Ideas & Events: The Revolutionary War

John Adams was instrumental in winning the Revolutionary War, though he never donned a uniform or fired a musket in battle. Long before the first shots rang out at Lexington and Concord, Adams helped spark the most important revolution of all: the one that took place “in the minds and hearts of the people,” giving them the courage to declare their independence from Britain.

Once the military phase of war began, pitting a fledgling democracy of only 2.5 million people against a world power with a mighty army and navy, Adams turned his boundless energies to the task of ensuring victory for the young republic.

Fighting the war at home

As a member of the Continental Congress, he nominated George Washington, a Virginian, to head the newly formed Continental Army. This was a politically shrewd move that helped shore up support for the war in Virginia, the largest, wealthiest and most influential of the colonies. It was also an astute choice militarily. Washington was an experienced and quietly charismatic officer who commanded the respect of his troops, even in the most trying circumstances. Under his leadership, the army—which was poorly trained at first, ill-equipped and greatly outnumbered—managed to elude catastrophe long enough to develop into an experienced fighting force and to benefit from the French Alliance of 1778, which brought France into the war on the American side.

Adams also played an important tactical role in the early war effort. Appointed head of the Continental Board of War and Ordnance, he worked tirelessly to provision an army that was strapped for funds and plagued by shortages of weapons, boots, transportation, and cash to pay the troops.

Fighting the war abroad

For the 10 years between 1778 and 1788, Adams spent all but a few months in Europe, building alliances and securing financial support for the war. Untrained in diplomacy, candid to a fault, and impatient to advance America’s cause, he often irritated his foreign hosts and American colleagues (most notably, Benjamin Franklin) by breaking the rules of diplomatic convention. On more than one occasion, Congress revoked his credentials.

Despite crushing setbacks, including a malaria-like illness that nearly killed him, Adams achieved important triumphs through his sheer doggedness and powers of persuasion. In Holland, he mounted a one-man campaign to build public support for America, ultimately convincing a reluctant Dutch government to grant diplomatic recognition to the United States. He secured 9 million guilders in Dutch loans that were sorely needed to pay for the war and establish U.S. credit in Europe.

Adams also argued for France to deploy its West Indies fleet to support Washington’s army. In 1781, the French navy contributed to General Cornwallis’s defeat and surrender at Yorktown, Virginia, by blockading British troops from escaping by sea.

Influencing America’s future

Along with Franklin and John Jay, Adams negotiated the Treaty of Paris, which ended the war. Ignoring instructions from Congress and the wishes of America’s French allies, who were anxious to reach a settlement, the trio insisted on critical concessions from the British, including full recognition of American independence, fishery rights to the Grand Banks off Newfoundland, and the ceding of all British territory between the Appalachian Mountains and the Mississippi River.

Taken alone, each of these accomplishments had a significant impact on a young country. Together, they made a remarkable contribution to economic growth, westward expansion, and America’s stature on the international stage.