The men and women who shaped our world—in their own words.
The Wisdom Library invites you on a journey through the lives and works of the world’s greatest thinkers and leaders. Compiled by scholars, each book presents excerpts from the most important and revealing writings of the most remarkable minds of all time.
THE WISDOM OF JOHN ADAMS
“Straight is the gate and narrow is the way that leads to liberty, and few nations, if any, have found it.”
John Adams was America’s second president, first vice president, and a leading revolutionary, yet his remarkable accomplishments have sometimes been overshadowed by his peers, Washington and Jefferson. David McCullough’s Pulitzer Prize-winning biography has helped reestablish Adams as a truly heroic figure in his own right—intelligent, passionate, fiercely patriotic, and staunchly committed to the ideals of the United States. Now The Wisdom of John Adams further reveals—in Adams’ own words—this distinguished leader’s brilliance, foresight, and conviction. Here are excerpts from his greatest speeches and published works, including his oration on independence in the Continental Congress; Thoughts on Government, later the guide for several state constitutions; and his three-volume Defense of the Constitution of the United States. The Wisdom of John Adams also includes a selection of his forthright correspondence, as well as his tender love letters to his wife and strongest ally, Abigail—in all, essential reading for any student of the “American Experiment.”
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Prelude to Lexington and Concord
Beginning in 1765, British Parliament circumvented colonial legislatures by passing a series of direct taxes.
The prospect now before us in America, ought in the same manner to engage the attention of every man of learning, to matters of power and of right, that we may be neither led nor driven blindfolded to irretrievable destruction. Nothing less than this seems to have been meditated for us, by somebody or other in Great Britain. There seems to be a direct and formal design on foot, to enslave all America. ... It seems very manifest from the Stamp Act itself, that a design is formed to strip us in a great measure of the means of knowledge, by loading the press, the colleges, and even an almanac and a newspaper, with restraints and duties; and to introduce the inequalities and dependencies of the feudal system, by taking from the poorer sort of people all their little subsistence, and conferring it on a set of stamp officers, distributors, and their deputies.
(WJA III 463-64)
(18 December 1765) In October, nine of the thirteen colonies convened the Stamp Act Congress.
That enormous engine, fabricated by the British Parliament, for battering down all the rights and liberties of America, I mean the Stamp Act, has raised and spread through the whole continent a spirit that will be recorded to our honor with all future generations.
WJA II 154)
(18 December 1765)
The people, even of the lowest ranks, have become more attentive to their liberties, more inquisitive about them, than they were ever before known or had occasion to be; innumerable have been the monuments of wit, humor, sense, learning, spirit, patriotism, and heroism, erected in the several colonies and provinces in the course of this year. Our presses have groaned, our pulpits have thundered, our legislatures have resolved, our towns have voted; the crown officers have everywhere trembled, and all their little tools and creatures been afraid to speak and ashamed to be seen.
(WJA II 154)
(27 December 1765)
If there is anyone who cannot see the tendency of [the Stamp] Act to reduce the body of the people to ignorance, poverty, dependence, his want of eyesight is a disqualification for public employment. Let the towns and the representatives, therefore, renounce every stamp man and every trimmer next May.
(WJA II 167)
(31 December 1765)
The national attention is fixed upon the colonies; the religion, administration of justice, geography, numbers, etc., of the colonies, as a fashionable study. But what wretched blunders do they make in attempting to regulate them. They know not the character of Americans.
(WJA II 170)
(1 January 1766)
This year brings ruin or salvation to the British Colonies. The eyes of all Americans are fixed on the British Parliament. In short, Britain and America are staring at each other; and they will probably stare more and more for some time.
(WJA II 170)
(17 June 1768)
Introductory paragraph of "Instructions of the Town of Boston to their Representatives," addressed to Governor Hutchinson of Massachusetts. On the same day in 1766 that the British Parliament repealed the Stamp Act, they passed the Declaratory Act, which effectively swept away the authority of colonial legislatures. The following year, Parliament passed the Townsend Revenue Acts, which established taxes on glass, lead, paints, paper, and tea.
After the repeal of the late Stamp Act, we were happy in the pleasing prospect of a restoration of that tranquility and unanimity among ourselves, and that harmony and affection between our parent country and us, which had generally subsisted before that detestable act. But with the utmost grief and concern, we find that we flattered ourselves too soon, and that the root of bitterness is yet alive. The principle on which that act was founded continues in full force, and a revenue is still demanded from America.
(WJA III 501)
(17 June 1768)
In May, Boston customs officials seized John Hancock's ship Liberty, causing extensive rioting. British warships were stationed in Boston Harbor, and troops were sent to occupy the town.
Under all these misfortunes and afflictions ... it is our fixed resolution to maintain our loyalty and duty to our most gracious Sovereign, a reverence and due subordination to the British Parliament, as the supreme legislative in all cases of necessity, for the preservation of the whole empire, and our cordial and sincere affection for our parent country; and to use our utmost endeavors for the preservation of peace and order among ourselves; waiting with anxious expectations, for a favorable answer to the petitions and solicitations of this continent for relief. At the same time, it is our unalterable resolution, at all times, to assert and vindicate our dear and invaluable rights and liberties, at the utmost hazard of our lives and fortunes; and we have a full and rational confidence that no designs formed against them will ever prosper.
(WJA III 502)
(31 December 1772)
In June, the British revenue schooner Gaspee ran aground in Narragansett Bay, Rhode Island, and was burned to the waterline by colonists. A lengthy trial ensued, during which no witnesses would came forward.
This evening at Mr. Cranch's ... Mr. Collins, an English gentleman, was there, and in conversation about the high commission court for inquiring after the burners of the Gaspee in Providence, I found the old warmth, heat, violence, acrimony, bitterness, sharpness of my temper and expression, was not departed. I said there was no more justice left in Britain than there was in hell; that I wished for war, and that the whole Bourbon family was upon the back of Great Britain; avowed a thorough disaffection to that country; wished that any thing might happen to them, and, as the clergy prayed of our enemies in time of war, that they might be brought to reason or to ruin.
(WJA II 308)
(17 December 1773)
Angry over the Tea Act, a group of Bostonians disguised themselves as Indians and dumped cargos of tea from three ships.
Last night, three cargoes of Bohea tea were emptied into the sea. ... This destruction of the tea is so bold, so daring, so firm, intrepid and inflexible, and it must have so important consequences, and so lasting, that I cannot but consider it as an epoch in history.
(WJA II 323)
(14 May 1774)
Parliament responded to the Boston Tea Party by closing the port, dissolving the Massachusetts legislature, and placing the province under military rule.
We begin almost to wish that Europe could forget that America was ever discovered, and America could forget that Europe ever existed.
(WJA IX 338)
License of the press is no proof of liberty. When a people are corrupted, the press may be made an engine to complete their ruin; and it is now notorious, that the ministry are daily employing it, to increase and establish corruption, and to pluck up virtue by the roots. Liberty can no more exist without virtue and independence, than the body can live and move without a soul.
(WJA IV 31)
(25 June 1774)
We have not men fit for the times. We are deficient in genius, in education, in travel, in fortune, in every thing. I feel unutterable anxiety. God grant us wisdom and fortitude! Should the opposition be suppressed, should this country submit, what infamy and ruin! God forbid. Death in any form is less terrible!
(WJA II 338)
(20 June 1774)
There is a new and a grand scene open before me; a congress. This will be an assembly of the wisest men upon the continent, who are Americans in principle, that is, against the taxations of Americans by authority of Parliament. I feel myself unequal to the business.
(WJA II 338)
I confess myself to be full of fears that the ministry and their friends and instruments will prevail, and crush the cause and friends of liberty. The minds of that party are so filled with prejudices against me that they will take all advantages, and do me all the damage they can. These thoughts have their turns in my mind, but in general my hopes are predominant.
(6 July 1774)
How much profaneness, lewdness, intemperance, etc., have been introduced by the [British] army and navy and revenue; how much servility, venality, artifice, and hypocrisy have been introduced among the ambitious and avaricious by the British politics of the last ten years. In short, the original faulty causes of all the vices which have been introduced are the political innovations of the last ten years.
(6 July 1774)
We very seldom hear any solid reasoning. I wish always to discuss the question without all painting, pathos, rhetoric, or flourish of every kind. And the question seems to me to be, whether the American colonies are to be considered as a distinct community so far as to have a right to judge for themselves when the fundamentals of their government are destroyed or invaded, or whether they are to be considered as a part of the whole British empire, the whole English nation, so far as to be bound in honor, conscience, or interest by the general sense of the whole nation.
(6 July 1774)
It is a fundamental, inherent, and unalienable right of the people, that they have some check, influence, or control in their supreme legislature. If the right of taxation is conceded to Parliament, the Americans have no check or influence left.
(26 September 1774)
Adams was one of fifty-six delegates from twelve colonies to the First Continental Congress.
The commencement of hostilities is exceedingly dreaded here [in Philadelphia]. It is thought that an attack upon the troops, even though it should prove successful and triumphant, would certainly involve the whole continent in a war. ... If Boston and Massachusetts can possibly steer a middle course between obedience to the acts and open hostilities with the troops, the exertions of the colonies will procure a total change of measures and full redress for us.
(WJA I 155)
(7 October 1774)
Militias were formed throughout the colonies in response to the policies of the British Parliament.
There is a great spirit in the Congress. But our people must be peaceable. Let them exercise every day in the week if they will, the more the better. Let them furnish themselves with artillery, arms, and ammunition. Let them follow the maxim which you say they have adopted, "In times of peace prepare for war." But let them avoid war if possible — if possible, I say.
(January — April 1775)
Adams published a series of articles in the Boston Gazette under the pseudonym "Novanglus," in response to articles by a Loyalist writer who argued for staying united with Britain.
The most sensible and jealous instances of resistance have placed it beyond a doubt, that their rulers had formed settled plans to deprive them of their liberties; not to oppress an individual or a few, but to break down the fences of a free constitution, and deprive the people at large of all share in the government, and all the checks by which it is limited.
(WJA IV 17)
A union of the colonies might be projected, and an American legislature; for, if America has three millions of people, and the whole dominions, twelve millions, she ought to send a quarter part of all the members to the house of commons; and, instead of holding parliaments always at Westminster, the haughty members of Great Britain must humble themselves, one session in four, to cross the Atlantic, and hold the parliament in America.
(WJA IV 116)
(January — April 1775)
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?
(WJA IV 28)
(January — April 1775)
Are there not fifty bays, harbors, creeks, and inlets upon the whole coast of North America, where there is one round the island of Great Britain? Is it to be supposed, then, that the whole British navy could prevent the importation of arms and ammunition into America, if she should have occasion for them to defend herself against the hellish warfare that is here supposed?
(WJA IV 40)
(January — April 1775)
Opposition, nay, open, avowed resistance by arms, against usurpation and lawless violence, is not rebellion by the law of God or the land.
(WJA IV 57)
(January — April 1775)
A settled plan to deprive the people of all the benefits, blessings, and ends of the contract, to subvert the fundamentals of the constitution, to deprive them of all share in making and executing laws, will justify a revolution.
(WJA IV 16)CHAPTER 2
THE AMERICAN REVOLUTION
(2 May 1775)
Adams stopped writing his "Novanglus" letters when, on April 19, the Battles of Lexington and Concord were fought.
It is arrogance and presumption, in human sagacity, to pretend to penetrate far into the designs of Heaven. The most perfect reverence and resignation becomes us, but I cannot help depending upon this, that the present dreadful calamity of that beloved town [Boston] is intended to bind the colonies together in more indissoluble bonds, and to animate their exertions at this great crisis in the affairs of mankind. It has this effect in a most remarkable degree, as far as I have yet seen or heard. It will plead with all America with more irresistible persuasion than angels trumpet- tongued.
(8 May 1775)
The Second Continental Congress began meeting in Philadelphia on May 10, 1775.
Our prospect of a union of the colonies is promising indeed. Never was there such a spirit. Yet I feel anxious, because there is always more smoke than fire — more noise than music.
(29 May 1775)
Colonel [George] Washington appears at Congress in his uniform, and, by his great experience and abilities in military matters, is of much service to us. O that I were a soldier! I will be. I am reading military books. Everybody must, and I will, and shall, be a soldier.
(17 June 1775)
On June 15, John Adams nominated George Washington to lead the Continental Army.
I can now inform you that the Congress have made choice of the modest and virtuous, the amiable, generous, and brave George Washington, Esquire, to be General of the American army, and that he is to repair, as soon as possible, to the camp before Boston. This appointment will have a great effect in cementing and securing the union of these colonies. ... I hope the people of our province will treat the General with all that confidence and affection, that politeness and respect, which is due to one of the most important characters in the world. The liberties of America depend upon him, in a great degree.
(18 June 1775)
We shall have a redress of grievances or an assumption of all the powers of government, Legislative, executive, and judicial, throughout the whole continent, very soon.
(24 July 1775)
Two days after Washington was chosen to lead the army, Royal Navy ships bombarded Charlestown, Massachusetts, and British troops led a charge that became immortalized as the Battle of Bunker Hill. Abigail and John Quincy Adams watched the smoke of the Charlestown fires from the hill beside their home in Braintree. The letter containing this passage, addressed to Abigail Adams, was intercepted by the British and published in England.
The business I have had upon my mind has been as great and important as can be entrusted to man, and the difficulty and intricacy of it prodigious. When fifty or sixty men have a constitution to form for a great empire, at the same time that they have a country of fifteen hundred miles in extent to fortify, millions to arm and train, a naval power to begin, an extensive commerce to regulate, numerous tribes of Indians to negotiate with, a standing army of twenty-seven thousand men to raise, pay, victual, and officer, I really shall pity those fifty or sixty men.
(24 July 1775)
On July 8, Congress formulated a last-ditch appeal to King George III for a peaceful way out of the crisis. The Olive Branch Petition was sent to England, but George III refused to read it, commenting that the insurgency of the American colonies had to be suppressed by "the most decisive exertions."
We ought to have had in our hands, a month ago, the whole legislative, executive, and judicial of the whole continent, and have completely modeled a constitution; to have raised a naval power, and opened all our ports wide; to have arrested every friend of government on the continent, and held them as hostages for the poor victims in Boston; and then opened the door as wide as possible for peace and reconciliation.
(WJA I 179)(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Wisdom of John Adams"
Copyright © 2003 Kees de Mooy.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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Table of Contents
TIMELINE OF JOHN ADAMS'S LIFE, WITH SIGNIFICANT HISTORICAL EVENTS,
Part I - THE ROAD TO FREEDOM,
1 - Prelude to Lexington and Concord,
2 - The American Revolution,
3 - Reflections on the Revolution,
Part II - THE PRIVATE ADAMS,
4 - Personal Philosophy,
5 - Introspections,
6 - Faith and Religion,
7 - Letters to Abigail,
Part III - THE PUBLIC ADAM,
8 - The Presidency,
9 - Government,
10 - Politics, Factions, and Parties,
11 - Foreign Policy,
12 - Law And Justice,
13 - Education,
Part IV - PEOPLE AND PLACES,
14 - Character Sketches,
15 - Places,