The Constitution of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, drafted by John Adams, is the world's oldest functioning written constitution. It served as a model for the United States Constitution, which was written in and became effective in The Bill of Rights to the United States Constitution were approved in and became effective in The United States Constitution has also influenced international agreements and charters, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Inthe President of the American Historical Association stated, "If I were called upon to select a single fact or enterprise which more nearly than any other single thing embraced the ificance of the American Revolution.
I should choose the formation of the Massachusetts Constitution of Among the most profound influences on the young John Adams was his witnessing attorney James Otis arguing the Writs of Assistance case in This case would influence Adams years later when, in drafting the Massachusetts Constitution, he included a strong prohibition against unreasonable searches and seizures.
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That provision ensures that articulated and established rules are followed before private property may be searched or seized by government officials. The Writs of Assistance case originated in Soon after George III ascended to the English throne, customs officials began aggressively to inspect ships, businesses, and homes for evidence of goods smuggled into Massachusetts by merchants seeking to avoid taxes. To conduct a search, customs officials needed only to obtain a "writ of assistance," a general search warrant that allowed them to search within any identified premises.
The government was not required to make any showing of cause before obtaining a writ. In FebruaryOtis represented a group of Massachusetts merchants who challenged the legality of the writs in a case brought before the Superior Court of Judicature.
For five hours, Otis argued that the writs violated the inalienable rights of the colonists as British subjects: "A man's house is his castle; and whilst he is quiet, he is as well guarded as a prince in his castle. This writ, if it should be declared legal, would totally annihilate this privilege.
Chief Justice Hutchinson delayed the Court's decision, likely hoping that public sentiment against the writs would subside. Though the Court did eventually uphold the writs, Adams believed that customs officials never "dared" to execute them.
Otis's argument against arbitrary and excessive power influenced many, including year-old John Adams, who later recalled, "Every man of an immense crowded audience appeared to me to go away as I did, ready to take arms against writs of assistance. Then and there was the first scene of the first act of opposition to the arbitrary claims of Great Britain. Then and there, the child Independence was born.
The Boston Massacre case demonstrates John Adams's deep and abiding respect for a legal system based on the rule of law. For in this case, John Adams was requested to - and did - defend British soldiers who had fired into a mob of unruly colonists.
Events began on March 5,when tensions were high between the colonists and the armed British soldiers stationed in Boston. That evening, a dispute between a British sentry and a colonist led to the gathering of a disorderly crowd of colonists which, eventually, confronted Captain Thomas Preston and eight British soldiers. When the volatile crowd refused orders to disperse and threw objects at the soldiers, the soldiers shot into the crowd, killing five colonists, including Crispus Attucks.
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Captain Preston and the soldiers were arrested. The following day, John Adams was asked to defend Captain Preston and the soldiers from anticipated indictments. Adams agreed.
Though committed to freedom from British tyranny, he believed that those accused deserved a proper defense. Adams's decision to defend the accused was particular noteworthy as other patriots, including his cousin Samuel Adams and Paul Revere, who invoked what they now named the "Boston Massacre" to inflame anti-British sentiments.
Captain Preston's trial was held first, from October Adams's strategy was to challenge the prosecution's claim that Preston had ordered his soldiers to fire. Adams succeeded, and the jury acquitted Preston.
The subsequent trial of the eight soldiers was transcribed and published. After calling over forty witnesses, Adams gave an "electrifying" closing argument in which he argued that the soldiers had acted in self-defense when facing a mob. He further contended that because the evidence was unclear as to which soldiers had fired, it was better for the jury to acquit all eight defendants than mistakenly to convict one innocent man. The jury acquitted six soldiers and found two guilty of manslaughter; those two had been clearly proved to have fired shots.
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For his role in the trials, Adams received serious public criticism and lost a substantial portion of his law practice. Later, he would write:. The part I took in defense of Cptn.
Preston and the Soldiers, procured me anxiety, and obloquy enough. It was, however, 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 my country. Judgement of death against those soldiers would have been as foul a stain upon this country as the executions of the Quakers or Witches, anciently.
As the evidence was, the verdict of the jury was exactly right. As reflected in observations of the Writs of Assistance case and his own role in the Boston Massacre trials, Adams had a passionate commitment to the rule of law and the right of all to fair proceedings.
These passions would guide Adams as he developed and articulated his philosophy of a government based on laws not men. In a brief essay entitled Thoughts on Government written during the early spring ofJohn Adams articulated the central points of his philosophy of government.
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In formulating his vision, Adams relied on his vast reading of enlightenment political theory e. You and I. How few of the human race have ever enjoyed an opportunity of making an election of government, more than of air, soil, or climate, for themselves or their children! When, before the present epoch, had three Massachusetts of people full power and a fair opportunity to form and establish the wisest and happiest government that human wisdom can contrive?
Adams believed that a stable and democratic government required the consent of the governed and the separation of powers among the executive, legislature, and judiciary, and a bicameral two-body legislature. Of the necessity for an independent judiciary, Adams wrote:. 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 european be distinct from both the legislative and dating, 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.
Why study the massachusetts constitution
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. The constitutional framework articulated in Thoughts on Government influenced the constitutions drafted in many of the colonies, including Massachusetts. Also in the spring ofthe Second Continental Congress, meeting in Philadelphia, responded to John Adams's insistence that if independence were to be declared, the colonies must establish legitimate and independent governments.
On May 10,the Second Continental Congress adopted Adams's resolution advanced with Richard Henry Lee of Virginia recommending that each of the "united colonies" assume the powers of government and "adopt such a 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. Inthe Massachusetts legislature announced that the next legislature would draft a new constitution which it would then submit to the voters for approval. At this time, John Adams was serving as a diplomat to France; Congress had appointed him to solidify this crucial alliance.
In reaching its decision, the Massachusetts legislature failed to heed Adams's recommendation that constitutions ought to be drafted and ratified by special conventions representing the consent of the people. During the fall ofAdams had recommended that european people must "erect the whole Building with their own hands upon the broadest foundation. That this could be done only by conventions of representatives chosen by the People. The legislature's proposed constitution was submitted to, and rejected by, the voters in Theophilus Parsons, a young lawyer who would later became Chief Justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, led the opposition.
In a pamphlet entitled The Essex ResultParsons, in words demonstrating the influence of John Adams, criticized the proposed constitution for dating having been drafted by a body separate from the legislature, for lacking a declaration of rights and for explicitly condoning slaveryand for failing to provide for the separation of powers among the executive, a bicameral legislature, and the judiciary. Inthe Massachusetts legislature issued a call to the towns for every male inhabitant to elect representatives to form Massachusetts Convention for the sole purpose of framing a new Constitution, which would then require ratification by two-thirds of the same electorate.
Massachusetts thereby invented the concept of convening a convention of the people, separate and apart from the legislature, for the sole purpose of creating a constitution. Massachusetts thus created and clarified the distinction between ordinary legislation and the fundamental law contained in a constitution, which may be created and changed only by "the people.
In Augustone week after he had returned from France to his home in Braintree, that town selected Adams as a delegate to the state constitutional convention, scheduled to meet on September 1. The delegates selected John Adams, Samuel Adams, and James Bowdoin to serve on the drafting committee, and "the other two picked [John] Adams to draw up the state's constitution.
He had become, as he later said, a sub-sub committee of one.
Adams completed his draft by October 30, He left Massachusetts in November to return to Europe as minister plenipotentiary. Following approval by town meetings, the Constitution was ratified on June 15,and became effective on October 25, The Declaration of Rights, which was in part derived from the Bill of Rights in several other state constitutions, sets forth many individual rights which would later be included in the federal Bill of Rights. John Adams considered individual rights so integral to the formation of government that the Massachusetts Declaration of Rights precedes the Frame of Government.
Contrast this with the United States Constitution which sets forth a frame of government, to which the Bill of Rights was added two years later, after prolonged debate.