[ADAMS, John]. Four annotated pamphlets, SIGNED THREE TIMES AND INSCRIBED TO HIS SON CHARLES ADAMS. A sammelband consisting of four narratives of the trials of Irish and Scottish radicals for sedition and treason: Report of the Trial of Archibald Hamilton Rowan, (N.Y., 1794), engraved frontispiece portrait, 153pp. Evans 27643; The Trial of Joseph Gerrald...For Sedition, (N.Y., 1794), engraved frontispiece portrait, 207pp., Evans 27591; An Account of the Trial of Thomas Muir...for Sedition, (N.Y., 1794), engraved frontispiece portrait, 148pp., with 7-page Appendix from 2nd edition, Evans 27633; The Trials at Large of Robert Watt and David Downie for High Treason... (Phila., 1794), 41pp., Evans 27816.
8o (202 x 126mm). (Appendix slightly shaved at fore-margin, marginalia shaved). Contemporary half calf and marbled boards, spine label gilt-lettered TRIALS OF PATRIOTS (Lower cover missing, spine cracked). SOME 60 PP. ANNOTATED IN JOHN ADAMS'S HAND. INSCRIBED AND SIGNED BY ADAMS ON THE TITLE PAGE of Rowan: "Charles Adams from his Father." SIGNED on the title page of Gerrald: "John Adams, 1794." (Signature slightly trimmed by binder.) SIGNED on title page of Watt and Downie: "John Adams."
FOUR YEARS BEFORE HE SIGNS THE ALIEN AND SEDITION ACTS INTO LAW, VICE-PRESIDENT ADAMS STUDIES CELEBRATED SEDITION AND TREASON TRIALS. Remarkable documentation of Adams's life-long interest in the problem of seditious speech, radicalism and constitutional government. The marginalia and underscorings in these accounts of the trials of Scottish and Irish radicals touch on subjects ranging from Tom Paine and James Callender, the French Revolution and the dangers of unchecked democracy. On p.52 of the Trial of Joseph Gerrald he marks the passage: "it is impossible that any country can exist, if the crime of sedition be allowed to pass without any punishment at all"; p.63: "...our forefathers were by no means comparable to us in those fine theories...with regard to religion and government; witness the glorious state of France at this moment." Yet, on p.185, he also marks the cautionary statement: "rigorous state prosecutions have always preceded the era of convulsions."
The Trial of Thomas Muir is heavily annotated, since much of the text deals with Thomas Paine and Paine's pamphlet Age of Reason, subjects sure to stoke Adams's passions: on p.8 Adams writes "Age of Reason" in the margin alongside a discussion of Paine, and a partially trimmed note alongside a discussion of Paine's statement about monarchism and Jews appears to read "not an anti-Semite!" On p.12 he underscores the passage: "A government where the executive and legislative power meet in a single person has no more pretence to freedom; it is perfect despotism; and the people who submit to it are in a state of slavery." Adams makes the approving comment--"good"--alongside a sentence that reads (on p.15): "We do not worship the British, far less the Irish constitution, as sent down from heaven; but we consider it as human workmanship, which man has made, and man can mend." On p.62 he marks a passage about "ringleaders...making seditious speeches and harangues, and encouraging improper meetings..." On pp.93-94 he heavily marks a discussion of Paine and seditious speech. The speaker, Muir, is defending Paine from the charge of treason, but Adams underscores the following passage: "any writing which calls upon the people to rise in arms, to resist the law, and to subvert the constitution is something worse than seditious...it is treasonable." Likewise he approvingly underscores Muir's discussion of freedom of the press as not including "the power of assassinating the reputation, of torturing the feelings of individuals...of degrading, and of contaminating the public mind..." We can see Adams here in the mid-1790s--several years before he assumed the Presidency--formulating the justifications for the prosecution of "seditious" troublemakers.
On p.74 he writes "True" alongside a passage stressing the importance of maintaining a balance of constitutional powers: "...that time-tried fabric, cemented by the blood of your fathers, flowing from the field and from the scaffold...It consists in the due balance of its three impelling powers, KINGS, LORDS, and COMMONS." His American pride compels him to object to another passage on p.121 that calls the British Constitution "the best that ever was since the creation of the world, and it is not possible to make it better." Adams thinks this "rather Strong." In the final pamphlet in the collection, Adams underscores more comments on the British constitution, and makes special note alongside a reference to the hated James Callender, whose vitriolic pen (in the pay of Thomas Jefferson) savaged Adams and led to Callender's imprisonment under the Sedition Act in 1800. The provisions of that Act seem to directly reflect the spirit and indeed the language of many of the passages marked by Adams. It called for fines and imprisonment for anyone found guilty of "scandalous or malicious writings...against the Government of the United States...or the President...with intent to defame...or to bring them...into contempt or disrepute..." Congress let the law lapse after its two-year expiration date in 1800.
The examples provided here are only a small sample of the numerous, revealing passages marked by Adams in these pamphlets. Just as intriguing are the motives that lay behind this gift to his troubled son Charles. "You do not mention the receipt of Rowan's trial which I sent you," John writes him on 31 January 1795. "I hope you have all the trials I've sent you bound up in volumes" (Papers of John Adams, Mass. Hist. Soc.). Adams, sadly, would eventually renounce his son after the younger Adams abandoned his wife and family. Charles died of alcoholism on 30 November 1800 in a New York City lodging house.
A poignant and revealing artifact, giving us great insight into John Adams as both a political thinker and a father.