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THE PRESIDENTS of the United States
Biographical Sketches

Second President • 1797-1801
John Adams
John Adams

A giant among the Founding Fathers, Adams was one of the 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 of Independence, but he also steered it through the Continental Congress. He later served the Nation as one of its premier diplomats, first Vice President, and second President. He won office by only a narrow margin, and headed a divided Federalist Party in an era of sharp political strife and complicated international relations. Yet he avoided a declared war against France while defending U.S. sovereignty on the high seas.

John Adams
John Adams. (Oil, 1878, Edgar Parker.)

Adams, descended from a long line of yeomen farmers and the eldest of three sons, was born in 1735 at Braintree (later Quincy), Mass., and was himself the progenitor of a distinguished family. 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 studying with a local lawyer.

Adams was admitted to the bar at Boston in 1758, the same year he took an M.A. degree at Harvard, and began to practice in his hometown. Six years later, he married Abigail Smith, who was to give birth to three sons, one of whom was John Quincy, and two daughters. She was thus the only woman in U.S. history to be the wife of one President and the mother of another, and she was also the first mistress of the White House.

Like many others, Adams 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 hence, 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.

drafting committee of the Declaration of Independence
John Adams (center, left), the "Atlas of American Independence," and the other members of the drafting committee present the Declaration of Independence to the Continental Congress. (Oil, 1819, by John Trumbull, after an earlier painting, 1786-95, Architect of the Capitol.)

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.

Abigail Adams
Abigail Adams

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 congressional 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 of Independence in June 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.

Abigail Adams
Abigail Adams was not only a brilliant woman in her own right, but she also furthered the career of her husband, John. She was the first woman in history to be the wife of one President and the mother of another, John Quincy (Barbara Bush being the second, wife of George Bush and mother of George W. Bush). (The White House Historical Association.)

The declaration battle won, exhausted by the incessant toil and strain and worried about his finances and family, Adams in November 1777 retired from Congress. 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 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.

John Adams prepared this one-page biography for an unidentified correspondent. It was probably written around 1815 when he was 80 years of age. (Library of Congress.)

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 the nominal leader of the Federalist Party. The real leader was Alexander Hamilton, whose political manipulations coupled with the peculiarities of the electoral system at the time, resulted in Adams being saddled as President with his political enemy Jefferson, the leader of the opposition Democratic-Republican Party, as his Vice President—the only instance in U.S. history where such a situation occurred. Also, Adams' principal Cabinet members answered to Hamilton.

But the problems did not end there. Adams also faced a hostile Congress, and he inherited the deep political discord between the Hamiltonians and the Jeffersonians that had taken root during Washington's administration. The resulting party warfare, of which Adams bore the brunt, was generated by the strong personal and political differences between the two men and the partisanship that arose out of the philosophical, diplomatic, and economic ramifications of the wars of the French Revolution between Great Britain and France.

Britain was not particularly solicitous of the rights of American shipping, but the major obstacle to peace was the belligerency of France toward U.S. ships carrying British goods and seamen serving on British warships. Hamilton and most Federalists, drawing closer to the old enemy Britain, favored war with France as a way of uniting the country and building a strong Army and Navy. The Jeffersonians, controlling roughly half the votes in Congress and friendly toward War for Independence ally France, opposed war as far as they dared, but public opinion was bellicose.

Adams National Historical Park
Adams National Historical Park
Adams (John) Birthplace
United First Parish Church (Unitarian)
Independence National Historical Park

If Adams had asked for a declaration of war, the antiwar party could not have stopped it. Rational discussion of political differences between the two parties degenerated into an ever more shrill exchange of insults. Bitter frustrations found release in the Federalist-backed Alien and Sedition Acts and in the Democratic-Republican response, the Kentucky Resolutions and the Virginia Resolutions.

The statesmanlike Adams maintained a neutral stance without abandoning his principles. He kept the United States out of a declared war with France and achieved an amicable peace. But, always more a political philosopher than a politician, he proved unable to unite his party, divided by the machinations of Hamilton, who spurred congressional opposition to Adams, and the implications of the French Revolution. The Jeffersonians pushed the Federalists out of office in the election of 1800, the same year that the Government and its 150 employees moved from Philadelphia to the incomplete Capital in the District of Columbia and the Adamses occupied the White House.

Adams spent his later years quietly at Quincy, where he resided in his home, "Peacefield," which he had purchased in 1787. 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, the longest lived Chief Executive, died at the age of 90 just a few hours after Jefferson, with whom he had become reconciled, on July 4, 1826—dramatically enough the 50th anniversary of the adoption of the Declaration of Independence.

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Last Updated: 22-Jan-2004