In trying to understand John Adams, one must remember one thing; unlike most other American presidents, he is not a politician. Adams is, above all, a patriot, a political scientist, and a man of letters. Throughout his live, he has never participated in the culture of politicking. His intelligence and reasoning has always been enough to push him to the forefront of any group he was part of.
Even his ascension to the Vice Presidency, and subsequently, the Presidency, was achieved with the support of George Washington. It should come as no surprise then that he was often considered abrasive, suspicious and aloof, even by those closest to him.
Perhaps his one-time best friend, Thomas Jefferson, and his arch intellectual foe, Benjamin Franklin, understood him better than most.
“He is vain, irritable and a bad calculator of the force and probable effect of the motives which govern men. This is all the ill which can possibly be said of him. He is as disinterested as the being which made him: he is profound in his views: and accurate in his judgment except where knowledge of the world is necessary to form a judgment. He is so amiable, that I pronounce you will love him if ever you become acquainted with him. He would be, as he was, a great man in Congress.”
Thomas Jefferson, January 30, 1787
“I am persuaded, however, that he means well for his Country, is always an honest Man, often a wise one, but sometimes, and in some things, absolutely out of his senses.”
Benjamin Franklin, July 22, 1783
The story of Adams began in Braintree, Massachusetts, on October 30, 1735. Born into a family straddled between two social classes, young Adams experienced the best that both worlds had to offer.
His father, John Adams Sr. (1691-1761), who came from a long line of puritans, earned his trade as a farmer, and in the off season, a cobbler. He served as the town deacon and councilman, as well as a lieutenant in the local militia.
His mother, Susanna Boylston (1708-1797), came from the prosperous Boylston clan of Brookline. Her father, Peter Boylston, was a successful trader and well known social figure in Suffolk County (now Norfolk County). Her uncle, Zabdiel Boylston, was particularly famous for his role in introducing inoculation to the United States.
John was homeschooled for most of his childhood, but he did spend some time at two nearby schoolhouses; the first, run by one Mary Billings Belcher, and the other, a certain Mr. Marsh. His father sent John to Harvard College in August 1751, just a few months before he turned 16. John, who was a little terrified of going, fell in love with the institution the moment he walked in.
“I perceived a growing Curiosity, a Love of Books and a fondness for Study, which dissipated all my inclination for Sports, and even the Society of the Ladies. I read forever . . .”
After graduating with a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1755, John joined the law office of future Massachusetts Attorney General, Samuel Putnam, and three years later , was conferred an honorary law degree by Harvard. He passed the bar exam the following year, and began practicing law.
It was a period of political turmoil in the land, and the idealistic John Adams was swept into the independence movement. A soldier he was not, but Adams became part of the intellectual core of the independence movement, in the select company of luminaries such as Dr. Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Paine and Thomas Jefferson. In fact, many claimed that Adams’ constitutional and philosophical concepts of governance and jurisprudence served as the legal and intellectual basis of the revolution.
His marriage to his third cousin, the free spirited Abigail Smith on October 25, 1764, proved to be a perfect match. While never receiving formal education, Abigail, the daughter of a liberal Weymouth Congregationalist, Reverend William Smith, was given extensive tutoring by her mother and relatives. Many have cited her strong influence on Adams’ political and social values. For the age they lived in, their relationship was unique, in that, they were friends, and there was a genuine tone of respect between the two of them, as illustrated by their voluminous correspondences with one another.
Adams burst into national prominence in 1765 during the Stamp Act crisis. For so long, there was a tacit understanding that the colonies exists merely for the benefit of Britain. But the British parliament’s rationale in passing the Stamp Act brought the issue out into the open, and no once could’ve foretold the effect it had on the colonies and the locals. Demonstrations and rioting, calls to reject the enforced authority of Britain, anonymous letters calling for independence; the magnitude of ramifications were so much greater than anyone could have foreseen.
Adams, using the pseudonym Humphrey Ploughjogger, wrote a series of articles that were published in the Boston Gazette throughout 1765. The wide ranging articles found instant traction with the populace. Adams’ penmanship of the articles slowly became public, and it eventually led to a famous address to the Massachusetts council a few months later.
The Stamp-Act, I take it, is utterly void, and of no Binding force upon Us; for it is against our Rights as Men, and our Priviledges as Englishmen […] The Stamp Act was made where we are in no Sense represented, therefore no more binding upon Us, than an Act which should oblige Us to destroy One half of Our Species […] The only Reason of the Power of the Parliament in England, is because they are elected by the People; who, if their Liberties are infringed, have a Check at the next Election. Have Americans any such Check? Have they any Voice in Deputation? A Parliament of Great Britain can have no more Right to tax the Colonies, than a Parliament of Paris. […]
John Adams, 20 December 1765 (Speaking before Governor Francis Bernard and the Massachusetts Council)
Adams’ stature grew manyfold thereafter, and he was seen as one of the leaders of the fledgling independence movement. He was appointed as Massachusetts’ delegate for the First and Second Continental Congress, and grew into one of the most active figures in Congress. He became the primary advocate for the ‘radicals’ seeking independence, often arguing for long hours to convince the doubtful ones.
Adams would go on to craft of the Declaration of Independence, alongside Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, Roger Sherman and Robert R. Livingston, in 1776. He also, most noticeably, nominated a little known Virginian, George Washington, as Commander in Chief of the new Continental Army.
After the Revolutionary War began, Adams was accorded the task of seeking diplomatic support from France and Holland, which he successfully achieved. At the height of the War, Adams, as Minister Plenipotentiary, spent time in Paris, London and Amsterdam to negotiate a peace settlement with the British.
He returned briefly in 1978, and quickly settled down to craft the Massachusetts Constitution, along with Samuel Adams and James Bowdoin, in less than a year. The Massachusetts Constitution, which served as the basis of the U.S. Constitution itself and many other American states constitution, is the world’s oldest written constitution still in force today.
As the war entered into its final stage, the revolutionaries’ funds were fast drying up. Adams once again left for Europe, this time to the Netherlands. His assignment was to secure an official recognition for the new American nation, establish an embassy, and most importantly, seek financial support from the Dutch – he accomplished all three with minimum fuss.
In 1788, John Adams hosted a farewell dinner with Dr. Franklin in Paris on Independence Day, and shortly thereafter, returned home.
The following year, in the days leading up to the first ever Presidential Election, General Washington publicly voiced his support for Adams to serve as his Vice President, reasoning that his firm grasps of the Constitution and his foreign relations experience would prove useful to the young nation. As expected, Adams finished second behind General George Washington, garnering 34 votes to Washington’s 69, and was sworn in as Vice President on April 21st, 1789.
But the partnership he envisioned never took place. Washington hardly consulted Adams during his two terms in office, effectively rendering the Vice Presidency as a largely ceremonial position. On December 19, 1793, a clearly exasperated Adams wrote the following to his wife Abigail.
“My country has in its wisdom contrived for me the most insignificant office that ever the invention of man contrived or his imagination conceived; and as I can do neither good nor evil, I must be borne away by others and meet the common fate.”
His time came soon enough though, when President George Washington announced in 1796 that he will not be contesting a third term in office, and recommended that Vice President Adams be chosen as his successor, much to the dismay of Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson. The silent battle that has been brewing between the Hamilton-led Federalist faction and the Jefferson-led classical liberals came into the open during the Presidential Election of 1796, and Adams emerged the winner by only 3 Electoral College votes (Adams, 71 –Jefferson, 68).
President Adams’ presidency proved to be a less than accomplished one. For one thing, his cabinet’s loyalty was to Hamilton. In an effort to establish continuity with the previous administration, Adams retained all of Washington’s cabinet heads, comprising mainly of the Federalists aligned to Hamilton, who despite resigning from office in 1795 due to allegations of marital infidelity, remains a hugely influential figure. Adams, at times, became a mere spectator in the battle between the Federalists and the Jeffersonian Democrats.
President Adams’ handling of the Quasi Wars (1798-1800) weakened him further, as both factions crucified his every decision in public, while skillfully engaging the press to serve their agendas. At times, the press made cruel references to President Adams’ short and heavy stature, comparing it unfavorably to the tall and regal-looking former president, George Washington.
It came as no surprise then when President Adams was defeated by Thomas Jefferson in his reelection campaign in 1800, despite the support of the Federalists who were hell bent on preventing a Jeffersonian presidency.
After his defeat, Adams retired to his family farm in Quincy, Massachusetts. Over the next 25 years, Adams managed to successfully repair his image and regain the respect he so richly deserved. His newspaper columns drew a strong readership, and he was regularly called upon at home by members of Congress for advice.
Adams would go on to witness the election of his son, John Quincy, to be the sixth President of the United States.
President Adams passed away 26 years after leaving office, ironically, on Independence Day, on the same day as his great friend and foe, Thomas Jefferson.
Trivia: John and Abigail Adams were both opposed to slavery, and only employed free blacks in the household.