“THE OLDEST FUNCTIONING WRITTEN CONSTITUTION IN THE WORLD”: EXCEEDINGLY SCARCE FIRST EDITION OF JOHN ADAMS’ MASSACHUSETTS CONSTITUTION OF 1780, “DESERVING OF A PLACE ALONGSIDE THE DECLARATION OF INDEPENDENCE, THE CONSTITUTION OF THE UNITED STATES, THE BILL OF RIGHTS AND THE FEDERALIST AS ONE OF THE FIVE MOST IMPORTANT DOCUMENTS OF THE REVOLUTIONARY ERA”
(ADAMS, John). A Constitution or Frame of Government, Agreed upon by the Delegates of the People of the State of Massachusetts-Bay, in Convention, Begun and Held at Cambridge on the First of September, 1779, and Continued by Adjournments to the Second of March, 1780. To be submitted to the Revision of their Constitutents, in Order to the compleating of the same, in Conformity to their Amendments, at a Session to be held for that Purpose, on the First Wednesday in June next ensuing. Boston: Printed by Benjamin Edes & Sons, 1780. Slim octavo, renewed saddle stitching, partially uncut; pp. 53. Housed in a custom half morocco clamshell box.
First edition of the landmark 1780 Massachusetts Constitution, “one of the great, enduring documents of the American Revolution.” Chiefly authored by Founding Father John Adams, this “ideal of a ‘perfect constitution’” (Wood) notably contains the Massachusetts’ constitutional convention’s revision of his initial wording—that all men are “born equally free and independent”—to “All men are born free and equal,” reflecting Jefferson’s timeless phrase in the Declaration.
"When Americans today contemplate their heritage… few are aware of the importance of the revolutionary state constitutions as cornerstones of the new republic… The Massachusetts Constitution of 1780 is, on any fair assessment, the most significant of these early state constitutions, and it is arguably deserving of a place alongside the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution of the United States, the Bill of Rights and the Federalist as one of the five most important documents of the revolutionary era… This Constitution was among the first written constitutions in the world, was the first written constitution ever based upon the fully developed concept of a constitutional convention, and was the first written constitution ever expressly approved by the people over whom it was to operate. It stands today as the oldest written constitution in the world. The principal architect of the Constitution was John Adams, who was by all accounts the most influential figure in the shaping of the new government… Even Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence and Notes on Virgina, was not as highly regarded during the Revolution as was Adams" (Peters, Massachusetts Constitution of 1780, 12-14). To historian Gordon Wood, the Massachusetts Constitution of 1780 "came to stand for the reconsidered ideal of a 'perfect constitution" (Creation of the American Republic, 434).
The Massachusetts Constitution remains "one of the most admirable, long-lasting achievements of John Adams' life." Working throughout September 1779, Adams "completed the draft sometime in early October. Printed copies, for the consideration of the convention, were ready at the end of the month… A tone of absolute clarity and elevated thought was established in the opening lines, in a Preamble, a new feature in constitutions… A Declaration of Rights, following the Preamble and preceding the Constitution itself," stated in Adams' initial draft that "all men were 'born equally free and independent'—words Adams had taken from the Virginia Declaration of Rights." Though the Massachusetts constitutional convention would "approve nearly all of his draft," it preferred "what Jefferson had written in the Declaration of Independence… [and] revised the first article of the Declaration of Rights, that all men were 'born equally free and independent,' to read that all men were 'born free and equal" as seen herein. It was "a change Adams did not like… He did not believe all men were created equal, except in the eyes of God, but that all men… were born to equal rights."
With its landmark guarantees of free elections and "liberty of the press," and grounded in the separation and balance of powers, the form of government outlined in this seminal American work "was very like what Adams had proposed in his Thoughts on Government … In addition, notably, there was Section II of Chapter 6, a paragraph headed 'The Encouragement of Literature, &c.' which was like no other declaration to be found in any constitution ever written until then, or since… As time would prove, Adams had written one of the great, enduring documents of the American Revolution. The constitution of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts is the oldest functioning written constitution in the world" (McCullough, John Adams, 220-25). Additionally, this vital document was "more sophisticated than many of the other state constitutions due to its construction. For example, instead of just listing provisions, it had a structure of chapters, sections and articles. This structure served as a foundation for the U.S. Constitution. The Massachusetts Constitution also had substantial influence on the subsequent revisions of many of the other state constitutions" (Latimer, Civil Liberties, 23). Issued by same press the same year as the 43-page edition showing "Revised and Corrected" on the title page. With scarce half title. ESTC W15133. Evans 16844. Harvard Law Catalogue, 80. See Sabin 45691; Rosenbach 7:752; Eberstadt 166:71; ESTC W35663. Early ink annotations and small library inkstamp to final blank.
Some foxing, dampstain to final leaf. A few interior leaves with upper right corner torn away, not affecting text; first and last several leaves crudely trimmed, not affecting text. A very good copy.