J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Tuesday, May 05, 2020

John Adams as Advocate General?

A couple of days back I recounted the story of how Jonathan Sewall tried to convince his friend John Adams to accept an appointment as justice of the peace from Gov. Francis Bernard.

Sewall had accepted a similar appointment a few years before, then wrote newspaper essays supporting Bernard’s administration, and got the reward of multiple jobs in the royal government: Massachusetts attorney general, solicitor general, and advocate general in the Vice Admiralty court.

By the late 1760s, Sewall was ready to give up some of those appointments. He wanted to become a judge on the Vice Admiralty court. Meanwhile, Gov. Bernard, who had created the job of solicitor general for Sewall, wanted to appoint someone else to that post so he could have two friendly legal advisors.

Sometime in 1768, Adams recalled in his memoir (and he didn’t keep a diary most of that year to confirm this), Sewall came to dinner at his new house on Brattle Street. They were still friendly, despite the growing political gap between them.

Adams recalled:
After Dinner Mr. Sewall desired to have some Conversation with me alone and proposed adjourning to the office. Mrs. [Abigail] Adams arose and chose to Adjourn to her Chamber. We were accordingly left alone.

Mr. Sewall then said he waited on me at that time at the request of the Governor Mr. Bernard, who had sent for him a few days before and charged him with a Message to me. The Office of Advocate General in the Court of Admiralty was then vacant, and the Governor had made Enquiry of Gentlemen the best qualified to give him information, and particularly of one of great Authority (meaning Lt. Governor and Chief Justice [Thomas] Hutchinson), and although he was not particularly acquainted with me himself the Result of his Inquiries was that in point of Talents, Integrity, Reputation and consequence at the Bar, Mr. Adams was the best entitled to the Office and he had determined Accordingly, to give it to me.
So this dinner came with a second job offer.

Now lots of Adams’s later recollections were, explicitly or implicitly, about his “Talents, Integrity, Reputation and consequence,” and his steadfast, principled insistence on doing the right thing. In this case, he wrote:
Although this Offer was unexpected to me, I was in an instant prepared for an Answer. The Office was lucrative in itself, and a sure introduction to the most profitable Business in the Province: and what was of more consequence still, it was a first Step in the Ladder of Royal Favour and promotion. But I had long weighed this Subject in my own Mind.

For seven Years I had been solicited by some of my friends and Relations, as well as others, and Offers had been made me by Persons who had Influence, to apply to the Governor or to the Lieutenant Governor, to procure me a Commission for the Peace. Such an Officer was wanted in the Country where I had lived and it would have been of very considerable Advantage to me. But I had always rejected these proposals, on Account of the unsettled State of the Country, and my Scruples about laying myself under any restraints, or Obligations of Gratitude to the Government for any of their favours.

My Answer to Mr. Sewall was very prompt, that I was sensible of the honor done me by the Governor: but must be excused from Accepting his Offer.
Sewall asked Adams what his objection was. Adams recalled, “I answered that he knew very well my political Principles, the System I had adopted and the Connections and Friendships I had formed in Consequence of them.” Indeed, by 1768 people knew Adams was one of the Whigs surrounding James Otis and Samuel Adams.

In his memoir, Adams also claimed to have said that “the King, his Ministers and Parliament, apparently supported by a great Majority of the Nation,” were infringing on Massachusetts’s liberties. In the 1760s the Whig line was actually that local administrators were doing so, that the king and the voters of Britain were surely against such policy. Adams’s memory was almost certainly getting ahead of himself on that point. But he still said no.

According to Adams:
To this Mr. Sewall returned that he was instructed by the Governor to say that he knew my political Sentiments very well: but they should be no Objection with him. I should be at full Liberty to entertain my own Opinions, which he did not wish to influence by this office. He had offered it to me, merely because he believed I was the best qualified for it and because he relied on my Integrity.
Adams said, “I knew it would lay me under restraints and Obligations that I could not submit to,” essentially calling Bernard’s reported promise a lie.

Sewall told his friend, “You had better take it into consideration, and give me an Answer at some future day.”

Adams declared, “my mind was clear and my determination decided and unalterable.”

And yet Sewall still didn’t give up, Adams recalled:
about three Weeks afterwards he came to me again and hoped I had thought more favourably on the Subject: that the Governor had sent for him and told him the public Business suffered and the office must be filled.
Sewall was no longer saying that Gov. Bernard wanted Adams in the job of advocate general—just that he wanted someone besides Sewall, and soon. The window of opportunity was closing. Sewall, who had struggled financially early in life, leaped at such chances. He didn’t want his friend Adams to miss this one.

But once again, Adams said no.

TOMORROW: Another perspective on the situation.

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