John Adams, Biography of One of America’s Most Important Founding Fathers
John Adams was one of the most important Founding Fathers of the United States. He was born in Massachusetts, became a lawyer, and rose to prominence in the early days of the American Revolution. He admired James Otis and witnessed his speech against the Writs of Assistance. In 1764, he married Abigail Smith, who would go on to play an influential role in his involvement in politics.
During the Stamp Act Crisis, he was associated with the Sons of Liberty, along with his cousin, Samuel Adams. Despite his connections to the Patriot Cause, he defended the British soldiers who fired on colonists at the Boston Massacre, because he believed the men deserved a fair trial, and no other lawyers would take the case.
After the Coercive Acts were passed in 1774, he was elected as a delegate to the First Continental Congress and signed the Articles of Association. In 1775, he returned to the Second Continental Congress where he signed the Olive Branch Petition, however, a week later he nominated George Washington to lead the Continental Army.
He was an advocate for independence and signed the Declaration of Independence in 1776. In 1777, he was sent to Europe to help negotiate with France and other nations. When he returned, he helped write the Massachusetts Constitution. After the war, he was named the first Ambassador to Great Britain. In 1789, he finished second to George Washington in the first presidential election. He served as Vice President during both of Washington’s terms and was elected President in 1796.
For Adams, his time as President was marked by political division and a political scandal with France called the XYZ Affair that led to the Quasi-War, an undeclared naval war. The scandal also led to the passage of the Alien and Sedition Acts. Thomas Jefferson and James Madison responded with the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions, which defined Nullification, which was a direct cause of the Civil War.
In 1800, Adams lost the Presidency to Thomas Jefferson. Adams and Jefferson had once been close friends but had grown apart over their political differences. In 1826, Adams saw his son, John Quincy Adams, elected as the sixth President. In 1812, Adams and Jefferson renewed and restored their friendship.
In one of the most providential moments in American history, both Adams and Jefferson died on the same day, July 4, 1826, the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence.
Abigail Adams was the wife of John Adams and had a strong influence on her husband’s political career. Image Source: Wikipedia.
The Life and Career of John Adams
Early Years and Family Life of John Adams
John Adams, Jr. was born in the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1735 in the town of Braintree (today known as Quincy). His parents were John Adams, Sr., and Susan Boylston Adams. At the age of 15, Adams went to Harvard College, where his father expected him to become a minister. After graduation in 1755, he taught school in Worcester, Massachusetts. It was during this time that he decided to become a lawyer and he studied in the law office of James Putnam. Adams was admitted to the bar in 1758.
Adams married Abigail Smith on October 25, 1764. Abigail was the daughter of Reverend William Smith, of Weymouth, Massachusetts. Together, they would have five children:
- Abigail, born in 1765
- John Quincy, born in 1767
- Susanna, born in 1768
- Charles, born in 1770
- Thomas Boylston, born in 1772
- Elizabeth, stillborn in 1775
John was not the only Founding Father from the Adams family line, nor was he the only President. His second cousin, Samuel Adams, emerged as the popular leader of the Sons of Liberty, and his son, John Quincy, was elected the sixth President in 1825.
The Boston Massacre Trials
In 1770, Adams was hired by the British soldiers on trial for the Boston Massacre to defend them in court. The trial was to be held in Suffolk County court, but there were no lawyers in the Boston area that would take their case. Captain Thomas Preston, who was in charge on the day the Massacre happened, asked Adams to work the case. Adams accepted, in the interest of ensuring a fair trial. Preston, whose trial was separate from the other soldiers, was acquitted when Adams was able to convince the jury that he had not ordered the troops to fire into the crowd. In the trial of the soldiers, Adams argued that they were forced to fire in order to defend themselves. Four of the six were acquitted because they did not fire directly into the crowd. The other two were found guilty of manslaughter and were branded on their thumbs. It was during this second trial that Adams uttered the famous words, “Facts are stubborn things and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictums of our passions, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.”
Facts are stubborn things and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictums of our passions, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.
On March 5, 1773, three years after the Boston Massacre, Adams wrote, “The Part I took in Defence of Cptn. Preston and the Soldiers, procured me Anxiety, and Obloquy enough. It was, however, one of the most gallant, generous, manly and disinterested Actions of my whole Life, and one of the best Pieces of Service I ever rendered my Country. Judgment of Death against those Soldiers would have been as foul a Stain upon this Country as the Executions of the Quakers or Witches, anciently. As the Evidence was, the Verdict of the Jury was exactly right. This however is no Reason why the Town should not call the Action of that Night a Massacre, nor is it any Argument in favour of the Governor or Minister, who caused them to be sent here. But it is the strongest Proofs of the Danger of Standing Armies.”
The First and Second Continental Congress
Adams represented Massachusetts in both the First Continental Congress (1774) and the Second Continental Congress (1775). In 1775, Adams nominated George Washington of Virginia as the commander-in-chief of the fledgling American army.
On June 7, 1776, Richard Henry Lee put forth a resolution of independence, saying “these colonies are, and of a right ought to be, free and independent states.” Adams seconded the resolution, which was adopted by Congress on July 2, 1776.
Adams was appointed to the Committee of Five, along with Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Robert Livingston, and Roger Sherman to draft a document that would announce the reasons for the American colonies to become independent from the British Empire.
In September of 1776, Adams was part of a delegation that met with General William Howe, after the defeat of the Continental Army at the Battle of Long Island the preceding month. The meeting was held on Staten Island in New York Harbor. Howe demanded that the delegation rescind the Declaration of Independence, which they refused to do.
First Trip to Europe
In 1777, Adams was asked to go to Europe to represent American interests. 10-year-old John Quincy accompanied him on the journey. They sailed on the frigate Boston on February 15, 1778. During the journey, the Boston was chased by British warships, but they were able to cross the Atlantic safely. The stay in Europe was brief, and they returned to Braintree in August of 1779.
Drafting the Massachusetts Constitution
Shortly after his return from Europe, in September and October of 1779, Adams was selected by the people of Braintree to represent them as a delegate to the state constitutional convention. 312 delegates convened on September 1, and soon thereafter they chose Adams, his cousin Samuel Adams and James Bowdoin as the committee responsible for drafting the constitution. The other two chose Adams to draw up the document, and he completed his draft on October 30, 1779. The Constitution of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, ratified on June 15, 1780, is the world’s oldest functioning written constitution. It served as the model for the U.S. Constitution.
First Ambassador to Great Britain
At the conclusion of the Massachusetts Constitutional Convention, he departed on a return to France on November 15 aboard the frigate Sensible. During this second stay in Europe, Adams was involved in negotiating a treaty with Britain that gave America ownership of all lands east of the Mississippi, secured the Dutch recognition of the United States as an independent government, and the first commerce treaty between America and a foreign nation other than France. During his stay in Amsterdam, he purchased a home that was the first American-owned embassy on foreign soil. In 1784 and 1785, he worked with Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin to develop trade relations with Prussia. In 1785, Adams was appointed the first Ambassador to Great Britain (Minister to the Court of St. James). Finally 1n 1788, Adams returned home.
Presidential Election of 1789
Adams finished second to George Washington in the Election of 1789, America’s first Presidential election. He was re-elected as Vice President in 1792. During those eight years, President Washington rarely asked Adams for his input on policy. This left Adams to his primary role of overseeing the Senate, which he found a frustrating task. It was during this time that he earned the nickname “His Rotundity.” To his wife, Abigail, he said, “My country has in its wisdom contrived for me the most insignificant office that ever the invention of man contrived or his imagination conceived.”
Presidential Election of 1796
After Washington decided to leave office after two terms, Adams, a Federalist, was considered for President in the Election of 1796. His primary opponents were Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr, both Democracratic-Republicans. Adams won by three electoral votes over Jefferson, 71 to 68. John Adams became the second President of the United States and Thomas Jefferson became the nation’s second Vice President. The inauguration was held on Saturday, March 4, 1797, and is marked in history as the last time Washington, Jefferson, and Adams would stand together in front of their constituents. Adams recalled it as “the most affecting and overpowering scene I ever acted in.”
Influence of the High Federalists
In an effort to maintain consistency between the Washington cabinet and his own, and to maintain peace, to some extent, within the Federalist Party, Adams asked the four department heads to join him: Secretary of State Timothy Pickering, Secretary of the Treasury Oliver Wolcott, Jr, Secretary of War James McHenry and Attorney General Charles Lee. Pickering, Wolcott, and McHenry were High Federalists, who followed the lead of Alexander Hamilton. They were also staunchly anti-French and pro-British. This made Vice President Jefferson’s affinity for France a problem moving forward for President Adams.
Rift with Jefferson
On the eve of the inauguration, Adams and Jefferson met. Adams presented a plan to send Jefferson, James Madison and Elbridge Gerry to Paris to negotiate with the French. However, the day after the inauguration the High Federalists in his cabinet objected staunchly to the inclusion of Madison in the group. When Wolcott threatened to resign, Adams gave in. To Jefferson, this signaled that his old friend could not rise above the politics and work across party lines. Adams and Jefferson, close friends since they met at the First Continental Congress in 1775, now parted ways, separated by the politics of their parties. Jefferson would lament later that from that point on, Adams would no longer seek his advice on how to deal with France. Adams, on the other hand, could no longer depend on his Vice President’s loyalty.
The friendship between Adams and Jefferson dissolved over party politics. Image Source: Wikipedia.
Rising Tensions with France and the XYZ Affair
The French did not take kindly to the Jay Treaty and saw it as an alliance between the United States and England that was unfair to French trade. France began to seize American ships and refused to receive minister Charles C. Pinckney. Pinckney was threatened with prison and fled to safety in the Netherlands. Eventually, Pinckney returned to France with John Marshall and Elbridge Gerry, where they were met with three French agents that demanded concessions from the United States in return for continuing the peace negotiations. Adams dubbed these agents X, Y, and Z to the press. The American emissaries refused, and Marshall and Pinckney were deported. Gerry stayed behind in France, but was not able to make any headway towards peace, and the French continued to raid American ships.
Adams and the Quasi-War
In 1798, the Quasi-War, an undeclared naval war, broke out between the United States and France. The administration was embarrassed by the XYZ affair, which led to an increase in public sentiment against France and embarrassed Jefferson and the Democratic-Republicans. In the middle of 1798, the Quasi-War broke out. It ended in 1800 with the Treaty of Mortefontaine. During these negotiations, the United States began to build up its navy, and the threat of war led Adams to support the idea of the formulation of an army as well.
The Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798
Adams is perhaps best known for signing the Alien and Sedition Acts in 1798. These four Acts put laws in place that restricted the freedoms of political immigrants and opponents of domestic policy. The Acts were:
- The Naturalization Act
- The Alien Act
- The Alien Enemies Act
- The Sedition Act
These Acts were highly controversial and stirred up opposition from Jefferson and the Democratic-Republicans. In 1798 and 1799, the Virginia and Kentucky Resolves were passed by the respective state legislatures in protest of the Alien and Sedition Acts. These documents were written secretly by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. Although Jefferson was Vice President, the Kentucky Resolves essentially under-minded the authority of the Federal government.
Within his own party, the Federalists, Adams found himself at odds with the High Federalists over the new army. When Washington was named commander, he insisted that Alexander Hamilton be named his second in command, to which Adams reluctantly agreed.
First President to Live in the White House
On November 1, 1800, Adams became the first President to take residence in the President’s Mansion, which we know now as the White House. However, the stay was short, as he lost the election of 1800 to Thomas Jefferson. In the days leading up to the end of his tenure, Adams appointed several judges that would become known as the “Midnight Judges.” Adams retired into private life at his home, Peacefield, near Quincy.
Reconciliation with Jefferson
The close friendship between Adams and Thomas Jefferson began in 1775 when they met at the First Constitutional Convention. Not only did they work together with Benjamin Franklin to draft the Declaration of Independence, but they served together with Franklin in Europe after the Revolution, working to create trade agreements for the new nation. However, the friendship dissolved over party politics. In 1812, at the behest of Dr. Benjamin Rush, Adams sent a letter to Thomas Jefferson that rekindled their friendship. The result was a series of 148 letters over 14 years between the two Founding Fathers.
Adams lived to see his son, John Quincy Adams, become the sixth President of the United States.
On July 4, 1826, Adams died at his home in Quincy. It was the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Just before he died, Adams said, “Thomas Jefferson survives.” Adams was unaware that Jefferson himself lay ill and died just hours earlier that same day.
Before he died, Adams said, “My best wishes, in the joys, and festivities, and the solemn services of that day on which will be completed the fiftieth year from its birth, of the independence of the United States: a memorable epoch in the annals of the human race, destined in future history to form the brightest or the blackest page, according to the use or the abuse of those political institutions by which they shall, in time to come, be shaped by the human mind.”
John Quincy Adams was elected President of the United States, just like his father. Image Source: Smithsonian Institution Archives.
John Adams — Quick Facts
- Date of Birth: Adams was born on October 30, 1735, in Braintree, Massachusetts.
- Father: His father was John Adams Sr.
- Mother: His mother was Susanna Boylston.
- Adams was educated at a teacher’s home and then attended the Braintree Latin School. where he studied under Joseph Cleverly.
- In 1751, he enrolled at Harvard. He was 16 years old.
- He graduated from Harvard in 1755.
Marriage to Abigail Smith
- Adams proposed to Abigail Smith in 1762.
- On October 25, 1764, they were married.
- They had six children, including future President, John Quincy Adams.
- Adams was admitted to the bar on November 6, 1758.
- He opened his own practice in Braintree.
- He represented Captain Thomas Preston and the other British troops who fired on colonists during the Boston Massacre.
- Adams was a member of the Federalist Party.
First Vice President of the United States
- Adams ran for President in the elections of 1788 and 1792.
- In both elections, he finished second to George Washington.
- At that time, the runner-up served as Vice President.
- Adams served as Vice President to Washington from 1789 to 1796.
Election of 1796
- Washington declined to run for a third term as President.
- Adams decided to run again and narrowly defeated Thomas Jefferson.
- Adams was 61 years old when he was sworn in as the second President of the United States.
- The election of 1796 is significant because it marked the beginning of party politics in the United States.
- Jefferson was a member of the Democrat-Republican Party.
Key Issues of the Election of 1796
- The relationships with foreign nations, especially Britain and France.
- The development of a strong bank and monetary system.
- The size of the federal government, along with the power it should have.
- How to regulate and control westward expansion and protect national interests against the interests of land investors and speculators.
Crises Over the Jay Treaty
- John Jay had negotiated a treaty with Britain, which resolved issues between the two nations.
- Washington signed the treaty, but Adams had to deal with the fallout.
- France believed the Jay Treaty violated the Treaty of Amity and Commerce.
- France responded to the Jay Treaty by cutting economic and political ties with the United States and by harassing American merchant ships on the open seas.
XZY Affair and the Quasi-War with France
- Adams tried to negotiate with France, but French officials, nicknamed X, Y, and Z, tried to bribe the American commissioners.
- When the scandal was made public, it fueled anti-French sentiment.
- Congress re-established the navy in order to protect American merchant ships.
- The battles between American and French ships are known as the Quasi-War.
- Peace was restored by the Treaty of Mortefontaine in 1800.
The Alien and Sedition Acts
- In 1798, Adams signed the Alien and Sedition Acts, four laws that restricted immigration and made it possible to charge people with a crime for criticizing the government.
- James Madison and Thomas Jefferson wrote the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions in opposition to the acts.
- The resolutions established the concept of Nullification, which ended up being a direct cause of the Civil War.
Interesting Facts About the Presidency John Adams
- Adams was the first President to live in the White House, which was called the President’s House at the time.
- He cut political and financial ties with France after the monarchy was replaced in the French Revolution.
- He is sometimes referred to as the “Father of the American Navy.”
- He lost the Election of 1800 to Thomas Jefferson.
- Despite the criticism of his tenure as President, he did manage to avoid war with France through diplomatic means.
- Throughout his career, Adams kept a detailed journal, and also saved many of his letters, which are a valuable resource for anyone studying the American Revolution.
Significance of John Adams
John Adams is important to the history of the United States because of his involvement in so many key moments in the founding of the nation. He is clearly one of the most influential Founding Fathers, and it can be argued that his political contributions were on par with those of Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, and Thomas Jefferson. The contributions of his wife, Abigail also cannot be ignored and the influence of their family was felt long after the American Revolution, as their son, John Quincy, was elected President. John Quincy went on to serve in the House of Representatives and was a staunch advocate for abolition.