America’s First Impeachment

Nina Sankovitch
Nov 7 · 5 min read

The very first case of impeachment in America was brought in 1774, instigated by the colonial House of Representatives against Peter Oliver, Chief Justice of Massachusetts. John Adams prepared the Articles of Impeachment, which listed corruption, greed, and disloyalty, all indicating “high crimes and misdemeanors,” as the bases for impeachment.[1]

Adams had first become concerned over the decreasing “Independence of the Judges”[2] (as he called it), when in 1773 word came from King and Parliament that judges in the American colonies would no longer receive their salaries from their local legislatures (and colonial representatives) but would instead receive all salaries directly from the Crown.

Chief Justice Peter Oliver had crowed with joy over the news of his new Crown-guaranteed salary, and saw no problem in overseeing cases which directly affected the Crown while also receiving his salary from the Crown. The colonists of Massachusetts, however, quickly recognized the potential for unfair judgments (especially concerning highly contentious issues of taxes and standing troops), and loudly and violently protested the paying of royal salaries to local judges. Rowdy types vowed to take Peter Oliver out to the Liberty Tree on Orange Street and let him swing from the branches until he repented of his evil ways.

The Liberty Tree

But law-abiding John Adams could not countenance threats of physical violence against a judge, no matter how crooked, corrupt, or weak-willed he might be. The law must take its course against Justice Oliver, Adams advised his fellow colonists — and the method to do so was impeachment.

There was no precedent for impeachment in the colony but Adams was undaunted. He began researching how such a process might legally be undertaken in the colony, using impeachment cases that had been pursued in England as his model. He marshalled the necessary precedents in law, wrote up his findings, and took careful notes of Oliver’s actions as Chief Justice.

One evening, while attending a dinner party with fellow colonial representatives, Adams overheard a group discussing the paying of royal salaries to colonial judges, lamenting this “fatal Measure [that]… would be the Ruin of the Liberties of the Country.” Inserting himself into the conversation, John loudly pronounced that he just might have the answer to the problem.[3] He “told them…there was one constitutional Resource… [which was] nothing more nor less than an Impeachment … by the House of Representatives before the Council…”[4]

When the men asked Adams for his help in bringing an impeachment case against Peter Oliver, Adams jumped at the chance. For the next few days and nights he worked on preparing the Articles of Impeachment, while members of the Massachusetts House of Representatives hovered about. A passing friend later commented to Adams, “you keep late Hours at your House: as I passed it last night long after midnight, I saw your Street door vomit forth a Crowd of Senators.”[5]

Relying on case law, moral imperatives, and the history of Massachusetts and its charter, John Adams began the Articles of Impeachment by setting forth the duties owed by judges of the colony to their fellow colonists; they were bound to defend against incursions into colonial rights and deprivation of colonial liberties. Adams then went on to specifically describe the actions undertaken by Peter Oliver which violated his sworn duties to the colonists, and demonstrated not only his “false Representations and evil Advice,” but also his “corrupt Administration of Justice.”

For example, Oliver had accepted the “Sum of four Hundred Pounds Sterling, granted by his Majesty…” and hoped for its future “Augmentation.” By doing so, he had committed the “high crimes and misdemeanors” of taking “a continual Bribe” in clear “Violation of his Oath.” Adams added, with what he hoped were demonstrable facts, that Oliver had been compelled into “accepting and receiving the said Sum” by the “the Corruption and Baseness of his Heart, and the sordid Lust of Covetousness.”[6]

Peter Oliver

The House of Representatives approved the Articles of Impeachment and quickly moved to distribute Adams’ legal and factual findings throughout the colony. Colonists far and wide approved of the impeachment. But the Royal Governor of Massachusetts, Thomas Hutchinson, refused to recognize either the merits of the claims against Oliver or the legality of the process of impeachment. He declared that Chief Justice Oliver would not be removed, no matter how the Massachusetts House of Representatives had voted.

John Adams did not despair. He knew that a judge without jurors could do little, and that the colonists would never serve under a man like Peter Oliver. Within months, Adams was proved right. When called to serve as jurors in their local courts, almost each and every one of them refused to participate in a court system tainted by an impeached chief justice, just as Adams had predicted. Even when Chief Justice Peter Oliver stayed away from court, colonists refused to sit as jurors and declined the oath of service. As one man testified in Boston, when asked why he refused to serve, “we believe in our consciences, that our acting in concert with a court so constituted… would be betraying the just and sacred rights of our native land… [which we need to preserve for] our posterity.”[7]

Without jurors, no cases could be heard, and the Royally-administered court system was brought to a standstill. The disruption of the royal administration of the colonies was now on a roll. Taxes would not be paid, tea would be tossed into the sea, British troops on the streets of Boston would be harassed and hassled.

It is easy to see in retrospect how the impeachment of Peter Oliver was the beginning, in so many ways, of the path towards a declaration of independence by the colonies from England, and the start of the American Revolution. But at the time, John Adams saw primarily two results from his impeachment efforts: the American colonists had come together to declare that their rights were inviolate, and the taint of corruption, greed, and immoral behavior would not be tolerated; and his law practice dried up. After all, with no courts in session, his legal work fizzled. He would soon find other activities to fill his time.

This post is a modified excerpt from my new book, American Rebels: How the Hancock, Adams, and Quincy Families Fanned the Flames of Revolution, coming out in March 2020.


[1] February 24 1774, Papers of John Adams, Vol. 2, Adams Papers, Massachusetts Historical Society.

[2] Diary and Autobiography of John Adams, Vol. 3, p. 299–300, Adams Papers, Massachusetts Historical Society.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid, p. 302.

[6] February 24 1774, Papers of John Adams, Vol. 2, Adams Papers, MHS.

[7] Peter Force, American Archives: A Documentary History, 4th Series, Vol. I, (Washington, D.C.: Peter Force, 1848), p. 749.

Nina Sankovitch

Reader, Writer, Historian. Interested in rebellion and where it leads.

Nina Sankovitch

Written by

www.ninasankovitch.com

Nina Sankovitch

Reader, Writer, Historian. Interested in rebellion and where it leads.

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