John Adams (1735 1826) was a Founding Father, political philosopher and second president of the US (1797-1801). Adams was also a lawyer who advocated the right to counsel and presumption of innocence. He was one of the more conservative Founding Fathers but swung behind the cause of the American Revolution and helped to champion the Declaration of Independence drafted by Thomas Jefferson at the Continental Congress. He was also the first vice-president of the US (1789-1797) and foreign diplomat to the UK and Netherlands.
John Adams was born on 30 October 1735 in Braintree, Massachusetts. His grandfather emigrated from England around 1638. His father was a deacon on the Congregational Church and a lieutenant in the local militia. His family were of the puritan religious tradition, and he was brought up with emphasis on morality, restraint and frugality. Until he became President, he refused to work on the Sabbath. After a basic education, he entered Harvard College in 1751, where he became immersed in the classics. To his father’s disappointment, Adams chose to pursue a career in the law, rather than train to be a deacon. He felt lawyers had the opportunity to make a real difference and gain the respect of his fellow men.
In 1764, he married Abigail Smith. They had grown close because of a shared interest in literature, politics and philosophy. Throughout their marriage, they shared frank views, and Adams frequently valued the honest and candid advice of his wife. At the time, because of women’s position in society, it was unusual to have a marriage of equals, but their mutual respect and compatibility was an important strand in Adam’s personal and political life.
Although Adams was brought up with strong British loyalties, he became a noted critic of British policies in the colonies. He studied the writing of James Otis criticising the British Writs of Association (which allowed the British to search a home without notice or reason). But, it was Adams opposition to the Stamp Act which made him well known in Massachusetts. The Stamp Act was a very unpopular system of levying taxes on stamped documents. It was enforced by unrepresentative military courts and was used – not to finance spending in the colonies – but to finance the British war against France. In 1765, he authored the Braintree Instructions, which argued the Act should be opposed because it denied colonists two important freedoms – the right to be taxed by consent and the right to be judged by one’s peers.
This succinct and clear statement of colonists to only be taxed with representation became an important cause within the American revolutionary movement. Adams was also firm in wanting protests to remain peaceful and legal, he opposed the passions raised by ‘mobs’ who were exercised by the acts.
Boston Trial Massacre
The overwhelming opposition to the acts led the British to annul the Stamp Act in 1766. However, tensions with Britain were not reduced for long. In 1767, the Townshend Act implemented another series of unpopular measures against the colonies, and this led to an increase in popular protest. On 5 March 1770, the protests boiled over, and when several British soldiers were surrounded by violent protestors, they opened fire, killing five protestors. It became known as the Boston Massacre. Feelings were running high, and the British soldiers were arrested for murder. No lawyer would take their case; such was the resentment against the British. By now, Adams was the most high profile lawyer in Boston. Because he believed passionately in the right of everyone to have representation and a fair trial, he agreed to represent the British soldiers, even though it made him unpopular with public opinion.
The case became an important exposition of Adams skill as a lawyer and even more importantly, certain principles of justice and fairness. Adams was skilful in selecting a jury which included many more sympathetic to loyalist sympathies and challenging those with more anti-British feeling. In the case, he powerfully laid out an argument that the soldiers could not be found guilty of murder because they cornered by an angry mob, throwing objects at them. Adams also made a passionate plea that:
“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. ”
– Adams Boston Massacre trial (1770)
Adams argued if we lose the right to a presumption of innocence, then it will lead to a loss of belief in natural justice. The officer and most men were acquitted, two soldiers who fired directly into the crowd were found guilty of manslaughter.
“But what do we mean by the American Revolution? Do we mean the American war? The Revolution was effected before the war commenced. The Revolution was in the minds and hearts of the people; a change in their religious sentiments of their duties and obligations. … This radical change in the principles, opinions, sentiments, and affections of the people, was the real American Revolution.”
– John Adams, 1818
The defence of the British soldiers found Adams favour with the British authorities in the Americas, but Adams became increasingly concerned at the growth of British misrule. In 1772, the British Crown began paying the judiciary directly, rather than the colonial government. Adams felt this was a direct challenge to judicial independence. In 1773, Adams supported wholeheartedly the destruction of tea from the British East India Company and claimed that the Boston Tea Party was the “grandest event’ in the history of the colonial protest movement.
When the British responded to the Boston Tea Party with the “Intolerable Acts” Adams agreed to represent Massachusetts at the First Continental Congress. Adams was an influential figure at the Continental Congress helping to broker a compromise between conservatives who wished to placate the British Crown and the radicals who wanted to declare independence. After the first hostilities between Americans and the British at the Battle of Lexington and Concord, Adams privately moved towards hoping for complete independence. In 1775, he nominated George Washington to the Commander in Chief of the Continental Army. Publically he maintained ‘reconciliation if practical’ but increasingly he favoured a complete break.
“I am well aware of the Toil and Blood and Treasure, that it will cost Us to maintain this Declaration, and support and defend these States…”
– Adams Letter to Abigail Adams (3 July 1776),
In 1776, Adams became friendly with Thomas Jefferson, and it was Adams who persuaded Jefferson he should be the one to draft a Declaration of Independence. Initially, Jefferson wanted Adams to write the document, But Adams replied that he had personally created many enemies, and it would be better for Jefferson, a Virginian and skilled writer with few personal enemies to draft it. After Jefferson wrote the first draft, Adams helped revise the document before it was presented to the Continental Congress.
On the floor of Congress, the declaration received opposition from conservative members such as Dickinson, Adams was the main speaker in favour of getting the Declaration passed. Jefferson later paid tribute to Adams saying
“the pillar of [the Declaration’s] support on the floor of Congress, [its] ablest advocate and defender against the multifarious assaults it encountered.”
On 4 July 1776, American Independence was declared.
Adams abhorred slavery and was committed to its abolition, but he also knew that to keep the southern states supporting American independence, it wasn’t the right time to pass bills to abolish it.
“The turpitude, the inhumanity, the cruelty, and the infamy of the African commerce in slaves, have been so impressively represented to the public by the highest powers of eloquence, that nothing that I can say would increase the just odium in which it is and ought to be held. Every measure of prudence, therefore, ought to be assumed for the eventual total extirpation of slavery from the United States.”
– John Adams Letter to Robert J. Evans (1819)
During the war, Adams was at the heart of the government – working up to eighteen-hour days and sitting on innumerable committees. After American military defeats, he had to work even harder writing to officers throughout the army, asking about munitions, supplies and encouraging the army to maintain discipline.
In 1777, Adams travelled with his wife and family to France, to assist Benjamin Franklin with securing a trade agreement and assistance from the French. Adams strove hard to gain increased French naval assistance. Adams often clashed with Franklin over French diplomatic policy (and was surprised at Franklin’s morally loose behaviour in Paris) However the later French help proved influential in altering the course of the war.
In 1781, Adams went to the Netherlands to seek help from another Republic. However, fearing retribution from the British, the Netherlands made little effort to meet Adams, and he left disappointed. In the Netherlands, he also fell seriously ill – a mental breakdown from years of intense work. In late 1781, the Continental Army, with naval assistance from the French triumphed at Yorktown. When news reached Europe, it was a major shock and showed that the mighty British Empire was vulnerable and the United States a viable proposition. With this change in military success, the Dutch agreed to receive Adams, and he negotiated a loan of five million guilders and a treaty of friendship and commerce.
In 1783, with Benjamin Franklin he helped negotiate the Treaty of Paris, where Great Britain recognised the United States and ceded the US most territory to the east of the Mississippi River.
In 1785, he was appointed the first American ambassador to Great Britain. He met George III, and despite being one of the greatest opponents of American independence, George III met cordially with him, and both men promised to do their best to enforce the new treaty between the two nations. However, in Great Britain, courtiers were unfriendly with Adams and his wife Abigail, so he sought to spend little time in the court. He increasingly felt homesick and wished to return to his farm in America. The couple were briefly joined by Thomas Jefferson, and they travelled historical sites of England before returning to the US.
In 1789, Adams stood in the first American presidential elections. As expected Washington stood first (69 votes, with Adams in second place (34 votes). This meant Adams was elected to the Vice-President. However, his pride was hurt by losing the vote so badly to Washington. As Vice-President, his powers were limited to presiding over the Senate. He created more political enemies when he tried to get the Senate to adopt fancy labels for the President. He advocated suggestions such as “Your Highness and the Protector of their liberties.” However, Adams had misjudged both the constitution and mood of republican America. His suggestions were satirised and he was heavily defeated. After that Washington rarely consulted Adams, and he remained on the periphery of government, rarely participating in elections. It did not help that Adams could be stubborn and proud. He had a habit of creating conflict; he was also conscious that he was overshadowed by other Founding Fathers, who had a greater physical stature and defter political touch. Adams said of his time as vice-president:
“My country has in its wisdom contrived for me the most insignificant office that ever the invention of man contrived or his imagination conceived.”
However, with Washington not wishing to take a third term, in 1797, Adams stood for the Presidential election for the Federalist Party. Thomas Jefferson was the main candidate for the Democratic-Republicans) It was a bitterly partisan election, with Federalists accusing the Democratic-Republicans of supporting the violence and anarchy of the French Revolution and the Republicans accusing the Federalists of being sympathetic to British style monarchy and aristocracy. Adams stood for the Federalists, but the party was not united with Alexander Hamilton preferring Thomas Pinckney of South Carolina over Adams to succeed Washington
Even as President, Adams struggled against the Hamilton wing of his party. The US was also drawn into the war between the French and the British. Due to the political climate, he enacted the Alien and Sedition Act (1798) which gave the government sweeping powers to summarily deport people accused of disloyalty. It was also an attack on the free press and was bitterly opposed by Jefferson and the Republicans who claimed it was unconstitutional.
The French became increasingly hostile to the US envoys and the US was dragged into a quasi naval war. Adams built up the US navy and Congress approved the building of new ships. However, Adams resisted calls to enter into a full-scale war and towards the end of his presidency, he sent a peace envoy to Paris and after long negotiations, the quasi-war ended. However, his peace entreaties created opposition from Hamilton Federalists and in the bitterly contested 1800 election, he lost the Presidency to Thomas Jefferson by a small margin.
After defeat in the election, he retired to his farm in Quincy. After becoming estranged politically with Jefferson, in 1812, the two struck up a long correspondence and resumed their close personal friendship and discussed political matters.
He died on 4 July 1826. His last words were: “Thomas Jefferson survives” But, unbeknown to Adams, Jefferson had died a few hours earlier.
Adams had six children. His eldest son John Quincy Adams had a long and distinguished career as ambassador, diplomat and served as the sixth president of the US. His sons Charles and Thomas both had problems with alcoholism and getting into debt. This was a painful experience for John Adams, who was personally frugal and almost puritan in his habits.
Adams was a religious man and attended church, extolling its virtues. He synthesised some elements of deism and free-thinking (like his fellow Founding Fathers) He was critical of some religious conventions, but at the same time, he valued attending church.
“Where do we find a precept in the Gospel requiring Ecclesiastical Synods? Convocations? Councils? Decrees? Creeds? Confessions? Oaths? Subscriptions? and whole cart-loads of other trumpery that we find religion incumbered with in these days?
– Adams 8 February 1756
Adams on the value of religion.
“Without religion this world would be something not fit to be mentioned in polite company, I mean Hell.”
– Adams, letter to Thomas Jefferson (19 April 1817)
John Adams Facts
- In Nov 1800, Adams became the first President to live in the White House. (not named the White House until T.Roosevelt
- He was 90 years old when he died – the oldest living US president until 1900.
- He wrote extensive diaries and made the mistake of sending some back to Congress members who read out his more vain complements from the French to great hilarity in Congress.
- Adams at 5′ 7” / 1.70 m was one of the shortest American presidents, and much shorter than his contemporaries Washington and Jefferson.
John Adams by David McCullough at Amazon
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