John Adams

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For other people named John Adams, see John Adams (disambiguation).
John Adams
John Adams
Term of office March 4, 1797 – March 3, 1801
Preceded by George Washington
Succeeded by Thomas Jefferson
Date of birth October 30, 1735
Place of birth Braintree, Massachusetts
Spouse Abigail Adams
Political party Federalist

John Adams (October 30, 1735July 4, 1826) was the first (17891797) Vice President of the United States, and the second (1797–1801) President of the United States. His son, John Quincy Adams, was the sixth President of the United States (18251829), the only son of a former President to hold the office until George W. Bush in 2001.

John Adams was born on October 30 (October 19 Old Style, Julian Calendar), 1735 in Braintree, Massachusetts; his birthplace is now a national park. His father, a farmer, also named John, was a fourth-generation descendant of Henry Adams, who emigrated from Barton St David, Somerset, England, to Massachusetts in about 1636; his mother was Susanna Boylston Adams. Young Adams graduated from Harvard College in 1755, and for a time taught school in Worcester and studied law in the office of James Putnam. In 1758, he was admitted to the bar. From an early age he developed the habit of writing descriptions of events and impressions of men. The earliest of these is his report of the 1761 argument of James Otis in the superior court of Massachusetts as to the legality of Writs of Assistance. Otis’ argument inspired Adams with zeal for the cause of the American colonies. Years later, when he was an old man, Adams undertook to write out, at length, his recollections of this scene.

In 1764 Adams married Miss Abigail Smith (17441818), the daughter of a Congregational minister at Weymouth, Massachusetts. Their children were Abigail Amelia (1765-1813); future president John Quincy (1767-1848); Susanna Boylston (1768-70); Charles (1770-1800); Thomas Boylston (1772-1832); and an infant daughter (1777).

Adams had none of the qualities of popular leadership of his second cousin, Samuel Adams; instead, his influence emerged through his work as a constitutional lawyer. Impetuous, intense and often vehement, Adams often found his inborn contentiousness to be a handicap in his political career. These qualities were particularly manifested at a later period—as, for example, during his term as president.



Adams first rose to influence as a leader of the Massachusetts Whigs during discussions with regard to the Stamp Act of 1765. In that year, he drafted the instructions which were sent by the town of Braintree to its representatives in the Massachusetts legislature, and which served as a model for other towns in drawing up instructions to their representatives; in August 1765 he anonymously contributed four notable articles to the Boston Gazette (republished separately in London in 1768 as A Dissertation on the Canon and Feudal Law), in which he argued that the opposition of the colonies to the Stamp Act was a part of the never-ending struggle between individualism and corporate authority; in December 1765 he delivered a speech before the governor and council in which he pronounced the Stamp Act invalid on the ground that Massachusetts, being without representation in parliament, had not assented to it.

In 1768 Adams moved to Boston. After the Boston Massacre in 1770, several British soldiers were arrested and charged with the murder of five colonists, and Adams joined Josiah Quincy II in defending them. The trial resulted in an acquittal of the officer who commanded the detachment, and most of the soldiers; but two soldiers were found guilty of manslaughter. These claimed benefit of clergy and were branded in the hand and released. Adams's conduct in taking the unpopular side in this case resulted in his subsequent election to the Massachusetts House of Representatives by a vote of 418 to 118.

Adams was a member of the Continental Congress from 1774 to 1778. In June 1775, with a view to promoting the union of the colonies, he nominated George Washington as commander-in-chief of the army. His influence in Congress was great, and almost from the beginning he was impatient for a separation of the colonies from Great Britain. On October 5, 1775, Congress created the first of a series of committees to study naval matters. From that time onward, Adams championed the establishment and strengthening of an American Navy and is often referred to as the father of the United States Navy.

On June 7, 1776, Adams seconded the resolution introduced by Richard Henry Lee that "these colonies are, and of a right ought to be, free and independent states," acting as champion of these resolutions before the Congress until their adoption on July 2, 1776.

On June 8, 1776, he was appointed on a committee with Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, Robert R. Livingston and Roger Sherman to draft a Declaration of Independence. Although that document was, by the request of the committee, written by Jefferson, John Adams occupied the foremost place in the debate on its adoption. Before this question had been disposed of, Adams was placed at the head of the Board of War and Ordinance, also serving on many other important committees.

John Adams, as depicted on a two-cent American postage stamp.
John Adams, as depicted on a two-cent American postage stamp.

Post-Continental Congress

In 1778, Adams sailed for France to supersede Silas Deane in the American commission there. However, as soon as he embarked, that commission concluded the desired treaty of alliance, and he returned home in time to be elected a member of the convention which framed the Massachusetts constitution of 1780. He penned the first draft along with James Bowdoin and Samuel Adams.

Before this work had been completed, he was chosen as minister plenipotentiary for negotiating a treaty of peace and a treaty of commerce with Great Britain and again sent to Europe in September 1779. The French government, however, did not approve of Adams’ appointment and subsequently, on Charles Gravier, Comte de Vergennes’ insistence, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, John Jay and Henry Laurens were appointed to cooperate with Adams. Since Jefferson did not leave the United States for the task and Laurens played a minor role, Jay, Adams and Franklin played the major part in the negotiations. Overruling Franklin’s vote, Jay and Adams decided to break their instructions, which required them to "make the most candid confidential communications on all subjects to the ministers of our generous ally, the king of France; to undertake nothing in the negotiations for peace or truce without their knowledge or concurrence; and ultimately to govern yourself by their advice and opinion.” Instead, they dealt directly with the British commissioners, without consulting the French ministers.

Throughout the negotiations Adams was especially determined that the right of the United States to the fisheries along the British-American coast should be recognized. Eventually the American negotiators were able to secure a favorable treaty, which was signed on November 30, 1782. Before these negotiations began, Adams had spent some time in the Netherlands. In July 1780, he had been authorized to execute the duties previously assigned to Laurens. With the aid of the Dutch patriot leader Joan van der Capellen tot den Pol, Adams secured the recognition of the United States as an independent government at The Hague on April 19, 1782. During this trip he also negotiated a loan and, in October 1782, a treaty of amity and commerce, the first of such treaties between the United States and foreign powers after that of February 1778 with France.

In 1785 John Adams was appointed the first American minister to the court of St. James's. When he was presented to his former sovereign, George III, the King intimated that he was aware of Adams's lack of confidence in the French government. Adams admitted this, stating: "I must avow to your Majesty that I have no attachment but to my own country.” While in London, Adams published a work entitled A Defence of the Constitution of Government of the United States (1787), in which he repudiated the views of Turgot and other European writers as to the viciousness of the framework of state governments. In this work, he made the controversial statement that "the rich, the well-born and the able" should be set apart from other men in a senate.

Partly for this reason, Adams received only thirty-four out of sixty-nine votes in the presidential election of 1789. As this was the second largest number, he was declared vice-president. His vice-presidency was colored by the suspicion of many of his colleagues and made notable by the formation of two well-defined political groups—the Federalists (which Adams led along with Alexander Hamilton), and the Democratic-Republicans.

John Adams portrait by John Trumbull.
John Adams portrait by John Trumbull.


In 1796, after Washington refused to seek another term, Adams was elected president, defeating Thomas Jefferson. Although Alexander Hamilton and other Federalists had asked that equal votes be cast in the electoral college for Adams and Thomas Pinckney, the other Federalist in the contest (at least in part so that Jefferson would not become vice president) Jefferson in fact came in second and attained that office. This marked the first time that the President and Vice-President were members of opposing parties. The only other time this would happen would be when Abraham Lincoln, a Republican, nominated Andrew Johnson, a Democrat, as his Vice-President in 1864. See also: John Adams' First State of the Union Address

Adams's four years as president (17971801) were marked by the passage of the Alien and Sedition Acts, which made the Federalist Party unpopular and led to factional strife within the party itself. Adams and Hamilton became alienated, and members of Adams's own cabinet began to look to Hamilton rather than to the president as their political chief. At the time, the United States was drawn into European military affairs such as the XYZ Affair. Adams, instead of bowing to the militant spirit aroused by these events, devoted himself to delaying war with France, against the wishes of Hamilton and his adherents, which eventually played out in the Quasi-War.

In 1800, Adams ran again as the Federalist presidential candidate, but distrust of him in his own party, the popular disapproval of the Alien and Sedition Acts, and the popularity of his opponent, Thomas Jefferson, caused his defeat. He then retired into private life.


President John Adams 1797–1801
Vice President Thomas Jefferson 1797–1801
Secretary of State Timothy Pickering 1797–1800
  John Marshall 1800–1801
Secretary of the Treasury Oliver Wolcott, Jr. 1797–1800
  Samuel Dexter 1800–1801
Secretary of War James McHenry 1797–1800
  Samuel Dexter 1800–1801
Attorney General Charles Lee 1797–1801
Postmaster General Joseph Habersham 1797–1801
Secretary of the Navy Benjamin Stoddert 1798–1801

Supreme Court appointments

Adams appointed the following Justices to the Supreme Court of the United States:

One of these appointments, that of John Marshall, was a last minute appointment as Adams already knew he had lost the 1800 presidential election. There was considerable friction between Jefferson, the next president, and Marshall.

Major presidential acts

States admitted to the Union



Portrait of an elderly John Adams by Gilbert Stuart (1823).
Portrait of an elderly John Adams by Gilbert Stuart (1823).

On July 4, 1826, the fiftieth anniversary of the adoption of the Declaration of Independence, Adams died at Quincy, after uttering the famous last words "Thomas Jefferson still survives." (Unbeknownst to Adams, Jefferson had died a few hours earlier). His crypt lies at United First Parish Church (also known as the Church of the Presidents) in Quincy. Until his record was broken by Ronald Reagan in 2001, he was the nation's longest-living President (90 years, 247 days).


  • C. F. Adams, The Works of John Adams, with Life (10 vols., Boston, 1850-1856)
  • John and Abigail Adams, Familiar Letters during the Revolution (Boston, 1875)
  • J. T. Morse, John Adams (Boston, 1885: later edition, 1899), in the American Statesmen Series
  • Mellen Chamberlain, John Adams, the Statesman of the Revolution; with other Essays and Addresses (Boston, 1898). (E. CH.)

This article incorporates text from the 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica, which is in the public domain.

John Adams in popular culture

See also


  • Adams, John. The Adams Papers. Edited by Richard Ryerson, L.H. Butterfield, Marc Friedlander, et al. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1961.
  • Carey, George W., ed. The Political Writings of John Adams. Chicago: Regnery Gateway, 2001. Massive compilation of extracts from Adams's major political writings, accompanied by excellent introduction but marred by lack of an index.
  • Diggins, John P. John Adams. New York: Times Books, 2003.
  • Diggins, John P., ed. The Portable John Adams. New York: Penguin Books, 2004.
  • Ferling, John E. John Adams: A Life. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1992. Reprint, New York: Henry Holt & Co., 1996. Leading one-volume life, slightly marred by the author's tendency to psychoanalyze his subject.
  • Grant, James. John Adams: Party of One. New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 2005. Excellent modern one-volume life.
  • Haraszti, Zoltan. John Adams and the Prophets of Progress. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1952. One of the most original and creative studies in this field -- examining Adams's political thought by reference to the arguments he waged with authors in the margins of their books. Deserves to be reprinted.
  • McCullough, David. John Adams. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2001. Uncritical best-selling biography. Lacks critical distance and understanding of historical context.
  • Smith, Page. John Adams. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1962. Reprint, Collector's edition. Norwalk, Conn.: Easton Press, 1988. Massive biography, the first written by a scholar with complete access to the Adams papers. Still valuable though somewhat over-written.
  • Thompson, C. Bradley. John Adams and the Spirit of Liberty. Lawrence, Kans.: University Press of Kansas, 1998. Excellent study of Adams's political thought, though slightly uncritical.

External links

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Preceded by:
Federalist Party vice presidential candidate
1792 (won Vice Presidency) (a)
Succeeded by:
Thomas Pinckney (a)
Preceded by:
Vice President of the United States
April 21, 1789(b)March 3, 1797
Succeeded by:
Thomas Jefferson
Preceded by:
Federalist Party presidential candidate
1796 (won Presidency),
1800 (lost)
Succeeded by:
Charles Cotesworth Pinckney
Preceded by:
George Washington
President of the United States
March 4, 1797March 3, 1801
Succeeded by:
Thomas Jefferson
(a) Technically, Adams was a presidential candidate in 1792 and Pinckney was a presidential candidate in 1796. Prior to the passage of the Twelfth Amendment in 1804, each presidential elector would cast two ballots; the highest vote-getter would become President and the runner-up would become Vice President. Thus, in 1792, with George Washington as the prohibitive favorite for President, the Federalist party fielded Adams as a presidential candidate, with the intention that he be elected to the Vice Presidency. Similarly, in 1796 and 1800, the Federalist party fielded two candidates, Adams and Thomas Pinckney in 1796 and Adams and Charles Cotesworth Pinckney in 1800, with the intention that Adams be elected President and either Pinckney be elected Vice President.
(b) Adams' term as Vice President is sometimes listed as starting on either March 4 or April 6. March 4 is the official start of the first vice presidential term. April 6 is the date on which Congress counted the electoral votes and certified a Vice President. April 21 is the date on which Adams took the oath of office.

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