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John Adams

 

Adams, John (statesman)

In three remarkable careers - as a foe of British oppression and champion of independence (1761 - 77), as an American diplomat in Europe (1778 - 88), and as the first vice-president (1789 - 97) and then the second president of the United States (1797 - 1801) - John Adams was a founder of the United States. Perhaps equally important, however, was the life of his mind and spirit; in a pungent diary, vivid letters, learned tracts, and patriotic speeches he revealed himself as a quintessential Puritan, patriarch of an illustrious family, tough-minded philosopher of the republic, sage, and sometimes a vain, stubborn, and vitriolic partisan.

John Adams was born in Braintree (now Quincy), Mass., on Oct. 30, 1735, in a small saltbox house still standing and open to visitors. His father, John Adams, a deacon and a fifth-generation Massachusetts farmer, and his mother, the former Suzanna Boylston, were, their son wrote, "both fond of reading"; so they resolved to give bookishly inclined John a good education. He became the first of his family to go to college when he entered Harvard in 1751. There, and in six further years of intensive reading while he taught school and studied law in Worcester and Boston, he mastered the technicalities of his profession and the literature and learning of his day. By 1762, when he began 14 years of increasingly successful legal practice, he was well informed, ambitious, and public spirited. His most notable good fortune, however, occurred in 1764 when he married Abigail Smith (see Adams, Abigail). John Adams's marriage of 54 years to this wise, learned, strong-willed, passionate, and patriotic woman began the brilliant phase of Adams family history that produced their son John Quincy Adams, his son Charles Francis Adams, his sons Henry Adams and Brooks Adams, and numerous other distinguished progeny.

In 1761, John Adams began to think and write and act against British measures that he believed infringed on colonial liberties. He soon became a leader among Massachusetts radicals. Although he early committed himself to independence as an unwelcome last resort, Adams's innate conservatism made him determined in 1770 that the British soldiers accused of the Boston Massacre receive a fair hearing. He defended the soldiers at their trial. He also spoke out repeatedly against mob violence and other signs of social disintegration.

In 1774 - 76, Adams was a Massachusetts delegate to the Continental Congress in Philadelphia. His speeches and writings (especially a newspaper series signed "Novanglus" in 1775) articulating the colonial cause and his brilliant championing of American rights in Congress caused Thomas Jefferson to call him the "Colossus of Independence." Adams helped draft the Declaration of Independence, secured its unanimous adoption in Congress, and wrote his wife on July 3, 1776, that "the most memorable Epoch in the History of America has begun."

After 18 months of toil in committee and on the floor of Congress managing the American Revolution, Adams crossed the Atlantic to be an American commissioner to France. The termination of this mission after less than a year in Paris allowed him to return home long enough to take a leading role in drafting the new Massachusetts constitution. He sailed again for Europe, accompanied by two of his sons, in November 1779 as a commissioner to seek peace with Britain. After quarrels in Paris with Benjamin Franklin and French officials, he left for the Netherlands, where he secured Dutch recognition of American independence. He returned to Paris in October 1782 to insist on American rights (especially to fish on the Grand Banks of Newfoundland) in the negotiations that led to Britain's recognition of the independence of the United States in the Treaty of Paris of Sept. 3, 1783.

For two more years Adams helped Franklin and Jefferson negotiate treaties of friendship and commerce with numerous foreign powers. Then, appointed the first U.S. minister to Britain, Adams presented his credentials to George III in 1785, noting his pride in "having the distinguished honor to be the first [ex-colonial subject] to stand in your Majesty's royal presence in a diplomatic character."

When he returned to the United States in 1788, Adams was greeted by his countrymen as one of the heroes of independence and was promptly elected vice-president under the new Constitution. This post, regarded by Adams as "the most insignificant office that ever the invention of man contrived or his imagination conceived," left him time to work out his increasingly sober views of republican government. In Europe he had been impressed with both the unsuitability of self-government for masses of destitute, ignorant people, and the usefulness, in evoking patriotism and in maintaining order, of the pomp and ceremony of monarchy. He was thus appalled, but not surprised, at the riotous French Revolution and emphasized the need for dignity, ritual, and authority in a republic such as the United States. He also supported the efforts of George Washington to give the presidency an almost regal quality and to extend executive power, and he agreed with Alexander Hamilton on most of the latter's fiscal plans. He never accepted, however, the "high" Federalist biases toward commercial growth and government by "the rich, the well-born, and the able."

Although his own presidency (1797 - 1801) was a troubled one, Adams made uniquely important contributions during his term as chief executive. He managed orderly transitions of power at both the beginning and the end of his administration, and he gave the government stability by continuing most of the practices established under Washington. The major crisis he faced, however, arose from strained relations with revolutionary France. When, in the so-called XYZ Affair (1797 - 98), American peace commissioners returned from Paris with lurid stories of deceit and bribery, Adams called for an assertion of national pride, built up the armed forces, and even accepted the Alien and Sedition Acts as emergency national security measures. With his opponents (led by Jefferson) charging oppression and some of his own Federalist Party (led by Hamilton) urging war and conquest, Adams kept his nerve and, when the opportunity arose, dispatched another peace commission to France. This defused the crisis and led in 1800 to an agreement with France that ended the so-called Quasi-War. Nonetheless, deserted by Hamilton and other Federalists who disapproved of his independent course, and attacked by the Jeffersonian Republicans as a vain monarchist, Adams was forced out of office after one term.

When he and Abigail returned to Massachusetts, they moved into a comfortable but unpretentious house in Quincy (it is known today and open to visitors as the Adams National Historic Site) they had bought 12 years before. There, tending to his fields, visiting with neighbors, and enjoying his family, John Adams lived for 25 years as a sage and national patriarch. Of his numerous correspondences, the cherished 14-year (1812 - 26) one with Jefferson became a literary legacy to the nation. Although the debilitations of old age and the death of his beloved Abigail in 1818 troubled his last years, his mind remained sharp and his spirit buoyant until the end. Like Jefferson, he died on July 4, 1826, the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. Ninety years old at his death, Adams was revered by his countrymen not only as one of the founding fathers but also as a plain, honest man who personified the best of what the nation could hope of its citizens and leaders.

Biography from The Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia