Article abstract: As a member of the Continental Congress, Adams helped bring the American Colonies to the point of independence in 1776. As one of the new nation’s first diplomats, he helped negotiate the treaty that ended the American War of Independence. He was the second president of the United States.
John Adams was born on October 30, 1735, in Braintree, Massachusetts, where his family had lived for nearly a century. His father was a farmer and a town constable who expected his eldest son, John, to become a Congregational minister. The young Adams attended the Free Latin School in Braintree and then enrolled at Harvard College in 1751. On graduation in 1755, he taught school for a while at Worcester before deciding to abandon the ministry to take up law instead. In 1758, the intelligent, studious Adams returned to Braintree to practice law in what was still a country town only ten miles from Boston.
Six years later, he married Abigail Smith of Quincy, Massachusetts, a woman who matched him in intelligence and ambition and perhaps exceeded him in practicality. Short and already stocky (colleagues later called him rotund), Adams seemed to be settling into the life of a successful country courthouse lawyer who might, in time, aspire to a seat in the legislature when, in 1765, Parliament altered American Colonial politics forever by passing the Stamp Act. The ensuing Stamp Act crisis offered to the ambitious Adams a quick route to popularity, influence, and public office. He did not miss his chance.
In 1765, Adams denounced the Stamp Tax in resolutions written for the Braintree Town Meeting. When they were reprinted around the colony, his reputation as an opponent of British arrogance began to grow. Those in Boston who led the opposition to English taxes (including John’s distant relative, Samuel Adams) began to bring him more actively into their campaigns. He moved to Boston and won a seat in the Massachusetts General Court. He became, in effect, the local antigovernment party’s lawyer, writing some of its more important public papers for the Boston Town Meeting and defending its members in court against charges brought by the Crown.
When Parliament answered the Boston Tea Party with the Intolerable Acts in 1774, the General Court chose Adams as a delegate to the intercolonial congress scheduled to meet in Philadelphia that fall, to discuss what the Colonies should do. He wrote a “Declaration of Rights,” which the First Continental Congress adopted, that based Colonial rights to self-government not only on their charters and on the inherent rights of Englishmen but also on “the immutable laws of nature.” Those were the grounds on which many colonists would soon challenge not merely England’s right to tax them, but England’s right to govern them at all. In good part, those were the grounds that underlay the Declaration of Independence.
Before the Congress met again, war began at Lexington in April, 1775. When Adams arrived at the Second Continental Congress in the spring of 1775, he already believed that the only true constitutional connection between the Colonies and England was through the king—a position he set out in newspaper essays signed “Novanglus.” He had not yet, however, openly called for a severing of all ties to the mother country. He had seen the colonists’ rage run out of bounds in the Stamp Act riots of 1765. He had been disturbed and angered by the joy with which some colonists greeted the closing of civil and criminal courts in Massachusetts when British authority collapsed in the colony. He was worried that a revolution might get out of hand and establish not liberty, but mob rule. Although such worries stayed very much in his mind, by the time the Second Continental Congress met, Adams realized that there were no practical alternatives left but armed resistance or submission to Parliament. At the Congress, therefore, he worked both openly and by guile to bring reluctant and sometimes timid delegates to accept the inevitability of independence. When the Congress finally agreed to act, after more than a year of war, it was Adams who wrestled Thomas Jefferson’s declaration through to adoption on July 4, 1776.
Adams had applauded Thomas Paine’s Common Sense when it appeared in January, 1776, but he disliked the very democratic plan of government advocated by Paine. The kind of government Adams favored can be seen most clearly in the plan he drew up for Massachusetts’ revolutionary constitution. Adams thought the purpose of the Revolution was to preserve old liberties, not to establish new ones, and that the new Constitution ought to conserve as much of England’s admirable constitutional heritage as possible. The constitution he drafted included relatively high property qualifications for voting and holding office (to ensure stability); it left the structure of Massachusetts’ government much as it had been before independence, except for replacing English officials with elected American ones.
For more than a year after independence, Adams served on a variety of committees in Congress and in Massachusetts, doing work that was as exhausting as it was important. In October, 1777, he withdrew from Congress and returned to Massachusetts, but in November, Congress named him one of its emissaries to France, charged with raising loans for the Republic across Europe and with negotiating treaties of friendship, trade, and alliance, especially with the French nation.
That alliance was concluded before Adams arrived at Paris, but he stayed on and was immediately caught up in the roiling jealousies that were endemic at the American mission there. Adams especially disliked and distrusted Benjamin Franklin, whose demeanor, integrity, honesty, and morals he judged inferior to his own. Adams returned to Massachusetts in August, 1779, but by December, he was back in France to help negotiate a peace treaty with England. He feuded with Franklin almost constantly over which of them was responsible for what in conducting the Republic’s diplomacy, but ultimately, all three peace commissioners (Adams, Franklin, and John Jay) agreed to negotiate a separate treaty between the United States and England, a treaty that did not directly involve France.
Though Franklin was responsible for the broad outlines of the agreement, Adams worked out some crucial compromises, without which the treaty may well have failed. Adams persuaded the English, for example, to concede to American fishing rights off the Newfoundland and Nova Scotia coasts in return for the new nation agreeing to open its courts to Loyalists. Adams stayed on for a year in France after the war ended in 1783, and then moved to London as the...
(The entire section is 2784 words.)