2nd President of the United States
March 4, 1797 – March 4, 1801
|Vice President(s)||Thomas Jefferson|
|Preceded by||George Washington|
|Succeeded by||Thomas Jefferson|
1st Vice President of the United States
April 21, 1789 – March 4, 1797
|Succeeded by||Thomas Jefferson|
|Born||October 30, 1735
|Died||July 4, 1826
|Spouse||Abigail Smith Adams|
John Adams (October 31, 1735 – July 4, 1826) was a politician and Founding Father of the United States of America who served both as that nation's first Vice President (1789–1797), and as its second President (1797–1801). He was defeated for re-election in the "Revolution of 1800" by Thomas Jefferson. Adams was a sponsor of the American Revolution in Massachusetts, and a diplomat in the 1770s. He was a driving force for independence in 1776; in fact, the "Colossus of Independence," in Jefferson's understanding. As a statesman and author Adams helped define a set of republican ideals that became the core of America's political value system: the rejection of hereditary monarchy in favor of rule by the people, hatred of corruption, and devotion to civic duty. As President he was frustrated by battles inside his own Federalist party against a faction led by Alexander Hamilton, but he broke with them to avert a major conflict with France in 1798, during the Quasi-War crisis. He became the founder of an important family of politicians, diplomats and historians, and in recent years his reputation has been rising. Historian Robert Rutland concluded, "Madison was the great intellectual ... Jefferson the ... unquenchable idealist, and Franklin the most charming and versatile genius... but Adams is the most captivating founding father on most counts."
John Quincy Adams was born the eldest of three brothers on October 30, 1735 (October 19 by the Old Style, Julian calendar), in Braintree, Massachusetts, though in an area which became part of Quincy, Massachusetts in 1792. His birthplace is now part of Adams National Historical Park. His father, a farmer, also named John (1690-1761), was a fourth-generation descendant of Henry Adams, who immigrated from Barton St. David, Somerset, England, to Massachusetts Bay Colony in about 1636. His mother was Susanna Boylston Adams.
Young Adams graduated from Harvard College in 1755 and, for a time, taught school in Worcester and studied law in the office of James Putnam. In 1761, he was admitted to the bar. From an early age, he developed the habit of writing descriptions of events and impressions of men. The earliest known example of these is his report of the 1761 argument of James Otis in the superior court of Massachusetts as to the legality of Writs of Assistance. Otis’s argument inspired Adams with zeal for the cause of the American colonies. Years later, when he was older, Adams undertook to write out, at length, his recollections of this scene.
In 1764, Adams married Miss Abigail Smith (1744–1818), the daughter of a Congregational minister, at Weymouth, Massachusetts. Their children were Abigail Amelia (1765-1813); future president John Quincy (1767-1848); Susanna Boylston (1768-70); Charles (1770-1800); Thomas Boylston (1772-1832); and Elizabeth who was stillborn (1777).
Adams lacked the genius for popular leadership shown by his second cousin, Samuel Adams; instead, his influence emerged through his work as a constitutional lawyer and his intense analysis of historical examples, together with his thorough knowledge of the law and his dedication to the principles of Republicanism. Adams is credited with drafting the Massachusetts Constitution. Impetuous, intense and often vehement, Adams often found his inborn contentiousness to be a handicap in his political career. These qualities were particularly manifested at a later period, for example, during his term as president when he lost control of his own cabinet and his Federalist party..
Adams first rose to prominence as an opponent of the Stamp Act of 1765. In that year, he drafted the instructions which were sent by the inhabitants of Braintree to its representatives in the Massachusetts legislature, and which served as a model for other towns to draw up instructions to their representatives. In August 1765, he anonymously contributed four notable articles to the Boston Gazette (republished separately in London in 1768 as A Dissertation on the Canon and Feudal Law), in which he argued that the opposition of the colonies to the Stamp Act was a part of the never-ending struggle between individualism and corporate authority. In December 1765, he delivered a speech before the governor and council in which he pronounced the Stamp Act invalid on the ground that Massachusetts, being without representation in Parliament, had not assented to it.
In 1768, Adams moved to Boston. After the Boston Massacre in 1770, several British soldiers were arrested and charged with the murder of four colonists, and Adams joined Josiah Quincy II in defending them. The trial resulted in an acquittal of the officer who commanded the detachment and most of the soldiers; but two soldiers were found guilty of manslaughter. These men claimed benefit of clergy and were branded in the hand and released. Adams' conduct in taking the unpopular side in this case resulted in his subsequent election to the Massachusetts House of Representatives by a vote of 418 to 118 in 1770. At about this same time, he joined the Sons of Liberty.
Adams was a member of the Continental Congress from 1774 to 1778. In 1775, he was appointed the chief judge of the Massachusetts Superior Court. In June 1775, with a view to promoting the union of the colonies, he nominated George Washington as commander-in-chief of the army. His influence in Congress was great, and almost from the beginning, he sought permanent separation from Great Britain. On October 5, 1775, Congress created the first of a series of committees to study naval matters. From that time onward, Adams championed the establishment and strengthening of an American Navy and is often referred to as the father of the United States Navy.
On May 15, 1776 the Continental Congress, in response to escalating hostilities which had climaxed a year prior at Lexington and Concord, urged that the states begin constructing their own constitutions.
Today, the Declaration of Independence is remembered as the great revolutionary act, but Adams and most of his contemporaries saw the Declaration as a mere formality. The resolution to draft independent constitutions was, as Adams put it, "independence itself."
Over the next decade Americans from every state gathered and deliberated on new governing documents. As radical as it was to actually write constitutions (prior convention suggested that a society's guiding principles should remain uncodified), what was equally radical was the nature of American political thought as the summer of 1776 dawned.
At that time, Adams penned his Thoughts on Government (1776), the most influential of all political pamphlets written during the constitution-writing period. Thoughts on Government stood as the clearest articulation of the classical theory of mixed government and, in particular, how it related to the emerging American situation. Adams contended, with remarkable force and persuasion, the necessary existence of social estates in any political society, and the need to precisely mirror those social estates in the political structures of the society. For centuries, dating back to Aristotle, a mixed regime balancing monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy, or the monarch, nobles, and people was required to preserve order and liberty.
Adams, viewing the world through a thoroughly classical lens, thought all American state constitutions needed to exhibit a wise balance much like the ancient English Constitution had for so long. What was problematic with the English version, and indeed what plagued the entire ancien regime, was its understanding of the aristocracy. Adams and his fellow American political thinkers resented little as much as a hereditary nobility distinguished by wealth and land. Such people lacked the necessary virtue to balance the people in the legislature, Adams thought, and were prone to corruption.
Indeed, it was corrupt and nefarious elites, in the English Parliament and stationed in America, who were blamed most for the assault on liberty perceived by so many Americans and responsible for the move towards independence. Adams, unlike some Americans, was not keen on eliminating all vestiges of aristocracy. Thoughts on Government defended bicameralism, but in place of a landed aristocracy based on birth, a natural aristocracy based on merit and talent would suffice. A distinguished group of independent, virtuous gentlemen, as Adams put it, could adequately balance the passions of the people represented in the lower house of the legislature. Thoughts on Government's new rendition of the classical theory of mixed government was enormously influential and was referenced as an authority in every state-constitution writing hall.
Massachusetts' eventual constitution, ratified in 1780 and written largely by Adams himself, structured its government most closely on this view of politics and society. As the decade unfolded, and political debate reached a fiery pitch across the newly independent states, the ideas expressed so forcefully by Adams, whether agreed with or despised, could be found at the center of most pressing discussions about politics and society in newspapers, pamphlets, and convention halls.
On June 7, 1776, Adams seconded the resolution introduced by Richard Henry Lee that "these colonies are, and of a right ought to be, free and independent states," acting as champion of these resolutions before the Congress until their adoption on July 2, 1776.
He was appointed on a committee with Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, Robert R. Livingston and Roger Sherman, to draft a Declaration of Independence. Although that document was largely drafted by Jefferson, John Adams occupied the foremost place in the debate on its adoption. Many years later, Jefferson hailed Adams as, "The Colossus of that Congress—the great pillar of support to the Declaration of Independence, and its ablest advocate and champion on the floor of the House." In 1777, he resigned his seat on the Massachusetts Superior Court to serve as the head of the Board of War and Ordinance, as well as many other important committees.
Before this work had been completed, he was chosen as minister plenipotentiary for negotiating a treaty of peace and a treaty of commerce with Great Britain, and again he was sent to Europe in September 1779. The French government, however, did not approve of Adams’ appointment and subsequently, on Charles Gravier, Comte de Vergennes’ insistence, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, John Jay and Henry Laurens were appointed to cooperate with Adams. Since Jefferson did not leave the United States for the task and Laurens played a minor role, Jay, Adams and Franklin played the major part in the negotiations. Overruling Franklin, Jay and Adams decided not to consult with France; instead, they dealt directly with the British commissioners.
Throughout the negotiations, Adams was especially determined that the right of the United States to the fisheries along the British-American coast should be recognized. Eventually, the American negotiators were able to secure a favorable treaty, which was signed on November 30, 1782. Before these negotiations began, Adams had spent some time in the Netherlands (the Netherlands were then the only well functioning Republic in the world). In July 1780, he had been authorized to execute the duties previously assigned to Laurens. With the aid of the Dutch patriot leader Joan van der Capellen tot den Pol, Adams secured the recognition of the United States as an independent government at The Hague on April 19, 1782 (in February 1782 the Frisian states were the first that recognized the United States). The Netherlands was the first European country to grant diplomatic recognition to the US, who appointed Adams – who later became president — as the first ambassador. During this trip, he also negotiated a loan and, in October 1782, a treaty of amity and commerce, the first of such treaties between the United States and foreign powers after that of February 1778 with France. Moreover, the house that Adams purchased during this stay in The Netherlands became the first American embassy on foreign soil anywhere in the world.
In 1785, John Adams was appointed the first American minister to the court of St. James (that is, ambassador to Great Britain). When he was presented to his former sovereign, George III, the King intimated that he was aware of Adams' lack of confidence in the French government. Adams admitted this, stating: "I must avow to your Majesty that I have no attachment but to my own country.”
Queen Elizabeth II of Great Britain referred to this period of Adams' diplomacy in remarks delivered on July 7, 1976 at the White House during the U.S. bicentenary. She said, in part:
While in London, Adams published a work entitled A Defence of the Constitutions of Government of the United States (1787). In it he repudiated the views of Turgot and other European writers as to the viciousness of the framework of state governments. He made the controversial statement that "the rich, the well-born and the able" should be set apart from other men in a senate. Such comments were common among Federalists. Adams, some have maintained, had become intellectually irrelevant by the time the Federal Constitution was ratified. By then, American politic thought, transformed by more than a decade of vigorous and searching debate as well as shaping experiential pressures, had abandoned the classical conception of politics which understood government as a mirror of social estates. As James Madison's writings above all show, Americans new conception of popular sovereignty, now saw the people-at-large as the sole possessors of power in the realm. All agents of the government enjoyed mere portions of the people's power, and only for a limited period of time. Adams had completely missed this concept and revealed his continued attachment to the older version of politics.
While Washington was the unanimous choice for president, Adams came in second in the electoral college and became Vice President in the presidential election of 1789. He played a minor role in the politics of the 1790s and was reelected in 1792. (To expatiate this fact: the reason Adams played, involuntarily, a smaller role in the government, and indeed in the decisions of the Executive, was for precisely and only the reason that the Senate forbade the Vice President from taking part in their debates and Washington never asked Adams' for input on policy and legal issues. — The view was that the Vice President was to be the tie breaker in the Senate and the step-in for any untimely death or incapacitation of the President. Taking the backseat was something to which Adams, the firebrand of the Revolution, was not accustomed.)
As president of the Senate, Adams cast twenty-nine tie-breaking votes—a record that only John C. Calhoun came close to tying, with 28. His votes protected the president's sole authority over the removal of appointees and influenced the location of the national capital. On at least one occasion, he persuaded senators to vote against legislation that he opposed, and he frequently lectured the Senate on procedural and policy matters. Adams' political views and his active role in the Senate made him a natural target for critics of the Washington administration. Toward the end of his first term, as a result of a threatened resolution that would have silenced him except for procedural and policy matters, he began to exercise more restraint in the hope of realizing the goal shared by many of his successors: election in his own right as president of the United States. When the two political parties formed, he joined the Federalist Party and was its nominee for president in 1796, against Thomas Jefferson, the leader of the opposition Democratic-Republican Party.
In 1796, after Washington refused to seek another term, Adams was elected the second president, defeating Thomas Jefferson, who became Vice President. He followed Washington's lead in making the presidency the exemplar of republican values and stressing civic virtue. He was never implicated in any scandal.
Adams' four years as president (1797–1801) were marked by intense disputes over foreign policy. Britain and France were at war; Adams and the Federalists favored Britain, while Jefferson and the Democratic-Republicans favored France. An undeclared naval war between the U.S. and France, called the Quasi-War, broke out in 1798. The humiliation of the XYZ Affair led to serious threat of full-scale war with France. Adams and the moderate Federalists were able to avoid a war through various measures, some of which proved unpopular. The Federalists built up the army under George Washington and Alexander Hamilton, built warships, such as the USS Constitution, and raised taxes. They cracked down on political immigrants and domestic opponents with the Alien and Sedition Acts, which were signed by Adams in 1798. Those Acts, and the high-profile prosecution of a number of newspaper editors and one Congressman by the Federalists, became highly controversial. Some historians have noted that the Alien and Sedition Acts were relatively rarely enforced, as only 10 convictions under the Sedition Act have been identified and as Adams never signed a deportation order, and that the furor over the Alien and Sedition Acts was mainly stirred up by the Republicans. However, other historians emphasize that the Acts were highly controversial from the outset, resulted in many aliens leaving the country voluntarily, and created an atmosphere where opposing the Federalists, even on the floor of Congress, could and did result in prosecution. Regardless of the perspective taken, it is generally acknowledged that the election of 1800 became a bitter and volatile battle, with each side expressing extraordinary fear of the other party and its policies.
The deep split in the Federalist party came on the army issue. Adams was forced to name Washington as commander of the new army(the U.S Navy), and Washington demanded that Hamilton be given the #2 position. Adams reluctantly gave in. Indeed, Major General Hamilton virtually took control of the War department. The rift between Adams and the High federalists (as Adams' opponents were called) grew wider. The High Federalists refused to consult Adams over the key legislation of 1798; they changed the defense measures which he had called for; they demanded Hamilton control the army; refused to recognize the necessity giving key Republicans (like Aaron Burr) senior positions in the army, thereby splitting the Republicans. By relying too heavily on a standing army the High Federalists raised popular alarms and played into the hands of the Republicans. They also alienated Adams and his large personal following. They shortsightedly viewed the Federalist party as their own tool and ignored the need to pull together the entire nation in the face of war with France.
For long stretches, Adams withdrew to his home in Massachusetts. In February 1799, Adams stunned the country by sending diplomat William Vans Murray on a peace mission to France. Napoleon; realizing the animosity of the United States was doing no good, he signaled his readiness for friendly relations. The Treaty of Alliance of 1778 was superseded and the United States could now be free of foreign entanglements, as Washington advised in his own Farewell Letter. Adams avoided war, but deeply split his own party in the process. He brought in John Marshall as Secretary of State and demobilized the emergency army.
The death of Washington, in 1799, weakened the Federalists, as they lost the one man who symbolized and united the party. In the presidential election of 1800, Adams ran and lost the electoral vote narrowly. Among the causes of his defeat was distrust of him by "High Federalists" led by Hamilton, the popular disapproval of the Alien and Sedition Acts, the popularity of his opponent, Thomas Jefferson, and the effective politicking of Aaron Burr in New York State, where the legislature (which selected the electoral college) shifted from Federalist to Republican on the basis of a few wards in New York City controlled by Burr's machine.
As his term was expiring, Adams appointed a series of judges, called the "Midnight Judges" because most of them were formally appointed days before the presidential term expired. Most of the judges were eventually unseated when the Jeffersonians abolished their offices. But John Marshall remained, and his long tenure as Chief Justice of the United States represents the most lasting influence of the Federalists, as Marshall refashioned the Constitution into a nationalizing force and established the Judicial Branch as the equal of the Executive and Legislative; although this was not the founders original intent.
|Vice President||Thomas Jefferson||1797–1801|
|Secretary of State||Timothy Pickering||1797–1800|
|Secretary of the Treasury||Oliver Wolcott, Jr.||1797–1800|
|Secretary of War||James McHenry||1797–1800|
|Attorney General||Charles Lee||1797–1801|
|Postmaster General||Joseph Habersham||1797–1801|
|Secretary of the Navy||Benjamin Stoddert||1798–1801|
Adams appointed the following Justices to the Supreme Court of the United States:
Following his 1800 defeat, Adams retired into private life. He went back to farming in the Quincy area.
In 1812, Adams reconciled with Jefferson. Their mutual friend Benjamin Rush, who had been corresponding with both, encouraged Adams to reach out to Jefferson. Adams sent a brief note to Jefferson, which resulted in a resumption of their friendship, and initiated a correspondence which lasted the rest of their lives. Their letters are rich in insight into both the period and the minds of the two Presidents and revolutionary leaders.
Sixteen months before his death, his son, John Quincy Adams, became the sixth President of the United States (1825–1829), the only son of a former President to hold the office until George W. Bush in 2001.
His daughter Abigail was married to Congressman William Stephens Smith and died of cancer in 1816. His son Charles died as an alcoholic in 1800. His son Thomas and his family lived with Adams and Louisa Smith (Abigail's niece by her brother William) to the end of Adams' life.
"People and Nations are forged in the fires of adversity."
"Children should be educated and instructed in the principles of freedom."
"I must study politics and war that my sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy. My sons ought to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history, naval architecture, navigation, commerce, and agriculture, in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry, and porcelain."
On July 4, 1826, the 50th anniversary of the adoption of the Declaration of Independence, Adams died at his home in Quincy. His last words were "Jefferson lives." Adams was unaware that Jefferson, his great political rival — and later friend and correspondent — had died a few hours earlier on that same day.
His crypt lies at United First Parish Church (also known as the Church of the Presidents) in Quincy. Until his record was broken by Ronald Reagan on October 10, 2001, he was the nation's longest-living President (90 years, 247 days). The record is currently held by former President Gerald Ford.
Adams was raised a Congregationalist, becoming a Unitarian at a time when most of the Congregational churches around Boston were turning to Unitarianism. As a youth, Adams' father had urged him to become a minister, but Adams refused, considering the practice of law to be a more noble calling. A detailed analysis of Adams' religion by Everett (1966) argues that Adams was not a deist, but he used deistic terms. He believed in the essential goodness of the creation, but did not believe in the divinity of Christ or that God intervened in the affairs of individuals. Although not anticlerical, he advocated the separation of church and state. He also believed that regular church service was beneficial to man's moral sense. Everett concludes that "Adams strove for a religion based on a common sense sort of reasonableness" and maintained that religion must change and evolve toward perfection.
He railed against what he saw as overclaiming of authority by the Catholic church:
In a letter to Thomas Jefferson, he wrote:
In 1796, on Thomas Paine's The Age of Reason, Adams wrote:
In another letter to Thomas Jefferson on December 25, 1813, he wrote: