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John Adams - One of America's Founding Fathers

Posted on Saturday, May 23, 2020

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Birth: October 30, 1735
Death: July 4, 1826 (age 90)
Colony: Massachusetts
Occupation: Lawyer, Politician
Significance: Signed The Declaration of Independence (at the age of 40); served as first United States Minister to the United Kingdom (1785-1788); served as the first Vice President of the United States (1789-1797); served as the second President of the United States (1797-1801); fathered John Quincy Adams who became the 6th President of the United States (1825-1829)

Portrait of John Adams hanging in the Second Bank of the United States Portrait Gallery

John Adams was a Founding Father of the United States of America. Adams was born to a well established Massachusetts family which had arrived in America when in 1638 his great-great-grandfather emigrated to Massachusetts from Braintree, England. Adams grew up on the family farm, which was located in Braintree, Massachusetts, located roughly 10 miles south of Boston. Adams’ father was a farmer and a deacon in the Puritan church, and he was also involved in local politics. Adams was expected to become a minister like his father and to that end, Adams received a formal education from a young age. Adams began his schooling at the age of six and eventually he attended Braintree Latin School, before entering Harvard College at the age of 16. While at Harvard, Adams decided against becoming a minister. After his graduation, Adams moved to Worchester, Massachusetts, and he began studying to become a lawyer. 

Beginnings of the American Conflict with Britain

It was Adams’ love of law which would lead to him sympathizing with those protesting British overreach following the French and Indian War, since Adams’ believed that the Colonists' arguments had merit under the law, and that British actions, such as unlawful searches and seizures, violated the rights of the American Colonists. In 1764, Adams married Abigail Smith, who became Adams’ closest confidant and advisor. Their frequent written communications have become some of the most important written artifacts of the American Revolutionary time period. Of the over 1,000 communications between John and Abigail, most survive to this day and include many insights from John's work as a founder of the United States. Many of the most famous passages however were penned by Abigail, with the most famous being Abigail's plea that John remember the rights of women as he helped to create a new nation:
"I long to hear that you have declared an independency -- and by the way in the new Code of Laws which I suppose it will be necessary for you to make I desire you would Remember the Ladies, and be more generous and favourable to them than your ancestors. Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the Husbands. Remember all Men would be tyrants if they could. If perticuliar care and attention is not paid to the Laidies we are determined to foment a Rebelion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any Laws in which we have no voice, or Representation." 
Together John and Abigail had six children, including their eldest son, John Quincy Adams, who continued in the "family business" and became the 6th President of the United States (1825-1829).
Adams’ cousin, Samuel Adams, had become one of the early faces of the fight for the Colonists’ rights and was the founder of the Sons of Liberty. While initially not as prominent as his cousin, John Adams became an outspoken critic of the British in his own right, basing his criticisms on reasoned legal arguments. Adams was among the first to reason that because the American Colonists were not represented in Parliament, Parliament had no authority over the Colonists and had no right to tax them. Adams first made this argument in 1765, years before “No taxation without representation!” became a rallying cry of the American Revolution. While Adams continued to push for the Colonists' rights, he also advanced his legal career, moving to Boston in 1768, where he quickly became recognized as one of the city’s most gifted and highly demanded lawyers.

Boston Massacre

As the tensions between Bostonians and the British Military forces located within Boston erupted with the 1770 Boston Massacre, no one in the city wished to defend the soldiers who had fired into the crowd of Bostonians, killing five. Despite his sympathy with the protestors, Adams believed so strongly in the rule of law, including that every person deserved access to a lawyer and a fair trial, that Adams himself decided to represent the soldiers accused of committing the Boston Massacre. Adams gave impassioned speeches throughout the trial about the importance of truth over emotions and helped to secure the acquittal of seven of the British Soldiers who were tried, and the remaining two were only convicted of manslaughter. Adams’ work in the trial cemented his reputation as a principled and capable lawyer, increased his profile in Boston, and eventually led to his election to the Massachusetts legislature. One of Adams' famous quotes from the Boston Massacre trial was,
"Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passions, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence!"

The American Revolution

When the First Continental Congress convened in Philadelphia in 1774, Adams was selected to be a representative of Massachusetts throughout the proceedings. Adams became a leading figure at the First Continental Congress and helped to author the Petition to the King. During this time, Adams also first met George Washington, who impressed Adams over the course of several dinners.
After the Battles of Lexington and Concord, Adams again returned to Philadelphia to serve in the Second Continental Congress. Adams arrived in Philadelphia as one of the strongest proponents of Independence, but he recognized the need for the Colonies to first unite together. As the Continental Congress considered supporting the make-shift army that had been assembled around Boston, discussions turned to who should serve as the Commander-in-Chief of this new army. Ignoring the support among his peers for fellow Bostonian John Hancock, Adams instead moved to nominate George Washington, hoping that placing a Virginian at the head of the Massachusetts based army would help unite the Colonies. Adams praised Washington’s military experience and strong character, and Adams succeeded in helping Washington secure the important position.
Independence Hall where Adams spent many long hours as a member of the Second Continental Congress
Adams was an indisputable leader within Congress and respected for his incredible work ethic. Adams sat on over 90 committees, chaired 25 committees, and often spent his every waking hour dedicated to his congressional work. But although he was respected, Adams found it difficult to perform the types of social niceties that were expected by his peers. As Adams grew increasingly frustrated with what he perceived as indecisiveness within the Congress to declare Independence, Adams found it harder to conceal his frustration with the rest of the Continental Congress. Adams became known for his blunt style that won few friends within Congress, but he was nonetheless able to slowly, but surely, push the Second Continental Congress toward Independence.

The Declaration of Independence

On June 7, 1776, Richard Henry Lee became the first to formally propose Independence to the Second Continental Congress and Adams quickly seconded the resolution. Adams organized the Committee of Five, which would be charged with writing an official Declaration of Independence. While Adams was frustrated by his inability to manage his unpopular reputation, he was nonetheless aware of it, and for this reason persuaded the committee to select Thomas Jefferson instead of himself to be the primary author of The Declaration of Independence, since he believed that it would give the document a greater chance of support within Congress. While Jefferson wrote the first draft of The Declaration of Independence at the Graff House in Philadelphia, Adams and fellow committee member Benjamin Franklin were also heavily involved in the process. While The Declaration of Independence was debated in Congress, Jefferson, who was still a timid public speaker, allowed Adams to argue for the adoption of his work. An edited version of The Declaration of Independence was officially adopted on July 4, 1776.
On July 2, 1776, the Second Continental Congress met at the Pennsylvania State House (which is today known as Independence Hall), and it passed the resolution declaring independence from Great Britain!  Adams proudly wrote home to his wife, Abigail Adams, and he predicted Independence Day celebrations on July 2nd,

"The Second Day of July 1776, will be the most memorable Epocha, in the History of America. I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated, by succeeding Generations, as the great anniversary Festival. It ought to be commemorated, as the Day of Deliverance by solemn Acts of Devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with Pomp and Parade, with Shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more."

The Board of War and Ordnance

While in the Continental Congress, Adams also served as the head of the Board of War and Ordnance, a position analogous to the present day, Secretary of Defense. Adams worked long hours to try and keep the Continental Army properly supplied and organized. Seemingly the only breaks he took from his duties were to sleep and to correspond with his wife Abigail in Boston. Despite Adams’ best efforts, the Continental Army suffered a string of impactful defeats at the hands of the British. After the British defeated Washington’s Army at the Battle of Brandywine and took the Capital city of Philadelphia, the Continental Congress became increasingly worried that without a military allegiance with France, America would not be able to win its Independence.

International Affairs

Efforts to negotiate a treaty with France subsequently intensified, and Adams was sent to Paris to join Benjamin Franklin to try to achieve this important goal. In February 1778, Adams left America for France along with his son John Quincy Adams. Upon his arrival in Paris, Adams learned that Franklin had already successfully negotiated a treaty with the French before Adams had even left America. Adams however was frustrated by France’s lack of assistance and Franklin’s unwillingness to be more forceful in negotiations. In early 1779 the Continental Congress decided to disband the American Commission to France as their goal had been accomplished with the French joining the Revolutionary War the previous year. However, when this information reached Paris, Adams discovered that while his fellow diplomats like Benjamin Franklin and Arthur Lee were granted new important diplomatic roles in Paris and Madrid respectively, there was no new title for Adams and in fact, no instructions at all regarding what he should do next. Adams began to feel he was wasting his time and returned to Massachusetts less than a year after his arrival in France.
Back in Massachusetts during the Summer of 1779, Adams played a key role in authoring the Massachusetts Constitution, the oldest written Constitution in the world that is still in effect. Adams then returned to Europe in November 1779 to negotiate a commercial treaty with the Dutch and began negotiating a peace treaty with the British. After years of work, Adams in 1782 secured a treaty with Dutch which recognized America as an Independent nation and subsequently negotiated loans with Dutch bankers which would provide crucial financial relief for the cash strapped United States. Then in September 1783, after over a year of negotiation, Adams signed the Treaty of Paris along with Franklin and other American representatives, officially ending the Revolutionary War against the Kingdom of Great Britain in America’s favor.
In the years that immediately followed the American Revolutionary War, Adams remained in London and was joined by his family since he served as the American Minister to Britain. In 1788, Adams left that position and returned to America.

Vice President of the United States

There was no campaign for the first President of the United States and no popular vote. George Washington easily won the nomination, but Adams received the second highest vote total, and he was named Vice President of the United States. Adams as Vice President had only one official role as the title was written in the Constitution, he was to preside over the U.S. Senate and would cast a vote in the case of tie. Adams brash and combative demeanor quickly made him an unpopular figure within Congress, and Adams was at a loss for a purpose in the role which he grew to despise. Writing home to his wife Abigail, Adams said the following of the Office of the Vice President:
“My country has in its wisdom contrived for me the most insignificant office that ever the invention of man contrived or his imagination conceived.”
While Adams complained of the lack of importance to his role as Vice President, he was one of the most important Vice Presidents in American history. He was first Vice President, and he helped to define the office. For example, there were an incredible 29 tie votes in the U.S. Senate during his tenure, the second most in American history for any Vice President. All of these tie votes gave Adams many opportunities to become involved in the legislative process and have an enormous impact on the proceedings. In all 29 instances, Adams sided with the goals of Washington’s administration and the newly forming Federalist Party of which Adams became a leader.
Congress Hall where John Adams Presided over the Senate from 1790-1797
After George Washington decided that he would not seek a third term, John Adams was nominated by the Federalist party to succeed Washington as President. The Democratic-Republicans who had come to oppose the policies of Washington’s administration nominated Thomas Jefferson to be their nominee, setting the stage for an intense 1796 election between the two old friends who had grown into political rivals. The bitter election of 1796 was further complicated by Alexander Hamilton, Adams’ rival within the Federalist Party, maneuvering to bypass Adams and elect Adams’ Vice President candidate, Thomas Pinckney, as President. While Hamilton’s scheming failed, it did succeed in creating a mess in which Adams received the most votes for President, securing him the Presidency, but his opponent Thomas Jefferson received the second most votes, and he was named as the second Vice President of the United States. This awkward situation was part of the reason for the creation of the 12th Amendment which would simplify the process by which the President was elected and ensured their running mate would win the Vice Presidency.

President of the United States

Adams' Presidency was dominated by the issue of the French Revolution which had led to a war between Britain and the new French Republic. Washington had stayed out of the conflict, and Adams looked to continue this policy, but the French had come to view America as unofficially allied with Britain and began attacking American ships, forcing Adams’ hand. Adams called for the creation of stronger military to protect against a full scale war with the French while also attempting to negotiate peace. Jefferson and the Democratic-Republicans were aghast that Adams seemed to be siding with the British Monarchy over a French Republic that had been inspired in part by the ideals of the American Revolution.
Federalists, on the other hand, supported full scale war with the French in retaliation for their attacks and France’s disrespectful position toward American attempts to negotiate peace. In response to increasing unrest within the country and the fear shared by many Federalists that French immigrants were stirring chaos from within America, Adams and the Federalists passed a series of laws known as the Alien and Sedition Acts which complicated the ability for immigrants, especially French immigrants, to become American citizens and outlawed certain critical speech against the American Government. Federalists were outraged by the Alien and Sedition Acts and their perceived unconstitutionality.
The former location of the President's House where Adams lived in Philadelphia during his Presidency
America subsequently fell into a conflict with France that became known as the Quasi-War, as it never devolved into a full scale war but did involve military build-ups and navel skirmishes. Adams organized an Army at the urging of his fellow Federalists and named George Washington to command the Army. Washington agreed to come out of retirement, but on the condition that he appoint his own subordinates and then proceeded to appoint only Federalists, further eroding trust between the two competing parties in Philadelphia. Even worse for Adams, Washington named Hamilton his second in command and due to Washington's poor health, Hamilton, who was Adams’ bitter political rival, was largely in control of the Army. After Washington's death, Jefferson assumed full control of the Army.
As the Quasi-War progressed, it grew increasingly unpopular, and Adams found himself torn between the competing factions of the Federalist Party and the Democratic-Republicans. To pay for the Quasi-War, Adams was forced to raise taxes which enraged many and hastened Adams’ desire to end the conflict. Adams eventually was able to achieve peace with the French, but news of the treaty did not arrive in America until after the 1800 election, and Adams was defeated by Thomas Jefferson. Adams was the only of the first five American Presidents to not win a second term and the next time a President would not win reelection would not come until 1828, when his own son, John Quincy Adams, was also defeated after one term by Andrew Jackson.

Later Years

After his Presidency, Adams returned to his family farm in Massachusetts and enjoyed a quiet retirement in which he largely avoided public affairs and refused to publicly attack Thomas Jefferson and his actions as President. Adams largely did not even correspond with any of the men with whom he served in government with, as he was largely embittered by the experience. One of the few exceptions was Benjamin Rush, a close friend who also happened to correspond with now former President Thomas Jefferson. In 1812, Rush, sensing that both Adams and Jefferson were softening their stances against one another, encouraged them to reach back out to one another. The resulting correspondence rekindled their old friendship and Adams and Jefferson set aside their long standing disputes; they would exchange dozens of letters with one another for the rest of their lives. Adams’ final words of “Thomas Jefferson Survives” are thought to be a humorous acknowledgement that his old political rival and friend had bested him once again, but unbeknownst to Adams, Jefferson had passed away earlier that day, July 4th, 1826, on the fiftieth anniversary of the country both men had been so crucial in founding.

HBO Miniseries

From March 16, 2008 to April 20, 2008, HBO broadcast an amazing biopic miniseries entitled "John Adams" which chronicled President Adams' adult life and his role as a Founding Father of the United States. "John Adams" was directed by Tom Hooper, and Kirk Ellis wrote the screenplay based on the book John Adams by David McCullough. Although so much of John Adams' life was based in Boston and Philadelphia, the scenes from Boston and Philadelphia were filmed at Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia. The miniseries John Adams was critically acclaimed, and as of 2009, the show had won 13 Emmy awards (more than any other miniseries), and four Golden Globe awards.


John Adams in Philadelphia

Adams first came to Philadelphia in 1774 as a Delegate to the First Continental Congress which met at Carpenters' Hall. Adams returned the following year in 1775 as a Delegate to the Second Continental Congress. While serving as a member of the Second Continental Congress, Adams worked at Independence Hall, and he signed The Declaration of Independence. Adams continued to live in Philadelphia until the British took over the Capital city of Philadelphia, forcing the Capital to relocate. Adams returned to Philadelphia in 1790 as George Washington's Vice President, a role Adams held until 1797. While Vice President, Adams presided over the U.S. Senate, which met on the second floor of Congress Hall while the Capital was in Philadelphia. Adams then continued living in Philadelphia after he was elected to succeed President Washington as the second President of the United States. Adams' Presidential inauguration occurred at Congress Hall, and this marked the first ever peaceful transition of power in a modern democracy. While President, Adams resided within the President's House at 6th & Market Streets.

A plaque commemorating Adams for signing The Declaration of Independence can be found on Signers' Walk on the 600 block of Chestnut Street (between 5th and 6th Street). Signers' Garden pays tribute to the Founding Fathers, including those such as Adams who signed The Declaration of Independence. Today, Carpenter's Hall, Independence Hall, Congress Hall, the President's House, Signers' Walk and Signers' Garden are all stops visited along The Constitutional Walking Tour!

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