John Adams is rightfully celebrated as one of the most influential and intellectually powerful of our Founding Fathers, with achievements range far beyond serving as the second U.S. President, to assisting in the drafting of the Declaration of Independence and personally drafting the Massachusetts state constitution; negotiating the peace treaty with Great Britain to end the War of Independence; and nominating George Washington to be the first President and John Marshall to be the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. More recently, he was the subject of historian David McCullough’s outstanding book and the terrific HBO mini-series. Adams became especially noteworthy in leading opposition to the Stamp Act of 1765, which the Crown unilaterally imposed as a tax on the American colonies. In a letter to the people of his hometown, Instructions of the Town of Braintree to Their Representative, Adams wrote of the inequity of the tax as a violation of the right to a jury trial: We shall confine ourselves, however, chiefly to the act of Parliament, commonly called the Stamp Act, by which a very burthensome, and, in our opinion, unconstitutional tax, is to be laid upon us all; and we subjected to numerous and enormous penalties, to be prosecuted, sued for, and recovered, at the option of an informer, in a court of admiralty, without a jury.
Two years later, Adams wrote a long letter to the Boston Evening Post, under the nom de plume of “the Earl of Clarendon,” in which he replied to a letter published three months earlier in a London newspaper. That letter purported to inform the American colonists that the British Parliament could overturn any of the personal liberties enjoyed by the Americans. Adams reminded the British of their centuries-old commitment, in the Magna Carta and British law, to “a grand division of constitutional powers” between the king and the people, the latter of whom are delegated powers including the following:
The people choose a grand jury, to make inquiry and presentment of crimes. Twelve of these must agree in finding the bill. And the petit jury must try the same fact over again, and find the person guilty, before he can be punished. Innocence, therefore, is so well protected in this wise constitution, that no man can be punished till twenty-four of his neighbors have said upon oath that he is guilty.So it is also in the trial of causes between party and party. No man’s property or liberty can be taken from him till twelve men in his neighborhood have said upon oath, that by laws of his own making it ought to be taken away, that is, that the facts are such as to fall within such laws.What a satisfaction is it to reflect, that he can lie under the imputation of no guilt, be subjected to no punishment, lose none of his property, or the necessaries, conveniencies, or ornaments of life, which indulgent Providence has showered around him, but by the judgment of his peers, his equals, his neighbors, men who know him and to whom he is known, who have no end to serve by punishing him, who wish to find him innocent, if charged with a crime, and are indifferent on which side the truth lies, if he disputes with his neighbor!
Conservatives who celebrate the life and contribution of John Adams should remember his dedication to the right, enumerated in the 7th Amendment, to a jury trial for civil suits, without any qualification or limit.