Blog Post 4: Understanding John Adams and Samuel Adams through John Locke- Conclusion and Findings


I have completed my research! I know it has been a long time since my last post. The reason being is that I wanted to make sure my research paper was at least near perfect before I published my conclusions. While I have not done a lot of research since my third blog post, I have worked much on refining and strengthening my argument. I am confident with my findings and will welcome any commentary regarding my research. I have included the final copy of my research paper above which covers my finding to this post. Even though it is over 20 pages long I encourage you all to take a peek and read it, I will summarize my findings below.

I looked into John and Samuel Adams’ interpretations of John Locke in five different categories. First, on the topic of the role of executive power relative to legislative power, I found that while both John and Samuel Adams interpreted Locke to believe that executive power is inferior to legislative power. Yet John Adams believed in a larger role for executive power in the government, while Samuel Adams distrusted executive power and did not want a significant role for executive power in government.

Second, on the topic of nobility, John Locke offered contradictory sentiments on aristocracy. He seemed to suggest that people will not entitled to rule over others as all are equal in nature, yet also created a hereditary nobility when he created the legal constitution of the Carolina colonies. John Adams disagreed at Locke’s claims for hereditary aristocracy, joking that it would be easier to create a new type of man than institute a form of hereditary aristocracy as he described. Yet John Adams also read Locke to believe that there could be an aristocracy, albeit a natural one based on merit, in society. Whereas Samuel Adams took a more liberal view and vehemently opposed any form of aristocracy in America throughout his lifetime.

Third, on the topic of the sovereignty of the people, Locke clearly stated that the people are sovereign. However, Locke did not say specifically how much sovereignty the people possessed. As such John and Samuel Adams formed different ideas around popular sovereignty. John Adams read Locke to believe that the people only have, “an essential share” of sovereignty. Samuel Adams, on the other hands, disagreed with John Adams’ interpretation and instead argued that all sovereignty lies with the people.

Fourth, on the topic of loyalty, John Locke argued that free people do not owe their loyalty to the government, but that they do owe it to the law. Before the American Revolution, John Adams understood Locke to argue that the loyalty of the colonists belonged to the law and the King, as the colonial governments and pledged their allegiance to the King. Samuel Adams believed that people should be loyal to a good legal constitution and to liberty itself.

Fifth, John Locke argued for the separation of church and state, but wrote that the state could use persuasion to promote religion, offering an interesting situation. If the state used persuasion to promote religion, at what point would this persuasion turn into force? And does Locke mean therefore that the government can promote religion, as long as they only use persuasion? John Adams believed that Locke’s writings meant that the government should have as little to do with religion as possible, and did not want government to interfere with religion. However, Samuel Adams read Locke to believe the government could promote religion as long as it used persuasion and not force upon the people. In summary, when interpreting John Locke, John Adams often had the more conservative, literal interpretation while Samuel Adams had the more looser interpretation.

I have learned a whole lot from this research project. First of all, I now have a better understanding of how many sources need to be consulted for a research project. I understand that this was a relatively short project, and I looked at least 30 different sources, if not more, as part of my research. Also, I realized that while you can go into a project with a certain idea of what you want to study, your material will ultimately tell you what to argue. There were several instances where I expected to find evidence supporting an argument I had already formed, only to realize that the facts did not match up with this presupposed argument. I had to adjust my argument to ensure that it reflected the evidence I had discovered. And also, research is harder than it looks. I’ll admit, it can be grinding; just trying to find evidence that matched my topics was hard. I will definitely take the lessons I learned from these past few weeks to any future research I may do.

Lastly, I would like to thank my faculty advisor, Professor Ross Carroll of the Government Department, for all of his help during this project. Professor Carroll advised me on where to look for research before I left campus in May. He motivated me to do the best I could with this project and advised me on revisions to make to my paper. Without his help, this project would not nearly be as good as it has become. Thank you Professor for all of the advice and support you have provided.

Thank you for reading these blog posts and being a part of my research. If you have any questions or comments please do so below! If you liked it let me know. If you didn’t like it let me know. All feedback is greatly appreciated.

Rob O’Gara


  1. Hi Rob,
    It was really interesting reading through all of your findings. Through all of your research, did you find that you thought one man’s interpretation of Locke was overall better/more convincing than the other? How do you interpret Locke on some of the key issues you have discussed? Do you think that one interpretation of Locke yields a better foundation for America overall?

  2. Matthew Cohen says:

    Hi Rob,

    The findings you researched and presented were interesting to read, especially since your enthusiasm for the topic translated into an engaging and insightful paper. I think your research does an excellent job delving into the beliefs of John and Samuel Adams regarding John Locke; it’s always important to understand the differences between political figures and their interpretations of political philosophy. After your research, did you end up siding with one Adams’ interpretation of Locke more than the other, and if so, what convinced you? Given Locke’s occasional contradictions, I realize that they might seem equally valid and persuasive.

    I found the distinction between the beliefs of John and Samuel on the extent of popular sovereignty to be particularly intriguing, since both cousins accepted Locke’s theory of the social contract. Do you think this was influenced at all by their level of political activity, with Samuel somewhat more involved in state politics – where he was potentially closer to the people – and John somewhat more involved in national politics – where he was potentially more removed from the people? Or, did John merely believe in more governmental power in actual policy decisions once the people’s sovereignty established the government (while Samuel advocated complete popular sovereignty even in crafting the policies of government)? I also like the idea, which Juliet mentioned in her comment, about investigating the public’s opinion on these distinctions over time. Looking into opinions before versus after the American Revolution, or before and after the ratification of the Constitution, might be an interesting and valuable study, if you felt like doing further research of this topic.

  3. Robert O'Gara says:

    Hey Devin,

    Thank you for the comments! It’s hard to objectively say which man interpreted Locke better. If I had to choose, I’d likely go with Samuel Adams since he had a more literal translation of John Locke. Whereas John Adams didn’t take a literal interpretation and held more views that appeared to conflict with Locke’s views. But again it is hard to generalize these complex views and opinions. Personally I take a more literal interpretation of John Locke. I think Locke was trying to promote a liberal, constitutional monarchy in his writings. Yet while I think he was promoting classical liberal views (liberal being in terms of 17th century and 18th century politics), I am cautious to brand him as a republican revolutionary like many brand Samuel Adams. And in terms of whether one interpretation of Locke yields better for America, again I am cautious to answer that question. The America of today is much different from that of the Adams’ time or that of Locke’s time. I don’t think the right question should be which interpretation of Locke is better for America. But rather, which interpretation best describes America? And why? I hope that I have answered your questions!

  4. Robert O'Gara says:

    Hey Matthew,

    Thanks for your input! I really enjoyed working on this topic! The paper was a lot, but it was the best way to fully transmit my findings in a manner that didn’t exclude any vital information. To go off my comments to Devin, I felt that a more literal interpretation of Locke was more accurate. Generally speaking this would refer to Samuel Adams’ interpretations. However, each individual topic is unique. For example, when it comes to religion and the separation of church and state, it appears that John Adams took the more literal interpretation as he was vehemently opposed to any link between the government and religion. So I guess I didn’t really choose either John Adams’ or Samuel Adams’ interpretation, but rather believed that Locke meant his writings to be read in a literal manner.

    Instead of saying that the political activity of each Adams cousin influenced their respective interpretations of Locke on popular sovereignty, I would argue that instead their political activities reflected their views on sovereignty. For they each formed ideas on popular sovereignty even before they became in American politics dating to the American Revolution and beyond. Additionally, Samuel Adams was not just a local politician. He ran for President in 1796 and received 15 electoral votes. And John Adams was very involved in Massachusetts politics as he drafted the Massachusetts state constitution. I’d argue that John Adams read Locke to believe that the people possessed sovereignty, but that there were limits to that sovereignty. In other words, the government owed most, but not all, of its authority to the people. Whereas Samuel Adams would argue that all of the government’s power came from the people.

    And I definitely agree that looking into the public’s different opinions on Locke over time in the United States would be interesting. The only problem would be that a lot of people in those times weren’t often concerned enough about political theory so as to record their opinions on it. While I believe it would be possible to find the research to see how the American people interpreted Locke over time, it would be a very time consuming effort.

    I hope I have answered all of your questions and that you have enjoyed this research!