Extracts from John Adams’ Novanglus (1775)


In February 1775 John Adams published Novanglus, an essay looking at the constitutional relationship between Britain and her American colonies:


“I contend that our provincial legislatures are the only supreme authorities in our colonies. Parliament, notwithstanding this, may be allowed an authority supreme and sovereign over the ocean… our charters give us no authority over the high seas. Parliament has our consent to assume a jurisdiction over them. And here is a line fairly drawn between the rights of Britain and the rights of the colonies…

[It is said that] ‘If then we are a part of the British empire, we must be subject to the supreme power of the state, which is vested in the estates in parliament.’ Here, again, we are to be conjured out of our senses by the magic in the words ‘British empire’ and ‘supreme power of the state.’

But however it may sound, I say we are not a part of the British empire, because the British government is not an empire… It is a limited monarchy… the British constitution is much more like a republic than an empire. They define a republic to be a government of laws and not of men. If this definition is just, the British constitution is nothing more nor less than a republic, in which the king is first magistrate…

[It is said that] ‘If the colonies are not subject to the authority of parliament, Great Britain and the colonies must be distinct states…’ There is no need of being startled at this consequence. It is very harmless. There is no absurdity at all in it. Distinct states may be united under one king. And those states may be further cemented and united together by a treaty of commerce. This is the case. We have, by our own express consent, contracted to observe the Navigation Act…

Perhaps it will be said, that we are to enjoy the British constitution in our supreme legislature, the parliament, not in our provincial legislatures. To this I answer… if parliament is to be our supreme legislature, we shall be under a complete oligarchy or aristocracy, not the British constitution… For king, lords and commons will constitute one great oligarchy, as they stand related to America…

If our provincial constitutions are in any respect imperfect and want alteration, they [the colonial assemblies] have capacity enough to discern it and power enough to effect it, without interposition of parliament… America will never allow that parliament has any authority to alter their constitution at all. She is wholly penetrated with a sense of the necessity of resisting it…

That a representation in parliament is impracticable, we all agree; but the consequence is that we must have a representation in our supreme legislatures here. This was the consequence that was drawn by kings, ministers, our ancestors and the whole nation more than a century ago, when the colonies were first settled… and it must be the general sense again soon, or Great Britain will lose her colonies.”