John Adams Essay - Critical Essays

Adams, John


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 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 Reception

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.”

Principal Works

A Dissertation on the Canon and Feudal Law (essay) 1765

Thoughts on Government (essay) 1776

A Defence of the Constitutions of Government of the United States of America 3 vols. (essays) 1787

Discourses on Davila (essay) 1790

The Works of John Adams, Second President of the United States (autobiography, essays, letters) 1850-56

The Correspondence of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson (letters) 1925

Diary and Autobiography (autobiography) 1961


John W. Ellsworth (essay date 1965)

SOURCE: “John Adams: The American Revolution as a Change of Heart?” in Huntington Library Quarterly, Vol. 28, No. 4, August, 1965, pp. 293-300.

[In the following essay, Ellsworth studies Adams's famous comment that the Revolutionary War followed the real revolution, which took place in the hearts and minds of the colonists well before the commencement of hostilities.]

John Adams has lent much support to those historians who interpret the American Revolution as caused by slow changes in the sentiments of the American colonists. The main source of this interpretation, in Adams' writings, is a letter addressed to Dr. J. Morse in 1815.1 Here Adams remarked...

(The entire section is 3044 words.)

Wendy Martin (essay date 1975)

SOURCE: “Editorial: Correspondence of John and Abigail Adams—Considerations for the Bicentennial” in Women's Studies, Vol. 3, No. 1, 1975, pp. 1-3.

[In the following essay, Martin asserts that Adams believed women were irrational and that their participation in politics posed a threat to the social order.]

Abigail Adams is often remembered for her admonition to her husband to “remember the ladies” when framing the constitution. On March 31, 1776, she informs him that “if particular care and attention is not paid to the ladies, we are determined to foment a rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any laws in which we have no voice or...

(The entire section is 917 words.)

Cecilia Tichi (essay date 1977)

SOURCE: “Worried Celebrants of the American Revolution,” in American Literature 1764-1789: The Revolutionary Years, edited by Everett Emerson, University of Wisconsin Press, 1977, pp. 275-91.

[In the following excerpt, Tichi studies the concerns of Adams, who, along with Benjamin Rush and Mercy Otis Warren, worried about the accurate historical representation of the events of the American Revolution.]


In 1815, eleven years before the jubilee of the American Revolution, John Adams began a letter to Jefferson with three crucial questions: “Who shall write the history of the American revolution? Who can write it? Who will ever be able to...

(The entire section is 3688 words.)

Leslie Wharton (essay date 1980)

SOURCE: “The New England Federalism of John Adams,” in Polity and the Public Good: Conflicting Theories of Republican Government in the New Nation, UMI Research Press, 1980, pp. 33-55.

[In the following essay, Wharton explores the apparent ideological split between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson in the years following the American Revolution and maintains that, contrary to popular belief, Adams's political philosophy remained fundamentally consistent throughout this period.]

John Adams, like Taylor and Jefferson, was concerned with establishing a form of government in America that would ensure the happiness, prosperity, and liberty of the American people. Like his...

(The entire section is 13261 words.)

Joyce Appleby (essay date 1992)

SOURCE: “John Adams and the New Republican Synthesis,” in Liberalism and Republicanism in the Historical Imagination, Harvard University Press, 1992, pp. 188-209.

[In the following essay, Appleby traces the changes in Adams's political philosophy from the time of the American Revolution to the publication of his Defence of the Constitutions of Government of the United States of America in 1787.]

Early American historians have created a new republican synthesis which attempts to explain how colonial agitators became Founding Fathers.1 The historians who have produced this synthesis began by exploring the central role which certain key ideas had in...

(The entire section is 7956 words.)

Joseph J. Ellis (essay date 1993)

SOURCE: “Erudite Effusions,” in Passionate Sage: The Character and Legacy of John Adams, W. W. Norton & Company, 1993, pp. 143-73.

[In the following essay, Ellis examines Adams's defense of his political philosophy through his correspondence with John Taylor, the main critic of Adams's A Defence of the Constitutions of Government of the United States of America.]

I am willing to allow your Phylosophers your opinion of the universal Gravitation of Matter, if you will allow mine that there is in some souls a principle of absolute Levity that buoys them irresistably into the Clouds … an uncontroulable Tendency to ascend. … This I take to...

(The entire section is 13638 words.)

James M. Farrell (essay date 1995)

SOURCE: “Letters and Political Judgment: John Adams and Cicero's Style,” in Studies in Eighteenth-Century Culture, Vol. 24, 1995, pp. 137-53.

[In the following essay, Farrell studies Adams's correspondence and concludes that he consciously modeled his letters after those of his hero, Cicero.]

A number of eighteenth-century rhetoricians offered prescriptions on letter-writing as part of their treatment of rhetorical style. As it had been in previous ages, letter writing remained in the eighteenth century among the genres of composition commonly taught by rhetoricians. Moreover, as had earlier rhetoricians, the writers of the belles lettres movement turned to...

(The entire section is 7633 words.)

C. Bradley Thompson (essay date 1998)

SOURCE: “Young John Adams and the New Philosophic Rationalism,” in William and Mary Quarterly, Vol. 55, No. 2, April, 1998, pp. 259-80.

[In the following essay, Thompson claims that most scholars have overestimated the importance of Adams's Puritan background and minimized the importance of philosophic rationalism in the formulation of his revolutionary philosophy.]

During his retirement years, John Adams was fond of saying that the War of Independence was a consequence of the American Revolution. The real revolution, he declared, had taken place in the minds and hearts of the colonists in the decade or two before 1776. What he meant by this evocative statement and...

(The entire section is 11453 words.)

John E. Hill (essay date 2000)

SOURCE: “Views on Property and Democracy,” in Revolutionary Values for a New Millennium, Lexington Books, 2000, pp. 173-179.

[In the following excerpt, Hill claims that Adams's writings on the balance of power were misunderstood: Adams had not abandoned democracy as his critics claimed.]

Two years before the Essex convention John Adams wrote about the issue of property in terms similar to the convention statement: “Such is the Frailty of the human Heart, that very few Men, who have no Property, have any Judgment of their own. They talk and vote as they are directed by Some Man of Property, who has attached their minds to his interest.”1 Adams, as...

(The entire section is 3920 words.)

Further Reading


Ferling, John. John Adams: A Life. Knoxville: The University of Tennessee Press, 1992, 535 p.

Comprehensive biography of Adams.

Ferling, John and Lewis E. Braverman. “John Adams's Health Reconsidered.” William and Mary Quarterly 55, No. 1 (January 1998): 83-104.

Examines the recurring health problems of the second president and attempts to account for some of the contemporary rumors and accusations that Adams was mentally unbalanced.

Shaw, Peter. The Character of John Adams. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1976, 324 p.

Studies Adams's...

(The entire section is 532 words.)