John Adams (October 30, 1735 – July 4, 1826), the Second President of the United States, was born in Braintree, Massachusetts. His father, who shared his name, was a farmer, lieutenant in the militia, and a Congregationalist deacon. Adams was the oldest of his three brothers and the first Adams to attend college.
He inherited a ferocious work ethic from his father and worked his way through school. Although he did not come from a rich family, he attended Harvard and taught school for a few years. His father had hopes of him becoming a pastor, however Adams chose a life within the law instead. He was admitted to the bar and studied under an affluent attorney named James Putnam. It was here that he became passionate about the 13 Original Colonies after hearing an argument that James Otis gave.
John would marry Abigail Smith (1744-1818) on October 25, 1764. Abigail and John Adams would become the most famous couple in American history. They had six kids: Abigail (1744-1813), John Quincy (1767-1848), Susanna (1768-1770), Charles (1770-1800), Thomas (1772-1832) and a stillborn Elizabeth.
For most of his young life Adams was unknown except to those around him. It would be the Stamp Act and the Boston Massacre that would catapult him onto the International stage.
Stamp Act and Boston Massacre
After the French and Indian War (Seven Years War in England) Great Britain was in a large amount of debt. In order to pay for these debts they began to tax the colonies. The first of these taxes was the Stamp Act of 1765. The Stamp Act was met with fierce opposition and eventually lifted. Many influential men made their mark during these protests and emerged as leaders of the American Revolution.
One of these men was Adams. He anonymously wrote four essays for the Boston Gazette. These essays argued that the Protestant ideas that had brought the Puritans to found the Massachusetts Bay Colony were the same ideas that were behind the colonists resistance to the Stamp Act. He also penned the Braintree instructions which were a defense of the rights of the colonists.
Adams then delivered a speech before the governor and council condemning the Stamp Act. He argued that since Massachusetts did not have representation in Parliament that the British did not have the right to levy taxes upon them. Although he was not the first to come up with the phrase, this is an example of the “no taxation without representation” attitude that was prevalent in the colonies.
Five years later the same man who had defended colonial liberties so passionately was the same man who represented the British soldiers in the Boston Massacre Trial. After an incident in the street that resulted in the British soldiers firing into a mob of unarmed Bostonians the British soldiers had trouble finding counsel. John Adams, always a loyal servant of the law and not public opinion or his cousin Samuel Adams, took the case and represented the men. Ironically, the man prosecuting the soldiers was Robert Treat Paine who would later sign the Declaration of Independence alongside Adams.
John fought hard and won the case. Six of the soldiers were acquitted and two were convicted of murder which was brought down to manslaughter. His popularity and practice took a huge hit because of the case.
Regardless, four years later Massachusetts sent Adams to the First Continental Congress
American Revolutionary War
Adams was a short, chubby man who had a hard time holding his tongue. His passion for truth often offended and he was viewed by most as obnoxious. Regardless, there is no disputing his influence on the Congress.
The Second Continental Congress can be argued as John Adams finest hour. He met and befriended a young radical named Thomas Jefferson. Seeing the talent that Jefferson had in his pen Adams suggested that he write the Declaration of Independence. He, of course, did and John Adams, Roger Sherman, Philip Livingston and Benjamin Franklin edited it. Adams understood that a new Declaration should come from a Virginian, which Jefferson was.
He would also nominate George Washington to be the general of the Continental Army. He did this and upset his fellow Massachusetts man, John Hancock who believed that Adams would nominate him. However, Adams realized the capability of Washington along with the politics. Washington was a Virginian and Virginia was the largest and most influential colony of all thirteen colonies. He understood that the leader of the Continentals should come from there. Washington’s nomination united the northern, middle and southern colonies since he was known for his great character and was a slave owner. Politically, Washington was perfect for the job. Nobody knew how valuable he actually would be, but it should be noted that it was Adams who saw the potential in him first.
John Adams was labeled as the voice of the Revolution and Thomas Jefferson was labeled the pen. These two struck up a friendship during this period. This friendship would continue up until Adams’ Presidency and then continue again once Abigail died.
During the American Revolutionary War, John Adams served as a diplomat to France and the Netherlands. He and Franklin served together in France and the two did not get along. Adams was much too unbending and too confrontational for the French. He was unsuccessful in France and was sent to the Netherlands for the duration of the war. He saw some success in the Netherlands. He would then return to France and then to England after the war. This time away would leave him out of the Constitutional Convention. Ironically, two of the most influential men during the Revolution would not influence the United States Constitution.
2nd President of the United States
John Adams was elected President in 1796 in which he succeeded George Washington and defeated his old friend, Thomas Jefferson. This was an important part in American history in that it was the first time in the young republics life that a precedent would be set in the transfer of power. America had been set up by rule of the consent of the governed and not rule by a royal family. There were questions at how the losers would respond to the defeat. Would they try and seize power or would they let it go. The transition was smooth and set precedent for future Presidents.
John Adams was the most independently minded of the founders. He tended to disagree with the Federalists just as much as he disagreed with the Democratic-Republicans. During his presidency he continued Washington’s policy and expanded the strength of the Federal Government. He continued to build up the Navy and Army and also tried to avoid entangling himself in foreign alliances.
Adams’ Presidency is marked by two things, the XYZ Affair and the Alien and Sedition Acts.
The XYZ affair was a Quasi-War with France. During this time Britain and France were involved in a huge conflict known as the Napoleonic Wars. The nation was split on who they should support in the War. The Federalists wanted Britain and the Jeffersonians wanted France. John Adams, wisely knowing the new nations strength, did not want to get involved in the war at all. France then made some terrible decisions that would cause American’s to turn against them. Knowing that the nation could not handle a full-scale war with France, Adams began what came known as the XYZ Affair. He harassed French ships in an effort to stop French assaults on American interests. He began to quickly build up the nations Navy and Army. He would then negotiate peace with France in 1799. This decision was in hindsight the best decision for the new country, however Adams did so at the expense of his political life. He split the Federalists party in half.
The XYZ Affair had left the Jeffersonians unpopular, but still powerful. The country was in danger of splitting and threats of secession were at an all-time high. This resulted in the Federalists passing the Alien and Sedition Acts in congress, which Adams signed into law. These acts would be very controversial and would not only destroy Adams, but the Federalist party as well. There were 4 parts to the Alien and Sedition Acts:
- Naturalization Act: changed the period that an alien could become a citizen to 14 years.
- The Alien Friends Act and the Alien Enemies Act: Allowed any foreigner whom the government believed to be a danger to be imported
- The Sedition Acts: Fined newspapers and the press for publishing things that were false, scandalous and malicious $5,000
Each of these Acts were seen as violations of basic Constitutional rights.
Jefferson defeated Adams in the election of 1800. The election was a hard-fought campaign in which both candidates attacked each other personally. Afterwards the friendship of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson ended. Abigail Adams would die without ever forgiving Jefferson for what he had accused her husband. The night before he left office Adams did his famous Midnight appointees.
The Final Years of John Adams
After Jefferson left office Adams became more vocal again. He wrote a series of letters that debunked Alexander Hamilton’s 1800 pamphlet. He also launched attacks on his character. At this time Hamilton was already dead from the infamous duel with Aaron Burr.
Benjamin Rush reunited John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. Rush was communicating with both of them and by way of letter re-introduced them. The two revolutionaries, now older men, put aside their political differences and began a series of letters that is hailed as one of the greatest writings in American History. The two letters shared by these men allows us to look into the minds of these electric founders. These men were best of friends, fellow diplomats, political rivals, enemies and then friends again.
John Adams’ son Charles died in 1800 from alcoholism, his daughter Abigail died of breast cancer in 1813 and finally his beloved Abigail died of typhoid in 1818. Adams wrote of her passing with great emotion to Jefferson.
In a life of irony, the John Adams biography ended on July 4, 1826, the 50th birthday of the nation that he helped found. His last words were, “Thomas Jefferson survives” which was false. Jefferson had died on the same day a few hours before Adams. Thus, tying these two patriots together forever. Once Adams died only Charles Carroll survived as the last of the Declaration of Independence signers.