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1771 — A Day in the Life of a Country Lawyer

April 11, 2013 James Riley

John Adams, country attorney

More Glorious Times Anon

In June of 1771, the travelling attorney, John Adams, then thirty-five years old, had this to record in his journal about a day on the circuit court:

Overtook Judge Cushing in his old curricle and two lean horses, and Dick, his negro, at his right hand, driving the curricle. This is the way of travelling in 1771;— a judge of the circuits, a judge of the superior court, a judge of the King’s bench, common pleas, and exchequer for the Province, travels with a pair of wretched old jades of horses in a wretched old dung-cart of a curricle, and a negro on the same seat with him driving. But we shall have more glorious times anon, when the sterling salaries are ordered out of the revenue, to the judges, &c. as many most ardently wish, and the judges themselves, among the rest, I suppose.

When you’re trying to recreate the cultural life of a day that is, we have to admit, beyond recreation, the check list of questions and interpretations is almost endless:

  1. Who was Judge Cushing?
  2. What does an “old curricle” say about him?  Was he thrifty, or poor, or miserly?
  3. What would qualify as a “lean horse” in 1771?  What breed?
  4. Was it common for a judge in New England to have a servant?
  5. Adams knew the black servant’s name, but how familiar was the conversation between them all?   Would Adams have greeted them both or just Judge Cushing?
  6. What would a curricle look like?   How could a curricle also be a dung cart?  Or is Adams just engaging in a figure of speech to report on its decrepitude?
  7. Judge Cushing held quite a few posts:  judge of King’s bench, common pleas, superior court.  He was exchequer for the province.  Mental note:  find out how King’s Bench and Superior court differed.
  8. Was it abject humility or New England thrift to be riding on a cart with your servant on the same bench?  There must have been something overly threadbare about this picture, or else why would Adams have made the observation?
  9. Observation:  the New Englanders were worried about judges being paid from “the revenue.”  Unlike Governor John Wentworth, of New Hampshire, who believed government would be made more efficient, and more powerful, by paying all officials out of the royal revenue, Adams was worried about local judges being paid by money from the home office.   Not only would they be less accountable to their neighbors, their trappings would be more “glorious anon.”  There seems, in this lament, to be a bit of the impartial patriot and a bit of Adam’s natural ambition.

Returning to Adam’s Journal:

Stopped at Martin’s, in Lynn, with Judge Cushing; oated and drank a glass of wine, and heard him sigh and groan the sighs and groans of seventy-seven, though he kept active. He conversed in his usual, hinting, insinuating, doubting, scrupling strain.

Which gives us more to ponder:

  1. Adam’s almost always refers to a tavern just by the name of the proprietor.  He stopped at “Martin’s.”  Does that say something about how they felt to the customer as well?   More like someone’s home?
  2. Oated?  Adam’s makes this reference a lot when he’s travelling.  The assumption is that he was gassing up his horse with oats, but it would be interesting to see how much this cost, who took care of the feeding, etc.
  3. “Drank a glass of wine.”  Fine with me.   What kind?  French?  Domestic?
  4. “The sighs and groans of seventy-seven.”  But Old Judge Cushing was still working the circuit court.  Lots of room for a senior ensemble in Courage, New Hampshire.
  5. “..hinting, insinuating, doubting, scrupling strain.”  It sounds like Adams wasn’t the only New England to be a tad judgmental.   If Judge Cushing was “insinuating” enough to set off John Adam’s tripwires, he must have had a special kind of cloying going for him indeed.


Still more from Adams:

Rode with King, a deputy sheriff, who came out to meet the judges, into Salem; put up at Goodhue’s. The negro that took my horse soon began to open his heart; — he did not like the people of Salem; wanted to be sold to Captain John Dean, of Boston; he earned two dollars in a forenoon, and did all he could to give satisfaction, but his mistress was cross, and said he did not earn salt to his porridge, &c. and would not find him clothes, &c. Thus I find discontents in all men; — the black thinks his merit rewarded with ingratitude, and so does the white; the black estimates his own worth and the merit of his services higher than anybody else, so does the white. This flattering, fond opinion of himself, is found in every man.

And that makes more work for the research department:

  1. King “came out to meet the judges.”  I’ve read this elsewhere, as well, that when judges and attorneys rode into town, for the meeting of general sessions, it was an event of some note.  It seems modest here, one deputy sheriff, but the little town of Courage, might meet New Hampshire’s equivalent of old Judge Cushing with a few more greeters.
  2. The “negro that took my horse.”  This might be an answer to the “oating” question.  Perhaps taverns had livery staff that put up and fed the horses.
  3. “..soon began to open his heart..”   It’s an interesting insight into social norms, or perhaps even a side of Adams that is informal and approachable.   The “negro” appears willing to open up about his problems, and Adams is willing to hear them.  Does that say something general, and democratic, about New England culture (even though slavery was tolerated), or is it just Adam’s interest in human nature?  I suppose we would need several more journals as candid as Adams’ to feel confident in our conclusion.
  4. “..wanted to be sold..”  That would make for a jarring line of dialogue in a script, wouldn’t it?  A black servant appealing to every tavern guest that he wanted to be sold?   It might even be tragi-comedy of a sort.
  5. “..earned two dollars..”  Does this mean the slave was allowed to earn money on the side?  Did he consider that an advantage?  “forenoon..” Is there something special about that time.  Was that his?
  6. No “..salt for his porridge..”  Mental note:  try and make a reasonable assessment of what farm laborers and slaves would eat on a daily basis (amounts and types of food), and see if there amounted to a substantial difference, in New England, between laborers and the class to which Adams and Cushing belonged.  No salt for the soup.  I don’t think I could make it.
  7. “..discontent in all and white..”  On the surface, of course, this reflects the class and race assumptions of the day, but if you look hard enough, there is humanity in Adam’s observation.  Clearly, Adams doesn’t see black servants as unthinking beasts, without ambition or feelings.  One theme with Adams seems to have something to do with the ubiquitous vanity and tragic dissatisfaction of all human beings, their desire to scrape and scratch for higher social ground.  The American abolition movement began in New England.  Perhaps Adams was reflecting a general feeling on the subject?

You only need a few sentences from John Adams to percolate a thousand questions.  I haven’t even touched on art direction or costuming.

You could spend a thousand lifetimes, attempting to re-create just the life of one man, on one day in the past.

Proof of God #76.b(rfs).432z


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