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Who needs legal education

Daniel R. Coquillette, Justinian in Braintree: John Adams, Civilian Learning, and Legal Elitism, 1758-1775, Law in Colonial Massachusetts 1630-1800 (eds. Daniel R. Coquillette, Robert J. Brink & Catherine S. Menand) (Boston, 1984), 359-82.

“The best source of intellectual and social excitement was the occasional visits of the circuit judges to the local courthouse. “

“Life with Putnam was not all roses. Adams would later lament that ‘now I feel the Disadvantages of Putnams Insociability, and neglect of me. Had he given me now and then a few Hints concerning practice, I should be able to judge better at this Hour than I can now.'”

“Adams particularly recalled being asked if he had read Grotius and Pufendorf, whom Gridley described as ‘great writers.’ Adams had to make lame excuses. “I cannot say I have Sir. Mr. Putnam read them, when I was with him, and as his Book Lay on the Desk in the office for the most part when he had it not in his hand, I had generally followed him in a cursory manner, so that I had some very imperfect Idea of Content….’ ‘[b]ut,’ Adams hastily added, it was his “intention to read them both as soon as possible.”


As a result of his efforts Adams was routinely sworn in at the Suffolk bar on 6 November 1758. He had no formal legal education and only a two years’ apprenticeship in the countryside. But he could talk about Cicero. As Gridley put it to the Court, on moving Adams’ application, “I take it he is qualified to study the law by his scholarship….”


(((From Adam’s Diary))) …’it is my Destiny to dig Treasures with my own fingers. No Body will lend me or sell me a Pick axe.’ And, to an astonishing degree, Adams really was self-taught.

“During the earlier period Adams was technically a student and apprentice, but Putnam was an indifferent teacher. During the later period Adams was technically a full-fledged practitioner, but, in fact, business was slow starting. Under the informal tutelage of Jeremiah Gridley, a great teacher, Adam filled the empty hours between clients with an extensive course of study.

{{{Adams’ reading list}}}”Adams’ Braintree reading under Gridley’s influence. In Adams’ words:’ I have read no no small Number of Volumes, upon the Law, the last 2 years [1758-1760]. Justinians Institutes I have read, thro, in Latin with Vinnius’s perpetual Notes, Van Muydens Tractatio institutionum Justiniani, I read thro, and translated, mostly into English, from the same Language. Woods Institute of the Civil Law, I read thro. These on the civil Law; on the Law of England I read Cowells Institute of the Laws of England, in Imitation of Justinian, Dr. and student, Finch’s Discourse of Law, Hales History, and some Reporters, Cases in Chancery, Andrews Etc. besides occasional searches for Business. Also a general Treatise of naval Trade and commerce, as founded on the Laws and Statutes.”

“But did Adams really absorb this learning? By his own account, “All this series of Reading, has left but faint Impressions, and [a] very imperfect system of Law in my Head.”

“… indeed I never read any Part of the best authors, Pufendorf and Grotius.”


“… this institute is a curious monument of Priestly ambition, avarice and sublety. it is a system of sacerdotal Guile.”


“Adams’ Daiary itself contained crabbed passages that were evidence of painful agony over Wood’s New Institutes of the Imperial or Civil Law and Van Muyden’s Tractatio.

“…’At this time October 1758 the Study of the Law was a dreary Ramble, in comparison of what it is at this day [1802]. The Name of Blackstone had not been heard, whose Commentaries together with Sullivans Lectures and Reeves’s History of the Law have smoothed the path of the Student, while the long Career of Lord Mansfield, his many investigations and Decisions … have greatly facilitated the Acquisition of it.”


” … Adams missed the next Sodalitas meeting at Joseph Dudley’s on 31 January 1765, but the following meeting, on 21 February 1765, was his trun to be host. he entertained the Club “at Blodgets”:…

This was an important meeting in the development of Adams’ political thought and jurisprudence. The topic of conversation was the feudal system and Adams had brought up Rosseau’s hostility to feudal institutions.

“Gridley: … it should also be a Part of our plan, to improve ourselves in Writing, by reading carefully the best English Writers, and by using ourselves to writing — for it should be a part of our Plan to publish Pieces, now and then. Let us form our style upon the Ancients, and the best English Authors.

“Adam concluded:’I hope and expect to see, at the Bar, in Consequence of this Sodality, a Purity, an Elegance, and a Spirit, surpassing any Thing that ever appeared in America. Fitch said that he would not say he had Abilities, but he would say he had ambition enough to hope for the same thing.”

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