John Adams (October 30 1735 July 4, 1826) was an American patriot who served as the second President of the United States (17971801) and the first Vice President (178997). He was a lawyer, diplomat, statesman, political theorist, and, as a Founding Father, a leader of the movement for American independence from Great Britain. He was also a dedicated diarist and correspondent, particularly with his wife and closest advisor Abigail.
John Adams collaborated with his cousin, revolutionary leader Samuel Adams, but he established his own prominence prior to the American Revolution. After the Boston Massacre, he provided a successful (though unpopular) legal defense of the accused British soldiers, in the face of severe local anti-British sentiment and driven by his devotion to the right to counsel and the “protect of innocence”. Adams was a delegate from Massachusetts to the Continental Congress, where he played a leading role in persuading Congress to declare independence. He assisted Thomas Jefferson in drafting the Declaration of Independence in 1776, and was its foremost advocate in the Congress. As a diplomat in Europe, he helped negotiate the eventual peace treaty with Great Britain, and acquired vital governmental loans from Amsterdam bankers. Adams was the primary author of the Massachusetts Constitution in 1780. This influenced the development of America’s own constitution, as did his earlier Thoughts on Government (1776).
Adams’s credentials as a revolutionary secured for him two terms as President George Washington’s vice president (1789 to 1797) and also his own election in 1796 as the second president. In his single term as president, he encountered fierce criticism from the Jeffersonian Republicans, as well as the dominant faction in his own Federalist Party, led by his rival Alexander Hamilton. Adams signed the controversial Alien and Sedition Acts, and built up the army and navy in the face of an undeclared naval “Quasi-War” with France. The major accomplishment of his presidency was a peaceful resolution of the conflict in the face of Hamilton’s opposition. Due to his strong posture on defense, Adams is “often called the father of the American Navy“. He was the first U.S. president to reside in the executive mansion, now known as the White House.
In 1800, Adams lost re-election to Thomas Jefferson and retired to Massachusetts. He eventually resumed his friendship with Jefferson upon the latter’s own retirement by initiating a correspondence which lasted fourteen years. He and his wife established a family of politicians, diplomats, and historians now referred to as the Adams political family. Adams was the father of John Quincy Adams, the sixth President of the United States. He died on the fiftieth anniversary of the adoption of the Declaration of Independence, and the same day as Jefferson. Modern historians in the aggregate have favorably ranked his administration.
Early life and education
John Adams was born on October 30, 1735 (October 19, 1735 Old Style, Julian calendar) to John Adams Sr. (16911761) and Susanna Boylston (17081797). He had two younger brothers, Peter and Elihu.Adams’ birthplace was then in Braintree, Massachusetts (now Quincy, Massachusetts), and is preserved at Adams National Historical Park. Adams’ mother was from a leading medical family of present-day Brookline, Massachusetts. His father was a deacon in the Congregational Church, a farmer, a cordwainer, and a lieutenant in the militia. His great-grandfather, Henry Adams, emigrated to Massachusetts from Braintree, Essex, England around 1638. John Sr. also served as a selectman (town councilman) and supervised the building of schools and roads. Adams often praised his father and recalled their close relationship.
Though raised in modest surroundings, Adams felt an acute responsibility to live up to his family’s heritage of reverence. He was a direct descendant of Puritans who came to the American wilderness in the 1630s, established a colonial presence in America, and profoundly affected the culture, laws, and traditions of their region. Journalist Richard Brookhiser wrote that Adams’ Puritan ancestors “believed they lived in the Bible. England under the Stuarts was Egypt; they were Israel fleeing … to establish a refuge for godliness, a city upon a hill.” By the time of John Adams’ birth in 1735, Puritan tenets such as predestination were no longer as widely accepted, and many of their stricter practices had moderated with time, but Adams “considered them bearers of freedom, a cause that still had a holy urgency.” It was a value system which he believed in and wished to live up to. Adams emphatically recalled that his parents “held every Species of Libertinage in… Contempt and horror,” and portrayed “pictures of disgrace, or baseness and of Ruin” from any debauchery.
Adams, as the eldest child, was under a mandate from his parents to obtain a formal education. This began at age six at a Dame school for boys and girls, which was conducted at a teacher’s home and centered upon The New England Primer. Shortly thereafter, Adams attended Braintree Latin School under Joseph Cleverly, where studies included Latin, rhetoric, logic, and arithmetic. Adams’ reflections on early education were in the negative mostly, including incidents of truancy, a dislike for his master, and a desire to become a farmer. All questions on the matter ended when his father commanded that he remain in school saying, “You shall comply with my desires.” Deacon Adams also retained a new school master named Joseph Marsh, and his son responded positively.
College education and adulthood
At age sixteen, Adams entered Harvard College in 1751. He studied under Joseph Mayhew. He did not share his father’s expectation that he become a minister. After graduating in 1755 with an A.B. degree, he taught school for a few years in Worcester, Massachusetts while pondering his permanent vocation. In the next four years, he discerned a passion for prestige, saying that he craved “Honour or Reputation” and “more defference from fellows” and, at age twenty-one, he was determined to become “a great Man”. He decided to become a lawyer to further those ends, writing his father that he found among lawyers “noble and gallant achievements” but, among the clergy, the “pretended sanctity of some absolute dunces.” Doctrinally, he later became a Unitarian, and dropped belief in predestination, eternal damnation, the divinity of Christ, and most other Calvinist beliefs of his Puritan ancestors. Nevertheless, his remnant Puritanism frequently prompted reservations about his hunger for fame, which he once referred to as mere “trumpery”, and he questioned his not properly attending to the “happiness of fellow men.”
The French and Indian War began in 1754 and Adams began to struggle with the issue of a young man’s responsibility in the conflict; contemporaries of his social position were largely spectators, while those who were less solvent joined the battle as a means to make some money. Adams later said, “I longed more ardently to be a Soldier than I ever did to be a Lawyer.” He was acutely aware that he was the first in his family that “degenerated from the virtues of the house so far as not to have been an officer in the militia.”
Law practice and marriage
Adams followed the usual course of reading the law in order to obtain his license to practice. In 1756, he became an apprentice in the office of John Putnam, a leading lawyer in Worcester. In 1758, he earned an A.M. from Harvard, and the following year was admitted to the Massachusetts bar, having completed his studies under Putnam. From an early age, he developed the habit of writing descriptions of events and impressions of men which are scattered through his diary, which included his report of the 1761 argument of James Otis Jr. in the Massachusetts Superior Court as to the legality of Writs of Assistance. Otis’s argument inspired Adams to the cause of the American colonies.
In 1763, he had published seven essays in Boston newspapers, treatises that represented his forging into the convoluted realm of political theory. The essays were offered anonymously, with Adams using the nom de plume “Humphrey Ploughjogger”; this author reappeared in the Boston Gazette in 1765 to oppose the Stamp Act. Adams was initially not as well known as his cousin Samuel, but his influence emerged through his work as a constitutional lawyer and his in-depth analysis of historical examples, together with his dedication to the principles of republicanism. Even so, Adams often found his inborn contentiousness to be a constraint in his political career.
Adams married his third cousin Abigail Smith (17441818) on October 25, 1764. Her parents were Elizabeth Quincy and Rev. William Smith, a Congregational minister at Weymouth, Massachusetts. They had six children: Abigail “Nabby” in 1765, future president John Quincy Adams in 1767, Susanna in 1768, Charles in 1770, Thomas in 1772, and Elizabeth (who was stillborn) in 1777.
Career before the Revolution
Opponent of Stamp Act 1765
Adams first rose to prominence leading widespread opposition to the Stamp Act of 1765, imposed by the British Parliament without consulting the American legislatures, and requiring payment of a direct tax by the colonies for various stamped documents. Adams authored the “Braintree Instructions” in 1765, a letter sent to the representatives of Braintree in the Massachusetts legislature which served as a model for other towns’ instructions. In the piece, he explained that the Stamp Act should be opposed since it denied two fundamental rights guaranteed to all Englishmen, and which all free men deserved: rights to be taxed only by consent and to be tried only by a jury of one’s peers. The instructions were a succinct and forthright defense of colonial rights and liberties.
In August 1765, he reprised his pen name “Humphrey Ploughjogger” and contributed four articles to the Boston Gazette (republished in The London Chronicle in 1768 as True Sentiments of America, also known as A Dissertation on the Canon and Feudal Law). He delivered a speech in December before the governor and council in which he pronounced the Stamp Act invalid on the ground that Massachusetts had not given its assent to it, being without representation in Parliament. He later observed that many protests were sparked by an oft-reprinted sermon of Boston minister Jonathan Mayhew, invoking Romans 13 to justify insurrection. In 1766, a town meeting of Braintree elected John Adams as a selectman. Adams strongly supported the right of all Americans to jury trials. Adams protested the 1765 passage of the Stamp Act, which gave jurisdiction to British Vice Admiralty Courts, rather than common law courts. Many colonists, including Adams, believed these courts, which operated without a jury, were corrupt and unfair.
Adams moved the family to Boston in April 1768, renting a clapboard house on Brattle Street that was known locally as the “White House.” He and Abigail and the children lived there for a year, then moved to Cold Lane; still later, they moved again to a larger house in Brattle Square in the center of the city.
Counsel for the British: Boston Massacre
On March 5, 1770, a street confrontation resulted in British soldiers killing five civilians in what came to be known as the Boston Massacre. The accused soldiers were arrested on criminal charges and had trouble finding legal representation. Adams ultimately agreed to defend them, though he feared that it would hurt his reputation. In arguing their case, Adams made his legendary statement regarding jury decisions: “Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passion, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.” He also expounded upon Blackstone’s Ratio: “It is more important that innocence be protected than it is that guilt be punished, for guilt and crimes are so frequent in this world that they cannot all be punished. But if innocence itself is brought to the bar and condemned, perhaps to die, then the citizen will say, ‘whether I do good or whether I do evil is immaterial, for innocence itself is no protection,’ and if such an idea as that were to take hold in the mind of the citizen that would be the end of security whatsoever.” Adams won an acquittal for six of the soldiers. Two of them who had fired directly into the crowd were charged with murder but were convicted only of manslaughter. Adams was paid a small sum by his clients.
Biographer John Ferling suggests that Adams made the most of juror selection during the jury selection stage of the trial, saying that Adams “expertly exercised his right to challenge individual jurors and contrived what amounted to a packed jury. Not only were several jurors closely tied through business arrangements to the British army, but five ultimately became Loyalist exiles.” Hiller B. Zobel is a scholar who has closely studied the trial, and he concluded, “we can be fairly sure that before a single witness had been sworn, the outcome of the trial was certain.” Ferling also surmises that Adams may have been encouraged to take the case in exchange for political office; one of Boston’s seats opened three months later in the Massachusetts legislature, and Adams was the town’s first choice to fill the vacancy.
His law practice increased greatly from this exposure, as did the demands on his time. In 1771, he moved Abigail and the children to Braintree, but he kept his office in Boston, saying, “I shall spend more Time in my Office than ever I did.” He also noted on the day of the family’s move, “Now my family is away, I feel no Inclination at all, no Temptation, to be any where but at my Office. I am in it by 6 in the Morning I am in it at 9 at night…. In the Evening, I can be alone at my Office, and no where else. I never could in my family.” Nevertheless, after some time in the capital, he became disenchanted with the rural and “vulgar” Braintree as a home for his family. In August 1772, therefore, Adams moved his family back to Boston. He purchased a large brick house on Queen Street, not far from his office. In 1774, Adams and Abigail returned the family to the farm due to the increasingly unstable situation in Boston, and Braintree remained their permanent Massachusetts home.
Governor Thomas Hutchinson and his judges until 1772 received their salaries from the Massachusetts legislature. The Coercive Acts and the Tea Act were then passed by Parliament, and the British Crown assumed payment of those wages, drawn from customs revenues imposed upon that colony. According to biographer Ferling, the British government thus singled out Massachusetts for reprisals of previous rebellion and hoped in the process to force the other colonies into line. Boston radicals protested and asked John Adams to proclaim their objections. In “Two Replies of the Massachusetts House of Representatives to Governor Hutchinson” Adams argued that the colonists had never been under the sovereignty of Parliament. Their original charter, as well as their allegiance, was exclusively with the king. If a workable line could not be drawn between parliamentary sovereignty and the total independence of the colonies, he continued, the colonies would have no other choice but independence from England.
In 1775, in response to a set of essays by Daniel Leonard (writing under the pen name “Massachusettensis”) defending Hutchinson’s arguments for the absolute authority of Parliament over the colonies, Adams (writing as “Novanglus”) composed a series of essays addressed to the people living in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. In them, he gave a point-by-point refutation of Leonard’s essays, and then provided one of the most extensive and learned arguments made by the colonists against British imperial policy. It was a systematic attempt by Adams to describe the origins, nature, and jurisdiction of (unwritten) British concepts of constitutionality. Adams used his wide knowledge of English and colonial legal history to argue that the provincial legislatures were fully sovereign over their own internal affairs, and that the colonies were connected to Great Britain only through the king. (Full text of essays )
The Boston Tea Party, a historic demonstration against the British enactments, took place on December 16, 1773. The British schooner Dartmouth, loaded with tea to be traded subject to the new tea tax, had previously dropped anchor. By 9:00 PM, the work of the protesters was done they had demolished 342 chests of tea worth about ten thousand pounds today’s equivalent of about $1 million. Adams was briefly retained by the Dartmouth owners regarding the question of their liability for the destroyed shipment. Adams applauded the destruction of the tea. There had been no choice, he thought, and he called the defiant boarding of the vessels and the quick obliteration of the dutied beverage the “grandest Event” in the history of the colonial protest movement. He wrote the following day that the destruction of the dutied tea by the protesters had been an “absolutely and indispensably” necessary action.
Member of Continental Congress
Massachusetts sent Adams to the first and second Continental Congresses in 1774 and from 1775 to 1777 respectively. The Massachusetts delegation resolved to assume a largely passive role in the first Congress. But Adams felt strongly that the conservatives of 1774, men like Joseph Galloway and James Duane, were no different than Hutchinson and Peter Oliver, and he denigrated such men, telling Abigail that “Spiders, Toads, Snakes, are their only proper Emblems.” Yet at that point his views were similar to those of conservative John Dickinson. He sought repeal of objectionable policies, but at the early stage he continued to see positive benefits for America remaining part of the British empire.
In 1774, as a delegate to the First Constitutional Congress, John Adams renewed his push for the right to a jury trial, stating “Representative government and trial by jury are the heart and lungs of liberty. Without them, we have no other fortification against being ridden like horses, fleeced like sheep, worked like cattle, and fed and clothed like swines and hounds.
The absence of Adams from home was hard on Abigail, who was left alone to care for the family. But she encouraged her husband in his task, writing: “You cannot be, I know, nor do I wish to see you an inactive Spectator, but if the Sword be drawn I bid adieu to all domestick felicity, and look forward to that Country where there is neither wars nor rumors of War in a firm belief that thro the mercy of its King we shall both rejoice there together.”
By early 1775, Adams became convinced that Congress was moving in the proper direction away from its relationship with Great Britain. “Reconciliation if practicable,” he said publicly, yet he agreed with Benjamin Franklin’s confidential observation that independence was inevitable. In the fall of 1775 no one in Congress labored more ardently than Adams to hasten America’s separation from Great Britain.
In June 1775, with a view of promoting union among the colonies, he nominated George Washington of Virginia as commander-in-chief of the army then assembled around Boston. His influence in Congress was great, and he then argued in favor of permanent severance from Britain. In October 1775, he was also appointed the chief judge of the Massachusetts Superior Court, but he never served, and resigned in February 1777.
Over the next decade, Americans from every state gathered and deliberated on new governing documents, employing many of Adams’ innovative positions. Prior tradition suggested that a society’s form of government need not be codified in a single document. As radical as it was to write constitutions, what was equally profound was the revolutionary nature of American political thought as the summer of 1776 dawned.
Thoughts on Government
A number of delegates sought Adams’ advice about forming new governments. Adams had privately criticized Thomas Paine‘s 1776 pamphlet Common Sense, saying that the author had “a better hard at pulling down than building.” Yet, some delagates found his views so convincing they urged him to commit them to paper. He did so in separate letters to these colleagues, each missive a bit longer and more thoughtful. So impressed was Richard Henry Lee that, with Adams’s consent, he had the most comprehensive letter printed. Published anonymously just after mid-April 1776, it was titled simply Thoughts on Government and styled as “a Letter from a Gentleman to his Friend.” Many historians agree that none of Adams’ other compositions rivaled the enduring influence of this pamphlet.
Adams advised that the form of government should be chosen to attain the desired endsthe happiness and virtue of the greatest number of people. He wrote that, “There is no good government but what is republican. That the only valuable part of the British constitution is so because the very definition of a republic is an empire of laws, and not of men.” The treatise also defended bicameralism, for “a single assembly is liable to all the vices, follies and frailties of an individual”. He also suggested that there should be a separation of powers between the executive, the judicial and the legislative branches, and further recommended that if a continental government were to be formed then it “should sacredly be confined” to certain enumerated powers. Thoughts on Government was referenced as an authority in every state-constitution writing hall.
Declaration of Independence
Adams in the 1776 session of Congress drafted the preamble to the Lee resolution of colleague Richard Henry Lee (Virginia), which called on the colonies to adopt new independent governments. On June 7, 1776 he seconded the resolution, which stated, “These colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent states.” Adams also championed the measure until it was adopted by Congress on July 2. Once the resolution passed, independence became inevitable, though it still had to be declared formally. The commitment was, as Adams put it, “independence itself.”
A Committee of Five was charged with drafting the Declaration, and included Adams, along with Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, Robert R. Livingston and Roger Sherman. The Committee, after discussing the general outline that the document should follow, decided that Jefferson would write the first draft. Jefferson particularly thought Adams should write the document; but Adams persuaded the Committee to choose Jefferson while agreeing to consult with Jefferson personally. Adams recorded his exchange with Jefferson on the question: Jefferson asked, “Why will you not? You ought to do it.” To which Adams responded, “I will not reasons enough.” Jefferson replied, “What can be your reasons?” And Adams responded, “Reason first, you are a Virginian, and a Virginian ought to appear at the head of this business. Reason second, I am obnoxious, suspected, and unpopular. You are very much otherwise. Reason third, you can write ten times better than I can.” “Well,” said Jefferson, “if you are decided, I will do as well as I can.” Adams concluded, “Very well. When you have drawn it up, we will have a meeting.” The Committee left no minutes, and the drafting process itself is uncertain accounts written many years later by Jefferson and Adams, although frequently cited, are otherwise contradictory. Although the first draft was written primarily by Jefferson, Adams assumed a primary role in its completion. After editing the document further, Congress approved it on July 4. Many years later Jefferson hailed Adams as “the pillar of support on the floor of Congress, ablest advocate and defender against the multifarious assaults it encountered.”
Government during revolution
After defeating the Continental Army at the Battle of Long Island on August 27, 1776, British Admiral Richard Howe mistakenly assumed a strategic advantage to be at hand, and requested the Second Continental Congress send representatives in an attempt to negotiate peace. A delegation, including Adams and Benjamin Franklin, met with Howe at the Staten Island Peace Conference on September 11. Howe’s authority was premised on the Colonists’ submission, so no common ground was to be found. When Lord Howe unhappily stated he could view the American delegates only as British subjects, Adams replied, “Your lordship may consider me in what light you please, …except that of a British subject.” Adams learned many years later that his name was on a list of people specifically excluded from Howe’s pardon-granting authority. Being quite unimpressed with General Howe, and also after payments to colonial volunteers were increased, Adams in September 1776 said about the war, “We shall do well enough.” Indeed, if Washington got his men, the British would be “ruined”.
In 1777, Adams began serving as the head of the Board of War and Ordnance; in fact, he sat on no less than ninety committees, chairing twenty-five. No other congressman approached the assumption of such a work load. As Benjamin Rush reported, he was acknowledged “to be the first man in the House.” He was also referred to as a “one man war department”, working eighteen-hour days and mastering the details of raising, equipping and fielding an army under civilian control. He also authored the “Plan of Treaties,” laying out the Congress’s requirements for the crucial treaty with France.
Diplomat in Europe
Commissioner to France and Minister Plenipotentiary
In the spring of 1776 Adams advocated in Congress that independence was necessary in order to establish trade, and conversely trade was essential for the attainment of independence; he specifically urged negotiation of a commercial treaty with France. He was then appointed, along with Franklin, Dickinson, Benjamin Harrison V of Virginia and Robert Morris of Pennsylvania, “to prepare a plan of treaties to be proposed to foreign powers”. Indeed, while Jefferson was laboring over the Declaration of Independence, Adams worked on the Model Treaty.
Adams joined Franklin and Arthur Lee in 1778 as a commissioner to France, replacing Silas Deane. He sailed for France with his 10-year-old son John Quincy aboard the frigate Boston early that year. The stormy trip was treacherous, with lightning injuring 19 sailors and killing one. Adams’ ship was later pursued by several British frigates in the mid-Atlantic, but evaded them. Near the coast of Spain, Adams himself took up arms to help capture a heavily armed British merchantman ship, the Martha. Later, a cannon malfunction killed one and injured five more of the crew before the ship arrived in France.
Adams did not speak French, the international language of diplomacy at the time. He therefore assumed a less visible role, but emerged as the commission’s chief administrator, imposing order and methods lacking in his delegation’s finances and record-keeping affairs. His first stay in Europe, between April 1, 1778, and June 17, 1779, was otherwise unremarkable, and he returned to his home in Braintree in early August 1779. Back home, Adams became one of the founders and charter members of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1780.
In 1779, after returning from France, Adams was also elected to the Massachusetts Constitutional Convention, to create a new constitution for Massachusetts. Once there, he served on a committee of three, also including Samuel Adams and James Bowdoin, to draft the constitution. The task of writing it fell primarily to John Adams. The resulting Constitution of Massachusetts was approved in 1780. It was the first constitution written by a special committee, then ratified by the people; and was also the first to feature a bicameral legislature. Included were a distinct executivethough restrained by an executive councilwith a partial (two-thirds) veto, and a separate judicial branch.
In the fall of 1779 Adams was unanimously appointed a Minister Plenipotentiary, charged with negotiating a “treaty of peace, amity and commerce” with peace commissioners from Britain. Following the conclusion of the Massachusetts constitutional convention, he departed for Europe in November aboard the French frigate Sensible accompanied by John Quincy and 9-year-old son Charles. In France, constant disagreement between Lee and Franklin eventually resulted in Adams assuming the role of tie-breaker in almost all votes on commission business; Adams also increased his usefulness by mastering the French language. In time Lee was recalled and Adams later developed his own enmity towards the older Franklin, whom the younger, more aggressive Adams felt was overly deferential to the French.
The French foreign minister, the comte de Vergennes, disapproved of Adams, so Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, John Jay, and Henry Laurens were appointed to collaborate with Adams; nevertheless, Jefferson did not go to Europe and Laurens was posted to the Dutch Republic. Jay, Adams, and Franklin played the major part in the final negotiations. Overruling Franklin and distrustful of Vergennes, Jay and Adams decided not to consult with France; instead, they dealt directly with the British commissioners.
Throughout the negotiations, Adams successfully demanded that the right of the United States to the fisheries along the Atlantic coast be recognized. The American negotiators were able to secure a favorable treaty securing most lands east of the Mississippi, and the document was signed on September 3, 1783.
Ambassador to Holland
In July 1780 Adams replaced Laurens as the ambassador to the Dutch Republic, then one of the few other Republics in the world. With the aid of the Dutch Patriot leader Joan van der Capellen tot den Pol, Adams secured the recognition of the United States as an independent government at The Hague on April 19, 1782. In February 1782 the Frisian states was the first Dutch province to recognize the United States, while France had been the first European country to grant diplomatic recognition in 1778. He also negotiated a loan of five million guilders financed by Nicolaas van Staphorst and Wilhelm Willink. By 1794 a total of eleven loans were granted in Amsterdam to the United States with a value of 29 million guilders. In October 1782, he negotiated with the Dutch a treaty of amity and commerce, the first such treaty between the United States and a foreign power following the 1778 treaty with France. The house that Adams bought during this stay in The Netherlands became the first American-owned embassy on foreign soil.
In 1784 and 1785, he was one of the architects of extensive trade relations between the United States and Prussia. The Prussian ambassador in The Hague, Friedrich Wilhelm von Thulemeyer, was involved, as were Jefferson and Franklin, who were in Paris.
Ambassador to Great Britain
Adams was appointed in 1785 the first American minister to the Court of St James’s (ambassador to Great Britain). When a counterpart seemed to assume that Adams had some family members in England, Adams replied, “Neither my father or mother, grandfather or grandmother, great grandfather or great grandmother, nor any other relation that I know of, or care a farthing for, has been in England these one hundred and fifty years; so that you see I have not one drop of blood in my veins but what is American.”
Adams had his first audience with King George III on June 1, and recorded the event as he saw it in great detail in a letter to Foreign Minister John Jay on June 2. Adams approached the King, telling him that he felt greatly honored by his appointment, and promised to do all that he could to restore friendship and cordiality “between People who, tho Seperated by an Ocean and under different Governments have the Same Language, a Similar Religion and kindred Blood.” After hearing this, King George, promised to “receive with Pleasure, the Assurances of the friendly Dispositions of the United States.” He added that “while he had been the last to consent” to American independence, he wished Adams to know that he had always done what he thought right and proper. Towards the end of the interview, the King said, which to Adams appeared very sudden, “There is an Opinion, among Some People, that you are not the most attached of all Your Countrymen, to the manners of France.” Adams replied, “That Opinion sir, is not mistaken, I must avow to your Majesty, I have no Attachments but to my own Country.” To this King George responded, “An honest Man will never have any other.”
During her visit to Washington to mark the bicentennial of American independence in 1976, Queen Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom gave historical perspective to Adams’ service: “John Adams, America’s first ambassador, said to my ancestor, King George III, that it was his desire to help with the restoration of ‘the old good nature and the old good humour between our peoples.’ That restoration has long been made, and the links of language, tradition, and personal contact have maintained it.”
Adams was joined by his wife while in London; they suffered the stares and hostility of the Court, and chose to escape it when they could by seeking out Richard Price, minister of Newington Green Unitarian Church and instigator of the Revolution Controversy.
Conceptions of constitutional government
Adams’ preoccupation with political and governmental affairswhich caused considerable separation from his wife and childrenironically had a distinct familial context, which he articulated in 1780: “I must study Politicks and War that my sons may have the liberty to study Mathematicks and Philosophy. My sons ought to study Geography, natural History, Naval Architecture, navigation, Commerce and Agriculture, in order to give their children a right to study Painting, Poetry, Musick, Architecutre, Statuary, Tapestry, and Porcelaine.”
While in London, Adams published a work entitled A Defence of the Constitutions of Government of the United States (1787). In it he repudiated the views of Turgot and other European writers as to the viciousness of state government frameworks. In the book, Adams suggested that “the rich, the well-born and the able” should be set apart from other men in a senatethat would prevent them from dominating the lower house. Adams’ Defence is described as an articulation of the classical republican theory of mixed government. Adams contended that social classes exist in every political society, and that a good government must accept that reality. For centuries, dating back to Aristotle, a mixed regime balancing monarchy, aristocracy, and democracythat is, the king, the nobles, and the peoplewas required to preserve order and liberty.
Wood (2006) has maintained that Adams’ political philosophy had become irrelevant by the time the Federal Constitution was ratified. By then, American political thought, transformed by more than a decade of vigorous debate as well as formative experiential pressures, had abandoned the classical perception of politics as a mirror of social estates. Americans’ new understanding of popular sovereignty was that the citizenry were the sole possessors of power in the nation. Representatives in the government enjoyed mere portions of the people’s power and only for a limited time. Adams was thought to have overlooked this evolution and revealed his continued attachment to the older version of politics. Yet Wood ignored Adams’ peculiar definition of the term “republic,” and his support for a constitution ratified by the people. He also underestimated Adams’ belief in checks and balances, such as Adams’ statement that, “Power must be opposed to power, and interest to interest.” This sentiment was later echoed by James Madison’s famous statement that, “mbition must be made to counteract ambition”, in The Federalist No. 51, explaining the separation of powers established under the new Constitution. Adams was unsurpassed in his dedication to establishing checks and balances as a governing strategem.
On the government’s role in education Adams offered unambiguously that, “The whole people must take upon themselves the education of the whole people and be willing to bear the expenses of it. There should not be a district of one mile square, without a school in it, not founded by a charitable individual, but maintained at the public expense of the people themselves.
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Each state’s presidential electors gathered in their state’s capital on February 4, 1789 to cast their votes for the president. As originally prescribed by Article II of the Constitution, each state chose a number of electors equal to its representation in Congress. Each elector then cast two votes for president, though the electors were not allowed to cast both votes for the same person, and were prohibited from casting both their ballots for persons from their own state. The individual who won the most electoral votes would become president while the individual with the second-most electoral votes would become vice president. Each state’s votes were sealed and delivered to Congress to be counted. Adams received 34 electoral college votes in the presidential election of 1789, finishing in second place behind George Washington, who garnered 69 votes. As a result, Washington became the nation’s first president, and Adams became the it’s first vice president.
The first presidential term and the first vice presidential term both officially started on March 4, 1789, the date set by the Congress of the Confederation for the beginning of operations of the federal government under the new U.S. Constitution. However, due to a delay in the counting and certification of the electoral votes, which was not done until April 6 (because although the Senate of the 1st Congress initially convened on March 4, it did not achieve a quorum until April 6, and so could not conduct business), they commenced several weeks late. Adams first presided over the Senate on April 21. Washington was inaugurated into office on April 30.
Primarily established to provide a successor in the event of the president’s death, disability, or resignation, The vice president’s sole constitutionally prescribed responsibility is to preside over the U.S. Senate as its president. The vice president also has the authority (ex officio, for he is not an elected member of the Senate) to cast a tie-breaking vote. Adams played an active role in the Senate’s deliberations, particularly during his first term. On at least one occasion, he persuaded senators to vote against legislation he opposed, and he frequently lectured the body on procedural and policy matters. At the start of Washington’s presidency, Adams became deeply involved in a month-long Senate controversy over the official titles for the president and executive officers of the new government. Although the House of Representatives agreed in short order that the president should be addressed simply as “George Washington, President of the United States,” the Senate debated the issue at some length. Adams favored the adoption of the style of Highness (as well as the title of Protector of Their Liberties) for the president. Others favored the variant of Electoral Highness or the lesser Excellency.”Anti-federalists in the Senate objected to the monarchical sound of them all; Jefferson described them as “superlatively ridiculous.” In the end, Washington yielded to their objections and the House decided that the title of “Mr. President” would be used.
He supported Washington’s policies by casting 29 tie-breaking votes. In doing so, he protected the president’s sole authority over the removal of appointees and influenced the location of the nation’s capital. But his views did not always align with Washington, who joined Franklin as the object of Adams’ ire, as shown in this quote: “The History of our Revolution will be one continued lie. . . . The essence of the whole will be that Dr. Franklin’s electrical Rod smote the Earth and out sprung General Washington. That Franklin electrified him with his Rodand henceforth these two conducted all the Policy, Negotiations, Legislatures and War.” On at least one occasion, he persuaded senators to vote against legislation that he opposed, and he frequently lectured the Senate on procedural and policy matters. Adams’ political views and his attempt to assume a more active role in the Senate made him a natural target for critics of the Washington administration. Toward the end of his first term, as a result of a threatened resolution that would have silenced him except for procedural and policy matters, he began to exercise more restraint. When the nation’s first two opposing political parties formed, he joined the Federalist Party, though he was consistently in opposition to its dominant leader Alexander Hamilton.
Beyond his role in the Senate, Adams played a minor role in the politics of the early 1790s. During his two vice-presidential terms, Adams attended few cabinet meetings, and the president sought his counsel only infrequently. Nonetheless, the two men, according to Adams biographer, John E. Ferling, “jointly executed many more of the executive branch’s ceremonial undertakings than would be likely for a contemporary president and vice-president.” Overall, while Adams brought energy and dedication to the office, he found the task “not quite adapted to my character…too inactive, and mechanical.” He often lamented what he viewed as the “complete insignificance” of his situation. To his wife Abigail he once wrote, “My country has in its wisdom contrived for me the most insignificant office that ever the invention of man . . . or his imagination contrived or his imagination conceived; and as I can do neither good nor evil, I must be borne away by others and met the common fate.”
Presidential Election of 1796
|1796 electoral vote totals|
|John Adams||07 !Federalist||71|
|Thomas Jefferson||01 !Democratic-Republican||68|
|Thomas Pinckney||08 !Federalist||59|
|Aaron Burr||02 !Democratic-Republican||30|
|Samuel Adams||03 !Democratic-Republican||15|
|Oliver Ellsworth||04 !Democratic-Republican||11|
|George Clinton||05 !Democratic-Republican||7|
|John Jay||09 !Federalist||5|
|James Iredell||10 !Federalist||3|
|John Henry||06 !Democratic-Republican||2|
|Samuel Johnston||11 !Federalist||2|
|George Washington||13 !None||2|
|C. C. Pinckney||12 !Federalist||1|
The election of 1796 was the first contested American presidential election. Twice, George Washington had been elected to office unanimously; however, during his presidency, deep philosophical differences between the two leading figures in the administrationAlexander Hamilton and Thomas Jeffersonregarding domestic economic policy and U.S. foreign policy caused a rift between them, and led to the founding of the Federalist Party and the Democratic-Republican Party. Thus, when Washington announced that he would not be a candidate for a third term, an intense partisan struggle for control of Congress and the presidency began.
Like the previous two presidential elections, no candidates were put forward for voters to choose between in 1796. The Constitution provided for the selection of electors who would then elect a president. In seven states voters chose the presidential electors. In the remaining nine states, they were chosen by the state’s legislature. The clear favorite of DemocraticRepublicans was Jefferson, although he was very reluctant to run. There was little doubt that Adams would be the choice of a great majority of the Federalists. Even so, Hamilton also had hoped to lead the party.
The Democratic-Republicans in Congress held a nominating caucus and named Jefferson and Aaron Burr as their presidential choices. Jefferson at first declined the nomination, but he finally agreed to run a few weeks later. Federalist members of Congress held an informal nominating caucus and named Adams and Thomas Pinckney as their candidates for president. The campaign, was, for the most part, unorganized and sporadic, confined to newspaper attacks, pamphlets and political rallies;of the four contenders, only Burr actively campaigned. Adams specifically stated that he wanted to stay out of what he called the “silly and wicked game” of campaigning for office.
As the campaign progressed, fears grew among Hamilton and his supporters that Adams was too vain, opinionated, unpredictable and stubborn to follow their directions once elected. Desiring “a more pliant president than Adams,” Hamilton maneuvered to tip the election to Pinckney. He coerced South Carolina Federalist electors, pledged to vote for “favorite son” Pinckney, to scatter their second votes among candidates other than Adams. Hamilton’s scheme was undone, however, when several New England state electors heard of it, conferred, and agreed not to vote for Pinckney. Adams was nonetheless angered, writing shortly after the election that Hamilton was a “proud Spirited, conceited, aspiring Mortal always pretending to Morality, with as debauched Morals as old Franklin who is more his Model than any one I know.”
In the end, Adams won the presidency by a narrow margin, receiving 71 electoral votes to 68 for Jefferson, who became the vice president; Pinckney finished in third with 59 votes, and Burr came in fourth with 30. The balance of the Electoral College votes were dispersed among nine other candidates. This is the only election to date in which a president and vice president were elected from opposing tickets.
Adams was sworn into office as the nation’s second president on March 4, 1797, by Chief Justice Oliver Ellsworth. As president, he followed Washington’s lead in using the presidency to exemplify republican values and civic virtue; and his service was free of scandal. He continued to strengthen the central government by expanding the Navy and Army. In July 1798 Adams signed into law the Act for the Relief of Sick and Disabled Seamen, which authorized the establishment of a government-operated marine hospital service.
Historians debate his decision to retain en masse the members of Washington’s cabinet. Many felt he was oblivious to the political danger of such a decision, in light of the cabinet’s loyalty to Hamilton. The “Hamiltonians who surround him,” Jefferson soon remarked, “you are only a little less hostile to him than to me.” Although aware of the Hamilton factor, Adams was convinced their retention ensured a smoother succession. Adams’ economic programs maintained those of Hamilton, who indeed had regularly consulted with key cabinet members, especially the powerful Secretary of the Treasury, Oliver Wolcott Jr. Adams was in other respects quite independent of his cabinet, often making decisions despite strong opposition from it. Such self-reliance enabled him to avoid war with France, despite a strong desire among his cabinet secretaries for the conflict. The Quasi-War with France resulted in the detachment from European affairs that Washington had sought. It also had psychological benefits, allowing America to view itself as holding its own against a European power.
Historian George Herring argues that Adams was the most independent-minded of the founders. Though he aligned with the Federalists, he was somewhat a party unto himself, disagreeing with the Federalists as much as he did the Democratic-Republicans. He was often described as “prickly”, but his tenacity was fed by good decisions made in the face of universal opposition. Adams was often combative, which diminished presidential decorum, as Adams himself admitted in his old age: ” I refused to suffer in silence. I sighed, sobbed, and groaned, and sometimes screeched and screamed. And I must confess to my shame and sorrow that I sometimes swore.” Adams’ resolve to advance peace with France, rather than to continue hostilities, especially reduced his popularity. This played an important role in his reelection defeat, however he was so pleased with the outcome that he had it engraved on his tombstone. Adams spent much of his term at home in Massachusetts, ignoring the details of political patronage nursed by other office holders.
Quasi-War and peace with France (17981800)
The president’s term was marked by disputes concerning the country’s role, if any, in the expanding conflict in Europe, where Britain and France were at war. Hamilton and the Federalists supported Britain, while Jefferson and the Democratic-Republicans favored France. The French had supported Jefferson for president and became even more belligerent at his loss. When Adams entered office, he decided to continue Washington’s policy of staying out of the European war. The intense battle over the Jay Treaty in 1795 had previously polarized politics throughout the nation. The French saw America as Britain’s junior partner and began seizing American merchant ships that were trading with the British. Nevertheless, most Americans were initially pro-French due to France’s assistance during the Revolutionary War, and would not have sufficiently rallied behind anyone to stop France. On May 16, Adams gave a speech to the House and Senate in which he called for increasing defense capabilities in case of war with France. For this he was roundly derided in the Republican press.
Sentiments changed with the XYZ Affair. Adams appointed a three-member commission to represent the United States to negotiate with France. The commission consisted of John Marshall, Charles Cotesworth Pinckney and Elbridge Gerry. However, when the envoys arrived in October 1797, they were kept waiting for several days, and then granted only a 15-minute meeting with French Foreign Minister Talleyrand. After this, the diplomats were met by three of Talleyrand’s agents. Each refused to conduct diplomatic negotiations unless the United States paid enormous bribes, one to Talleyrand personally, and another to the Republic of France. Supposedly this was to make up for offenses given to France by Adams in his speech. The Americans refused to negotiate on such terms. Marshall and Pinckney returned home, while Gerry remained.
The affair substantially weakened popular American support of France. The pro-French Jeffersonians lost support and quickly became the minority as many began to demand full-scale war. The affair heightened fears of sedition by the administration’s opponents and legislation was introduced in response. The president knew that America would be unable to win a conflict, as France at the time was dominating the fight in most of Europe. Adams therefore pursued a strategy whereby American ships harassed French ships in an effort sufficient to stem the French assaults on American interests. This was the undeclared naval war between the U.S. and Francethe Quasi-War which broke out in 1798.
There was danger of invasion from the more powerful French forces, so Adams and the Federalist congress built up the army, bringing back Washington as its commander. Washington wanted Hamilton to be his second-in-command and Adams reluctantly accommodated. It became apparent that Hamilton was truly in charge due to Washington’s advanced years.
Adams also rebuilt the Navy, adding six fast, powerful frigates, most notably the USS Constitution. To pay for the military buildup, Congress imposed new taxes on property: the Direct Tax of 1798. It was the first (and last) such federal tax. Taxpayers were angered, especially in southeast Pennsylvania, where the bloodless Fries’s Rebellion broke out among rural German-speaking farmers who protested what they saw as a threat to their republican liberties and to their churches.
Hamilton assumed control in the War department, and the rift between Adams’ and Hamilton’s supporters widened. Many sought to vest Hamilton with command authority over the army, and they also resisted giving prominent Democratic-Republicans positions in the army, which Adams wanted to do in order to gain bipartisan support. By building a large standing army, Hamilton’s supporters raised popular alarms and played into the hands of the Democratic-Republicans. They also alienated Adams and his large personal following. They shortsightedly viewed the Federalist party as their own tool and ignored the need to pull together the entire nation in the face of war with France. Overall, however, patriotic sentiments and a series of naval victories, popularized the war as well as the president.
In February 1799, Adams surprised many by sending diplomat William Vans Murray on a peace mission to France. Napoleon, realizing that the conflict was pointless, signaled his readiness for friendly relations. At the Convention of 1800 the Treaty of Alliance of 1778 was superseded and the United States was then free of foreign entanglements, as Washington had advised in his farewell address. Adams brought in John Marshall as Secretary of State and demobilized the emergency army. Adams proudly avoided war, but deeply split his party in the process.
Alien and Sedition Acts
Despite the discredit of the XYZ Affair, the DemocraticRepublicans’ opposition persisted. In the midst of war, which included the “reign of terror” during the French Revolution, political tensions were incendiary. Some pro-French Democratic-Republicans even fostered a movement in America, similar to the French Revolution, to overthrow the Federalists. When Democratic-Republicans in some states refused to enforce federal laws, some Federalists voiced the intention to send in an army and force them to capitulate. As the hostility sweeping Europe bled over into America, calls for secession began to reach new heights. Some Federalists accused the French and their associated immigrants of provoking civil unrest. In an attempt to quell the uprising, the Federalists introduced, and the Congress passed, a series of laws collectively referred to as the Alien and Sedition Acts, which were signed by Adams in 1798.
Congress specifically passed four measures the Naturalization Act, the Alien Friends Act, the Alien Enemies Act and the Sedition Act. These statutes were designed to mitigate the threat of secessionists by disallowing their most extreme firebrands. The Naturalization Act increased to 14 years the period of residence required for an immigrant to attain American citizenship (naturalized citizens tended to vote for the Democratic-Republicans.) The Alien Friends Act and the Alien Enemies Act allowed the president to deport any foreigner (from friendly and hostile nations, respectively) which he considered dangerous to the country. The Sedition Act made it a crime to publish “false, scandalous, and malicious writing” against the government or its officials. Punishments included 25 years in prison and fines of up to $5,000. Although Adams had not promoted any of these acts, he signed them into law.
The acts became controversial from prosecution thereunder of a Congressman and a number of newspaper editors. Indeed, the Federalist administration initiated fourteen or more indictments under the Sedition Act, as well as suits against five of the six most prominent DemocraticRepublican newspapers. The majority of the legal actions began in 1798 and 1799, and went to trial on the eve of the 1800 presidential electiontiming that hardly appeared coincidental, according to biographer Ferling. Other historians have cited evidence that the Alien and Sedition Acts were rarely enforced, namely: 1) only 10 convictions under the Sedition Act have been identified; 2) Adams never signed a deportation order; and 3) the sources of expressed furor over the acts were DemocraticRepublicans. However, other historians have emphasized that the Acts were employed for political targeting from the outset, causing many aliens to leave the country. The Acts as well allowed for prosecution of many who opposed the Federalists, even on the floor of Congress. In any case, the election of 1800 in fact became a bitter and volatile contest, with each side expressing extraordinary fear of the other and its policies; after DemocraticRepublicans prevailed in the elections of 1800, they used the acts against Federalists before the laws finally expired.
Move to Washington
Adams made his first official visit to the nation’s new seat of government in early June 1800. Amid the “raw and unfinished” cityscape, the president found the public buildings “in a much greater forwardness of completion than expected.” He moved into the nearly completed President’s Mansion (later known as the White House) on November 1. Abigail arrived a few weeks later. Upon arriving, Adams wrote to her, “Before I end my letter, I pray Heaven to bestow the best of Blessings on this House and all that shall hereafter inhabit it. May none but honest and wise Men ever rule under this roof.” The Senate of the Sixth Congress met for the first time in the new Congress House (later known as the Capitol building) on November 17, 1800. Several days later, on November 22, Adams delivered his fourth State of the Union Address to a joint session of Congress in the Senate chamber. This would be the last annual message any president would personally deliver to Congress for the next 113 years.
Election of 1800
With the Federalist Party was deeply split over his negotiations with France, and the opposition DemocraticRepublicans enraged over the Alien and Sedition Acts, and the expansion of the military, Adams faced a daunting reelection campaign in 1800. As in 1796, the Federalist members of Congress caucused in the spring of 1800 and nominated Adams and Charles C. Pinckney. The DemocraticRepublicans meanwhile nominated Jefferson and Burr, their candidates in the previous election.
The campaign was bitter and characterized by malicious personal attacks. Federalists spread rumors that the DemocraticRepublicans were radicals who would ruin the country through revolution. They in turn accused Federalists of subverting republican principles through punitive federal laws, and of favoring Britain and the other coalition countries in their war with France in order to promote aristocratic, anti-democratic values. Additionally, Hamilton was hard at work, attempting to sabotage the president’s reelection. In October, he published a pamphlet in which he charged that Adams was “emotionally unstable, given to impulsive and irrational decisions, unable to coexist with his closest advisers, and generally unfit to be president.” He also worked at persuading Federalist presidential electors in New England to withhold their vote from Adams, hoping to boosting Pinckney’s chances of winning the presidency.
|1800 electoral vote totals|
|Thomas Jefferson||01 !Democratic-Republican||73|
|Aaron Burr||02 !Democratic-Republican||73|
|John Adams||03 !Federalist||65|
|C. C. Pinckney||04 !Federalist||64|
|John Jay||05 !Federalist||1|
When the electoral votes were counted, Adams finished in third place with 65 votes, and Pinckney came in fourth with 64 votes (one New England Federalist elector voted for John Jay instead). Jefferson and Burr tied for first place with 73 votes each. Because of the tie, the election devolved upon the House of Representatives. As specified by the Constitution, each state’s delegation voted en bloc, with each state having a single vote; an absolute majority (nine, as there were 16 states at the time) was required for victory. On February 17, 1801following 36th ballotJefferson was elected by a vote of 10 to 4 (two states abstained).
Historian John E. Ferling attributes Adams’ defeat to five factors: the stronger organization of the DemocraticRepublicans; Federalist disunity; the controversy surrounding the Alien and Sedition Acts; the popularity of Jefferson in the south; and, the effective politicking of Aaron Burr in New York, where the State Legislature shifted from Federalist to DemocraticRepublican on the basis of a few wards in New York City controlled by Burr’s political machine. Analyzing the causes of the party’s trouncing, Adams wrote, “No party that ever existed knew itself so little or so vainly overrated its own influence and popularity as ours. None ever understood so ill the causes of its own power, or so wantonly destroyed them.”
To compound the agony of his defeat, Adams’ son Charles, a long-time alcoholic, died in late November. Anxious to rejoin Abigail, who had already left for Massachusetts, Adams departed the White House in the predawn hours of March 4, 1801, and did not attend Jefferson’s inauguration. Since him, only three out-going presidents (having served a full term) have not attended their successor’s inauguration.
The complications arising out of the 1796 and 1800 elections prompted Congress and the states to refine the process whereby the Electoral College elects a president and a vice president. The new procedure was enacted through the 12th Amendment, which became a part of the Constitution in June 1804, and was first followed in that year’s presidential election.
|The Adams Cabinet|
|Secretary of State||John Marshall||18001801|
|Secretary of Treasury||Samuel Dexter||1801|
|Secretary of War||Samuel Dexter||18001801|
|Secretary of the Navy||Main article: List of federal judges appointed by John Adams
Adams appointed two U.S. Supreme Court associate justices during his term in office: Bushrod Washington, the nephew of American founding father and President George Washington, to succeed James Wilson; and Alfred Moore, who succeeded James Iredell. He also named John Marshall as the fourth Chief Justice of the United States, replacing Oliver Ellsworth, who had retired due to ill health. Marshall’s long tenure represents the most lasting influence of the Federalists, as he infused the Constitution with a judicious and carefully reasoned nationalistic interpretation and established the Judicial Branch as the equal of the Executive and Legislative branches.
After the Federalists lost control of both houses of Congress along with the White House in the election of 1800, the lame-duck session of the 6th Congress in February 1801 approved a judiciary act, commonly known as the Midnight Judges Act, which created a set of federal appeals courts between the district courts and the Supreme Court. Adams filled the vacancies created in this statute by appointing a series of judges, whom his opponents called the “Midnight Judges” the appointments were issued just days before his presidential term expired. Most of these judges lost their posts when the 7th Congress, with a solid Democratic-Republican majority, approved the Judiciary Act of 1802, abolishing the newly created courts.
Adams resumed farming at his home Peacefield in the town of Quincy; he also began work on an autobiography (which he never finished) and resumed correspondence with such old friends as Benjamin Waterhouse and Benjamin Rush.
After Jefferson’s retirement from public life in 1809, Adams became more vocal. He published a three-year marathon of letters in the Boston Patriot newspaper, refuting line-by-line an 1800 pamphlet by Hamilton which attacked his conduct and character. Though Hamilton had died in 1804 in a duel with Aaron Burr, Adams felt the need to vindicate his character against the New Yorker’s vehement charges.
The years of retirement in the Adams’ household were not without some temporary financial adversity; in 1803 the bank holding his cash reserves of about $13,000 collapsed. Son John Quincy came to the rescue by purchasing from him his properties in Weymouth and Quincy, including Peacefield, for the sum of $12,800.
Daughter Abigail (“Nabby”) was married to Representative William Stephens Smith, but she returned to her parents’ home after the failure of the marriage; she died of breast cancer in 1813. His wife Abigail died of typhoid on October 28, 1818. His son Thomas and wife Ann, along with seven children, lived with Adams to the end of Adams’ life, as well as Louisa Smith (Abigail’s niece by her brother William). Sixteen months before John Adams’ death, his son, John Quincy Adams, became the sixth president of the United States in 1825, the only son to succeed his father as President until George W. Bush in 2001.
Correspondence with Jefferson
In early 1812, Adams reconciled with Jefferson. Their mutual friend Benjamin Rush, a fellow signer of the Declaration of Independence who had been corresponding with both, encouraged them to reach out to each other. On New Year’s Day Adams sent a brief, friendly note to Jefferson to accompany the delivery of “two pieces of homespun,” a two-volume collection of lectures on rhetoric by John Quincy Adams. Jefferson replied immediately with a cordial letter, and the two men revived their friendship, which they sustained by mail. The correspondence that they resumed in 1812 lasted the rest of their lives, and has been hailed as among their great legacies of American literature.
Their letters represent an insight into both the period and the minds of the two revolutionary leaders and Presidents. The missives lasted fourteen years, and consisted of 158 letters109 from Adams and 49 from Jefferson.
Early on, Adams repeatedly tried to turn the correspondence to a discussion of their actions in the political arena. Jefferson refused to oblige him, saying that “nothing new can be added by you or me to what has been said by others and will be said in every age.” Adams made one more attempt, writing that “You and I ought not to die before we have explained ourselves to each other. Still, Jefferson declined to engage Adams in this sort of discussion. Adams accepted this, and the correspondence turned to other matters.
The two men discussed “natural aristocracy.” Jefferson said, “The natural aristocracy I consider as the most precious gift of nature for the instruction, the trusts, and government of society. And indeed it would have been inconsistent in creation to have formed man for the social state, and not to have provided virtue and wisdom enough to manage the concerns of society. May we not even say that the form of government is best which provides most effectually for a pure selection of these natural into the offices of government?” Adams wondered if it ever would be so clear who these people were, “Your distinction between natural and artificial aristocracy does not appear to me well founded. Birth and wealth are conferred on some men as imperiously by nature, as genius, strength, or beauty. … When aristocracies are established by human laws and honour, wealth, and power are made hereditary by municipal laws and political institutions, then I acknowledge artificial aristocracy to commence.” It would always be true, Adams argued, that fate would bestow influence on some men for reasons other than true wisdom and virtue. That being the way of nature, he thought such “talents” were natural. A good government, therefore, had to account for that reality.
As the two grew older, the letters became fewer and farther between. There was also a great deal that they kept to themselves. Jefferson said nothing about his construction of a new house, domestic turmoil, slave ownership, or poor financial situation, while Adams did not mention the troublesome behavior of his son Thomas, who had failed as a lawyer and become an alcoholic, resorting afterwards to living primarily as a caretaker at Peacefield.
Less than a month before his death, Adams issued a statement about the destiny of the United States, which historians such as Joy Hakim have characterized as a “warning” for his fellow citizens: “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.”
On July 4, 1826, the fiftieth anniversary of the adoption of the Declaration of Independence, Adams died at his home in Quincy, at approximately 6:20 PM. Adams’ crypt lies at United First Parish Church in Quincy, Massachusetts, with his wife Abigail and son John Quincy Adams. When Adams died, his last words included an acknowledgement of his longtime friend and rival: “Thomas Jefferson survives.” Adams was, in fact, unaware that Jefferson had died several hours before.
Political philosophy and views
Adams never bought a slave and declined on principle to utilize slave labor, saying, “I have, through my whole life, held the practice of slavery in such abhorrence, that I have never owned a negro or any other slave, though I have lived for many years in times, when the practice was not disgraceful, when the best men in my vicinity thought it not inconsistent with their character, and when it has cost me thousands of dollars for the labor and subsistence of free men, which I might have saved by the purchase of negroes at times when they were very cheap.” Adams generally tried to keep the issue out of national politics, because of the anticipated southern response during a time when unity was needed to achieve independence. He spoke out in 1777 against a bill to emancipate slaves in Massachusetts, saying that the issue was presently too divisive, and so the legislation should “sleep for a time.” He also was against use of black soldiers in the Revolution, due to opposition from southerners. Slavery was abolished in Massachusetts about 1780, when it was forbidden by implication in the Declaration of Rights that John Adams wrote into the Massachusetts Constitution. Abigail Adams, on the other hand, vocally opposed slavery.
Accusations of monarchism
Throughout his lifetime Adams expressed controversial and shifting views regarding the virtues of monarchical and hereditary political institutions. At times he conveyed substantial support for these approaches, suggesting for example that “hereditary monarchy or aristocracy” are the “only institutions that can possibly preserve the laws and liberties of the people.” Yet at other times he distanced himself from such ideas, calling himself “a mortal and irreconcilable enemy to Monarchy” and “no friend to hereditary limited monarchy in America.” Such denials did not assuage his critics, and Adams was often accused of being a monarchist.
Many of these attacks are considered to have been scurrilous, including suggestions that he was planning to “crown himself king” and “grooming John Quincy as heir to the throne”. However, Peter Shaw has argued that: “he inevitable attacks on Adams, crude as they were, stumbled on a truth that he did not admit to himself. He was leaning toward monarchy and aristocracy (as distinct from kings and aristocrats) at the time he wrote ‘Davila’, though he did not directly reveal this in its essays. Decidedly, sometime after he became vice-president, Adams concluded that the United States would have to adopt a hereditary legislature and a monarch… and he outlined a plan by which state conventions would appoint hereditary senators while a national one appointed a president for life.” In contradiction to such notions, Adams asserted in a letter to Thomas Jefferson: “If you suppose that I have ever had a design or desire of attempting to introduce a government of King, Lords and Commons, or in other words an hereditary Executive, or an hereditary Senate, either into the government of the United States, or that of any individual state, in this country, you are wholly mistaken. There is not such a thought expressed or intimated in any public writing or private letter of mine, and I may safely challenge all of mankind to produce such a passage and quote the chapter and verse.”
Adams was raised a Congregationalist, since his ancestors were Puritans. According to biographer David McCullough, “as his family and friends knew, Adams was both a devout Christian, and an independent thinker”. In a letter to Benjamin Rush, Adams credited religion with the success of his ancestors since their migration to the New World in the 1630s. Adams was educated at Harvard when the influence of deism was growing there, and sometimes used deistic terms in his speeches and writing. He also believed that regular church service was beneficial to man’s moral sense. Everett (1966) concludes that “Adams strove for a religion based on a common sense sort of reasonableness” and maintained that religion must change and evolve toward perfection. Fielding (1940) argues that Adams’ beliefs synthesized Puritan, deist, and humanist concepts. Adams at one point said that Christianity had originally been revelatory, but was being misinterpreted and misused in the service of superstition, fraud, and unscrupulous power. Goff (1993) acknowledges Fielding’s “persuasive argument that Adams never was a deist because he allowed the suspension of the laws of nature and believed that evil was internal, not the result of external institutions.”
Frazer (2004) notes that while Adams shared many perspectives with deists, “Adams clearly was not a deist. Deism rejected any and all supernatural activity and intervention by God; consequently, deists did not believe in miracles or God’s providence….Adams, however, did believe in miracles, providence, and, to a certain extent, the Bible as revelation.” Frazer further argues that Adams’ “theistic rationalism, like that of the other Founders, was a sort of middle ground between Protestantism and deism.” By contrast, David L. Holmes has argued that Adams, beginning as a Congregationalist, ended his days as a Christian Unitarian, accepting central tenets of the Unitarian creed, but also accepting Jesus as the redeemer of humanity and the biblical account of his miracles as true. Like many of his Protestant contemporaries, Adams criticized the claims to universal authority made by the Roman Catholic Church. In 1796, Adams denounced political opponent Thomas Paine‘s deistic criticisms of Christianity in The Age of Reason, saying, “The Christian religion is, above all the religions that ever prevailed or existed in ancient or modern times, the religion of wisdom, virtue, equity and humanity, let the Blackguard Paine say what he will.”
Adams’ grandson Charles Francis Adams Sr. edited the first two volumes of The Works of John Adams, Esq., Second President of the United States. These were published between 1850 and 1856 by Charles C. Little and James Brown in Boston. The first seven chapters were produced by John Quincy Adams.
The premier modern biography was Honest John Adams, a 1933 biography by the noted French specialist in American history Gilbert Chinard, who came to Adams after writing his acclaimed 1929 biography of Thomas Jefferson. For a generation, Chinard’s work was regarded as the best life of Adams, and it is still an important text in illustrating the themes of Adams’ biographical and historical scholarship. Following the opening of the Adams family papers in the 1950s, Page Smith published the first major biography to use these previously inaccessible primary sources; his biography won a 1962 Bancroft Prize but was criticized for its scanting of Adams’ intellectual life and its diffuseness. In 1975, Peter Shaw published The Character of John Adams, a thematic biography noted for its psychological insight into Adams’ life. The 1992 character study by Joseph J. Ellis, Passionate Sage: The Character and Legacy of John Adams, was Ellis’s first major publishing success and remains one of the most useful and insightful studies of Adams’ personality. In 1992, the Revolutionary War historian and biographer John E. Ferling published his acclaimed John Adams: A Life, also noted for its psychological sensitivity. David McCullough authored the 2001 biography John Adams, which won various awards and was the basis for a 2008 TV miniseries.