The Rights of the Colonists Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

“The natural liberty of man is to be free from any superior power on earth, and not to be under the will or legislative authority of man, but only to have the law of nature for his rule.”

Summary Overview

On November 2, 1772, Samuel Adams went before a Boston town meeting and made a motion for that body to draft a statement on the rights that should be afforded to the New England colonists. Adams would ultimately write the statement on November 20, 1772, which caused an uproar in communities throughout Massachusetts as well as Great Britain. “The Rights of the Colonists” states that the men and women of the colonies are endowed with natural rights, rights as Christians, and rights as subjects of the Crown. This essay has been seen as a major influence on Thomas Jefferson, who would write the Declaration of Independence—which echoes many of the points raised by Adams’s essay—four years later.

Defining Moment

By the mid-eighteenth century, there was a growing sentiment among the New England colonists that they deserved a greater degree of political representation and recognition of their basic rights while under British rule. Some of this attitude stemmed from the philosophical ideals of the Enlightenment, a period in which the notions of Charles-Louis de Montesquieu, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and John Locke suggested a shift away from tyrannical forms of government. In this regard, some colonists became interested in the idea of casting off British rule and developing their own sovereign political system.

While the Enlightenment’s influence sparked pro-liberty ideals among a small group of key individuals, a number of significant policies and incidents helped fan the flames of the independence movement in the colonies. For example, the British Parliament, suffering from heavy debt after the French and Indian War—the extension of the Seven Years’ War (1756–63) into North America—introduced a number of measures that increased taxes on colonial goods without the input of the colonial governments. One of the most controversial of these taxes was the Stamp Act of 1765, which stated that all formal documents in the colonies—such as newspapers, legal documents, and ship’s papers—must be printed on officially-embossed stationery, which cost more than other forms of stationery. The Stamp Act set off a large number of protests, particularly as appeals to Parliament for the law’s repeal went unanswered. The act was ultimately repealed due to boycotts and other protests by an increasingly unified American colonial network.

Additional onerous British laws and a growing number of British troops stationed in the colonies eventually triggered heated confrontations. The high-profile deaths of several colonists during the Boston Massacre of 1770 sparked widespread tension through Boston, leading to a redeployment of British troops to a fort in Boston Harbor. In 1773, Parliament’s efforts to increase taxes on tea triggered a protest wherein a group of colonists, disguised as Mohawk Indians, threw three shiploads of tea into Boston Harbor.

As the pro-liberty movement grew amid increasing tensions between America and Britain, Samuel Adams gained prominence. Adams’s voice was among the loudest in protest of the Stamp Act, and he was believed to be behind the Boston Tea Party. He was also the chief figure behind the public backlash over the Boston Massacre.

A year before the Boston Tea Party, Adams participated in a Boston town meeting in November of 1772. While at the meeting, he made a motion to create a special committee to write a report that outlined the rights of the colonists. The report, largely written by Adams, was read by James Otis and published by Benjamin Franklin. It was sent to villages all over Massachusetts. Copies even made it to Britain, where it added to a growing concern that the colonists were considering rebellion.

Author Biography

Samuel Adams was born in Boston, Massachusetts, on September 27, 1722, to Samuel Adams and Mary Fifield Adams. He came from a well-established family—his father was a deacon, brewer, and prominent figure in Boston politics, while his mother was a pious practitioner of Puritan tradition. Young Adams studied at Boston Latin School before entering Harvard College. After receiving his bachelor’s degree there, he pursued his master’s degree by researching the question of “Whether it be lawful to resist the Supreme Magistrate, if the Commonwealth cannot be otherwise preserved?” As his thesis topic demonstrates, Adams developed a strong interest in political philosophy and the colonists’ relationship with the Crown.

Adams studied law briefly after his tenure at Harvard, but moved on to start his own business when his mother discouraged his legal pursuits. When the business proved unsuccessful, he returned to work for his father at the brewery. In 1749, he married Elizabeth Checkley, with whom he had six children, two of whom survived, before her death in 1757. He married Elizabeth Wells seven years later.

Following his father’s advice, Adams involved himself in Boston’s political scene. In 1748, he founded a weekly political publication, the Advertiser, for which he frequently wrote articles. In 1765, he was elected to the Massachusetts House of Representatives, rising to a high position of leadership within the General Court, the main legislative body of Massachusetts Colony. Meanwhile, he had organized a group known as the Sons of Liberty; it was this organization that carried out the infamous Boston Tea Party.

Although Adams did not speak out in favor of independence during the 1760s—though he staunchly and publicly opposed the Stamp Act—his feelings on this issue changed as British tyranny became more evident in the colonies in the following decade. Adams wrote a scathing set of articles in the Boston Gazette which took the British to task for the Boston Massacre and fanned anti-British sentiment. He later joined the First and Second Continental Congresses, from 1774 through 1781, garnering an increased amount of attention from Britain. In April 1775, Governor Thomas Gage unsuccessfully attempted to capture and arrest Adams and John Hancock at Lexington, Massachusetts, which days later escalated into the Battles of Lexington and Concord and the start of the American Revolution.

Following the Revolution, Adams helped forge the United States Constitution, including the Bill of Rights, and was a key figure in ensuring that Massachusetts ratified it. From 1789 to 1794, he held the position of lieutenant governor of Massachusetts, and thereafter was elected governor of Massachusetts, a post he held until 1797. Adams died in 1803 of unspecified causes.

Document Analysis

Adams’s “The Rights of Colonists” describes the rights afforded to the colonists using three general areas of focus. The first of these areas encompasses natural rights. All men, Adams argues, are born with natural rights. Among these are the right to live, the right to live in liberty, and the right to own property. Additionally, all men are born with the responsibility of self-preservation—in other words, every person has the ability to defend his or her natural rights should they become threatened.

Natural and Religious Rights

Adams further argues that each man has the right to remain in a natural state as long as he so desires. Should he encounter civil or religious oppression that becomes too intolerable to bear, he may feel free to leave whatever society in which he lives and travel to another; his entry into any society is wholly voluntary. While part of a society, a man may speak freely and criticize any changes to the society as they occur, especially if these changes are contrary to the social contract under which he originally entered the society. In other words, a man may enter a particular society when he finds conditions for that residency to be satisfactory to his own interests. Although he may be asked to conform somewhat to the society’s terms under this social contract, a man cannot have his natural rights taken from him.

Furthermore, Adams states that in an ideal political society, all laws should speak to the natural rights of the people and be equitable. In this situation, each man would be treated fairly under the laws of that society, regardless of his individual personal or spiritual ideals. An important example Adams cites is that of religious freedom. Adams was raised by his Puritan mother, whose ancestors were driven out of England to the colonies in order to escape religious disenfranchisement and persecution. Although the Puritans settled in the New England colonies more than a century prior, the notion of religious freedom remained relevant in the minds of dams and others in late eighteenth-century New England. For this reason, Adams argues that every man should be allowed by the society in which he lives to peaceably worship God according to his own faith.

Expanding on that argument, Adams states that all men should receive equal treatment under the laws of a society regardless of their personal values and traditions. “Just and true liberty, equal and impartial liberty” are freedoms to which all men are entitled under the ultimate authority, God. National and municipal laws must also provide such liberties—these governments, if well-grounded, are built on the foundations of God’s law as well.

Returning to his comments on religious liberties, Adams states that, in addition to man’s right to practice his faith as an individual, the society in which he lives must tolerate all other faiths as well. Toleration, he claims, is the key to the viability of a society in which those of different faiths live. Such a concept should be easy for a Christian to accept, as tolerance of people of other faiths is a key element of Christianity.

Adams uses as the basis for his assertions on tolerance the ideas put forth by John Locke in 1685. Locke’s Letters Concerning Toleration, written in Latin in Holland, argues that it is critical for Christians to abstain from any sort of religious persecution. Religious tolerance, Adams states, is an essential part of a civil society. He shares Locke’s view that any religion should be allowed to exist within a society as long as the traditions and views of that institution do not work to subvert that society. Only one sect of Christianity, according to Locke, is exempt from such a call for toleration: Roman Catholics. This group, Locke states, is incapable of tolerance because of the Catholic tradition to persecute those deemed “heretics,” even if they occupy high positions in society. Furthermore, Catholics, including the Pope, proceed from the notion that they are the messengers of God, and are therefore subject to a law higher than those of society. For this reason, Catholics are, in the minds of both Locke and Adams, by virtue of their traditions, subversive to civil society unless they change their intolerant ways.

According to Adams, when man is in his natural state, he is responsible for his own actions. He is the single judge of his own rights as well as the defense of his interests when injured by others. The only authority overseeing man’s actions is God. However, when man enters a society, he allows another judge to become the arbiter between him and the others in that society. Still, man does not sacrifice his natural rights to be part of a society. Instead, he looks to that “indifferent” judge to intercede on his behalf.

In order to enable government to be this impartial judge, men must pay their officials and show their support to the government’s laws and constitution. When a man shows his support for the government, he ensures that it will remain impartial in managing the affairs of the society. Ultimately, however, the natural liberties of man cannot be subjugated by any other individual, legislature, or power on earth. Rather, the law of nature remains the only prevailing authority.

Adams next states that man, while under the state of natural law, may still hire servants to protect his property, his liberties, and even his life. Government is in essence one of these servants, established for the “purposes of common defence.” Government officials in turn have the natural right to support by those they represent, assuming that they are deemed worthy by the people they represent. Government officials should not seek more than they are owed as compensation. Officials should not take whatever they want, for such pursuits undermine the honor bestowed upon them. Instead of maintaining their honor, the offending officials would soon become “absolute masters, despots, and tyrants.” Just as private citizens set the rate at which they pay those they hire, so too does the community set the rate and terms of compensation for their government officials—if the person hired fails to perform in the manner expected, there are many others standing by to take that position should it be vacated.

Adams stresses that no individual should sacrifice his natural rights for the good of the society or the civil government. Rather, the very nature of the government should be to represent and protect those rights. In fact, he argues, if any person should be made to give up the right to life, liberty, and property through any form of fear or intimidation, the government should undo that renunciation. No person “should voluntarily become a slave.”

Following his discussion of the “natural rights of the colonists as men,” the second type of rights Adams discusses are the “rights of the colonists as Christians.” First and foremost, the vehicle that best provides information about Christian rights is the New Testament, Adams states. This book provides an understanding of both Christian values and institutions of law.

To provide a better illustration of Christian rights under a civil government, Adams refers to the Toleration Act of 1689. This law ruled that it is the natural right for every person under the Crown to worship God in his own way—with the exception of Roman Catholics. Adams then references the Magna Charta, introduced in the early thirteenth century, reminding his audience that the document established these rights as protected by the king and members of Parliament. In other words, the natural rights of Christians under the Crown had long been an institution in Britain, one that was defended by the Empire’s leaders.

Citizenship Rights

The third category of rights that Adams states should be extended to the colonists are the rights of Americans as subjects of Great Britain. Adams defines a commonwealth or state as comprised of people unified for mutual defense and collective prosperity. As is the case for all societies, the subjects of Britain should be afforded the basic rights of life, liberty, and property. This fact is not exclusive to residents of Britain, either—it should extend throughout the colonies.

In addition to the natural rights due to the colonists, Adams states that all laws generated by Parliament and applied to the people of Britain should apply equally to the colonists as well. Since the rights granted to British subjects were created by Parliament, they could not be changed or rescinded by anyone. Adams argues that the first action of a state should be the creation of a legislative body governed by natural law; natural law, in turn, keeps the society whole. Additionally, this legislature does not have a right to assume “absolute, arbitrary power” over the people. Similarly, no individual can put himself above the lives of others within the commonwealth—only God may enjoy such power.

Furthermore, the legislative body, according to Adams, cannot interpret the laws in such a way that favors one group over others. The legislature must instead ensure that justice is applied to all subjects equitably. The rights of each subject should be the same, whether that person is wealthy or poor or if he has high or low standing within the society. The legislature’s administration of justice should be based purely on the law. Adams even cites the need for independent judges to verify that the work of the legislature is within the law of the society.

Another natural right, and therefore basic colonial right that Adams argues cannot be put asunder as a British subject, is property ownership. Property, in this sense, includes money, land, and other personal assets. Adams states that no supreme power, such as the Crown, could take any portion of the property of its subjects—including colonists—without the subject’s consent. To do so is to deny, without justification, the natural right of the subject to own and protect his property. Parliament would be operating against the “maxims of the common law, common sense, and reason” to unilaterally decide who in the colonies should be allowed to own property and from whom property should be confiscated.

Adams’s essay cites two sets of sources that appear to agree with the notion that colonists should enjoy the same rights as all subjects born in Great Britain. The first of these sources are the laws administered by British Parliament. Adams states that Parliament should apply the laws of Britain to its colonies with equity. Its oversight, however, contradicts its own acts—such as the Naturalization Act of 1739, which gave foreigners citizenship after seven years of residency in Britain—as well as the British Constitution. The second set of sources Adams cites are the charters under which the colonies were established, and which were approved by Parliament. Adams references a lengthy provision within the Massachusetts charter as an example. In this section, the charter specifically states that all who reside in the colonies, including those born in the colonies and those who traveled across the sea to take up residence there, are free to enjoy the same liberties and rights as those who reside in Britain.

At this point in “The Rights of the Colonists,” Adams’s analytical perspective transitions into criticism, as he offers an indictment of British policies in the colonies regarding the acquisition of property. He questions what sort of liberty exists in the colonies, when the British government could simply impose new taxes and otherwise take away property without the consent of the owner. His answer to this question is simple: the government that is supposed to represent the colonies’ interests does not represent them at all. Colonial America spanned thousands of miles and contained approximately five million people, and would continue to expand, yet its residents had not a single colonial representative in Parliament.

This fact, Adams argues, was deliberately created by Parliament. The colonies could, in his view, no more send an elected representative to London than they could elect the “Emperor of China.” Even if the colonies are allowed to elect a representative to serve their interests in Parliament, that representative would be woefully outnumbered in that legislative body and not be able to effect any changes to the colonies’ favor.

Adams emphasizes that it is pure folly to assume that, under such circumstances, Parliament would be acting in the colonies’ best interests if they deem it necessary to acquire colonists’ property. In reality, he states, Parliament, located three thousand miles from the colonies, does not demonstrate a concern for the colonists’ interests. The only way colonists could obtain any sort of proper representation is by bribing these officials into failing to enforce the rules. Otherwise, any onerous regulation or law that Parliament imposes on the colonies would be to Parliament’s gain at the expense of the colonies.

Concluding his comments on property rights, Adams suggests that the colonial position in this arena would only worsen if it is not immediately addressed. He suggests that Parliament enjoys the discretion to take property from the colonists without input from the latter. At the time of Adams’s writing, that discretion entailed taking the colonists’ money—a reference to such tax regimes as the Stamp Act and the Townshend Acts—without colonial input or representation in the development of those laws. Adams cautions that Parliament could next impose laws that would allow it to increase rental rates of the colonists’ land or impose more stringent rules for the lease of land from officially-recognized landlords, who could still use the lands at their discretion while the colonists performed arduous labor therein. Unless this situation changed, Adams fears that Parliament could impose regulations authorizing the simple confiscation of the colonists’ land altogether.

The colonists, Adams argues, had been backed into corner. Parliament had positioned itself in such a way that it had full and undeniable authority over the people residing in the colonies. If the colonists filed any complaints or appeals for greater flexibility or changes in the laws, they were “branded with the odious names of traitors or rebels” against the Crown and, as a result, dealt even harsher rules and impositions on their rights.

Adams finishes his essay with the implication that the colonists had reached an impasse with Parliament, one that could not be remedied through the means available to them at the time. No longer could the colonists allow this situation to continue.

Essential Themes

“The Rights of the Colonists” was solicited by a Boston town meeting to aid the colonial government in formulating a response to Parliament’s continued introductions of onerous laws and regulations. Adams wrote the document himself after successfully moving that the group explore this issue. The document would serve as an important statement on the colonists’ perceived rights as well as a commentary on the status of British-colonial relations.

The first topic of the document, as outlined by Adams, covers the rights that he believed all men deserve according to natural law, which only God could define for the people: the rights to life, liberty, and the ownership of property. Government should be developed and tailored to provide and protect these rights for each resident of a civil society. After all, a man who joins a society does so voluntarily and with the expectation that his natural rights will be maintained. No government should therefore claim any power that denies or hinders the maintenance of these rights.

The next set of rights Adams outlines speak to his Puritan heritage. Any society must allow its members to worship God in their own way, as long as their traditions do not threaten to subvert the society as a whole. Parliament had passed the Toleration Act nearly a century earlier—this law, as Adams reminds his audience, applies in Britain as well as any of the Crown’s holdings.

The final set of rights in the essay pertain to the colonists as subjects of Britain. In this arena, Adams is particularly critical of Parliament’s legislative actions. He suggests that Parliament was positioning itself in a manner that pursued absolute power over the colonies. The colonies, which were geographically enormous and populated by millions, had also become completely disenfranchised from Parliament, with the latter party able to pass new colonial taxes and potentially impose other laws that could legally suppress the colonists’ natural right to personal property.

Adams’s paper provides both an analysis of the rights that he believed should be afforded equitably to all subjects of the Crown and an admonition of the fact that these rights were not being so protected. He concludes with a warning to his fellow colonists: Parliament had no intention of changing its course with regard to its treatment of Britain’s American subjects. It was therefore important for the colonists to quickly take stock of their plight and plot their next course of action for the preservation of their natural rights.

  • “The Boston Tea Party, 1773.” EyeWitness to History. Ibis Communications Inc., 2002. Web. 23 July 2012.
  • Goldie, Mark, ed. “Locke on Religious Toleration”. Introduction. A Letter Concerning Toleration and Other Writings. By John Locke. Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2010. The Online Library of Liberty. Liberty Fund Inc. Web. 23 July 2012.
  • “Samuel Adams: 1722–1803.” Colonial Hall. Colonial Hall, 2 Jan. 2004. Web. 23 July 2012.
  • “Short Biography.” Samuel Adams Heritage Society. Samuel Adams Heritage Society, 2012. Web. 23 July 2012.
  • Todd, David A. “Samuel Adams on the Rights of the Colonists.” American History @ Suite 101. Suite 101 Media Inc., 12 Jul. 2009. Web. 23 July 2012.
Additional Reading
  • Adams, Samuel. The Writings of Samuel Adams. Ed. H. A. Cushing. 4 vols. New York: Putnam, 1904–1908. Print.
  • Alexander, John K. Samuel Adams: The Life of an American Revolutionary. Lanham: Rowman, 2011. Print.
  • Bailyn, Bernard. The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1992. Print.
  • Puls, Mark. Samuel Adams: Father of the American Revolution. New York: Macmillan, 2009. Print.
  • Wood, Gordon S. The Radicalism of the American Revolution. New York: Vintage, 1993. Print.

Categories: History