John Adams on the Feudal and Canon Law

“I always consider the settlement of America with Reverence and Wonder– as the Opening of a grand scene and Design in Providence, for the Illumination of the Ignorant and the Emancipation of the slavish Part of Mankind all over the Earth.”    — John Adams

Detail of John Adams by John Singleton Copley, ca. 1784.

Detail of John Adams by John Singleton Copley, ca. 1784.

John Adams of Braintree, Massachusetts was an American Revolutionary War leader and one of our greatest and most learned Founding Fathers. In 1765, at the age of 29 he wrote an amazing essay, which later came to be called “A Disserta- tion on Canon and Feudal Law,” and which was subsequently published in the Boston Gazette as well as the London Chronicle. It contains one of the great tributes to our Pilgrim and Puritan forefathers. Later in life Adams said of the piece that “It might have been called an Essay upon Forefathers Rock,” referring to the famous rock where the Pilgrims first came ashore.

I am working on a history of the Pilgrims , which I had hoped to have had done by Thanksgiving. It is proving to be far more complicated and time consuming than I first thought. In the meantime, I offer this essay by Adams.

I apologize if Adams’ essay offends anyone. I do not publish it here as an attack on anyone’s faith. Adams certainly was rough in his views towards the Catholic structure here, but a fair view of history reveals many horrible abuses by the Church of Rome. Adams had no love for the Episcopal Church of England either, which in many ways replaced the old abuses from Rome with its own. The bloody history of Canon Law and religion in Europe is the reason we Americans treasure our first Amendment to our Constitution, which says, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” By the way, in case any of you were wondering, I was raised in the Catholic faith.

Below is the actual draft of Adams’ essay, the one found in his diary, courtesy of:


“A Dissertation on Canon and Feudal Law” by John Adams

The Desire of Power, Dominion, that encroaching, grasping, restless, and ungovernable Principle in human Nature, that Principle which has made so much Havock and Desolation, among the Works of God, in all the Variety of systems, that have been invented, for its Gratification, was never so successfull, as in the Invention and Establishment of the Cannon and the Feudal Law. — By the former the most refined, sublime, extensive, and astonishing Constitution of Policy, that was ever conceived by the Human Mind, was framed, by the Romish Clergy, for the Aggrandisement of their own order. This Constitution will be allowed to deserve all the Epithets I have given it, when it is considered, that they found Ways to make the World believe that God had entrusted them with Keys of Heaven whose Gates they might open and shut at Pleasure, and with the Power of Dispensation over all the Rules and Types of Morality, the Power of licensing all sorts both of sins and Crimes, with the Power of Deposing Princes, and absolving all their subjects from their Subj Allegiance, with the Power of Procuring or withholding the Rain of Heaven, and the Beams of the Sun, with the Power of Earthquakes, Plagues, Pestilence, Famine; nay with the Power of creating Blood Nay the Blood of God out of Wine, and Flesh the Flesh of God out of Bread. Thus was human Nature held for Ages, fast Bound in servitude, in a cruel, shameful, deplorable Bondage to him and his subordinate Tyrants who it was fortold in the Apocalypse, would exalt himself above all that is called God and that is worshiped.

By the latter another system was formed similar to the former in some Respects, and altho it was originally contrived perhaps for the necessary Defence of a barbarous Nation People against the Inroads and Invasions of her neighbouring Nations; yet it was soon adopted by almost all the Princes in Europe, and wrought into the Constitution of their Governments for the same Purposes of Tyranny, Cruelty and Lust. This Constitution was originally a Code of Laws for a vast Army, in a perpetual Encampment. The General was invested with the Property of all the Land within [sentence unfinished]

Illustration from John Foxe's Book of Martyrs, first published in 1563; Simson was a Protestant Minister tortured for heresy during the reign of Queen Mary I (1553-58); later he was burnt at Smithfield.

Illustration from John Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, first published in 1563; Simson was a Protestant Minister tortured for heresy during the reign of Queen Mary I (1553-58); later he was burnt at Smithfield.

It was a Resolution formed by a sensible People almost in despair. [The Puritans’ decision to leave England and settle in America.] (The) Puritans had become intelligent in general, and some of them learned but they had been galled, and fretted, and whipped and cropped, and hanged and burned. In short they had been so worried by Plagues and Tortures in every Shape, and they utterly despaired of Deliverance from these Miseries in their own Country, that they at last resolved to fly to the Wilderness, for Refuge from the temporal and spiritual Principalities and Powers, and Plagues and scourges of their Native Country.

After their Arrival here, they began their settlements and pursued their Plan both of Ecclesiastical and Civil Government in direct Opposition to the Cannon And the feudal systems.

The Landing of the Pilgrims at Plymouth, December 1620

The Landing of the Pilgrims at Plymouth, December 1620. Published by Currier & Ives, 1876.

Their first Concern was to preserve and propagate Knowledge. The leading Men among the first Settlers of America, were Men of sense and Learning. And the Clergymen, who came over first, were familiar with the Historians, Orators, Poets and Phylosophers of Greece and Rome, and many of them have left behind them Libraries which are still in Being consisting chiefly of Books, whose Character their great Grand sons can scarcely read.

I always consider the settlement of America with Reverence and Wonder– as the Opening of a grand scene and Design in Providence, for the Illumination of the Ignorant and the Emancipation of the slavish Part of Mankind all over the Earth.

their great grand sons, tho educated at European Universities, can scarcely read. Archbishop King him self, (I think it was, for I say this upon Memory) observed of the Puritans in General, that they were much more intelligent, and better read than the Members of the Church whom he reproaches, and censures very warmly for that Reason.

Provision was early made by Law, that every Town should be accommodated with a grammar school-under a severe Penalty– so that even Negligence of Learning was made a Crime, a Stretch of Wisdom in Policy that was never equalled before nor since unless by the ancient Egyptians who made the Want of Generosity and Humanity a Capital Crime.

But besides the Obligation laid on every Town to provide the means of Learning, a Colledge nay a Number of Colledges were formed very early, and a very early Attention to them from the Legislature, exempted from Military Duties– exemptions from Taxes, and many other Encouragements have taken Place. And in fine We their Posterity, have seen the Fruits and Consequences of the Wisdom and Goodness of our Forefathers. All Ranks and orders of our People, are intelligent, are accomplished– a Native of America, especially of New England, who cannot read and wright is as rare a Phenomenon as a Comet.

Thus accomplished were the first Settlers of these Colonies– and as has been said, Tyranny in every shape, was their Disdain and Abhorrence. No Kind of Fear of Punishment not even of Death itself, in exquisite Torture had been sufficient to conquer that steady, manly, pertinacious Spirit, with which they opposed the Tyrants of those Days in Church and state. And their greatest Concern seems to have been to establish a Government of the Church, more consistent with the scriptures, and a Government of the state more agreable to the Dignity of human Nature, than they had ever seen in Europe. For this purpose They knew that beautiful were the feet &c. But They saw clearly, that of all the ridiculous Nonsense, Delusion, and Frenzy that had ever passed thro the Mind of Man, none had ever been more glaring and extravagant than the Notions of the Cannon Law, of the indellible Character, the perpetual succession, the virtuous and sanctified Effluvia from Episcopal Fingers, and all the rest of that dark Ribaldry which had thrown such a Glare of Mistery, Sanctity, Reverence and Right Reverence, Eminence and Holiness around the Idea of a Priest [sentence unfinished]

2 thoughts on “John Adams on the Feudal and Canon Law

  1. So glad you shared this, and also the source. I was on line looking up Adam’s statement, “I always consider the settlement of America with Reverence and Wonder..” and ran across your page here. I’m putting together a documentary film right now on all of this and the source of that statement is very important. Part of my script is a short history of the Pilgrims as compared to the Puritans who came later, but what is important is the evolution of Puritanism, to Congregationalism and finally the liberal ideas of the Unitarians who came out of this and had a large effect on the liberal ideas that were the foundation of our liberties. Interesting project to say the least!

    • Hi Thomas,
      I’m glad you found my post helpful. John Adams was a brilliant man and truly one of the greatest of the Founding Fathers. I hope you will subscribe to my blog and read some more of the older posts. Please contact me when your documentary film is available for viewing. Thanks.
      Brian Murphy

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