John Adams, Architect of American Government

The John Adams: Architect of American Government exhibit is at the John Adams Courthouse. Using text, images, and audio, the exhibit describes the essential role that John Adams played in the development of our constitutional form of government both in Massachusetts and nationally.

Table of Contents


John Adams, Architect of American Government

The American Revolution required success on two fronts. The thirteen colonies pledged to achieve both separation from Great Britain and the establishment of a nation based on self-government. John Adams was pivotal to the success of both goals.

Adams's role as a Patriot leader and early supporter of independence is well known. Less well known are his essential contributions to our constitutional form of government. Adams knew that separation from Great Britain must be accompanied by the adoption of written constitutions providing for stable and democratic governments.

In April 1776, Adams's extraordinarily influential pamphlet, Thoughts on Government, was published. He set forth a new framework for government—one that included three separate branches: an executive, a bicameral (two house) legislature, and an independent judiciary. In May 1776, two months before the Second Continental Congress adopted the Declaration of Independence, Adams spearheaded passage of a Resolution requesting each of the thirteen "United Colonies" to adopt its own new form of government.

Massachusetts adopted its new Constitution in 1780, although national independence was not yet won. Breaking new ground, the people of Massachusetts insisted that their state constitution be written by delegates elected to a special constitutional convention and presented to the voters for ratification. This Constitution, primarily drafted by John Adams, contains a written Declaration (Bill) of Rights and a Frame of Government modeled after the one articulated in Thoughts on Government. The Massachusetts Constitution of 1780 was the primary model for the United States Constitution and the many other subsequent national constitutions that have relied on American government as a model.

A president of the American Historical Association, Andrew McLaughlin, once described the Massachusetts Constitution as the "single fact or enterprise that more nearly than any other single thing embraced the significance of the American Revolution." The Massachusetts Constitution remains in effect today; it is the oldest still-functioning written constitution in the world, and a fitting tribute to the genius of John Adams.

John Adams

John Adams

Born in 1735 in Braintree (now Quincy ) Massachusetts, Adams was graduated from Harvard College in 1755 and admitted to the Suffolk County Bar to practice law in 1758. He married Abigail Smith in 1764. By 1770, he was an influential lawyer. That year, with great moral courage, he agreed to defend the unpopular British soldiers charged with murder following the "Boston Massacre."

Adams was a Massachusetts delegate to both the First and Second Continental Congresses. He was a leading proponent of independence from Great Britain , and served on the five-man committee (which included Thomas Jefferson) assigned to draft the Declaration of Independence. In 1778, the Continental Congress appointed Adams a commissioner to France to conclude a vital treaty of alliance. In 1779, during a brief visit home, he served as the primary drafter of the Massachusetts State Constitution.

Adams spent much of the years 1780-1789 abroad. He helped to conclude the post-war peace treaty with Great Britain, was a Diplomat to Holland and France, and served as the first United States Ambassador to Great Britain.

Following the adoption and ratification of the United States Constitution, Adams became the first Vice President of the United States and served from 1789 to 1797. After George Washington's retirement, Adams was elected second President of the United States. Adams retired to private life in 1801 after he failed to win re-election, losing to his Vice President Thomas Jefferson.

Adams died on July 4, 1826, the fiftieth anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. In a remarkable coincidence, Jefferson died the same day.

Record Book entry, 1761, November Term, admitting Adams to practice before the Superior Court of Judicature (predecessor to the Supreme Judicial Court).
Record Book entry, 1761, November Term, admitting Adams to practice before the Superior Court of Judicature.

Abigail Adams

Abigail Adams

Born in Weymouth, Massachusetts in 1744, Abigail Smith married John Adams in 1764. Four of their children survived to adulthood. Their eldest son, John Quincy Adams, was the sixth President of the United States.

Abigail was her husband's closest friend and advisor. Because John's legal and political career kept him regularly away from home, Abigail cared for their children and farm, and managed the family finances. John and Abigail frequently communicated by letter. This rich collection of correspondence provides a unique picture of their times, brilliance, relationship, and great mutual love.

In her letters, Abigail shared her thoughts on many issues. In 1774, she called slavery a "most iniquitous scheme," and wrote "I wish most sincerely there was not a Slave in the province." Most famously, in 1776, she urged John and the other Founders to "Remember the Ladies" in the new code of laws required by Independence.

Abigail traveled abroad for the first time in 1784 when she joined John in France. In 1785, she accompanied him to Great Britain where he served as United States Ambassador.

When Abigail died in 1818, after 54 years of marriage, John said, "I wish I could lie down beside her and die too. The whole of her life has been filled up doing good."

Children of John and Abigail Adams

The Boston Massacre

The Boston Massacre

On March 5, 1770, tensions were high between the colonists and the armed British soldiers stationed in Boston. That evening, following a dispute between a British sentry and a colonist, an unruly crowd of colonists confronted eight British soldiers and their captain. The volatile crowd refused to obey orders to disperse and threw oyster shells, chunks of ice, and other objects at the soldiers. The soldiers shot into the crowd, and five colonists, including Crispus Attucks, died.

Paul Revere quickly created a print of the scene (from a drawing by Henry Pelham), titled The Bloody Massacre, which depicted British soldiers firing into a crowd of peaceful colonists. Sam Adams and others distributed copies of this print, and publicized the "Boston Massacre" as a symbol of British tyranny.

The day following the "Boston Massacre," a loyalist merchant came to Adams's law office and asked that he defend Captain Preston and the soldiers against charges of murder. Although committed to freedom from British tyranny, Adams agreed. He believed that every person accused of a crime should have counsel and a fair trial.

To succeed, Adams would have to persuade the jurors that Paul Revere's print was political propaganda, and that an out-of-control mob provoked the soldiers to fire in self-defense.

"Facts are Stubborn Things"

Captain Preston's trial took place in October 1770. Adams and co-counsel Josiah Quincy successfully challenged the prosecution's claim that Preston had ordered his soldiers to fire, and the jury, composed of colonists, acquitted him.

The trial of the eight soldiers began in November 1770. Adams and Quincy called witnesses who testified that the unruly mob assaulted and provoked the soldiers. Adams's closing argument, which contemporaries described as "electrifying," argued to the jury that any soldiers whose lives were in danger had acted in self-defense. As to any soldiers whose lives were not threatened but who were provoked to act by blows from sticks, oyster shells, and balls of ice, Adams argued they were guilty of manslaughter but not murder.

Captain Preston's trial

He concluded with these words:   

Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passion, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence . . . . [The law] commands that which is good, and punishes evil in all, whether rich, or poor, high, or low. . . . On the one hand [the law] is inexorable to the cries and lamentations of the prisoners; on the other it is deaf, deaf as an adder, to the clamors of the populace.

The jury acquitted six of the soldiers and found two guilty of manslaughter. Those two were punished by the branding of their right thumbs.

Adams's experiences in this case would guide him as he developed and articulated his philosophy of a government based on the rule of law rather than the rule of individuals. This case also reinforced his belief that the judicial branch of government should be independent and not controlled by the passions of the day. Years later, Adams described his role in defending the British soldiers charged with murder as "one of the most gallant, generous, manly and disinterested actions of my whole life, and one of the best pieces of service I ever rendered to my country."

Memorial to Boston Massacre victims in Granary Burying Ground
Memorial to Boston Massacre victims in Granary Burying Ground
Location of Boston Massacre with view of [Old] State House
Location of Boston Massacre with view of [Old] State House

Thoughts on Government

Thoughts on Government

When the Second Continental Congress convened in May 1775, a war for American  independence was increasingly likely. Shots had been fired in Lexington and Concord. American colonists needed to establish new governments while preparing for war against the powerful British army.

The members of the Continental Congress, meeting in Philadelphia, considered delegate John Adams their greatest scholar of forms of government. During late 1775 and early 1776, several delegates solicited Adams's views on the best plan of government for free and independent states, should the colonies declare independence. Adams recorded his thoughts in letters. In April 1776, his ideas were published as an influential and widely-distributed pamphlet titled, Thoughts on Government.

Three Independent Branches

In Thoughts on Government, Adams asserted that a good government is a government of laws, and considered how the "divine science of politics" could achieve such a government. Adams's proposed solution: three separate, independent, and balanced branches:

  • An executive (governor) who would have "a negative upon the legislative"; that is, veto power;
  • A bicameral (two house) legislature, as a unicameral (one house) legislature is "liable to all the vices, follies, and frailties of an individual" ; and
  • An independent judicial branch.

Adams's most original contribution was his proposal for an independent judiciary. Supreme executives had headed other governments, and the British Parliament had long consisted of two chambers.* Judges, however, were subject to the will of kings and parliaments.

In Adams's compelling words: 

The dignity and stability of government in all its branches, the morals of the people, and every blessing of society depend so much upon an upright and skillful administration of justice, that the judicial power ought to be distinct from both the legislative and executive, and independent upon both, that so it may be a check upon both, as both should be checks upon that. The judges, therefore, should be always men of learning and experience in the laws, of exemplary morals, great patience, calmness, coolness, and attention. Their minds should not be distracted with jarring interests; they should not be dependent upon any man, or body of men. To these ends, they should hold estates for life in their offices; or, in other words, their commissions should be during good behavior, and their salaries ascertained and established by law.

Thoughts on Government provided a blueprint for numerous state constitutions, including those of Massachusetts, New York, North Carolina, and Virginia.

Thoughts on Government

* The Province Charter, which governed the colony of Massachusetts from 1691 to 1774, provided for a Royal Governor and a bicameral assembly, known as the Great and General Court. The House of Representatives was elected; the Provincial Council was elected by members of the House, subject to the Royal Governor's veto.

"Remember the Ladies"

While John considered what forms of government should be created, Abigail urged John to "remember the ladies" in the new code of laws that independence would require. She wrote to him:

I long to hear that you have declared an independency—and by the way in the new Code of Laws which I suppose it will be necessary for you to make I desire you would Remember the Ladies. . . . If perticuliar care and attention is not paid to the Laidies we are determined to foment a Rebelion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any Laws in which we have no voice, or Representation. 

Remember the Ladies

A complete copy of Abigail's letter dated March 31, 1776 is in the glass case below. John replied on April 14, 1776. He wrote in part:

As to your extraordinary Code of Laws, I cannot but laugh. We have been told that our Struggle has loosened the bands of Government every where. That Children and Apprentices were disobedient -- that schools and Colledges were grown turbulent—that Indians slighted their Guardians and Negroes grew insolent to their Masters. But your Letter was the first Intimation that another Tribe more numerous and powerfull than all the rest were grown discontented. . . 

Depend upon it, We know better than to repeal our Masculine systems. Altho they are in full Force, you know they are little more than Theory. We dare not exert our Power in its full Latitude. We are obliged to go fair, and softly, and in Practice you know We are the subjects.

Abigail sent her retort on May 7, 1776:

I can not say that I think you very generous to the Ladies, for whilst you are proclaiming peace and good will to Men, Emancipating all Nations, you insist upon retaining an absolute power over Wives. But you must remember that Arbitary power is like most other things which are very hard, very liable to be broken—and notwithstanding all your wise Laws and Maxims we have it in our power not only to free ourselves but to subdue our Masters, and without voilence throw both your natural and legal authority at our feet . . . 

The Continental Congress Instructs States to Form New Governments

By May 10, 1776, war appeared inevitable, and the Continental Congress adopted John Adams's resolution that each of the "united colonies" (soon to be "The United States of America") "adopt such government as shall, in the opinion of the representatives of the people, best conduce to the happiness and safety of their constituents in particular, and America in general." When the Declaration of Independence was adopted in July 1776, this task became urgent.

Fearing centralized power, the delegates to the Continental Congress did not contemplate the establishment of a strong national government. The Continental Congress approved Articles of Confederation in 1777 that were designed to create a limited national government with strictly curtailed authority over the states. The government established by the Articles of Confederation was in effect until its apparent weaknesses led to the adoption and ratification of the United States Constitution.

Who Should Form a New Government for Massachusetts? We the People

The Massachusetts House of Representatives, in September 1776, asked local town meetings to consent to its writing and adopting a new constitution. Some towns, including Concord and the Worcester County towns, refused to consent.

Citizens of these towns believed that the legislature was not a suitable body to create a new government. They asserted that a special convention consisting of delegates elected by the people must draft a constitution and submit it to the voters for approval. Why? Because these Massachusetts citizens believed that only "the people" could create a legitimate government.

The House of Representatives ignored the calls for a special constitutional convention and wrote a constitution. The House did agree, however, to submit its proposed Constitution of 1778 to the voters for acceptance or rejection. Following consideration in town meetings across the state, the Constitution of 1778 was soundly rejected by a nearly five to one margin. 

Proposed Constitution
The Essex Result

Voters rejected the Constitution of 1778 for many reasons. Some objected to its having been written by the legislature rather than a constitutional convention. Some disliked a provision denying suffrage (the right to vote) to all non-Whites. 

Many were persuaded by a pamphlet called The Essex Result. Written by Theophilus Parsons, a Newburyport lawyer*, and endorsed by Essex County towns, The Essex Result sharply criticized the proposed constitution for lacking a Bill of Rights and not clearly separating the powers lodged in the legislative, judicial, and executive branches.

Theophilus Parsons
Theophilus Parsons

John Adams was unable to participate in these debates, as he was in France helping to secure a critical strategic alliance. Fortunately, he would return to Massachusetts in time to serve as a delegate to the Massachusetts Constitutional Convention of 1779-1780. 

* Theophilus Parsons served as Chief Justice of the Supreme Judicial Court from 1806-1813.  In 1804, he became the first President of the newly-founded Social Law Library, the oldest law library in the United States.

The Massachusetts Constitutional Convention of 1779-1780

On June 15, 1779, the House of Representatives asked each town to send delegates to a constitutional convention scheduled to convene in Cambridge on September 1, 1779. The House further resolved that any constitution written at the convention would be submitted to the voters for ratification. For the first time, both a constitutional convention and popular ratification would be used to form a new government.

The Massachusetts Constitutional Convention
John Adams house in Quincy, where he, Samuel Adams, and James Bowdoin drafted the Massachusetts Constitution

By a happy coincidence, in August 1779, John Adams arrived in Braintree for a visit home. He was promptly chosen as one of 312 delegates to the convention. Other prominent patriots selected as delegates included Samuel Adams, John Hancock, Theophilus Parsons, James Bowdoin (the president of the convention), William Cushing, and Levi Lincoln*.

*The contributions of William Cushing and Levi Lincoln to abolishing slavery in Massachusetts are highlighted later in this exhibit.

John Adams Drafts the Massachusetts Constitution

At the Convention's first session, the delegates appointed a drafting committee of 31. That committee delegated its duties to a subcommittee of John Adams, Sam Adams, and James Bowdoin. Because John Adams was the foremost American authority on the theory and practice of government, he authored the committee's draft. By late October 1779, Adams had completed his work. He then returned to his duties in Europe. 

In the Massachusetts Constitution, Adams perfected the plan of government he had outlined in Thoughts on Government. He also included a Declaration of Rights to guarantee individual liberties.

Drafting the Constitution

Adoption and Ratification of the Massachusetts Constitution

Adoption and ratification of the Massachusetts Constitution

During the next several months, the Convention debated, and in several cases altered, Adams's draft. Attendance at the Convention meetings was often sparse due to a harsh winter, a smallpox epidemic, and the ongoing war effort.

On March 1, 1780, Convention president James Bowdoin sent copies of the proposed Constitution to each town. The proposed Constitution was debated and voted upon at town meetings. In June, the delegates reconvened to consider the responses of the towns. The Convention declared the Constitution ratified on June 15, 1780. John Hancock was inaugurated as the first Governor of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts on October 25, 1780.

The Massachusetts Constitution of 1780

The Massachusetts Constitution contains three parts: a Preamble, a Declaration of Rights, and a Frame of Government.  By placing the Declaration of Rights before the Frame of Government, Adams emphasized that the rights of individuals are paramount.

The Preamble

The Preamble announces that the Commonwealth of Massachusetts is "formed by the voluntary association of individuals"; it is a "social compact" whereby all agree to be governed by laws designed for the "common good." The Preamble states that "WE, therefore, the people of Massachusetts . . . DO agree upon, ordain and establish, the following Declaration of Rights, and Frame of Government as the CONSTITUTION OF THE COMMONWEALTH OF MASSACHUSETTS."

The Declaration of Rights

The Declaration of Rights protects many individual rights. It opens with a broad statement of individual freedom and equality:

All men are born free and equal, and have certain natural, essential, and unalienable rights; among which may be reckoned the right of enjoying and defending their Lives and Liberties; that of acquiring, possessing, and protecting property; in fine, that of seeking and obtaining their safety and happiness.

The Declaration of Rights guards against excessive governmental power by prohibiting, for example, unreasonable searches and seizures, ex post facto laws, and the public taking of property without just compensation. Protected rights include the right to trial by jury, right to petition the government, and freedom of religious worship.

The Declaration of Rights proclaims that it is the "right of every citizen to be tried by judges as free, impartial and independent as the lot of humanity will admit." Why is this provision included? Because, as Article 29 explains, it is "essential to the preservation of the rights of every individual, his life, liberty, property, and character, that there be an impartial interpretation of the laws, and administration of justice."

The Declaration of Rights concludes with a clear statement of the separation of powers among the executive, legislative, and judicial branches. Three independent branches of government are dedicated to one stated purpose: "to the end it may be a government of laws and not of men."

The Frame of Government

The Frame of Government sets forth the authority and obligations of the three branches of Massachusetts government. The legislative department, known as the General Court of Massachusetts, contains two branches: a Senate and a House of Representatives. The executive department is led by a Governor. The Supreme Judicial Court is the highest court. The three branches, each with a separate sphere of authority but checked by the others, would safeguard against dominance by any one branch. Each branch of the bicameral legislature would restrain the other.

The Frame of Government also declares the importance of education to a free and self-governing republic. "Wisdom, and knowledge, as well as virtue, diffused generally among the body of the people, being necessary for the preservation of their rights and liberties . . . ."

The Mum Bett Case

John Ashley House, Sheffield
John Ashley House, Sheffield

In 1780, slavery was legal in Massachusetts, as in every other state. In 1781, a court case in Massachusetts challenged the lawful existence of slavery under the new Massachusetts Constitution. Article I of the Declaration of Rights proclaimed that all men are born free and equal.*

Mum Bett was a slave in the home of John Ashley, a patriot who resided in Sheffield, Massachusetts.

Assisted by Stockbridge attorney Theodore Sedgwick, Mum Bett brought a lawsuit against Ashley in which she claimed that her enslavement was unlawful. Sedgwick family lore holds that Mum Bett approached Sedgwick after mistreatment by her mistress and after hearing the new Massachusetts Constitution read aloud to and discussed by the residents of Sheffield. Mum Bett believed that the promises of liberty and equality set forth in those documents should free her from slavery. 

Mum Bett
Mum Bett

The case was tried in August 1781 before the County Court of Common Pleas in Great Barrington. Sedgwick reportedly argued to the jury that the Massachusetts Constitution had outlawed slavery, and that Mum Bett should be freed. The jury agreed, and Mum Bett won her "freedom suit."**

Ashley initially appealed the verdict to the state's highest court, the Supreme Judicial Court, but abandoned his appeal several months later.

Mum Bett, who now took the name of Elizabeth Freeman, became the beloved housekeeper for Theodore Sedgwick's family. Sedgwick later became a member of the House of Representatives and United States Senator before being appointed to the Supreme Judicial Court, where he served from 1802-1813.

Upon her death in 1829, Mum Bett was buried in the Sedgwick family plot in Stockbridge. Her gravestone includes the words, "She was born a slave and remained a slave for nearly thirty years. She could neither read nor write, yet in her own sphere she had no superior or equal." 

Elizabeth Freeman's grave
Elizabeth Freeman's grave

* When the Massachusetts Constitution was ratified, few expressed the view that Article I required the liberation of slaves. The provision was rather regarded as a more general statement of moral truth. However, some recognized its potential usefulness in "freedom suits."

** Two slaves, Mum Bett and Brom, were named in the lawsuit. The jury verdict also freed Brom.

The Quock Walker Case

Levi Lincoln
Levi Lincoln

In the Quock Walker case of 1783, the Supreme Judicial Court announced that slavery was inconsistent with the Massachusetts Constitution.

The Quock Walker case refers to three civil and criminal actions involving a slave named Quock Walker and his purported master, Nathanial Jennison. In 1781, Walker ran away from Jennison. Walker claimed he was free, as his former master (James Caldwell) had promised him freedom at age 25. Walker contended that Caldwell 's promise bound Jennison, who was married to Caldwell's widow. Jennison caught and beat Walker.

With the help of Caldwell's brothers, Walker sued for his freedom. Prominent Worcester attorney Levi Lincoln, Sr. represented Walker. Lincoln did not rely on Caldwell's alleged promise to free Walker, but on a "law of nature that all men are equal and free."

William Cushing
William Cushing

The final Quock Walker case was tried before the Supreme Judicial Court in 1783.*  Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice William Cushing announced that the Massachusetts Constitution prohibited slavery. He instructed the jury that:

Our Constitution of Government . . . sets out with declaring that all men are born free and equal—and that every subject is entitled to liberty, and to have it safeguarded by the laws, as well as life and property, and in short is totally repugnant to the idea of being born slaves. This being the case, I think the idea of slavery is inconsistent with our conduct and Constitution.

The jury agreed and found Jennison guilty of assault and battery upon Quock Walker.

According to the Massachusetts census of 1790, no slaves resided in Massachusetts. Historians generally credit several factors: changing public opinion, African-American activism, and public awareness that slave owners would lose any "freedom suit" tried in Massachusetts state courts.

Nothing is known of Quock Walker's life after he obtained freedom. President George Washington appointed William Cushing as a Justice of the United States Supreme Court where he served from 1789-1810. Attorney Levi Lincoln served as United States Attorney General under President Thomas Jefferson from 1801-1804. 

Quock Walker case
Quock Walker case

The Quock Walker case made clear to the people of Massachusetts that the rights set forth in the Massachusetts Constitution were not empty promises. These rights would be enforced, fairly and equally, for all.

*In its early years, the Supreme Judicial Court functioned as both a trial and an appellate court.

The Constitution of the United States

Congress Hall, Philadelphia
Congress Hall, Philadelphia

By 1787, the young nation had found the Articles of Confederation lacking. That summer, delegates convened in Philadelphia to revise them. Through discussion and debate, the delegates decided that, rather than amend the existing Articles of Confederation, the Convention would draft an entirely new constitution.

The Preamble to the United States Constitution announces the purposes of the new government:

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

During the debates over a new constitution, John Adams' model of government was extremely influential. Like the Massachusetts Constitution, the United States Constitution establishes three branches of government:

  • an executive branch headed by a President,
  • a legislative branch known as the Congress, and consisting of a Senate and House of Representatives, and
  • an independent judicial branch headed by a Supreme Court.

On September 17, 1787, the Constitutional Convention approved the Constitution of the United States and submitted it to the states for ratification.

John Adams, then serving as Ambassador to Great Britain, missed the Constitutional Convention, but actively participated from across the Atlantic Ocean. In 1787, he published his persuasive Defense of the Constitutions of Government of the United States of America, which restated his case for a balanced government. Adams also corresponded extensively with those who were writing the Constitution.

A Defence of the Constitution
A Defence of the Constitution

When Adams saw the proposed United States Constitution, he was disappointed by the absence of a Declaration (or Bill) of Rights. On November 10, 1787, he wrote to Thomas Jefferson, who was serving as Ambassador to France , "What think you of a Declaration of Rights? Should not such a thing have preceded the model?" Adams supported both ratification of the United States Constitution and the prompt addition of a Bill of Rights.

The United States Constitution was ratified in June 1788. The new Congress approved a Bill of Rights in 1789, which was ratified in 1791.

In 1789, George Washington was elected President of the United States, and John Adams was elected Vice President. 

Pictured below:

The "Rising Sun" Chair, used by George Washington when he presided over the Constitutional Convention. Benjamin Franklin wondered whether the sun carved on the back was rising or setting. When the Convention concluded his work, he decided that the sun was rising, and the chair became a symbol of hope for the new republic.

The Assembly Room in Independence Hall, Philadelphia, was where the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation, and the United States Constitution were adopted.

"Rising Sun" Chair, used by George Washington when he presided over the Constitutional Convention
"Rising Sun" Chair, used by George Washington when he presided over the Constitutional Convention
Assembly Room in Independence Hall, Philadelphia
Assembly Room in Independence Hall, Philadelphia

Endurance and Inspiration

John Adams believed that the "divine science of politics" should be able to produce constitutions and governmental institutions that would last for many generations. His contributions endure.

The Massachusetts Constitution has been amended many times since 1780. But its basic structure—a written guarantee of human freedoms, secured by a three-part structure of government and enforced by an independent judiciary—remains the same today as in John Adams's day. The Massachusetts Constitution is the oldest written constitution in the world still in effect.

The United States Constitution has also been amended, most significantly following the Civil War. In addition to governing the United States, this Constitution has and continues to inspire and influence the formation of democratic governments throughout the world. The constitutions of many nations today provide for separate and balanced branches of government, the enumeration of individual rights, and an independent judiciary to enforce those rights. 

Bill of Rights
Bill of Rights
United States Constitution
United States Constitution

Image credits

Images not listed below are owned by the Supreme Judicial Court.

John Adams. Portrait, pastel on paper by Benjamin Blyth circa 1766. 
     Courtesy, Massachusetts Historical Society.

Abigail Adams. Portrait, pastel on paper by Benjamin Blyth circa 1766.
     Courtesy, Massachusetts Historical Society. 

Children of John and Abigail Adams. 
     Designed by Carole J. Doody, Art Director/Graphic Designer, Social Law Library.

Paul Revere engraving of the Boston Massacre.
     Courtesy, Social Law Library.

Photo of Independence Hall.
     Courtesy, Independence National Historical Park.

Cover page of Thoughts on Government. Philadelphia: printed by John Dunlap, 1776.
     Courtesy, Massachusetts Historical Society.

Abigail Adam's letter to John Adams. 31 March - 5 April 1776.
     Courtesy, Massachusetts Historical Society.

Concord Resolution.
     Courtesy, Massachusetts Archives.

Theophilus Parsons.
     Courtesy, Social Law Library.

Cover page of The Essex Result.
 Courtesy, Social Law Library.

Digital copy of John Adams. Gilbert Stuart (oil on canvas 1800/1815).
     Courtesy, Board of Trustees, National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C..

Digital copy of Abigail Adams. Gilbert Stuart (oil on canvas 1800/1815).
     Courtesy, Board of Trustees, National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C..

Photo of Adam's home (known as the John Quincy Adams Birthplace) and law office.
     Courtesy, Adams National Historical Park.

John Adams, Sam Adams, and James Bowdoin Drafting the Massachusetts Constitution of 1780. 
Panel of Albert Herter mural in the Massachusetts House of Representatives chamber.
     Courtesy, Commonwealth of Massachusetts Art Commission.

Digital copy of the Massachusetts Constitution of 1780.
     Courtesy, Massachusetts Archives.

Elizabeth Freeman ("Mumbet"). Watercolor on ivory by Susan Ann Livingston Ridley Sedgwick, 1811.
     Courtesy, Massachusetts Historical Society.

Levi Lincoln.
     Courtesy, American Antiquarian Society.

Chief Justice William Cushing.
     Courtesy, Social Law Library.

Photo of the Assembly Room and Rising Sun Chair, Independence Hall, Philadelphia.
     Courtesy, Independence Hall Association.

Cover page of A Defense of the Constitution of Government of the United States of America. (London, 1787). Library of Congress Rare Book and Special Collections Division.

Photo of Congress Hall. Philadelphia.
     Courtesy, Independence Hall Association.

First page of United States Constitution and the Bill of Rights.
     Courtesy, National Archives and Records Administration.

Exhibit Author: Barbara F. Berenson, Attorney, Supreme Judicial Court

Exhibit Designer: Carole J. Doody, Art Director/Graphic Designer, Social Law Library

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