Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1285
John Adams 1735-1826
American president, diplomat, statesman, essayist, and autobiographer.
The second president of the United States, John Adams is considered one of the founding fathers of America, instrumental in winning support for the American Revolution and in formulating the Declaration of Independence. After the Revolutionary War, Adams wrote a number of essays that were highly influential in shaping the style and substance of the fledgling American government. These writings, as well as his overall contribution to the country, have received renewed attention in recent years as critics reassess Adams's place among the pantheon of great early Americans.
Adams was born in Braintree (now Quincy), Massachusetts in 1735, the eldest son of a New England farming family whose paternal ancestors had emigrated from England in the 1630s. His parents were John Adams, a church deacon, and Susanna Boylston, a member of a prominent Massachusetts family. Young Adams graduated from Harvard College in 1755 and had originally planned on becoming a minister but decided to study law instead. He was admitted to the Boston bar in 1758 and began practicing law and involving himself in town affairs. He married Abigail Smith, the daughter of a clergyman, in 1764. The couple had four children: Abby, John Quincy, Charles, and Thomas.
The passage of the Stamp Act in 1765 provoked a response from Adams in the form of a series of articles opposing British policy in the American colonies. Written originally for the Boston Gazette, these articles were published in England as A Dissertation on the Canon and Feudal Law. During the 1760s Adams continued to produce political essays and to build his law practice, and in 1770 he made the unpopular decision to defend the British soldiers involved in the Boston Massacre. For Adams, it was a matter of principle that all men were entitled to a fair trial and legal representation. He won the case and appeared to suffer no long-term consequences; he was, in fact, elected to the Massachusetts legislature shortly thereafter. In 1774 Adams was chosen as a delegate to the First Continental Congress in Philadelphia, where he was an early supporter of the independence movement. When the war broke out a year later, Adams backed George Washington as leader of the continental army and served on the committee charged with drafting the Declaration of Independence. Adams traveled to Europe to promote the cause of the Revolution on the diplomatic front and participated in the peace talks after the war. From 1785-88 he served as America's first minister to Great Britain, and from 1789-97 served as George Washington's vice president.
In 1796, Adams was elected to the presidency after a bitter campaign in which the Federalist faction led by Alexander Hamilton and the Republican faction led by Thomas Jefferson competed to determine the type of government the new country would embrace. Adams was a moderate Federalist, and although he and Jefferson never engaged directly in the dispute, the rancor that developed between them endured until 1813 when they broke their long, bitter silence and began an extensive correspondence.
The Adams administration was severely criticized, particularly by Jefferson, for passage of the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798 restricting individual liberties. In 1800 Adams lost his bid for reelection to Jefferson and retired to his farm in Quincy where he spent his days working on the farm and writing. He and Jefferson died within hours of each other on July 4, 1826, exactly 50 years after the signing of the Declaration of Independence.
Adams's writings primarily took the form of essays and correspondence. The most famous of his works is A Defence of the Constitutions of Government of the United States of America, a three-volume collection of essays published in 1787. Coupled with Discourses on Davila (1790), which Adams considered to be the fourth volume of the Defence, these essays outline his thinking on the form of government the new nation should adopt. Both works have been the subject of intense critical debate by Adams's contemporaries as well as by modern scholars, and Adams himself felt that his writings were much misunderstood. In retirement, he attempted to clarify some of these misunderstandings by writing his autobiography, published as Diary and Autobiography in 1961. Other works of interest include Adams's extensive correspondence with his wife and his letters to Jefferson after the two reconciled.
Critical response to Adams's writing centers on the controversy involving possible changes in his political philosophy from his pre-Revolutionary War days when he was a strong advocate of individual liberty and the late 1780s when he returned from Europe and published A Defence of the Constitutions of Government of the United States of America. Some scholars believe he became more conservative during his years abroad and even designate the years after his return the “aristocratic” phase following his earlier “democratic” period. Joyce Appleby believes that Adams consciously “reassessed the political affirmations he had formed as a revolutionary leader,” and, influenced by the writings of Jean Louis De Lolme, formulated a new, more conservative, position. Leslie Wharton disagrees, asserting that Adams's political philosophy remained relatively unchanged over the course of his public career. Adams himself, aware that the controversy over his perceived aristocratic sympathies was damaging his reputation, claimed he had been misunderstood. Joseph J. Ellis reports that “Adams kept insisting that he was not celebrating the enduring social divisions within America at all; he was only calling attention to their existence.” But whether his comments on social equality were intended to be prescriptive or merely descriptive, as he insisted, many scholars believe they cost him the election of 1800. Ellis explains that for Adams “to talk calmly of monarchy and aristocracy as elemental ingredients in the social equation was to challenge implicitly the inherently democratic character of the new American government.”
Another controversial aspect of Adams's legacy involves his personality and character. Often considered a vain man whose later years were taken up with an almost obsessive concern for his place in history, Adams publicly contended with his detractors and those figures of the American Revolution whose historical reputations surpassed his—such as Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine, and Patrick Henry. He modeled much of his writing on that of the ancient Roman hero Cicero and often compared his own diminished historical stature to that of Cicero during his later years. According to James M. Farrell, Adams “viewed the ancient Roman as a tragic hero who could help explain his own political decline and pending obscurity.” Farrell believes Adams's writing style accounts, in part, for that obscurity. Adams's Autobiography has received little critical attention because it is so difficult to read. The work, for Farrell, “cannot be classified as a sustained or complete literary work since its three sections are detached and unrelated.” Farrell explains that although the first section is composed as a narrative, “in the last two sections Adams gave up the narrative entirely and simply strung together diary entries, transcripts of official letters, and occasional character sketches.”
Another critic of Adams's writing style is Joseph Ellis, who claims that “in his formal writings as in his conversation, Adams careened off one subject into another like the proverbial loose cannon on a slippery deck. The artifice required to implement a large design over many pages was not in him.”
Helen Saltzberg Saltman blames some of the problems associated with Adams's historical reputation on Charles Francis Adams, the first editor of his grandfather's papers. According to Saltman, the senior Adams was far less pompous than his representation in that early collection suggests. She has examined Adams's own account of his early years and insists that it reveals “a passionate young man who desired recognition, a man with a keen love of nature, a discerning sense of human nature, and a fine sense of humor.”
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