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John Adams
Stout elderly man in his 60s with long white hair, facing partway leftward
2nd President of the United States
In office
March 4, 1797 – March 4, 1801
Vice President Thomas Jefferson
Preceded by George Washington
Succeeded by Thomas Jefferson
1st Vice President of the United States
In office
April 21, 1789 – March 4, 1797
President George Washington
Preceded by Inaugural holder
Succeeded by Thomas Jefferson
United States Ambassador to the Court of St James's
In office
April 1, 1785 – March 30, 1788
Appointed by Congress of the Confederation
Preceded by Inaugural holder
Succeeded by Thomas Pinckney
United States Minister to the Netherlands
In office
April 19, 1782 – March 30, 1788
Appointed by Congress of the Confederation
Preceded by Inaugural holder
Succeeded by Charles W. F. Dumas (acting)
United States Envoy to France
In office
April 1, 1778 – June 17, 1779
Serving with Benjamin Franklin, Arthur Lee
Appointed by Second Continental Congress
Preceded by Silas Deane
Succeeded by Benjamin Franklin (alone)
Delegate to the
Second Continental Congress
from Massachusetts
In office
May 10, 1775 – June 27, 1778
Preceded by Inaugural holder
Succeeded by Samuel Holten
Delegate to the
First Continental Congress
from Massachusetts Bay
In office
September 5, 1774 – October 26, 1774
Preceded by Inaugural holder
Succeeded by Position abolished
Personal details
Born (1735-10-30)October 30, 1735
Braintree (now Quincy), Province of Massachusetts Bay, British America
Died July 4, 1826(1826-07-04) (aged 90)
Quincy, Massachusetts, U.S.
Cause of death Congestive heart failure
Resting place United First Parish Church
Quincy, Massachusetts
Political party Pro-Administration (before 1795)
Federalist (1795–c. 1808)
Democratic-Republican (c. 1808-1826)[1]
Spouse(s) Abigail Smith (m. 1764; d. 1818)
Children Abigail, John Quincy, Susanna, Charles, Thomas, and Elizabeth (stillborn)
Parents John Adams Sr.
Susanna Boylston
Alma mater Harvard College
Signature Cursive signature in ink

John Adams (October 30 [O.S. October 19] 1735 – July 4, 1826) was an American statesman and Founding Father who served as the first Vice President (1789–97) and second President of the United States (1797–1801). He was a lawyer, diplomat, political theorist, and a leader of the movement for American independence from Great Britain. He was also a dedicated diarist and correspondent, particularly with his wife and closest advisor, Abigail.

Adams collaborated with his cousin, revolutionary leader Samuel Adams, but established his own prominence prior to the American Revolution. Driven by his devotion to the right to counsel and the presumption of innocence, he provided a successful, if unpopular, legal defense of the accused British soldiers involved in the Boston Massacre, despite severe local anti-British sentiment. Adams was sent as a delegate from colonial Massachusetts to the Continental Congress, where he played a leading role in persuading Congress to declare independence. He assisted in drafting the Declaration of Independence in 1776, and was its foremost advocate in the Congress. As a diplomat in Europe, he helped negotiate the eventual peace treaty with Great Britain, and acquired vital governmental loans from Amsterdam bankers. Adams was the primary author of the Massachusetts Constitution in 1780. This influenced the development of America's own constitution, as did his earlier Thoughts on Government (1776).

Adams's credentials as a revolutionary secured for him two terms as George Washington's vice president (1789 to 1797) and also his own election in 1796 as the second president. In his single term as president, he encountered fierce criticism from the Jeffersonian Republicans, as well as the dominant faction in his own Federalist Party, led by his rival Alexander Hamilton. Adams signed the controversial Alien and Sedition Acts, and built up the army and navy in the face of an undeclared naval "Quasi-War" with France. The major accomplishment of his presidency was a peaceful resolution of the conflict in the face of Hamilton's opposition. Due to his strong posture on defense, Adams is often called the father of the American Navy.[2] He was the first U.S. president to reside in the executive mansion, now known as the White House. While he never owned slaves and expressed strong moral opposition, politically he was a moderate on the issue.

In 1800, Adams lost re-election to Thomas Jefferson and retired to Massachusetts. He eventually resumed his friendship with Jefferson by initiating a correspondence which lasted 14 years. He and his wife established a family of politicians, diplomats, and historians now referred to as the Adams political family, most notably, their son John Quincy Adams, the sixth president of the United States. John Adams died on the 50th anniversary of the adoption of the Declaration of Independence, and the same day as Jefferson. Modern historians in the aggregate have favorably ranked his administration.

Early life and education


Small wooden house with red-brick chimney in the middle
Adams's birthplace in Quincy, Massachusetts

John Adams was born on October 30, 1735 (October 19, 1735 Old Style, Julian calendar) to John Adams Sr. (1691–1761) and Susanna Boylston (1708–1797). He had two younger brothers, Peter and Elihu.[3] Adams's birthplace was in Braintree, Massachusetts (now Quincy, Massachusetts).[4] Adams's mother was from a leading medical family of present-day Brookline, Massachusetts. His father was a deacon in the Congregational Church, a farmer, a cordwainer, and a lieutenant in the militia. His great-grandfather, Henry Adams, emigrated to Massachusetts from Braintree, Essex, England around 1638.[5] John Sr. also served as a selectman (town councilman) and supervised the building of schools and roads. Adams often praised his father and recalled their close relationship.[6]

Though raised in modest surroundings, Adams felt an acute responsibility to live up to his family's heritage of reverence. He was a direct descendant of Puritans who came to the American wilderness in the 1630s, established a colonial presence in America, and profoundly affected the culture, laws, and traditions of their region. Journalist Richard Brookhiser wrote that Adams's Puritan ancestors "believed they lived in the Bible. England under the Stuarts was Egypt; they were Israel fleeing ... to establish a refuge for godliness, a city upon a hill." By the time of John Adams's birth in 1735, Puritan tenets such as predestination were no longer as widely accepted, and many of their stricter practices had moderated with time, but Adams "considered them bearers of freedom, a cause that still had a holy urgency." It was a value system which he believed in and wished to live up to.[7] Adams emphatically recalled that his parents "held every Species of Libertinage in... Contempt and horror," and portrayed "pictures of disgrace, or baseness and of Ruin" from any debauchery.[3]

Adams, as the eldest child, was under a mandate from his parents to obtain a formal education. This began at age six at a Dame school for boys and girls, which was conducted at a teacher's home and centered upon The New England Primer. Shortly thereafter, Adams attended Braintree Latin School under Joseph Cleverly, where studies included Latin, rhetoric, logic, and arithmetic. Adams's reflections on early education were in the negative mostly, including incidents of truancy, a dislike for his master, and a desire to become a farmer. All questions on the matter ended when his father commanded that he remain in school saying, "You shall comply with my desires." Deacon Adams also retained a new school master named Joseph Marsh, and his son responded positively.[8]

College education and adulthood

At age sixteen, Adams entered Harvard College in 1751, studying under Joseph Mayhew.[9] He did not share his father's expectation that he become a minister.[10] After graduating in 1755 with an A.B. degree, he taught school for a few years in Worcester, Massachusetts while pondering his permanent vocation. In the next four years, he discerned a passion for prestige, saying that he craved "Honour or Reputation" and "more defference from [his] fellows" and, at age twenty-one, he was determined to become "a great Man." He decided to become a lawyer to further those ends, writing his father that he found among lawyers "noble and gallant achievements" but, among the clergy, the "pretended sanctity of some absolute dunces." Doctrinally, he later became a Unitarian, and dropped belief in predestination, eternal damnation, the divinity of Christ, and most other Calvinist beliefs of his Puritan ancestors. Nevertheless, his remnant Puritanism frequently prompted reservations about his hunger for fame, which he once referred to as mere "trumpery," and he questioned his not properly attending to the "happiness of [his] fellow men."[11]

The French and Indian War began in 1754 and Adams began to struggle with the issue of a young man's responsibility in the conflict; contemporaries of his social position were largely spectators, while those who were less solvent joined the battle as a means to make some money. Adams later said, "I longed more ardently to be a Soldier than I ever did to be a Lawyer." He was acutely aware that he was the first in his family that "degenerated from the virtues of the house so far as not to have been an officer in the militia."[12]

Law practice and marriage

Woman with deep black hair and dark eyes wearing a blue and pink dress
Mrs. Abigail Smith Adams – 1766 Portrait by Benjamin Blythe

Adams followed the usual course of reading the law in order to obtain his license to practice. In 1756, he became an apprentice in the office of John Putnam, a leading lawyer in Worcester.[13] In 1758, he earned an A.M. from Harvard,[14] and the following year was admitted to the Massachusetts bar, having completed his studies under Putnam.[15] From an early age, he developed the habit of writing descriptions of events and impressions of men which are scattered through his diary, which included his report of the 1761 argument of James Otis Jr. in the Massachusetts Superior Court as to the legality of Writs of Assistance. Otis's argument inspired Adams to the cause of the American colonies.[16]

In 1763, he had published seven essays in Boston newspapers, treatises that represented his forging into the convoluted realm of political theory. The essays were offered anonymously, with Adams using the nom de plume "Humphrey Ploughjogger;" this author reappeared in the Boston Gazette in 1765 to oppose the Stamp Act.[17] Adams was initially not as well known as his cousin Samuel, but his influence emerged through his work as a constitutional lawyer and his in-depth analysis of historical examples, together with his dedication to the principles of republicanism. Even so, Adams often found his inborn contentiousness to be a constraint in his political career.[10]

In the late 1750s, Adams fell in love with a woman named Hannah Quincy. While they were alone, he prepared to propose to her but was interrupted by friends, and the moment passed. In 1759, he first met 15-year old Abigail Smith his friend Richard Cranch, who was courting Abigail's older sister Mary. Adams formed a negative first impression of her and her two sisters, writing that they were not "fond, nor frank, nor candid."[18] Nevertheless, they grew closer over time. He married her on October 25, 1764. Her parents were Elizabeth Quincy and Rev. William Smith, a Congregational minister at Weymouth, Massachusetts.[19] Abigail's mother strongly opposed the marriage, feeling that John was beneath her daughter, but they married anyway. They shared a love of books and in another sense similar personalities, as both were completely honest in their praise and criticism of each other.[20] John and Abigail had six children: Abigail "Nabby" in 1765,[21] future president John Quincy Adams in 1767,[22] Susanna in 1768, Charles in 1770, Thomas in 1772,[23] and Elizabeth in 1777.[24] Susanna died after about a year,[23] while Elizabeth was stillborn.[24] The fate of his three sons is curious. All three became lawyers. Charles and Thomas were both unsuccessful in their law professions and eventually became alcoholics, never living to old age, while John Quincy excelled and launched a career in politics. Adams never divulged in writing his feelings on this fact.[25]

Career before the Revolution

Opponent of Stamp Act 1765

Man in dark gray clothing with dark hair
John Adams – 1766 Portrait by Benjamin Blyth

Adams first rose to prominence leading widespread opposition to the Stamp Act of 1765, imposed by the British Parliament without consulting the American legislatures, and requiring payment of a direct tax by the colonies for various stamped documents. The Act, intended to pay for the costs incurred by the late war, was despised, not only because of the costs it would incur on the colonies, but because it was implemented without their consent. It was met a shocking degree of violent resistance which prevented its enforcement.[26] Adams authored the "Braintree Instructions" in 1765, a letter sent to the representatives of Braintree in the Massachusetts legislature which served as a model for other towns' instructions. In the piece, he explained that the Stamp Act should be opposed since it denied two fundamental rights guaranteed to all Englishmen, and which all free men deserved: rights to be taxed only by consent and to be tried only by a jury of one's peers. The instructions were a succinct and forthright defense of colonial rights and liberties.[27]

In August 1765, he reprised his pen name "Humphrey Ploughjogger" and contributed four articles to the Boston Gazette (republished in The London Chronicle in 1768 as True Sentiments of America, also known as A Dissertation on the Canon and Feudal Law). He delivered a speech in December before the governor and council in which he pronounced the Stamp Act invalid on the ground that Massachusetts had not given its assent to it, being without representation in Parliament.[28][29] He later observed that many protests were sparked by an oft-reprinted sermon of Boston minister Jonathan Mayhew, invoking Romans 13 to justify insurrection.[30] In 1766, a town meeting of Braintree elected John Adams as a selectman.[31] Adams strongly supported the right of all Americans to jury trials. Adams protested the 1765 passage of the Stamp Act, which gave jurisdiction to British Vice Admiralty Courts, rather than common law courts.[32] Many colonists, including Adams, believed these courts, which operated without a jury, were corrupt and unfair.[33]

With the repeal of the Stamp Act in the spring of 1766, relations with Britain temporarily eased.[34] Putting politics aside, Adams moved the family to Boston in April 1768 to focus on his law practice. They rented a clapboard house on Brattle Street that was known locally as the "White House." He and Abigail and the children lived there for a year, then moved to Cold Lane; still later, they moved again to a larger house in Brattle Square in the center of the city.[22] With the death of Jeremiah Gridley and mental collapse of James Otis Jr., Adams became Boston's most prominent lawyer.[31]

Counsel for the British: Boston Massacre

On March 5, 1770, a street confrontation known as the Boston Massacre took place. A lone British sentry was accosted by men and boys. Eight British soldiers from the British soldiers reinforced him, as the crowd around them grew to several hundred. The people through snowballs, ice, and stones at the troops. In the chaos, the soldiers opened fire, killing five civilians. The accused soldiers were arrested on criminal charges. The following day, Adams was asked to defend them. He immediately agreed to do so. He acknowledged that the task might hurt his reputation but believed that no person should be denied the right to counsel and a fair trial.[35] In arguing their case, Adams made his legendary statement regarding jury decisions: "Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passion, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence."[36] He also expounded upon Blackstone's Ratio: "It is more important that innocence be protected than it is that guilt be punished, for guilt and crimes are so frequent in this world that they cannot all be punished. But if innocence itself is brought to the bar and condemned, perhaps to die, then the citizen will say, 'whether I do good or whether I do evil is immaterial, for innocence itself is no protection,' and if such an idea as that were to take hold in the mind of the citizen that would be the end of security whatsoever." Adams won an acquittal for six of the soldiers. Two of them who had fired directly into the crowd were charged with murder but were convicted only of manslaughter. Adams was paid a small sum by his clients.[37][38]

Biographer John E. Ferling suggests that Adams made the most of juror selection during the jury selection stage of the trial, saying that Adams "expertly exercised his right to challenge individual jurors and contrived what amounted to a packed jury. Not only were several jurors closely tied through business arrangements to the British army, but five ultimately became Loyalist exiles." While benefitting from prosecutorial mismanagement, Adams "performed brilliantly." Hiller B. Zobel is a scholar who has closely studied the trial, and he concluded, "we can be fairly sure that before a single witness had been sworn, the outcome of the trial was certain."[39] Ferling also surmises that Adams may have been encouraged to take the case in exchange for political office; one of Boston's seats opened three months later in the Massachusetts legislature, and Adams was the town's first choice to fill the vacancy.[40]

His law practice increased greatly from this exposure, as did the demands on his time. In 1771, he moved Abigail and the children to Braintree, but he kept his office in Boston, saying, "I shall spend more Time in my Office than ever I did." He also noted on the day of the family's move, "Now my family is away, I feel no Inclination at all, no Temptation, to be any where but at my Office. I am in it by 6 in the Morning – I am in it at 9 at night.... In the Evening, I can be alone at my Office, and no where else. I never could in my family." Nevertheless, after some time in the capital, he became disenchanted with the rural and "vulgar" Braintree as a home for his family. In August 1772, therefore, Adams moved his family back to Boston. He purchased a large brick house on Queen Street, not far from his office.[41] In 1774, Adams and Abigail returned the family to the farm due to the increasingly unstable situation in Boston, and Braintree remained their permanent Massachusetts home.[42]

Objections to British Parliament's authority

Adams, among the more conservative of the Founders, held long to the belief that British actions against the colonies had been wrong and misguided, but did not warrant open insurrection. Peaceful petition was a better alternative.[43] Around 1772, his ideas began to change. Governor Thomas Hutchinson and his judges until 1772 received their salaries from the Massachusetts legislature. The Coercive Acts and the Tea Act were then passed by Parliament, and the British Crown assumed payment of those wages, drawn from customs revenues imposed upon that colony. According to Ferling, the British government thus singled out Massachusetts for reprisals of previous rebellion and hoped in the process to force the other colonies into line. Boston radicals protested and asked John Adams to proclaim their objections. In "Two Replies of the Massachusetts House of Representatives to Governor Hutchinson," Adams argued that the colonists had never been under the sovereignty of Parliament. Their original charter, as well as their allegiance, was exclusively with the King. If a workable line could not be drawn between parliamentary sovereignty and the total independence of the colonies, he continued, the colonies would have no other choice but independence from England.[44]

In 1775, in response to a set of essays by Daniel Leonard (writing under the pen name "Massachusettensis") defending Hutchinson's arguments for the absolute authority of Parliament over the colonies, Adams (writing as "Novanglus") composed a series of essays addressed to the people living in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. In them, he gave a point-by-point refutation of Leonard's essays, and then provided one of the most extensive and learned arguments made by the colonists against British imperial policy. It was a systematic attempt by Adams to describe the origins, nature, and jurisdiction of (unwritten) British concepts of constitutionality. Adams used his wide knowledge of English and colonial legal history to argue that the provincial legislatures were fully sovereign over their own internal affairs, and that the colonies were connected to Great Britain only through the king.[45][46]

The Boston Tea Party, a historic demonstration against the tea monopoly enjoyed the British East India Company over American merchants, took place on December 16, 1773. The British schooner Dartmouth, loaded with tea to be traded subject to the new tea tax, had previously dropped anchor. By 9:00 PM, the work of the protesters was done – they had demolished 342 chests of tea worth about ten thousand pounds – today's equivalent of about $1 million. Adams was briefly retained by the Dartmouth owners regarding the question of their liability for the destroyed shipment. Adams applauded the destruction of the tea. There had been no choice, he thought, and he called the defiant boarding of the vessels and the quick obliteration of the dutied beverage the "grandest Event" in the history of the colonial protest movement.[47] He wrote the following day in his diary that the destruction of the dutied tea by the protesters had been an "absolutely and indispensably" necessary action.[48]

Continental Congress

Member of Continental Congress

56 figures stand or sit in a room. Five lay papers on a table.
Trumbull's Declaration of Independence – committee presents draft to Congress. Adams stands at center with his hand on his hip.

Massachusetts sent Adams to the first and second Continental Congresses in 1774 and from 1775 to 1777 respectively. The Massachusetts delegation resolved to assume a largely passive role in the first Congress. But Adams felt strongly that the conservatives of 1774, men like Joseph Galloway and James Duane, were no different than Hutchinson and Peter Oliver, and he denigrated such men, telling Abigail that "Spiders, Toads, Snakes, are their only proper Emblems." Yet at that point his views were similar to those of conservative John Dickinson. He sought repeal of objectionable policies, but at the early stage he continued to see positive benefits for America remaining part of the British empire.[49]

In 1774, the First Continental Congress was convened in response to the passage of the Intolerable Acts, a series of measures intended to punish Massachusetts and prevent rebellion in other colonies. Adams agreed to attend,[50] despite an emotional plea from his friend Jonathan Sewall to do otherwise.[51] At the Congress, Adams renewed his push for the right to a jury trial, stating "Representative government and trial by jury are the heart and lungs of liberty. Without them, we have no other fortification against being ridden like horses, fleeced like sheep, worked like cattle, and fed and clothed like swines and hounds."[52] Adams did not generally like the other delegates to the Congress. He complained of what he considered to be their pretentiousness, writing to Abigail, "I believe if it was moved and seconded that We should come to a Resolution that Three and two make five We should be entertained with Logick and Rhetorick, Law, History, Politicks and Mathematicks, concerning the Subject for two whole Days, and then We should pass the Resolution unanimously in the Affirmative."[53] The Congress disbanded in October after sending a letter of grievances to King George III and endorsing the Suffolk Resolves.[54]

The absence of Adams from home was hard on Abigail, who was left alone to care for the family. But she encouraged her husband in his task, writing: "You cannot be, I know, nor do I wish to see you an inactive Spectator, but if the Sword be drawn I bid adieu to all domestick felicity, and look forward to that Country where there is neither wars nor rumors of War in a firm belief that thro the mercy of its King we shall both rejoice there together."[55]

A month after the Battles of Lexington and Concord, Adams returned to Philadelphia for the Second Continental Congress as the leader of the Massachusetts delegation.[56] He moved cautiously at first, observing that Congress was divided between Loyalists, those hesitant to take any position, and those favoring independence.[57] He became convinced that Congress was moving in the proper direction – away from its relationship with Great Britain. Publicly, Adams supported "reconciliation if practicable," but privately agreed with Benjamin Franklin's confidential observation that independence was inevitable.[58] He opposed various attempts, including the Olive Branch Petition, aimed at trying to find peace between the colonies and Great Britain.[59] Invoking the already-long list of British actions against the colonies, he wrote, "In my opinion Powder and Artillery are the most efficacious, Sure, and infallibly conciliatory Measures We can adopt."[60] In June 1775, with a view of promoting union among the colonies, he nominated George Washington of Virginia as commander-in-chief of the army then assembled around Boston.[61] Ferling writes, "By the fall of 1775 no one in Congress labored more ardently than Adams to hasten the day when America would be separate from Great Britain."[58]

In October 1775, Adams was appointed the chief judge of the Massachusetts Superior Court, but he never served, and resigned in February 1777.[61]

Thoughts on Government

A number of delegates sought Adams's advice about forming new governments.[62] While recognizing its importance, Adams had privately criticized Thomas Paine's 1776 pamphlet Common Sense, saying that the author had "a better hand at pulling down than building."[63] Yet, some delegates found his views so convincing they urged him to commit them to paper. He did so in separate letters to these colleagues, each missive a bit longer and more thoughtful. So impressed was Richard Henry Lee that, with Adams's consent, he had the most comprehensive letter printed. Published anonymously just after mid-April 1776, it was titled simply Thoughts on Government and styled as "a Letter from a Gentleman to his Friend." Many historians agree that none of Adams's other compositions rivaled the enduring influence of this pamphlet.[64]

Adams advised that the form of government should be chosen to attain the desired ends – the happiness and virtue of the greatest number of people. He wrote that, "There is no good government but what is republican. That the only valuable part of the British constitution is so because the very definition of a republic is an empire of laws, and not of men." The treatise also defended bicameralism, for "a single assembly is liable to all the vices, follies and frailties of an individual."[65] He also suggested that there should be a separation of powers between the executive, the judicial and the legislative branches, and further recommended that if a continental government were to be formed then it "should sacredly be confined" to certain enumerated powers. Thoughts on Government was referenced as an authority in every state-constitution writing hall. Adams also used the letter to attack opponents of independence. He claimed that John Dickinson's fear of republicanism was responsible for his refusal to support independence, and he wrote that opposition from Southern planters was rooted in fear that their aristocratic slaveholding status would be endangered by it.[64]

Declaration of Independence

Throughout the spring of 1776, Adams began to grown increasingly impatient with what he perceived to be the slow pace of declaring independence.[66] He kept busy on the floor of the Congress, helping push through a plan to outfit armed vessels to launch maritime raids on enemy ships. Later in the year, he drafted the first set of regulations to govern the provisional navy.[67] Meanwhile, that spring Adams drafted the preamble to the Lee resolution of colleague Richard Henry Lee (Virginia), which called on the colonies to adopt new independent governments.[68] On June 7, 1776 he seconded the resolution, which stated, "These colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent states."[69] Adams also championed the measure until it was adopted by Congress on July 2. Once the resolution passed, independence became inevitable, though it still had to be declared formally. The commitment was, as Adams put it, "independence itself."[70]

Prior to independence being declared, a Committee of Five was charged with drafting the Declaration, and included Adams, along with Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, Robert R. Livingston and Roger Sherman.[71] The Committee, after discussing the general outline that the document should follow, decided that Jefferson would write the first draft.[72] Jefferson particularly thought Adams should write the document; but Adams persuaded the Committee to choose Jefferson. Adams recorded his exchange with Jefferson on the question: Jefferson asked, "Why will you not? You ought to do it." To which Adams responded, "I will not – reasons enough." Jefferson replied, "What can be your reasons?" And Adams responded, "Reason first, you are a Virginian, and a Virginian ought to appear at the head of this business. Reason second, I am obnoxious, suspected, and unpopular. You are very much otherwise. Reason third, you can write ten times better than I can." "Well," said Jefferson, "if you are decided, I will do as well as I can." Adams concluded, "Very well. When you have drawn it up, we will have a meeting."[73] The Committee left no minutes, and the drafting process itself is uncertain. Accounts written many years later by Jefferson and Adams, although frequently cited, are often contradictory.[74] Although the first draft was written primarily by Jefferson, Adams assumed a major role in its completion. After editing the document further, Congress approved it on July 4.[75] Many years later Jefferson hailed Adams as "the pillar of [the Declaration's] support on the floor of Congress, [its] ablest advocate and defender against the multifarious assaults it encountered."[76]

Government during revolution

Black and white sketch of four men standing in a row beside a window

After defeating the Continental Army at the Battle of Long Island on August 27, 1776, British Admiral Richard Howe mistakenly assumed a strategic advantage to be at hand, and requested the Second Continental Congress send representatives in an attempt to negotiate peace. A delegation, including Adams and Benjamin Franklin, met with Howe at the Staten Island Peace Conference on September 11.[77] Howe's authority was premised on the Colonists' submission, so no common ground was to be found. When Lord Howe unhappily stated he could view the American delegates only as British subjects, Adams replied, "Your lordship may consider me in what light you please, ...except that of a British subject."[78] Adams learned many years later that his name was on a list of people specifically excluded from Howe's pardon-granting authority.[79] Being quite unimpressed with General Howe, and also after payments to colonial volunteers were increased, Adams in September 1776 said about the war, "We shall do well enough." Indeed, if Washington got his men, the British would be "ruined."[80]

In 1775, Adams began serving as the head of the Board of War and Ordnance. He was charged with keeping accurate record of the officers in the army and their rank, the disposition of troops throughout the colonies, and ammunition.[81] He sat on no less than ninety committees, chairing twenty-five. No other congressman approached the assumption of such a work load. As Benjamin Rush reported, he was acknowledged "to be the first man in the House."[82] He was also referred to as a "one man war department," working up to eighteen-hour days and mastering the details of raising, equipping and fielding an army under civilian control. He also authored the "Plan of Treaties," laying out the Congress's requirements for the crucial treaty with France.[83]

Diplomat in Europe

Commissioner to France and Massachusetts Constitution

In the spring of 1776 Adams advocated in Congress that independence was necessary in order to establish trade, and conversely trade was essential for the attainment of independence; he specifically urged negotiation of a commercial treaty with France. He was then appointed, along with Franklin, Dickinson, Benjamin Harrison V of Virginia and Robert Morris of Pennsylvania, "to prepare a plan of treaties to be proposed to foreign powers." While Jefferson was laboring over the Declaration of Independence, Adams worked on the Model Treaty. The Model Treaty authorized a commercial agreement with France but contained no provisions for formal recognition or military assistance. There were provisions for what constituted French territory. The treaty adhered to the provision that "free ships make free goods," allowing neutral nations to trade reciprocally while exempting an agreed upon list of contraband. By late 1777, America's finances were in tatters, and that September a British army had defeated General Washington and captured Philadelphia. A growing number of Americans came to determine that mere commercial ties between the U.S. and France would not be enough, and that military assistance would be needed in order to defeat Great Britain and bring about an end to the war. The defeat of a British army at Saratoga was expected to help induce France to agree to an alliance.[84]

On November 27, 1777 Adams was named as commissioner to France, replacing Silas Deane. He accepted at once. He was to join Franklin and Arthur Lee in Paris to negotiate an alliance with the French, who were debating whether or not to recognize and aid the United States. Abigail was left in Massachusetts to manage their home. It was agreed that 10-year-old John Quincy would go, for the experience was "of inestimable value" to his maturation.[85] On February 17, Adams set sail aboard the frigate Boston, commanded by Captain Samuel Tucker.[86] The stormy trip was treacherous, with lightning injuring 19 sailors and killing one. Adams's ship was later pursued by several British frigates in the mid-Atlantic, but evaded them. Near the coast of Spain, Adams himself took up arms to help capture a heavily armed British merchantman ship, the Martha. Later, a cannon malfunction killed one and injured five more of the crew.[87] On April 1, the men arrived in Spain, where Adams learned that France had already agreed to an alliance with the United States on February 6.[88] Shortly after, they arrived in France.[89] Adams was annoyed by the other two commissioners: Lee, whom he thought paranoid and cynical, and the popular and influential Franklin, whom he found irritating, lethargic, and overly deferential and accommodating to the French.[90] He took a disliking to Dr. Edward Bancroft, Franklin's aid, who, unbeknownst to him, was a British spy.[91] Adams did not speak French, the international language of diplomacy at the time.[92] He therefore assumed a less visible role, but emerged as the commission's chief administrator, imposing order and methods lacking in his delegation's finances and record-keeping affairs.[93] He was frustrated by the lack of commitment on the part of the French to helping the United States. In December, Adams wrote a letter to French foreign minister, the comte de Vergennes arguing for French naval support in North America. Franklin toned down the letter, but Vergennes ignored it.[94]

Adams frequently clashed with Benjamin Franklin over how to manage French relations.

In September 1778, Congress increased Franklin's powers by naming him minister plenipotentiary to France while Lee was sent to serve in Spain. Adams received no instructions on where to go or what to do next. Disgusted by the apparent slight, he departed France with John Quincy on March 8, 1779.[95] On August 2, they arrived back in Braintree.[96] Adams was elected to the Massachusetts Constitutional Convention with the purpose of establishing a new constitution for Massachusetts. He served on a committee of three, also including Samuel Adams and James Bowdoin, to draft the constitution. The task of writing it fell primarily to John Adams. The resulting Constitution of Massachusetts was approved in 1780. It was the first constitution written by a special committee, then ratified by the people; and was also the first to feature a bicameral legislature. Included were a distinct executive – though restrained by an executive council – with a partial (two-thirds) veto, and a separate judicial branch.[97] Adams became one of the founders and charter members of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1780.[98][99]

In the fall of 1779 Adams was appointed sole minister charged with negotiating peace and a postwar commercial treaty with Britain.[100] Following the conclusion of the Massachusetts constitutional convention, he departed for Europe in November[101] aboard the French frigate Sensible – accompanied by John Quincy and 9-year-old son Charles. In France, constant disagreement between Lee and Franklin eventually resulted in Adams assuming the role of tie-breaker in almost all votes on commission business; Adams also increased his usefulness by mastering the French language. Lee was eventually recalled. He closely supervised his sons' education and wrote to Abigail relatively infrequently, only about once every ten days.[102]

Compared to Franklin, Adams held a distinctly pessimistic view of the Franco-American alliance. The French, he believed, were involved only for their own self-interest, and he grew frustrated by what he perceived to be lethargy in providing substantial aid to the Revolution. "It is interest alone which does it," he said, "and it is interest alone which can be trusted." The French, Adams wrote, mean to keep their hands "above our chin to prevent us from drowning, but not to lift our heads out of water."[103] His straightforward manner eventually led to a collision with Vergennes. In March 1780, Congress, trying to curb inflation, voted to devalue the dollar. In June, Vergennes summoned Adams for a meeting. In a letter sent that same month, he insisted that any fluctuation of the dollar value without an exception for French merchants was unacceptable and requested that Adams write to Congress asking it to "retrace its steps." Adams wrote back in defense of the decision, claiming that the French merchants were doing better than Vergennes implied. Adams did not stop there, deciding to use the letter to sound off on some of his grievances with the French. The alliance had been made over two years before. During that time, an army under the comte de Rochambeau had been sent to assist Washington but had yet to do anything of significance. America was expecting French warships. These were needed, Adams wrote, to contain the British armies in the port cities and contend with the powerful British Navy. However, the French Navy had been sent not to the United States but to the West Indies in order to protect French interests there. France, Adams believed, needed to commit itself more fully to the alliance. Vergennes responded that he would deal only with Franklin, who sent a letter back to Congress critical of Adams.[104] According to Franklin, Adams:

having nothing else wherewith to employ himself, he seems to have endeavored to supply what he may suppose my negotiations defective in. He thinks, as he tells himself, that America has been to free in her expressions of gratitude to France; for that she is more obliged to us than we to her and that we should show spirit in our applications. I apprehend that he mistakes his ground, and that this court is to be treated with decency and delicacy.[105]

Before a response could be sent, Adams left France on his own.[106]

Ambassador to the Dutch Republic and Treaty of Paris

Medallion given to John Adams in 1782 by Johann Georg Holtzhey to mark United States as an independent nation by the Netherlands

In July 1780, Adams replaced Laurens as the ambassador to the Dutch Republic, one of the few other republics then existing in the world. 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 state on April 19, 1782 by the States General of the Netherlands in The Hague. (In February 1782 the States of Friesland had been the first Dutch provincial government to recognize the United States, while France had been the first European country to grant diplomatic recognition in 1778). He also negotiated a loan of five million guilders financed by Nicolaas van Staphorst and Wilhelm Willink. By 1794 a total of eleven loans were granted in Amsterdam to the United States with a value of 29 million guilders. In October 1782, he negotiated with the Dutch a treaty of amity and commerce, the first such treaty between the United States and a foreign power following the 1778 treaty with France.[107] The house that Adams bought during this stay in the Netherlands became the first American-owned embassy on foreign soil.[108]

After negotiating the loan with the Dutch, Adams was appointed as one of the American commissioners to negotiate the Treaty of Paris to end the war. The comte de Vergennes still disapproved of Adams, so Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, John Jay, and Henry Laurens were appointed to collaborate with Adams; nevertheless, Jefferson did not go to Europe and Laurens was posted to the Dutch Republic.[109]

Jay, Adams, and Franklin played the major part in the final negotiations.[110] One of the most important goals for the Americans, and one which became surprisingly difficult and which Adams played an important role in resolving, was the securing of fishing rights off Newfoundland and Cape Breton Island. The British ministers proposed strict limitations on how close American fishermen could be to the Canadian shore. Adams insisted that not only could American fishermen be allowed to travel as close to the shore as they wished, but that they should be allowed to cure their ships on the shores off Newfoundland.[111] Referring to this and others, Vergennes, through an emissary, secretly informed the British that France did not feel compelled to "sustain [these] pretentious ambitions." Overruling Franklin and distrustful of Vergennes, Jay and Adams decided not to consult with France; instead, they dealt directly with the British commissioners.[110] During the negotiations in November 1782, Adams mentioned that the fishing terms proposed to England were more generous than those proposed by France in 1778, which would create good will towards Britain in the United States and put pressure on France. Britain agreed to this and the two sides worked out a number of other provisions. Vergennes angrily expressed his disappointment when he learned from Franklin of the American duplicity but did not demand renegotiation. Supposedly, he was surprised at how much the American ministers had been able to extract from the British. The independent negotiations also allowed the French to plead innocence to their Spanish allies, who were angry that Britain still held Gibraltar and worried that it might attempt to retake Florida. Attempting to incorporate Spanish demands might have caused significant problems in the negotiations.[112] On September 3, 1783, the treaty was signed and American independence was recognized.[113]

In 1784 and 1785, Adams was one of the architects of extensive trade relations between the United States and Prussia. The Prussian ambassador in The Hague, Friedrich Wilhelm von Thulemeyer, was involved, as were Jefferson and Franklin, who were in Paris.[114]

Ambassador to Great Britain

Adams was appointed in 1785 the first American minister to the Court of St James's (ambassador to Great Britain), and he prepared to travel from Paris to London to begin his new assignment. When a counterpart seemed to assume that Adams had some family members in England, Adams replied, "Neither my father or mother, grandfather or grandmother, great grandfather or great grandmother, nor any other relation that I know of, or care a farthing for, has been in England these one hundred and fifty years; so that you see I have not one drop of blood in my veins but what is American."[115]

Adams had his first audience with King George III on June 1, and recorded the event as he saw it in great detail in a letter to Foreign Minister Jay on June 2. Adams approached the King, telling him that he felt greatly honored by his appointment, and promised to do all that he could to restore friendship and cordiality "between People who, tho Seperated [sic] by an Ocean and under different Governments have the Same Language, a Similar Religion and kindred Blood." After hearing this, King George, promised to "receive with Pleasure, the Assurances of the friendly Dispositions of the United States." He added that "while he had been the last to consent" to American independence, he wished Adams to know that he had always done what he thought right and proper. Towards the end of the interview, the King said, which to Adams appeared very sudden, "There is an Opinion, among Some People, that you are not the most attached of all Your Countrymen, to the manners of France." Adams replied, "That Opinion sir, is not mistaken, I must avow to your Majesty, I have no Attachments but to my own Country." To this King George responded, "An honest Man will never have any other."[116]

During her visit to Washington, D.C., to mark the bicentennial of American independence in 1976, Queen Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom gave historical perspective to Adams's service: "John Adams, America's first ambassador, said to my ancestor, King George III, that it was his desire to help with the restoration of 'the old good nature and the old good humour between our peoples.' That restoration has long been made, and the links of language, tradition, and personal contact have maintained it."[117]

Adams was joined by his wife while in London; suffering the hostility of the King's courtiers, they chose to escape when they could by seeking out Richard Price, minister of Newington Green Unitarian Church and instigator of the Revolution Controversy.[118] During his time in London, Adams briefly met his old friend Jonathan Sewall. The two discovered that they had grown too far apart to renew their friendship. Adams considered Sewall one of the war's casualties. Sewall in turn offered a critique of Adams as an ambassador:

His abilities are undoubtedly equal to the mechanical parts of his business as ambassador; but this is not enough. He cannot dance, drink, game, flatter, promise, dress, swear with the gentlemen, and small talk and flirt with the ladies; in short, he has none of those essential arts or ornaments which constitute a courtier. There are thousands who, with a tenth of his understanding and without a spark of his honesty, would distance him infinitely in any court in Europe.[119]

Adams's tenure in Britain was complicated by the failure of both countries to follow their treaty obligations. The states had been delinquent in paying debts owed to British merchants. As security for these payments, the British refused to evacuate forts in the northwest as prescribed the Treaty of Paris. Adams's attempts to resolve this dispute failed, and he was often frustrated by a lack of news from home.[120] He corresponded with his sons John Quincy and Charles, both of whom were at Harvard, cautioning the former against the "smell of the midnight lamp" while admonishing the latter to devote sufficient time to study.[121] Adams grew frustrated with the situation in Great Britain, and letters detailing tumult at home heightened his anxiety. He wrote to Jay asking to be relieved.[122] In 1788, Adams took his leave of George III, who engaged Adams in polite and formal conversation, promising to uphold his end of the treaty once America did the same.[123] He then went to the Hague to take formal leave of his ambassadorship there and to secure refinancing, allowing the United States to meet obligations on earlier Dutch loans.[124]

Conceptions of constitutional government

Adams – 1785 Mather Brown Portrait

Adams's preoccupation with political and governmental affairs–which caused considerable separation from his wife and children–ironically had a distinct familial context, which he articulated in 1780: "I must study Politicks and War that my sons may have the liberty to study Mathematicks and Philosophy. My sons ought to study Geography, natural History, Naval Architecture, navigation, Commerce and Agriculture, in order to give their children a right to study Painting, Poetry, Musick, Architecture, Statuary, Tapestry, and Porcelaine."[125]

While in London, Adams learned a convention being planned to amend the Articles of Confederation. In January 1787, he published a work entitled A Defence of the Constitutions of Government of the United States (1787).[126] In it he repudiated the views of Turgot and other European writers as to the viciousness of state government frameworks. In the book, Adams suggested that "the rich, the well-born and the able" should be set apart from other men in a senate – that would prevent them from dominating the lower house. Adams's Defence is described as an articulation of the classical republican theory of mixed government. Adams contended that social classes exist in every political society, and that a good government must accept that reality. For centuries, dating back to Aristotle, a mixed regime balancing monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy – that is, the king, the nobles, and the people – was required to preserve order and liberty.[127]

Wood (2006) has maintained that Adams's political philosophy had become irrelevant by the time the Federal Constitution was ratified. By then, American political thought, transformed by more than a decade of vigorous debate as well as formative experiential pressures, had abandoned the classical perception of politics as a mirror of social estates. Americans' new understanding of popular sovereignty was that the citizenry were the sole possessors of power in the nation. Representatives in the government enjoyed mere portions of the people's power and only for a limited time. Adams was thought to have overlooked this evolution and revealed his continued attachment to the older version of politics.[128] Yet Wood was accused of ignoring Adams's peculiar definition of the term "republic," and his support for a constitution ratified by the people.[129]

On separation of powers, Adams wrote that, "Power must be opposed to power, and interest to interest."[130] This sentiment was later echoed by James Madison's famous statement that, "[a]mbition must be made to counteract ambition", in The Federalist No. 51, explaining the separation of powers established under the new Constitution.[130][131] On the government's role in education Adams offered unambiguously that, "The whole people must take upon themselves the education of the whole people and be willing to bear the expenses of it. There should not be a district of one mile square, without a school in it, not founded by a charitable individual, but maintained at the public expense of the people themselves."[132]

Adams first saw the new United States Constitution in the fall of 1787. To Jefferson, he wrote that he read it "with great satisfaction." Adams did however express regret that the president would be unable to make appointments without Senate approval and over the absence of a Bill of Rights. "Should not such a thing have preceded the model?" he asked.[133]

Vice Presidency, 1789–97


Partially bald man with white hair in black suit sits
John Adams by Gilbert Stuart, c. 1815, oil on canvas – National Gallery of Art, Washington DC

Each state's presidential electors gathered in their state's capital on February 4, 1789 to cast their votes for the president. As originally prescribed by Article II of the Constitution, each state chose a number of electors equal to its representation in Congress. Each elector then cast two votes for president, though the electors were not allowed to cast both votes for the same person, and were prohibited from casting both their ballots for persons from their own state. The individual who won the most electoral votes would become president while the individual with the second-most electoral votes would become vice president. Each state's votes were sealed and delivered to Congress to be counted.[134] Adams received 34 electoral college votes in the presidential election of 1789, finishing in second place behind George Washington, who garnered 69 votes. As a result, Washington became the nation's first president, and Adams became the its first vice president. Adams finished well ahead of all the vote getters other than Washington, but he was still offended by the fact that Washington received more than twice as many votes.[135] To Benjamin Rush, he wrote, "Is not my election to this office, in the dark and scurvy manner in which it was done, a curse rather than a blessing?" Unbeknownst to Adams, Hamilton, under the pretext of not embarrassing Washington and in an abundance of caution in order to ensure that Adams did not tie or surpass Washington in total vote count, had convinced several electors not to vote for Adams.[136]

The first presidential term and the first vice presidential term both officially started on March 4, 1789, the date set by the Congress of the Confederation for the beginning of operations of the federal government under the new U.S. Constitution.[137] However, due to a delay in the counting and certification of the electoral votes, which was not done until April 6 (because although the Senate of the 1st Congress initially convened on March 4, it did not achieve a quorum until April 6, and so could not conduct business),[138][139] they commenced several weeks late. Adams first presided over the Senate on April 21.[140] Washington was inaugurated into office on April 30.[138]

President of the Senate

The vice presidency was primarily established to provide a successor in the event of the death, disability, or resignation of the president;[141] the sole constitutionally prescribed responsibility of the vice president is to preside over the U.S. Senate. The vice president also has the authority (ex officio, for he is not an elected member of the Senate) to cast a tie-breaking vote. Adams played an active role in the Senate's deliberations, particularly during his first term. On at least one occasion, he persuaded senators to vote against legislation he opposed, and at the start of his time in office he frequently lectured the body on procedural and policy matters.[141]

Adams by John Trumbull, 1793

At the start of Washington's presidency, Adams became deeply involved in a lengthy Senate controversy over the official titles for the president and executive officers of the new government. Although the House of Representatives agreed in short order that the president should be addressed simply as "George Washington, President of the United States," the Senate debated the issue at some length. Adams favored the adoption of the style of Highness (as well as the title of Protector of Their [the United States'] Liberties) for the president.[142] Some members of Congress favored a variant of Highness or the lesser Excellency."[143] Anti-federalists in the Senate objected to the monarchical sound of them all; Jefferson described them as "superlatively ridiculous."[144] The Senate emphasized simplicity and republicanism, and many argued that these "distinctions," as Adams called them, violated the Constitution's prohibition on titles of nobility. Adams remained stubborn. He argued that the distinctions were necessary because the highest office of the United States must be marked with "dignity and splendor" in order to command respect. Adams was almost universally derided for his combative nature and stubbornness, especially as he actively debated and lectured the senators. "For forty minutes he harangued us from the chair," wrote Senator William Maclay of Pennsylvania. Maclay became Adams's fiercest opponent and repeatedly expressed personal contempt for him in both public and private. He likened Adams to "a monkey just put into breeches."[145] Ralph Izard suggested that Adams be referred to by the title "His Rotundity," a joke which soon became popular.[146] On May 14, the Senate decided that the title of "Mr. President" would be used.[147] Privately, Adams conceded that his vice presidency had begun poorly, and that perhaps he had been out of the country too long to know the sentiment of the people. Washington quietly expressed his displeasure with the fuss over the title controversy. This is thought by some to be one of the reasons for why Adams held so little influence with the President.[148]

As vice president, Adams largely sided with the Federalist Party. He supported Washington's policies against opposition from anti-Federalists and Republicans. He cast 31 tie-breaking votes, all in support of the administration, and more than any other vice president.[149] In the summer of 1790, Jefferson, Madison, and Hamilton struck a bargain. Jefferson pledged support for Hamilton's plan for the government to assume states' debts, while Madison, as a member of the House, promised to vote against it but not be "strenuous" in opposition. In exchange, the capital was temporarily moved from New York to Philadelphia, while a permanent sight would be chosen on the Potomac River in order to placate Southerners. The location of the capital was more important in those days because, in an era without mass communication, the opinions of the people nearby would be taken into greater consideration. In the Senate, Adams cast a tie-braking nay vote against a last-minute motion to keep the capital in New York.[150] In one instance, he voted against a bill sponsored by Maclay that would have required Senate consent for the removal of executive branch officials who had been confirmed by the Senate.[151]

Adams never questioned Washington's courage or patriotism. However, Washington did join Franklin and others as the object of Adams's ire or envy. "The History of our Revolution will be one continued lie," Adams declared. "... The essence of the whole will be that Dr. Franklin's electrical Rod smote the Earth and out sprung General Washington. That Franklin electrified him with his Rod – and henceforth these two conducted all the Policy, Negotiations, Legislatures and War."[152] Adams's political views and his attempt to assume a more 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.[118]

Other activities

Beyond his role in the Senate, Adams played a minor role in the politics of the early 1790s. During his two vice-presidential terms, Adams attended few cabinet meetings, and the president sought his counsel only infrequently. Nonetheless, the two men, according to Ferling, "jointly executed many more of the executive branch's ceremonial undertakings than would be likely for a contemporary president and vice-president."[141] Overall, while Adams brought energy and dedication to the office,[153] by the summer of 1789 he had already found the task "not quite adapted to my character...too inactive, and mechanical."[154] He often lamented what he viewed as the "complete insignificance" of his situation. To Abigail he once wrote, "My country has in its wisdom contrived for me the most insignificant office that ever the invention of man ... or his imagination contrived or his imagination conceived; and as I can do neither good nor evil, I must be borne away by others and met the common fate."[155]

On July 14, 1789, the French Revolution began. Republicans were jubilant. Adams at first expressed cautious optimism, but soon began denouncing the revolutionaries as barbarous and tyrannical.[156] He, like many others, denounced French ambassador Edmond-Charles Genêt, who tried to draw the United States into war with Britain by recruiting privateers against the President's wishes.[157] Washington eventually began consulting Adams more often, but not until near the end of his administration, by which point Hamilton, Jefferson, and Edmund Randolph had all resigned.[158] The British had been raiding American trading vessels, and John Jay was sent to London to negotiate. When he returned with a peace treaty with the British on terms unfavorable to the United States, Adams urged Washington to sign it in order to prevent war. Washington chose to do so, igniting protests and riots. Washington was accused of surrendering America's honor to a tyrannical monarchy and of turning his back on the French Republic.[159]

Presidential election of 1796

1796 electoral vote totals
Name Party Votes
John Adams Federalist 71
Thomas Jefferson Democratic-Republican 68
Thomas Pinckney Federalist 59
Aaron Burr Democratic-Republican 30
Samuel Adams Democratic-Republican 15
Oliver Ellsworth Democratic-Republican 11
George Clinton Democratic-Republican 7
John Jay Federalist 5
James Iredell Federalist 3
John Henry Democratic-Republican 2
Samuel Johnston Federalist 2
George Washington None 2
C. C. Pinckney Federalist 1

The election of 1796 was the first contested American presidential election.[160] Twice, George Washington had been elected to office unanimously; however, during his presidency, deep philosophical differences between the two leading figures in the administration – Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson – regarding domestic economic policy and U.S. foreign policy caused a rift between them,[161] and led to the founding of the Federalist Party and Republican Parties. Thus, when Washington announced that he would not be a candidate for a third term, an intense partisan struggle for control of Congress and the presidency began.

Like the previous two presidential elections, no candidates were put forward for voters to choose between in 1796. The Constitution provided for the selection of electors who would then elect a president.[162] In seven states voters chose the presidential electors. In the remaining nine states, they were chosen by the state's legislature.[163] The clear favorite of Democratic-Republicans was Jefferson, although he was very reluctant to run.[164] There was little doubt that Adams would be the choice of a great majority of the Federalists.[162]

The Democratic-Republicans in Congress held a nominating caucus and named Jefferson and Aaron Burr as their presidential choices.[165] Jefferson at first declined the nomination, but he finally agreed to run a few weeks later. Federalist members of Congress held an informal nominating caucus and named Adams and Thomas Pinckney as their candidates for president.[164][166] The campaign, was, for the most part, unorganized and sporadic, confined to newspaper attacks, pamphlets and political rallies;[167] of the four contenders, only Burr actively campaigned. The practice of not campaigning for office would remain for many decades.[163] Adams specifically stated that he wanted to stay out of what he called the "silly and wicked game" of campaigning for office.[168]

As the campaign progressed, fears grew among Hamilton and his supporters that Adams was too vain, opinionated, unpredictable and stubborn to follow their directions once elected.[169] Their opinions were somewhat validated, as Adams felt largely left out of Washington's administration and did not consider himself a strong member of the Federalist Party. He had remarked that Hamilton's economic program, centered around banks, would "swindle" the poor and unleash the "gangrene of avarice."[170] Desiring "a more pliant president than Adams," Hamilton maneuvered to tip the election to Pinckney. He coerced South Carolina Federalist electors, pledged to vote for "favorite son" Pinckney, to scatter their second votes among candidates other than Adams. Hamilton's scheme was undone, however, when several New England state electors heard of it, conferred, and agreed not to vote for Pinckney.[171] Adams was nonetheless angered, writing shortly after the election that Hamilton was a "proud Spirited, conceited, aspiring Mortal always pretending to Morality, with as debauched Morals as old Franklin who is more his Model than any one I know."[172] Throughout his life, Adams made a number of highly critical statements about Hamilton. He made a number of derogatory references to his womanizing and slurred him as the "Creole bastard."[173]

In the end, Adams won the presidency by a narrow margin, receiving 71 electoral votes to 68 for Jefferson, who became the vice president; Pinckney finished in third with 59 votes, and Burr came in fourth with 30. The balance of the Electoral College votes were dispersed among nine other candidates.[174] This is the only election to date in which a president and vice president were elected from opposing tickets.[175]

Presidency, 1797–1801

President's House, Philadelphia. Adams occupied this Philadelphia mansion from March 1797 to May 1800.


Adams was sworn into office as the nation's second president on March 4, 1797, by Chief Justice Oliver Ellsworth.[176] As president, he followed Washington's lead in using the presidency to exemplify republican values and civic virtue, and his service was free of scandal. He continued to strengthen the central government by expanding the Navy and Army. In July 1798 Adams signed into law the Act for the Relief of Sick and Disabled Seamen, which authorized the establishment of a government-operated marine hospital service.[177]

Historians debate his decision to retain en masse the members of Washington's cabinet. Many felt he was oblivious to the political danger of such a decision, in light of the cabinet's loyalty to Hamilton. The "Hamiltonians who surround him," Jefferson soon remarked, "are only a little less hostile to him than to me."[178] Although aware of the Hamilton factor, Adams was convinced their retention ensured a smoother succession.[179] Adams's economic programs maintained those of Hamilton, who indeed had regularly consulted with key cabinet members, especially the powerful Secretary of the Treasury, Oliver Wolcott Jr.[180] Adams was in other respects quite independent of his cabinet, often making decisions despite strong opposition from it. Such self-reliance enabled him to avoid war with France, despite a strong desire among his cabinet secretaries for the conflict.[181] Hamilton had grown accustomed to being heavily consulted by Washington. Shortly after Adams was inaugurated, Hamilton sent him a detailed letter filled with policy suggestions for the new administration. Adams dismissively ignored it.[182] As president, Adams spent much of his term at home in Massachusetts, ignoring the details of political patronage nursed by other office holders.[183]

Failed peace commission and XYZ affair

The president's term was heavily marked by attempts to expanding conflict in Europe, where Britain and France were at war as a result of the French Revolution. Hamilton and the Federalists favored the British monarchy against what they perceived to be the radicalism of the French Revolution, while Jefferson and the Democratic-Republicans strongly supported France.[184] The French had supported Jefferson for president and became even more belligerent at his loss.[185] When Adams entered office, he decided to continue Washington's policy of staying out of the European war. The intense battle over the Jay Treaty with Great Britain in 1795 had previously polarized politics throughout the nation. The treaty, signed by Washington, was perceived by the Republicans as a humiliation for America and a betrayal of their French republican allies.[186] The French saw America as Britain's junior partner and began seizing American merchant ships that were trading with the British. Nevertheless, most Americans were initially pro-French due to France's assistance during the Revolution and because of their desire to support a republic against the British monarchy, and would not have sufficiently rallied behind anyone to stop France.[187]

On May 16, Adams gave a speech to the House and Senate in which he called for increasing defense capabilities in case of war with France.[188] Adams announced that he would send a peace commission to France but simultaneously called for a military buildup to counter any potential French threat. The speech was well received by the Federalists. Adams was depicted as an eagle holding an olive branch in one talon and the "emblems of defense" in the other. The Republicans were outraged, for Adams had not only failed to express support for the cause of the French Republic but appeared to be calling for war against it.[189]

A political cartoon depicts the XYZ Affair – America is a female being plundered by Frenchmen. (1798)

Sentiments changed with the XYZ Affair. Adams, as expressed in his May 16 speech, had appointed a three-member commission to represent the United States to negotiate with France. The commission consisted of John Marshall, Charles Cotesworth Pinckney and Elbridge Gerry.[190] Jefferson met four times with Joseph Letombe, the French consul in Philadelphia. Letombe wrote to Paris stating that Jefferson had told him that it was in France's best interest to treat the American ministers civilly but "then drag out the negotiations at length" in order to arrive at most favorable solution. According to Letombe, Jefferson called Adams "vain, suspicious, and stubborn."[191] When the envoys arrived in October 1797, they were kept waiting for several days, and then granted only a 15-minute meeting with French Foreign Minister Talleyrand. After this, the diplomats were met by three of Talleyrand's agents. The French emissaries (later code-named, X, Y, and Z) refused to conduct diplomatic negotiations unless the United States paid enormous bribes, one to Talleyrand personally, and another to the Republic of France.[190] Supposedly this was to make up for offenses given to France by Adams in his speech.[192] The Americans refused to negotiate on such terms.[193] Marshall and Pinckney returned home, while Gerry remained.[194]

News of the disastrous peace mission arrived in the form of a memorandum from Marshall on March 4, 1798. Adams, not wanting to incite violent impulses among the populace, announced simply that the mission had failed without providing details.[195] He also sent a message to Congress asking for a renewal of the nation's defenses. The Republicans reacted by frustrating the President's defense measures. Suspecting that he might be hiding material favorable to France, the House, with the support of Federalists who had heard rumors of what was contained in the messages, voted overwhelmingly to demand that Adams release the papers. Once they were released, the Republicans, according to Abigail, were "struck dumb."[196] Benjamin Franklin Bache, editor of the Republican Philadelphia Aurora, blamed Adams's aggression as the cause for the disaster. Among the general public, the effects were very different. The affair substantially weakened popular American support of France. Adams reached the height of his popularity as many in the country called for full-scale war against the French.[197]

Alien and Sedition Acts

BEP engraved portrait of Adams as President
BEP engraved portrait of Adams as President

Despite the discredit of the XYZ Affair, the Democratic-Republicans' opposition persisted. Federalists accused the French and their associated immigrants of provoking civil unrest. In an attempt to quell the uprising, the Federalists introduced, and the Congress passed, a series of laws collectively referred to as the Alien and Sedition Acts, which were signed by Adams in 1798.[198]

Congress specifically passed four measures – the Naturalization Act, the Alien Friends Act, the Alien Enemies Act and the Sedition Act. All came within a period of two weeks, in what Jefferson called an "unguarded passion." These statutes were designed to mitigate the threat of secessionists by disallowing their most extreme firebrands. The Naturalization Act increased to 14 years the period of residence required for an immigrant to attain American citizenship (naturalized citizens tended to vote for the Democratic-Republicans). The Alien Friends Act and the Alien Enemies Act allowed the president to deport any foreigner (from friendly and hostile nations, respectively) whom he considered dangerous to the country. The Sedition Act made it a crime to publish "false, scandalous, and malicious writing" against the government or its officials. Punishments included 2–5 years in prison and fines of up to $5,000.[199] Adams had not promoted any of these acts, but was urged to sign them by his wife and cabinet. He eventually agreed and signed the bills into law.[200]

The acts became controversial from prosecution thereunder of a Congressman and a number of newspaper editors. Indeed, the Federalist administration initiated fourteen or more indictments under the Sedition Act, as well as suits against five of the six most prominent Democratic-Republican newspapers. The majority of the legal actions began in 1798 and 1799, and went to trial on the eve of the 1800 presidential election – timing that hardly appeared coincidental, according to Ferling. Other historians have cited evidence that the Alien and Sedition Acts were rarely enforced, namely: 1) only 10 convictions under the Sedition Act have been identified; 2) Adams never signed a deportation order; and 3) the sources of expressed furor over the acts were Democratic-Republicans. The Acts as well allowed for prosecution of many who opposed the Federalists, even on the floor of Congress.[201] Such was the case for Matthew Lyon of Vermont, who was sentenced for four months in jail for criticizing the President.[202] Adams resisted Pickering's attempts to deport aliens. Vast numbers left on their own, largely in response to the hostile environment.[203]

Quasi War

In May 1798, a French privateer captured a merchant vessel off of the New York Harbor. An increase in attacks on sea marked the beginning of the undeclared naval war known as the Quasi War.[204] The president knew that America would be unable to win a conflict, as France at the time was dominating the fight in most of Europe. Adams therefore pursued a strategy whereby American ships harassed French ships in an effort sufficient to stem the French assaults on American interests.[205]

In May, shortly after the attack in New York, Congress created a separate Navy Department. The prospect of a French invasion of the U.S. mainland led for calls to build up the army. Hamilton and other "High Federalists" were particularly adamant that a large army should be called up, in spite of the common fear, particularly among Republicans, that large standing armies were subsersive to liberty. In May, a "provisional" army of 10,000 soldiers was authorized by Congress. In July, Congress created twelve infantry regiments and provided for six cavalry companies. These numbers exceeded Adams's requests but fell short of Hamilton's.[206]

Adams found himself pressured by Federalists to appoint Hamilton, who had served as Washington's aide-de-camp during the Revolution, to command the army.[207] Distrustful of Hamilton and fearing a plot to subvert his administration, Adams appointed Washington to command the army without consulting him. Washington was surprised by this sudden move, and as a condition of his acceptance demanded that he be permitted to appoint his own subordinates. He wished to have Henry Knox as second-in command, followed by Hamilton, and then Charles Pinckney.[208] On June 2, Hamilton wrote to Washington stating that he would not serve unless given the position of Inspector General and second-in-command.[209] Washington conceded that Hamilton, despite holding a rank lower than that of Knox and Pinckney, had, by serving on his staff, more opportunity to comprehend the whole military scene, and should therefore outrank them. Adams sent Secretary of War McHenry to Mount Vernon in order to convince Washington to accept the post. McHenry put forth his opinion that Washington would not serve unless permitted to choose his own officers.[210] Adams had intended to appoint Aaron Burr and Frederick Muhlenberg, both Republicans, in order to make the army appear bipartisan. Washington's list consisted entirely of Federalists.[211] Adams relented, and it was agreed to submit to the Senate the names of Hamilton, Pinckney, and Knox, in that order, although final decisions of rank would be reserved to Adams.[210] Knox subsequently refused to serve under these conditions. Adams firmly intended to give to Hamilton the lowest possible rank, while Washington and many other Federalists wrongly insisted that the order in which the names had been submitted to the Senate must determine seniority. On September 21, Adams received a letter from McHenry in which he relayed a statement from Washington threatening to resign if Hamilton were not made second-in-command.[212] Adams knew of the backlash that he would receive from his fellow Federalists over the issue, and he was forced to capitulate.[213] The severe illness of Abigail during this time, whom Adams was feared was near death, exacerbated his suffering and frustration.[212]

It quickly became apparent that due to Washington's advanced age, Hamilton was the army's de facto commander. He exerted effective control over the War Department, taking over supplies for the army.[214] Meanwhile, Adams built up the Navy, adding six fast, powerful frigates, most notably the USS Constitution.[215]

The Quasi War continued, but there was a noticeable decline in war fever beginning in the fall once news arrived of the French defeat at the Battle of the Nile, which significantly lessened their strength and, it was hoped, would make them more disposed to negotiate.[216] In October, Adams heard from Gerry, who was still in Paris, that the French wanted to make peace and would properly receive an American delegation. That December in his address to Congress, Adams relayed these statements while also expressing the need to maintain adequate defenses. The speech angered both Federalists, including Hamilton, many of whom had wanted a request for a declaration of war, and Republicans.[217] Hamilton secretly promoted a plan, already rejected by Adams, in which American and British troops would combine to seize Spanish Florida and Louisiana, ostensibly to deter a possible French invasion. Hamilton's critics, including Abigail, saw in his military buildups the signs of an aspiring military dictator.[218]

In February 1799, Adams surprised many by nominating diplomat William Vans Murray on a peace mission to France. The decision was made without consulting his cabinet or even Abigail, who nonetheless upon hearing of it described it as a "master stroke." To placate Republicans, he nominated Patrick Henry and Oliver Ellsworth to go with Murray and the Senate immediately approved them.[219] Hamilton strongly criticized the decision, as did Adams's cabinet members, who maintained frequent communication with him. Adams again questioned the loyalty of those men but did not remove them.[181] To the annoyance of many, Adams spent a full seven months-March to September-of 1799 in Peacefield, finally returning to Trenton, where the government had set up emergency quarters due to the yellow fever epidemic, after a letter arrived from Talleyrand confirming Gerry's statement that American ministers would be received. Adams then decided to send the commissioners to France.[220] Hamilton, in a breach of military protocol, arrived uninvited at Trenton to speak with the President, urging him not to send the peace commissioners but instead to ally with Britain, which he viewed to be the stronger party, to restore the Bourbons to France. "I heard him with perfect good humor, though never in my life did I hear a man talk more like a fool," Adams said. He regarded his idea as chimerical and far-fetched. On November 15, the commissioners set sail for Paris.[221]

Federalist divisions and peace

On May 5, Adams's frustrations with the Hamilton wing of the party exploded during a meeting with McHenry, a Hamilton loyalist who was widely regarded even by Washington and Hamilton as an inept Secretary of War. Adams accused him of subservience to Hamilton and declared that he would rather serve as Jefferson's vice president or minister at The Hague than be beholden to Hamilton for the presidency. McHenry offered to resign at once, and Adams accepted. On May 10, he asked Pickering to resign. Pickering refused and was summarily dismissed. Adams named John Marshall as Secretary of State and Samuel Dexter as Secretary of War.[222][223] In 1799, Napoleon took over as head of the French government in the Coup of 18 Brumaire and declared the French Revolution over.[224] This increased Adams's desire to disband the provisional army, which, with Washington now dead, was commanded only by Hamilton. Congress voted to do just that in the summer of 1800.[225]

Napoleon, realizing that the conflict was pointless, signaled his readiness for friendly relations. At the Convention of 1800, the two sides agreed to return any captured ships and to allow for the peaceful transfer of non-military goods to an enemy of the nation. On January 23, the Senate voted 16-14 in favor of the treaty, four votes short of the necessary two thirds. Some Federalists, including Hamilton, urged that the Senate vote in favor of the treaty with reservations. A list of reservations was then drawn up demanding that the Treaty of Alliance of 1778 be superseded and that France pay for its damages to American property. On February 3, the treaty passed 22-9 and was signed by Adams.[226][227] Jefferson, after entering office, would approve through negotiation an end to the 1778 alliance, freeing the United States of foreign entanglements, while excusing France from paying indemnities.[228] Adams proudly avoided war, but deeply split his party in the process. Historian Ron Chernow writes that "the threat of Jacobinism" was the one thing which united the Federalist Party, and that Adams's elimination of it unwittingly contributed to the party's demise.[229] News of the peace treaty did not arrive in the United States until after the election, too late to sway the results.[230]

Fries's Rebellion

To pay for the military buildup of the Quasi-War, Adams and his Federalist allies enacted the Direct Tax of 1798. Direct taxation by the federal government was widely unpopular, and the government's revenue under Washington had mostly come from excise taxes and tariffs. Though Washington had maintained a balanced budget with the help of a growing economy, increased military expenditures threatened to cause major budget deficits, and Hamilton, Wolcott, and Adams developed a taxation plan to meet the need for increased government revenue. The Direct Tax of 1798 instituted a progressive land value tax of up to 1% of the value of a property. Taxpayers in eastern Pennsylvania resisted federal tax collectors, and in March 1799 the bloodless Fries's Rebellion broke out. Led by Revolutionary War veteran John Fries, rural German-speaking farmers protested what they saw as a threat to their republican liberties and to their churches. They intimidated tax collectors, who often found themselves unable to go about their business.[231] The disturbance was quickly ended with Hamilton leading the army to restore peace.[232]

Fries and two other leaders were arrested, found guilty of treason, and sentenced to hang. They appealed to Adams requesting a pardon. The cabinet unanimously advised Adams to refuse, but he instead granted the pardon, using as justification the argument that the men had instigated a mere riot as opposed to a rebellion.[233] In his pamphlet attacking Adams before the election, Hamilton wrote that "it was impossible to commit a greater error."[234]

Move to Washington

Adams made his first official visit to the nation's new seat of government in early June 1800. Amid the "raw and unfinished" cityscape, the president found the public buildings "in a much greater forwardness of completion than expected."[235] He moved into the nearly completed President's Mansion (later known as the White House) on November 1. Abigail arrived a few weeks later. Upon arriving, Adams wrote to her, "Before I end my letter, I pray Heaven to bestow the best of Blessings on this House and all that shall hereafter inhabit it. May none but honest and wise Men ever rule under this roof."[236] The Senate of the Sixth Congress met for the first time in the new Congress House (later known as the Capitol building) on November 17, 1800. Several days later, on November 22, Adams delivered his fourth State of the Union Address to a joint session of Congress in the Senate chamber.[237] This would be the last annual message any president would personally deliver to Congress for the next 113 years.[238]

Election of 1800

With the Federalist Party deeply split over his negotiations with France, and the opposition Democratic-Republicans enraged over the Alien and Sedition Acts and the expansion of the military, Adams faced a daunting reelection campaign in 1800.[163] The Federalist members of Congress caucused in the spring of 1800 and nominated Adams and Charles Cotesworth Pinckney. The Democratic-Republicans meanwhile nominated Jefferson and Burr, their candidates in the previous election.[239]

The campaign was bitter and characterized by malicious personal attacks by partisan presses on both sides. Federalists claimed that the Democratic-Republicans were radicals who would ruin the country through revolution. Republicans were the enemies of "all who love order, peace, virtue, and religion." They were said to be libertines and dangerous radicals who favored states' rights over the Union and instigate anarchy and civil war. Jefferson's rumored affairs with slaves were used against him. Republicans in turn accused Federalists of subverting republican principles through punitive federal laws, and of favoring Britain and the other coalition countries in their war with France in order to promote aristocratic, anti-republican values. Jefferson was portrayed as an apostle of liberty and man of the people, while Adams was labelled a monarchist. He was accused of insanity and marital infidelity.[240]

Opposition from the Federalist Party was at times equally intense. Some, including Pickering, accused Adams of colluding with Jefferson to secure that he would end up either president or vice president. It was the attacks from Hamilton which eventually sealed Adams's fate.[241] Hamilton was hard at work, attempting to sabotage the president's reelection. Planning for a public indictment of Adams's character, he requested and received private documents from both the ousted cabinet secretaries and Wolcott.[242] The letter was initially intended for only a few Federalist electors. Upon seeing a draft, Wolcott urged him not to publish it, stating that "the poor old man" could do himself in without their help. Hamilton did not heed their advice.[243] On October 24, he published a pamphlet strongly attacking Adams on a number of points. Hamilton denounced many of Adams's policy decisions, including the "precipitate nomination" of Murray, the pardoning of Fries, and the firing of Pickering. He also included a fair share of personal insults, vilifying the President's "disgusting egotism" and "ungovernable temper." Adams, he concluded, was "emotionally unstable, given to impulsive and irrational decisions, unable to coexist with his closest advisers, and generally unfit to be president."[234] Strangely, it ended by saying that the electors should support Adams and Pinckney equally. Republicans rejoiced. For many years, there has been speculation on why Hamilton chose to publish the pamphlet, and no solid answer exists. In the end, it destroyed the Federalist Party, ended Hamilton's political career, and helped ensure Adams's already-likely defeat.[244]

1800 electoral vote totals
Name Party Votes
Thomas Jefferson Democratic-Republican 73
Aaron Burr Democratic-Republican 73
John Adams Federalist 65
C. C. Pinckney Federalist 64
John Jay Federalist 1

When the electoral votes were counted, Adams finished in third place with 65 votes, and Pinckney came in fourth with 64 votes (one New England Federalist elector voted for John Jay instead). Jefferson and Burr tied for first place with 73 votes each. Because of the tie, the election devolved upon the House of Representatives. As specified by the Constitution, each state's delegation voted en bloc, with each state having a single vote; an absolute majority (nine, as there were 16 states at the time) was required for victory. On February 17, 1801 – on the 36th ballot – Jefferson was elected by a vote of 10 to 4 (two states abstained).[163][174] It is noteworthy that Hamilton's scheme, although it made the Federalists appear divided and therefore helped Jefferson win, failed in its overall attempt to woo Federalist electors away from Adams.[245]

Ferling attributes Adams's defeat to five factors: the stronger organization of the Democratic-Republicans; Federalist disunity; the controversy surrounding the Alien and Sedition Acts; the popularity of Jefferson in the South; and the effective politicking of Aaron Burr in New York, where the State Legislature shifted from Federalist to Democratic-Republican on the basis of a few wards in New York City controlled by Burr's political machine.[246] Analyzing the causes of the party's trouncing, Adams wrote, "No party that ever existed knew itself so little or so vainly overrated its own influence and popularity as ours. None ever understood so ill the causes of its own power, or so wantonly destroyed them."[247] Stephen G. Kurtz argues that Hamilton and his supporters were primarily responsible for the destruction of the Federalist Party. They viewed the party as a personal tool and played straight into the hands of the Jeffersonians by building up a large standing army and creating a feud with Adams.[214] Chernow writes that Hamilton believed that by eliminating Adams, he could eventually pick up the pieces of the ruined Federalist Party and lead it back to dominance. "Better to purge Adams and let Jefferson govern for a while than to water down the party's ideological purity with compromises," Chernow says.[245]

To compound the agony of his defeat, Adams's son Charles, a long-time alcoholic, died in late November. Anxious to rejoin Abigail, who had already left for Massachusetts, Adams departed the White House in the predawn hours of March 4, 1801, and did not attend Jefferson's inauguration. Since him, only three out-going presidents (having served a full term) have not attended their successor's inauguration.[239] Adams wrote that he had left the next president a nation "with its coffers full" and "fair prospects of peace."[248]

The complications arising out of the 1796 and 1800 elections prompted Congress and the states to refine the process whereby the Electoral College elects a president and a vice president. The new procedure was enacted through the 12th Amendment, which became a part of the Constitution in June 1804, and was first followed in that year's presidential election.[249]


The Adams Cabinet
Office Name Term
President John Adams 1797–1801
Vice President Thomas Jefferson 1797–1801
Secretary of State Timothy Pickering 1797–1800
John Marshall 1800–1801
Secretary of Treasury Oliver Wolcott Jr. 1797–1801
Samuel Dexter 1801
Secretary of War James McHenry 1797–1800
Samuel Dexter 1800–1801
Attorney General Charles Lee 1797–1801
Secretary of the Navy Benjamin Stoddert 1798–1801

Judicial appointments

John Marshall, 4th Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court
Supreme Court Appointments by President Adams
Position Name Term
Chief Justice John Marshall 1801–1835
Associate Justice Bushrod Washington 1799–1829
Alfred Moore 1800–1804

Adams appointed two U.S. Supreme Court associate justices during his term in office: Bushrod Washington, the nephew of American founding father and President George Washington, to succeed James Wilson; and Alfred Moore, who succeeded James Iredell.[239] After the retirement of Oliver Ellsworth due to ill health in 1800, it fell to Adams to appoint the Court's fourth Chief Justice. At the time, it was not yet certain whether Jefferson or Burr would win the election. Regardless, Adams believed that the choice should be someone "in the full vigor of middle age" who could counter what might be a long line of successive Republican presidents. Adams chose his Secretary of State John Marshall.[250] Marshall, along with Stoddert, was one of Adams's few trusted cabinet members, and was among the first to greet him when he arrived at the White House.[244] Adams signed his commission on January 31 and the Senate approved it immediately.[251] Marshall's long tenure represents the most lasting influence of the Federalists, as he infused the Constitution with a judicious and carefully reasoned nationalistic interpretation and established the Judicial Branch as the equal of the Executive and Legislative branches.[252]

After the Federalists lost control of both houses of Congress along with the White House in the election of 1800, the lame-duck session of the 6th Congress in February 1801 approved a judiciary act, commonly known as the Midnight Judges Act, which created a set of federal appeals courts between the district courts and the Supreme Court. Adams filled the vacancies created in this statute by appointing a series of judges, whom his opponents called the "Midnight Judges" the appointments were issued just days before his presidential term expired. Most of these judges lost their posts when the 7th Congress, with a solid Democratic-Republican majority, approved the Judiciary Act of 1802, abolishing the newly created courts.[253]


Initial years

Adams resumed farming at his home Peacefield in the town of Quincy. Initially, he began work on an autobiography. The work was left with many gaps and was eventually abandoned. It was left unedited and with significant gaps.[254] Most of Adams's attention was focused on farm work. His frugal lifestyle left him with a considerable fortune by 1801. However, in 1803 the bank holding his cash reserves of about $13,000 collapsed. John Quincy came to the rescue by purchasing from him his properties in Weymouth and Quincy, including Peacefield, for the sum of $12,800.[255] During the first four years of retirement, he made little effort to contact others, but eventually resumed contact with old acquaintances such as Benjamin Waterhouse and Benjamin Rush.[256]

Adams generally stayed quiet on public matters. He did not publicly denounce Jefferson's actions as president,[257] believing that "instead of opposing Systematically any Administration, running down their Characters and opposing all their Measures right or wrong, We ought to Support every Administration as far as We can in Justice."[258] When James T. Callender, one of Jefferson's newspapermen who had attacked Adams during the 1800 election, turned on the President by revealing the Sally Hemings affair, Adams said nothing.[259] John Quincy was elected to the Senate in 1803. Shortly thereafter, both he and his father crossed party lines to support Jefferson's Louisiana Purchase.[260] Adams did privately criticize the President over his Embargo Act,[258] despite the fact that John Quincy voted for it.[261] John Quincy resigned from the Senate in 1808 after the Federalist-controlled State Senate refused to nominate him for a second term. The Federalists denounced John Quincy as no longer being of their party. Adams wrote to him that he himself had long since "abdicated and disclaimed the name and character and attributes of that sect."[1] The only major political incident involving Adams during the Jefferson years was a dispute with Mercy Otis Warren in 1806. Warren, an old friend, had attacked Adams in a pamphlet for his "partiality for monarchy" and "pride of talents and much ambition." A tempestuous correspondence ensued. In time, their friendship healed.[262]

After Jefferson's retirement from public life in 1809, Adams became more vocal. He published a three-year marathon of letters in the Boston Patriot newspaper, refuting line-by-line Hamilton's 1800 pamphlet. The initial piece was written shortly after his return from Peacefield and "had gathered dust for eight years." Adams decided to shelve it over fears that it could negatively impact John Quincy should he ever seek office. Though Hamilton had died in 1804 in a duel with Aaron Burr, Adams felt the need to vindicate his character against the New Yorker's vehement charges. With his son having broken from the Federalist Party and joined the Republicans, he felt he could safely do so without threatening his political career.[263] Adams supported the War of 1812. Having worried over the rise of sectionalism, he celebrated the growth of a "national character" that accompanied it.[264]

Daughter Abigail ("Nabby") was married to Representative William Stephens Smith, but she returned to her parents' home after the failure of the marriage; she died of breast cancer in 1813.[265] His wife Abigail died of typhoid on October 28, 1818.[266]

Correspondence with Jefferson

In early 1801, Adams sent Thomas Jefferson a brief note after returning to Quincy wishing him a happy and prosperous presidency. Jefferson failed to respond, and the two men did not speak again for nearly 12 years. In 1804, Abigail wrote to Jefferson to express her condolences upon the death of his daughter Polly, who had stayed with the Adamses in London in 1787. This initiated a brief correspondence between Jefferson and Mrs. Adams which quickly descended into political rancor. Jefferson terminated it by not replying to Abigail's fourth letter. Aside from that, by 1812 there had been no communication between Peacefield and Monticello since Adams left office.[267]

An unsmiling elderly man sits in a red chair, slightly pointing left.
John Adams, c. 1816, by Samuel Morse (Brooklyn Museum)

In early 1812, Adams reconciled with Jefferson. The previous year had been tragic for Adams; his brother-in-law and friend Richard Cranch had died along with his widow Mary, and Nabby had been diagnosed with breast cancer. These events mellowed Adams and caused him to soften his outlook.[263] Their mutual friend Benjamin Rush, a fellow signer of the Declaration of Independence who had been corresponding with both, encouraged them to reach out to each other. On New Year's Day, Adams sent a brief, friendly note to Jefferson to accompany the delivery of "two pieces of homespun," a two-volume collection of lectures on rhetoric by John Quincy Adams. Jefferson replied immediately with a cordial letter, and the two men revived their friendship, which they sustained by mail. The correspondence that they resumed in 1812 lasted the rest of their lives, and has been hailed as among their great legacies of American literature. Their letters represent an insight into both the period and the minds of the two revolutionary leaders and presidents. The missives lasted fourteen years, and consisted of 158 letters – 109 from Adams and 49 from Jefferson.[268]

Early on, Adams repeatedly tried to turn the correspondence to a discussion of their actions in the political arena.[269] Jefferson refused to oblige him, saying that "nothing new can be added by you or me to what has been said by others and will be said in every age."[270] Adams made one more attempt, writing that "You and I ought not to die before we have explained ourselves to each other."[271] Still, Jefferson declined to engage Adams in this sort of discussion. Adams accepted this, and the correspondence turned to other matters.[272]

The two men discussed "natural aristocracy." Jefferson said, "The natural aristocracy I consider as the most precious gift of nature for the instruction, the trusts, and government of society. And indeed it would have been inconsistent in creation to have formed man for the social state, and not to have provided virtue and wisdom enough to manage the concerns of society. May we not even say that the form of government is best which provides most effectually for a pure selection of these natural [aristocrats] into the offices of government?"[273] Adams wondered if it ever would be so clear who these people were, "Your distinction between natural and artificial aristocracy does not appear to me well founded. Birth and wealth are conferred on some men as imperiously by nature, as genius, strength, or beauty. ... When aristocracies are established by human laws and honour, wealth, and power are made hereditary by municipal laws and political institutions, then I acknowledge artificial aristocracy to commence." It would always be true, Adams argued, that fate would bestow influence on some men for reasons other than true wisdom and virtue. That being the way of nature, he thought such "talents" were natural. A good government, therefore, had to account for that reality.[274]

As the two grew older, the letters became fewer and farther between. There was also a great deal that they kept to themselves. Jefferson said nothing about his construction of a new house, domestic turmoil, slave ownership, or poor financial situation, while Adams did not mention the troublesome behavior of his son Thomas, who had failed as a lawyer and become an alcoholic, resorting afterwards to living primarily as a caretaker at Peacefield.[275]

Last years and death

3 marble sarcophagi, one in the foreground, 2 in the background are seen. 2 are seen with flags of the United States at the top.
Tombs of John and Abigail Adams (far) and John Quincy Adams (near), in family crypt at United First Parish Church

Less than a month before his death, Adams issued a statement about the destiny of the United States, which historians such as Joy Hakim have characterized as a "warning" for his fellow citizens: "My best wishes, in the joys, and festivities, and the solemn services of that day on which will be completed the fiftieth year from its birth, of the independence of the United States: a memorable epoch in the annals of the human race, destined in future history to form the brightest or the blackest page, according to the use or the abuse of those political institutions by which they shall, in time to come, be shaped by the human mind."[276]

On July 4, 1826, the 50th anniversary of the adoption of the Declaration of Independence, Adams died at his home in Quincy, at approximately 6:20 PM.[277] At 90 years, 247 days, Adams was the longest-lived US president until Ronald Reagan surpassed that age in 2001.[278] Adams's crypt lies at United First Parish Church in Quincy, Massachusetts, with his wife Abigail and son John Quincy Adams.[279] At the time of his death, Quincy Adams was serving as U.S. President. When Adams died, his last words included an acknowledgement of his longtime friend and rival: "Thomas Jefferson survives." Adams was unaware that Jefferson had died several hours before.[280][281]

Political philosophy and views


Adams never bought a slave and declined on principle to utilize slave labor, saying, "I have, through my whole life, held the practice of slavery in such abhorrence, that I have never owned a negro or any other slave, though I have lived for many years in times, when the practice was not disgraceful, when the best men in my vicinity thought it not inconsistent with their character, and when it has cost me thousands of dollars for the labor and subsistence of free men, which I might have saved by the purchase of negroes at times when they were very cheap."[282] Before the war, he occasionally represented slaves in suits for their freedom.[283] Adams generally tried to keep the issue out of national politics, because of the anticipated southern response during a time when unity was needed to achieve independence.[284] He spoke out in 1777 against a bill to emancipate slaves in Massachusetts, saying that the issue was presently too divisive, and so the legislation should "sleep for a time."[284] He also was against use of black soldiers in the Revolution, due to opposition from southerners.[284] Slavery was abolished in Massachusetts about 1780, when it was forbidden by implication in the Declaration of Rights that John Adams wrote into the Massachusetts Constitution.[285] Abigail Adams vocally opposed slavery.[286]

Accusations of monarchism

Throughout his lifetime Adams expressed controversial and shifting views regarding the virtues of monarchical and hereditary political institutions.[287] At times he conveyed substantial support for these approaches,[288] suggesting for example that "hereditary monarchy or aristocracy" are the "only institutions that can possibly preserve the laws and liberties of the people."[288] Yet at other times he distanced himself from such ideas, calling himself "a mortal and irreconcilable enemy to Monarchy" and "no friend to hereditary limited monarchy in America."[144] Such denials did not assuage his critics, and Adams was often accused of being a monarchist.[289]

An elderly man sits in a red chair with his arms crossed, looking slightly left.
John Adams by Gilbert Stuart (1823). This portrait was the last ever made of Adams, done at the request of John Quincy.

Many of these attacks are considered to have been scurrilous, including suggestions that he was planning to "crown himself king" and "grooming John Quincy as heir to the throne."[289] However, Peter Shaw has argued that: "[T]he inevitable attacks on Adams, crude as they were, stumbled on a truth that he did not admit to himself. He was leaning toward monarchy and aristocracy (as distinct from kings and aristocrats) at the time he wrote 'Davila,' though he did not directly reveal this in its essays. Decidedly, sometime after he became vice-president, Adams concluded that the United States would have to adopt a hereditary legislature and a monarch... and he outlined a plan by which state conventions would appoint hereditary senators while a national one appointed a president for life."[290] In contradiction to such notions, Adams asserted in a letter to Thomas Jefferson:

If you suppose that I have ever had a design or desire of attempting to introduce a government of King, Lords and Commons, or in other words an hereditary Executive, or an hereditary Senate, either into the government of the United States, or that of any individual state, in this country, you are wholly mistaken. There is not such a thought expressed or intimated in any public writing or private letter of mine, and I may safely challenge all of mankind to produce such a passage and quote the chapter and verse.[291]

Religious views

Adams was raised a Congregationalist, since his ancestors were Puritans. According to biographer David McCullough, "as his family and friends knew, Adams was both a devout Christian, and an independent thinker."[292] In a letter to Benjamin Rush, Adams credited religion with the success of his ancestors since their migration to the New World in the 1630s.[293] He also believed that regular church service was beneficial to man's moral sense. Everett (1966) 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.[294] Fielding (1940) argues that Adams's beliefs synthesized Puritan, deist, and humanist concepts. Adams at one point said that Christianity had originally been revelatory, but was being misinterpreted and misused in the service of superstition, fraud, and unscrupulous power.[295]

Frazer (2004) notes that while he shared many perspectives with deists and often used deistic terminology, "Adams clearly was not a deist. Deism rejected any and all supernatural activity and intervention by God; consequently, deists did not believe in miracles or God's providence. ... Adams, however, did believe in miracles, providence, and, to a certain extent, the Bible as revelation."[296] Frazer further argues that Adams's "theistic rationalism, like that of the other Founders, was a sort of middle ground between Protestantism and deism."[297] By contrast, David L. Holmes has argued that Adams, beginning as a Congregationalist, ended his days as a Christian Unitarian, accepting central tenets of the Unitarian creed, but also accepting Jesus as the redeemer of humanity and the biblical account of his miracles as true.[298] In 1796, Adams denounced political opponent Thomas Paine's deistic criticisms of Christianity in The Age of Reason, saying, "The Christian religion is, above all the religions that ever prevailed or existed in ancient or modern times, the religion of wisdom, virtue, equity and humanity, let the Blackguard Paine say what he will."[299]

In his retirement years, Adams moved away from some of the Puritan sentiments of his youth. While he continued to be an active Christian, he blamed institutional Christianity as the cause of much suffering but maintained that religion was necessary for society. He became a Unitarian, rejecting the divinity of Jesus.[300]


Historical reputation

Adams has left behind a mixed legacy. Most historians applaud him for avoiding an all-out war with France during his presidency. His signing of the Alien and Sedition Acts is almost always condemned.[301]

Adams left a mixed impression among contemporaries. He eventually came to be seen as someone with a long, distinguished, and spotless career in public service, and a man of great patriotism and integrity, but whose vanity, stubbornness, and cantankerousness often got him into unnecessary trouble. Benjamin Franklin summed up what many thought of Adams when he said, "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."[302] Adams had an ever-present idea that he would be forgotten and underappreciated by history. These feelings often manifested themselves through envy and verbal attacks on other Founders.[152][303]

Historian George Herring argues that Adams was the most independent-minded of the Founders.[304] Though he formally aligned with the Federalists, he was somewhat a party unto himself, disagreeing with the Federalists as much as he did the Democratic-Republicans.[305] He was often described as "prickly," but his tenacity was fed by good decisions made in the face of universal opposition.[304] Adams was often combative, which diminished presidential decorum, as Adams himself admitted in his old age: "[As president] I refused to suffer in silence. I sighed, sobbed, and groaned, and sometimes screeched and screamed. And I must confess to my shame and sorrow that I sometimes swore."[306] Adams's resolve to advance peace with France, rather than to continue hostilities, especially reduced his popularity and contributed to his defeat for reelection.[307]

Adams is generally less well known than many of America's other founding fathers. McCullough argued that "[t]he problem with Adams is that most Americans know nothing about him." Todd Leopold of CNN added in 2001 that Adams is "remembered as that guy who served a single term as president between Washington and Jefferson, and as a short, vain, somewhat rotund man whose stature seems to have been dwarfed by his lanky colleagues."[308] He has always been seen, Ferling says, as "honest and dedicated," but despite his lengthy career in public service, is still overshadowed by the dramatic military and political achievements and strong personalities of his contemporaries.[309] Gilbert Chinard, in his 1933 biography of Adams, described the man as "staunch, honest stubborn and somewhat narrow."[310] In his 1962 biography, Page Smith lauds Adams for his fight against radicals such as Thomas Paine, whose promised reforms portended anarchy and misery. In 1995, Peter Shaw published The Character of John Adams. Ferling says that the man who emerges is one "perpetually at war with himself," whose desire for fame and recognition leads to changes of vanity. Ferling, in his 1992 biography, writes that "Adams was his own worst enemy." He criticizes Adams for his "pettiness...jealousy, and vanity," and finds fault with him for his frequent separations from his wife and children. However, he praises Adams for his willingness to acknowledge his deficiencies and for striving to overcome them.[311]

In 2001, David McCullough published a biography of the president entitled John Adams. McCullough lauds Adams for consistency and honesty, "plays down or explains away" his more controversial actions, such as the dispute over presidential titles and the predawn flight from the White House, and criticizes his friend and rival, Jefferson. The book was very favorably received and, along with the Ferling biography, contributed to a rapid resurgence in Adams's reputation.[312] In 2008, a miniseries was released based on the McCullough biography, featuring Paul Giamatti as Adams.[313]

In memoriam

Adams is commemorated as the namesake of various counties, buildings, and other items.

Unlike many other American founders, Adams does not have a monument dedicated to himself in Washington D.C.[314] This has been the cause of some discontent. According to McCullough, "Popular symbolism has not been very generous toward Adams. There is no memorial, no his honor in our nation's capital, and to me that is absolutely inexcusable. It's long past time when we should recognize what he did, and who he was."[315]

See also


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The owner of this site cannot know which documentaries are in public domain, which has been uploaded to e.g. YouTube by the owner and which has been uploaded without permission. The copyright owner must contact the source if he wants his material off the Internet completely.

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