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  Text: John Adams (1735 - 1826).  

Image: portrait of John Paul Jones.In three remarkable careers - as a champion of American independence (1761-77), as an American diplomat in Europe (1778-88), and as the first vice-president (1789-97) and then the second president (1797-1801) of the United States - John Adams was a founder of the United States. Perhaps equally important is the legacy of his mind and spirit. In a pungent diary, vivid letters, learned tracts, and patriotic speeches he revealed himself as the patriarch of an illustrious family, a tough-minded philosopher of the republic, and a sage. Adams was not universally popular-he could be blunt, stubborn, impatient, and vain. More than one of his contemporaries used the term insane to describe some of his behavior. But all agreed on his probity and devotion to public service.

John Adams was born in Braintree (now Quincy), Massachusetts, on October 30, 1735, in a small saltbox house now part of Adams National Historical Park. He became the first of his family to go to college when he entered Harvard in 1751. There, and in six further years of intensive reading while he taught school and studied law in Worcester and Boston, he mastered the technicalities of his profession and the literature and learning of his day. By 1762, when he began 14 years of increasingly successful legal practice, he was well informed, ambitious, and public spirited. His most notable good fortune, however, occurred in 1764 when he married Abigail Smith. John Adams's marriage of 54 years to this wise, learned, strong-willed, passionate, and patriotic woman began the brilliant phase of Adams family history that produced their son John Quincy, his son Charles Francis, his sons Henry and Brooks, and numerous other distinguished progeny.

In 1761, John Adams began to write and act against British measures that he believed infringed on colonial liberties and the right of Massachusetts and the other colonies to self-government. Although he never wavered in his devotion to colonial rights and committed himself to independence as an unwelcome last resort, Adams's innate conservatism and sense of justice led him to an interesting choice in 1770. Adams and another prominent lawyer, Josiah Quincy, defended British soldiers who had fired on and killed several members of an unruly mob in Boston. Radicals branded the incident "the Boston Massacre," but Adams believed the soldiers deserved a fair hearing.

A delegate to the First and Second Continental Congresses, Adams led in the movement for independence. He served on the committee charged with preparing the Declaration of Independence with Thomas Jefferson, who called him "the pillar of its support on the floor of Congress." In 1779, Adams drafted the Massachusetts Constitution, which would later serve as a model for the U.S. Constitution. During the Revolutionary War he served in France and Holland in diplomatic roles, and helped negotiate the Treaty of Paris at the war's conclusion. From 1785 to 1788 he was Minister to the Court of St. James's (American ambassador to Great Britain), returning to be elected vice president under George Washington.

Adams made uniquely important contributions during his term as president (1797-1801). He managed orderly transitions of power at both the beginning and the end of his administration, and he gave the government stability by continuing most of the practices established under Washington. The major crisis he faced, however, arose from strained relations with revolutionary France. When, in the so-called XYZ Affair (1797-98), American peace commissioners returned from Paris with lurid stories of deceit and bribery, Adams called for an assertion of national pride and built up the armed forces. The President also signed the Alien and Sedition Acts, passed by the Congress as emergency national security measures, but sometimes applied to suppress political opponents. With Jefferson's party charging oppression and some of his own Federalist Party (led by Hamilton) urging war and conquest, Adams kept his nerve and, when the opportunity arose, dispatched another peace commission to France. This defused the crisis and led in 1800 to an agreement with France that ended the so-called Quasi-War. Nonetheless, deserted by Hamilton and other Federalists who disapproved of his independent course, and attacked by the new Democratic Republican Party as a vain monarchist, Adams narrowly lost his re-election bid to Thomas Jefferson.

When he and Abigail returned to Massachusetts in 1801, they moved into a comfortable but unpretentious house in Quincy that Adams named Peacefield (it is known today as the Old House and open to visitors as the Adams National Historical Park) they had bought 12 years before. There, tending to his fields, visiting with neighbors, and enjoying his family, John Adams lived for 25 years as a sage and national patriarch. Of his numerous correspondences, one with Jefferson extending from 1812 until his death became a literary legacy to the nation. Although the debilitations of old age and the death of his beloved Abigail in 1818 troubled his last years, Adams retained his sharp mind and buoyant spirits until the end.

Like Jefferson, he died on July 4, 1826, the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. Living to be 90, Adams was revered by his countrymen not only as one of the founding fathers but also as a plain, honest man who personified the best of what the nation could hope of its citizens and leaders. John Adams was laid to rest in a crypt within the First Parish Church in his beloved hometown of Quincy.

To learn more:

Joseph J. Ellis, Passionate Sage: The Character and Legacy of John Adams (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1993).

John Ferling, John Adams: A Life (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1992).

David McCullough, John Adams (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2001).

C. Bradley Thompson, John Adams and the Spirit of Liberty (Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 1998).

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