The Encyclopedia Americana (1920)/Adams, John

For works with similar titles, see Adams, John.

Edition of 1920. See also the disclaimer.

ADAMS, John, American statesman, 2d President of the United States: b. Braintree, Mass., of a line of farmers 19 Oct. 1735; d. 4 July 1826, the year after his son was inaugurated President. Graduated at Harvard, he taught school, and read theology for a Church career; but seeing his unfitness for it studied law and began practice in 1758, soon becoming a leader at the bar and in public life. In 1764 he married his famous wife. All through the germinal years of the Revolution he was one of the foremost patriots, steadily opposing any abandonment or compromise of essential rights; and in 1766 published essays in the Boston Gazette, reprinted in London 1768, entitled ‘A Dissertation on Canon and Feudal Law,’ really on colonial rights. In 1765 also he was counsel for Boston, with Otis and Gridley, to support the town's memorial against the Stamp Act. In 1766 he was a selectman, or in other words one of the three official rulers of the head of the New England colonies. In 1768 the royal government offered him the post of advocate-general in the Court of Admiralty, — in fact a lucrative bribe to desert the opposition; but he refused it. Yet in 1770, as a matter of high professional duty, he took his future in his hands to become counsel (successfully) for the British soldiers on trial for the ‘Boston Massacre.’ Though there was a present uproar of abuse, Mr. Adams was shortly after elected Representative to the General Court by more than three to one. In March 1774 he was contemplating writing the ‘History of the Contest between Britain and America.’ June 17 he presided over the meeting at Faneuil Hall to consider the Boston Port Bill, and at the same hour was elected delegate to the first Congress at Philadelphia (1 September), by the Provincial Assembly held in defiance of the government. Returning home, he was made a member of the Provincial Congress, already organizing resistance to England. Just after Lexington he again journeyed to Philadelphia to the Congress of May 1775; where he did on his own motion, to the disgust of his associates and the reluctance even of the Southerners, one of the most important and decisive acts of the Revolution, — induced Congress to adopt the forces already gathered in New England as a national army and put George Washington at its head, thereby engaging the Southern colonies irrevocably in the war and securing the one man who could make it a success. In 1776 he was a chief agent in carrying the Declaration of Independence. He remained in Congress till November 1777, serving on the Committee on Foreign Relations and as chairman of the Board of War and Ordnance, very useful and laborious, but making one dreadful mistake; he was largely responsible for the policy of ignoring the just rights and decent dignity of the military commanders, which lost the country some of its best officers and led ultimately to Arnold's treason. His reasons, exactly contrary to his wont, were sound abstract logic, but thorough practical ineptitude.

In December 1777 he was appointed commissioner to France to succeed Silas Deane. Dr. Franklin and Arthur Lee were there before him; and though he reformed a very bad state of affairs, he thought it absurd to keep three envoys at one court and induced Congress to abolish his office, returning in 1779. Chosen a delegate to the Massachusetts Constitutional Convention, he was called away from it to be sent again to France. There he remained as Franklin's colleague, detesting and distrusting him and the foreign minister Vergennes, embroiling himself with both, and earning a cordial return of his warmest dislike from both, till July 1780. He then went to Holland as volunteer minister, and in 1782 was formally recognized as from an independent nation. Meantime Vergennes intrigued energetically to have him recalled, and did succeed in tying his hands so that but for his contumacious stubbornness half the advantages of independence would have been lost, as Vergennes was employed to gain points for France and not for the United States. In the final negotiations for peace he persisted (against his instructions) in making the New England fisheries an ultimatum, and saved them. The wretched state of American affairs under the Confederation made it impossible to do his country any good abroad, and the vindictive feeling of the English made his life a purgatory, so that he was glad to come home in 1788.

In the first presidential election of that year, he was elected Vice-President on the ticket with Washington; and began a feud with Alexander Hamilton, the mighty leader of the Federalist party and a chief organizer of our executive machine, which is accredited with the premature overthrow of that party, and had momentous personal and literary results as well. As official head of the party he thought himself entitled to its real leadership as well; Hamilton would not and indeed could not surrender his position, for the lesser men looked to him for counsel and policy, and the rivalry never ended till Hamilton's death. In 1796 he was elected President against Jefferson by three electoral votes, one “scratch” vole each in Pennsylvania, Virginia and North Carolina, a virtual defeat as not likely to recur. His term is recognized as one of the ablest and most useful of our administrations; but its personal memoirs are most painful and scandalous. The members of the Cabinet — nearly all Hamiltonians — laid official secrets before Hamilton and took advice from him to thwart the President. They disliked Mr. Adams' overbearing ways and obtrusive vanity, — for modesty or a low sense of personal dignity were no parts of his character, — considered his policy destructive to the party and injurious to the country, and felt that loyalty to them involved and justified a disloyalty to him. Finally his best act brought on an explosion. The French Directory had provoked a war with this country, which the Hamiltonian section of the Federalist leaders and much of the rank and file hailed with delight, thinking it a service to the world to cripple France as then ruled; but when it showed signs of a better spirit, Mr. Adams, without consulting his Cabinet (who he knew would oppose it nearly or quite unanimously), nominated a commission to frame a treaty with France. He had the constitutional right to do so; but a storm of fury broke on him from the Hamiltonian leaders as little better than a traitor. He was renominated for President in 1800, but beaten by Jefferson, owing to the loss of New York despite heavy gain in Pennsylvania. The causes were natural and local, and while machine unity might have gained the upper-class party one more election it was bound soon to be swamped by popular growth; but as it never won another, each faction laid its death to the other, and American History is hot with the fires of this battle even yet

His later years were spent at home, where he was always interested in public affairs and sometimes much too free in his comments on them; where he read immensely and wrote somewhat. He heartily approved his son's break with the Federalists (see Adams, John Quincy) on the Embargo (q.v.). He died on the same day as Jefferson, both on the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence.

Mr. Adams' greatest usefulness and popularity sprang from the same cause that produced some of his worst blunders and misfortunes: a generous impulsiveness which made it impossible for him to hold his tongue at the wrong time and place for talking, his vehemence, self-confidence and impatience of obstruction. He was fervid, combative, opinionated and masterful; but he had trust, admiration and respect from the majority of his party at the worst of times, and history justifies it. Consult ‘Works’ by his grandson Charles Francis Adams; Parker, T., ‘Historic Americans’ (1910).

Connecticut Historical Society.


Second President of the United States