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  John Adams (1735–1826), by Gilbert Stuart, c.1800–15 John Adams (1735–1826), by Gilbert Stuart, c.1800–15
Adams, John (1735–1826), president of the United States of America, was born on 19 October 1735, in the north parish (in 1792 named Quincy) of Braintree, Suffolk county, Massachusetts, the eldest child of ‘Deacon’ John Adams (1692–1761), a local farmer, shoemaker, and office-holder, and his wife, Susanna, née Boylston (1709–1797), whose extended family was prominent in medicine and trade in Boston. Through both parents Adams was descended from early seventeenth-century English emigrants to Massachusetts.

Education and the law, 1740s–1774

In his youth John Adams loved outdoor pursuits and wanted only to be a farmer, but his father, hoping that his son would become a minister, placed him with a series of Braintree schoolmasters. The last of these finally ignited Adams's ardour for learning, and he entered Harvard College in 1751, excelled in mathematics, natural philosophy, and debating, and graduated in 1755. During his college years a rancorous dispute between Braintree's minister and his parishioners confirmed Adams's growing conviction that the pulpit was not for him, and in 1756 he began reading law with a Worcester attorney. In 1758 he returned to Braintree and was admitted to the county bar. After a faltering beginning, Adams made rapid progress and was admitted a barrister before the Massachusetts superior court in 1762.

Buoyed by his growing success and the inheritance of a house from his father, Adams wed Abigail Smith (1744–1818) of Weymouth on 25 October 1764. Marriage to this bright and spirited daughter of the Revd William Smith of Weymouth and Elizabeth Quincy, a member of Braintree's leading family, enhanced Adams's social status, but Abigail's great contributions to John's career were her willingness to endure long separations, her unshaken belief in his abilities, and her perceptive advice on people and events. The Adamses raised four children: Abigail (1765–1813), who married William Stephens Smith; John Quincy (1767–1848), who became America's leading diplomat and sixth president; Charles (1770–1800); and Thomas Boylston (1772–1832).

Like most eighteenth-century New England lawyers, Adams practised every kind of law that came his way, in courts from Cape Cod to the Maine frontier. Unlike most colonial lawyers he soon became a widely read and profound legal scholar. He felt that his progress was slow and painful, but within a dozen years he was regarded as the most learned and successful attorney in Massachusetts, a position confirmed by his brilliant defence of the British soldiers charged with the Boston massacre.

From his early twenties John Adams felt a keen hunger for fame. ‘Reputation’, he confessed to his diary in 1759, ‘ought to be the perpetual subject of my Thoughts, and the Aim of my Behavior’. Unlike many colonial lawyers, however, Adams sought renown largely within and through his profession, and did not regard the law as an avenue to public office, particularly elective office. He served for only two years as a Braintree selectman, and for just a single year in the Massachusetts legislature. Yet Adams was intensely involved in public life, from his drafting of Braintree's protest against the Stamp Act (1765) to his legal defence of John Hancock in the Liberty smuggling case (1768), of the British soldiers in the massacre trials (1770), and of the constitutional position of the Massachusetts legislature in its controversy with Governor Thomas Hutchinson (1773).

Adams also wrote many pseudonymous newspaper essays that sought to counter political faction and keep Massachusetts independent of the control of what he saw as a succession of corrupt British ministries. Some of these pieces, notably his ‘Dissertation on the canon and feudal law’ (1765) and ‘Independence of the judges’ (1773), made a rather limited case for colonial autonomy within the British empire. But the logic of his argument eventually drove Adams, as author of the Massachusetts house of representatives' replies to Governor Hutchinson, to declare well in advance of other colonial spokesmen that the British parliament had no absolute authority over Massachusetts whatsoever.

Convinced now of the gravity of the imperial crisis, the heretofore politically cautious John Adams welcomed the Boston Tea Party: ‘This Destruction of the Tea is so bold, so daring, so firm, intrepid and inflexible, … that I cant but consider it as an Epocha in History’ (Diary, 17 Dec 1773). Britain's parliament promptly responded by closing the port of Boston and altering Massachusetts's revered charter of 1692. To meet the crisis the Massachusetts house, in June 1774, named John Adams and four others to meet leaders from other colonies in the first continental congress in Philadelphia.

Congress and independence, 1774–1777

Adams's career as a lawyer and political theorist was already quite exceptional, but from his entering congress in September 1774 to his final departure in 1777 he displayed a level of energy, creativity, and political sensitivity that he had never shown before. Congress's task was difficult: to persuade or force the British parliament to rescind its Boston Port, Massachusetts Government, and other ‘intolerable’ acts, and reach a new accommodation with all the colonies over imperial taxation. Adams was mildly disappointed that congress even bothered to petition both George III and the British public, but was pleased with the measures in which he had a hand: a bold declaration of rights and its coercive companion, the non-importation Continental Association (October 1774). No member of congress took its work more seriously, as evidenced by the fact that Adams's diary and correspondence are the only contemporary record of many of that body's important deliberations.

Upon his return to Massachusetts in November, Adams found a vigorous patriot government controlling every town except Boston, home to General Thomas Gage's army. But loyalists were beginning to speak out, and when Daniel Leonard, as Massachusettensis, assaulted the work of congress, John Adams, as Novanglus (January–April 1775), replied in a series of learned essays that justified congressional resistance to a tyrannical ministry. Only a ‘republican’ government, he declared, could protect the people's liberties, and, in an argument unique among America's patriot leaders, he explained that such a government could be either a scrupulously constitutional hereditary monarchy—as he believed Britain's government had been before 1763—or a state dependent directly upon the authority of the people.

In April 1775 open warfare broke out at Lexington and Concord. Adams returned to congress, and in June led Massachusetts's delegates to propose that their forces, then besieging General Gage in Boston, become a continental army under congress's control and that George Washington be named its commander-in-chief. In congress's autumn session Adams threw himself into incessant committee work to supply the army and take the first steps toward establishing a navy, a venture to which he would return a quarter-century later when, as president, he initiated the establishment of the department of the navy (1798). By the spring of 1776 Adams, always a key member of congress, had become its single most important, and overworked, member.

Adams's first challenge in the new year, however, came from outside congress. Thomas Paine's Common Sense appeared in January and swept the colonies with its enthusiasm for independence, which Adams admired, and its preference for weak or non-existent executives, which he deplored. Several congressmen whose provinces were restructuring their governments turned to Adams for advice, and he responded with the most influential pamphlet of his career, Thoughts on Government (April 1776). Adams succinctly considered the role of the people, lower legislative houses, councils, executives, and qualifications for voting and office-holding, and, explicitly allowing for considerable variation from colony to colony, recommended a balance between two legislative chambers and a strong executive, a formula that would soon characterize most of America's new state governments. He then wrote congress's recommendation that every colony establish a government under which ‘every kind of authority under the [crown] should be totally suppressed, and all the powers of government exerted, under the authority of the people’ (Journals of the Continental Congress, May 1776, 4.358).

Adams now assumed the central role in each of congress's major decisions. Having been appointed in June to the committee to draft the Declaration of Independence, he assisted Thomas Jefferson in that endeavour, and on 1–2 July led the debate to approve independence itself. From June to September he laboured to produce congress's plan of treaties, America's first blueprint for its foreign policy. And again in June, he assumed the presidency of the board of war, the most demanding post in congress. Adams held this position until his departure from congress in November 1777.

Republican diplomacy, 1778–1788

Upon his return to Braintree, Adams believed that his national career, sustained at considerable financial and emotional cost to his family and himself, was well over, and he immediately resumed his law practice. Congress had other ideas, and in November 1777 appointed him to join its envoys Benjamin Franklin and Arthur Lee in Paris. Recognizing both congress's urgent need to bring order to its factious diplomatic commission and the signal honour it had given him, Adams promptly accepted, and in 1778 he set sail with his young son John Quincy Adams.

Having landed at Bordeaux in April, Adams learned that the commission had secured its first objective, a treaty of alliance with France, on 6 February, a week before he had left Boston. But there was still much to do, and over the next ten months he organized the commission's business, persuaded his colleagues to seek more French naval aid (in vain), and tried to steer a neutral course between the feuding Franklin and Lee. As a friend and ally of Virginia congressman Richard Henry Lee, Adams was widely expected to side with Lee's brother; however, Adams soon concluded that Arthur Lee was no diplomat, and that Franklin was the only envoy America needed in Paris. He discreetly suggested this measure to friends in congress, but the full body had already reached the same conclusion and, without formally dissolving the commission and recalling Adams and Lee, it named Franklin sole minister to Versailles.

Receiving the news in February 1779, Adams felt humiliated at this cavalier treatment, but was delighted to return home and resume his private career. This time his neighbours had other plans. In August he was elected to Massachusetts's constitutional convention. That body's drafting committee chose him to compose the constitution, and in the early autumn John Adams drafted an intricate, detailed, and remarkably clear organic law which, with modest changes in convention, became the Massachusetts constitution of 1780. This work, Adams's finest constitutional achievement, is the world's oldest written constitution still in operation.

But Adams had no time to admire his creation. In September congress named him sole minister-plenipotentiary to negotiate peace with Britain. Even Adams thought the appointment premature: the North ministry was in no mood to concede American independence. Moreover, Adams was posted to Paris, where congress directed him to co-ordinate his initiatives with America's only European ally. By early summer 1780, with little pressing work to do, Adams was drawn into quarrels with the French foreign minister, the comte de Vergennes (who wanted Adams to do nothing), over American currency devaluation, the level of French commitment to the naval war, and the public status of his own appointment.

John Adams was too enterprising to endure this confinement for long. His first initiative was to write several anonymous essays espousing peace with America, including A Translation of the Memorial to the Sovereigns of Europe upon the Present State of Affairs between the Old and New World [by Thomas Pownall] into Common Sense and Intelligible English, published in 1781, and Letters from a Distinguished American, published in 1782, both in London. These works, while making at best a modest contribution to concluding peace with Great Britain, powerfully explain Adams's distinctive view of international relations.

In July 1780 Adams took more direct action, moving to Holland even before receiving a commission to the Netherlands. There, in two years of lobbying, propaganda, and negotiation, he secured recognition of the United States (April 1782), America's first Dutch loan (June), and a treaty of amity and commerce (October). Congress, meanwhile, had revoked his appointment as sole peace-negotiator in favour of his heading a commission, which it directed to consult with France in all its negotiations. But Adams promptly followed his triumph in the Netherlands by returning to Paris: there he allied with John Jay to convince fellow commissioner Benjamin Franklin to ignore the comte de Vergennes and conclude the preliminary treaty (November 1782) that became the definitive treaty of peace with Britain (September 1783).

Adams's remaining years abroad were anticlimactic, but had their rewards. In October 1783 he first visited England with his son John Quincy, and in 1784 his wife and daughter joined him in Europe. His appointment as America's first minister to the court of St James's (1785–8) proved less fruitful than his joint commission of 1784–5 with Franklin and Jefferson to negotiate commercial treaties. Their collaboration, however, yielded only one treaty, with Prussia in 1785 (a second, with Morocco in 1786, followed Franklin's return to America). But a visit with Abigail to the Netherlands, where they witnessed the brief triumph of the republican patriot party over the prince of Orange (August–September 1786), stimulated Adams to begin his longest work, A Defence of the Constitutions of Government of the United States (London, 1787–8). This three-volume historical treatise, a defence of America's state constitutions, particularly Adams's Massachusetts constitution of 1780, propounded a separation and balance of powers between a two-house legislature, a powerful executive, and an independent judiciary. Although the Defence was of no help to the Dutch patriots, who were overwhelmed by the invading Prussian army before its completion, its first volume may have given some ammunition to the delegates in Philadelphia framing America's new federal constitution. As he was completing the work, Adams, who could not persuade the Pitt ministry to negotiate a commercial treaty with America, resigned his commissions to Britain and the Netherlands and returned to Massachusetts in the spring of 1788.

Federal executive, 1789–1801

Again Adams thought his public career might be at an end, but he did covet the potential in one new office, vice-president in the new federal government. It appeared to be the logical place from which to succeed the president apparent, George Washington. In the first federal elections his countrymen ratified Adams's ambition, but hardly with the unanimity they bestowed on the general.

His two-term vice-presidency (April 1789 – March 1797) keenly disappointed John Adams. His only duty was to preside over the US senate without speaking his opinion on any issue. His occasional inability to observe this rule and his support for quasi-monarchical titles for the presidency drew instant criticism from many senators. Adams was able to assist Washington by casting the greatest number of tie-breaking votes in the senate by any vice-president, but his unpopularity in the southern states and a distant relationship with Washington effectively locked him out of the president's informal counsels. He compounded his isolation by writing a series of newspaper essays, the Discourses on Davila (1790–91), that attacked the principles of the French Revolution while praising the virtues of powerful executives, and even of monarchs.

When Washington issued his farewell address (September 1796), Adams was still the logical if not inspiring choice for the general's federalist supporters. In a close election he defeated his old friend and new rival, Thomas Jefferson, leader of the opposition republicans. John Adams's one-term presidency (March 1797 – March 1801) was almost completely occupied with concerns over America's deteriorating relations with France, and the attendant division of most Americans into fiercely anti-French (federalist) and pro-French (republican) factions. His great achievement as president was to prevent full-scale war and conclude his term with a lasting peace with France.

The ‘quasi-war’ began with the French directory's decision to attack American neutral shipping that it saw as aiding its arch-enemy, Great Britain. Adams sent a peace mission to Paris, but the directory and its foreign minister, Tallyrand, demanded humiliating terms and a secret bribe, to agents labelled X, Y, and Z, before negotiations could begin. In 1798 Adams revealed the bribe offer and called for raising an army and creating a permanent navy. Congress concurred and, in measures that later generations of Americans would find the most unfortunate of Adams's presidency, it enacted an Alien Act to expel recent French and French-sympathizing immigrants and a Sedition Act to silence republican newspapers that libelled the president and his war policy. In July, at the height of his popularity, Adams signed both measures.

Almost immediately France signalled a reassessment of its policy, and in December 1798 Adams named new peace commissioners, to be dispatched when the time was ripe. When that time came, in October 1799, he faced fierce criticism both from congress and his own cabinet. By May 1800 the opposition of Alexander Hamilton's Anglophile and Francophobe high federalists had become intolerable, and Adams forced secretary of war James McHenry and secretary of state Timothy Pickering from office. America's negotiators concluded a lasting peace with France by the convention of Mortefontaine in October, but the widening split in federalist ranks had become irreparable with the appearance of Alexander Hamilton's savage Letter … Concerning the Public Conduct and Character of John Adams (September 1800), and Adams lost his bid for re-election to Thomas Jefferson.

John Adams's last months in office were dismal. His second son, Charles, whose profligacy had alienated Adams, died of acute alcoholism in November 1800, just as the president occupied the still uncompleted executive mansion in Washington. He did exert a continuing federalist influence on the government by his appointment of several new judges, notably Chief Justice John Marshall. But his estrangement from Jefferson prompted him to leave Washington early on inauguration day (4 March 1801), without seeing his successor take the oath of office.

Retirement and retrospective, 1801–1826

Upon his retirement Adams felt rejected and misunderstood, especially by those who had once been close friends and allies. He crossed swords with his one-time friend and now republican critic Mercy Otis Warren, and sought to justify his career privately in his incomplete autobiography (1802–7) and publicly in his letters published in the Boston Patriot (1809–12). Then, in 1812, at the urging of his friend Benjamin Rush, Adams renewed his correspondence with Thomas Jefferson. This remarkably charitable and even-tempered exchange of views on a wide range of subjects, continuing to the eve of their deaths in 1826, characterized Adams's last years. He still faced severe blows: the harshest were the deaths of his two Abigails, his daughter in 1813 and his wife in 1818. But America's growing pride in national union, following the Anglo-American War of 1812–14, and the course of John Quincy Adams's brilliant career gave Adams real pleasure, and assured him that America's grand experiment was not disintegrating so rapidly as he had once feared. At Quincy, Norfolk county, the end came, fittingly, on 4 July 1826, the fiftieth anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. Adams's last recorded words were: ‘Thomas Jefferson survives’ (Ellis, 210). But Jefferson died several hours before Adams, on this same bright day.

John Adams was a remarkable public figure from several perspectives. He was probably the most learned of America's ‘founding fathers’ in the fields of history, political theory, and the law, and his was an eminently practical learning. Called the Atlas of Independence in congress, he was America's foremost civilian leader, its master constitutional architect in the 1770s, and its most effective diplomatic negotiator in the 1780s. Yet Adams was seldom a popular leader and was never popular for long, even in New England. He often worked effectively with others, but his natural style was to think, write, and act on his own, often in isolation, not only in Europe, but as chief executive. His presidency was effective in defending America's basic national interests, but it was the least popular and possibly the least important of his major contributions to his nation. For his energy, integrity, and devotion to his country John Adams has always enjoyed a solid reputation, but his appeal to both scholars and laymen has waxed and waned repeatedly. As of this writing, however, both his political thought and his public career are attracting new admirers.

The man behind this exceptional career was equally distinctive. Socially and constitutionally conservative, and viewed by his opponents as nearly a monarchist, Adams was always a moderate and a pragmatist in his politics. In his strong cultural, intellectual, and scientific interests he was a progressive son of the Enlightenment, despite his dislike of the French philosophes. His Arminian and then Unitarian religious convictions placed him somewhere between orthodox Christianity and the deism of Franklin and Jefferson, a position that was not uncommon among his fellow parishioners in Braintree/Quincy. Above all, Adams believed that the great value of organized religion, like that of sound government, was in curbing the excesses of all men, including himself. Although he could display a fierce temper, he was at heart a warm and charitable man. Adams was never close to most of his colleagues on the national stage, but in a long and often contentious public career he seems to have taken deep personal offence to just two men, Benjamin Franklin and Alexander Hamilton.

In appearance Adams was somewhat below average height, stocky, and, as he aged, rather portly. Through much of his career he suffered from occasional severe fevers, persistent inflammation of the eyes, and several lesser ailments, possibly all of a chronic nature, but he reached his late eighties with all his faculties intact and able to walk 3 miles. He apparently died of simple heart failure at ninety years and eight months. Adams was buried in the first parish cemetery in Quincy, but his remains, with those of Abigail, were later removed to a crypt beneath the (Unitarian) First Church in that city.

Richard Alan Ryerson

Sources  

Adams papers, 1639–1889 (1954–9) [microfilm] · Diary and autobiography of John Adams, ed. L. H. Butterfield and others, 1–4 (1961) · Papers of John Adams, ed. R. J. Taylor and others, 10 vols. (1977–96) · L. H. Butterfield and others, eds., Adams family correspondence, [6 vols.] (1963–) · The works of John Adams, second president of the United States, ed. C. F. Adams, 10 vols. (1850–56) · Legal papers of John Adams, ed. L. K. Wroth and H. B. Zobel, 3 vols. (1965) · The Adams–Jefferson letters, ed. L. J. Cappon, 2 vols. (1959) · A. Oliver, ed., Portraits of John and Abigail Adams (1967) · J. Ferling, John Adams, a life (1992) · P. Smith, John Adams, 2 vols. (1962) · P. Shaw, The character of John Adams (1976) · J. J. Ellis, Passionate sage: the character and legacy of John Adams (1993) · Z. Haraszti, John Adams and the prophets of progress (1952) · C. B. Thompson, John Adams and the spirit of liberty (1998) · J. R. Howe, The changing political thought of John Adams (1966) · R. B. Morris, The peacemakers: the great powers and American independence (1965) · G. S. Wood, The creation of the American republic (1969) · J. W. S. Nordholdt, The Dutch republic and American independence (1982) · M. Dauer, The Adams federalists (1953) · A. De Conde, The quasi-war: the politics and diplomacy of the undeclared war with France (1966) · Records of the town of Braintree, 1640 to 1793, ed. S. A. Bates (1886)

Archives  

Archives Centrales de la Marine, Paris · Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris · L. Cong. · Mass. Hist. Soc., diaries, letters, letter-books, and papers · TNA: PRO · Paris, diplomatic archives · The Hague, diplomatic archives |  National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, DC, papers of the Continental Congress; records of the senate; executive department records


Likenesses  

B. Blyth, pastel drawing, 1766, Mass. Hist. Soc. · J. S. Copley, oils, 1783, Harvard U. · M. Brown, oils, 1788, Boston Athenaeum · J. Trumbull, oils, 1793, Harvard U. · G. Stuart, oils, c.1800–1815, National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC [see illus.] · J. B. Binon, marble bust, 1818, City of Boston (Faneuil Hall) · G. Stuart, oils, 1823, priv. coll. · J. Browere, plaster life mask, 1825, New York State Historical Association · C. Ferret de Saint-Mémin, crayon physiognotrace, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Wealth at death  

$43,089 incl. 240 acres of land in Quincy, valued at $18,665; $21,000 in public and private securities: inventory, 1826, probate court, Dedham, Massachusetts