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JOHN ADAMS: LAWYER FOR THE REVOLUTION
John Adams (1735-1826), the second President of the United States, occupies a leading place in American history. He early became identified with the patriot cause; a delegate to the First and Second Continental Congress, he led in the movement for independence. He was, however, preeminently a Harvard-educated lawyer who passed his life in the practice of the law—or at least he did until his commitment to the Revolutionary struggle and then to the needs of the new nation led him to give up his practice for his political career. But his devotion to practice and success at the bar did not result in the narrow technical outlook so frequently associated with practicing lawyers. Instead, the more successful Adams became as an attorney, the broader his conception of law became. That enabled Adams to be a legal leader in the nation's founding—the lawyer for the Revolution, as it were.
Like most lawyers in his day, Adams was trained by studying in a lawyer's office. The young apprentice spent two years following court sessions, doing rudimentary jobs for his mentor, studying law books, and generally learning law practice.
In 1758, Adams was sworn as an attorney. Two months later, he lost his first case. The initial setback did not prevent Adams from securing other clients. Drawing up deeds and wills, riding circuit, and defending persons charged with smuggling, bastardy, theft, assault, and other offenses, he steadily built up a practice, to the point where he was the busiest lawyer in Massachusetts, handling cases concerned with almost every kind of activity. His practice was typical, for every lawyer was still a general practitioner. Adams's clients came from all segments of society and included the leading citizens of the day.
As a lawyer, Adams made two particular contributions. The first was to demonstrate that even those most unpopular are entitled to legal representation. By the time of the Revolution, Adams had become a leader in the colonists' struggle. Nevertheless, in 1770, he confounded his countrymen by agreeing to defend the British soldiers prosecuted for the Boston Massacre killings and, in his own words, "hazarding a popularity very general and very hardly earned; and for incurring a clamor, popular suspicions and prejudices." When he was told that even the Crown lawyers would not touch the case, he said, "I had no hesitation in answering, that counsel ought to be the very last thing that an accused person should want in a free country."
Adams's successful defense (winning acquittal for all but two of the soldiers, who were branded on their thumbs, lectured from Scripture, and dismissed) was a high point in our legal history. To the end of his days, Adams had to deal with charges that he had turned against the patriot cause in the Boston Massacre case. But he had vindicated the right of even the most unpopular to counsel, and in old age wrote that "it has been a great Consolation to me through Life, that I acted in this Business with steady impartiality."
Adams the lawyer also helped to ensure that the Revolution was a legal, as well as a military, struggle. Adams was the principal American legal advocate, in the struggle for both independence and establishment of the new polity. Adams's writings were the legal briefs that supported the American position during the period.
And they were, too often, examples of the worst style of legal writing. But the lack of grace did not prevent Adams's from being among the most influential dull writings ever published. What was wanted were not so much popular tracts as learned essays that would confirm the American legal position. This the Adams writings supplied admirably. "By their sheer weight," writes a biographer, "they swept down the Tory argument. The grand historic names, the strings of learned quotations, the long involved paragraphs said what the Province needed to hear. The very sight of those close printed pages was convincing."
Adams also played a significant legal role in the making of what he called "the Constitutions of Government." Here his legal training and experience enabled him to propose practical solutions to deal with the legal vacuum caused by the elimination of royal governments. “The blessings of society,” Adams declared, "depend entirely on the constitutions of government." Hence it was necessary to set up new governments. "Each colony," Adams wrote in March 1776, "should establish its own government and then a league should be formed between them all."
Adams outlined the solution to the problem facing Americans in his Thoughts on Government (1776). The plan outlined there laid the framework for the new constitutions: a two-house representative legislature, frequent elections, an executive with a veto power, and an independent judiciary with life tenure. In particular, the plan stressed a separation of powers between the different branches.
To Adams the lawyer, his plan was more than academic theory. It served as the basis for action in May 1776 when Adams became the moving force behind the resolution of the Second Continental Congress urging the colonies to set up their own governments. In response, the colonies (now become states) adopted constitutions that established new governments. The framers in the states were directly influenced by the Adams plan. Most important was that Adams demonstrated that government could be established in a form Americans were used to even though independence was to be declared.
The Revolutionary lawyers, led by Adams, ensured that our Revolution did not degenerate into the extremes so common to revolutions. Instead, the colonial lawyers managed the Revolution; by framing the conflict in legal terms, they kept it one for liberty under law. Adams the lawyer found it easy to make the transition from law to politics. He looked on law as establishing principles that were binding on both governors and governed. Adams had emphasized this aspect of law as early as his Boston Massacre defense. It was, of course, the aspect that dominated the great age of constitution-making that began our history as a nation.
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