John Adams Introduction

Start Your Free Trial

Download John Adams Study Guide

Subscribe Now

Introduction

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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...

(The entire section is 1,285 words.)