The Rights of the Colonists

How does Samuel Adams make clear the connection between his argument and the principles of John Locke’s Two Treatises of Government, which explained the legitimacy of the reign of William and Mary? In what ways does highlighting this connection make Adams’s assertions more convincing and less easily dismissed?
In what ways is the premise of Adams’s argument similar to and different from James Otis’s in his Speech against Writs of Assistance?

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In the 1760s, Samuel Adams (1722–1803) emerged as a key leader of Boston’s radicals. Although his second cousin, John Adams (1735–1826), described him as “zealous, ardent, and keen” in his defense of Americans’ liberties, Royal Governor Thomas Hutchinson (1711–1780) doubted “whether there is a greater incendiary in the king’s dominion or a man of greater malignity of heart.”

It is no surprise that Hutchinson possessed a negative opinion of Samuel Adams. Beginning with the Stamp Act crisis and continuing with colonists’ resistance to the Townshend Acts and efforts to propagandize the Boston Massacre, Adams had been a thorn in Hutchinson’s side. By 1772, the issue was who should pay royal officials’ salaries. Adams perceived that whoever held the purse strings would be able to use these officials as puppets; so did Hutchinson and his English allies, who in 1768 arranged for part of Hutchinson’s salary to be paid from the proceeds of customs revenues. In 1770 Great Britain added the tea tax as a source of Hutchinson’s income. Two years later, it directed that superior court judges be paid from these sources as well. Adams insisted that the Massachusetts assembly, which answered to voters, should compensate these judges in order to maintain its leverage over them.

The controversy allowed Adams to prompt the Town of Boston to appoint a committee of correspondence that would produce a broad statement of colonists’ rights. The resulting document, drafted primarily by Adams, helps to underscore the importance to American revolutionaries of the ideas of John Locke (1632–1704), who justified England’s Glorious Revolution (1688–1689) by arguing that ousted King James II had failed to uphold government’s obligation to protect individuals’ fundamental rights to life, liberty, and property.

—Robert M.S. McDonald

Source: Samuel Adams, “The Rights of the Colonists,” in Harry Alonzo Cushing, ed., The Writings of Samuel Adams, 4 vols. (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1904–08), 2:350–59.

1st. Natural Rights of the Colonists as Men

Among the natural rights of the colonists are these: First, a right to life; secondly to liberty; thirdly to property; together with the right to support and defend them in the best manner they can. These are evident branches of, rather than deductions from, the duty of self-preservation, commonly called the first law of nature.

All men have a right to remain in a state of nature as long as they please. And in case of intolerable oppression, civil or religious, to leave the society they belong to, and enter into another.

When men enter into society, it is by voluntary consent; and they have a right to demand and insist upon the performance of such conditions, and previous limitations as form an equitable original compact.

Every natural right not expressly given up or from the nature of a social compact necessarily ceded remains.

All positive and civil laws, should conform as far as possible, to the law of natural reason and equity.

As neither reason requires, nor religion permits the contrary, every man living in or out of a state of civil society, has a right peaceably and quietly to worship God according to the dictates of his conscience.

“Just and true liberty, equal and impartial liberty” in matters spiritual and temporal, is a thing that all men are clearly entitled to, by the eternal and immutable laws of God and nature, as well as by the law of nations, and all well-grounded municipal laws, which must have their foundation in the former.

In regard to religion, mutual toleration in the different professions thereof, is what all good and candid minds in all ages have ever practiced; and both by precept and example inculcated on mankind. And it is now generally agreed among Christians that this spirit of toleration in the fullest extent consistent with the being of civil society “is the chief characteristic mark of the true church” and, insomuch that Mr. Locke[1] has asserted and proved beyond the possibility of contradiction on any solid ground, that such toleration ought to be extended to all whose doctrines are not subversive of society. The only sects which he thinks ought to be, and which by all wise laws are excluded from such toleration, are those who teach doctrines subversive of the civil government under which they live. The Roman Catholics or Papists are excluded by reason of such doctrines as these, that princes excommunicated may be deposed, and those they call heretics may be destroyed without mercy; besides their recognizing the pope in so absolute a manner, in subversion of government, by introducing as far as possible into the states, under whose protection they enjoy life, liberty, and property, that solecism in politics, imperium in imperio,[2] leading directly to the worst anarchy and confusion, civil discord, war, and bloodshed.

The natural liberty of men by entering into society is abridged or restrained so far only as is necessary for the great end of society, the best good of the whole.

In the state of nature, every man is, under God, judge and sole judge of his own rights and the injuries done him. By entering into society, he agrees to an arbiter or indifferent judge between him and his neighbors; but he no more renounces his original right, than by taking a cause out of the ordinary course of law, and leaving the decision to referees or indifferent arbitrations. In the last case he must pay the referees for time and trouble; he should be also willing to pay his just quota for the support of government, the law, and constitution; the end of which is to furnish indifferent and impartial judges in all cases that may happen, whether civil, ecclesiastical, marine, or military.

“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 only to have the law of nature for his rule.”[3]

…In short it is the greatest absurdity to suppose it in the power of one or any number of men, at the entering into society, to renounce their essential natural rights, or the means of preserving those rights, when the great end of civil government from the very nature of its institution is for the support, protection, and defense of those very rights: the principal of which… are life, liberty, and property. If men, through fear, fraud, or mistake, should in terms renounce and give up any essential natural right, the eternal law of reason and the great end of society, would absolutely vacate such renunciation; the right to freedom being the gift of God almighty, it is not in the power of man to alienate this gift, and voluntarily become a slave.

2d. The Rights of the Colonists as Christians

These may be best understood by reading—and carefully studying the institutes of the great Lawgiver and head of the Christian church—which are to be found clearly written and promulgated in the New Testament.

By the act of the British Parliament commonly called the Toleration Act,[4] every subject in England except Papists, etc., was restored to, and reestablished in, his natural right to worship God according to the dictates of his own conscience. And by the charter of this province it is granted ordained and established (…as an original right) that there shall be liberty of conscience allowed in the worship of God, to all Christians except Papists…. Magna Charta[5] itself is in substance but a constrained declaration, or proclamation, and promulgation in the name of king, Lords, and Commons of the sense the latter had of their original inherent, indefeasible[6] natural rights, as also those of free citizens equally perdurable[7] with the other. That great author, that great jurist, and even that court writer, Mr. Justice Blackstone,[8] holds that this recognition was justly obtained of King John,[9] sword in hand. And peradventure it must be one day, sword in hand, again rescued and preserved from total destruction and oblivion.

3d. The Rights of the Colonists as Subjects

A commonwealth or state is a body politic or civil society of men, united together to promote their mutual safety and prosperity, by means of their union.

The absolute rights of Englishmen, and all freemen in or out of civil society, are principally personal security, personal liberty, and private property.

All persons born in the British American colonies are by the laws of God and nature, and by the common law of England, exclusive of all charters from the crown, well entitled, and by the acts of the British Parliament are declared to be entitled, to all the natural, essential, inherent, and inseparable rights, liberties, and privileges of subjects born in Great Britain, or within the realm. Among those rights are the following, which no man, or body of men, consistently with their own rights as men and citizens or members of society, can for themselves give up or take away from others.

First, “The first fundamental, positive law of all commonwealths or states, is the establishing [of] the legislative power. [And] the first fundamental natural law also, which is to govern even the legislative power itself, is the preservation of the Society.”[10]

Secondly, The legislative has no right to absolute arbitrary power over the lives and fortunes of the people. Nor can mortals assume a prerogative, not only too high for men, but for angels, and therefore reserved for the exercise of the Deity alone.

“The legislative cannot justly assume to itself a power to rule by extempore arbitrary decrees; but it is bound to see that justice is dispensed, and that the rights of the subjects be decided, by promulgated, standing, and known laws, and authorized independent judges;” that is, independent, as far as possible, of prince or people. “There shall be one rule of justice for rich and poor, for the favorite in court, and the countryman at the plough.”[11]

Thirdly, the supreme power cannot justly take from any man any part of his property without his consent, in person or by his representative.

These are some of the first principles of natural law and justice, and the great barriers of all free states and of the British Constitution in particular. It is utterly irreconcilable to these principles, and to many other fundamental maxims of the common law, common sense, and reason, that a British House of Commons should have a right, at pleasure, to give and grant the property of the colonists. That these colonists are well entitled to all the essential rights, liberties, and privileges of men and freemen, born in Britain, is manifest, not only from the colony charter… but acts of the British Parliament….” Now what liberty can there be, where property is taken away without consent? Can it be said with any color of truth and justice, that this continent of three thousand miles in length, and of a breadth as yet unexplored, in which… there are five millions of people, has the least voice, vote, or influence in the decisions of the British Parliament? Have they, all together, any more right or power to return a single number to that House of Commons, who have not inadvertently, but deliberately, assumed a power to dispose of their lives, liberties, and properties, then to choose an emperor of China? Had the colonists a right to return members to the British Parliament, it would only be hurtful; as from their local situation and circumstances it is impossible they should be ever truly and properly represented there. The inhabitants of this country in all probability in a few years will be more numerous, than those of Great Britain and Ireland together; yet it is absurdly expected by the promoters of the present measures, that these, with their posterity to all generations, should be easy, while their property, shall be disposed of by a House of Commons at three thousand miles’ distant from them; and who cannot be supposed to have the least care or concern for their real interest; who have not only no natural care for their interest, but must be in effect bribed against it, as every burden they lay on the colonists is so much saved or gained to themselves. Hitherto many of the colonists have been free from quit rents;[12] but if the breath of a British House of Commons can originate an act for taking away all our money, our lands will go next or be subject to rack rents[13] from haughty and relentless landlords who will ride at ease, while we are trodden in the dirt. The colonists have been branded with the odious names of traitors and rebels, only for complaining of their grievances….

  1. 1. English philosopher John Locke (1632–1704).
  2. 2. Latin: a government within a government.
  3. 3. John Locke, Two Treatises of Government, ed. Thomas Hollis (London: A. Millar et al., 1764), 212.
  4. 4. William and Mary gave royal assent to the Toleration Act on May 24, 1689.
  5. 5. The 1215 Magna Carta (Latin: Great Charter) limited the English king’s power and established protections for the church and noblemen.
  6. 6. Inalienable; inseparable.
  7. 7. Enduring forever; imperishable.
  8. 8. Sir William Blackstone (1723–1780) was an English lawyer, judge, and Tory politician best known as author of the four-volume Commentaries on the Laws of England (1765–1769).
  9. 9. John of England (1166–1216) served as king between 1199 and 1216. In 1215 he reluctantly agreed to approve the Magna Carta.
  10. 10. Locke, Two Treatises of Government, 312–13.
  11. 11. Ibid., 323.
  12. 12. Quitrent: An annual fee, based on acreage, paid by a landowner to the person (a colony’s proprietor or the king or queen) or the heir of the person who originally granted title to the land.
  13. 13. Rack rent: An excessively high quitrent.
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