|Born:||Oct. 19, 1735, Braintree, Mass.|
|Education||Harvard College, A.B., 1755|
|Military service||Colonel of Virginia militia (rather honorary)|
|Previous public office:|| ♦ Continental Congress, 1774-1778; |
♦ committee that drafted Declaration of Independence, 1776
♦ author of first draft of Massachusetts Constitution, 1779
♦ minister to the Netherlands, 1780–84
♦ minister to Great Britain, 1785–87
♦ Vice President, 1789–97
|Died||July 4, 1826, Quincy, Mass.|
Adams was one of the most experienced men ever to become President.
John Adams was born in Braintree (now Quincy), Mass. His father was a modest but successful farmer and local officeholder. After some initial reluctance, Adams entered Harvard and received his bachelor's degree in 1755. For about a year he taught school in Worcester. Adams was admitted to the Boston bar in 1758. While developing his legal practice, he participated in town affairs and contributed his first essays to the Boston newspapers. In 1764 he married Abigail Smith of Weymouth, who brought him wide social connections and was to share with sensitivity and enthusiasm in the full life that lay ahead.
By 1765 he had achieved considerable distinction at the Boston bar. With the Stamp Act crisis he moved into the center of Massachusetts political life. On the principle that there should be “no taxation without representation” Adams led the opposition to the Stamp Act of 1765, which required the purchase of a stamp (effectively a tax) for all public documents. Furthermore, he contributed an important series of essays, Dissertation on the Canon and Feudal Law, to the Boston Gazette and prepared a series of anti-Stamp Act resolutions for the Braintree town meeting, which were widely copied throughout the province.
In 1768, he was elected representative from Boston to the Massachusetts Legislature. He showed his fierce independence, however, when he defended several British soldiers accused of killing four people in the Boston Massacre in 1770; most were acquitted.
As a member of the Second Continental Congress in 1775, Adams seconded the nomination of George Washington as commander of the Continental Army. The following year he seconded the motion for independence, introduced by Richard Henry Lee, that “these colonies are, and of a right ought to be, free and independent states.” He then convinced Thomas Jefferson to draft the Declaration of Independence. He was, as Jefferson said, “the pillar of support” in the debate leading to its adoption.
Adams helped draft the Massachusetts Constitution of 1780. In 1781 and 1782 he helped negotiate the treaty with the British ending the war and then a commercial treaty with the Netherlands and a large loan to the United States.
In 1785 Adams was named minister to Great Britain. Two years later, while still in London, he published his book A Defense of the Constitutions of Government of the United States of America, which called for a balanced Constitution. The people would be represented in the lower house of the legislature, “the rich, well born and able” would serve in the upper house, and a chief executive would act as a monarch to balance the interests of the upper and lower classes.
Adams received the second highest total of electoral college votes (behind George Washington) in the Presidential election of 1789, and so he assumed the post of Vice President. “My country has in its wisdom contrived for me the most insignificant office that ever the invention of man contrived or his imagination conceived,” Adams observed. But he was instrumental in devising procedures for the new Senate, and he cast several important tie votes to pass Washington's legislative measures. He was one of the organizers of the Federalist party during his second term and was the choice of President Washington and most party leaders to run for President in 1796. He defeated Thomas Jefferson, 71 electoral votes to 68. Under the rules then in effect, Jefferson, as the runner-up, became Vice President, although he was the leader of the opposition party, the Democratic-Republicans.
During his Presidency, Adams faced intrigues within his own party as Alexander Hamilton moved to influence his cabinet and his policies. The Jay Treaty, which he had helped negotiate with Great Britain in 1795, allowed British ships to seize American cargoes bound for France. The French, in retaliation, decreed that French warships would follow the same policy against American ships bound for Britain, and they then seized 317 American merchant vessels in 1796. A diplomatic mission sent by Adams was refused a hearing by the French unless bribes were paid to French agents (who were referred to as X, Y, and Z) and the United States agreed to lend France $10 million. Adams refused and made the affair public. “Millions for War but not one cent for Tribute” became the slogan of Federalists calling for war.
That was the XYZ Affair which led to an undeclared naval war between France and the United States, the so called Quasi War.
Adams ignored pressure from Alexander Hamilton and his followers in the Federalist party and instead sought a diplomatic solution, while Congress passed laws enlarging the navy and preparing war measures. Bowing to party pressure, Adams appointed George Washington commander in chief of the army, in effect ceding his constitutional powers. Congress created the Navy Department, organized the Marine Corps, and canceled all treaties with France. Three new frigates, the United States, the Constitution, and the Constellation, were launched in 1797 and 1798 and soon put to service in a naval war with France. They were responsible for a number of American victories in the Caribbean.
Although Congress had not declared this war, it did vote funds for it, and the Supreme Court held that the war was constitutional. With French emperor Napoleon's navy bottled up by the British fleet, and many French ships sunk by Admiral Horatio Nelson in the Battle of the Nile in 1798, France could not easily retaliate. Finally a diplomatic solution in 1799 averted further war. The decision to talk rather than continue fighting led to a final split between Adams and the Hamilton wing of the Federalist party. In 1800 Napoleon and Adams agreed to the Treaty of Montfortaine, which released the United States from its revolutionary war treaties with France.
During the conflict, Adams assented to the passage of the Alien and Sedition Acts (1798), which made it a crime to publish anything “with the intent to defame” the President or the government. The sedition law was invoked in 25 cases and used by his party to arrest editors from the opposition ranks. Ten editors were convicted by Federalist judges and juries. But public opinion opposed the prosecutions. Madison and Jefferson worked to get the Virginia and Kentucky legislatures to pass resolutions that the laws were unconstitutional and would not be enforced.
Although Adams retained enough support from moderate Federalists to win his party's nomination for a second term, he was, however, detested by his Jeffersonian enemies. The split in his party led to his (and Hamilton’s) defeat by Thomas Jefferson in the election of 1800.
Adams's final act in office, on the morning of March 4, 1801, was to send to the Senate his nomination of John Marshall to be chief justice of the United States.
Adams spent the remainder of his life in political seclusion, though he retained a lively interest in public affairs, particularly when they involved the rising career of his son, John Quincy Adams. John Adams divided his time between overseeing his farm and carrying on an extended correspondence concerning both his personal experiences and issues of more general political and philosophical significance.
Beginning in 1812 he was reconciled with Jefferson, who had been a friend in Europe, and began with him a correspondence that is now regarded as a monument of the American enlightenment.
He died at the age of 91, just a few hours after Jefferson's death, on July 4, 1826.Legacy
The Adams administration was one of crisis and conflict, in which the President showed an honest and stubborn integrity, and though allied with Hamilton and the conservative property-respecting Federalists, he was not dominated by them in their struggle against the vigorously rising, more broadly democratic forces led by Jefferson.
Though the Federalists were pro-British and strongly opposed to post-Revolutionary France, Adams by conciliation prevented the near war of 1798 from developing into a real war between France and the United States. Nor did the President wholeheartedly endorse the Alien and Sedition Acts (1798), aimed at the Anti-Federalists.
By the end of his term, Adams had proved to be a generally unpopular president, deeply respected but not beloved.