John Adams and the world’s oldest constitution


John Adams, a key Founding Father and the second President of the United States, was also responsible for drafting the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. In doing so, he devised the oldest functioning written constitution in continuous effect in the world.

John Adams had spent decades languishing as one history’s most overlooked Founding Father. Overshadowed by George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin, the second President of the United States did not seem to get the attention his achievements and long public service deserved.

John Adams

That changed with the publication of David McCullough’s biography ‘John Adams’. A lavish HBO miniseries based on the book shone more light on Adams and helped in the rehabilitation of his historical position.

One of his greatest and longest lasting achievements was the drafting of the constitution of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. The Massachusetts Constitutional Convention delegated the task of drafting the constitution to a subcommittee of three of its leading members: John Adams, Samuel Adams and James Bowdoin. Samuel Adams and Bowdoin agreed that John Adams should draft the text producing, as John Adams called it, a  “sub-sub committee of one”.

Adams’s draft was put forward for scrutiny and approval before town meetings across the Commonwealth and then by the Constitutional Convention. The text was only slightly modified and was ratified on 15 June 1780 and became effective on 25 October 1780.

Massachusetts State House

As a result, the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts is the oldest functioning written constitution in continuous effect anywhere in the world.

The Constitution is both a product of its times and, uniquely, of John Adams’s wide learning and research into government and law. Some of the language is borrowed from other documents and thinkers, such as the Virginia Bill of Rights and, most notably in the preamble, the Declaration of Independence:

“The end of the institution, maintenance, and administration of government, is to secure the existence of the body politic, to protect it, and to furnish the individuals who compose it with the power of enjoying in safety and tranquillity their natural rights, and the blessings of life: and whenever these great objects are not obtained, the people have a right to alter the government, and to take measures necessary for their safety, prosperity and happiness.”

Adams’s text would, in turn, go on to inspire the Constitution of the United States and other key documents around the world based on this model.

One key alteration was made during ratification to change “All men are born equally free and independent….”; to “All men are born free and equal….”. This irritated Adams, as he did not agree that all men were born equal. He thought they were born with equal rights to freedom and independence, but could not concede this made them equal.

Harvard Yard, Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass, By Daderot. (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)], via Wikimedia Commons

One of the most striking features of this constitution is found in Chapter V ‘The University at Cambridge, and encouragement of literature, etc.’ Section II covers the encouragement of literature and learning in general, and, remarkably for such a document, ordains that:

“it shall be the duty of legislatures and magistrates, in all future periods of this commonwealth, to cherish the interests of literature and the sciences, and all seminaries of them.”

This is to be done so as to encourage:

“the promotion of agriculture, arts, sciences, commerce, trades, manufactures, and a natural history of the country”

Boston city scape By Nelson48 at English Wikipedia (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Adams, through his drafting, believed that this would:

“countenance and inculcate the principles of humanity and general benevolence, public and private charity, industry and frugality, honesty and punctuality in their dealings; sincerity, good humor, and all social affections, and generous sentiments among the people.”

As McCullough notes, these provisions were unlike any other:

declaration to be found in any constitution ever written until then, or since. It was entirely Adams’s creation, hjs original contribution to the constitution of Massachusetts, and he rightly took great pride in it.

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