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The son of a farmer and part-time cobbler, John Adams was born on October 30, 1735, in a small frame house in Braintree, Massachusetts. His father believed in education and sent John to Harvard College. John was a good student in the small class of only twenty-four students. After graduation, Adams taught school for a year in Worcester, Massachusetts. He did not enjoy teaching, referring to the students as ignorant “little runtlings,” and decided to become a lawyer. He studied for two years under the local lawyer, James Putnam. In the fall of 1758, he was admitted to the bar and began to practice law in his hometown of Braintree (later named Quincy).
At age twenty-nine, while he was building his law practice, he married the daughter of a local clergyman, Abigail Smith. Though she was ten years younger, she shared John’s love of books and writing. John and Abigail would be married for the rest of their lives and have five children; their oldest son, John Quincy, would go on to become the sixth president of the United States.
The Seeds of a Revolution Are Planted
Massachusetts was a hotbed of activity in opposition to the British who controlled the American colonies. In 1765, the British parliament passed a tax called the Stamp Act. The tax, which required a stamp to be purchased and placed on all documents (including playing cards), infuriated the colonists since it imposed taxation without representation. John and his cousin, Samuel Adams, became vocal in their opposition to the new tax. Sam Adams was one of the founders of the Sons of Liberty, an organization that stirred up mob action against the British. John’s approach was to prepare a resolution against the tax that was approved by Braintree and other Massachusetts towns, and he wrote a series of anonymous articles in the Boston Gazette in defense of American liberty.
In order to expand his legal practice and be closer to his fellow patriots, Adams moved his family to the larger city of Boston. There he became involved in a case against British soldiers who had fired on a mob of Americans in what became known as the “Boston Massacre” of March 5, 1770. He knew that by taking the case as a lawyer for the British soldiers, he would suffer the wrath of his fellow Bostonians. Adams and his associate, Josiah Quincy, were successful in winning the acquittal of the British Captain and four of his soldiers while two soldiers faced manslaughter charges. Though the case caused Adams to be unpopular, it did show that he was a man of conviction and not easily swayed by public opinion. Late in 1770, he entered politics in the Massachusetts legislature’s General Court.
The Sons of Liberty and the Boston Tea Party
Tensions between the British who occupied the colonies and the citizens continued to escalate. Things came to a head on the night of December 16, 1773, when Sam Adams and the Sons of Liberty, dressed as Indians, carried out the Boston Tea Party. The British had imposed a tax on imported tea that the colonists felt was unjust, so they protested by throwing chests of tea from the British ship the Dartmouth into the Boston Harbor. John wrote of the incident in his diary: “This destruction of the tea is so bold, so daring, so firm, intrepid and inflexible, and it must have so important consequences, and so lasting, that I can’t but consider it as an epoch in history!” John’s assessment of the situation was correct, and the British soon closed Boston Harbor and restricted the colony’s town meetings in retaliation. The colonists were to the point of open rebellion and formed the first Continental Congress in Philadelphia in 1774.
The American Revolution
Both John and Sam Adams were delegates from Massachusetts to the newly formed Continental Congress. The men possessed a patriotic fervor to free the colonies from oppressive British rule. Once in Congress, they both learned quickly that the other delegates didn’t possess their strong sentiments to break from Great Britain. Most of the delegates sought to seek much milder concessions from the Crown.
With little accomplished in the first Continental Congress, the delegates adjourned for the remainder of the year. Events would raise the stakes as gunfire broke out between the colonists and the British at the Battle of Lexington and Concord in April 1775. The next month, the second Continental Congress convened to continue to wrestle with the problems of being governed by the mother country an ocean away. The colonies each had their own grievances with the Crown; the northern colonies were more industrialized while the southern colonies were more agrarian and were slaveholders.
On June 14, John Adams nominated a Virginia militia colonel, George Washington, to be commander in chief of an army formed by the colonists. Washington, who had military experience from the French and Indian War, was a logical choice, and the delegates unanimously elected him to lead the army in the battle for independence.
Declaration of Independence
John Adams urged the members of Congress to seek formal independence from the British. As Washington and his troops were preparing to defend New York City from a British invasion, Congress formed a committee to write what became known as the Declaration of Independence. Thomas Jefferson was the primary author of the historic document, but Adams was an active member of the committee assigned to prepare the declaration. During the first week of July, the Congress was prepared to vote on going to war with the British to gain their freedom. Adams gave an impassioned speech for independence, and according to Thomas Jefferson, he spoke: “with a power of thought and expression that moved us from our seats.” With only the delegates from the state of New York abstaining, Congress voted for independence. Adams, flush with exuberance over the historic event, wrote to Abigail predicting what the future held for this day: “ought to be solemnized with pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations, from one end of this continent to the other, from this time forward, forevermore.” Adams’ call for a celebration in early July each year was visionary as America has celebrated independence on July 4 for over two hundred years.
Diplomat to France
With the thirteen colonies in full rebellion against Great Britain, the war was going poorly for the Americans. The hastily thrown-together Continental Army was a hodgepodge of state and local militias that were poorly trained and equipped. Congress was desperate for military and financial help so it was decided that help would be sought from Britain’s old rival, France. Though known for his bluntness rather than his diplomacy, Adams was chosen to be one of the commissioners to France to try to negotiate aid. On his perilous journey across the Atlantic in winter, he took his ten-year-old son John Quincy with him. The ocean voyage was anything but peaceful, as the ship was nearly lost in an angry storm and then was attacked by a British ship. Arriving in France, Adams learned that a treaty with France had already been negotiated by Benjamin Franklin. With little to do now, Adams awaited his next assignment from Congress and returned to America in 1779. His time home would be short as Congress called him back to duty as one of the commissioners to negotiate a treaty to end the war with Great Britain. The British were not ready for peace and he spent two years in France. Waiting for the British to come to the peace table, Adams spent much of the next two years in the Netherlands trying to persuade the Dutch to recognize and loan money to the United States. In late 1782, he took part in the negotiations that resulted in a treaty that ended the Revolutionary War. After the war ended, Adams remained in Europe until 1788. The last three years he was the minister to Great Britain.
Vice President of the United States
Under the new Constitution of the United States, the country had to pick a president and vice president. The Electoral College met in February 1789 and all sixty-nine electors voted for George Washington as president. The votes were mixed for the vice president, but Adams did manage to get enough votes to become the first vice president of the United States.
As vice president, Adams’ responsibility was to preside over the Senate. He wrote of his new position: “requires rather severe duty, and it is a kind of duty which, if I do not flatter myself too much, is not quite adapted to my character—I mean, it is too inactive and mechanical.” Since the Senate had an equal number of members, when there was a tie vote, the vice president would cast the deciding vote. He used his tie-breaking vote when necessary, supporting legislation that aligned with President Washington’s policies and strengthened the powers of the presidency.
During Washington’s first term in office, political parties started to form. The Federalists were led by Alexander Hamilton and preferred a stronger central government. The Anti-Federalists, or Democratic-Republicans, led by Thomas Jefferson, were proponents of states’ rights. At the end of Washington’s first term, the Democratic-Republicans realized it was impossible to unseat Washington, so they concentrated their attacks on Adams. When the votes were tallied in February 1793, Adams had easily won over the opposition candidate, Governor George Clinton of New York. During his second term as vice president, Adams remained a firm supporter of Washington but was criticized by the Democratic-Republicans.
Presidential Election of 1796
President Washington refused to run for a third term. The Federalists chose Adams as their candidate and the Democratic-Republicans chose Thomas Jefferson. The two old friends had now become distant due to their strongly differing political views. As was the custom of the day, neither candidate campaigned directly; rather, the campaigns were conducted in the newspapers and by political operatives for each candidate. The Democratic-Republicans accused Adams of planning to set up a hereditary monarchy and become king of the United States, while the Federalists denounced Jefferson as an advocate to dismantle the Constitution.
In the first few presidential elections, the general public did not get to vote; rather, each state was represented by a number of electors based on the state’s population. Each elector voted for two candidates. The candidate with the most votes from the electors became the president and the runner-up the vice president. This system placed the outcome of the election in the hands of just a few and the secretary of the treasury, Alexander Hamilton, took full advantage of the opportunity.
Though Adams was a Federalist like Hamilton, they were political foes. Hamilton worked behind the scenes to convince some Federalist electors to vote not for Adams but rather for his vice presidential candidate, Thomas Pinckney. Hamilton’s scheme backfired, which allowed Adams to win the most votes while the Democratic-Republican candidate, Thomas Jefferson, got the second-highest number of votes and became the vice president. Thus, the president and vice president were from two opposing political parties. The Adams-Jefferson administration started off on the wrong foot and faltered for much of its four-year term.
The Second President of the United States
The swearing in as president of the sixty-one-year-old John Adams on March 4, 1797, proved to the world that this new republican form of government could successfully and peacefully change executive chiefs. Adams left Washington’s cabinet in place, which turned out to be a mistake as this opened the door for the cabinet members to be influenced by Alexander Hamilton.
The relationship with France would become an important issue during his entire term. The nation was split as the leaders of the French Revolution called upon the United States to come to their aid in their war with Great Britain. Relations with the French deteriorated rapidly after the signing of the Jay Treaty, which did not guarantee U.S. trade rights with France. In retribution, the French begin seizing American ships and cargo. To add further offense to the already volatile situation, the French refused to acknowledge the U.S. minister, Charles Cotesworth Pinkney, who had been sent by Adams to secure friendly relations. In response, Adams called for a special session of Congress in May and informed the members that the United States would not permit itself to be “humiliated under a colonial spirit of fear and a sense of inferiority.” Congress empowered Adams to enlist 10,000 men for military service and authorized him to instruct commanders of ships of war to seize armed French vessels attacking American merchants along the coast.
Quasi-War With France
In the fall of 1797, President Adams sent John Marshall, Charles Pinckney, and Elbridge Gerry to Paris to establish peace. In early 1798, Adams received dispatches from the new commissioners he had sent to France. In their reports, he learned that agents of the French government had demanded a bribe before the American envoys would be received by the foreign minister, Talleyrand. Adams was infuriated with the conduct of the French and secretly asked Congress to revoke Washington’s policy of neutrality long enough to permit American merchant ships to take up military arms. The Democratic-Republicans vehemently opposed Adams’ request. When Adams made the dispatches public, his opponents became enraged when they learned of the treachery of the French.
With war imminent, George Washington was called back as the commander-in-chief of the army. Much to Adams’ disliking, Washington insisted that Alexander Hamilton be his second in command. In addition to an army for land warfare, Congress established the Department of the Navy. The frigates United States, Constitution, and Constellation were the first warships of the newly established navy, which would grow to forty-nine vessels by 1799.
The people, when they have been unchecked, have been as unjust, tyrannical, brutal, barbarous, and cruel, as any king or senate possessed of uncontrollable power. The majority has eternally, and without one exception, usurped over the rights of the minority.
— John Adams
The Alien and Sedition Acts
The Federalist-dominated Congress passed the Alien and Sedition Acts in 1798, which gave broad powers to the government to imprison aliens and citizens who threatened or opposed the federal government. The Alien Act was aimed at French immigrants and authorized the president to arrest and deport aliens involved in “treasonable” activities. The Sedition Act made all American citizens subject to fines or imprisonment if they were found guilty of “obstructing the implementation of federal law, or for publishing malicious or false writings against Congress, the president, or the government.” Several newspaper editors were imprisoned under the Sedition Act, which ultimately contributed to the downfall of the Adams administration. The oppressive Sedition Act automatically expired in 1800.
At sea, the conflict with France was escalating when in February 1799, the United States 38-gun frigate Constellation captured a French ship near the island of St. Kitt. A year later, the Constellation would defeat the French ship La Vengeance on the high seas. Adams sought peace with France and sent envoys to France only after the French ambassador Talleyrand agreed to meet with them. The Quasi-war with France ended in the fall of 1800 with the signing of the Treaty of Mortefontaine in Paris.
Election of 1800
The members of the Federalist Party were split over Adams’ role in avoiding war with France. Many in the nation had strong ties to Britain and encouraged war with France. Adams’ nemesis, Alexander Hamilton, had become commander-in-chief of the U.S. Army after Washington’s death and hoped to achieve military glory on the battlefield. Hamilton sabotaged Adams’ chances for a second term in office by circulating a letter that detailed Adams’ character flaws and said he was “unfit for the highest office of Chief Magistrate.” He utilized secret information about Adams that was gathered from disloyal cabinet members. Jefferson, with Aaron Burr as his running mate, opposed Adams in the election and won. Adams would be destined to become a one-term president.
The new Executive Mansion had been completed in the District of Columbia and John moved from Philadelphia into the new president’s house. He wrote to Abigail of the new Executive Mansion: “I pray to heaven to bestow the best of blessings on this house and all that shall hereafter inhabit it…May none but honest and wise men ever rule under this roof.” Abigail was not able to join him in Washington because she went to New York to visit their ailing son, Charles, who was dying from alcoholism. She stayed with him until his death.
Washington, D.C., was an isolated small town in a swampy area that tended to promote outbreaks of yellow fever. Abigail made the best of her new home and hosted the first reception in the Executive Mansion on New Year’s Day 1801, in what would become the Oval Office of the White House. The partially completed gray sandstone building, not yet called the White House, would be Adams' home for the remainder of his term as president, which ended in early March of 1801.
Though Adams was now a lame-duck president he did still possess the power to make judicial appointments. Shortly after his defeat, he appointed a fellow Federalist, John Marshall, as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. Additionally, he appointed several Federalist federal judges to the courts during his last few days in office. On Jefferson’s inauguration day, Adams quietly left Washington to join Abigail in Massachusetts without attending Jefferson’s inauguration.
Retirement and Legacy
John and Abigail went back to their home in Quincy, Massachusetts, where they would live the rest of their days. Abigail contracted typhoid fever just before her seventy-fourth birthday and died at home on October 28, 1818. John mourned her death and said that part of him died with her passing. John Quincy wrote to his brother Thomas that their mother’s life “gave the lie to every liable on her sex that was ever written.”
John Adams lived for eight years after his wife’s death and spent his days tending to his farm and writing. A year before his death, he would see his oldest son, John Quincy, become the sixth president of the United States. Over the years after the political battles faded, Jefferson and Adams reunited their friendship through a series of friendly letters. Jefferson consoled Adams over Abigail’s death and shared his joy over John Quincy becoming president. This series of letters has given historians insight into the times and the minds of these two revolutionary leaders and former presidents. As a strange historical coincidence, both Adams and Jefferson died within a few hours of each other on July 4, 1826, the fiftieth anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Tradition has it that his last words were of his old friend and political sparring partner: “Thomas Jefferson still survives.”
John Adams will long be remembered as one of the founding fathers who helped build a great nation and preserved peace as an embattled president during a trying crisis with France.
- Matuz, Roger. The Presidents Fact Book: The Achievements, Campaigns, Events, Triumphs, Tragedies, and Legacies of Every President From George Washington to Barack Obama. Black Dog & Leventhal Publishers. 2009.
- McCullough, David. John Adams. Touchstone. 2001.
- Tindall, George B. and David E. Shi. America: A Narrative History. 7th edition. W. W Norton & Company. 2007.
- West, Doug. John Adams: A Short Biography. C&D Publications. 2015.
- Whitney, David C. The American Presidents: Biographies of the Chief Executives, from George Washington through Barack Obama. 11th edition. Reader’s Digest. 2009.
This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.
© 2019 Doug West