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During the first Republican presidential debate of the 2016 election cycle, Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky stood out a bit when he cited America’s second president.
It came during a heated exchange with New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie about how much government intrusiveness was needed to keep Americans safe from terrorism.
"I want to collect more records from terrorists, but less records from innocent Americans," said Paul, who has been a leading voice in his party for privacy from government intrusion. "The Fourth Amendment was what we fought the Revolution over. John Adams said it was the spark that led to our war for independence, and I'm proud of standing for the Bill of Rights, and I will continue to stand for the Bill of Rights."
Taken in its most literal interpretation, this claim doesn’t make much sense, since the Fourth Amendment was ratified in 1791, about a decade and a half after the American Revolution began. But it’s pretty clear that Paul means that the issues embedded in the Fourth Amendment were a factor in the revolution, so that’s what we’re checking.
Did Adams say the Fourth Amendment was "the spark that led to our war for independence?"
For those who have forgotten what they learned in high-school civics class, the Fourth Amendment reads as follows:
"The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized."
From looking at the documents and checking with experts, it appears that Paul is basically correct in saying that Adams felt this way, though the second president never actually used the word "spark" himself.
This goes back to the use of "writs of assistance" or general standing warrants that gave British law enforcement officials in Massachusetts -- Adams’ home state -- wide powers to inspect the property and possessions of colonists in order to root out the proceeds of smuggling. These warrants were long-lasting -- up to six months after the death of the issuing sovereign -- and they permitted officials to enter any house during the day. They did not require officials to obtain a more specific permission from a judge -- what would today be called a search warrant.
Not surprisingly, many colonists saw these broad governmental powers as onerous. The issue came to a head in 1761, when a Boston lawyer, James Otis Jr., led a group seeking redress from the court. Otis and his fellow complainants lost the case, but their arguments made a deep impression on Adams, then a 25-year-old lawyer who was in the courtroom when the case was heard.
Two documents show the significance of this case in Adams’ mind. One was a letter to his wife, Abigail, on July 3, 1776 -- 15 years later, and the day before the signing of the Declaration of Independence:
"When I look back to the Year 1761, and recollect the Argument concerning Writs of Assistance, in the Superiour Court, which I have hitherto considered as the Commencement of the Controversy, between Great Britain and America, and run through the whole Period from that Time to this, and recollect the series of political Events, the Chain of Causes and Effects, I am surprized at the Suddenness, as well as Greatness of this Revolution."
The second document was a letter Adams wrote to his former student, William Tudor, in 1817, more than half a century after the court arguments. Tudor was assembling Otis’ papers posthumously.
"Every Man of an immense crouded Audience appeared to me to go away, as I did, ready to take Arms against Writs of Assistants. Then and there was the first scene of the first Act of opposition to the Arbitrary claims of Great Britain. Then and there the Child Independence was born. In fifteen years i.e. in 1776. he grew up to Manhood, & declared himself free."
While some sources imply that Adams himself used the term "spark," such as a Heritage Foundation guide to the Constitution, it was actually his grandson, Charles Francis Adams, who did.
In 1856, Adams’ grandson published a biography of the second president. In it, the grandson wrote, "In the year 1761, arose the question respecting the legality of writs of assistance, argued before the superior court of the province, by James Otis, and which Mr. Adams himself considered as the spark in which originated the American Revolution. … No man can attentively read it without observing, in the argument, the seeds profusely scattered of the Revolution of Independence."
So Paul is generally correct about the centrality of the Otis case for Adams, even if Adams himself never used the word "spark."
Was the Fourth Amendment "what we fought the Revolution over"?
According to experts we contacted, concerns about searches and seizures are more accurately described as one of the causes of the American Revolution, rather than "what we fought the Revolution over."
"The origins and issues over which the American Revolution was fought are complex, varied, and to this day, even among historians, debatable," said Amanda M. Norton, assistant editor of the Adams Papers at the Massachusetts Historical Society. While Adams did credit Otis’ argument, whether or not he was correct on that point "is a matter of debate."
Serena Zabin, a Carleton College historian who specializes in the revolutionary era, agreed. "It’s a gross oversimplification to say that the American Revolution as a whole was fought over search and seizure. Other key factors certainly include the British Empire trying to control white settlers from taking native Indian land, political arguments over economic regulations, and eventually a rising series of provocations and complaints on both sides."
The best place to look for a list of causes of the revolution is the Declaration of Independence, added Brian Murphy, an early-American historian at Baruch College of the City University of New York. These include the king’s refusal to acknowledge representative government, his close control of the judiciary, the forced quartering of British soldiers, the imposition of taxes without consent, and the provoking of Indian insurrections against the colonists, among many others cited in the founding document.
"The British lost the colonies through some very stupid, unforced errors, and (search and seizure) is one of those things," Murphy said.
When we contacted Paul’s campaign, spokeswoman Eleanor May said that Paul didn’t claim that the Fourth Amendment was the only cause of the American Revolution.
"Sen. Paul stands by his statement, though he encourages every American to read the work of John Adams and our other Founding Fathers and draw their own conclusions," May said.
Paul said, "The Fourth Amendment was what we fought the Revolution over. John Adams said it was the spark that led to our war for independence."
Paul definitely has a point. Adams’ writings clearly show that he believed the writs of assistance case was a key, early turning point of the revolution that began 15 years later. But even if it was one cause, it wasn’t the only one. The statement is accurate but needs clarification and additional information, so we rate it Mostly True.
Republican presidential debate transcript, Aug. 6, 2015
Text of the Fourth Amendment, accessed Aug. 7, 2015
Text of the Delcaration of Independence, accessed Aug. 7, 2015
Legal Papers of John Adams, 2:107–108, 114–115, 117–118, 121–122
John Adams and Charles Francis Adams, "The Works of John Adams, vol. 1 (Life of the Author)," 1856
Constitution Society, "Against Writs of Assistance, James Otis, February 24, 1761," accessed Aug. 7, 2015
Heritage Foundation, guide to the Constitution, accessed Aug. 7, 2015
Email interview with Gordon S. Wood, emeritus professor of history at Brown University, Aug. 7, 2015
Email interview with Jan Ellen Lewis, historian at Rutgers University-Newark, Aug. 7, 2015
Email interview with Amanda M. Norton, assistant editor of the Adams Papers at the Massachusetts Historical Society, Aug. 7, 2015
Email interview with Serena Zabin, Carleton College historian, Aug. 7, 2015
Interview with Brian Murphy, historian at Baruch College of the City University of New York, Aug. 7, 2015
Email interview with John E. Ferling, emeritus professor of history at the University of West Georgia, Aug. 7, 2015
Email interview with Eleanor May, spokeswoman for Rand Paul, Aug. 7, 2015
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