ADAMS, John Quincy (1767-1848), President. Autograph letter signed ("J. Q Adams," with flourish) to Oliver Fiske, Newburyport, [MA], 31 January 1788. 4½ pages, 4to (9 x 7 1/16 in.), separations at folds expertly repaired, some browning.
A LAW STUDENT AND FUTURE PRESIDENT ON THE RATIFICATION OF THE CONSTITUTION: "ANY FURTHER OPPOSITION TO IT AT PRESENT WOULD BE PRODUCTIVE OF MUCH GREATER EVILS"
A significant early Adams' letter in which the young law student expresses conditional support for the United States Constitution. As the Constitutional Convention began its historic meeings in May of 1787, John Quincy Adams was completing his studies at Harvard. Aspiring to enter the legal profession, Adams moved to Newburyport, Massachusetts, where he studied under the tutelage of the well known lawyer Theophilus Parsons.
After wistfully describing his last encounter with classmate Fiske, Adams comments upon his current studies: "My situation is agreeable. Mr. Parsons is just the instructor that my wishes could have formed. In every branch of science he is proficient, and his law learning is astonishing. He is very fond of communicating his knowledge, and is able to give satisfactory answers to any questions a student can propose." Studying under Parsons proved difficult. Twelve hours of reading was required each day but frequent interruptions by visitors and clients were common in the crowded law office. Adams acknowledges that his endeavors have been half-hearted: "I have become an idle fellow. 'Much study says the wise man, is a weariness to the flesh,' and I am really of that opinion; my nerves for two or three months past have been somewhat disordered, and my mind has been totally incapable of much application."
The political debate which erupted over ratification did not escape the notice of the young Adams: "The federal constitution it seems is at length with infinite pains & difficulty adopted in this Commonwealth." Adams expresses a surprising allegiance to those who opposed ratification: "You, I presume are a staunch federalist, and as such will rejoyce [sic] at this measure. It will perhaps surprize [sic] you that from the first appearance of this System, I have been a strong antifederalist; though upon very different principles than those of your Worcester insurgents." Adams's reference to "insurgents" reflects the heated debate that occurred during ratification in Massachusetts. Many of the anti-federalists at the debate were connected either intimately or ideologically with participants in Shay's Rebellion which occurred in Massachusetts the year before. Adams counsels, however, that it is better that the Constitution be ratified: "however dangerous the tendancy of the plan may be, I am convinced, that any further opposition to it at present would be productive of much greater evils." Adams concludes on a positive note: "The convention of New Hampshire are now sitting at Exeter, and the appearance, is similar to that at the commencement of the session in this state; both sides have their hopes and their fears; but I think it probable the final effect will be favourable to the Constitution."
Adams' profession of anti-federalist principles is of considerable interest in light of his future reliance upon constitutional principles in his defense of the right to petition during his attacks upon slavery. In his inaugural address as President, Adams expounded upon the glories of the document: "We now receive it as a precious inheritance from those to whom we are indebted for its establishment, doubly bound by the examples which they have left us and by the blessings which we have enjoyed as the fruits of their labors to transmit the same unimpaired to the succeeding generation."
Exhibited: "Documenting the Constitution: A Manuscript History," The United States Supreme Court, Washington, D.C., May 1987-May 1988.