The 1780 Constitution of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, drafted by John Adams, is the world’s oldest functioning written constitution. It served as a model for the United States Constitution, which was written in 1787 and became effective in 1789.
Why Study the Massachusetts Constitution
The 1780 Constitution of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, drafted by John Adams, is the world’s oldest functioning written constitution. It served as a model for the United States Constitution, which was written in 1787 and became effective in 1789. (The Bill of Rights to the United States Constitution were approved in 1789 and became effective in 1791). In turn, the United States Constitution has, particularly in years since World War II, served as a model for the constitutions of many nations, including Germany, Japan, India and South Africa. The United States Constitution has also influenced international agreements and charters, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
In 1915, the President of the American Historical Association stated, “If I were called upon to select a single fact or enterprise which more nearly than any other single thing embraced the significance of the American Revolution . . . I should choose the formation of the Massachusetts Constitution of 1780. . . .”
John Adams and the Rule of Law
The Writs of Assistance Case (1761)
Among the most profound influences on the young John Adams was his witnessing attorney James Otis arguing the Writs of Assistance case in 1761.This case would influence Adams years later when, in drafting the Massachusetts Constitution, he included a strong prohibition against unreasonable searches and seizures. That provision ensures that articulated and established rules are followed before private property may be searched or seized by government officials.
The Writs of Assistance case originated in 1760. Soon after George III ascended to the English throne, customs officials began aggressively to inspect ships, businesses, and homes for evidence of goods smuggled into Massachusetts by merchants seeking to avoid taxes. To conduct a search, customs officials needed only to obtain a “writ of assistance,” a general search warrant that allowed them to search within any identified premises. The government was not required to make any showing of cause before obtaining a writ.
In February 1761, Otis represented a group of Massachusetts merchants who challenged the legality of the writs in a case brought before the Superior Court of Judicature. For five hours, Otis argued that the writs violated the inalienable rights of the colonists as British subjects: “A man’s house is his castle; and whilst he is quiet, he is as well guarded as a prince in his castle. This writ, if it should be declared legal, would totally annihilate this privilege.”
Chief Justice Hutchinson delayed the Court’s decision, likely hoping that public sentiment against the writs would subside. Though the Court did eventually uphold the writs, Adams believed that customs officials never “dared” to execute them. Otis’s argument against arbitrary and excessive power influenced many, including 25-year-old John Adams, who later recalled, “Every man of an immense crowded audience appeared to me to go away as I did, ready to take arms against writs of assistance. Then and there was the first scene of the first act of opposition to the arbitrary claims of Great Britain. Then and there, the child Independence was born.”
The Boston Massacre Case
The Boston Massacre case demonstrates John Adams’s deep and abiding respect for a legal system based on the rule of law. For in this case, John Adams was requested to – and did – defend British soldiers who had fired into a mob of unruly colonists.