John Adams (1735-1826), second president of the United States (1797-1801) and one of the great figures in American history. In the years before the American Revolution (1775-1783) he joined with other patriots in resisting British rule. When the revolution began, Adams was among the first to propose American independence. He served on the committee that drafted the Declaration of Independence and then helped persuade the Second Continental Congress to adopt the declaration.
Adams served the patriot cause in Congress and in diplomatic missions abroad. Together with Benjamin Franklin and John Jay, Adams helped negotiate the treaty that ended the American Revolution. When George Washington became the new nation's first president in 1789, Adams became the first vice president.
Adams ranks as one of the greatest of American political philosophers. His A Defense of the Constitutions of Governments of the United States of America (3 volumes, 1787-1788) and Discourses on Davila (1805) contributed profoundly to American political thought. In addition to his formal works, Adams wrote letters and papers that provide a vivid account of his life and the events that led to the founding of the United States.
John Adams was the eldest son of John Adams, a farmer, and Susanna Boylston Adams, whose Boston family included several noted physicians. Young Adams was born on October 30, 1735, and raised in Braintree (now Quincy), Massachusetts, on the farmland his great-grandfather had cleared 100 years earlier. Throughout his life, Adams felt a deep attachment for the Adams farm and for the town of Braintree.
II EARLY LIFE
Adams attended school in Braintree, and at the age of 16 he entered Harvard College. After graduating in 1755, he took a teaching position in Worcester, Massachusetts, and continued to study. Latin, history, and law were the subjects that particularly interested him, and he soon abandoned his early plans to become a clergyman. He turned instead to the law. A disciplined scholar, he gained a knowledge of government and law that was probably unexcelled in colonial America.
In 1758 Adams began to practice law in Braintree. He slowly gained recognition as an able lawyer, first in Braintree, then in Boston. During this period, Adams also met many influential men who would later join with him as leaders of the Massachusetts colony.
In 1764 after a courtship of three years, Adams married Abigail Smith, daughter of a Weymouth, Massachusetts, minister. The couple had five children. One of them, John Quincy Adams, became the sixth president of the United States.
The marriage lasted 54 years, until the death of Abigail Adams in 1818. Between 1774 and 1784 the Adamses saw very little of each other, because John Adams was continuously serving the young nation, first in the Continental Congress and later abroad. But in 1784 Abigail joined her husband in Europe and thereafter remained at his side, serving him as a confidante and offering him sound political advice.
III EARLY CAREERAdams spent the early part of his career practicing law in Braintree and developing his interest in government.
A Adams and the American Revolution
At that time the American colonists were loyal subjects of Great Britain. Although there were political disputes and complaints, they were no more than the everyday disagreements between government and the governed. There were laws regulating trade and imposing duties on imports to America, but they were rarely enforced.
A1 Stamp Act
All this changed, however, when the Seven Years' War ended in 1763. The war—actually a series of worldwide conflicts, some of which involved defending the American colonies from the French and their Native American allies—had been costly for Britain, and its government was determined to make the colonies bear a portion of the financial burden. Britain not only enforced the old trade laws more strictly, but also enacted a series of new laws in 1764 and 1765. One of these laws, the Stamp Act, provoked bitter opposition among many colonists, including Adams.
The Stamp Act required a tax on all legal documents, licenses, contracts, newspapers, pamphlets and other papers, signifying the paid tax with a stamp. Adams drew up a set of resolutions protesting the stamp tax. The resolutions were adopted by the Braintree town meeting and then, virtually without change, by 40 other towns in Massachusetts.
Adams's argument against the Stamp Act was based on English law. He insisted that the act was not binding on the colonies because they were not represented in Britain's Parliament and had not consented to the tax levy. Adams did not support separation or independence from Britain at this time. He only argued that British subjects in the colonies were entitled to the rights guaranteed to British subjects elsewhere.
Almost overnight, John Adams became well known throughout the colonies. When the Boston town meeting drew up a petition against the Stamp Act, Adams was called on for assistance. He was one of the three delegates who presented the petition to the lieutenant governor of Massachusetts.
The colonists won a temporary victory in 1766, when the Stamp Act was repealed. In the following year, however, they were again aroused by a new series of laws, called the Townshend Acts. One of the acts imposed duties, or import taxes, on glass, lead, tea, and other commodities. The colonists responded with a boycott of British goods and with violence against British customs officials.
A2 Townshend Acts
In 1768 Adams moved his family to Boston and busied himself with his growing law practice. He found time, nevertheless, to help the patriot cause. Adams drafted a circular letter, sent by the Massachusetts legislature to the other colonies, protesting the Townshend Acts. He also gave legal assistance to Boston patriots who resisted the British authorities.
The royal governor, aware of Adams's ability and growing influence, offered him the post of advocate general in the admiralty court. Adams declined the appointment, recognizing it as a bribe to bring him over to the side of the British government.
Adams generally supported the popular resistance to the British government, but he did not condone violence or mob action. Adams was greatly disturbed by the Boston Massacre of 1770, an incident in which five men were killed after unruly demonstrators provoked British troops into firing into the crowd. When Adams was asked to defend the British soldiers who were charged with murder as a result of this clash, he promptly accepted. With the help of two other lawyers he won acquittal for all but two of the men. His reputation as a patriot was such, however, that his defense of the British soldiers seems not to have damaged his political career. In June 1770 while he was preparing for the trial, the Boston town meeting elected him to the Massachusetts legislature.
A3 Adams and the Boston Massacre
Adams served in the legislature for only a few months. That winter, illness forced him to leave politics. After nearly three years in Boston, Adams returned with his family to Braintree. He was determined to “throw off a great part of the load of business both public and private.” He returned to Boston late in 1772 to look after his law business but still intended to remain “disengaged from public affairs with a fixed resolution not to meddle with them.”
A4 Temporary Retirement
Political events, however, soon brought Adams back into public life. In a series of articles in the Boston Gazette, Adams fought Britain's plan to place Massachusetts judges in the pay of the king. He also opposed the royal governor, who challenged the power of colonial legislatures. As always, his arguments were founded on his sure knowledge of the law, and they were still aimed at reconciliation with Britain. However, in December 1773, Adams supported what became known as the Boston Tea Party, where patriots dumped British tea into Boston Harbor to protest tea tax and the monopoly on the importation of tea that Britain had given to the East India Company. Thereafter he firmly supported the patriotic measures that led step by step to American independence.
In 1774 Adams attended the First Continental Congress, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, as a member of the Massachusetts delegation. Twelve of the thirteen British colonies from Massachusetts to Georgia were represented in the Congress. They met to respond to the British laws known as the Intolerable Acts, which placed even greater restrictions on colonial life. Like most members of Congress, Adams was there to uphold the rights of the colonies but not to propose independence. Even the most radical of the delegates, like his cousin Samuel Adams, were not ready for a complete break. “There is no man among us,” John Adams told Congress, “that would not be happy to see accommodation with Britain.” Nevertheless, he urged Congress to take a strong stand in view of Britain's violations of citizens' rights in the colonies.
A5 First Continental Congress
Although Congress made a united protest against British misrule, Adams was not satisfied. Congress had, by one vote, rejected a proposal known as the Galloway Plan, which would have provided for a union of the colonies under one government. Adams returned to Braintree, still insisting that “an American Legislature should be set up without delay.”
When John Adams set out in May 1775 for Philadelphia and the opening of the Second Continental Congress, the American Revolution had begun with the battles at Lexington and Concord, Massachusetts. Adams, John Hancock, Samuel Adams, and other New England delegates arrived in Philadelphia ready to press for action against Britain. They wanted the colonies to mobilize for war and to set up a confederation of independent colonies. Finding many delegates hesitant to act, Adams, who was always intolerant of delay, became impatient and irritable. Trying to remain calm, he observed philosophically: “America is a great unwieldy body. Its progress must be slow. It is like a large fleet sailing under convoy. The fleetest sailors must wait for the dullest and the slowest.”
A6 Second Continental Congress
After two weeks, when nothing had been accomplished, Adams could hold back no longer. He addressed Congress in blunt terms. Before talking of peace with Britain, he said, Congress should adopt a program to set up an independent government in each colony. It should use the New England militiamen, who were then blockading the British in Boston, as the basis for a Continental Army, and should name a commander-in-chief who would be responsible to Congress. Finally, Adams proposed, Britain should be told of these steps. Then, if the war continued, the colonies should seek alliances and support in France, Spain, and the Netherlands.
Only one of Adams's proposals was adopted. A Continental Army was authorized, and Colonel George Washington of Virginia was named commanding general. Adams had recommended Washington not only because he had military training, but also because he was from the South. Adams felt that, to form a national army, the South as well as the North should be represented in it. Therefore the New England troops had to have a Southern commander.
Early in 1776, Adams saw another of his proposals enacted. On May 6, he and his allies in Congress presented a resolution urging all the colonies to form independent governments. The resolution, which to Adams was the most important of his proposals, was passed on May 15.
In June 1776 Richard Henry Lee, a delegate from Virginia, moved that Congress declare “that these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent States.” The resolution was referred to a committee consisting of Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, Roger Sherman, Robert R. Livingston, and John Adams.
A7 Declaration of Independence
Jefferson wrote the declaration and Adams was spokesman for it when it was presented to Congress. A great debate preceded the final vote. There were many reluctant delegates who still hoped for reconciliation with Britain, but Adams won most of them over. On July 4, 1776, Congress adopted the Declaration of Independence. In a letter to his wife written on July 3, the day after Lee's resolution was approved, Adams wrote that 'The second day of July…will be celebrated by succeeding generations, as the great anniversary festival. It ought to be commemorated as the day of deliverance…with pomp and parade, with…guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations, from one end of this continent to the other…”
At the Second Continental Congress, Adams also served as chairman of the Board of War and Ordnance. It was charged with supplying troops, raising money for their pay, and naming officers of the army. Responsible for the actual conduct of the war, this committee took most of Adams's time until 1777.
Late in 1777 Congress elected Adams commissioner to France. When he joined the other members of the diplomatic mission, however, he learned that their important work had been completed. France had extended recognition to the United States, and treaties of friendship and commerce had been signed. Adams remained in Paris for a year, studying European political affairs and sending detailed reports to Congress. Because he was also minister plenipotentiary (diplomat with broad powers) to the Netherlands, he made his first attempt to obtain a loan for the colonies from that country.
B American Diplomat
At the end of 1778, on Adams's recommendation, Congress abolished the commission and named Benjamin Franklin as American diplomatic representative to France. Finding himself without official appointment, Adams returned home.
At home, Adams took a leading part in the Massachusetts constitutional convention. The constitution adopted by Massachusetts was largely his work and became the model for those of many other states. Although it has been amended many times, this constitution is still in use today. Before its final approval in 1780, however, Adams was again sent to Europe.
On his second mission, Congress sent Adams to Paris with full power to negotiate a treaty to end the war with Great Britain. He was also authorized to negotiate a commercial agreement with Britain and to become the U.S. diplomatic representative to that country when peace was concluded. However, Britain refused to discuss peace if it meant American independence. France, another party to the talks, wanted the United States to be independent of Britain but subservient to French interests.
B1 Peace Mission
Adams was instructed to make no agreements without prior French approval. However, the French soon learned that Adams would not compromise U.S. rights. He quarreled often with the French foreign minister, and after a few fruitless months left for the Netherlands to try again to secure a loan.
In July 1782 after long and difficult negotiations, Adams secured a $2 million loan from Dutch bankers, and in October the Netherlands recognized U.S. independence. Adams then negotiated a treaty of friendship and commerce.
Adams returned to Paris that same month because Britain was at last willing to negotiate. He was joined by Benjamin Franklin and John Jay, whom Congress had appointed to serve with Adams on the U.S. peace commission. For a time there were further delays because France still insisted on prior approval of any peace agreement. Jay urged, with Adams's support, that the U.S. commission ignore its instructions and conclude tentative articles of peace without French oversight. Franklin reluctantly agreed, and soon a treaty was negotiated.
The final Treaty of Paris, officially ending the American Revolution, was not signed until September 3, 1783. Adams made an important contribution by helping to set the boundaries between the United States and Canada from the Atlantic Ocean to Lake Superior. He also secured U.S. fishing rights in the North Atlantic Ocean.
Adams continued to live in France after the treaty was signed. He negotiated a second loan from the Netherlands and then, in 1785, became the first American diplomatic representative to Britain. He found the British cordial to himself and his family but cool and skeptical toward the country he represented. Frustrated in his attempts to carry out the terms of the peace treaty, Adams asked Congress to recall him. His service in Britain and his career as a diplomat ended in February 1788.
B2 Representative to Great Britain
C Vice President of the United StatesThe Constitution of the United States had been drafted in 1787 and ratification by the states had begun. Under its provisions, members of the Electoral College, who were chosen by the states, voted in February 1789 to choose a president and vice president. At that time, each elector cast two votes. When the votes were tallied, the person who got the most votes became president and the runner-up became vice president. (The system was later changed to permit separate choices for president and vice president.) In 1789 all 69 electors voted for George Washington, electing him president. John Adams received the second largest number, 34 votes, and became the first vice president of the United States.
C1 National Election
Adams took office on April 30, 1789. He served as vice president under Washington for eight years. The office, which was intended to provide a head of government in case of the president's death, did not suit the spirited Adams. He regarded the vice presidency as unworthy of his abilities, calling it “the most insignificant office that ever the invention of man contrived.”
Adams did exert some influence by casting tie-breaking votes in his role as president of the Senate, the newly created upper house of the Congress of the United States. In 20 such votes, on a variety of issues, Adams consistently supported Washington's policies. He helped to decide on U.S. neutrality in a new war between France and Britain and the adoption of reprisals against Britain for interfering with American shipping. He also supported financial measures proposed by Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton.
During his vice presidency, Adams was part of the beginning of the political party system in the United States. President Washington regarded himself as president of the entire nation and deplored the division of the country into partisan groups. His Cabinet, however, fostered the very divisions he sought to prevent. The Federalists, led by Hamilton, favored a strong central government. They soon became the Federalist Party. The anti-Federalists or Republicans (later to become the Democratic-Republican Party), under Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson, sought more power for the individual states and urged that all citizens be given a voice in government.
Adams had begun his career as a defender of the rights of the people. He did not, however, share Jefferson's belief in people's basic goodness, and he feared tyranny of the masses as much as tyranny of a monarch. The disorder and bloodshed of the French Revolution (1789-1799) confirmed his fear of unbridled popular rule. “It has been said,” he wrote in a postscript to his Davila papers, “that it is extremely difficult to preserve liberty … It is so difficult, that the very appearance of it is lost over the whole earth, excepting one island (England) and North America.” Now Adams stressed the necessity of a balanced government with “an independent executive authority, an independent senate, and an independent judiciary power, as well as an independent house of representatives.” In time, although he was a close friend of Jefferson's, Adams found himself siding with the Federalists.
The Federalist Party, however, was by no means united. Adams and Hamilton, although they often supported the same policies, were divided on basic issues. Adams did not share Hamilton's belief in a government controlled by a small group of wealthy aristocrats.
In 1796 Washington, who had twice been unanimously elected president, declined to run for a third term. For the first time in the history of the United States the office of president was contested. The election of 1796 set the pattern for all future U.S. elections. There were rival candidates and rival parties. The chief contenders were Thomas Jefferson and John Adams. Hamilton supported Thomas Pinckney, former diplomatic representative to Great Britain. A fourth contender was Aaron Burr, one of the leaders of the Tammany Society, a political machine in New York City. Adams and Pinckney were Federalists. Jefferson and Burr were Republicans.
C2 Election of 1796
Most of New England stood firmly behind Adams but was willing to support Pinckney for vice president. Some New England electors then decided they would vote for Adams but not for Pinckney. This would ensure that Adams got a majority of the electoral votes. Hamilton argued against this move, insisting that Jefferson might become vice president.
Fortunately for Adams, New England held firm and withheld many votes from Pinckney. Some Federalist electors in other sections of the country switched their votes to Pinckney and, if New England had followed Hamilton's advice, Pinckney would have won. The final vote stood: Adams, 71; Jefferson, 68; Pinckney, 59; and Burr, 30. It was the only time the nation had a president and vice president who were members of different political parties and had run against one another in the election. (In 1864, Abraham Lincoln, a Republican, and Andrew Johnson, a Democrat, were elected as president and vice president, but they had run together as a unity ticket during the midst of the American Civil War.)
John Adams was inaugurated as president at Federal Hall, Philadelphia, on March 4, 1797. Philadelphia was then the nation's capital. Adams spent only the last few months of his presidency at the new capital, Washington, D.C.
IV PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES
President Adams was immediately confronted with a number of pressing issues. The most urgent was a threat of war with France. For four years the United States had remained neutral in the struggle between France and Britain. Britain, however, had a policy of seizing neutral ships—including those of the United States—that traded with France. To stop this seizure of American ships, the United States negotiated Jay's Treaty of 1794, which appeased Britain by giving it various trading concessions. The treaty was unpopular in the United States; moreover, it enraged the French, who believed the Americans were aiding the British. Early in 1797 the French began attacking American shipping, and by June they had seized 300 American ships. France had broken relations by sending the U.S. diplomatic representative home. Many American leaders now saw war as the only option.
Adams would not find it easy to continue Washington's policy of neutrality, although he had consistently supported it. Many Federalists did not shy away from war with France. Hamilton, especially, supported war with France. Jefferson and his followers, on the other hand, defended France's actions and urged support of France against England. Adams called a special session of Congress to deal with the French question. In his message to Congress he urged a peaceful policy. He proposed that a new mission be sent to negotiate the differences with France and that the U.S. Army and Navy be kept ready in case negotiations should fail. His recommendations were well received, and a three-man diplomatic mission was dispatched to France.
The French government did not receive the new mission. Instead the diplomats were approached by agents of Charles Talleyrand, the French foreign minister. The agents proposed that the United States could make reparations for its alleged injuries to France by paying Talleyrand a huge bribe and financing a large loan to the French government. These terms were so exorbitant and dishonorable that the American diplomats rejected them. When Adams, who had been waiting anxiously for news, got their report, he tried to keep it secret. But Jefferson's pro-French Republicans accused Adams of suppressing information that was favorable to France and thereby driving America into war with that country.
A XYZ Affair
Adams finally let the report be published. The names of the French agents were changed to X, Y, and Z, but the details were left unchanged. Jefferson now found himself on the defensive as anti-French feeling rose over the XYZ Affair, as it was called. He argued that there was no reason to believe that the agents were actually speaking for the French government. Hamilton, although out of office, took advantage of the growing antagonism toward France to advocate war. Still controlling a faction of the Federalists in Congress and in the Cabinet, he was able to influence Congress to renounce all the treaties it had made with France during the American Revolution. Congress also ordered an expansion of the army, created the Department of the Navy, and commissioned the building of naval fighting ships. George Washington was called out of retirement to lead the army, with Hamilton as his second in command. By the end of 1798 more than a dozen American men-of-war had been launched, and an undeclared naval war with France had begun. Adams did not like the vast military preparations, but he complied with the nation's wishes.
The rift between Adams and Hamilton slowly grew during this period of international crisis. Adams favored a strong stand against France, so that the French government would respect the United States. He was willing to fight, but he preferred to avert war. Hamilton would profit from a war because it would discredit his rival Thomas Jefferson, who had always been friendly toward France. Until the beginning of 1799, Adams seemed to be allowing Hamilton to have his way.
B Adams and Hamilton
Gradually, however, Adams lost trust in his own Cabinet. Thus, he consulted no one before announcing a new policy toward France. On February 18, 1799, he named a new diplomatic representative, with full treaty powers, to France. His choice was William Vans Murray, then diplomatic representative to the Netherlands.
The Federalists were outraged, but the country welcomed Adams's move. Hamilton, taken by surprise, could not oppose it without seeming to want war. Adams's enemies in the Cabinet held up the departure of Murray and the two other members of his peace commission. Finally, in another independent and unexpected act, Adams issued final instructions and ordered the commission to sail without further delay.
C Negotiations With France
Negotiations with France were long and complex, but they ended in an agreement. Adams had succeeded in preventing war. In so doing, however, he had won the hatred of Hamilton.
In 1798 Adams signed into law the Alien and Sedition Acts, which seriously limited the right of free speech and dissent in the United States. Their purpose was to curb anti-administration criticisms by Jeffersonian newspaper editors and to ensure Federalist success at the polls. The laws were proposed by the Federalists in Congress. Although Adams signed the laws, he did not enforce them vigorously. Nevertheless he came to be associated with them in the public mind. They resulted in an outpouring of protest throughout the country that greatly aided the Jeffersonian Republicans.
D Alien and Sedition Acts
Two members of Adams's Cabinet whom he had come to distrust were Secretary of State Timothy Pickering and Secretary of War James McHenry, who were more loyal to Hamilton than they were to their president. Often, they ignored Adams's orders and acted on directives from Hamilton. In May 1800 Adams forced the resignation of McHenry and fired Pickering. The price of Adams's refusal to be dominated by Hamilton was a split in the Federalist ranks that contributed to his defeat in the election of 1800.
E Split with the Federalists
The presidential nominations of 1800 were made in caucuses (party meetings) in Congress. The Federalists, because of the influence of New England members, named John Adams and diplomat Charles Cotesworth Pinckney of South Carolina as their candidates. The Republicans, who had begun to call themselves Democratic-Republicans, nominated Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr.
F Election of 1800
By this time, Hamilton completely opposed Adams and campaigned for Pinckney. Without the main Federalist support, Adams lost, but Jefferson and Burr tied with 73 electoral votes each. The tie-breaking vote was decided by the House of Representatives, which eventually elected Jefferson as president.
Adams was stunned. He felt repudiated by the country he had served so long and so ardently. The leaders of his own party had turned against him. On the day of Jefferson's inauguration, Adams left the executive mansion in Washington, D.C., alone. He was too hurt to observe the courtesy of attending his successor's inauguration.
One of Adams's last official acts was to fill a large number of lifetime judgeships with Federalist judges. These were the so-called “midnight judges,” whose appointments angered Jefferson's party because Adams named them after the election. Among them was Secretary of State John Marshall, whom Adams appointed Chief Justice of the United States. Marshall's 30-year tenure firmly established the prestige of the judicial branch of the government and strengthened the federal government much as Adams and the Federalist Party would have wished it to be strengthened.
Adams spent his last 25 years on his farm in Massachusetts. Although he never again participated in public life, he remained interested in and informed about the affairs of his country. The career of his son John Quincy Adams gave him great pleasure, and he lived to see him elected president of the United States in 1824.
G Last Years
As the years passed, the bitterness that had developed during Adams's administration spent itself. The American people came to appreciate his patriotism and integrity. In 1812 Adams and Jefferson were reconciled. They began a correspondence, covering their favorite subjects of history, philosophy, and religion, that continued for the remainder of their lives.
Adams died on July 4, 1826, the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. His last words were “Jefferson still lives.” But Jefferson himself had died only a few hours before.