Among the founding fathers of American democracy—a group of men remarkable by the standards of any age—John Adams stands apart with two other giants of their generation: George Washington and Thomas Jefferson.
A brilliant political thinker, Adams did more than any other man of his era to articulate the intellectual, legal and historic foundations of American independence and to define the principles and institutions of a democratic government. As a delegate to the Continental Congress, he coaxed, inspired and, when all else failed, browbeat his fellow patriots into voting for independence from Britain. As a diplomat representing the new U.S. government, he helped secure the recognition and resources needed to win the Revolutionary War. And as president at a time when Europe was reeling from the French Revolution, he resisted public pressure to declare war on France, refusing to be drawn into Europe’s interminable conflicts.
A man of “uncommon ability and force”
Over the last two decades, interest in John Adams has soared, fueled by widely read biographies, collections of his correspondence with Abigail, and media portrayals of their life together. This new appreciation of Adams owes as much to his towering personality as to his historical achievements.
Several generations removed from the England of his ancestors, he was American to the core, embodying the New England virtues of hard work, self-reliance, honesty and thrift. Yet he was also a character worthy of Shakespeare. Biographer David McCullough has written of Adams, “He was a great-hearted, persevering man of uncommon ability and force…. He could be high-spirited and affectionate, vain, cranky, impetuous, self-absorbed, and fiercely stubborn; passionate, quick to anger, and all-forgiving; generous and entertaining. He was blessed with great courage and good humor, yet subject to spells of despair, and especially when separated from his family or during periods of prolonged inactivity.”
From Adams’s own writings, and from the observations of his contemporaries, what emerges is not so much a faithful portrait as a vivid likeness of a man who was utterly captivating, capable of great warmth and humor, and imbued with passions and ideas capable of sparking a revolution.
A fifth-generation American
John Adams was born in 1735 in Braintree (now Quincy), Massachusetts, south of Boston. His father, also named John Adams, was a farmer and respected Congregationalist deacon and a fourth-generation descendant of early English settlers who came to Massachusetts around 1632. John’s mother, Susanna Boylston Adams came from the more socially prominent Boylston family. Though she did not receive a formal education, her eldest son would turn out to be one of the most educated and literate men of his era.
John grew up in a coastal village of orchards and salt meadows, and all his life he would describe himself as a farmer. However, he showed great promise as a student and at 15 was admitted to Harvard, where he developed a lifelong passion for books, study and debate. Graduating in 1755, he taught school (unhappily), studied law with an attorney in Worcester and was admitted to the Massachusetts bar in 1758. When his father died in 1761, John inherited the family farm. Though his rise to fame would soon begin, taking him away from Braintree for years at a time, he would never lose his deep attachment to the land.
A love for the ages
John met Abigail Smith in 1759, when she was 15 and he was 24. From the outset, their now-famous letters brimmed with affection, humor, intimacy, and respect, qualities that would characterize their relationship for nearly 60 years. She was “the ballast” he needed to steady his passions, ambitions and vanity. Her unwavering love and her willingness to manage their home, family and finances would free him to devote himself to another great love of his life: politics and government.
They were married in October 1764. Their first child—Abigail, who was nicknamed Nabby—was born in July 1765, followed in quick succession by John Quincy, Susanna, Charles, and Thomas.
The stirrings of revolution
During the five years of their courtship, John had established a successful law practice, but they both sensed that history was preparing him for something much greater. Within a year of their wedding, he emerged as an influential voice opposing British rule.
In 1765, colonists were outraged by news of the Stamp Act, which required almost everything written or printed on paper to carry a revenue stamp costing as much as ten pounds. In the first major political essay of his career, A Dissertation on the Canon and Feudal Law, Adams provided a justification for Colonial resistance to taxation without representation. He articulated the principle that American freedoms were not a goal to be pursued but rights already established by British law and the sacrifice of American settlers and their descendants. Because the act was passed by Parliament, where the colonists had no representation, it violated their rights as Englishmen to be taxed only by their consent.
A man of unbending principle
John’s defense of the British soldiers involved in the Boston Massacre, though unpopular at the time, earned him further respect as a man of principle. In March 1770, eight soldiers and their commanding officer were surrounded by a mob of shouting colonists hurling snowballs, ice, and stones. In the chaos, the troops opened fire, killing five men. The incident was labeled a “bloody butchery” by John’s cousin, Samuel Adams, and a Paul Revere engraving of the event inflamed public sentiment. However, the facts of the case strongly suggested the soldiers were acting in self-defense.
Despite his opposition to British rule, Adams believed the men deserved a fair trial and a proper defense, so he agreed to represent them. At trial he argued that the right to self-defense was one of the pillars of natural law. Admonishing the jury not to be governed by their political passions, he declared, “It’s of more importance to community, that innocence should be protected, than it is, that guilt should be punished.” Seven of the nine soldiers were acquitted. The two others were convicted of manslaughter and were punished but not imprisoned.
Though his law practice suffered, Adams had no regrets. In his old age, he described his defense of the soldiers as “one of the most gallant, generous, manly, and disinterested actions of my whole life, and one of the best pieces of service I ever rendered to my country.”
A colossus of Independence
In 1774 and from 1775 to 1777, Adams represented Massachusetts at the first and second Continental Congresses, held in Philadelphia. The chief result of the first assembly was a colonial boycott of British goods, which caused imports to drop an astounding 97 percent from 1774 to 1777. The second congress changed the course of history. In a vote taken on July 2, 1776 and publicly announced with great jubilation on July 4, the colonies declared their independence from Britain.
John Adams is universally recognized as the driving force behind the colonies’ decision to declare independence, a decision that was far from assured when the congress convened. Throughout the debate leading up to the final vote, he spoke with a passion and eloquence that deeply moved those present and was long remembered. During the drafting and revision of the formal document, now so familiar around the world, he fiercely guarded Jefferson’s language from being chipped away and watered down by regional interests. When his fellow colonists wavered, he reminded them of the rightness of their cause and the historical certainty of their triumph. Deeply impressed with Adams’s performance, Jefferson called him a “colossus of Independence.”
A decade in Europe
Once independence was declared, Adams made many significant contributions to the Revolutionary War. From 1778 until 1788, he spent most of his time abroad, forging relations with the great powers of Europe. Among his diplomatic triumphs, he secured Dutch recognition of the U.S. as an independent government, procured loans to fund the war, established trade relations with Prussia, and, with John Jay, won important British concessions in the Treaty of Paris. Appointed the first American minister to Great Britain in 1785, the former revolutionary was coldly received by the court. Asked by an ambassador about his English ancestry, he recounted his family’s six generations in America, tartly concluding, “So you see I have not one drop of blood in my veins but what is American.”
A blueprint for democratic government
In 1779, during a three-month period when he was home from Europe between diplomatic assignments, Adams was named a delegate to the Massachusetts constitutional convention. Appointed to “a sub-sub committee of one,” he was charged with drafting the fundamental governing document of the Commonwealth. Ratified in June 1780, and widely imitated by other countries, it is the oldest continuously functioning written constitution in the world and the model for the U.S. Constitution, which was adopted in 1787.
The Massachusetts Constitution established a governing framework based on a separation of powers among three branches: the executive, the judiciary, and a bicameral legislature. Under Article I, which declared all men to be born free and equal, slavery lost all legal protection in Massachusetts within a matter of years. The Declaration of Rights set forth many of the freedoms that would later be enshrined in the federal Bill of Rights. These included freedom of the press, freedom of worship, the right to petition the government, and the right to trial by jury. Influenced by the abuses of British rule, the declaration also prohibited unreasonable searches and seizure, ex post facto laws, and the public taking of private property without just compensation.
The first vice president and second president
The Adams clan returned from England in 1788, and the following year, John ran in the first presidential election. Finishing second to George Washington, he became the nation’s first vice president. He was also the first in a long line of men to complain about the job, which he called “the most insignificant office that ever the invention of man contrived”.
In the election of 1796, Adams ran for president as a Federalist, winning narrowly over Jefferson. He retained Washington’s cabinet and continued many of Washington’s policies aimed at strengthening the central government. The most significant achievement of his presidency was to keep the U.S. from becoming entangled in a series of wars that engulfed Europe following the French Revolution and the rise of Napoleon.
Navigating the aftershocks of another revolution
Alarmed by the mass executions of “enemies of the revolution” during the French Reign of Terror, Britain and other neighboring powers waged war against France in hopes of preventing the spread of revolution. The French, who had stood by America during the Revolutionary War, felt betrayed by America’s strengthening ties with Britain and by her refusal to honor war debts from the American Revolution on the grounds that they were pledged to the French monarchy and not France’s new revolutionary government. In retaliation, France seized hundreds of American merchant ships trading with Britain. Despite this clear violation of U.S. sovereignty, pro-French sentiment, led by Jefferson, remained strong, and President Adams could not muster the necessary political support to take action.
The landscape changed in 1798 when the XYZ Affair, a massive bribery scandal involving French diplomats, was revealed. Outraged by this perceived insult, the public turned against Revolutionary France, and pressure mounted to declare war on America’s former ally. Though doing so would have made Adams enormously popular and possibly assured his reelection in 1800 he refused, believing it was a dangerous course to follow. Instead he waged the undeclared Quasi-War, during which the U.S. Navy captured French privateers and freed American ships from captivity. Adams also expanded the Army and Navy as protection against invasion.
In 1799, without consulting political friend or foe, Adams announced his intention to send a peace mission to France. Though widely vilified, even by his own party, this decision proved wise. Using diplomatic means, the U.S. had extricated itself from the conflict by 1800. In contrast, France and Britain would be almost continuously at war for the next 15 years.
Punishing the “vile incendiaries”
Coming near the end of an illustrious career, the Alien and Sedition Acts tarnished John Adams’s reputation and laid the foundation for the U.S.’s long-running debate about states’ rights. Though the U.S. was not technically at war with France, the acts were passed in a climate of anxiety and fear over the growing number of French émigrés in America. The intention was to silence foreign “rabble” and “vile incendiaries” (Abigail’s term) including Democratic-Republicans who were fomenting open defiance of federal laws and calling for rebellion or secession.
The most controversial measure was the Sedition Act, which made it a crime to publish “false, scandalous, and malicious writing” against the government or certain officials. The Sedition Act clearly violated the First Amendment. Under Adams, who had been relentlessly and often unfairly attacked in the press, the law was used to prosecute and jail a handful of journalists and a congressman who were especially venomous in ridiculing the president and impugning his integrity.
In response to the Alien and Sedition Acts, Jefferson drafted a resolution on states’ rights, to be introduced in the Kentucky legislature. (James Madison drafted a similar document for Virginia.) Jefferson declared that states had a natural right to abrogate federal actions they found to be unconstitutional. Foreshadowing the South’s secession prior to the Civil War, he expressed a willingness “to sever ourselves from the union we value, rather than give up the rights of self-government.”
The election of 1800
The election of 1800 was a mud fight of personal vilification and inflammatory rhetoric. The Federalists accused Jefferson of being a weakling, a coward, a spendthrift, an atheist and an intriguer whose sympathy for states’ rights would lead to civil war. With Jefferson’s approval—and, in some cases, with his financial support—his Republican allies branded Adams as insane, a monarchist, a toothless old man, and an aristocrat who would enslave the common people. Fatally wounding his party’s ambitions for the election and his own quest for power, Adams’s fellow Federalist, Alexander Hamilton, published a scathing attack on the sitting president as unfit for the office.
The weight of these assaults was combined with public disapproval of Adams’s policies and Jefferson’s popularity and electoral advantage in the South, where the three-fifths rule allowed slaves to be partially counted for population purposes. These disadvantages proved too much to surmount. Adams narrowly lost the election, winning 65 electoral votes to the 73 garnered by both Jefferson and Aaron Burr. (After 36 votes, the House of Representatives ultimately decided the election in Jefferson’s favor.) Lamenting the passing of “all the old patriots” and the ascendance of politicians like Burr, whom he likened to a balloon filled with air, Adams declared, “What an encouragement to party intrigue and corruption!”
Home at last
Returning to Massachusetts as private citizens, after decades of public life, John and Abigail initially felt forgotten, but in time they adapted to the pace of retirement. They owned three farms and 600 acres, and John took great enjoyment from working alongside the hired help. They were surrounded by a constellation of children, grandchildren, nieces, and nephews who came and went from the Old House. They watched John Quincy rise to prominence as a diplomat and James Monroe’s secretary of state. After a long silence, Adams renewed his correspondence with Thomas Jefferson, putting aside the bitterness of their political rivalry. Their letters are considered to be one of the greatest examples of political correspondence in history.
John and Abigail’s retirement together lasted 18 years. Abigail died at home of typhus in October 1818. She had been the ballast that steadied his life, and now she was gone. Her “Dearest Friend”—as she had always addressed him in letters—was inconsolable and the entire town grieved. John Quincy Adams, who was in Washington and did not hear news of Abigail’s death until after the funeral, wrote his father, “How shall I offer consolation for your loss, when I feel that my own is irreparable?”
A life still worth living
Following Abigail’s death, John Adams lived another eight years, long enough to see John Quincy elected president in 1824 and to receive the Marquis de Lafayette at home. Though his physical health was declining, his mind was as sharp as ever, and he found much to be grateful for. He enjoyed frequent company and spent hours re-reading his favorite books and corresponding with Jefferson, Louisa Catherine, and his grandsons.
His love and reverence for the land only grew. Describing a magnificent winter scene outside his window—and making an almost casual historical allusion to the ill-fated Marie Antoinette—he reported, “I have seen a Queen of France with eighteen millions of livres of diamonds upon her person and I declare that all the charms of her face and figure added to all the glitter of her jewels did not make an impression me equal to that presented by every shrub. The whole world was glittering with precious stones.”
On June 30, 1826, with the 50th anniversary of independence just days away, the ailing patriot was asked to frame a toast that could be delivered on his behalf during the town of Quincy’s celebration. His simple reply: “I will give you, ‘Independence forever!’” Asked if he wished to add anything, he said, “Not a word.”
Their work done, Adams and Jefferson both died on the 50th anniversary: July 4, 1826. Waking before daylight, Adams was told it was the Fourth and replied, “It is a great day. It is a good day.” Late in the afternoon, unaware that his old friend had already passed away, he whispered, “Thomas Jefferson survives.” Adams died in the evening, at the tail end of a summer thunderstorm, marked by a clap of thunder and a “bursting forth” of sunlight.
The two old friends were the last giants of the founding generation, and their deaths sparked a national outpouring of grief and gratitude. In his eulogy to John Adams, the Rev. Edward Everett—who would become governor of Massachusetts, U.S. secretary of state, and president of Harvard—paid tribute to their profound connection. “Having lived and acted and counseled and dared and risked all, and triumphed and enjoyed together, they have gone together to their great reward. … They walked with honorable friendship the declining pathway of age; and now they have sunk down together in peace into the bosom of a redeemed and grateful country.”