But in 1761 the political horizon was overcast. There were difficulties with Great Britain. James Otis had made a great speech, which Adams heard, on what were called "writs of assistance," giving power to the English officers of customs in the Colony to enter houses and stores to search for smuggled goods. This remarkable speech made a deep impression on the young lawyer, and kindled fires which were never extinguished. He saw injustice, and a violation of the rights of English subjects, as all the Colonists acknowledged themselves to be, and he revolted from injustice and tyranny. This was the turning-point of his life; he became a patriot and politician. This, however, was without neglecting his law business, which soon grew upon his hands, for he could make a speech and address juries. Eloquence was his gift. He was a born orator, like Patrick Henry.
In 1765 Parliament passed the Stamp Act, which produced great agitation in New England, and Adams was fired with the prevailing indignation. His whole soul went forth in angry protest. He argued its injustice before Governor Bernard, who, however, was resolved to execute it as the law. Adams was equally resolved to prevent its execution, and appealed to the people in burning words of wrath. Chief-Justice Hutchinson sided with the Governor, and prevented the opening of the courts and all business transactions without stamps. This decision crippled business, and there was great distress on account of it; but Adams cared less for the injury to people's pockets than for the violation of rights,--_taxation without representation;_ and in his voice and that of other impassioned orators this phrase became the key-note of the Revolution.
English taxation of the Colonies was not oppressive, but was felt to be unjust and unconstitutional,--an entering-wedge to future exactions, to which the people were resolved not to submit. They had no idea of separation from England, but, like John Hampden, they would resist an unlawful tax, no matter what the consequences. Fortunately, these consequences were not then foreseen. The opposition of the Colonies to taxation without their own consent was a pure outburst of that spirit of liberty which was born in German forests, and in England grew into Magna Charta, and ripened into the English Revolution. It was a turbulent popular protest. That was all, at first, and John Adams fanned the discontent, with his cousin, Samuel Adams, a greater agitator even than he, resembling Wendell Phillips in his acrimony, boldness, and power of denunciation. The country was aroused from end to end. The "Sons of Liberty" societies of Massachusetts spread to Maryland; the Virginians boldly passed declarations of rights; the merchants of New York, Philadelphia, and Boston resolved to import no English goods; and nine of the Colonies sent delegates to a protesting Convention in New York. In 1766 the Stamp Act was repealed because it could not be enforced; but Parliament refused to concede its right of taxation, and there was a prospect of more trouble.
John Adams soon passed to the front rank of the patriotic party in Massachusetts. He was eloquent and he was honest. His popularity in Massachusetts Bay was nearly equal to that of Patrick Henry in Virginia, who was even more vehement. The Tories looked upon Adams pretty much as the descendants of the old Federalists looked upon William Lloyd Garrison when he began the anti-slavery agitation,--as a dangerous man, a fanatical reformer. The presence of such a leader was now needed in Boston, and in 1768 Adams removed to that excitable town, which was always ready to adopt progressive views. Soon after, two British regiments landed in the town, and occupied the public buildings with the view of overawing and restraining the citizens, especially in the enforcement of customs duties on certain imported articles. This was a new and worse outrage, but no collision took place between the troops and the people till the memorable "Boston Massacre" on the 5th of March, 1770, when several people were killed and wounded, which increased the popular indignation. It now looked as if the English government intended to treat the Bostonians as rebels, to coerce them by armed men, to frighten them into submission to all its unwise measures. What a fortunate thing was that infatuation on the part of English ministers! The independence of the Colonies might have been delayed for half-a-century but for the stupidity and obstinacy of George III and his advisers.
By this time John Adams began to see the logical issue of English persistency in taxation. He saw that it would lead to war, and he trembled in view of the tremendous consequences of a war with the mother-country, from which the Colonies had not yet sought a separation.
Adams was now not only in the front rank of the patriotic party, a leader of the people, but had reached eminence as a lawyer. He was at the head of the Massachusetts bar. In addition he had become a member of the legislature, second to no one in influence. But his arduous labors told upon his health, and he removed to Braintree, where he lived for some months, riding into Boston every day. With restored health from out-door exercise, he returned again to Boston in 1772, purchased a house in Queen Street, opposite the court-house, and renewed his law business, now grown so large that he resigned his seat in the legislature. Politics, however, absorbed his soul, and stirring times were at hand.
In every seaport--Charleston, Annapolis, Philadelphia, New York, Boston--the people were refusing to receive the newly-taxed tea. On the 17th of December, 1773, three shiploads of tea were destroyed in Boston harbor by a number of men dressed as Indians. Adams approved of this bold and defiant act, sure to complicate the relations with Great Britain. In his heart Adams now desired this, as tending to bring about the independence of the Colonies. He believed that the Americans, after ten years of agitation, were strong enough to fight; he wanted no further conciliation. But he did not as yet openly declare his views. In 1774 General Gage was placed at the head of the British military force in Boston, and the port was closed. The legislature, overawed by the troops, removed to Salem, and then chose five men as delegates to the General Congress about to assemble in Philadelphia. John Adams was one of these delegates, and associated with him were Samuel Adams, Thomas Cushing, James Bowdoin, and Robert Treat Paine.
All historians unite in their praises of this memorable assembly, as composed of the picked men of the country. At the meeting of this Congress began the career of John Adams as a statesman. Until then he had been a mere politician, but honest, bold, and talented, in abilities second to no one in the country, ranking alone with Jefferson in general influence,--certainly the foremost man in Massachusetts.
But it was the vehemence of his patriotism and his inspiring eloquence which brought Adams to the front, rather than his legal reputation. He was not universally admired or loved. He had no tact. His temper was irascible, jealous, and impatient; his manners were cold, like those of all his descendants, and his vanity was inordinate. Every biographer has admitted his egotism, and jealousy even of Franklin and Washington. Everybody had confidence in his honesty, his integrity, his private virtues, his abilities, and patriotism. These exalted traits were no more doubted than the same in Washington. But if he had more brain-power than Washington he had not that great leader's prudence, nor good sense, nor patience, nor self-command, nor unerring instinct in judging men and power of guiding them.
One reason, perhaps, why Adams was not so conciliatory as Jefferson was inclined to be toward England was that he had gone too far to be pardoned. He was the most outspoken and violent of all the early leaders of rebellion except his cousin, Samuel Adams. He was detested by royal governors and the English government. But his ardent temperament and his profound convictions furnish a better reason for his course. All the popular leaders were of course alive to the probable personal consequences if their cause should not succeed; but fear of personal consequences was the feeblest of their motives in persistent efforts for independence. They were inspired by a loftier sentiment than that, even an exalted patriotism. It burned in every speech they made, and in every conversation in which they took part. If they had not the spirit of martyrdom, they had the spirit of self-devotion to a noble cause. They saw clearly enough the sacrifices they would be required to make, and the calamities which would overwhelm the land. But these were nothing to the triumph of their cause. Of this final triumph none of the great leaders of the Revolution doubted. They felt the impossibility of subduing a nation determined to be free, by such forces as England could send across the ocean. Battles might be lost, like those of William the Silent, but if the Dutch could overflow their dikes, the Americans, as a last resort, could seek shelter in their forests. The Americans were surely not behind the Dutch in the capacity of suffering, although to my mind their cause was not so precious as that of the Hollanders, who had not only to fight against overwhelming forces, but to preserve religious as well as civil liberties. The Dutch fought for religion and self-preservation; the Americans, to resist a tax which nearly all England thought it had a right to impose, and which was by no means burdensome,--a mooted question in the highest courts of law; at bottom, however, it was not so much to resist a tax as to gain national independence that the Americans fought. It was the Anglo-Saxon love of self-government.
And who could blame them for resisting foreign claims to the boundless territories and undeveloped resources of the great country in which they had settled forever? The real motive of the enlightened statesmen of the day was to make the Colonies free from English legislation, English armies, and English governors, that they might develop their civilization in their own way. The people whom they led may have justly feared the suppression of their rights and liberties; but far-sighted statesmen had also other ends in view, not to be talked about in town-meetings or even legislative halls. As Abraham of old cast his inspired vision down the vista of ages and saw his seed multiplying like the sands of the sea, and all the countries and nations of the world gradually blest by the fulfilment of the promise made to him, so the founders of our republic looked beyond the transient sufferings and miseries of a conflict with their mother-country, to the unbounded resources which were sure to be developed on every river and in every valley of the vast wilderness yet to be explored, and to the teeming populations which were to arise and to be blessed by the enjoyment of those precious privileges and rights for which they were about to take up the sword. They may not have anticipated so rapid a progress in agriculture, in wealth, in manufactures, in science, in literature and art, as has taken place within one hundred years, to the astonishment and admiration of all mankind; but they saw that American progress would be steady, incalculable, immeasurable, unchecked and ever advancing, until their infant country should number more favored people than any nation which history records, unconquerable by any foreign power, and never to pass away except through the prevalence of such vices as destroyed the old Roman world.
With this encouragement, statesmen like Franklin, Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Hamilton, were ready to risk everything and make any sacrifice to bring about the triumph of their cause,--a cause infinitely greater than that which was advocated by Pitt, or fought for by Wellington. Their eyes rested on the future of America, and the great men who were yet to be born. They well could say, in the language of an orator more eloquent than any of them, as he stood on Plymouth Rock in 1820:--
"Advance, then, ye future generations! We would hail you, as you rise in your long succession to fill the places which we now fill.... We bid you welcome to the healthy skies and the verdant fields of New England. We greet your accession to the great inheritance which we have enjoyed. We welcome you to the blessings of good government and religious liberty. We welcome you to the treasures of science, and the delights of learning. We welcome you to the transcendent sweets of domestic life, to the happiness of kindred, and parents, and children. We welcome you to the immeasurable blessings of rational existence, the immortal hope of Christianity, and the light of everlasting truth!"