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Signers of the Declaration
Biographical Sketches

John Adams
John Adams

Few men contributed more to U.S. Independence than John Adams, the "Atlas of American Independence" in the eyes of fellow signer Richard Stockton. A giant among the Founding Fathers, Adams was one of the coterie of leaders who generated the American Revolution, for which his prolific writings provided many of the politico-philosophical foundations. Not only did he help draft the Declaration, but he also steered it through the Continental Congress.

The subsequent career of Adams—as a diplomat and first Vice President and second President of the United States—overshadows those of all the other signers except Jefferson. Adams was also the progenitor of a distinguished family. His son John Quincy gained renown as diplomat, Congressman, Secretary of State, and President. John's grandson Charles Francis and great-grandsons John Quincy II, Charles Francis, Jr., Henry, and Brooks excelled in politics, diplomacy, literature, historiography, and public service.

Adams, descended from a long line of yeomen farmers, was born m 1735 at Braintree (later Quincy), Mass. He graduated from Harvard College in 1755, and for a short time taught school at Worcester, Mass. At that time, he considered entering the ministry, but decided instead to follow the law and began its study with a local lawyer. Adams was admitted to the bar at Boston in 1758 and began to practice in his hometown. Six years later, he married Abigail Smith, who was to bear three sons and a daughter. She was also the first mistress of the White House and the first woman in U.S. history to be the wife of one President and the mother of another.

Adams, like many others, was propelled into the Revolutionary camp by the Stamp Act. In 1765 he wrote a protest for Braintree that scores of other Massachusetts towns adopted. Three years later, he temporarily left his family behind and moved to Boston. He advanced in the law, but devoted more and more of his time to the patriot cause. In 1768 he achieved recognition throughout the Colonies for his defense of John Hancock, whom British customs officials had charged with smuggling. Adams later yielded to a stern sense of legal duty but incurred some public hostility by representing the British soldiers charged with murder in the Boston Massacre (1770). Ill health forced him to return to Braintree following a term in the colonial legislature (1770-71), and for the next few years he divided his time between there and Boston.

A 3-year stint in the Continental Congress (1774-77), punctuated by short recuperative leaves and service in the colonial legislature in 1774-75, brought Adams national fame. Because he was sharply attuned to the temper of Congress and aware that many Members resented Massachusetts extremism, he at first acceded to conciliatory efforts with Britain and restrained himself publicly. When Congress opted for independence, he became its foremost advocate, eschewing conciliation and urging a colonial confederation.

Adams was a master of workable compromise and meaningful debate, though he was sometimes impatient. He chaired 25 of the more than 90 committees on which he sat, the most important of which dealt with military and naval affairs. He played an instrumental part in obtaining Washington's appointment as commander in chief of the Continental Army. Adams was a member of the five-man committee charged with drafting the Declaration in June of 1776, though he probably made no major changes in Jefferson's draft. But, more directly involved, he defended it from its congressional detractors, advocated it to the wavering, and guided it to passage.

The independence battle won, exhausted by the incessant toil and strain and worried about his finances and family, Adams in November 1777 retired from Congress—never to return. He headed back to Braintree intending to resume his law practice. But, before the month expired, Congress appointed him to a diplomatic post in Europe—a phase of his career that consumed more than a decade (1777-88).

Adams served in France during the period 1778-85, interrupted only by a visit to the United States in the summer of 1779, during which he attended the Massachusetts constitutional convention. Independent-minded and forthright, as well as somewhat jealous of the fame and accomplishments of others, he frequently found himself at odds with fellow diplomats Benjamin Franklin and Arthur Lee, as well as French officials, whose policies toward the Colonies he mistrusted. He joined Franklin and John Jay, however, in negotiating the Treaty of Paris (1783), by which Britain recognized the independence of the United States.

Meanwhile, during the preceding 3 years, Adams had persuaded the Dutch to recognize the Colonies as an independent Nation, grant a series of loans, and negotiate a treaty of alliance. As the first American Envoy to Great Britain (1785-88), he strove to resolve questions arising from the Treaty of Paris and to calm the harsh feelings between the two countries.

Back in the United States, Adams was soon elected as the first Vice President (1789-97), an office he considered insignificant but in which he emerged as a leader of the Federalist Party. During his stormy but statesmanlike Presidency (1797-1801), he inherited the deep political discord between the Hamiltonians and Jeffersonians that had taken root during Washington's administration. Adams pursued a neutral course without abandoning his principles. He kept the United States out of a declared war with France and achieved an amicable peace. But he proved unable to unite his party, divided by Hamilton's machinations and the ramifications of the French Revolution.

The Jeffersonians drove the Federalists out of office in 1800, and Adams retired to Quincy, where he spent his later years quietly. The death of his wife in 1818 saddened him, but he never lost interest in public affairs and lived to see his son John Quincy become President. John died at the age of 90 just a few hours after Jefferson, on July 4, 1826—dramatically enough the 50th anniversary of the adoption of the Declaration. Except for Charles Carroll, who was to live until 1832, Adams and Jefferson were the last two surviving signers. The remains of John and Abigail Adams are interred in a basement crypt at the United First Parish Church in Quincy.

Drawing: Oil, ca. 1791-94, by Charles Willson Peale, Indpendence National Historical Park.

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Last Updated: 04-Jul-2004