The Adams family--on the whole the most illustrious in New England, if we take into view the ability, the patriotism, and the high offices which it has held from the Revolutionary period--cannot be called of patrician descent, neither can it viewed as peculiarly plebeian. The founder was a small farmer in the town of Braintree, of the Massachusetts Colony, as far back as 1636, whose whole property did not amount to Â£100. His immediate descendants were famous and sturdy Puritans, characterized by their thrift and force of character.
The father of John Adams, who died in 1761, had an estate amounting to nearly Â£1,500, and could afford to give a college education at Harvard to his eldest son, John, who was graduated in 1755, at the age of twenty, with the reputation of being a good scholar, but by no means distinguished in his class of twenty-four members. He cared more for rural sports than for books. Following the custom of farmers' sons, on leaving college he kept a school at Worcester before he began his professional studies. His parents wished him to become a minister, but he had no taste for theology, and selected the profession of law.
At that period there were few eminent lawyers in New England, nor was there much need of them, their main business being the collection of debts. They were scarcely politicians, since few political questions were agitated outside of parish disputes. Nor had lawyers opportunities of making fortunes when there were no merchant-princes, no grinding monopolies or large corporations, and no great interest outside of agricultural life; when riches were about equally distributed among farmers, mechanics, sailors, and small traders. Young men contemplating a profession generally studied privately with those who were prominent in their respective callings for two or three years after leaving college, and were easily admitted to the bar, or obtained a license to preach, with little expectation of ever becoming rich except by parsimonious saving.
With our modern views, life in Colonial times naturally seems to have been dull and monotonous, with few amusements and almost no travel, no art, not many luxuries, and the utter absence of what are called "modern improvements." But if life at that time is more closely scrutinized we find in it all the elements of ordinary pleasure,--the same family ties, the same "loves and wassellings," the same convivial circles, the same aspirations for distinction, as in more favored civilizations. If luxuries were limited, people lived in comfortable houses, sat around their big wood-fires, kept up at small cost, and had all the necessities of life,--warm clothing, even if spun and woven and dyed at home, linen in abundance, fresh meat at most seasons of the year, with the unstinted products of the farm at all seasons, and even tea and coffee, wines and spirits, at moderate cost; so that the New Englanders of the eighteenth century could look back with complacency and gratitude on the days when the Pilgrim Fathers first landed and settled in the dreary wilderness, feeling that the "lines had fallen to them in pleasant places," and yet be unmindful that even the original settlers, with all their discomforts and dangers and privations, enjoyed that inward peace and lofty spiritual life in comparison with which all material luxuries are transient and worthless. It is only the divine certitudes, which can exist under any external circumstances, that are of much account in our estimate of human happiness, and it is these which ordinarily escape the attention of historians when they paint the condition of society. Our admiration and our pity are alike wasted when we turn our eyes to the outward condition of our rural ancestors, so long as we have reason to believe that their souls were jubilant with the benedictions of Heaven; and this joy of theirs is especially noticeable when they are surrounded with perils and hardships.
Such was the state of society when John Adams appeared on the political stage. There were but few rich men in New England,--like John Hancock and John Langdon, both merchants,--and not many who were very poor. The population consisted generally of well-to-do farmers, shopkeepers, mechanics, and fishermen, with a sprinkling of lawyers and doctors and ministers, most of whom were compelled to practise the severest economy, and all of whom were tolerably educated and familiar with the principles on which their rights and liberties rested. Usually they were law-abiding, liberty-loving citizens, with a profound veneration for religious institutions, and contentment with their lot. There was no hankering for privileges or luxuries which were never enjoyed, and of which they never heard. As we read the histories of cities or states, in antiquity or in modern times, we are struck with their similarity, in all ages and countries, in everything which pertains to domestic pleasures, to religious life, to ordinary passions and interests, and the joys and sorrows of the soul. Homer and Horace, Chaucer and Shakespeare, dwell on the same things, and appeal to the same sentiments.
So John Adams the orator worked on the same material, substantially, that our orators and statesmen do at the present day, and that all future orators will work upon to the end of time,--on the passions, the interests, and the aspirations which are eternally the same, unless kept down by grinding despotism or besotted ignorance, as in Egypt or mediaeval Europe, and even then the voice of humanity finds entrance to the heart and soul. "All men," said Rousseau, "are born equal;" and both Adams and Jefferson built up their system of government upon this equality of rights, if not of condition, and defended it by an appeal to human consciousness,--the same in all ages and countries. In regard to these elemental rights we are no more enlightened now than our fathers were a hundred years ago, except as they were involved in the question of negro slavery. When, therefore, Adams began his career as a political orator, it was of no consequence whether men were rich or poor, or whether the country was advanced or backward in material civilization. He spoke to the heart and the soul of man, as Garrison and Sumner and Lincoln spoke on other issues, but involving the same established principles.
Little could John Adams have divined his own future influence and fame when, as a boy on his father's farm in Braintree, he toiled in rural and commonplace drudgeries, or when he was an undistinguished student at Harvard or a schoolmaster in a country village. It was not until political agitations aroused the public mind that a new field was open to him, congenial to his genius.
Still, even when he boarded with his father, a sturdy Puritan, at the time he began the practice of the law at the age of twenty-three, he had his aspirations. Writes he in his diary, "Chores, chat, tobacco, apples, tea, steal away my time, but I am resolved to translate Justinian;" and yet on his first legal writ he made a failure for lack of concentrated effort. "My thoughts," he said, "are roving from girls to friends, from friends to court, and from court to Greece and Rome,"--showing that enthusiastic, versatile temperament which then and afterwards characterized him.
Not long after that, he had given up Justinian. "You may get more by studying town-meetings and training-days," he writes. "Popularity is the way to gain and figure." These extracts give no indication of legal ambition.