Last reviewed: June 2018
American statesman and legal writer
October 30, 1735
Braintree, Massachusetts (now Quincy, Massachusetts)
July 4, 1826
John Adams, the second president and the first vice president of the United States, was born in the settlement of Braintree in the colony of Massachusetts on October 30, 1735. He was educated at Harvard College, graduating in 1755 with the intention of entering the ministry. Deciding that he could not subscribe wholeheartedly to Calvinist doctrine, he turned instead to the law and studied in Boston after a brief period of teaching school in Worcester, Massachusetts. He passed his bar examinations in November 1758 and set up practice in Braintree. In 1764, following his marriage to Abigail Smith, he established himself in Boston. Portrait of John Adams.
Portrait of John Adams.
Adams’s place in American history is assured by the high public offices he held. Even if he had never won a political election, however, his importance as an active member of the revolutionary party, his eloquence as a spokesman for the revolutionary cause, and his clarity as a definer of constitutional democracy would place him alongside George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Benjamin Franklin in the foremost rank of the country’s founders. He was both a public figure and a writer on matters of law and government. His writing began in 1765 with his “Dissertation on the Canon and Feudal Law,” and his career as a public figure began with his move to Boston, for it was then that he first gained wide recognition by successfully defending John Hancock against a charge of smuggling. His association with the patriotic cause began at this same time, and by 1774 he was so thoroughly identified with the movement through his activities and his writings that he was elected, along with his more radical cousin, Samuel Adams, to serve as a delegate to the First Continental Congress. He returned to Massachusetts in 1775 but was back in Philadelphia the next year as a member of the committee for framing a declaration of independence.
Some of Adams’s greatest contributions came during the congressional sessions at which he constantly debated and pushed for the birth of a new nation. His feisty manner, while irritating to some delegates, kept him in the arguments and often wore down his detractors. His insight and clear vision of the future were instrumental in the important decisions made in the various committees where, in much part, the new nation was conceived and the Declaration of Independence was born. When that document was finally drawn up, Adams stood, according to Jefferson, as the strongest “pillar of its support” on the congressional floor.
Committed fully to hostilities with England, he served two years on the Colonies’ Board of War and then sailed to France, where he joined Franklin as a commissioner seeking aid for the Colonies. His efforts in France were somewhat ineffectual, owing to his many disagreements with Franklin and to the fact that his uncompromising personality and outspoken attitude ill-fitted him for the role of diplomat. In spite of his disagreements and antagonisms he continued to serve abroad until 1788, treating with the Dutch and serving on the commission for final peace negotiations with Britain.
Upon his return to the new United States, this same straightforwardness and independence of thought brought him into the center of the political controversies over the founding of the new government. A conservative by nature, he has generally been identified with the Federalist point of view, and it was as a Federalist that he held office. His temperament would not allow him to be a good party man, and his conflict with Alexander Hamilton, his fellow Federalist, was much deeper than his disagreements with Republican Thomas Jefferson. It has been suggested that his election to the vice presidency was actually engineered by Hamilton in order to put him in a position where he would have as little power as possible—a position, according to Adams’s own complaint, in “the most insignificant office the invention of man contrived or his imagination conceived.”
The breach with Hamilton closed temporarily, and Adams was elected president in his own right in 1796. Conflicts soon broke out again to plague his administration. Hamilton seized complete control of the party on one hand, while the rift with Jefferson widened over Adams’s establishment of the national judiciary system on the other. Thus he stood alone during the election of 1800, and Jefferson was easily victorious.
Through with national politics, Adams retired to his home in Quincy and devoted the rest of his life to his writings and to the observation of the national career of his son, John Quincy Adams. His rift with Jefferson was closed as both men advanced in age and left the political stage. Adams’s discourses on government ran to ten volumes when collected by Charles Francis Adams between 1850 and 1856, and their soundness and vision has prompted one historian to claim that he was “the greatest political thinker that America has yet produced.” He died in Quincy, Massachusetts, in 1826, aptly enough, on the Fourth of July, the same day that marked the death of his friend and political adversary, Thomas Jefferson.