The Rights of the Colonists
(1772)

Samuel Adams

Both an agitator and philosopher, Samuel Adams played a key role in the coming of the Revolution (if not its aftermath) by arguing for the legality of resistance against political authority deemed tyrannical.  He was a member of the Boston resistance against the British by participating in the Sons of Liberty, a radical organization composed of artisans and laborers who early on called for independence and often rioted against British policy.  He also, with the help of members from the Massachusetts Assembly, circulated a letter throughout the colonies arguing that the Townsend Duties were illegal.  In this selection, Adams draws heavily on Locke to explain his own philosophical views as to what the rights of the colonists entail.

Questions to Consider

  1. What is the thesis of this document?
  2. According to Samuel Adams, what are the rights of the colonists?
  3. How would this document help unify colonial resistance to Great Britain?

I.  NATURAL RIGHTS
OF THE COLONISTS AS MEN

Among the natural rights of the colonists are these: First, a right to life; Secondly, to liberty; Thirdly, to property; together with the right to support and defend them in the best manner they can.  These are evident branches of, rather than deductions from, the duty of self-preservation, commonly called the first law of nature....

        In regard to religion, mutual toleration in the different professions thereof is what all good and candid minds all ages have ever practiced, and, both by precept and example, inculcated on mankind....

        Insomuch that Mr. Locke has asserted and proved, beyond the possibility of contradiction on any solid ground, that such toleration ought to be extended to all whose doctrines are not subversive of society.  The only sects which he thinks ought to be...excluded from such toleration, are those who teach doctrines subversive of the civil government under which they live.  The Roman Catholics or Papists are excluded by reason of such doctrines as these, that princes excommunicated may be deposed, and those that they call heretics may be destroyed without mercy; besides their recognizing the Pope in so absolute a manner, in subversion of government, by introducing, as far as possible into states under whose protection they enjoy life, liberty, and property...leading directly to the worst anarchy and confusion, civil discord, war, and bloodshed....

        In short, it is the greatest absurdity to suppose it in the power of one, or any number of men, at the entering into society, to renounce their essential natural rights, or the means of preserving those rights; when the grand end of civil government, from the very nature of its institution, is for the support, protection, and defense of those very rights; the principal of which, as is before observed, are Life, Liberty, and Property.  If men, through fear, fraud, or mistake, should in terms renounce or give up any essential natural right, the eternal law of reason and the grand end of society would absolutely vacate such renunciation.  The right to freedom being the gift of God Almighty, it is not in the power of man to alienate this gift and voluntarily become a slave....

III.  THE RIGHTS OF THE COLONISTS AS SUBJECTS

A commonwealth or state is a body politic, or civil society of men, united together to promote their mutual safety and prosperity by means of their union.

        The absolute rights of Englishmen and all freemen, in or out of civil society, are principally personal security, personal liberty and private property.

        All persons born in the British American colonies are, by the laws of God and nature and by the common law of England, exclusive of all charters from the Crown, well entitled, and by acts of the British Parliament are declared to be entitled, to all the natural, essential, inherent, and inseparable rights, liberties, and privileges of subjects born in Great Britain or within the realm.  Among those rights are the following, which no man, or body of men, consistently with their own rights as men and citizens, or members of society, can for themselves give up or take away from others.

        ...The Legislative has no right to absolute, arbitrary power over the lives and fortunes of the people.

        ...The supreme power cannot justly take from any man any part of his property, without his consent in person or by his representative.

        ...if the breath of a British House of commons can originate an act for taking away all our money, our lands will go next, or be subject to rack rents from haughty and relentless landlords, who will ride at ease, while we are trodden in the dirt.  The Colonists have been branded with the odious names of traitors and rebels only for complaining of their grievances.  How long such treatment will or ought to be borne, is submitted.