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John Adams

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This article is about the second president of the United States. For his son, the 6th president of the United States, see John Quincy Adams. For other uses, see John Adams (disambiguation).
John Adams
A painted portrait of a man with greying hair, looking left.
2nd President of the United States
In office
March 4, 1797 – March 4, 1801
Vice President Thomas Jefferson
Preceded by George Washington
Succeeded by Thomas Jefferson
1st Vice President of the United States
In office
April 21, 1789 – March 4, 1797
President George Washington
Preceded by Inaugural holder
Succeeded by Thomas Jefferson
United States Minister to the
Court of St. James's
In office
April 1, 1785 – March 30, 1788
Appointed by Congress of the Confederation
Preceded by Position created
Succeeded by Thomas Pinckney
United States Minister to the Netherlands
In office
April 19, 1782 – March 30, 1788
Appointed by Congress of the Confederation
Preceded by Position created
Succeeded by Charles Dumas (Acting)
Delegate to the Second Continental Congress from Massachusetts
In office
May 10, 1775 – June 27, 1778
Preceded by Position created
Succeeded by Samuel Holten
Delegate to the First Continental Congress
from Massachusetts Bay
In office
September 5, 1774 – October 26, 1774
Preceded by Position created
Succeeded by Position abolished
Personal details
Born (1735-10-30)October 30, 1735
Braintree, Province of Massachusetts Bay (now Quincy, Massachusetts, U.S.)
Died July 4, 1826(1826-07-04) (aged 90)
Quincy, Massachusetts, U.S.
Resting place United First Parish Church
Quincy, Massachusetts
Political party Federalist
Spouse(s) Abigail Smith (m. 1764; died 1818)
Children 6, including Abigail, John Quincy, Charles and Thomas
Alma mater Harvard University
Religion Unitarianism
(formerly Congregationalism)[1]
Signature Cursive signature in ink

John Adams (October 30 [O.S. October 19] 1735 – July 4, 1826) was the second President of the United States (1797–1801),[2] after serving as the first Vice President (1789–1797). He was an American lawyer, author, statesman and diplomat, and as a Founding Father was a principal leader of American independence from Great Britain.[3] Adams was a well educated political theorist in the Age of Enlightenment who promoted republicanism and a strong central government. He was an exceptional diarist and correspondent - especially with his wife Abigail – who was a key advisor as well. He as well often publicly articulated his seminal ideas. After the Boston Massacre, despite severe local anti-British sentiment, he provided a controversial, but principled and successful, legal defense of the accused British soldiers, driven by his devotion to the unqualified right to counsel and the "protect[ion] of innocence".[4]

Adams was influenced by his older cousin and revolutionary leader Samuel Adams, but established his own prominence in the early stages of the American Revolution. He became a public figure in Boston, and as a delegate from Massachusetts to the Continental Congress, Adams played a leading role in persuading Congress to declare independence. He assisted Thomas Jefferson in drafting the Declaration of Independence in 1776, and was its foremost advocate in the Congress. He disliked slavery but did not oppose it publicly; he was averse to the divisive effect of a conspicuous discussion about emancipation. As a diplomat in Europe, he helped negotiate the eventual peace treaty with Great Britain, and was responsible for obtaining vital governmental loans from Amsterdam bankers. Adams was the primary author of the Massachusetts Constitution in 1780 which influenced American political theory, as did his earlier Thoughts on Government. He was an excellent judge of character – in 1775, he nominated George Washington to be commander-in-chief, and 25 years later nominated John Marshall to be Chief Justice of the United States.

Adams' credentials as a revolutionary secured for him two terms as President George Washington's vice president and also his own election in 1796 as the second president. During his one term as president, he encountered attacks by the Jeffersonian Republicans, as well as the dominant faction in his own Federalist Party led by his ardent opponent Alexander Hamilton. Adams signed the controversial Alien and Sedition Acts, and built up the army and navy in the face of an undeclared naval "Quasi-War" with France. The major accomplishment of his presidency was his peaceful resolution of the conflict in the face of Hamilton's opposition. Due to his strong posture on defense, Adams is "often called the father of the American Navy".[5]

In 1800, after a hard fought campaign for re-election, Adams was defeated by Thomas Jefferson and retired to Massachusetts; he later resumed his friendship with Jefferson through a notable correspondence spanning fourteen years.[6] He and his wife spawned a family of accomplished politicians, diplomats, and historians now referred to as the Adams political family; primarily, Adams was the father of John Quincy Adams, the sixth President of the United States. The elder Adams was the first U.S. president to reside in the executive mansion, named in 1811 the White House.[7] He died on the fiftieth anniversary of the adoption of the Declaration of Independence. Modern historians in the aggregate have ranked his administration as the twelfth most successful.

Early life and education


Adams' birthplace in Quincy, Massachusetts

Adams, the eldest of three sons,[8] was born on October 30, 1735 (October 19, 1735 Old Style, Julian calendar), to John Adams, Sr. (1691–1761) and Susanna Boylston (1708–1797). Adams's birthplace, located in what is now Quincy, Massachusetts, then called the "north precinct" of Braintree, Massachusetts, is now part of Adams National Historical Park.[9] His father was a fifth-generation descendant of Henry Adams, who emigrated from Braintree, Essex[10] in England to Braintree, Massachusetts in 1632–1633.[10] John Adams, Sr., the descendant of Puritans, continued in this religious tradition by serving as a Congregationalist deacon. He was also a farmer, a cordwainer, and served as a lieutenant in the militia. He further served as a selectman (town councilman) and supervised the building and planning of schools and roads. Adams commonly praised his father and indicated that he and his father were very close when he was a child.[11]

Susanna Boylston, twenty years junior to Deacon Adams, was a member of one of the colony's leading medical families, the Boylstons of Muddy River or Brookline, Massachusetts.[12] Though raised in materially modest surroundings, Adams felt an acute responsibility to live up to his family revered heritage: he was a direct descendent of the founding generation of Puritans, who came to the American wilderness in the 1630s, established colonial presence in America, and had a profound effect on the culture, laws, and traditions of their region. Journalist Richard Brookhiser, drawing on the relevant historiography, has written that Adams' Puritan ancestors "believed they lived in the Bible. England under the Stuarts was Egypt; they were Israel fleeing ... to establish a refuge for godliness, a city upon a hill."[13] By the time of John Adams' birth in 1735, Puritan tenets such as predestination were no longer as widely accepted, and many of their stricter practices had moderated with time, but Adams "considered them bearers of freedom, a cause that still had a holy urgency." It was a value system he believed in, and a heroic model he wished to live up to.[13] Adams emphatically recalled that his parents, "held every Species of Libertinage in...Contempt and horror," and portrayed "pictures of disgrace, or baseness and of Ruin" from any debauchery.[11]

As the eldest child, Adams was singled out by his parents for formal education, beginning at age six at a Dame school for boys and girls; this schooling was conducted at a teacher's home, and centered upon The New England Primer. Shortly thereafter, Adams attended Braintree Latin School under Joseph Cleverly, where studies included Latin, rhetoric, logic and arithmetic. Adams' reflections on early education were in the negative mostly, including incidents of truancy, a dislike for his master and a desire to become a farmer. All questions on the matter ended when his father commanded that he remain in school saying, "You shall comply with my desires." Deacon Adams also retained a new school master, Joseph Marsh, and his son responded in a remarkably positive way.[11]

College education and adulthood

At age sixteen, Adams entered Harvard College in 1751.[14] His father expected him to become a minister, but Adams had doubts. After graduating in 1755 with an A.B. degree, he taught school for a few years in Worcester, Massachusetts, and pondered a permanent vocation. In the following four years he realized a passion within to become highly reputed, saying that he craved "Honour or Reputation" and "more defference from [his] fellows"; and at age twenty-one he contemplated expectations of becoming "a great Man".[11] After much reflection, he decided to become a lawyer to further those ends, writing his father that he found among lawyers “noble and gallant achievements" but among the clergy, the "pretended sanctity of some absolute dunces." Doctrinally, he later became a Unitarian, and dropped belief in predestination, eternal damnation, the divinity of Christ, and most other Calvinist beliefs of his Puritan ancestors. Nevertheless, his Puritan heritage frequently prompted reservations about his hunger for fame, which he once referred to as mere "trumpery", and he questioned his not properly attending to the "happiness of [his] fellow men."[11]

As Adams came of age, the French and Indian War broke out and he began to struggle with the issue of a young man's responsibility in the conflict; contemporaries of his social position were largely spectators, while those of lower socio-economic status joined the battle as a means to make some money. Adams later said, “I longed more ardently to be a Soldier than I ever did to be a Lawyer.” He was acutely aware that his was the first generation of his family that ”degenerated from the virtues of the house so far as not to have been an officer in the militia."[11]

Law practice and marriage

Mrs. Abigail Smith Adams

In 1756 Adams entered a contract as an apprentice in the office of John Putnam, the leading lawyer in Worcester, including payment of monthly room and board. He thereby followed the usual course of reading the law in order obtain his license to practice.[15] In 1758, he earned an A.M. from Harvard,[16] and was also that year admitted to the bar, having completed his studies under John Putnam.[17] From an early age, he developed the habit of writing descriptions of events and impressions of men which are scattered through his diary. He put the skill to good use as a lawyer, often recording cases he observed so that he could study and reflect upon them. His report of the 1761 argument of James Otis in the Massachusetts Superior Court as to the legality of Writs of Assistance is a good example. Otis's argument inspired Adams with zeal for the cause of the American colonies.[17] In 1763 he had published seven essays in Boston newspapers; these were treatises that represented his premier forging into the convoluted realm of political theory. The essays were offered anonymously, with Adams using the nom de plume "Humphrey Ploughjogger,”; this author reappeared in the Boston Gazette in 1765 to adamantly disapprove of the Stamp Act.[18]

Five days before his 29th birthday Adams married Abigail Smith (1744–1818), his third cousin, on October 25, 1764; she was the daughter of a Congregational minister, Rev. William Smith, at Weymouth, Massachusetts.[19] The children from the marriage were Abigail ("Nabby") (1765–1813), future president John Quincy Adams (1767–1848), Susanna (1768–1770), Charles (1770–1800), Thomas Boylston (1772–1832) and Elizabeth (stillborn 1777).[18][20]

Adams was not a popular leader like his second cousin, Samuel Adams. Instead, his influence emerged through his work as a constitutional lawyer and his in-depth analysis of historical examples, together with his dedication to the principles of republicanism. Adams often found his inborn contentiousness to be a constraint in his political career.[21]

Career before the Revolution

Opponent of Stamp Act 1765

John Adams - 1766 Portrait by Benjamin Blyth

Adams first rose to prominence as an opponent of the Stamp Act 1765, which was imposed by the British Parliament without consulting the American legislatures. Americans protested vehemently that it violated their traditional rights as Englishmen. Popular resistance, he later observed, was sparked by an oft-reprinted sermon of the Boston minister, Jonathan Mayhew, interpreting Romans 13 to elucidate the principle of just insurrection.[22]

Adams authored the "Braintree Instructions" in 1765, which were sent by the inhabitants of Braintree to their representatives in the Massachusetts legislature, and which served as a model for other towns' instructions to their representatives. In the letter he suggested that there was a connection between the Protestant ideas that Adams' Puritan ancestors brought to New England and the ideas behind their resistance to the Stamp Act. He explained that the Stamp Act should be opposed since it denied two fundamental rights guaranteed to all Englishmen, and which all free men deserved: rights to be taxed only by consent and to be tried only by a jury of one's peers. The instructions were a succinct and forthright defense of colonial rights and liberties. In August 1765, reprising his pen name "Humphrey Ploughjogger", he contributed four notable articles to the Boston Gazette (republished in The London Chronicle in 1768 as True Sentiments of America, also known as A Dissertation on the Canon and Feudal Law).[18] He delivered a speech in December before the governor and council in which he pronounced the Stamp Act invalid on the ground that Massachusetts, being without representation in Parliament, had not assented to it.[18] In 1766, the town meeting of Braintree, Massachusetts, elected John Adams as a selectman.[23]

He moved the family to Boston in April of 1768, renting a clapboard house on Brattle Street, a place known locally as the “White House.” He and Abigail and the children lived there for a year, then moved to Cold Lane; still later they moved again, to a larger house in Brattle Square in the center of the city.[18]

Counsel for the British - Boston Massacre

The Boston Massacre, Engraving by Paul Revere

In 1770, a street confrontation, known as the Boston Massacre, resulted in British soldiers killing five civilians.[24] The soldiers involved were arrested on criminal charges; not surprisingly, they had trouble finding legal counsel to represent them. They ultimately asked Adams to organize their defense and he accepted, though he feared it would hurt his reputation. In their defense, Adams made his now famous statement regarding trial decisions made on the evidence: "Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passion, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence."[4] He also offered a now-famous, detailed defense of Blackstone's Ratio: "It is more important that innocence be protected than it is that guilt be punished, for guilt and crimes are so frequent in this world that they cannot all be punished. But if innocence itself is brought to the bar and condemned, perhaps to die, then the citizen will say, 'whether I do good or whether I do evil is immaterial, for innocence itself is no protection,' and if such an idea as that were to take hold in the mind of the citizen that would be the end of security whatsoever." Adams won six of the soldiers an acquittal. Two soldiers who had fired directly into the crowd had been charged with murder but were convicted only of manslaughter. Adams was paid a small sum by the British soldiers.[25][26]

Biographer John Ferling opines that Adams made the most of juror selection during the Voir dire stage of the trial, saying, “he expertly exercised his right to challenge individual jurors and contrived what amounted to a packed jury. Not only were several jurors closely tied through business arrangements to the British army, but five ultimately became Loyalist exiles." Indeed, Hiller Zobel, a scholar who has most closely studied the trial, concluded, “we can be fairly sure that before a single witness had been sworn, the outcome of the trial was certain." Ferling also surmises that Adams was likely encouraged to take the case in exchange for political office - when one of Boston’s seats in the Massachusetts legislature opened three months later, Adams was the town’s first choice to fill the vacancy; as James Bowdoin relinquished the seat in June in order to move up to the Council, he would have had little difficulty in securing the vacated post for him.[24]

His law practice increased greatly from this exposure, as did the demands on his time. In 1771 he moved Abigail and the children to Braintree, but he kept his office in Boston, saying “I shall spend more Time in my Office than ever I did,” he noted on the day of the family’s move. “Now my family is away, I feel no Inclination at all, no Temptation, to be any where but at my Office. I am in it by 6 in the Morning - I am in it at 9 at night. . . . In the Evening, I can be alone at my Office, and no where else. I never could in my family.”[24] Nevertheless, after some time in the capital, he became disenchanted with the rural and "vulgar" Braintree as a home for his family. In August 1772, therefore, Adams moved his family back to Boston. For £533—four years’ earnings for many Boston craftsmen—he purchased a large brick house on Queen Street, not far from his office, and he and his clan returned to the city.[24] In 1774, due to the increasingly unstable situation in Boston, Adams and Abigail returned to the farm, and Braintree remained their Massachusetts home for the rest of their lives.[27]

Objections to British Parliament's authority

Massachusetts Governor Thomas Hutchinson announced in 1772 that he and his judges, by virtue of the Coercive Acts and the Tea Act passed by Parliament, would no longer need their salaries paid by the Massachusetts legislature, because the Crown would henceforth assume payment drawn from customs revenues. According to biographer Ferling, the British government singled out Massachusetts for reprisals of previous rebellion, adopting a divide-and-conquer strategy, hoping in the process to force the other colonies into line. If the policy failed and war resulted, the government believed it could win that war.[24] Boston radicals protested and asked John Adams to articulate their objections. In "Two Replies of the Massachusetts House of Representatives to Governor Hutchinson" Adams argued that the colonists had never been under the sovereignty of Parliament. Their original charter was with the person of the king and their allegiance was only to him. If a workable line could not be drawn between parliamentary sovereignty and the total independence of the colonies, he continued, the colonies would have no other choice but to choose independence.[24]

Adams authored Novanglus; or, A History of the Dispute with America, From Its Origin, in 1754, to the Present Time; he attacked the essays by Daniel Leonard which in turn defended Hutchinson's arguments for the absolute authority of Parliament over the colonies. In Novanglus ("New Englander") Adams gave a point-by-point refutation of Leonard's essays, and then provided one of the most extensive and learned arguments made by the colonists against British imperial policy. It was a systematic attempt by Adams to describe the origins, nature, and jurisdiction of (unwritten) British concepts of constitutionality. Adams used his wide knowledge of English and colonial legal history to argue that the provincial legislatures were fully sovereign over their own internal affairs, and that the colonies were connected to Great Britain only through the king.[28]

The Boston Tea Party took place in December 1773 - a historic demonstration against the British enactments. The British schooner Dartmouth, loaded with tea to be traded subject to the new tea tax, had previously dropped anchor. By 9:00 PM on the night of the 16th, the work of the protesters was done–they had demolished 342 chests of tea worth about ten thousand pounds–today’s equivalent of about $1 million. Adams was briefly retained by the Dartmouth owners regarding the question of their liability for the destroyed shipment. Tea Shipments had also been halted in Philadelphia and in New York. Adams applauded the destruction of the tea. There had been no choice, he thought, and he called the defiant boarding of the vessels and the quick obliteration of the dutied beverage the “grandest Event” in the history of the colonial protest movement. He wrote the following day that the destruction of the dutied tea by the protesters had been an “absolutely and indispensably” necessary action.[29]

Member of Continental Congress

depicts the five-man committee presenting the draft of the Declaration of Independence to Congress.
Trumbull's Declaration of Independence - committee presents draft to Congress. Adams at center with hand on hip

Massachusetts sent Adams to the first and second Continental Congresses in 1774 and from 1775 to 1777 respectively. Adams' Massachusetts delegation resolved to assume a largely passive role in the first Congress. He then indicated that the conservatives of 1774, men like Joseph Galloway and William Duane (journalist), were no different than Hutchinson and Peter Oliver, and he denigrated such men, telling Abigail that “Spiders, Toads, Snakes, are their only proper Emblems. Yet at that point his views were close to those of conservative John Dickinson. He sought repeal of objectionable ministerial policies, but at the early stage he continued to see positive benefits for America as part of the empire.[29]

By early 1775, Adams became convinced that Congress was moving in the proper direction – away from its relationship with Great Britain. “Reconciliation if practicable,” he said publicly, yet in private he agreed with Benjamin Franklin’s observation—also made in private—that independence was inevitable. In the fall of 1775 no one in Congress labored more ardently than Adams to hasten the day when America would be separate from Great Britain.[29]

In June 1775, with a view of promoting union among the colonies, he nominated George Washington of Virginia as commander-in-chief of the army then assembled around Boston. His influence in Congress was great, and early in the debates he favored permanent separation from Britain. In October 1775, he was also appointed the chief judge of the Massachusetts Superior Court, but he never served, and resigned in February 1777.[30]

Over the next decade, Americans from every state gathered and deliberated on new governing documents, employing many of Adams' positions. As radical as it was to write constitutions (prior tradition suggested that a society's form of government need not be codified, nor its organic law written down in a single document), what was equally radical was the revolutionary nature of American political thought as the summer of 1776 dawned.[31]

Thoughts on Government

A number of congressional representatives asked Adams for advice about framing new governments. At least four found Adams’s views to be so convincing that they urged him to commit to paper his ideas on government. He did so in separate letters to these colleagues, each missive a bit longer and more thoughtful than its predecessor. So impressed was Richard Henry Lee with his letters that, with Adams’s consent, he had the most comprehensive letter printed. Published anonymously just after mid-April 1776, it was titled simply Thoughts on Government and styled as “a Letter from a Gentleman to his Friend.” Many historians agree that none of Adams' other compositions came close to rivaling the enduring influence of this pamphlet.[32]

Adams advised that the form of government should be chosen to attain the desired ends–the happiness and virtue of the greatest number of people. He wrote in Thoughts on Government that, "There is no good government but what is republican. That the only valuable part of the British constitution is so; because the very definition of a republic is an empire of laws, and not of men." The treatise also defended bicameralism, for "a single assembly is liable to all the vices, follies and frailties of an individual".[33] He also suggested that there should be a separation of powers between the executive, the judicial and the legislative branches, and further recommended that if a continental government were to be formed then it "should sacredly be confined" to certain enumerated powers. Thoughts on Government was referenced as an authority in every state-constitution writing hall.[34]

Declaration of Independence

On May 10, 1776, Adams seconded the Lee resolution offered by his colleague Richard Henry Lee from Virginia, which called on the colonies to adopt new independent governments.[35] Adams drafted a preamble to the resolution which Congress approved in its entirety on May 15. The full document was, as Adams put it, "independence itself"[36] and set the stage for the formal passage of the Declaration of Independence. Once the May resolution passed, independence became inevitable, though it still had to be declared formally. On June 7, 1776, Adams seconded the resolution of independence, introduced again by Lee, which stated, "These colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent states," and championed the resolution until it was adopted by Congress on July 2, 1776.[36]

The Committee of Five charged with drafting the Declaration included Adams, along with Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, Robert R. Livingston and Roger Sherman. The Committee left no minutes, and the drafting process is uncertain—accounts written many years later by Jefferson and Adams, although frequently cited, are contradictory.[37][38] What is certain is that the committee, after discussing the general outline that the document should follow, decided that Jefferson would write the first draft.[39] The Committee, particularly Jefferson, thought Adams should write the document; but Adams persuaded the Committee to choose Jefferson while agreeing to consult with Jefferson personally. Adams recorded his exchange with Jefferson on the question: Jefferson asked, "Why will you not? You ought to do it." To which Adams responded, "I will not - reasons enough." Jefferson replied, "What can be your reasons?" And Adams responded, "Reason first, you are a Virginian, and a Virginian ought to appear at the head of this business. Reason second, I am obnoxious, suspected, and unpopular. You are very much otherwise. Reason third, you can write ten times better than I can." "Well," said Jefferson, "if you are decided, I will do as well as I can." Adams concluded, "Very well. When you have drawn it up, we will have a meeting."[32] Although the first draft was written primarily by Jefferson, Adams assumed a primary role in its completion. After editing the document further, Congress approved it on July 4. Many years later Jefferson hailed Adams as "the pillar of [the Declaration's] support on the floor of Congress, its ablest advocate and defender against the multifarious assaults it encountered."[40]

Government during revolution

Adams at left in Chappel's depiction of Staten Island Peace Conference

After defeating the Continental Army at the Battle of Long Island on August 27, 1776, British Admiral Richard Howe mistakenly assumed a strategic advantage to be at hand, and requested the Second Continental Congress send representatives in an attempt to negotiate peace. A delegation, including Adams and Benjamin Franklin, met with Howe at the Staten Island Peace Conference on September 11.[41] Howe's authority was premised on the Colonists' submission, so no common ground was to be found.[42] When Lord Howe unhappily stated he could only view the American delegates as British subjects, Adams replied, "Your lordship may consider me in what light you please, [...] except that of a British subject."[43] Lord Howe then addressed the other delegates, stating, "Mr. Adams appears to be a decided character." Adams learned many years later that his name was on a list of people specifically excluded from Howe's pardon-granting authority.[44] Being quite unimpressed with General Howe, and also after payments to colonial volunteers were increased, Adams in September of 1776 said about the war, “We shall do well enough.” Indeed, if Washington got his men, the British would be “ruined".[45]

In 1777, Adams began serving as the head of the Board of War and Ordnance; indeed, he sat on no less than ninety committees, chairing twenty-five. No other congressman approached the assumption of such a work load. As Benjamin Rush reported, he was acknowledged “to be the first man in the House.”[29] He was also referred to as a "one man war department",[46] working eighteen-hour days and mastering the details of raising, equipping and fielding an army under civilian control. He also authored the "Plan of Treaties," laying out the Congress' requirements for the crucial treaty with France.[47]

Diplomat In Europe

Passport for ministers plenipotentiary John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, and John Jay for safe passage to negotiate treaties, 1783
A medallion produced in Amsterdam for John Adams in 1782 by Johann Georg Holtzhey to celebrate recognition of the United States as an independent nation by The Netherlands, from the coin collection of the Teylers Museum

Commissioner/Minister to France

Adams was a logical choice for colonial diplomacy. In the spring of 1776 he advocated in Congress that independence was necessary in order to establish trade, and conversely that trade was essential for the attainment of independence; he specifically urged the negotiation of a commercial treaty with France. He was then appointed, along with Franklin, Dickinson, Benjamin Harrison of Virginia and Robert Morris of Pennsylvania, “to prepare a plan of treaties to be proposed to foreign powers”. Indeed, while Jefferson was laboring over the Declaration of Independence, Adams worked on the Model Treaty.[48]

In late 1777 Adams joined Franklin and Arthur Lee as a commissioner to France, replacing Silas Deane, who was under suspicions lodged by Lee. He sailed for France with his 10-year-old son John Quincy aboard the twenty-four gun frigate Boston on February 15, 1778.[48] The stormy trip was treacherous, with lightning injuring 19 sailors and killing one. Adams' ship was later pursued by several British frigates in the mid-Atlantic, but evaded them. Near the coast of Spain, Adams himself took up arms to help capture a heavily armed British merchantman ship, the Martha. Later, a cannon malfunction killed one and injured five more of Adams' crew before the ship finally arrived in France.[49]

Adams did not speak French, the international language of diplomacy at the time.[50] Thus he assumed a less visible role, but emerged as the commission’s chief administrator, imposing order and methods lacking in his delegation's finances and record-keeping affairs. His first stay in Europe, between April 1, 1778, and June 17, 1779, was otherwise unremarkable, and he returned to his home in Braintree in early August 1779.[48] Back home, inspired by the American Philosophical Society, Adams became one of the founders and charter members of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1780.[51][52]

In the fall of 1779 Adams was unanimously appointed as Minister Plenipotentiary, charged with the mission of negotiating a "treaty of peace, amity and commerce" with peace commissioners from Britain.[34] Following the conclusion of the Massachusetts constitutional convention, he departed for Europe on November 14[53] aboard the French frigate Sensible–accompanied by John Quincy and also 9-year-old son Charles. Back in France, constant disagreement between Lee and Franklin eventually resulted in Adams assuming the role of tie-breaker in almost all votes on commission business; Adams also increased his usefulness by mastering the French language. In time Lee was recalled and Adams later developed his own enmity towards the older Franklin, whom the younger and more aggressive Adams felt was overly deferential to the French.[48]

The French government did not approve of Adams' appointment, and on the insistence of the French foreign minister, the Comte de Vergennes, Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, John Jay and Henry Laurens were appointed to collaborate with Adams; nevertheless, Jefferson did not go to Europe and Laurens was posted to the Dutch Republic. In the end Jay, Adams, and Franklin played the major part in the negotiations. Overruling Franklin and distrustful of Vergennes, Jay and Adams decided not to consult with France; instead, they dealt directly with the British commissioners.[54]

Throughout the negotiations, Adams was especially determined that the right of the United States to the fisheries along the Atlantic coast should be recognized. The American negotiators were able to secure a favorable treaty, which gave Americans ownership of all lands east of the Mississippi, except East and West Florida, which were transferred to Spain. The treaty was signed on September 3, 1783.[34]

Ambassador to Holland

After the peace negotiations began, in July 1780 Adams replaced Laurens as the ambassador to the Dutch Republic, then one of the few other Republics in the world. With the aid of the Dutch Patriot leader Joan van der Capellen tot den Pol, Adams secured the recognition of the United States as an independent government at The Hague on April 19, 1782.[55] In February 1782 the Frisian states was the first Dutch province to recognize the United States, while France had been the first European country to grant diplomatic recognition in 1778. He also negotiated a loan of five million guilders financed by Nicolaas van Staphorst and Wilhelm Willink. By 1794 a total of eleven loans were granted in Amsterdam to the United States with a value of 29 million guilders. In October 1782, he negotiated with the Dutch a treaty of amity and commerce, the first such treaty between the United States and a foreign power following the 1778 treaty with France.[55] The house that Adams bought during this stay in The Netherlands became the first American-owned embassy on foreign soil.[56] For two months during 1783, Adams lodged in London with radical publisher John Stockdale.[57]

In 1784 and 1785, he was one of the architects of extensive trade relations between the United States and Prussia. The Prussian ambassador in The Hague, Friedrich Wilhelm von Thulemeyer, was involved, as were Jefferson and Franklin, who were in Paris.[58]

Ambassador to Great Britain

John Adams at age 50 - Portrait by Mather Brown (1785)

In 1785, John Adams was appointed the first American minister to the Court of St. James's (ambassador to Great Britain). When asked by a counterpart if he had any British relatives, Adams replied, "Neither my father or mother, grandfather or grandmother, great grandfather or great grandmother, nor any other relation that I know of, or care a farthing for, has been in England these one hundred and fifty years; so that you see I have not one drop of blood in my veins but what is American".[59] When he was presented to his former sovereign, George III, the King intimated that he was aware of Adams' lack of confidence in the French government. Adams admitted this, stating: "I must avow to your Majesty that I have no attachment but to my own country."

Queen Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom referred to this episode on July 7, 1976, at the White House. She said: "John Adams, America's first ambassador, said to my ancestor, King George III, that it was his desire to help with the restoration of 'the old good nature and the old good humor between our peoples.' That restoration has long been made, and the links of language, tradition, and personal contact have maintained it".[60]

Adams was joined by his wife while in London; they suffered the stares and hostility of the Court, and chose to escape it when they could by seeking out Richard Price, minister of Newington Green Unitarian Church and instigator of the Revolution Controversy. Both admired Price very much, and Abigail took to heart the teachings of the man and his protégée Mary Wollstonecraft, author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman.[61] They returned to the United States in 1788 aboard the Lucretia; the Adams' home in England, a house off London's Grosvenor Square, still stands and is commemorated by a plaque.

Concepts on constitutions

Adams' preoccupation with political and governmental affairs–which caused considerable separation from his wife and children–ironically had a distinct familial context, which he articulated in 1780: “I must study Politicks and War that my sons may have the liberty to study Mathematicks and Philosophy. My sons ought to study Geography, natural History, Naval Architecture, navigation, Commerce and Agriculture, in order to give their children a right to study Painting, Poetry, Musick, Architecutre, Statuary, Tapestry, and Porcelaine.”[62]

The Massachusetts Constitution of that year, to which Adams was a crucial contributor, structured its government most closely on his views of politics and society; indeed, between September 1 and October 30, 1779, he drafted the document together with Samuel Adams and James Bowdoin.[34] It was the first constitution written by a special committee, then ratified by the people; and was also the first to feature a bicameral legislature. Included were a distinct executive–though restrained by an executive council–with a partial (two-thirds) veto, and a separate judicial branch.[34]

While in London, Adams published a work entitled A Defence of the Constitutions of Government of the United States (1787).[63] In it he repudiated the views of Turgot and other European writers as to the viciousness of state government frameworks. Turgot argued that countries that lacked aristocracies needn't have bicameral legislatures. He thought that republican governments feature "all authorities into one center, that of the nation."[64] In the book, Adams suggested that "the rich, the well-born and the able" should be set apart from other men in a senate—that would prevent them from dominating the lower house. Adams' Defence is described as an articulation of the classical republican theory of mixed government. Adams contended that social classes exist in every political society, and that a good government must accept that reality. For centuries, dating back to Aristotle, a mixed regime balancing monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy—that is, the king, the nobles, and the people—was required to preserve order and liberty.[65]

Wood (2006) has maintained that Adams' political philosophy had became irrelevant by the time the Federal Constitution was ratified. By then, American political thought, transformed by more than a decade of vigorous debate as well as formative experiential pressures, had abandoned the classical perception of politics as a mirror of social estates. Americans' new understanding of popular sovereignty was that the citizenry were the sole possessors of power in the nation. Representatives in the government enjoyed mere portions of the people's power and only for a limited time. Adams was thought to have overlooked this evolution and revealed his continued attachment to the older version of politics.[31][66] Yet Wood ignored Adams' peculiar definition of the term "republic," and his support for a constitution ratified by the people.[67] He also underestimated Adams' belief in checks and balances, such as Adams' statement that, "Power must be opposed to power, and interest to interest." This sentiment was later echoed by James Madison's famous statement that, "[a]mbition must be made to counteract ambition", in The Federalist No. 51, explaining the separation of powers established under the new Constitution.[68][69] Adams was unsurpassed in his dedication to establishing checks and balances as a governing strategem.

On the government's role in education Adams offered unambiguously that, "The whole people must take upon themselves the education of the whole people and be willing to bear the expenses of it. There should not be a district of one mile square, without a school in it, not founded by a charitable individual, but maintained at the public expense of the people themselves.[70]

Vice Presidency

Portrait of Adams by John Trumbull, 1792–93

When Washington won the presidential election of 1789 with 69 votes in the electoral college, Adams came in second with 34 votes and became Vice President; in that capacity, he became under the Constitution the President pro tempore of the United States Senate. March 4 was the official start of the first vice presidential term; however, Congress did not certify the electoral result for Vice President until April 6. Adams first presided over the Senate on April 21. Beyond his nominal position in the Senate (he was allotted a vote as tie breaker when required), he otherwise played a minor role in the politics of the early 1790s. He was reelected Vice President in 1792; Washington seldom asked Adams for input on policy and legal issues during his tenure as vice president.[71]

At the start of Washington's administration, Adams became deeply involved in a month-long Senate controversy over the official title of the President. Adams favored grandiose titles such as "His Majesty the President" (based on the colonial "His Majesty the King") or "His High Mightiness, the President of the United States and Protector of Their Liberties." Jefferson described Adams' proposed titles as “superlatively ridiculous.”[71] The plain "President of the United States" eventually won the debate. The perceived pomposity of his stance, along with his being overweight, led to Adams earning the nickname "His Rotundity."[72]

As president of the Senate, Adams cast a historic 31 tie-breaking votes.[71] He thus protected the president's sole authority over the removal of appointees and influenced the location of the nation's capital. But his views did not always align with Washington, who joined Franklin as the object of Adams' ire, as shown in this quote: “The History of our Revolution will be one continued lie. . . . The essence of the whole will be that Dr. Franklin’s electrical Rod smote the Earth and out sprung General Washington. That Franklin electrized him with his Rod—and henceforth these two conducted all the Policy, Negotiations, Legislatures and War.”[71] On at least one occasion, he persuaded senators to vote against legislation that he opposed, and he frequently lectured the Senate on procedural and policy matters. Adams' political views and his attempt to assume a more active role in the Senate made him a natural target for critics of the Washington administration. Toward the end of his first term, as a result of a threatened resolution that would have silenced him except for procedural and policy matters, he began to exercise more restraint. When the nation's first two opposing political parties formed, he joined the Federalist Party, but never got on well with its dominant leader Alexander Hamilton.

Adams' two terms as Vice President were frustrating experiences for a man of his vigor, intellect, and vanity. He complained to his wife Abigail, "My country has in its wisdom contrived for me the most insignificant office that ever the invention of man contrived or his imagination conceived."[73]

Presidential Election of 1796

1796 Electoral College Vote

The 1796 election was the premier contest under the First Party System. Adams was the presumptive presidential nominee of the Federalist Party; the other Federalist candidate was Thomas Pinckney, the Governor of South Carolina, considered electable as the vice-president. At that time there was no formal practice of naming a vice-presidential nominee–the result was left to the electoral college in determining the vice-president as the second place winner of electoral votes.

Adams' and Pinckney's opponents were former Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson of Virginia, who was joined by Senator Aaron Burr of New York as the second nominee of the Democratic-Republican Party. Many Federalists would have preferred Hamilton to be a candidate. Although Hamilton supported Adams, his more austere background made him somewhat resentful; some suspected Hamilton of supporting Pinckney over Adams, though this was later demonstrated to be false–Hamilton was more determined to defeat Jefferson. Hamilton and his supporters did however believe that Adams lacked the seriousness and popularity that had caused Washington to be successful, and feared that Adams was too vain, opinionated, unpredictable, and stubborn to follow their directions.[74]Adams vowed he would resign if elected to the second place spot of vice-president under Jefferson.

Burr was the only active campaigner in the group. As was more customary, Adams stayed in his home town (as did the others) rather than actively campaign for the Presidency. He wanted to stay out of what he called the silly and wicked game.[71] His party, however, campaigned for him, while the Democratic-Republicans campaigned for Jefferson. It was expected that Adams would dominate the votes in New England, while Jefferson was expected to win in the Southern states. In the end, Adams won the election by a narrow margin of 71 electoral votes to 68 for Jefferson (who became the vice president), including one crucial vote from Jefferson's own Virginia and also one from North Carolina.[75]

Presidency: 1797–1801

President's House, Philadelphia. The presidential mansion of George Washington before him, Adams occupied this Philadelphia mansion from March 1797 to May 1800. He then became the first President to occupy the Executive mansion in Washington, D.C.

As President, Adams followed Washington's lead in using the presidency to exemplify republican values and civic virtue; and his service was free of scandal. Adams continued to strengthen the central government, by expanding the navy and army. In July 1798 Adams signed into law the Act for the Relief of Sick and Disabled Seamen, which authorized the establishment of a government operated marine hospital service.[76]

Historians debate his decision to retain en masse the members of Washington's cabinet. Many felt he lacked an appreciation for the political danger of such a decision, in light of the cabinet's alliance with Hamilton. The “Hamiltonians who surround him,” Jefferson soon remarked, “are only a little less hostile to him than to me."[75] Although aware of the Hamilton factor, Adams was convinced their retention ensured a smoother succession.[77] Adams' economic programs were a continuation of those of Hamilton, who indeed had regularly consulted with key cabinet members, especially the powerful Secretary of the Treasury, Oliver Wolcott, Jr.[78] Adams was in other respects quite independent of his cabinet throughout his term, often making decisions despite strong opposition from it. Such self-reliance also enabled him to avoid war with France, despite a strong desire among his cabinet secretaries for the conflict. The Quasi-War with France resulted in the disentanglement with European affairs that Washington had sought. It also, like other conflicts, had enormous psychological benefits, such as allowing America to begin viewing itself as holding its own against a European power.[75]

George Herring, a noted historian, argues that Adams was the most independent-minded of all the founders.[79] Though he aligned with the Federalists, he was somewhat a party unto himself, disagreeing with the Federalists almost as much as he did the Democratic-Republicans.[80] Though often described as "prickly", his independence was fed by a talent for making good decisions in the face of almost universal hostility.[79] Indeed, it was Adams' decision to push for peace with France, rather than to continue hostilities, that hurt his popularity.[81] Though this decision played an important role in his reelection defeat, he was ultimately thrilled with that decision, so much so that he had it engraved on his tombstone.[82] Adams spent much of his term at home in Massachusetts, ignoring the details of political patronage that were nursed by other office holders. Adams' often behaved with a combative spirit, which diminished presidential decorum, as Adams himself admitted in his old age: "[As president] I refused to suffer in silence. I sighed, sobbed, and groaned, and sometimes screeched and screamed. And I must confess to my shame and sorrow that I sometimes swore."[83]

Quasi-War and peace with France

The president's term was marked by intense disputes over foreign policy, specifically concerning the country's role, if any, in the expanding conflict in Europe; Britain and France were at war. Hamilton and the Federalists supported Britain, while Jefferson and the Democratic-Republicans favored France.[84] The French wanted Jefferson to be elected president, and when he wasn't, they became even more belligerent.[85] When Adams entered office, he decided to continue Washington's policy of staying out of the European war. He reiterated this approach in an emphatic letter to James Lloyd, "I desire no other inscription over my gravestone than: Here lies John Adams, who took upon himself the responsibility of the peace with France in the year 1800."[86] Indeed, the intense battle over the Jay Treaty in 1795 had polarized politics throughout the nation, marking the start of the First Party System.[87] The French saw America as Britain's junior partner and began seizing American merchant ships that were trading with the British. Nevertheless, most Americans were initially pro-French due to France's assistance during the Revolutionary War, and would not have sufficiently rallied behind anyone to stop France.[88][89]

Two ships close together in a harbor with a stone fort high on a mountaintop overlooking them
The Constitution‍‍ '​‍s Marines and the Sally capturing the French privateer Sandwich during the Quasi-War.

Sentiments changed with the XYZ Affair, in which the French demanded huge bribes before any discussions could begin regarding American complaints; this substantially weakened popular American support of France. The Jeffersonians, who were friends to France, were embarrassed and quickly became the minority as many began to demand full-scale war. Adams and his advisers knew that America would be unable to win such a conflict, as France at the time was successfully fighting much of Europe. Instead, Adams pursued a strategy whereby American ships would harass French ships in an effort to stop the French assaults on American interests. This was the undeclared naval war between the U.S. and France, called the Quasi-War, which broke out in 1798.

There was danger of invasion from the much larger and more powerful French forces, so Adams and the Federalist congress built up the army, bringing back Washington at its head. Washington wanted Hamilton to be his second-in-command and, given Washington's fame, Adams reluctantly gave in.[90] Given Washington's age, it became apparent that Hamilton was truly in charge. The angered president remarked at the time, “Hamilton I know to be a proud Spirited, conceited, aspiring Mortal always pretending to Morality,” he wrote, but “with as debauched Morals as old Franklin who is more his Model than anyone I know.”[91]

Adams also rebuilt the Navy, adding six fast, powerful frigates, most notably the USS Constitution. To pay for the new Army and Navy, Congress imposed new taxes on property: the Direct Tax of 1798.[88][92] It was the first (and last) such federal tax. Taxpayers were angry, especially in southeast Pennsylvania, where the bloodless Fries's Rebellion broke out among rural German-speaking farmers who protested what they saw as a threat to their republican liberties and to their churches.[93][94]

Hamilton assumed formidable control in the War department, and the rift between Adams' and Hamilton's supporters grew wider. Many sought to vest Hamilton with command authority over the army. They also resisted giving prominent Democratic-Republicans positions in the army, which Adams wanted to do in order to gain Democratic-Republican support. By building a large standing army, Hamilton's supporters raised popular alarms and played into the hands of the Democratic-Republicans. They also alienated Adams and his large personal following. They shortsightedly viewed the Federalist party as their own tool and ignored the need to pull together the entire nation in the face of war with France. Overall, however, due to patriotism and a series of naval victories, the war remained popular and Adams' popularity remained high.[95]

It was clear to Adams that victory in an all out war against imperial France would be impossible, so despite the threats to his popularity, he sought peace. In February 1799, he stunned the country by sending diplomat William Vans Murray on a peace mission to France. Napoleon, realizing that the conflict was pointless, signaled his readiness for friendly relations. At the Convention of 1800 the Treaty of Alliance of 1778 was superseded and the United States was then free of foreign entanglements, as Washington had advised in his farewell address. Adams brought in John Marshall as Secretary of State and demobilized the emergency army.[96] Adams avoided war, but deeply split his party in the process. As he suspected, peace reduced his popularity. Nevertheless, Adams was extremely proud of having kept the nation out of war.[97]

Alien and Sedition Acts

BEP engraved portrait of Adams as President.
BEP engraved portrait of Adams as President.

Though the Democratic-Republicans were discredited by the XYZ Affair, their opposition to the Federalists remained high. In an environment of war, and with recent memories of the reign of terror during the French Revolution, nerves remained explosive. Democratic-Republicans had supported France, and some even seemed to want an event similar to the French Revolution to come to America to overthrow the Federalists.[98] When Democratic-Republicans in some states refused to enforce federal laws, and even threatened possible rebellion, some Federalists threatened to send in an army and force them to capitulate.[99] As the paranoia sweeping Europe was bleeding over into America, calls for secession reached unparalleled heights, and America seemed ready to rip itself apart.[99] Some of this was seen by Federalists as having been caused by French and French-sympathizing immigrants. Federalists in Congress therefore passed the Alien and Sedition Acts, which were signed by Adams in 1798.[100][101]

Congress passed four enactments – the Naturalization Act, the Alien Act, the Alien Enemies Act, and the Sedition Act. These four laws were designed to cool down the opposition by stopping their most extreme firebrands. The Naturalization Act changed the period of residence required before an immigrant could attain American citizenship to 14 years (naturalized citizens tended to vote for the Democratic-Republicans).[75] The Alien Friends Act and the Alien Enemies Act allowed the president to deport any foreigner he thought dangerous to the country. The Sedition Act made it a crime to publish "false, scandalous, and malicious writing" against the government or its officials. Punishments included 2–5 years in prison and fines of up to $5,000. Although Adams had not originated or promoted any of these acts, he nevertheless signed them into law.[75]

Those acts, and the high-profile prosecution of a number of newspaper editors and one member of Congress by the Federalists, became highly controversial. Indeed, the administration secured at least fourteen indictments under the Sedition Act, including suits against five of the six most important Republican newspapers. The majority of the actions occurred in 1798 and 1799, although most of the trials were held on the eve of the 1800 presidential election, timing that hardly seems coincidental, according to biographer Ferling.[91] Other historians have noted that the Alien and Sedition Acts were relatively rarely enforced, as only 10 convictions under the Sedition Act have been identified and as Adams never signed a deportation order, and that the furor over the Alien and Sedition Acts was mainly stirred up by the Democratic-Republicans. However, other historians emphasize that the Acts were highly controversial from the outset, resulting in many aliens leaving the country voluntarily, and created an atmosphere where opposing the Federalists, even on the floor of Congress, could and did result in prosecution. The election of 1800 became a bitter and volatile battle, with each side expressing extraordinary fear of the other party and its policies.[91] After Democratic-Republicans won in 1800, they used the acts against Federalists before the acts finally expired.[102]

Election of 1800

1800 Electoral College Vote

The death of Washington, in 1799, weakened the Federalists, as they lost the one man who symbolized and united the party. In the presidential election of 1800, Adams and his fellow Federalist candidate, Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, opposed the Republican ticket of Jefferson and Burr. Hamilton tried his hardest to sabotage Adams' campaign in the hope of boosting Pinckney's chances of winning the presidency. In the end, Adams lost narrowly to Jefferson by 65 to 73 electoral votes, with New York casting the decisive vote.[103]

Adams's defeat resulted from the stronger better organization of the Republicans and Federalist disunity; by the controversy of the Alien and Sedition Acts, the popularity of Jefferson in the south, and the effective politicking of Aaron Burr in New York State, where the legislature (which selected the electoral college) shifted from Federalist to Democratic-Republican on the basis of a few wards in New York City controlled by Burr's machine.[103]

In the closing months of his term Adams became the first president to occupy the new, but unfinished President's Mansion (later known as the White House), beginning November 1, 1800.[7][104] "I pray Heaven to bestow the best of Blessings on this House and all that shall hereafter inhabit it," Adams wrote on his second night in the mansion. "May none but honest and wise Men ever rule under this roof."[105]

Bitter at his defeat for re-election, Adams was depressed when he left office. He had also just suffered the death of his son Charles Adams from alcoholism and was anxious to rejoin his wife Abigail, who had left for Massachusetts months before the inauguration. As a result, he did not attend Jefferson's inauguration, departing the White House at 4:00 a.m. that day, and making him one of only four presidents surviving in office not to attend his successor's inauguration. Adams' correspondence with Jefferson at the time is not indicative of the animosity and resentment that later scholars have attributed to him.[103]

John Marshall, Chief Justice of the United States

Judicial appointments

Supreme court

Supreme Court Appointments by President Adams
Position Name Term
Chief Justice John Jay 1800 (declined)
John Marshall 1801–1835
Associate Justice Bushrod Washington 1799–1829
Alfred Moore 1800–1804

One of Adams' greatest legacies was his naming of John Marshall as the fourth Chief Justice of the United States to succeed Oliver Ellsworth, who had retired due to ill health. (Adams first offered the post to John Jay who declined.[103]) Marshall's long tenure represents the most lasting influence of the Federalists, as Marshall infused the Constitution with a judicious and carefully reasoned nationalistic interpretation and established the Judicial Branch as the equal of the Executive and Legislative branches.[103]

Other judicial appointments

The lame-duck session of Congress enacted the Judiciary Act of 1801, which created a set of federal appeals courts between the district courts and the Supreme Court. The purpose of the statute was twofold—first, to remedy the defects in the federal judicial system inherent in the Judiciary Act of 1789, and, second, to enable the defeated Federalists to staff the new judicial offices with loyal Federalists in the face of the party's defeat in presidential and congressional elections in 1800.[106] As his term was expiring, Adams filled the vacancies created by this statute by appointing a series of judges, whom his opponents called the "Midnight Judges" because most of them were formally appointed days before the presidential term expired. Most of these judges lost their posts when the Jeffersonian Republicans enacted the Judiciary Act of 1802, abolishing the courts created by the Judiciary Act of 1801 and returning the structure of the federal courts to its original structure as specified in the 1789 statute.[107]


An unsmiling elderly man sits in a red chair, slightly pointing left.
John Adams, ca 1816, by Samuel F.B. Morse (Brooklyn Museum)

Adams resumed farming at his home, Peacefield, in the town of Quincy (formerly a part of the town of Braintree, as it was earlier in his life). He began to work on an autobiography (which he never finished), and resumed correspondence with such old friends as Benjamin Waterhouse and Benjamin Rush. He also began a bitter and resentful correspondence with an old family friend, Mercy Otis Warren, protesting how in her 1805 history of the American Revolution she had, in his view, caricatured his political beliefs and misrepresented his services to the country. Primarily, this revolved around a dispute about whether Adams was sufficiently republican in Warren's view, instead of monarchical, and was related to the Federalist/Republican political divide.[108]

After Jefferson's retirement from public life in 1809, Adams became more vocal. For three years he published a stream of letters in the Boston Patriot newspaper, presenting a long and almost line-by-line refutation of an 1800 pamphlet by Hamilton attacking his conduct and character. Though Hamilton had died in 1804 from a mortal wound sustained in his notorious duel with Aaron Burr, Adams felt the need to vindicate his character against the New Yorker's vehement attacks.[108]

The years of retirement in the Adams' household were not without (temporary) financial adversity; in 1803 the bank holding his cash reserves of about $13,000 collapsed. Son John Quincy came to the rescue by purchasing from him his properties in Weymouth and Quincy, including Peacefield, for the sum of $12,800.[108]

Daughter Abigail ("Nabby") was married to Representative William Stephens Smith, but she returned to her parents' home after the failure of her marriage. She died of breast cancer in 1813. His wife Abigail died of typhoid on October 28, 1818. His son Thomas and family lived with Adams and Louisa Smith (Abigail's niece by her brother William) to the end of Adams' life.[108] Sixteen months before John Adams' death, his son, John Quincy Adams, became the sixth president of the United States (1825–1829), the only son of a former president to hold the office until George W. Bush in 2001.

Correspondence with Jefferson

An elderly man sits in a red chair with his arms crossed, looking slightly left.
John Adams was nearly 89 when, at the request of his son, John Quincy Adams, he posed a final time for Gilbert Stuart (1823).

In early 1812, Adams reconciled with Jefferson. Their mutual friend Benjamin Rush, a fellow signer of the Declaration of Independence who had been corresponding with both, encouraged each man to reach out to the other. On New Year's Day 1812, Adams sent a brief, friendly note to Jefferson to accompany the delivery of "two pieces of homespun," a two-volume collection of lectures on rhetoric by John Quincy Adams. Jefferson replied immediately with a warm, friendly letter, and the two men revived their friendship, which they conducted by mail. The correspondence that they resumed in 1812 lasted the rest of their lives, and thereafter has been hailed as one of their greatest legacies and a monument of American literature.[108]

Their letters represent an abundant insight into both the period and the minds of the two Presidents and revolutionary leaders. Their correspondence lasted fourteen years, and consisted of 158 letters–109 from Adams and 49 from Jefferson.[108] It was in these years that the two men discussed "natural aristocracy." Jefferson said, "The natural aristocracy I consider as the most precious gift of nature for the instruction, the trusts, and government of society. And indeed it would have been inconsistent in creation to have formed man for the social state, and not to have provided virtue and wisdom enough to manage the concerns of society. May we not even say that the form of government is best which provides most effectually for a pure selection of these natural aristoi into the offices of government?"[109] Adams wondered if it ever would be so clear who these people were, "Your distinction between natural and artificial aristocracy does not appear to me well founded. Birth and wealth are conferred on some men as imperiously by nature, as genius, strength, or beauty. . . . When aristocracies are established by human laws and honour, wealth, and power are made hereditary by municipal laws and political institutions, then I acknowledge artificial aristocracy to commence." It would always be true, Adams argued, that fate would bestow influence on some men for reasons other than true wisdom and virtue. That being the way of nature, he thought such "talents" were natural. A good government, therefore, had to account for that reality.[110]


3 marble sarcophagi, one in the foreground, 2 in the background are seen. 2 are seen with flags of the United States at the top.
Tombs of Presidents John Adams (distance) and John Quincy Adams (foreground) and their wives, in a family crypt beneath the United First Parish Church.

Less than a month before his death, John Adams issued a statement about the destiny of the United States, which historians such as Joy Hakim have characterized as a "warning" for his fellow citizens: "My best wishes, in the joys, and festivities, and the solemn services of that day on which will be completed the fiftieth year from its birth, of the independence of the United States: a memorable epoch in the annals of the human race, destined in future history to form the brightest or the blackest page, according to the use or the abuse of those political institutions by which they shall, in time to come, be shaped by the human mind."[111]

On Tuesday, July 4, 1826, the fiftieth anniversary of the adoption of the Declaration of Independence, at approximately 6:20 PM,[112] Adams died at his home in Quincy. Relatives who were at his bedside reported that his last words were "Jefferson survives";[113] news of Jefferson's death earlier that day did not reach Boston until after Adams' death. Adams and Jefferson are the only two Presidents to die on the same day. His death left Charles Carroll of Carrollton as the last surviving signatory of the Declaration of Independence.

Adams' crypt lies at United First Parish Church (also known as the Church of the Presidents) in Quincy, the site of his funeral was held on July 7. He and Abigail had originally been buried in Hancock Cemetery, across the road from the Church. News of his death did not reach his son, the President, until Sunday, July 9, near Baltimore, after he had received word to hurry back to Boston earlier in the day. The younger Adams, in fact, knew about Jefferson's death before his own father's.[112]

Political philosophy and views

Adams never bought a slave and declined on principle to utilize slave labor, saying, "I have, through my whole life, held the practice of slavery in such abhorrence, that I have never owned a negro or any other slave, though I have lived for many years in times, when the practice was not disgraceful, when the best men in my vicinity thought it not inconsistent with their character, and when it has cost me thousands of dollars for the labor and subsistence of free men, which I might have saved by the purchase of negroes at times when they were very cheap."[114] Adams generally tried to keep the issue out of national politics, because of the anticipated southern response during a time when unity was needed to achieve independence.[115][116] He spoke out in 1777 against a bill to emancipate slaves in Massachusetts, saying that the issue was presently too divisive, and so the legislation should "sleep for a time."[115] He also was against use of black soldiers in the Revolution, due to opposition from southerners.[115] Slavery was abolished in Massachusetts about 1780, when it was forbidden by implication in the Declaration of Rights that John Adams wrote into the Massachusetts Constitution.[117] Abigail Adams, on the other hand, vocally opposed slavery.[11]

Throughout his lifetime Adams expressed controversial and shifting views regarding the virtues of monarchical and hereditary political institutions.[118][119] At times he conveyed substantial support for these approaches,[118][119][120] suggesting for example that "hereditary monarchy or aristocracy" are the "only institutions that can possibly preserve the laws and liberties of the people."[120] Yet at other times he distanced himself from such ideas, calling himself "a mortal and irreconcilable enemy to Monarchy" and "no friend to hereditary limited monarchy in America."[121] Such denials did not assuage his critics, and Adams was often the object of accusations of being a Monarchist.[122]

Many of these attacks are considered to have been scurrilous, including suggestions that he was planning to "crown himself king" and "grooming John Quincy as heir to the throne".[122] However, Peter Shaw has argued that:" [T]he inevitable attacks on Adams, crude as they were, stumbled on a truth that he did not admit to himself. He was leaning toward monarchy and aristocracy (as distinct from kings and aristocrats) at the time he wrote 'Davila', though he did not directly reveal this in its essays. Decidedly, sometime after he became vice-president, Adams concluded that the United States would have to adopt a hereditary legislature and a monarch... and he outlined a plan by which state conventions would appoint hereditary senators while a national one appointed a president for life.[118] In contradiction to such notions, Adams asserted in a letter to Thomas Jefferson: "If you suppose that I have ever had a design or desire of attempting to introduce a government of King, Lords and Commons, or in other words an hereditary Executive, or an hereditary Senate, either into the government of the United States, or that of any individual state, in this country, you are wholly mistaken. There is not such a thought expressed or intimated in any public writing or private letter of mine, and I may safely challenge all of mankind to produce such a passage and quote the chapter and verse."[123]

Religious views

The United First Parish Church in Quincy, 1851-1854 Engraving

Adams was raised a Congregationalist, since his ancestors were Puritans. According to his biographer David McCullough, "as his family and friends knew, Adams was both a devout Christian, and an independent thinker".[124] In a letter to Benjamin Rush, Adams credited religion with the success of his ancestors since their migration to the New World in the 1630s.[125] Adams was educated at Harvard when the influence of deism was growing there, and sometimes used deistic terms in his speeches and writing.[126] He also believed that regular church service was beneficial to man's moral sense. Everett (1966) concludes that "Adams strove for a religion based on a common sense sort of reasonableness" and maintained that religion must change and evolve toward perfection.[127] Fielding (1940) argues that Adams' beliefs synthesized Puritan, deist, and humanist concepts. Adams at one point said that Christianity had originally been revelatory, but was being misinterpreted and misused in the service of superstition, fraud, and unscrupulous power.[128] Goff (1993) acknowledges Fielding's "persuasive argument that Adams never was a deist because he allowed the suspension of the laws of nature and believed that evil was internal, not the result of external institutions."[129]

Frazer (2004) notes that, while Adams shared many perspectives with deists, "Adams clearly was not a deist. Deism rejected any and all supernatural activity and intervention by God; consequently, deists did not believe in miracles or God's providence....Adams, however, did believe in miracles, providence, and, to a certain extent, the Bible as revelation."[130] Frazer argues that Adams' "theistic rationalism, like that of the other Founders, was a sort of middle ground between Protestantism and deism."[131] By contrast, David L. Holmes has argued that John Adams, beginning as a Congregationalist, ended his days as a Christian Unitarian, accepting central tenets of the Unitarian creed but also accepting Jesus as the redeemer of humanity and the biblical account of his miracles as true.[132] In common with many of his Protestant contemporaries, Adams criticized the claims to universal authority made by the Roman Catholic Church.[133] In 1796, Adams denounced political opponent Thomas Paine's Deistic criticisms of Christianity in The Age of Reason, saying, "The Christian religion is, above all the religions that ever prevailed or existed in ancient or modern times, the religion of wisdom, virtue, equity and humanity, let the Blackguard Paine say what he will."[134]


The first notable biography of John Adams appeared as the first two volumes of The Works of John Adams, Esq., Second President of the United States, edited by Charles Francis Adams and published between 1850 and 1856 by Charles C. Little and James Brown in Boston. This biography's first seven chapters were the work of John Quincy Adams, but the rest of the biography was the work of Charles Francis Adams.[135]

The premier modern biography was Honest John Adams, a 1933 biography by the noted French specialist in American history Gilbert Chinard, who came to Adams after writing his acclaimed 1929 biography of Thomas Jefferson. For a generation, Chinard's work was regarded as the best life of Adams, and it is still a key factor in determining the themes of Adams biographical and historical scholarship. Following the opening of the Adams family papers in the 1950s, Page Smith published the first major biography to use these previously inaccessible primary sources; his biography won a 1962 Bancroft Prize but was criticized for its scanting of Adams' intellectual life and its diffuseness. In 1975, Peter Shaw published The Character of John Adams, a thematic biography noted for its graceful prose and its psychological insight into Adams' life. The 1992 character study by Joseph J. Ellis, Passionate Sage: The Character and Legacy of John Adams, was Ellis's first major publishing success and remains one of the most useful and insightful studies of Adams' personality. In 1993, the Revolutionary War historian and biographer John E. Ferling published his acclaimed John Adams, also noted for its psychological sensitivity; many scholars regard it as the best biography to date.[135]

In 2001, the popular historian David McCullough published a large biography, also entitled John Adams, that won various awards and general acclaim. McCullough's biography was developed into a 2008 TV miniseries, in which Paul Giamatti portrayed John Adams. Finance writer James Grant published John Adams, Party of One in 2005.


See also


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  4. ^ a b Adams, John (December 1770). Argument in Defense of the Soldiers in the Boston Massacre Trials. 
  5. ^ "John Adams I (Frigate) 1799-1867". Retrieved 2015-08-22. 
  6. ^ Ferling, ch. 20.
  7. ^ a b "President John Adams moves into a tavern in Washington, D.C.". Retrieved 2013-02-11. 
  8. ^ The middle brother was Peter and the youngest Elihu, who died of illness during the siege of Boston in 1775: McCullough
  9. ^ Chambers Biographical Dictionary, ISBN 0-550-18022-2, p. 8.
  10. ^ a b Cutter, William Richard. New England Families, Genealogical and Memorial: A Record of the Achievements of Her People in the Making of Commonwealths and the Founding of a Nation, Volume 4. New York: Lewis Historical Publishing Company, 1913. p. 2048.
  11. ^ a b c d e f g Ferling, ch. 1.
  12. ^ Ferling. ch. 1.
  13. ^ a b Richard Brookhiser (2002) America's First Dynasty. The Adamses, 1735–1918. The Free Press, p. 13, ISBN 0736685545
  14. ^ "Timeline:Education and the Law". Boston Public Library. Retrieved 2013-10-15. 
  15. ^ Ferling quotes an additional upfront payment of $100, but the first U.S. dollar was not issued until 1776. Ferling, ch. 1.
  16. ^ "Obama joins list of seven presidents with Harvard degrees". Retrieved 2011-12-05. 
  17. ^ a b Ferling, ch. 2.
  18. ^ a b c d e Ferling, ch. 3.
  19. ^ "This Day in History in 1828". 2012. Retrieved 2008-03-13. 
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  21. ^ Ferling ch. 3.
  22. ^ Mayhew, Rev. Jonathan (1750). "Discourse Concerning Unlimited Submission and Non-resistance to the Higher Powers". Ashbrook Center. Retrieved 2015-08-22. 
  23. ^ McCullough, p. 63.
  24. ^ a b c d e f Ferling, ch. 4.
  25. ^ American Bar Association Journal. February 1968. p. 150.
  26. ^ "Private Thoughts of a Founding Father". LIFE. June 30, 1961. p. 82.
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  28. ^ Ferling, ch. 6.
  29. ^ a b c d Ferling, ch. 7.
  30. ^ "Adams Time Line". Massachusetts Historical Society. Retrieved 2015-08-22. 
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  32. ^ a b Ferling, ch. 9.
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  34. ^ a b c d e Ferling, ch. 12.
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  36. ^ a b Ferling, ch. 8.
  37. ^ Maier, pp. 97–105.
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  45. ^ Ferling, ch. 10.
  46. ^ Ellis, p. 42.
  47. ^ Ellis, pp. 41–42.
  48. ^ a b c d Ferling, ch. 11.
  49. ^ McCullough, pp. 180–187.
  50. ^ McCullough, p. 179.
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  52. ^ "Charter of Incorporation of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences". American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Retrieved 28 July 2014. 
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  54. ^ Ferling, ch. 11–12.
  55. ^ a b Ferling, ch. 13.
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  63. ^ "John Adams: Defence of the Constitutions, 1787". Retrieved March 2, 2010. 
  64. ^ Adams, Vol. IV, p. 279, Turgot to Richard Price, March 22, 1778
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  67. ^ C. Bradley Thompson (2002) John Adams and the Spirit of Liberty, University Press of Kansas, ISBN 0700611819
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  91. ^ a b c Ferling, ch. 17.
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  103. ^ a b c d e Ferling, ch. 19.
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  117. ^ George Moore (1866) Notes on the history of slavery in Massachusetts, pp. 200–203.
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  122. ^ a b "John & Abigail Adams". PBS online. Retrieved 2013-07-17. 
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  127. ^ Robert B. Everett (1966). "The Mature Religious Thought of John Adams". Proceedings of the South Carolina Historical Association: 49–57. ISSN 0361-6207. 
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  129. ^ Philip Kevin Goff (1993) The Religious World of the Revolutionary John Adams, PhD dissertation, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, p. 382.
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Primary sources

Further reading

  • Brinkley, Alan, and Davis Dyer, eds. The American Presidency. Boston: Houghton Mifflin company, 2004.
  • Brown, Ralph A. The Presidency of John Adams. (1988). Political narrative.
  • Chinard, Gilbert. Honest John Adams. (1933). Dated but still-valuable biography.
  • Freeman, Joanne B. Affairs of Honor: National Politics in the New Republic. (2001) – chapters 2 [on John Adams and print culture] and 5 [on the election of 1800] are of special relevance.
  • Grant, James. John Adams: Party of One.(2005), one-volume biography, notable for its modesty and for its grasp of finances as well as politics.
  • Haraszti, Zoltan. John Adams and the Prophets of Progress. (1952). Incisive analysis of John Adams' political comments on numerous authors through examining his marginalia in his copies of their books.
  • Howe, John R., Jr. The Changing Political Thought of John Adams. (1966). Stressing change over time in Adams' thought, this book is still a valuable and clearly written treatment of the subject.
  • Knollenberg, Bernard. Growth of the American Revolution: 1766–1775,(2003). Online edition.
  • Ryerson, Richard Alan, ed. John Adams and the Founding of the Republic (2001). Essays by scholars: "John Adams and the Massachusetts Provincial Elite," by William Pencak; "Before Fame: Young John Adams and Thomas Jefferson," by John Ferling; "John Adams and the 'Bolder Plan,'" by Gregg L. Lint; "In the Shadow of Washington: John Adams as Vice President," by Jack D. Warren; "The Presidential Election of 1796," by Joanne B. Freeman; "The Disenchantment of a Radical Whig: John Adams Reckons with Free Speech," by Richard D. Brown; "'Splendid Misery': Abigail Adams as First Lady," by Edith B. Gelles; "John Adams and the Science of Politics," by C. Bradley Thompson; and "Presidents as Historians: John Adams and Thomas Jefferson," by Herbert Sloan.
  • Sharp, James Roger. American Politics in the Early Republic: The New Nation in Crisis. (1995), detailed political narrative of the 1790s, stressing the emergence of "proto-parties."
  • Visser, Michiel (2008). "Adams, John (1735–1826)". In Hamowy, Ronald. The Encyclopedia of Libertarianism. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE; Cato Institute. pp. 5–6. ISBN 978-1-4129-6580-4. LCCN 2008009151. OCLC 750831024. 
  • Waldstreicher, David, ed. A Companion to John Adams and John Quincy Adams (2013) excerpt and text search; 600pp; 25 essays by scholars
  • White, Leonard D. The Federalists: A Study in Administrative History (1956), thorough analysis of the mechanics of government in 1790s

External links