Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2784
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 United States’ first minister to the Court of St. James in 1785. He spent three years there, trying with little success to iron out problems between the United States and England (mostly involving noncompliance with the peace treaty).
While in London, he wrote the three-volume A Defense of the Constitutions of Government of the United States of America (1787), in which he explained his conservative and primarily English approach to the proper constitution of civil governments. The work was frank in its praise of the basic principles of the British constitution and earnest in its cautions about the risks of letting government rely too heavily on popular majorities to determine policy and law. Indeed, some Americans began to consider Adams soft on aristocracy and even monarchy. The first volume of A Defense of the Constitutions of Government of the United States of America appeared in time to influence the thinking of delegates at the Constitutional Convention.
Adams returned home in 1788, and he was chosen as George Washington’s vice president under the new Constitution of 1787. He did not like the job. “My country,” he wrote to his wife, “has in its wisdom contrived for me the most insignificant office that ever the invention of man contrived or his imagination conceived.” For the next eight years, nevertheless, he served Washington loyally, presiding over the Senate and breaking tie votes in favor of Federalist policies. His reward came in 1797, when, as Washington’s chosen successor, Adams defeated Jefferson and became the second president of the United States.
Adams’ presidency was at best only a partial success. He had hoped, as Washington had in 1789, to become president of a united people. By the time he took office, however, the people had already divided themselves into two rival political parties: the Federalists (ostensibly led by Adams) and the National (or Jeffersonian) Republicans, led by Adams’ vice president and old friend, Thomas Jefferson. Further, world affairs all but guaranteed that his presidency would be troubled. As Adams took office, for example, the United States was already dangerously close to war with France. The French, who had already fought their own revolution and created a republic of sorts, were at war with England and were angry that the United States had refused to aid France. By 1797, the French were beginning to seize American ships on the high seas. When American peace commissioners, whom Adams had sent to France to try to work things out short of war, reported that the French had demanded bribes to begin serious negotiations, Americans reacted angrily. Adams asked Congress to prepare for a war that seemed inevitable, but, at the same time, he refused to abandon his efforts to avoid it if possible. For the remainder of his presidency, Adams stuck to the same policy—prepare for war, but work for peace—until (just as he left office) it yielded a new treaty of amity between the United States and France.
In the meanwhile, the Federalist Party, influenced by Alexander Hamilton more than by Adams, forced through Congress very high (and very unpopular) taxes to pay for the war which they confidently expected to begin at any moment. Moreover, Federalist congressmen passed, and Adams signed, the unpopular Alien and Sedition acts in 1798. The first act raised the number of years an immigrant had to live in the country before becoming a citizen to fourteen and was evidently designed to prevent recent Irish immigrants from voting against Federalists, whom they rightly believed to be pro-English. The second, the Sedition Act, made the publication of virtually all criticism of federal officials a crime. Both laws lost whatever legitimacy they may have had in the eyes of the public when the supposedly imminent war, which might have justified them as national defense measures, failed to come. Federalist judges and prosecutors enforced the laws anyway, jailing, for example, several prominent Republican newspaper editors for violating the Sedition Act by criticizing Adams (though no Federalist editor ever went to jail for vilifying Jefferson). The partisan application of the law left Adams and the Federalists saddled with a reputation as opponents of free speech as the election of 1800 approached. Adams was further crippled by growing divisions in his own party (Hamilton actually campaigned against him) and by the slow pace at which his diplomacy worked. Most voters did not know, for example, until after they had voted, that Adams’ policy had succeeded and that a lasting peace with France had been arranged.
In the election of 1800, Adams lost to Jefferson by eight electoral votes. Exhausted, bitterly disappointed, and tired as well of the constant bickering and criticism, public and private, of the last four years, Adams retired from public life on the day Jefferson was inaugurated. He returned to his home in Quincy to spend his time farming, reading, and writing an occasional essay on law or history. He died on July 4, 1826, a few hours after his great antagonist and greater friend, Jefferson, died in Virginia.
Throughout his life, Adams never got the praise he thought was his due. He was an important writer in the years preceding independence, but none of his writings had the broad impact of John Dickinson’s Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania, to the Inhabitants of the British Colonies (1767-1768) or the great popular appeal of Thomas Paine’s Common Sense (although in the long run, through his writings on government and constitutions, Adams contributed as much or more to the development of republican constitutional thought than all but two or three of the founders). His work in Europe negotiating the peace treaty of 1783 was at times brilliant, but it was the colorful and cunningly rustic Benjamin Franklin who caught the public’s eye. Adams was president of the United States, but he immediately followed Washington in that office and inevitably Americans compared the two and found Adams the lesser president. Adams claimed that he did not seek the people’s praises, but all of his life he watched men who were no more intelligent than he, no more dedicated to the Republic, and no more successful in serving it, win the kind of warm public applause that seemed beyond his grasp. He was respected but not revered, and he knew it.
Broadly speaking, Adams made three major contributions to the Revolution and the new Republic. First, he worked in Massachusetts and in Congress to keep the Revolution from running amok and destroying what was good in the British political tradition. He demonstrated to skeptical Tories and doubtful rebels, by both his words and his work, that independence need not be an invitation to anarchy, despotism, or mob rule, and so he helped make independence an acceptable alternative to submission. Second, he (with Jay and Franklin) protected American interests in the double-dealing diplomatic atmosphere of Paris and London during the war, and won for the Republic a treaty that secured its independence as well as the vast undeveloped territories and other economic resources it needed to survive and develop. Third, as president, he kept the new Republic out of what would have been a bitter, divisive war fought under a new, untested Constitution; thanks to Adams’ skillful foreign policy, the Republic did not have to face its first war under the Constitution for another twelve years. Yet Adams never completely accepted the more democratic implications of the Revolution, and so, by the end of his career, he was both one of the most important of the Republic’s founders and one of the least appreciated.
Bowen, Catherine Drinker. John Adams and the American Revolution. Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1950. As much novel as history: Much of the book’s dialogue was created by Bowen. Nevertheless, the book is generally historically accurate and is beautifully written. Conveys a more rounded picture of Adams than most strictly historical biographies do.
Butterfield, H. L., et al., eds. The Book of Abigail and John: Selected Letters of the Adams Family, 1762-1784. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1975. An excellent way to discover John and Abigail through their own words. Their letters to each other illustrate their remarkable relationship and the private and public worlds in which they lived.
Cappon, Lester J., ed. The Adams-Jefferson Letters: The Complete Correspondence Between Thomas Jefferson and Abigail and John Adams. 2 vols. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1959. Covers the years 1777 to 1826. Excellent in conveying the revolutionary and early national periods through Adams’ eyes. The letters following 1812 are remarkable. In them, the two aging rebels reminisce about the Revolution and their presidencies and speculate about the nation’s future.
Ellis, Joseph J. Passionate Sage: The Character and Legacy of John Adams. New York: Norton, 1993.
Ferling, John E. John Adams: A Life. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1992.
Jensen, Merrill. The Founding of a Nation: A History of the American Revolution, 1763-1776. New York: Oxford University Press, 1968. One of the best accounts of the origins and events of the Revolution from the Grenville Program of 1763 to the Declaration of Independence. Narrative in form, scholarly, and nicely written.
Kurtz, Stephen G. The Presidency of John Adams: The Collapse of Federalism, 1795-1800. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1957. Good basic account of Adams’ term in office and its impact on the Federalist Party. More recent studies are less well written and add little except detail to Kurtz’s account.
Morris, Richard B. The Peacemakers: The Great Powers and American Independence. New York: Harper and Row, Publishers, 1965. The best available account of the negotiations leading to peace in 1783. Highly detailed, but Morris writes well. Not all of his judgments about the motives of the men and governments involved are convincing, but most are.
Shaw, Peter. The Character of John Adams. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1976. Examines Adams’ ideas in the light of his background (especially his Puritan background) and his personal experiences at each stage of his life and career. Controversial but interesting and insightful.
Smith, Page. John Adams. 2 vols. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday and Co., 1962. The most complete and detailed life of Adams available, although at times, oppressively detailed. Especially helpful as a source for a good, thorough chapter or two on particular incidents or periods of Adams’ life.
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