Open main menu
For works with similar titles, see Adams, John.

ADAMS, John (1735-1826). The second President of the United States. He was born at Quincy, Mass., October 30, 1735, of a family descended from Henry Adams, a Puritan emigrant who settled in Massachusetts about 1640. He graduated from Harvard in 1755, and, after an interval of teaching, studied law, and was admitted to the bar in 1758. In 1764 he married Abigail Smith, daughter of the minister at Weymouth, a woman who herself became conspicuous, and whose influence and assistance were important factors throughout the entire career of her husband. (See Adams, Abigail.) Soon after he went into politics, and, although not a resident of Boston, was selected to act as counsel with Gridley and Otis in presenting to the governor a memorial against the Stamp Act (q.v.). Adams then took the bold stand that the act was void because Parliament had no right to tax the colonists, and that such statutes could have no possible force over persons who had not consented to the passage thereof. In 1768 he moved to Boston, and soon after was offered, and declined, the position of advocate-general in the Court of Admiralty, an office which would have greatly increased his professional opportunities, though it would have placed him under embarrassing obligations to the Royalist politicians. Two years afterward he was able, without prejudicing himself among the patriot party, to render the unique service of defending Captain Preston in the Boston Massacre case and securing his acquittal. He had already written on taxation for the Boston Gazette, and he again published articles at the time of the controversy over the independence of the Judiciary, collaborated in the authorship of the reply to Hutchinson in 1773, and later produced the “Novanglus” articles in reply to the Tory, Leonard. He was closely associated with Samuel Adams in the political leadership of Massachusetts, especially in the legislative crisis of June, 1774, and then was chosen by the House of Representatives as one of their five delegates to the Continental Congress. In that body his energy was devoted to the adoption of a comprehensive programme having three distinct elements — the organization of commonwealth governments on an independent basis, the formation of a national confederate government, and the establishment of diplomatic relations with foreign powers. The first victory was gained when the Congress passed the resolutions of May 10 and 15, 1776, recommending to all colonies the formation of State governments on a basis such as to serve them if permanently independent. This made natural, if not inevitable, the formal Declaration of Independence (q.v.), the original motion for which was seconded by Adams, who now was placed on the committee which drafted that document.

For three years he was a most arduous worker in advancing the plans of Congress and in perfecting the details of the new national government, serving on numberless committees, and being placed at the head of several important ones at a time when the congressional committees were the heads of the undeveloped executive departments. Especially in the War Department, and to a considerable extent in the Navy Department, was his influence great and his work attended with quite permanent results, while his membership of the committee on foreign relations enabled him to become equipped for the service by which later he attained distinction. In 1778 he was sent to France to supersede Silas Deane; but his stay was brief, the treaty between that country and the United States having been concluded just before his departure from Boston. During his attendance upon the Continental Congress he continued to be an active counselor of the leaders in Massachusetts, although he declined the office of chief justice of the State. He was an active member of the committee of three which drafted the first constitution of Massachusetts. To that work he came almost directly from his first mission to France, and from it he proceeded at once to undertake his further duties of securing from Holland support for the national finances, and of negotiating, with the other commissioners, terms of peace with England.

His success in effecting a loan in Holland was preceded by several months of difficult diplomacy, the result of which was that in April, 1782, the Dutch Government formally recognized Adams as the minister of an independent nation. Stimulated by this notable accomplishment and by the realization that upon his exertions depended the New Englanders' rights in the Newfoundland fisheries, Adams entered upon the negotiations at Paris with a spirit of independence and of determination which, although seeming to occasion rather than to allay embarrassments, contributed much to the successful issue.

The post of minister to Great Britain was next occupied by Adams, but the relations between the countries were still such as to make the life irksome to one of Adams's temperament, especially as his desire to be recalled was strengthened by his belief that the service he was rendering was bringing no particular benefit to his country. Accordingly, in the spring of 1788, he returned, having already shown in detail his views on American affairs in his elaborate Defence of the Constitution of the United States (3 volumes, London, 1787). He was elected vice-president at the first election under the new constitution and served for two terms, exercising, in the formative years of political parties and in the time of nearly equal division of the Senate between them, a power seldom possessed by a vice-president. Where matters of foreign policy raised the questions at issue, Adams sympathized with England, and thus was thrown into opposition to the friends of France, led by Jefferson. In matters of internal policy, also, he supported the programme of Hamilton, and where party lines were finally drawn he was recognized as one of the leaders of the Federalists. By them he was advanced to the presidency at the same time that, under the system then prevailing, the leader of the opposing party became vice-president. Jefferson's success in 1800, was made possible, however, largely by the developments of Federalist policy and of factional controversy within the party. Upon Adams's accession to office, relations with France had been complicated by the Directory's refusal to receive Pinckney, and when finally the joint mission of Pinckney, Marshall, and Gerry met with highly questionable treatment, the prospect seemed dubious. (See X Y Z Correspondence.)

War seemed imminent, and indeed there were hostile encounters on the water. Preparations for the struggle were coupled with the effort to repress the violent opposition to the policy of the administration through the harsh means of the Alien and Sedition Acts (q.v.). War having been averted, it was at once recognized that the federalists in these statutes had gone too far in restraining the rights of the individual and in encroaching upon the jurisdiction of the States. Certain it was that in his thoroughness Adams had given his opponents a very welcome and a very powerful means of attack, of which they promptly and vigorously took advantage, and at once began, by such steps as the Virginia and Kentucky resolutions (q.v.), the campaign which finally established the party of the opposite doctrine. This establishment was made easy also by the internal weakening of the Federalist party in the bitter fight for leadership between Adams and Hamilton. The retirement of Adams thus occurred amid the hostility of his enemies and the hatred of those who were his party associates. Nor was it possible to expect any relief from the painfulness of such a situation when the defeated one possessed a manner and a temperament such as were Adams's. Consequently, aside from intermittent criticism and counter criticism, and aside from service in the Massachusetts Constitutional Convention of 1820, this retirement continued unbroken. He died July 4, 1826, on the same day as Jefferson. President John Quincy Adams was his son.

Consult: His Works, with a biography, edited by C. F. Adams, 10 volumes (Boston, 1850-56); also his biography, J. T. Morse (Boston, 1884); The Letters of Abigail and John Adams (Boston, 1840-41), and Familiar Letters of John Adams and His Wife During the Revolution: With a Memoir of Mrs. Adams, edited by C. F. Adams (New York, 1876).