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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 W. F. 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
Quincy, Massachusetts
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 Abigail, John Quincy, Susanna, Charles, Thomas, and Elizabeth
Alma mater Harvard University
Religion Unitarianism
(formerly Congregationalism)
Signature Cursive signature in ink

John Adams, Jr. (October 30 [O.S. October 19] 1735 – July 4, 1826) was an American lawyer, author, statesman, and diplomat. He served as the second President of the United States (1797–1801), the first Vice President (1789–1797),[1] and as a Founding Father was a leader of American independence from Great Britain.[2] Adams was a political theorist in the Age of Enlightenment who promoted republicanism and a strong central government. His innovative ideas were frequently published. He was also a dedicated diarist and correspondent, particularly with his wife and key advisor Abigail.

He collaborated with his cousin, revolutionary leader Samuel Adams, but he established his own prominence prior to the American Revolution. After the Boston Massacre, despite severe local anti-British sentiment, he provided a successful though unpopular legal defense of the accused British soldiers, driven by his devotion to the right to counsel and the "protect[ion] of innocence".[3] 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. As a diplomat in Europe, he helped negotiate the eventual peace treaty with Great Britain, and acquired 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.

Adams' credentials as a revolutionary secured for him two terms as President George Washington's vice president (1789 to 1797) and also his own election in 1796 as the second president. In his single term as president, he encountered fierce criticism from the Jeffersonian Republicans, as well as the dominant faction in his own Federalist Party, led by his 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 a 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".[4] He was the first U.S. president to reside in the executive mansion, now known as the White House.[5]

In 1800, Adams lost re-election to Thomas Jefferson, and retired to Massachusetts. He resumed his friendship with Jefferson upon the latter's own retirement by initiating a correspondence which lasted fourteen years.[6] He and his wife established a family of politicians, diplomats, and historians now referred to as the Adams political family. Adams was the father of John Quincy Adams, the sixth President of the United States. He died on the fiftieth anniversary of the adoption of the Declaration of Independence. Modern historians in the aggregate have ranked his administration favorably.

Early life and education


Adams' birthplace in Quincy, Massachusetts

John Adams, Jr.[7] was born on October 30, 1735 (October 19, 1735 Old Style, Julian calendar), to John Adams, Sr. (1691–1761) and Susanna Boylston (1708–1797). He had two younger brothers, Peter and Elihu.[8] Adams' birthplace was Quincy, Massachusetts and is now part of Adams National Historical Park. Adams' mother was from a leading medical family of current Brookline, Massachusetts.[8] His father was a Congregationalist deacon, a farmer, a cordwainer, and a lieutenant in the militia. He further served as a selectman (town councilman) and supervised the building of schools and roads. Adams often praised his father and recalled their close relationship.[8] His paternal great-grandfather David Adams was born and bred at "Fferm Penybanc", Llanboidy, Carmarthenshire, North Wales.[9] He emigrated from Wales in 1675 and sixty years later his great-grandson, John Adams, was born.[10][11][12]

Though raised in modest surroundings, Adams felt an acute responsibility to live up to his family's heritage of reverence. He was a direct descendent of Puritans, who came to the American wilderness in the 1630s, established a colonial presence in America, and profoundly effected the culture, laws, and traditions of their region. Journalist Richard Brookhiser wrote 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 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.[8]

Adams, as the eldest child, was under a mandate from his parents to obtain a formal education. This began at age six at a Dame school for boys and girls, which 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 positively.[8]

College education and adulthood

At age sixteen, Adams entered Harvard College in 1751.[14] He did not share his father's expectation that he become a minister. After graduating in 1755 with an A.B. degree, he taught school for a few years in Worcester, Massachusetts while pondering his permanent vocation. In the next four years he discerned a passion for prestige, saying that he craved "Honour or Reputation" and "more defference from [his] fellows"; and at age twenty-one he was determined to become "a great Man".[8] 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 remnant Puritanism 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."[8]

The French and Indian War began in 1754 and Adams 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 who were less solvent 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 he was the first in his family that "degenerated from the virtues of the house so far as not to have been an officer in the militia."[8]

Law practice and marriage

Mrs. Abigail Smith Adams – 1766 Portrait by Benjamin Blythe

Adams followed the usual course of reading the law in order obtain his license to practice. In 1756 he became an apprentice in the office of John Putnam, a leading lawyer in Worcester.[8] In 1758, he earned an A.M. from Harvard,[15] and was also that year admitted to the bar, having completed his studies under Putnam.[16] From an early age, he developed the habit of writing descriptions of events and impressions of men which are scattered through his diary, which included his report of the 1761 argument of James Otis, Jr. in the Massachusetts Superior Court as to the legality of Writs of Assistance. Otis's argument inspired Adams to the cause of the American colonies.[16] In 1763 he had published seven essays in Boston newspapers–treatises that represented his 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 oppose the Stamp Act.[17] While Adams was initially not as popular as his cousin Samuel, 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. Even so, Adams often found his inborn contentiousness to be a constraint in his political career.[18]

Adams married his third cousin Abigail Smith (1744–1818) on October 25, 1764. Her parents were Elizabeth Quincy and Rev. William Smith, a Congregational minister at Weymouth, Massachusetts.[19] They had six children; Abigail "Nabby" in 1765, future president John Quincy Adams in 1767, Susanna in 1768, Charles in 1770, Thomas in 1772, and Elizabeth (who was stillborn) in 1777.[17]

Career before the Revolution

Opponent of Stamp Act 1765

John Adams – 1766 Portrait by Benjamin Blyth

Adams first rose to prominence leading widespread opposition to the Stamp Act of 1765, imposed by the British Parliament without consulting the American legislatures, and requiring payment of a direct tax by the colonies for various stamped documents. Adams in 1765 authored the "Braintree Instructions", a letter sent to the representatives of Braintree in the Massachusetts legislature, which served as a model for other towns' instructions.[17] In the piece 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.[17]

In August 1765, reprising his pen name "Humphrey Ploughjogger", he contributed four 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). 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 given its assent to it.[17] He later observed that many protests were sparked by an oft-reprinted sermon of the Boston minister, Jonathan Mayhew, invoking Romans 13 to justify insurrection.[20] In 1766, a town meeting of Braintree elected John Adams as a selectman.[21]

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.[17]

Counsel for the British – Boston Massacre

In 1770, a street confrontation, known as the Boston Massacre, resulted in British soldiers killing five civilians.[22] The accused soldiers were arrested on criminal charges and expectedly had trouble finding legal representation. Adams ultimately agreed to defend them, though he feared it would hurt his reputation. In arguing their case, Adams made his legendary statement regarding jury decisions: "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."[3] He also expounded upon 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 an acquittal for six of the soldiers. Two of them who had fired directly into the crowd were charged with murder but were convicted only of manslaughter. Adams was paid a small sum by his clients.[23][24]

Biographer John Ferling opines that Adams made the most of juror selection during the Voir dire stage of the trial, saying that Adams, "...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 B. 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.[22]

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 also 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." 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. He purchased a large brick house on Queen Street, not far from his office.[22] In 1774, due to the increasingly unstable situation in Boston, Adams and Abigail returned the family to the farm, and Braintree remained their permanent Massachusetts home.[25]

Objections to British Parliament's authority

Governor Thomas Hutchinson and his judges until 1772 received their salaries from the Massachusetts legislature. The Coercive Acts and the Tea Act were then passed by Parliament, and the British Crown assumed payment of those wages, drawn from customs revenues imposed upon that colony. According to biographer Ferling, the British government thus singled out Massachusetts for reprisals of previous rebellion and hoped in the process to force the other colonies into line. Boston radicals protested and asked John Adams to proclaim 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, as well as their allegiance, was exclusively with the king. 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 independence from England.[22]

Adams authored Novanglus; or, A History of the Dispute with America, From Its Origin, in 1754, to the Present Time; he repudiated 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.[26]

The Boston Tea Party—a historic demonstration against the British enactments—took place in December 1773. 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. 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.[27]

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. The Massachusetts delegation resolved to assume a largely passive role in the first Congress. But Adams felt strongly that the conservatives of 1774, men like Joseph Galloway and James Duane, 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 similar to those of conservative John Dickinson. He sought repeal of objectionable policies, but at the early stage he continued to see positive benefits for America remaining part of the British empire.[27]

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 he agreed with Benjamin Franklin's confidential observation that independence was inevitable. In the fall of 1775 no one in Congress labored more ardently than Adams to hasten America's separation from Great Britain.[27]

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 he then argued in favor of permanent severance 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.[28]

Over the next decade, Americans from every state gathered and deliberated on new governing documents, employing many of Adams' innovative positions. Prior tradition suggested that a society's form of government need not be codified in a single document. As radical as it was to write constitutions, what was equally profound was the revolutionary nature of American political thought as the summer of 1776 dawned.[29]

Thoughts on Government

A number of delegates sought Adams' advice about forming new governments, and found his views so convincing they urged him to commit them to paper. He did so in separate letters to these colleagues, each missive a bit longer and more thoughtful. So impressed was Richard Henry Lee 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 rivaled the enduring influence of this pamphlet.[30]

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 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".[31] 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.[32]

Declaration of Independence

Adams in the 1776 session of Congress drafted the preamble to the Lee resolution of colleague Richard Henry Lee (Virginia), which called on the colonies to adopt new independent governments.[33] On June 7, 1776 he seconded the resolution, which stated, "These colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent states."[34] Adams also championed the measure until it was adopted by Congress on July 2. Once the resolution passed, independence became inevitable, though it still had to be declared formally. The commitment was, as Adams put it, "independence itself".[34]

A Committee of Five was charged with drafting the Declaration, and included Adams, along with Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, Robert R. Livingston and Roger Sherman.[35] The Committee, after discussing the general outline that the document should follow, decided that Jefferson would write the first draft.[36] Jefferson particularly 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."[30] The Committee left no minutes, and the drafting process itself is uncertain—accounts written many years later by Jefferson and Adams, although frequently cited, are otherwise contradictory.[37] 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."[38]

Government during revolution

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.[39] Howe's authority was premised on the Colonists' submission, so no common ground was to be found.[40] 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."[41] Adams learned many years later that his name was on a list of people specifically excluded from Howe's pardon-granting authority.[42] 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".[43]

In 1777, Adams began serving as the head of the Board of War and Ordnance; in fact, 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."[27] He was also referred to as a "one man war department",[44] 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's requirements for the crucial treaty with France.[45]

Diplomat In Europe

Commissioner to France and Minister Plenipotentiary

In the spring of 1776 Adams advocated in Congress that independence was necessary in order to establish trade, and conversely trade was essential for the attainment of independence; he specifically urged negotiation of a commercial treaty with France. He was then appointed, along with Franklin, Dickinson, Benjamin Harrison V 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.[46]

Adams joined Franklin and Arthur Lee in 1778 as a commissioner to France, replacing Silas Deane. He sailed for France with his 10-year-old son John Quincy aboard the frigate Boston early that year.[46] 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 the crew before the ship arrived in France.[47]

Adams did not speak French, the international language of diplomacy at the time.[48] He therefore 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.[46] Back home, Adams became one of the founders and charter members of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1780.[49][50]

In the fall of 1779 Adams was unanimously appointed a Minister Plenipotentiary, charged with negotiating a "treaty of peace, amity and commerce" with peace commissioners from Britain.[32] Following the conclusion of the Massachusetts constitutional convention, he departed for Europe in November[51] aboard the French frigate Sensible–accompanied by John Quincy and 9-year-old son Charles. 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, more aggressive Adams felt was overly deferential to the French.[46]

The French foreign minister, Charles Gravier disapproved of Adams, so 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. Jay, Adams, and Franklin played the major part in the final negotiations. Overruling Franklin and distrustful of Vergennes, Jay and Adams decided not to consult with France; instead, they dealt directly with the British commissioners.[52]

Throughout the negotiations, Adams successfully demanded that the right of the United States to the fisheries along the Atlantic coast be recognized. The American negotiators were able to secure a favorable treaty securing most lands east of the Mississippi, and the document was signed on September 3, 1783.[32]

Ambassador to Holland

Medallion given to John Adams in 1782 by Johann Georg Holtzhey to mark United States as an independent nation by The Netherlands

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. 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.[53] The house that Adams bought during this stay in The Netherlands became the first American-owned embassy on foreign soil.[54]

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.[55]

Ambassador to Great Britain

Adams was appointed in 1785 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".[56]

Two centuries later, Queen Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom gave historical perspective to Adam's service, "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".[57]

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.[58]

Conceptions of constitutional government

Adams – 1785 Mather Brown Portrait

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."[59]

The Massachusetts Constitution of that year, to which Adams was a primary contributor, structured its government closely on his views of politics and society; in 1779, he drafted the document together with Samuel Adams and James Bowdoin.[32] 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.[32]

While in London, Adams published a work entitled A Defence of the Constitutions of Government of the United States (1787).[60] In it he repudiated the views of Turgot and other European writers as to the viciousness of state government frameworks. 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.[61]

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.[62] Yet Wood ignored Adams' peculiar definition of the term "republic," and his support for a constitution ratified by the people.[63] 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.[64][65] 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.[66]

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. Due to a delay in the decision of the electoral college, Adams first presided over the Senate on April 21. Washington was officially sworn in and gave his inaugural address on April 30. Beyond Adams' 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.[58]

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 derived from British Crown tradition, such as "His Majesty the President" or "His High Mightiness, the President of the United States and Protector of Their Liberties." Jefferson described Adams' proposed titles as "superlatively ridiculous."[58] 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."[67]

As president of the Senate, Adams cast a historic 31 tie-breaking votes. 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." 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, though he was consistently in opposition with its dominant leader Alexander Hamilton.[58]

Adams' two terms as Vice President were frustrating experiences for him. 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."[68]

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.[69]

Adams' and Pinckney's opponents, of the Democratic-Republican Party, were former Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson of Virginia, who was joined by Senator Aaron Burr of New York as the party's second nominee. 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.[70] Adams vowed he would resign if elected to the second place spot of vice-president under Jefferson.[69]

Burr was the only active campaigner in the group. In keeping with the current practice, Adams stayed in his home town (as did the others) rather than actively campaign for the Presidency. He specifically wanted to stay out of what he called the "silly and wicked game". 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 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.[69]

Presidency: 1797–1801

President's House, Philadelphia. Adams occupied this Philadelphia mansion from March 1797 to May 1800.

Adams followed Washington's lead in using the presidency to exemplify republican values and civic virtue; and his service was free of scandal. He 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.[71]

Historians debate his decision to retain en masse the members of Washington's cabinet. Many felt he was oblivious to the political danger of such a decision, in light of the cabinet's loyalty to Hamilton. The "Hamiltonians who surround him," Jefferson soon remarked, "are only a little less hostile to him than to me."[69] Although aware of the Hamilton factor, Adams was convinced their retention ensured a smoother succession.[72] Adams' economic programs maintained those of Hamilton, who indeed had regularly consulted with key cabinet members, especially the powerful Secretary of the Treasury, Oliver Wolcott, Jr.[73] Adams was in other respects quite independent of his cabinet, often making decisions despite strong opposition from it. Such self-reliance 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 detachment from European affairs that Washington had sought. It also had psychological benefits, allowing America to view itself as holding its own against a European power.[69]

Historian George Herring argues that Adams was the most independent-minded of the founders.[74] Though he aligned with the Federalists, he was somewhat a party unto himself, disagreeing with the Federalists as much as he did the Democratic-Republicans.[75] He was often described as "prickly", but his tenacity was fed by good decisions made in the face of universal opposition.[74] Adams was often combative, 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."[76] Adams' resolve to advance peace with France, rather than to continue hostilities, especially reduced his popularity.[77] This played an important role in his reelection defeat, however he was so pleased with the outcome that he had it engraved on his tombstone. Adams spent much of his term at home in Massachusetts, ignoring the details of political patronage nursed by other office holders.[78]

Quasi-War and peace with France

The president's term was marked by disputes concerning the country's role, if any, in the expanding conflict in Europe, where Britain and France were at war. Hamilton and the Federalists supported Britain, while Jefferson and the Democratic-Republicans favored France.[79] The French had supported Jefferson for president and became even more belligerent at his loss.[80] When Adams entered office, he decided to continue Washington's policy of staying out of the European war. The intense battle over the Jay Treaty in 1795 had previously polarized politics throughout the nation.[81] 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.[82][83]

A political cartoon depicts the XYZ Affair – America is a female being plundered by Frenchmen. (1798)

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 pro-French Jeffersonians lost support and quickly became the minority as many began to demand full-scale war. The affair heightened fears of sedition by the administration's opponents and legislation was introduced in response. The president knew that America would be unable to win a conflict, as France at the time was dominating the fight in most of Europe. Adams therefore pursued a strategy whereby American ships harassed French ships in an effort sufficient to stem the French assaults on American interests. This was the undeclared naval war between the U.S. and France–the Quasi-War which broke out in 1798.[81]

There was danger of invasion from the more powerful French forces, so Adams and the Federalist congress built up the army, bringing back Washington as its commander. Washington wanted Hamilton to be his second-in-command and Adams reluctantly accommodated.[84] It became apparent that Hamilton was truly in charge due to Washington's advanced years. 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."[81]

Adams also rebuilt the Navy, adding six fast, powerful frigates, most notably the USS Constitution. To pay for the military buildup, Congress imposed new taxes on property: the Direct Tax of 1798.[82][85] It was the first (and last) such federal tax. Taxpayers were angered, 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.[86][87]

Hamilton assumed control in the War department, and the rift between Adams' and Hamilton's supporters widened. Many sought to vest Hamilton with command authority over the army, and they also resisted giving prominent Democratic-Republicans positions in the army, which Adams wanted to do in order to gain bipartisan 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, patriotic sentiments and a series of naval victories, popularized the war as well as the president.[88]

In February 1799, Adams surprised many 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.[89] Adams proudly avoided war, but deeply split his party in the process.[90]

Alien and Sedition Acts

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

Despite the discredit of the XYZ Affair, the Democratic-Republicans' opposition persisted. In the midst of war, which included the reign of terror during the French Revolution, political tensions were incendiary. Some pro-French Democratic-Republicans even fostered a movement in America, similar to the French Revolution, to overthrow the Federalists.[91] When Democratic-Republicans in some states refused to enforce federal laws, some Federalists voiced the intention to send in an army and force them to capitulate. As the hostility sweeping Europe bled over into America, calls for secession began to reach new heights.[92] Some Federalists accused the French and their associated immigrants of provoking civil unrest. In an attempt to quell the uprising, the Federalists introduced, and the Congress passed, a series of laws collectively referred to as the Alien and Sedition Acts, which were signed by Adams in 1798.[81]

Congress specifically passed four measures – the Naturalization Act, the Alien Friends Act, the Alien Enemies Act and the Sedition Act. These statutes were designed to mitigate the threat of secessionists by disallowing their most extreme firebrands. The Naturalization Act increased to 14 years the period of residence required for an immigrant to attain American citizenship (naturalized citizens tended to vote for the Democratic-Republicans.) The Alien Friends Act and the Alien Enemies Act allowed the president to deport any foreigner (from friendly and hostile nations, respectively) which he considered 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 promoted any of these acts, he signed them into law.[69]

The acts became controversial from prosecution thereunder of a Congressman and a number of newspaper editors. Indeed, the Federalist administration initiated fourteen or more indictments under the Sedition Act, as well as suits against five of the six most prominent Democratic-Republican newspapers. The majority of the legal actions began in 1798 and 1799, and went to trial on the eve of the 1800 presidential election–timing that hardly appeared coincidental, according to biographer Ferling. Other historians have cited evidence that the Alien and Sedition Acts were rarely enforced, namely: 1) only 10 convictions under the Sedition Act have been identified; 2) Adams never signed a deportation order; and 3) the sources of expressed furor over the acts were Democratic-Republicans. However, other historians have emphasized that the Acts were employed for political targeting from the outset, causing many aliens to leave the country. The Acts as well allowed for prosecution of many who opposed the Federalists, even on the floor of Congress.[93] In any case, the election of 1800 in fact became a bitter and volatile contest, with each side expressing extraordinary fear of the other and its policies; after Democratic-Republicans prevailed in the elections of 1800, they used the acts against Federalists before the laws finally expired.[81]

Election of 1800

1800 Electoral College Vote

The death of Washington in 1799 weakened the Federalists, as they lost the one man who 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 providing the decisive margin.[94]

Adams' defeat resulted from 1) the stronger organization of the Democratic-Republicans, 2) Federalist disunity, 3) the controversy of the Alien and Sedition Acts, 4) the popularity of Jefferson in the south and 5) the effective politicking of Aaron Burr in New York State, where the legislature shifted from Federalist to Democratic-Republican on the basis of a few wards in New York City controlled by Burr's machine.[94]

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.[95][96] "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."[97]

After his defeat in the hotly contested election, Adams was depressed when he left office. His son Charles had also recently died from alcoholism, and he 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 scholars have attributed to him.[94]

Administration and cabinet

The Adams Cabinet
Office Name Term
President John Adams 1797–1801
Vice President Thomas Jefferson 1797–1801
Secretary of State Timothy Pickering 1797–1800
John Marshall 1800–1801
Secretary of Treasury Oliver Wolcott, Jr. 1797–1801
Samuel Dexter 1801
Secretary of War James McHenry 1796–1800
Samuel Dexter 1800–1801
Attorney General Charles Lee 1797–1801
Secretary of the Navy Benjamin Stoddert 1798–1801

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
Chief Justice John Marshall (1832)

Adams named John Marshall as the fourth Chief Justice of the United States to succeed Oliver Ellsworth, who had retired due to ill health. Marshall's long tenure represents the most lasting influence of the Federalists, as he 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.[94]

Other judicial appointments

The lame-duck session of Congress in late 1800 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 1800–the party had lost control of both houses of congress in addition to the White House.[98] Adams filled the vacancies created in this statute by appointing a series of judges, whom his opponents called the "Midnight Judges" because most of them were appointed just days before his 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 federal courts to their original structure as specified in the 1789 statute.[99]


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; he also began work on an autobiography (which he never finished) and resumed correspondence with such old friends as Benjamin Waterhouse and Benjamin Rush.[100]

After Jefferson's retirement from public life in 1809, Adams became more vocal. He published a three-year marathon of letters in the Boston Patriot newspaper, refuting line-by-line an 1800 pamphlet by Hamilton which attacked his conduct and character. Though Hamilton had died in 1804 in a duel with Aaron Burr, Adams felt the need to vindicate his character against the New Yorker's vehement charges.[100]

The years of retirement in the Adams' household were not without some 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.[100]

Daughter Abigail ("Nabby") was married to Representative William Stephens Smith, but she returned to her parents' home after the failure of the marriage; she died of breast cancer in 1813. His wife Abigail died of typhoid on October 28, 1818. His son Thomas and wife Ann, along with seven children, lived with Adams to the end of Adams' life, as well as Louisa Smith (Abigail's niece by her brother William).[100] Sixteen months before John Adams' death, his son, John Quincy Adams, became the sixth president of the United States in 1825, the only son to succeed his father as President until George W. Bush in 2001.[101]

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 them to reach out to the other. On New Year's Day 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 cordial letter, and the two men revived their friendship, which they sustained by mail. The correspondence that they resumed in 1812 lasted the rest of their lives, and has been hailed as among their great legacies of American literature.[100]

Their letters represent an insight into both the period and the minds of the two revolutionary leaders and Presidents. The missives lasted fourteen years, and consisted of 158 letters–109 from Adams and 49 from Jefferson.[100] 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 [aristocrats] into the offices of government?"[102] 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.[103]


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 John Adams (far) and John Quincy Adams (near), in family crypt at United First Parish Church.

Less than a month before his death, 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."[104]

On July 4, 1826, the fiftieth anniversary of the adoption of the Declaration of Independence, Adams died at his home in Quincy, at approximately 6:20 PM.[105] Jefferson died earlier the same day.[106] Adams' crypt lies at United First Parish Church in Quincy, Massachusetts, with his wife Abigail and son John Quincy Adams.[107] When Adams died, his last words included an acknowledgement of his longtime friend and rival: "Thomas Jefferson survives", though Adams was unaware that Jefferson had died several hours before.[108][109]

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."[110] 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.[111] 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."[111] He also was against use of black soldiers in the Revolution, due to opposition from southerners.[111] 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.[112] Abigail Adams, on the other hand, vocally opposed slavery.[8]

Accusations of monarchism

Throughout his lifetime Adams expressed controversial and shifting views regarding the virtues of monarchical and hereditary political institutions.[113] At times he conveyed substantial support for these approaches,[114] suggesting for example that "hereditary monarchy or aristocracy" are the "only institutions that can possibly preserve the laws and liberties of the people."[114] 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."[115] Such denials did not assuage his critics, and Adams was often accused of being a Monarchist.[116]

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".[116] 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."[117] 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."[118]

Religious views

Adams was raised a Congregationalist, since his ancestors were Puritans. According to biographer McCullough, "as his family and friends knew, Adams was both a devout Christian, and an independent thinker".[119] 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.[120] Adams was educated at Harvard when the influence of deism was growing there, and sometimes used deistic terms in his speeches and writing.[121] 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.[122] 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.[123] 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."[124]

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."[125] Frazer further argues that Adams' "theistic rationalism, like that of the other Founders, was a sort of middle ground between Protestantism and deism."[126] By contrast, David L. Holmes has argued that 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.[127] Like many of his Protestant contemporaries, Adams criticized the claims to universal authority made by the Roman Catholic Church.[69] 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."[128]


Adams' grandson Charles Francis Adams, Sr. edited the first two volumes of The Works of John Adams, Esq., Second President of the United States. This was published between 1850 and 1856 by Charles C. Little and James Brown in Boston. The first seven chapters were produced by Adams' son John Quincy Adams.[129]

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 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 1992, the Revolutionary War historian and biographer John E. Ferling published his acclaimed John Adams, also noted for its psychological sensitivity.[129]

In 2001, historian David McCullough published a biography entitled John Adams, that won various awards. McCullough's biography was the basis for a 2008 TV miniseries.[130]

See also


  1. ^ "John Adams". Retrieved October 15, 2013. 
  2. ^ "John Adams (1735–1826)". BBC. Retrieved October 15, 2013. 
  3. ^ a b Adams, John (December 1770). Argument in Defense of the Soldiers in the Boston Massacre Trials. 
  4. ^ "John Adams I (Frigate) 1799–1867". Retrieved August 22, 2015. 
  5. ^ Ferling, ch. 18.
  6. ^ Ferling, ch. 20.
  7. ^ "John Adams (1735-1826)". American History Central. Retrieved September 25, 2015. 
  8. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Ferling, ch. 1.
  9. ^ BBC website; recalled 13 November 2015
  10. ^ website; recalled 13 November 2015.
  11. ^ Congressional Record, V. 144, Pt. 1, January 27, 1998 to February 13 1998 accessed 13 November 2015
  12. ^; accessed 13 November 2015
  13. ^ a b Brookhiser, Richard. (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 October 15, 2013. 
  15. ^ "Obama joins list of seven presidents with Harvard degrees". Retrieved December 5, 2011. 
  16. ^ a b Ferling, ch. 2.
  17. ^ a b c d e f Ferling, ch. 3.
  18. ^ Ferling ch. 3.
  19. ^ Kathryn Cullen-DuPont. "Encyclopedia of Women's History in America". Infobase Publishing. pp. 3–4. ISBN 978-0-8160-4100-8. Retrieved November 28, 2011. 
  20. ^ Mayhew, Rev. Jonathan (1750). "Discourse Concerning Unlimited Submission and Non-resistance to the Higher Powers". Ashbrook Center. Retrieved August 22, 2015. 
  21. ^ McCullough, p. 63.
  22. ^ a b c d Ferling, ch. 4.
  23. ^ Williamson, Hugh P. (1968). "John Adams: Counsellor of Courage". American Bar Association Journal. 
  24. ^ "Private Thoughts of a Founding Father". Life. June 30, 1961. p. 82.
  25. ^ "American Experience – John & Abigail Adams – Timeline – PBS". Retrieved September 7, 2015. 
  26. ^ Ferling, ch. 6.
  27. ^ a b c d Ferling, ch. 7.
  28. ^ "Adams Time Line". Massachusetts Historical Society. Retrieved August 22, 2015. 
  29. ^ Wood, Gordon S. (1992). The Radicalism of the American Revolution. Vintage Books. ISBN 0679736883.
  30. ^ a b Ferling, ch. 9.
  31. ^ Adams, Vol. IV, p. 195, "Thoughts on Government"
  32. ^ a b c d e Ferling, ch. 12.
  33. ^ Maier, p. 37.
  34. ^ a b Ferling, ch. 8.
  35. ^ Boyd, p. 21.
  36. ^ Boyd, p. 22.
  37. ^ Maier, pp. 97–105.
  38. ^ Jefferson, Thomas. To William P. Gardner. The Works of Thomas Jefferson. Federal Edition (New York and London, G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1904–5). Vol. 11.
  39. ^ McCullough, pp. 153–157.
  40. ^ Gruber, Ira (1972). The Howe Brothers and the American Revolution. Atheneum Press. p. 118. 
  41. ^ McCullough, p. 157.
  42. ^ McCullough, p. 158.
  43. ^ Ferling, ch. 10.
  44. ^ Ellis, p. 42.
  45. ^ Ellis, pp. 41–42.
  46. ^ a b c d Ferling, ch. 11.
  47. ^ McCullough, pp. 180–187.
  48. ^ McCullough, p. 179.
  49. ^ The National Academy of Sciences: The First Hundred Years, 1863–1963. National Academies Press. 1978-01-15. p. 7. ISBN 0309557453. Retrieved July 28, 2014. 
  50. ^ "Charter of Incorporation of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences". American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Retrieved July 28, 2014. 
  51. ^ Smith, Page. John Adams 1735–1784, Vol. I. p. 451.
  52. ^ Ferling, ch. 11–12.
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Primary sources

Further reading

  • Brinkley, Alan, and Davis Dyer, eds. (2004)The American Presidency. Boston: Houghton Mifflin company,
  • Brown, Ralph A. (2004), The Presidency of John Adams.
  • Chinard, Gilbert. (1933), Honest John Adams.
  • Freeman, Joanne B. Affairs of Honor: National Politics in the New Republic. (2001)
  • Grant, James. John Adams: Party of One.(2005)
  • Haraszti, Zoltan. (1952), John Adams and the Prophets of Progress. Incisive analysis of John Adams' political comments on numerous authors through examining his marginalia in his copies of their books.
  • Howe, John R., Jr. (1966), The Changing Political Thought of John Adams
  • Knollenberg, Bernard. (2003), Growth of the American Revolution: 1766–1775,
  • Ryerson, Richard Alan, ed. (2001), John Adams and the Founding of the Republic
  • Sharp, James Roger. American Politics in the Early Republic: The New Nation in Crisis. (1995)
  • 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. (2013), A Companion to John Adams and John Quincy Adams
  • White, Leonard D. (1956), The Federalists: A Study in Administrative History

External links