Americana: John Adams


John Adams
was a lawyer, revolutionary theorist and leader, diplomat, first vice president, and second president of the United States. He was raised on
a farm in Braintree (later renamed Quincy), Massachusetts and was the first in his family to attend college at Harvard, as well as the first
professional person as a lawyer.

In 1765, John Adams lived part of the time in Boston with his wife, Abigail Adams, and their children, opposing British revenue measures and their enforcement by the military. Yet he was considered a moderate because he never joined in demonstrations or publishing inflammatory rhetoric in the manner of his cousin Samuel Adams or a friend and fellow lawyer, James Otis.
In 1765, John Adams drew up the Braintree Instructions, an argument against the Stamp Act, which he also wrote about in his Dissertation on Canon and Feudal Law.
In 1770, after the Boston Massacre, John Adams, on his principle that the accused always has the right of a vigorous defense, was willing to defend the British troops who had fired on the Boston crowd. But in 1774, after the Boston Tea Party and British Coercive Acts, he proclaimed his desire for independence.
John Adams had already had experience as a Massachusetts legislator and one of the colony’s delegates to the First Continental Congress when at the Second Congress he emerged as the leading advocate of independence. His Thoughts on Government, written in 1776, set forth a plan where the colonies could govern themselves as independent states.
John Adams’ best-known contribution to independence was his support in favor of the issuance of a formal declaration of independence. Not being an
orator or institutor of political alliances, he moved men and events with his sincerity and ability to be thorough in his arguments a trait any good lawyer must have.
Thomas Jefferson described John Adams as a colossus; other delegates called him the Atlas of Independence. By 1778 he had served on more committees than any other member, virtually a one-man war department.
From 1778 to 1788, John Adams served as a diplomat in France, the Netherlands, and England. He secured Dutch loans, chaired the commission that concluded a peace treaty with England, and ended as an ambassador to the English court, where he was received by George III, the king against whom he had helped to lead a revolution.
John Adams returned to America after the adoption of the U.S. Constitution and stood out as a public figure for his three-volume commentary on political systems (1787-1785) entitled Defence of the Constitutions. His political conservatism linked him with the Federal political party, but he consistently stood apart from its counsels.
John Adams was elected as vice president under George Washington and then served as president from 1797 to 1801. His presidency was marred by threat of war with France and by the Alien and Sedition Acts that he signed after Congress passed the bill. After a single term, John Adams was defeated by Thomas Jefferson. He was deeply upset when the voters rejected him to run a consecutive term and his Discourse on Davila (1790-1791) reflects this resentment. He retired to Quincy and refused to take part in any public involvements. During this period, John Adams discontinued contact with Thomas Jefferson.
In 1812, John Adams was reconciled with Thomas Jefferson, who had been a friend in Europe, and began to correspond with him that is now considered to be a monument to the American enlightenment. He merged his philosophical arguments with politics and reasserted his argument concerning the limitations of human nature to a more balanced and memorable way.
John Adams died on the same day as Thomas Jefferson: July 4th, 1826, the 5th anniversary of independence.


The Adams Papers by L.H. Butterfield, 1961; The Character of John Adams by Peter Shaw, 1976.

[See Also: Adams, Abigail; Boston Massacre; Conservatism; Elections: 1789, 1792, 1796, 1800; Federalist Party; Paris Treaty of 1783; American Revolution; Stamp Act; Alien and Sedition Acts; XYZ Affair.]