Preserving Liberty: The Politics of Adams, Hancock, and Mason

By Melissa Bryson

Long before the first battle of the American Revolution took place in April of 1775, the fight for independence from Great Britain in the mainland colonies was well underway. Samuel Adams, John Hancock, Patrick Henry, and George Mason helped lay the foundations that were used to establish a new form of government in America. At the start of the Revolution, these four shared similar ideologies that the liberties of the people were not given by government; rather, they derived from God. The circumstances that resulted from the conflicts with England helped each of these men emerge as leaders from the colonies they represented.

Adams and Hancock from Massachusetts lived under the tyranny of the Coercive Acts and witnessed the pivotal moments that led to war. Henry and Mason, Virginians both, experienced the eve of the revolution somewhat at a distance through the writings of Adams, the Committees of Correspondence, and Governor Dunmore’s 1775 proclamation.

As these men moved from the start of the revolution into the war years and into the Early Republic, their ideals of self-governance changed. Henry went on to become the first non-royal governor of Virginia. Mason wrote both the Virginia Declaration of Rights and the Virginia Constitution. Hancock became President of the Continental Congress and Massachusetts Governor. Adams helped draft the Articles of Confederation.

In time, they realized that the romanticism of independence no longer existed and that the Articles of Confederation could no longer hold thirteen separate states together. Adams, Hancock, Henry, and Mason all worked to achieve independence and establish a new government but soon learned by the Annapolis Convention in 1786 that all that they had worked for was threatened by their inabilities to govern effectively. The Articles of Confederation proved to be inadequate at governing the United States, and all that these four men worked for had threatened to unravel.

Samuel Adams: Individual Sovereignties

By early 1774, Massachusetts – Boston in particular – continued to face the wrath of Britain through its direct punishment in the form of the Coercive Acts. The city of Boston suffered greatly as the people were limited by The Acts to the amount of trade they were permitted to conduct, the income they were allowed to bring in, and how they were allowed to carry themselves with the abundance of British soldiers patrolling their every move.[1]

By the time Samuel Adams returned in 1774 from Philadelphia following the first Continental Congress, life for the people in their colony had not improved, it had only worsened. Adams was aware that he was not the only person who believed war was on the horizon, and he wrote to his friend Arthur Lee of Virginia about how he believed the people of Boston to feel. Regarding his fellow Bostonians, Adams said “[t]he people are recollecting the Achievements of their Ancestors,”[2] and he was convinced that “when it shall be necessary for them to draw their Swords in Defense of their Liberties, they will shew themselves worthy of such Ancestors.”

While Adams identified as a Bostonian, he was a Puritan first and never forgot his ancestral roots. The people of Massachusetts founded the colony on Puritan ideals and principles after they had left persecution and tyranny in England. The founders of New England had sought to create a government “upon the true principles of Liberty.”[3] Massachusetts was a beacon of hope when it was founded. Its founding principle was to be a “city on a hill,” however; the tyranny and oppression of Britain threatened this ideal. Adams saw the threat tyranny imposed on the people of his time and how it related to his ancestors. This helped shape how he envisioned the future of self-governance and the individual sovereignties of man.

Samuel Adams helped lead Massachusetts to independence through his fierce leadership and knowledge of politics. When the revolution came to Boston, he was not a young man; he was fifty-three years old, and in his lifetime, he had witnessed the hostilities from Britain over and over again. Adams was a friend, if not the leading supporter of the Loyal Nine, a group that later became the Sons of Liberty in the Stamp Act Crisis, he advocated for the removal of royal troops after the “Massacre” in 1770, was an organizer for Boston’s Committee of Correspondence, and a delegate to the Continental Congress. He had accomplished a great deal in his lifetime and worked to serve his brethren in their time of need through his committee roles and his ability to secure supplies for Massachusetts.

While there have been myths about the legacy of Adams, especially written from the Tory’s perspective about how Adams was driven by political vengeance for his father’s defeat[4], because he felt the need to seek justice for his father, he spent his entire life fighting against Great Britain.[5] The misconception of Samuel Adams’ contributions and character have been refuted by that of his cousin, John Adams who wrote in 1817, “without Samuel Adams there would have been no American Revolution, the story could never be written.”[6] The legacy that Samuel Adams wanted to leave behind was not one to cement his name in history, but rather through the creation of a government that ensured the rights and liberties of the people would be upheld without being infringed and violated through tyranny.

John Hancock: From Merchant to Politician 

John Hancock was well known in Boston outside of his relationship with Samuel Adams. Long before he entered the political sphere, he was known for his role as a merchant and was often believed to be a smuggler. Hancock grew up under the care of his uncle and became the heir to one of the wealthiest fortunes in all of New England.[7] It would have made much more sense for Hancock to have aligned himself with the Boston loyalists; however, he did not. When he wanted to shift from a merchant into politics in the 1760s, it was Samuel Adams who helped him transition.[8] Through their newfound relationship, Hancock made it onto the political scene. Hancock was younger than Adams and has been described as a “younger, free-spending, popularity seeking political neophyte,” whereas Adams was the “older, impecunious, high-principled professional politician, the last of the Puritans.”[9]

Adams did not want the pomp and glory that Hancock sought after.[10] The age gap made a difference as did the financial abilities that Hancock had. Adam remained pious and connected to his Puritan background which helped keep him grounded not only in politics but helped him as a leader also. Hancock connected with the people of Boston. Whenever he was with the people, he made it a point to speak with them and learn about their ailments and concerns. He and Adams were known for operating with the people. They attended events at crowded meetinghouses, and they spent their days with the common people in parlors as well as in private chambers of the political elite.[11] It was during their time with the ordinary people of Massachusetts that they learned what troubled them, and how could they create a government that would be best at ensuring they wouldn’t face the same hardships they were enduring at that time.

The die was cast on the morning of April 19, 1775, as the War for Independence was officially underway in Massachusetts. Hancock and Adams had both become wanted men by General Gage for their involvement in the rebellions in Boston. A call for their hangings had been issued. General Gage hoped to capture these men, but they fled Boston and were well out of his grasp.[12] By June, both men had arrived safely in Philadelphia to serve as delegates at the Second Continental Congress. This was the first time that Hancock would be in Philadelphia as he soon replaced Peyton Randolph[13] as the President of the Congress.[14]

Unlike Adams, this was Hancock’s first time in Congress, and he wanted to ensure he secured a position that allowed him influence and authority. He found that as President of the Congress while in Philadelphia, a political and personal rift emerged between him and Adams as he aligned himself with more conservative men from New York and the Southern states.[15] When Hancock came to Philadelphia, he did not know any of the members of the Continental Congress outside of the letters he had written and received through the Committees of Correspondence. His decision to alienate himself from his Massachusetts brethren to align with states like New York altered his political ideologies and would impact his foundational ideas on government moving into the period during wartime years.

The votes were cast on May 24 in favor of Hancock being elected to serve as the President pro tem, but he remained in this position for two years.[16] Not only did Hancock now have control over the Continental Congress, but he also hoped to soon have control and authority over the Continental Army – a position for which he was not qualified. Hancock expected “military lightning to strike him when the time was right” and contrary to what he believed, the duties of overseeing the militia would go to George Washington.[17] The only military experience Hancock had before serving as President of Congress was in 1772 when then-Governor Thomas Hutchinson made him captain of the Company of the Cadets, the governor’s honor guard.[18] Even though he was elected as President of Congress, it did not make him qualified to lead the Continental Army, especially when the other choice was Washington. While he was not elected to lead the army, he served and governed to the best of his abilities. As Congress was in session during the summer months, the Virginia delegates regularly wrote letters informing their fellow friends and members of the House of Burgesses about what was taking place. While Massachusetts saw war first, it was Virginia and her representatives who helped to shape and establish how government should be formed in America.

Patrick Henry: The Great Orator

Patrick Henry served in both the First and Second Continental Congresses as a delegate from Virginia. Known as one of the greatest orators of his time, his passion and dedication to the preservation of liberties and freedom are what helped him to motivate the rest of Virginia to seek independence. The year 1775 was a monumental one for Henry. As a member of the House of Burgesses, he delivered one of his greatest and most controversial speeches at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Richmond.[19] Henry’s reputation and legacy preceded him, and therefore, he was the perfect representative to advocate for the rights of the people in Congress. During his speech of March 1775, he “sounded the bugle call to arms at the Virginia Convention and by doing so it would defend the liberties and assure the political freedoms of America.”[20] In the eyes of Henry, the time had passed for reconciliation with Great Britain. He, along with his brethren from Virginia and Samuel Adams, long ago decided the only way to ensure liberty was through war.[21] For Henry, war would be the only way for America to become independent from Great Britain and for the delegates at the Continental Congress to build a new government built upon the principles of liberty.

Upon his arrival in Philadelphia, Congress learned of what transpired in Virginia when Lord Dunmore had seized all gunpowder.[22] With Henry’s first-hand experience and his call to arms of his fellow Virginians, Henry was elected to serve on a committee that oversaw weaponry and supplies. Once appointed, he was directed to consider and report the ways and means to supply the colonies with ammunition and military stores.[23] His experience and knowledge would best serve the men to ensure that they received supplies safely. While he was in Philadelphia, the Third Convention had convened in Richmond and though he was not present, Henry became an important topic of conversation.

Due to the age of Peyton Randolph, the Convention looked to replace him. Due to the Henry’s popularity, his name was recommended as Randolph’s replacement to become Commander in Chief of Virginia’s forces.[24] His knowledge and experience as a lawyer and politician would allow him to make the best choices for the troops of Virginia. One of the men that had voted in favor of Henry was his close friend George Mason. These two had developed a friendship that would never be interrupted, and only strengthened upon their agreements on important questions that arose during public service.[25] How Henry served and governed never altered throughout the Revolution. As he moved into the 1780s, he believed that those he previously argued alongside had become traitors to the cause.

George Mason: The Wise Farmer

George Mason did not serve in the Continental Congress. He was a man who much rather preferred to remain out of the political sphere. He was a successful tobacco planter and part of the aristocratic class in Virginia. He was highly educated and known throughout the colony for his eloquence and knowledge of both law and government. His friend and fellow Virginian, Thomas Jefferson, described Mason as, “A man of the first order of wisdom among those who acted on the theatre of the Revolution,” and that “his language was strong, his manner most impressive, and strengthened by a dash of biting cynicism.”[26]

Mason was well-respected by his fellow Virginians and highly regarded for his political ideologies which caused him to be sought after during conventions. However, due to his disdain for public service, he viewed serving as a “palpable infringement on his public liberty.”[27] He wanted to live quietly at his home, Gunston Hall, and continue the harvest of his tobacco without being called upon, especially since throughout his lifetime he suffered from gout flareups.

Mason had not previously attended the First Continental Congress and was chosen to oversee the Fairfax County Resolves, so when the Second Congress met in 1775, he did not attend as a delegate. However, despite his disdain for the political arena and because of his knowledge of both the law and governance, his fellow citizens had chosen him to replace Washington in Fairfax County as a delegate to serve at the Richmond Convention in July 1775.[28] This convention became a pivotal moment in Mason’s life as it opened the door for him to become the leading figure of law writing in Virginia based on his ideals.

When Mason arrived in July, like he regularly did, he took to writing letters to his closest friends and confidants about issues surrounding his ailments as well as the convention. In a letter to his friend Martin Cockburn dated July 24, he wrote, “The committee (of which I am a member) appointed to prepare an ordinance for raising an armed force for the defence and protection of this colony.”[29] Like his fellow Virginian Henry, he was placed on a Committee of Safety that oversaw the arming and preparation of the army.

It was not until August 21 that Mason’s drafting of An Ordinance for Raising and Embodying a Sufficient Force for the Defence and Protection of the Colony was passed. This became the first revolutionary legislation that he had contributed to that was passed, and it showed that he possessed vast knowledge to write successful legislation. This also served as proof that Virginia had every intention of entering into war against Great Britain.[30]

Not only had Mason worked to create resolves that would pass, but he also helped to establish a new Nonexportation Resolution as well. It was decided that “no Flour, Wheat or other Grain, or Provisions of any kind would be exported from this Colony or to any part of the World” . . . “until the Convention of Assembly of this Colony, or the honorable the continental Congress shall order otherwise.”[31] Despite the difficulties and the financial burdens on the people it would create, it was not worth the expense of their liberties, being oppressed by Great Britain. Mason knew when he wrote these Resolves that he was not only willing to arm the colonists, but he was also stopping the exportation of trade.

Mason, however, had been unaware of the loophole in the Continental Congress’s nonexportation agreement. The work that Mason had started at the Richmond Convention was his first time interjecting his ideologies into government decisions and working to do what was best for the people of Virginia. His contributions in 1776 are what placed him well above the works of Hancock, Adams, and Henry and allowed for principles of government to be based more on Mason’s works.

Virginia: Center of Influence

The year 1776 became a monumental one for Virginia. The revolution had shifted focus from Massachusetts, Henry was elected to become the first non-royal governor, and the Virginia Declaration of Rights along with the Virginia Constitution were established by Mason. It can be argued that Virginia had become such an influential colony that others looked to them as the leading model in how to create successful governance.

Mason returned to Williamsburg, Virginia, in May 1776 – once again reluctantly and quite agitated as he again experienced another gout flareup. In a letter to his friend, Richard Henry Lee,[32] Mason had just arrived at the latest convention and had already been appointed to chair three committees. It was in this letter that he took notice of the men present and those who were there to only hear themselves speak and promote their ideas. He went on to say, “We shall, in all probability have a thousand ridiculous and impracticable proposals,” and that “this can be prevented only by a few Men of Integrity & Abilitys, whose Countrys Interest lies next their hearts, undertaking this business, and defending it ably thro’ every stage of opposition.”[33 ] What he witnessed through the discussions at the Fifth Virginia Convention were men of little to no integrity there to speak of their self-interests. They came to serve as the representation of the people; however, power would corrupt those who did not know how to separate themselves from the greater good. This start of a rift in political ideals didn’t just happen at the Fifth Virginia Convention, but it continued and led to shifts between the men after the revolution.

From May through June 1776, Mason worked on the drafts of the Virginia Declaration of Rights (VDOR).[34] His time in Williamsburg consisted of him working vigorously to create a declaration that announced Virginia’s intention to declare her independence from Great Britain. The VDOR went through several drafts, and on June 12 the final draft was completed and sixteen resolutions were created. It began “A Declaration of Rights made by the Representative of the good people of Virginia… as the basis and foundation of Government.” Section one stated, “All men <by nature> [are] equally free and independent.” Section two stated that power lies with the people: “That all power is vested in, and consequently derived from, the People.” Mason continued in Section three, “whenever any Government shall be found inadequate or contrary to these purposes, a majority of the community hath an indubitable, unalienable, and indefeasible right, to reform, alter, or abolish it.”[35]

All men were born free and therefore had the right to be free and independent men – no one could take that away from them. Not only were all men free, but the power lay with the people, not with Government. The wording that Mason used explicitly defined that all power was vested in and derived from the people and therefore the Government worked for the people. And if the people believed that Government was incapable of performing the duties they were sworn to do, they could and would be removed. The power was to be removed from Government and placed into the hands of the people. The elected officials were to protect the interests of their constituents. These revolutionary ideas were followed up by how the laws and governing process would work.

To ensure that the people had a say in how the newly founded government in Virginia would work, Mason needed to define both the laws and protections to ensure his ideas would last. Section VII stated, “All power of suspending laws, or execution of laws… without the consent of the representatives of the people, is injurious to their rights.” No laws could be passed or removed without the representatives of the people – or it would be a direct violation of their rights. Section XII was “Freedom of the press” and that it “can never be restrained but by a despotic government.”

Section XIII reads “A well-regulated militia composed of the body of the people, trained to arms, [for a] natural, and safe defense of a free state”; and Section XVI included the discussion of religion. “That religion, or the duty which we owe to our Creator, and the manner of discharging it can be directed only by reason and conviction, not by force or violence,” and “therefore all men are equally entitled to the free exercise of religion.”[36]

The government that Mason had in mind would protect the people. It would guarantee that they had the right to laws that were made with their knowledge, and they could openly speak out against the government through the press without facing punishment. A well-regulated militia that was properly trained to stand and defend itself to remain a free state was important, not only to Mason, but also to the people. To incorporate a section about a well-regulated militia guaranteed that the people of America would have the right to defend themselves against the tyranny of government. Not only would they have been given freedom of speech and the right to arm themselves, but they would also be guaranteed to openly practice the faith of their choice. The people owed it to their Creator to freely worship and no government could stop them. George Mason was trusted to write the Virginia Declaration of Rights based on his beliefs that government should not dictate the lives of the people and that power derived from the people. His decision to incorporate specific language and sections would only further harden his beliefs as the Revolution progressed and he saw tyranny remain.

The Virginia Declaration of Rights was adopted on June 12, 1776, was published in the newspapers, and soon found its way into the hands of the people. While this was a great victory for Mason and Virginia, it was not as important when compared to the Virginia Constitution that was adopted several weeks later. The VDOR was a more virtuous enshrinement of individuals’ rights. While it defined the rights of the people, it incorporated more of the “romanticism ideals” in that, yes, colonists had rights that could not be tread upon, but without a constitution in place that clearly stated government’s limits, liberties were at risk. The Virginia Constitution was the establishment of the laws and governance to ensure that those same liberties and rights of the people given to them by God would be upheld. Mason simultaneously worked on both the declaration and constitution. He utilized the work of his first document and expanded further on each meaning in the constitution. The creation of the constitution would further limit the power of the government and would ensure that the rights of the people of Virginia were guaranteed without the threat of tyrannical overreach.

From June 8 to June 10, Mason created what was called a Plan of Government and presented it before the committee at the House to review. The first part was that “the legislative, executive, and judicative departments, be separate and distinct.” This would prevent each branch from overstepping boundaries and ruling on issues that did not pertain to them. The second part stated that “the legislative be formed in two distinct branches, who, together, shall be a complete legislature.” When these two would come together in the instance of Virginia, they would meet once or more throughout one calendar year, and be referred to as the General Assembly. The third part stated there would be “a Lower House of Assembly, and consist of two delegates, or representatives, chosen for each county, freeholders of the county, possesses an estate of inheritance of land,” and they must also have “at least one thousand pounds,” and “be upwards of twenty four years of age.”[37] Each county was to have equal representation and each man was to be twenty-four or older and live in the county he represented while possessing both land and financial stability. Those who were members of the Virginia Convention and House of Burgesses were land-owning men of the gentry class. While the stipulations to serve under the Virginia Constitution were not requiring them to be gentry, it made land-owning a requirement as a means to run the government as an agrarian society.

The Virginia Constitution laid the foundation of the government in Virginia. This was how those elected were to ensure the very liberties they vowed to uphold were preserved. After weeks of working to get this written, Mason completed his final draft on June 26, 1776.[38] The first non-monarchal laws of the land were as follows: “The legislative, executive, and judiciary departments, shall be separate and distinct, so that neither exercise the powers properly belonging to the other.” It goes on to define how each of these three departments is meant to be run and by whom. “The legislative shall be formed by two distinct branches, who, shall be a complete legislature. They shall meet once, or oftener every year, and shall be called the GENERAL ASSEMBLY OF VIRGINIA.”

The next section was the House of Delegates. This assembly was to “consist of two representatives to be chosen for each county,” however, “when a city or borough shall so decrease… such city or borough thenceforward shall cease to send a delegate or representative to the Assembly.” Regarding the election of a governor, it stated, “A Governour, or chief magistrate, shall be chosen annually, by joint ballot, or both Houses.” A secure voting process would take place to elect a governor, and once elected he “shall not continue in that office longer than three years successively, nor be eligible until the expiration of four years after he shall have been out of that office.” The authority of the governor was restricted so that he would not be able to overstep his boundaries like previous royal governors had done. “The Governour shall not prorogue or adjourn the Assembly during their sitting, nor dissolve them at any time.” The last royal governor of Virginia was notorious for dissolving the House of Burgesses, and therefore the governor elected now would not be allowed to do so. The selection of a Privy Council, or Council of State consisted of “eight members that were chosen by joint ballot of both Houses of Assembly.” The governor would also be responsible for assigning judges and justices of the peace who would be impeachable for acts deemed unsuitable for their positions.[39] Not only were the positions elected, but they were also removable if they were found to have violated their positions. All of these requirements to obtain an elected position in Virginia were to ensure that the people elected were there to serve the people and not themselves. The purpose of Mason’s writings was to limit the rise of corruption and to do what he could to make sure that the government maintained the virtues of a republic.

Mason’s work was revolutionary; he wrote two documents over a few weeks. First, the Virginia Declaration of Rights followed by the Virginia Constitution. His VDOR was successful and served as the motivation Virginians needed as the War for Independence was well underway. The influence of Mason’s work was not only important in Virginia, but it also served as the foundation for the Declaration of Independence drafted less than a month later. When he wrote the Virginia Constitution, he did so to establish the rights of government.

The Commonwealth of Virginia became the first state to adopt a constitution and it served as a model for others to emulate. In July 1776, Patrick Henry accepted his election as Governor of Virginia. His friend, George Mason, had voted for him to become governor and in his acceptance speech, Henry gave thanks to Mason. Henry also acknowledged that this was his first time in a position of political power where he had to lead the people of Virginia and protect them.

Of the very few speeches that survive, he recognized what he must do, “in order to protect this commonwealth from anarchy, and its attendant ruin, and to give vigour to our councils, and effect all our measures, government hath been necessarily assumed.” Henry was ready to protect Virginia from lawlessness and all those who threatened her ruin. “I shall enter upon my duties of my office… relying upon the known wisdom and virtue of your honourable House to supply my defects, and to give permanency and success to that system of government which you have formed.” He was to go into his newly elected position and not only fulfill his duties but uphold the constitution as an obedient and faithful servant, “And which is so wisely calculated to secure equal liberty, and advance human happiness.”[40] Henry was elected as the protector of liberties and rights, a position he had desired for a long time. When Henry became governor of Virginia, in this position his ideals of government would come to fruition.

Philadelphia: Building a New Government

While Mason and Henry were in Virginia, the Congress was once again in session in Philadelphia during the summer months of 1776. In his correspondence with Patrick Henry, John Adams (cousin of Samuel Adams) spoke of his friendship with Henry and his admiration for the newly written Virginia Constitution. This letter was important because Adams spoke about how Virginia led the way during the revolution, and her men created a new form of government. Adams called the constitution, “so masterly a Builder,” and in order “for every Colony to institute a Government,” they “Shall be obliged to declare ourselves independent States before We confederate, and before all the Colonies have established their Governments.”[41] Just like Virginia had done in the Virginia Declaration of Rights, the rest of the colonies would need to declare their independence from England before they could adopt their constitution. This would be difficult especially since South Carolina and New York in 1776 were still not convinced that separation from Britain was in their best interest. This was a time when Samuel Adams knew that he needed to work to convince the men in Philadelphia that summer that it was time to separate the realities of governance and declare independence.

The Declaration of Independence and The Articles of Confederation

Adams relied on his friend and political ally Richard Henry Lee to help him introduce a resolution that would call on Congress to declare that the colonies were finally independent.[42] Adams had advocated for independence for years and knew that if he were going to finally be successful in getting the men to agree with him, he needed to rely on his friendship with a fellow Virginian. After Adams was victorious through Lee’s proposal[43], a committee was appointed by Congress to draft a declaration of independence. Not only was this committee created, but so were the ones to formulate a plan for a confederation of government, and Adams was selected as a delegate to represent Massachusetts.[44]

The Declaration of Independence[45] was presented to Congress for a vote on July 2, 1776, as to whether or not the colonies would declare independence from England. The inspiration behind this was Mason’s VDOR, both Samuel Adams and John Hancock signed the document when it was completed. After years of advocating for the rights of the people and working to gain independence, Adams got what he wanted. Now that independence was declared, Samuel Adams knew they must follow Virginia and create a government that would sustain the states.

After the Declaration of Independence and throughout the years of the Revolution, it became obvious that for the United States to survive there needed to be a better-established government. The Continental Congress was the only form of government since 1774; however, the time had come when they needed to be able to better execute laws and govern as a united country rather than thirteen individual colonies.[46] This new body of government would help to unite the thirteen states and allow them to create legislation to ensure that the United States would survive. While the Articles of Confederation were adopted on November 15, 1777, the Second Continental Congress had created a committee in June 1776 to work on them. While John Dickinson is known for being the author of these articles, Samuel Adams was selected by Congress to serve on the committee to draft them.

This was Adams’s opportunity to finally contribute to the formation of the United States through his ideals of governance. Records of who wrote what sections do not remain; however, it is known that personalities among the men on the committee did clash through the drafting process.[47] Personalities would have clashed as to how each individual assigned to the committee viewed government. Adams wanted to protect the liberties of the people and to ensure that the articles did not infringe upon their rights. The government needed to be balanced, and those who were placed in charge needed to understand the differences among their ideals and separate their needs and wants for the greater good of the country. Adams went into the revolution as an advocate for the people so it was important, that he remained grounded and faithful to the cause.

The Articles of Confederation helped to ensure that the thirteen states would be able to operate together as a confederation. Article I declared that the “style of this confederacy shall be, ‘The United States of America.’” The states were thirteen sovereign states, and Article III noted, “the said states hereby enter into a firm league of friendship with each other, for their common defense.” Whenever one state was attacked by an enemy, the other states were expected to come to their defense. This was to ensure that the liberties of the people were preserved against the threat of outside tyranny and oppression. Article VI prohibited any foreign relations without the consent of the United States in Congress to “send any embassy to, or receive any embassy from, or enter into any conference, agreement, alliance, or treaty.”[48] The powers of the government were to be limited so as not to infringe on liberties, and Adams made sure of this when he drafted these articles with Dickinson.

The other aspect of the Articles was the discussion of taxation and how to properly secure money without imposing the same injustices on the people pre-revolution. Except for the funding of a postal system, Congress was not allowed to impose or levy any taxes or duties. State legislatures were responsible for meeting the financial needs of the confederacy and supplying funds based on the population of the people.[49] Thus, the federal government could not force the states to give them money upon its request. It was up to the states to do the right thing by giving it money; however, they did not always do so.

After months of revisions and several drafts, Adams was satisfied with the final draft. The final draft of the Articles of Confederation limited how much power the central government had and ensured the rights and liberties of the people would be preserved. This was the moment that Samuel Adams had worked for his entire career: to create a government in which the people could live harmoniously without the threat of tyranny. He had spent years trying to obtain republican virtue, and by 1777, though he knew that there was much more work that needed to be done, he began to see the future.

In 1780, John Hancock returned to Massachusetts to become the first governor elected by the people. At the time of his return, he and Adams had taken to separate sides of politics and no longer aligned themselves. The rift created between these two men was a result of their time in Philadelphia and the two different principles that had formed. During his time as President of Congress, Hancock allowed the political power to take over his better judgment. Adams had taken notice of the behavior of Hancock in his letters with Joseph Warren and was convinced that “should vanity and foppery ever be the ruling taste among the great, the body of the people would be in danger of catching the distemper.[50]

Adams did not call him out by his name in the beginning, but he eventually referred to Hancock personally. Hancock, throughout his life in Boston, was known to have helped the people tremendously during the revolutionary years and won their trust, yet his critics like Mercy and Joseph Warren believed his behavior did not model that of republican virtue. Mercy Warren wrote to her friend Samuel Adams about Hancock’s behaviors. She wrote, “we have seen a man without abilities idolized by the multitude and fame on the wing to crown the head of imbecility.” She continued, “we have seen people trifling with the priviledge of election . . . throwing away the glorious opportunity of establishing liberty and independence on the establishing basis of virtue.” She finished her attack on Hancock with, “We have heard them trumpet the praises of their idol of straw, and sing of sacrifices he never had the courage to make.”[51]

It was believed that Hancock was not true to the virtue of liberty. He was what threatened the ideals of governance that Adams believed in according to the Warrens. It was about power, and he was easily corruptible. He was not suited for being among the men creating the political structure and foundations of the government. To their dismay, Hancock was elected governor of Massachusetts and was adored by the people he represented. Despite his critics, the people did not care what was said about Hancock, and he remained a favorite of theirs. He became the governor of Massachusetts in 1780, a position he was elected to twice. The two former friends reconciled their differences and reunited in 1789 when Hancock selected Adams to become his lieutenant governor.


The Articles of Confederation were adopted in 1777, ratified in 1781 and were enforced through 1789 when the United States Constitution was ratified. The articles served as law of the land until they failed when individual states continued to openly defy them. This open defiance resulted in rebellions and was a direct threat to the years of sacrifice of the revolution, all of Adams, Hancock, Henry, and Mason’s work threatened to unravel. Between 1786-87, what is known as Shays’ Rebellion took place in Western Massachusetts by a group known as the Massachusetts Regulation, who were upset for several reasons, one of them was being destitute.[52] A crisis had erupted in which men had been threatened with foreclosure and seizure of their lands because they returned home from war with no income. Courts issued judgments against these men which resulted in uprisings and rebellions.

Adams was outraged over the rebellion and believed that it not only needed to be suppressed, but the leaders should be hanged for their involvement.[53] This was unusual for Adams to think this way, especially since he had been notorious for his role in public effigies, for the Boston Tea Party, and for publicly harassing Governor Hutchinson. In his older years, and especially since the establishment of the United States, he realized that he had changed due to the creation of the republic.

Adams also had no authority over what happened to the Regulator leaders. When they were brought for trial, Hancock had returned to his position as governor and chose to grant them leniency.[54] Shays’ Rebellion was an example of how the articles had failed – the states refused to pay their taxes and therefore the federal government received no money. The men of the rebellion wanted to be compensated as promised and there was no money to do so. They had lost everything after the war, and now the ideals of the revolution were threatened by these growing rebellions.

The threat of rebellions taking place like that of Shays’ in other states helped to reiterate the failings of the Articles. The Annapolis Convention was scheduled for September of 1786, in Annapolis, Maryland. Only twelve delegates arrived in Maryland, one of whom was James Madison[55] of Virginia, and they asked Congress if they could change the venue.[56] When they met at Annapolis, the delegates asked the Congress to approve moving to Philadelphia in the spring of 1787 [57]. The purpose of meeting in Philadelphia would place the convention on a larger scale and give those who did not attend the Annapolis Convention the opportunity to better prepare for the trip to Philadelphia in 1787. At this time, Henry was in his second term as governor, while Mason had semi-retired from politics. In Massachusetts, Hancock (like Henry) had taken on a second term as governor with Adams as his lieutenant governor. As they moved towards the Convention of 1787 in Philadelphia to fix the Articles of Confederation, only one of these four men would attend and lend his voice to the creation of the Constitution.

Joined Voices

From 1775 through 1786, John Hancock, Samuel Adams, Patrick Henry, and George Mason all contributed their voices to the creation of the first laws in the United States. In Virginia, Mason spent a great deal of time writing two documents that guaranteed the freedoms and liberties of the people and outlined how to prevent the government from infringing upon those rights. Henry was able to govern effectively through the ratification of Mason’s Virginia Constitution. He learned as governor that it was his responsibility to protect the people. Henry dedicated his life to the preservation of liberties, and his ideals of self-governance were quickly realized when he became responsible for defending the rights of those he swore to uphold.

John Hancock faced years of tough criticism and was challenged by those who believed he served a dishonorably his duties. He was questioned for his loyalty to his country, and his naiveness was ridiculed by those who disliked him the most. Hancock’s affluence allowed him to grow and rise to political power, but it was his concern for the establishment of a new nation that brought him the respect of the people. Samuel Adams, the man who was responsible for bringing revolution to Boston, was a man of the people. He believed in the rights and liberties of everyone and dedicated his entire life to fighting for those causes.

These four men shared much of the same ideals on governance and were successful in laying the foundations for the Articles of Confederation yet like with all power the threat of corruption remains. Hancock, Adams, Henry, and Mason, moved towards the Convention of 1787 knowing that to preserve republicanism they must come together and preserve what they worked for.

Samuel Adams and John Hancock of Massachusetts and Patrick Henry and George Mason of Virginia helped to lead their respective colonies through the start and the end of the American Revolution. However, their ideals of self-governance changed from the start of the American Revolution through the Early Republic. Friendships were torn apart over differences of opinions, threatening their positions and politics, yet these four men helped lay the foundation to establish a new government achieved through independence.


[1] American Insurgents American Patriots: The Revolution of the People (New York: Hill and Wang, 2010), 126.

[2] Samuel Adams, The Writings of Samuel Adams: Volume III 1773-1777, ed. Harry Alonzo Cushing (New York: Octagon Books, 1968), 171.

[3] Pauline Maier, The Old Revolutionaries: Political Lives in the Age of Samuel Adams (New York: W.W. Norton, 1980), 41.

[4] As a child, Adams saw his father lose his business and his political career at the hand of Governor Hutchinson when his landbanks were shut down, it was believed by those who were in opposition to Adams that he had a personal vendetta against both Hutchinson and England for his family.

[5] Ray Raphael, Founding Myths (New York: The New Press, 2004), 48-49.

[6] John Adams, “James Otis, Samuel Adams, and John Hancock, Tributes to These as Three Principal Movers and Agents of the American Revolution.” Internet Archive, 1907,

[7] Gordon S. Wood, The Radicalism of the American Revolution: How a Revolution Transformed a Monarchical Society into a Democratic One Unlike Any That Had Ever Existed (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1992), 47.

[8] Gregory Nobles, “Yet the Old Republicans Still Persevere” Samuel Adams, John Hancock, and the Crisis of Popular Leadership in Revolutionary Massachusetts, 1775-1790. The Transforming Hand of Revolution: Reconsidering the American Revolution as a Social Movement. (Charlottesville: The University Press of Virginia, 1995): 268.

[9] Nobles, “Yet the Old Republicans Still Persevere,” 261.

[10] James Warren and Mercy Otis Warren were two of Adams’s biggest supporters; however, they did not support Hancock and were openly critical of him. They often referred to him as an “idol of straw” and “the great image.” Warren took it even further to question the integrity of Hancock on several occasions and even his loyalties as he had once been friends with Hutchinson.

[11] Nobles, “Yet the Old Republicans Still Persevere,” 261.

[12] Nobles, “Yet the Old Republicans Still Persevere,” 263-64.

[13] Randolph had been called to an emergency House of Burgesses meeting by Governor Dunmore and had no choice but to attend that meeting as he was the speaker. Walter R. Borneman, American Spring: Lexington, Concord, and the Road to Revolution. (New York: Little, Brown, and Company, 2014), 296.

[14] Page Smith, John Adams Volume I, 1735-1784. (New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc, 1962), 198.

[15] Nobles, “Yet the Old Republicans Still Persevere,” 264.

[16] Walter R. Borneman, American Spring, 296.

[17] Hancock started to see George Washington as a rival of his in Philadelphia when he arrived wearing his resplendent colonial uniform to the sessions. At this time, Washington had begun to become close friends with John Adams and Samuel Adams, Samuel was even chosen to sit on a committee of seven that Washington had been chosen to chair. This committee consisted of the men coming up with ways and means to supply the colonies with ammunition and military supplies. Walter R. Borneman, American Spring, 296.

[18] Gregory H. Nobles, “Yet the Old Republicans Still Persevere,” 270.

[19] Henry’s speech has been deemed both controversial and questionable due to the lack of evidence that exists today as to whether or not he spoke the infamous words, “Give Me Liberty, Or Give Me Death.” The myths that surround the folklore of Henry’s speech have been written about in Ray Raphael’s book Founding Myths. Raphael wrote that despite the patriotism that has surrounded the speech Henry gave on March 23 there are no records to prove that he uttered those words. Henry’s biographer William Wirt in 1815 had trouble locating sources to verify that speech and during his lifetime, Patrick Henry had left very few records of his letters and speeches. Ray, Founding Myths,147. What Raphael failed to mention in his writings of Henry was that there were men present at St. John’s Church that morning when Henry delivered his speech and they all had similar accounts as to what he spoke that day. The men who remembered Henry’s words verbatim that day were Dr. Moses Cait Tyler and Judge Tucker. They were mentioned in the work of William Henry Wirt as being the men who witnessed Henry’s speech. Also, records of Henry’s were destroyed either by being stolen or through fire when Richmond was burned during the Civil War and when there was a fire at his former home at Red Hill in Hanover, Virginia. While Raphael has made a compelling argument to point out that there are challenges to knowing exactly what was spoken by Henry, he was not a man to write his speeches and keep records of them.

[20] William Henry Wirt, Patrick Henry: Life, Correspondence and Speeches Volume I. (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1891), 296.

[21] Jon Kukla, Patrick Henry: Champion of Liberty. (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2017), 187.

[22] Governor Dunmore turned the people of Virginia against one another through his 1775 proclamation. In April, he promised that if enslaved rebels took up arms against their masters, they would be guaranteed their freedom. The threat of enslaved rebellion in Virginia on the eve of the revolution was the last thing men like Patrick Henry and George Mason wanted. Though Dunmore made this promise, he did not have the authority of the Crown to do so. Rumors were carried about in the south as the enslaved were led to believe that the British invasion would be to liberate them; they were sadly mistaken. The patriots of Virginia could not afford to fight a slave rebellion and the British military at the same time, especially after the seizure of their gunpowder. Woody Holton, Forced Founders: Indians, Debtors, Slaves, & the Making of the American Revolution in Virginia. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1999), 152-53.

[23] Wirt, Patrick Henry: Life, Correspondence and Speeches Volume I, 296.

[24] Kukla, Patrick Henry: Champion of Liberty, 189.

[25] William Henry Wirt, Patrick Henry: Life, Correspondence and Speeches Volume I, 307.

[26] Wirt, Patrick Henry: Life, Correspondence and Speeches Volume I, 311.

[27] Brent Tarter, “George Mason and the Conservation of Liberty.” The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 99, no.3 (1991):282.

[28] George Mason, The Papers of George Mason Volume I. 1749-1778 ed. Robert A. Rutland (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1970), 239-240.

[29] Mason, Papers Volume I. 1749-1778, 241.

[30] Mason, Papers Volume I. 1749-1778, 252.

[31] Mason, The Papers of George Mason Volume I. 1749-1778, 243.

[32] Richard Henry Lee, like Mason, Patrick Henry, George Washington, and Thomas Jefferson was another prominent Founding Father from Virginia, He served in the Continental Congress as President, wrote the Lee Resolution, and was a signer of both the Declaration of Independence and Articles of Confederation. Lee was a close friend and confidant of Mason’s and something that Mason regularly wrote to. It was evident in their letters that they shared a close friendship as he revealed his health conditions to him including that of his gout, he also was able to discuss his disdain for serving on committees.

[33] Mason, Mason, The Papers of George Mason Volume I. 1749-1778, 271.

[34] In Papers of George Mason Volume I. 1749-1778, are the drafts and original documents of the Virginia Declaration of Rights, and the Virginia Constitution.

[35] Mason, The Papers of George Mason Volume I. 1749-1778, 287.

[36] Mason, The Papers of George Mason Volume I. 1749-1778, 288-89.

[37] Mason, The Papers of George Mason Volume I, 299.

[38] In the final revised draft, a preamble was written by Thomas Jefferson – this was similar to the preamble that was added to the Declaration of Independence.

[39] Mason, The Papers of George Mason Volume I, 307-309.

[40] Patrick Henry, Official Letters of the Governors of the State of Virginia Vol. I: The Letters of Patrick Henry. ed. H.R. McIlWaine (Richmond: Virginia State Library, 1926), 4.

[41] John Adams, Revolutionary Writings 1775-1783, ed. Gordon Wood (New York: Library of America, 2011), 77-78.

[42] John K. Alexander, Samuel Adams: America’s Revolutionary Politician. (Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, Inc, 2002), 154.

[43] Lee’s proposal is better known as the Lee Resolution, which proposed independence in 1776. He was influenced by the Virginia Convention and through the writings that had been recently adopted in Virginia.

[44] Alexander, Samuel Adams, 154.

[45] John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Ben Franklin (Pennsylvania), Roger Sherman, and Robert R. Livingston were assigned by Congress to create the Declaration of Independence.

[46] Gordon S. Wood, The Creation of the American Republic: 1776-1787 (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1969)), 354.

[47] John K. Alexander, Samuel Adams: The Life of An American Revolutionary (Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, Inc, 2011), 218.

[48] John Dickinson, “Articles of Confederation (1777).” National Archives. January 31, 2022. Accessed April 17, 2022.

[49] Alexander, Samuel Adams: The Life of An American Revolutionary, 218.

[50] Nobles, “Yet the Old Republicans Still Persevere,” 272.

[51] Nobles, “Yet the Old Republicans Still Persevere,” 273.

[52] Nobles, “Yet the Old Republicans Still Persevere,” 279.

[53] Nobles, “Yet the Old Republicans Still Persevere,” 280.

[54] Nobles, “Yet the Old Republicans Still Persevere,” 281.

[55] James Madison was Thomas Jefferson’s protégé and a fellow Virginian. He became a prominent figure during the Convention of 1787 and is known as the “Father of the Bill of Rights.” Most of what is known today about what took place inside the State House in Philadelphia is because of the notes that James Madison took during the convention.

[56] Alan Taylor, American Revolutions, (New York: W.W. Norton, 2016), 373

[57] Alan Taylor, American Revolutions, 373.




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