicate Adams was indeed well educated and influenced by the great political philosophers of the past. Of these great men, he mentioned John Locke, whom according to David McCullough in his book, John Adams, surmised John Locke was a man whom “Adams, Jefferson, and other American patriots drew inspiration”. [21] And Jon Hersey on his web page, John Locke: The Father of Liberalism, phrasing C. Bradley Thompson’s book, John Adams and the Spirit of Liberty,

“John Adams cited Locke as an inspiration for his ‘revolution-principles,’ which he said were ‘the principles of nature and eternal reason’ and constituted a rational alternative to docile obedience and bloody anarchy.”[22]

Additionally, Adams said in his Novanglus Essay No. 1.,

John Lock

John Lock had his own dissertation against tyranny, titled, Two Treaties of Government. The second of these treaties was titled, The Second Treatise: An Essay Concerning the True Original, Extent, and End of Civil Government. Locke states,

“The state of nature has a law of nature to govern it, which obliges every one: and reason, which is that law, teaches all mankind, who will but consult it, that being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty, or possessions.”[24]

This statement is reminiscent of Cicero’s thinking,

“nature has given to mankind such a compulsion to do good, and such a desire to defend the well-being of the community, that this force prevails over all the temptations of pleasure and ease …” And, “a man may harm no one except first provoked by injury…”[25]

Locke also stated,

“THE Natural Liberty of Man is to be free from any Superior Power on Earth, and not to be under the Will or Legislative Authority of Man, but to have only the Law of Nature for his Rule. The Liberty of Man, in Society, is to be under no other Legislative Power, but that established, by consent, in the Common-wealth, nor under the Dominion of any Will, or Restraint of any Law, but what the Legislative shall enact, according to the Trust put in it.” (§ 22). [26]

Locke, also wrote, Some Thoughts Concerning Education, indicating education was a primary concern of his. In it he remarks,

“The well educating of their children is so much the duty and concern of parents, and the welfare and prosperity of the nation so much depends on it, that I would have every one lay it seriously to heart…”[27]

This statement can be tied to Adams, Canon and Feudal Law, where he expressed,

”…the wisdom and benevolence of our fathers…. made an early provision by law, that every town consisting of so many families, should be always furnished with a grammar school…”

Furthermore, he expressing the king had “imported statesmen” who professed,

“…the education of our youth… whose time and attention… ought to be devoted to labor, and not to public affairs, or to examination into the conduct of their superiors.”[28]

What is more, Locke, in the realm of education, indicated there are two books students should read, the Bible for ethics, and Cicero’s De Officiis for “principles and precepts of virtue for the conduct of his life.”[29]

Paul Meany, on the website, Libertarianism.org., expounds in his article, Cicero was Locke’s Greatest Inspiration,

“One of the most significant thinkers who shaped Locke’s philosophy, despite preceding him by eighteen centuries, is Marcus Tullius Cicero… Cicero influenced Locke’s thinking on natural law, property rights, and mixed government.”[30]

According to Meany, it was discovered after Locke’s death, he owned nine editions of Cicero’s De Officiis.

The Whig party

In 1869, the Whigs created and passed their Bill of Rights in the British Parliament. This act was a fallout from the “Glorious Revolution”[31]. According to Lois Schwoerer, “Locke and his Lockean ideas” played some part in the creation of that revolution.[32] Caroline Robbins, in her book, The Eighteenth-Century Commonwealthman, stated, “Locke was [a] determined Whig,”[33] while Ronald Hamowy, in The Encyclopedia of Libertarianism, stated,The Whig party supported the supremacy of Parliament and toleration for Protestant dissenters and was adamantly opposed to a Catholic on the throne.”[34]

Moreover, to the Whigs, the Pope and the Catholic church represented oppression and reduced liberties, which is what Adams feared was hidden within the Stamps Act, and he voiced his concern in his dissertation,

“the invention and establishment of the canon and the feudal law… was framed by the Romish clergy for the aggrandisement of their own order. All the epithets I have here given to the Romish policy are just, and will be allowed to be so when it is considered, that they even persuaded mankind to believe, faithfully and undoubtingly, that God Almighty had entrusted them with the keys of heaven.”[35]

The Bill of Rights was a landmark Act to the constitutional law of England. It provided direction on how the Crown could be passed on, including basic civil rights, such as the right of the Protestants to bear arms for their own defense. Furthermore, the Act set limits on the monarch’s powers along with the expressed privileges of Parliament, including freedom of speech and free elections.[36]

Moreover, Carl J. Richard, in his book, The Founders and the Classics: Greece, Rome, and the American Enlightenment, indicated America’s founding fathers were intellectually obligated to the philosophies of the Whigs, and in turn, the Whigs were intellectually obligated to the philosophies of the ancients.[37] Furthermore, Richard implied the founding fathers often quoted the Stoics to shore up their theories, yet he pointed out, they favored Cicero and Seneca, as well as other Roman historians.[38] Additionally, Richard indicates Adams, in 1759, writes in his diary,

“study Seneca, Cicero, and all other good writers… Labour to get distinct Ideas of Law, Right, Wrong, Justice, Equity. Search for them in your own mind, in Roman, grecian [sic], French, English Treatises of natural, civil, common, Statute Law.”[39]

Trevor Colbourn in his book, The Lamp Of Experience, expressed colonists in the eighteenth-century thought the study of history to be “prestigious…practical,” and he indicates, the Whigs were devoted to liberty.[40] Furthermore, he remarks, Adams believed that it was necessary for American statesmen to have a comprehensive Knowledge of Law and History.”[41]

Furthermore, Adams realized the new country needed to groom young statesmen, along with the general populous, to secure the countries survival and stave off tyrants. According to McCullough, Adams expounded on the need for a national education policy when he remarked,

“The education of a nation instead of being confined to a few schools and universities for the instruction of the few, must become the national care and expense for the formation of the many.”[42]

According to David McCullough, in his inauguration speech March 4, 1797, Adams voiced his support for state rights, along with the need for “expanded education for all the people, both to enlarge the happiness of life and as essential to the preservation of freedom.” During his speech, he also indicated, “What other form of government, indeed, can so well deserve our esteem and love?… And [the] great threats to the nation [are] “sophistry, the spirit of party, and ‘the pestilence of foreign influence.’”[43]

Lastly, Adams forewarned in his dissertation,

“Thus, as long as this confederacy lasted, and the people were held in ignorance, liberty, and with her, knowledge and virtue too, seem to have deserted the earth, and one age of darkness succeeded another.”[44]

Conclusion

This brief essay demonstrated how early political thinkers such as Cicero, John Locke, and the Whigs, influenced John Adams and his 1765, A Dissertation on the Canon and Feudal Law. His essay was an argument against the March 22, 1765, Stamp Act. This law was created by King George III and the British Parliament. Adam’s penned the essay fearing the king’s edict would subvert the colonies existing decrees and introduce a form of the European Feudal Laws. He stated these laws were derived from the Pope and the Catholic church, thus he professed he believed these edicts were, “the two greatest systems of tyranny.” He thought the citizens would be greatly oppressed if the Stamp Act were implemented, hence, denying freedom, liberty, and education. Education, as expressed by Adams, Locke, The Whigs, and Cicero, is the one thing needed to understand and implement the concepts of natural rights, liberties, and freedoms. Undeniably, these great political thinkers indicated that without an education, these philosophies would never develop, and men would remain ignorant and in the servitude of tyrants in perpetuity.

Work Cited

Primary

Adams, John. Novanglus, and Massachusettensis: Or Political Essays. Boston: Hew & Gross, 1819.

Adams, John, Thomas Jefferson, ed. Lester J. Cappon. The Adams-Jefferson Letters. Renewed 1987. Chapel Hill and London: University of North Carolina Press, 1987.

Cicero, ed. James E. G. Zetzel, Nell Singer, Herbert M. Singer. On the Commonwealth and On The Laws. Cambridge U.K. ; New york: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

Cicero, Niall Rudd, Trans. Cicero; The Republic and the Laws. Oxford : Oxford University Press, 1998.

Cicero, trans. Thomas Francklin, D.D. M. Tullius Cicero of the Nature Of The Gods. London: William Pickering, 1829.

Laslett, Peter ed. Locke; Two Treatises of Government. Student Edn. 22nd printing. Cambridge, New York,: Cambridge University Press, 2012.

Locke, John, and Quick, Robert Herbert, Rev., M.A. Some Thoughts Concerning Education. London: C. J. Clay and Sons Cambridge University Press, 1889.

Taylor, Robert J. ed. The Adams Papers Volume I. Cambridge, Mass.: The Belknap Press of Harvard Univrersity Press, 1977.

Secondary

Bernstine, R. B. The Education Of John Adams. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition, 2020.

Colbourn, Trevor. The Lamp of Experience: Whig History and the Intellectual Origins of the American Revolution. Carmel, Ind.: Liberty Fund, 1998.

Diggins, John, Patrick. The Portable John Adams. New York: Penguin Books , 2004.

Farrell, James M. New England’s Cicero: John Adams and the Rhetoric of Conspiracy. Proceedings of the Massachusetts Historical Society 104 , 1992: 55-72.

Hamowy, Ronald. Whiggism. In The Encyclopedia of Libertarianism, by Ronald. Hamowy, 543. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, Inc., 2008.

Hersey, Jon. John Locke: The Father of Liberalism. 08 19, 2019. https://theobjectivestandard.com/2019/08/john-locke-the-father-of-liberalism/#_edn7).

McCullough, David. John Adams. New York ; London ; Toronto : Simon & Schuster , 2001.

Meany, Paul. Cicero was Locke’s Greatest Inspiration . 03 25, 2020. https://www.libertarianism.org/columns/cicero-was-lockes-greatest-inspiration).

Richard, Carl J. The Founders and the Classics: Greece, Rome, and the American Enlightenment. Cambridge, Mass. London.: Harvard University Press, 1994.

Robbins, Caroline. The Eighteenth-Century Commonwealthman. New York: Liberty Fund, Inc., 1968.

Schwoerer, Lois G. Locke, Lockean Ideas, and the Glorious Revolution. Journal of the History of Ideas 51, no. 4, 1990: 531-48.

Wikipedia. Bill of Rights 1689. 08 16, 2020. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bill_of_Rights_1689.

  1. John Patrick Diggins. The Portable John Adams. (New York: Penguin Books, 2004),233.
  2. Ibid. 234.
  3. Ibid. 240.
  4. 249.
  5. 236.
  6. John Patrick Diggins. The Portable John Adams. (New York: Penguin Books, 2004),241.
  7. Ibid. 249.
  8. 239.
  9. 237
  10. John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, ed. Lester J. Cappon. The Adams-Jefferson Letters. Renewed 1987. (Chapel Hill and London: University of North Carolina Press, 1987), 359.
  11. Ibid. 488.
  12. 550.
  13. 459.
  14. Ibid. 33.
  15. Cicero, Niall Rudd, Trans. Cicero; The Republic and the Laws. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998),3.
  16. Cicero, ed. James E. G. Zetzel, Nell Singer, Herbert M. Singer. On the Commonwealth and On The Laws. (Cambridge U.K. ; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 787-789.
  17. Cicero, trans. Thomas Francklin, D.D., M. Tullius Cicero of the Nature Of The Gods. (London: William Pickering, 1829)109.
  18. James M. Farrell, New England’s Cicero: John Adams and the Rhetoric of Conspiracy. (Proceedings of the Massachusetts Historical Society 104 , 199), 55-72.
  19. R. B. Bernstine, The Education Of John Adams. (Oxford: Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition, 2020),8.
  20. John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, ed. Lester J. Cappon. The Adams-Jefferson Letters. Renewed 1987. (Chapel Hill and London: University of North Carolina Press, 1987), 340.
  21. David McCullough, John Adams. (New York; London ; Toronto : Simon & Schuster , 2001), 245.
  22. Jon Hersey, John Locke: The Father of Liberalism. ( 2019).
  23. John Adams, Novanglus, and Massachusettensis: Or Political Essays. (Boston: Hew & Gross, 1819),12.
  24. John Locke, The Second Treatise: An Essay Concerning the True Original, Extent, and End of Civil Government. In In Two Treatises of Government and A Letter Concerning Toleration, by John, ed. Shapiro Ian, John Dunn, Ruth W. Grant Locke, (New Haven; London: Yale University Pres.),102.
  25. Ibid. 42.
  26. Peter Laslett, ed. Locke; Two Treatises of Government. Student Edn. 22nd printing. (Cambridge, New York, Cambridge University Press, 2012), 86.
  27. John Locke, and Robert Herbert Quick, Rev., M.A. Some Thoughts Concerning Education. (London: C. J. Clay and Sons Cambridge University Press, 1889), lxiii.
  28. John, Patrick Diggins. The Portable John Adams. (New York: Penguin Books, 2004),241.
  29. John Locke, and Robert Herbert Quick, Rev., M.A. Some Thoughts Concerning Education. (London: C. J. Clay and Sons Cambridge University Press, 1889),160.
  30. Paul Meany, Cicero was Locke’s Greatest Inspiration, ( 2020).
  31. Lois G. Schwoerer, Locke, Lockean Ideas, and the Glorious Revolution. (Journal of the History of Ideas 51, no. 4, 1990),
  32. Ibid. 532.
  33. Caroline Robbins, The Eighteenth-Century Commonwealthman. (New York: Liberty Fund, Inc., 1968.) 54.
  34. Hamowy, Ronald. Whiggism. In The Encyclopedia of Libertarianism, (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, Inc., 2008) 543.
  35. John Patrick Diggins. The Portable John Adams. (New York: Penguin Books, 2004),235.
  36. Wikipedia. Bill of Rights 1689 (2020).
  37. Carl J. Richard, The Founders and the Classics: Greece, Rome, and the American Enlightenment. (Cambridge, Mass. London.: Harvard University Press, 1994), 2.
  38. Ibid. 175.
  39. Ibid. 175.
  40. Trevor Colbourn, The Lamp of Experience: Whig History and the Intellectual Origins of the American Revolution. (Carmel, Ind.: Liberty Fund, 1998),5.
  41. Ibid. 7.
  42. David McCullough, John Adams. (New York; London; Toronto: Simon & Schuster , 2001),354.
  43. Ibid. 468.
  44. John Patrick Diggins. The Portable John Adams. (New York: Penguin Books, 2004),236.

Cover Photo:

Library Of Congress.  https://www.loc.gov/pictures/resource/pga.10244/