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John Adams and the Constitutional History

of the Medieval British Empire


James Muldoon


Studies in Modern History

London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2018

Hardcover. xv + 267 pages. ISBN 978-3319664767. £80


Reviewed by Christopher N. Fritsch

Fort Worth, Texas



Often in our rush to understand the past, we bring a great deal of our present to these historical studies. The past, then, becomes a reflection of who we are and what we want the past to be. In the end, we uncover incomplete or inadequate answers.

Searching for a better answer, James Muldoon fashioned a very understandable, yet complex question. What did eighteenth-century North American colonists, such as John Adams, know of the past and how was that past useful in the exposition of revolutionary ideas and goals? For students of American colonial political, legal and constitutional thought, this question and work is anything but a road to nowhere. Most of us acknowledge the development of colonial bicameral legislatures since 1620, and the incorporation of constitutional amendments reflective of Magna Carta, both of which are medieval in origin. Additionally, if you trained as an attorney, as John Adams did, the subject of this work, this non-university training and later practice demanded broader reading and an approach to that knowledge which was inherently historical. In this regard, Adams embarked on his legal education, which brought him into intellectual contact with a variety of jurists and juridical texts, including Justinian, Bracton, Fleta, Littleton, and Coke. The past, the last five hundred years of legal and constitutional development in Great Britain and the continent, was not an undiscovered country for Adams. In fact, for Adams, the past was both practical and applicable to his profession and later to his understanding of British-colonial relations—the politics of revolution. For Muldoon, Adams trained to be a lawyer and became a historian.

The book, then, is rather straightforward. Muldoon writes to answer his question about John Adams’s understanding of the past. In order to do this, the author focuses upon two pre-Revolution works—the Dissertation on Canon and Feudal Laws and the Novanglus essays. Through these works, Muldoon looks to answer his main question, but also address what was important in the developing rift between Great Britain and the colonies of North America. Here, Muldoon squarely places the revolutionary impetus towards a conflict regarding constitutional and legal issues. As Muldoon states, by emphasising Adams and his understanding and presentation of the past, the book returns “to the approach of the ‘imperial school’ of American historians—an approach ‘which stressed the continuities between the medieval and early development of England and the development of the North American colonies’.” [35]

Standard interpretations of John Adams and the American Revolution view the eighteenth-century as a pre-modern period. Recently, historians interpret the Founders and the American Revolution through the Enlightenment, moving the colonies towards “modernity”. Muldoon sets this aside in order to understand Adams as legal and constitutional historian and how his understanding of the medieval world shed light on his present day and the impending transatlantic conflict. Through the Dissertation and Novanglus, Muldoon sees Adams writing a history of the British Empire from the twelfth century to the moment of crisis after the Seven Years’ War.

Initially, Muldoon examines Adams and the Dissertation on Canon and Feudal Laws. Here, Adams questioned the origins of rights and the limits upon government. He believed these origins to be in the England of William the Conqueror. For Adams, the Norman Conquest brought the establishment of the Norman Yoke. What was once a republic, Saxon England, now came under control of invaders, who corrupted and destroyed the old republic. Since that time, the work to restore the ancient constitution, the ancient rights against absolutism and arbitrary government continued. According to Muldoon, Adams framed his history of the British Empire in terms of a continual struggle between republican liberty and feudal and ecclesiastical tyranny [43]. For Adams, the struggle between these two points continued, as the contemporary debate focused upon the passage and implementation of the Stamp Act and the rumour that the Church of England would send a bishop to America. The Norman yoke remained, and the fight to secure republican liberties and to limit the power of government continued. For Adams, this history held a direct impact on the construction of the eighteenth-century British empire.

Muldoon sees the seriousness of this connection. The author draws us first to Adams’s seventeenth-century past and then to the Norman conquest of Saxon England. In this context, conquest created two political conclusions. First, conquest ended the continual development of freedom and liberty in Saxon England. Secondly, conquest meant the implementation of the Norman yoke—canon and feudal law. Since this moment, greater Britain struggled to regain the freedoms lost at Hastings, while William the Conqueror’s kingly descendants worked to tighten their grip upon the nation and empire.

The transformation from a nation of ‘free and equal citizens governing themselves through representative institutions’ to a nation of unyielding monarchs and landlords made 1066 a critical moment. Since that time, Britons worked steadfastly to regain rights that were lost and threatened. The conflict held many key, and sometimes ambivalent, moments. 1215 and the writing of Magna Carta was an initial stop in regaining lost rights. Henry VIII’s revolution of the sixteenth century contained a sharp double edge. Henry ended more than four centuries of ecclesiastical domination from the Papacy, but in so doing, Henry consolidated church and state power into one personage. From this moment, the political, constitutional, and theological debate brought monarchs into conflict over the identity of the nation. What did it mean to be Protestant and who held the power to determine men’s consciences?

Beginning the Dissertation, Adams quoted seventeenth-century cleric, John Tillotson. “Ignorance and inconsideration are the two great causes of the ruin of mankind” [47]. Adams believed that this spoke to men of all conditions. Ignorance and inconsideration could be both the ruin of men’s lives and their souls. However, where knowledge and sensibility occur in man, arbitrary and oppressive government can not. Where the love of power exists, so too does the love of freedom. Here, Adams connects the Norman love of power—William’s support of conquest by the Papacy and his creation of feudal tenures for his friends and supporters (the establishment of the Norman yoke)—to the Saxon desire for freedom. The struggle against the “yoke” continued through the establishment of the Puritan Massachusetts and Adams’s America. Adams believed that his seventeenth-century predecessors to the Bay Colony struggled against Stuart oppression, “not [for] religion alone…but it was a love of universal Liberty, and an hatred, a dread, an horror, of the internal confederacy” of this religious and magisterial tyranny [51]. Thus, the past conflicts between tyranny and oppression versus liberty and freedom continued under new administrations and guises. 

Adams was not always a singular voice, but rather a counterpoint to the imperial history presented by others, such as Daniel Leonard. In the Novanglus essays, Adams, as much political commentator as historian, responded to Leonard’s description of the British Empire. Muldoon summarises Leonard’s position, as an Empire which “colonists have had in the past and enjoyed at the moment, and could confidently expect in the future, great economic benefits from membership” [154]. Furthermore, Muldoon presents the Leonard position as an historical one—“the British Empire was the result of a process that had extended over a long time” [159]. Adams demanded to see the documents outlining such a political process. Here, Adams wrote against the leading Massachusetts Tories of his day, and compared their ‘wicked policies’ to previous rulers, such as Julius Caesar and Charles V. These Tories presented contemporary British ‘king in parliament’ sovereignty, which to Adams was the current yoke of unchallenged and unbridled power. In the Novanglus exchange, Adams, and his Loyalist counterpart, Daniel Leonard, wrote competing histories of empire, and these essays explained their positions relative to the origins of rights and government, vis-a-vis the current situation of both within the transatlantic debate.

What is fascinating about Muldoon’s work is the ground it covers beyond the immediate question. Historiographically, Muldoon links issues of medieval legal and constitutional debates with seventeenth-century arguments and revolutions, while seeing these as critical for the development of empire or perhaps the eighteenth-century construction of a commonwealth of nations. Instead of a usual discourse in which the Revolution and the Constitution are foundation to modern development, Muldoon gives us a look at Adams as a figure within the Enlightenment, but that moment needed to be understood through historical understanding and process. Muldoon admits that, as much as Americas revolutionaries shared a belief in rational Christianity, progress, and republicanism”, their arguments and their future had to be grounded in something, somewhere [xii]. The future which Adams saw was not the future of America as Lockean or liberal. Muldoon’s John Adams saw the Revolution as restorative—America as the next great empire and restorer of the Saxon republic and its ancient rights. In fashion with J.G.A. Pocock, the upheavals and revolutions since 1066 were all foundational to 1776.            

The outstanding merit of this work is the starting point. As Muldoon shows, much of the historiography fails to address the medieval impact upon colonial revolutionaries. He rightfully takes us away from Cincinnatus and Roman republicanism and Athenian democracy and places us where the English debates between ruler and ruled begin—the Middle Ages. Close examination of John Adams’s legal studies and his library reflect his understanding of the origins of the common law and the debates relative to the ancient constitution. His legal training led him to see the importance of the past and the historical study of that past. Finally, Muldoon moves us to seeing Adams as a historically minded Founder and oppositional to Loyalists, who conceived a very different historical process, and other Founders who were much more Enlightenment-oriented presentists.



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