Adams, John

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John Adams

Charles W. Akers

JOHN ADAMS became the second president of the United States when he took the oath of office in the packed House of Representatives on 4 March 1797. As he described this moving scene to his wife, there was "scarcely a dry eye but Washington's" at "the sight of the sun setting full orbed, and another rising, though less splendid." The new president understood well that no one could fill the role of the godlike father of the nation whose eight years in the presidency had ensured respect for the newly created federal government. The true test of the Constitution was at hand: Could the office be transferred by the first contested presidential election to another from whom there emanated no aura of superhuman greatness? Adams hoped that at least some of the tears had come from the "pleasure of exchanging Presidents without tumult." But he also knew that Washington's successor faced unresolved problems that could quickly tear the young republic apart.

Early Life

Born on 19 October 1735, Adams was sixty-one when he took office. He had behind him thirty years of distinguished public service. His father, a respected farmer and artisan of Braintree, Massachusetts, had pointed him toward Harvard College and a career in the Congregational ministry. He took his degree in 1755, but by then theological uncertainty had turned him toward a secular vocation. He taught school briefly, then read law, and was admitted to the bar in 1758. Within a dozen years he became the colony's preeminent and busiest lawyer.

In defending such clients as John Hancock and other merchants accused of smuggling and sailors charged with rioting against press gangs of the Royal Navy, he was drawn into the local resistance movement. The Stamp Act of 1765 provoked him to argue in speech and in print against this parliamentary statute, which he termed an unconstitutional violation of colonial liberty. In 1770 he masterfully defended the British soldiers accused of murder in the Boston Massacre. He secured their acquittal while protecting the town's reputation against the charge that the soldiers had been unmercifully harassed. He held several local offices and served a term in the Massachusetts House of Representatives. In retaliation for Adams' opposition to royal government, the governor twice vetoed his election to the Massachusetts Council. His law practice ended in 1774 when the colony and the developing nation began to demand all of his talents and energy.

In 1764, Adams had married Abigail Smith of neighboring Weymouth, Massachusetts, who was to make a major contribution to his public career. Without attending school, she had mastered the literature of the day and developed a remarkably perceptive intellect and an unquenchable spirit. As John Adams became absorbed in politics and diplomacy, he increasingly left to her the responsibility of raising their four surviving children and managing the family's finances. At first impatient with the limitations of the private sphere to which women were confined, she in time accepted her husband's successes as her own and gladly took her place as his confidante and defender. Theirs was a marriage of equals as far as the roles society assigned men and women would permit. But his services for their country kept them apart during most of the ten years after 1774.

Revolution and Confederation

His participation in the First Continental Congress at Philadelphia in the fall of 1774 marked the beginning of John Adams' career as an American statesman. He spent much of the next three years as a member of the Second Continental Congress, where his influence was apparent in such important developments as the election of George Washington to be commander in chief, the recommendation that the colonies establish state governments, the decision for independence, and the establishment of the diplomatic service. His hurried visits home from Philadelphia brought urgent demands on his time from the revolutionary government of Massachusetts. When Congress appointed him one of the commissioners to France, he abandoned thoughts of reopening his law practice and set sail in February 1778. Returning home after eighteen months abroad, he became the principal draftsman of the Massachusetts Constitution of 1780, which was to be an important model for the United States Constitution. But before the Massachusetts convention had completed its work, Congress sent him back to Europe to negotiate peace with Great Britain.

Congress appointed additional peace commissioners in 1781, but only Benjamin Franklin and John Jay arrived in time to join Adams in negotiating the Treaty of Paris (1783), by which Great Britain acknowledged American independence and awarded generous boundaries to the new nation. Adams' wife then joined him, and he remained in Europe until 1788, serving as the first American minister to the British court and saving the credit of the United States by negotiating loans from the Netherlands. He returned home the year after the Constitutional Convention of 1787 uncertain of how, if at all, the country would use his unequaled experience in diplomacy and republican government.

Vice Presidency

Knowing that Washington was certain to be president, Adams believed himself entitled to the second office as a reward for his services. But he considered his election with only thirty-four out of sixty-nine electoral votes to be a humiliation, for Washington had been chosen unanimously. With some anguish of mind he swallowed his pride and took his place in the government being formed. His eight years as vice president provided few opportunities for executive leadership. He conscientiously carried out the tedious duty of presiding over the Senate, in which role he broke several tie votes in favor of the administration. Despite being consulted only rarely on major decisions, he maintained cordial relations with the president. But Alexander Hamilton, Washington's secretary of the treasury, had been wary from the beginning of Adams' well-deserved reputation for independence. After his resignation in January 1795, Hamilton sought to continue and extend his political influence from his New York law office. Unable to deny Adams the vice presidency, Hamilton had succeeded in reducing his vote in the first election and then unsuccessfully sought to replace him in Washington's second term. By 1796, only John Adams stood in the way of Hamilton's domination of the Federalist party, as the supporters of the administration were now known.

Election of 1796

The European war resulting from the French Revolution led many Federalists and other citizens to plead for Washington to accept a third term. He finally refused and announced his retirement on 17 September 1796 in the farewell address. As vice president for eight years and the man who had twice received the second-highest electoral vote, Adams was obviously the heir apparent. But unlike the elections of Washington, this time there was a contest. James Madison, leader of the opposition party in Congressthe Republicanspushed the candidacy of Thomas Jefferson, to save, so he believed, the country from the aristocratic principles of the Federalists. Although increasingly fearful of Hamilton, Jefferson proved to be such a reluctant candidate that he advised Madison to favor Adams in case of a tie, for the vice president had always been, in Jefferson's words, "my senior." As much as he craved elevation to the first position, Adams' principles would not let him campaign for the office; electioneering was left to others.

As usual, Hamilton sought to play kingmaker. He understood that Adams was too popular in New England to be openly pushed aside, and he regarded Jefferson as the greater evil of the two candidates. But he saw in the electoral college the possibility of electing a Federalist president, who would be more likely to follow his leadership than Adams. Each elector was required to cast two ballots without designating which was for president and which for vice president. Hamilton advanced the vice presidential candidacy of Thomas Pinckney of South Carolina, who had concluded the popular Pinckney Treaty of 1795 with Spain. If New England divided its votes between the two and the South cast a solid vote for Pinckney while scattering its second ballots, the southerner might come in ahead of Adams.

Hamilton's strategy backfired. It produced confusion among Federalist leaders and resentment in New England, whose electors withheld some votes from Pinckney. When the ballots were opened in the Senate on 8 February 1797, John Adams performed his vice presidential duty of announcing his own election. He had received seventy-one votes, Jefferson sixty-eight, and Pinckney fifty-nine. The nation had chosen a president and vice president of opposite parties. More ominous was the sectional nature of the results. Adams had won only thirteen votes south of New Jersey, and seven of these had come from the single state of Maryland. Jefferson had received none north of Pennsylvania.

Political Theory

By the time he took office, no American had read or written more about government than John Adams. It is difficult to discover an important volume on law, political theory, moral philosophy, or economy from classical Greece and Rome to Enlightenment Europe that had escaped his critical eye. He was not an abstract political thinker; rather, he read and wrote to understand and solve the problems of society in his own day. At the outset of the Revolution he believed that the superior virtue of the American people would prove sufficient to maintain a balance between liberty and order in the new republics being formed by the states. In his Thoughts on Government, written early in 1776, and in his draft of the Massachusetts Constitution three years later, he advocated popular governments with checks on the abuse of power adequate to maintain their republican purity.

As he viewed the American experiments in government from Europe during the 1780s, Adams lost faith in the political virtue of his countrymen. He saw them repeating the mistakes of Europe, especially in the feverish pursuit of luxury, with its inevitable social and political corruption and its nurturing of class antagonisms. More controls and authority were now needed to govern a society dividing into the aristocratic few and the democratic many. In his last two years abroad he hastily wrote the three volumes of A Defence of the Constitutions of Government of the United States of America. This cumbersome work declared that a strong, independent executive was essential to mediate between opposing interests. The continued growth of corruption would in the distant future make free elections impossible and a hereditary executive preferable. This concept in the Defence would plague the remainder of Adams' career with the charge of being a monarchist, even though he never advocated hereditary succession for his own day. The French Revolution further strengthened his belief that political freedom could be preserved only by a balanced government effectively controlling the natural rivalry of men for wealth and distinction. The quest for equality, he predicted, would inevitably bring chaos and the loss of the freedom that the French revolutionaries sought.

By the time he returned home in 1788, Adams had transferred his hope for the future of American republicanism from the states to the national government. He readily approved the new federal Constitution, which so much resembled his handiwork in the Massachusetts Constitution of 1780, but he wanted an even stronger executive than provided for by the Philadelphia convention. The president, he thought, should be freed from the shackles of the Senate in making appointments and approving treaties. He wrote to Jefferson of his fear that Congress was certain to encroach on the powers of the president in these and other areas where executive independence was essential; the president needed an absolute veto over acts of the legislature if he was to mediate effectively between opposing interests. Vice President Adams argued in the Senate that the president should be addressed by some such title as "His Highness" or "His Majesty, the President," in keeping with the near-monarchical office to which he had been elected.

Conception of the Presidency

His two terms under Washington appear to have eased somewhat Adams' concern over the weakness of the presidential office, and he took pains in his inaugural address to deny that he advocated radical changes in the Constitution. Yet his view of the president as an independent mediator between contending factions left him largely incapable of bridging the constitutional separation of powers by working closely with Congress to enact his program. His constitutional duty as he construed it was to alert Congress to the nation's problems and to judge its solutions but not to intervene otherwise in the legislative process.

Even had Adams' concept of the presidency permitted him to use the powers of his office to influence Congress, the lack of a Federalist party structure would have thwarted him. Like Washington, Adams had deplored the rise of parties in the first two administrations. In his inaugural address he pronounced the "spirit of party" to be one of the "natural enemies" of the Constitution. Refusing to recognize that he was the leader of a party, he could not command a loyal following. Under Adams the Federalist majorities in Congress were a loose combination of three groups: moderates with whom Adams was popular; independents, or "half-Federalists," who ran under the party banner but voted according to local interests; and the Hamiltonians, who took their lead from the former secretary of the treasury. Insofar as the Federalist party had a vigorous center, it was in the New York City law office of Alexander Hamilton.

At the outset of the new government in 1789, Adams had given full support to Hamilton's plan to establish the credit of the United States, but he soon developed serious doubts concerning the secretary's sponsorship of the Bank of the United States and other measures favoring commercial and manufacturing interests. He preferred a federal government that through frugality kept its credit high and its taxes low. In economic philosophy he stood between the commercialism of Hamilton and the agrarianism of Jefferson. Here, as on other issues, President Adams attempted to balance clashing interests. He retained a faint hope that he might be able to draw the moderate men of both parties toward a nonpartisan center and thus return the Republic to the course on which it had been launched by the framers of the Constitution.

By retaining Washington's cabinet, Adams made what some historians have considered to be the major mistake of his administration, but to him, the reasons for doing so were compelling. He believed that government officials should not be removed except for cause. To dismiss the cabinet he inherited might appear to be an affront to Washington and further split the Federalists. The salaries and prestige of these offices were so low that even Washington had experienced great difficulty in filling them during his second term. Though he lamented the decline in the quality of the secretaries since the resignations of Hamilton and Jefferson, Adams appears not to have considered forming his own cabinet.

Three of the four cabinet members proved dis-loyal to the president they served. Of these, Secretary of State Timothy Pickering caused Adams the most trouble. An unsuccessful lawyer turned zealous but honest bureaucrat, Pickering held this president in low esteem and did not hesitate to oppose him openly when they differed on domestic and foreign issues. The secretary of the treasury, Oliver Wolcott, Jr., of Connecticut, ably administered his office and refused to oppose his chief openly but remained an intimate of Hamilton. As secretary of war, James McHenry was acknowledged to be incompetent even by Hamilton, whom he subserviently followed. Of the original cabinet, only the attorney general, Charles Lee, demonstrated any loyalty to the president. But this office was still only a part-time position, held by a lawyer who also engaged in private practice. With the creation of the Navy Department in 1798, Adams at last appointed a secretary of his own choosing. The lack of cabinet solidarity weakened the Adams administration, especially since the president was absent from the capital for long periods. It was typical of John Adams that he saw his duty in working with cabinet officers whose loyalty he suspected from the outset of his presidency.

The Crisis with France

In an era of peace, a president with Adams' view of the office might have enjoyed a tranquil four years. He did not regard his election by a margin of three votes as a mandate from the American people but only as a duty to be performed. He had no program for the nation other than the "continuance in all its energy" of the government under the Constitution. "What other form of government, indeed, can so well deserve our esteem and love?" he queried in his short inaugural address, which stressed his dedication to the principles upon which the American governments were founded. But the presidency of John Adams was dominated not by tranquillity but by a single issue that threatened to destroy the Union before the end of its first decade. It was fortunate for the nationand for Adams' claim to presidential great-nessthat this single issue concerned foreign policy, the area in which the president had the most independent authority and the one for which Adams was best prepared by experience.

The course of the French Revolution since 1789 had plunged Europe into war. Despite President Washington's policy of official neutrality, Americans increasingly divided over whether to remain loyal to their ally in the War of Independence or to support the British effort to prevent French domination of all Europe. The leaders of republican France saw in the treaty that John Jay had negotiated with Great Britain in 1794 not only shameful ingratitude for their country's aid to the struggling colonies during the American Revolution but also a de facto alliance with Great Britain that repudiated the Franco-American alliance of 1778. The treaty became the main issue in the election of 1796 as the Republicans generally denounced it. On the eve of the election, the French minister to the United States, Pierre Auguste Adet, openly acknowledged his government's support for Jefferson. At his inauguration Adams declared his "personal esteem for the French nation" and his determination to maintain "neutrality and impartiality among the belligerent powers of Europe." But already the Directory, the five-man executive of the French republic, had interpreted Adams' succession to the presidency as another act of hostility toward France.

Since 1795, French armed ships preying on American shipping, particularly in the West Indies, had captured hundreds of vessels flying the flag of the United States. On 2 March 1797, two days before the inauguration, the Directory stepped up the maritime war by a decree that legitimized nearly any seizure of an American ship and fell just short of a declaration of war. Furthermore, the Directory had in effect broken off diplomatic relations with the United States by refusing to accept Charles Cotes-worth Pinckney as the replacement for James Monroe, the American minister to France recalled by Washington for his opposition to Jay's Treaty.

As Adams took office, he had to pick up the pieces of Washington's shattered neutrality policy. The first president was fortunate, thought Jefferson, to have retired "just as the bubble is bursting." Following three weeks of deliberation, Adams called a special session of Congress for the middle of May. In a message to Congress on 16 May, he denounced the Directory's slighting of Pinckney and honoring of the departing Monroe as an attempt to "separate the people of the United States" from their freely elected government. It was time to convince France and the world that Americans could not be "humiliated under a colonial spirit of fear and inferiority." He pledged a "fresh attempt at negotiations" and a willingness to correct any real wrong done France. But in the meantime the nation must look to "effectual measures of defense." He recommended the building of a navy as the first line of defense and the expansion of the armed forces to protect the long coastline against French raiding parties.

This address ended the brief period of political peace enjoyed by the president. His inaugural address had been praised by even some Republican leaders and editors, but now Jefferson concluded that Adams had been captured by a circle of Federalists pushing for a war against France and close ties with Great Britain. The Republican press generally denounced the "gasconading speech" for exaggerating the danger of war in order to achieve such sinister goals as deceiving the nation into accepting a standing army that could be used to institute an American monarchy. Yet even Hamilton favored another attempt at reconciliation and so instructed his followers in the cabinet. Pickering, Wolcott, and McHenry, more inclined to war than negotiation, gave way to Hamilton on the sending of a peace commission but rejected his advice that it should include a friend of France.

Adams, too, wanted to send a bipartisan commission to France. Ideally, he thought, it should include either Jefferson or Madison. But both refused, and there was growing opposition in the cabinet and among other Federalists to sending any Republican. Finally, on 31 May 1797, the president nominated a geographically balanced commission of Pinckney, Francis Dana, and John Marshall. When Dana declined because of health, Adams defied his cabinet by replacing Dana with Elbridge Gerry, a close Massachusetts friend and a political independent. Following weeks of heated debate, the special session adjourned on 8 July, after approving the commission and passing some feeble defense measures.

Marshall and Gerry soon sailed to join Pinckney and attempted to open negotiations, but no word could be expected from them for many months. The president and Mrs. Adams left the capital in July for their home in Quincy, Massachusetts, and did not return until November. Meanwhile the debate raged in the press. Republican publications described in detail a conspiracy of warmongers, while Federalist editors attacked the cowardly American Jacobins for quivering in fear before insults to the nation's honor by French atheists. The president's annual message to Congress on 23 November added fuel to the flames. He held out little hope of an immediate peace. Defense measures, he insisted, were now more essential than before and should be supported as much as possible by taxation rather than by loans.

With instructions that asked for much and gave little, the commissioners had feeble bargaining power in France. They faced the new French foreign minister, the wily Talleyrand, who, although more inclined to peace than the Directory, saw the negotiations as an opportunity for personal gain. Working through confidential agents, Talleyrand demanded, as preconditions for negotiating, a bribe of £50,000 for himself and the assumption by the United States of all American claims against France. Pinckney answered the demand for a bribe with an emphatic "No, no, not a sixpence." Meanwhile, Adams' speech of 16 May 1797 had increased the Directory's anger over Jay's Treaty, and an apology was demanded.

The commissioners continued in unofficial negotiations for another five months. Their first report reached Adams on 4 March 1798. A shocked president sent the one uncoded letter to Congress the next day, and his anger rose as the others were deciphered. He asked his cabinet if he should lay all the dispatches before Congress and then request a declaration of war. Deciding not to go that far, on the nineteenth he informed the legislature that the mission was hopeless and called for strong defense measures.

Skeptical of the president's "warmongering," Republicans demanded to see the dispatches and in so doing fell into a trap of their own making. After a formal request from the House, the president released the papers on 3 April, substituting the letters W, X, Y, Z for the names of the agents who had delivered the request for a bribe. News of the XYZ affair, as it became known, quickly spread throughout the nation and aroused patriots to turn Pinckney's "No, no, not a sixpence" into the toast "Millions for defense, but not one cent for tribute!" Suddenly John Adams became, as his wife proudly noticed, "wonderfully popular." She wrote her son John Quincy Adams, the American minister to the court of Berlin, that the supporters of France had received a "death wound."

President Adams judged that a declaration of war was inevitable, but he was in no hurry to ask Congress for it. While some extreme, or High, Federalists pressed for an immediate declaration, the majority in Congress preferred to wait until further provocation from France united an overwhelming majority of Americans behind a declared war. For several months addresses and resolutions of support from communities and societies all over the nation poured into the president's house. He gave much of his time to answering each address in fervid language, calling for patriotic sacrifice and reproaching the American friends of France. Published in the newspapers and in part as A Selection of the Patriotic Addresses, to the President of the United States, these addresses and replies inflamed the passion for war. Federalists now flaunted the black cockade of the American Revolution to shame those Republicans who sometimes wore the tricolor cockade of the French revolutionaries. From pulpit and press, rabid Federalists spread the fear of a worldwide conspiracy, hatched in France, against Christianity and political freedom. Rumors of impending French raids and even a full-scale invasion alarmed the unprotected coastal towns.

Preparations for War

Even without a declaration of war, the XYZ crisis moved Congress in the spring and early summer of 1798 to pass a long series of defense measures. Since 1789, protracted debate over the need for a navy had pitted legislators from the commercial and agrarian sections against each other. In 1794, Congress had authorized the building of six frigates, only three of which had been started, and they were still unfinished when Washington retired. At the request of President Adams, Congress in 1797 had voted to complete the three frigates. Then, in his 19 March 1798 message, Adams announced that he had authorized the arming of private merchantmen. The Republicans unsuccessfully attempted to curb the president's power to take such offensive measures against France by introducing three resolutions, known as the Sprigg Resolutions. After Republican opposition was crushed by the XYZ revelations, Congress promptly voted to procure additional vessels, to arm private merchant ships, to establish the Marine Corps, and to permit the seizure of French armed vessels in any ocean. To take naval affairs out of the overburdened and inefficient hands of the secretary of war, the Department of the Navy was created on 30 April. Adams appointed a capable secretary of the navy, Benjamin Stoddert of Maryland, who quickly became the president's chief ally in the cabinet.

By the end of 1798, the United States Navy had undertaken the protection of American shipping on its side of the Atlantic. In his messages to Congress and his replies to the patriotic addresses, Adams had consistently urged that the "wooden walls" of the navy be the nation's first line of defense. Mrs. Adams fondly thought of her husband as the father of the American navy. He perhaps deserved the honor as much as any single individual, although other major voices had also been raised in the long naval debate and the actual policy had been worked out by the Federalist majority in Congress. More important than any attribution of credit, the United States for the first time had a navy.

This momentous second session of the Fifth Congress also created a large paper army. Late in May a bill was passed giving the president temporary authority to raise a provisional army in case France declared war or threatened invasion. In June he was directed to appoint officers for the eighty thousand militiamen requested of the states the previous year. Before Congress adjourned in July, it passed legislation to bring the regular army up to full strength and to add ten thousand men to it. These forces appeared to fulfill Adams' request for land defenses made in his 16 May 1797 message. It took him only a few weeks, however, to realize that Congress had presented him with a political rather than a military force.

The crisis intensified Adams' conviction that the president should hold himself above party politics. He had in mind a nonpartisan army headed by Washington and staffed by high-ranking officers drawn from both parties. The former president reluctantly agreed to assume nominal command, provided that he did not have to take the field until the fighting started. In accepting this condition, Adams did not seem at first to understand that Washington would have the choice of his second in command, the general given the responsibility for organizing and training the army. With the full support of Hamilton's followers in the cabinet, Washington not only refused to have any "Jacobin" generals from the ranks of the Republicans but made as a condition of his service Hamilton's appointment as second in command.

In asking Washington to emerge from retirement, Adams had placed himself in the hands of the one public figure in the United States of whom he stood in awe. Never fully able to suppress his jealousy of Washington's primacy in war and peace, Adams had nevertheless understood perfectly the symbolic importance to the Republic of its revered revolutionary hero and first president. He was so troubled by being commander in chief without any military experience that he seems briefly to have regretted that there was no constitutional way to let Washington resume the presidency. Thus, once Washington had stated his terms, Adams could do nothing but surrender on the question of military appointments. As a result, when the issue was finally resolved in October 1798, the president had to place the enlarging army under the de facto command of his Federalist rival, a man whose ambition he had come to fear. Mrs. Adams likely expressed her husband's thoughts when she wrote that Hamilton would "make an able and active officer" but was capable of turning into the American Bonaparte. At the head of the army, he, like Napoleon, could use military force to overpower the government and launch an invasion of neighboring lands to establish an empire. The president's already slight enthusiasm for land defenses began to weaken rapidly.

The Alien and Sedition Acts

The Federalist majority in Congress also erected defenses against domestic enemies and thereby hoped to cripple the Republican party. It became Federalist doctrine that the spread of French radicalism in the United States was largely the work of revolutionaries from Great Britain and the Continent. To many, the most conspicuous symbol of this pernicious influence was Albert Gallatin, a Swiss immigrant who now headed the opposition in the House. But in the "democratic societies" or "Jacobin clubs," which had mysteriously sprung up around 1794, and in the unrestrained opposition press, it was believed, were concentrated less respectable foreigners. These undesirables had fled their inhospitable native lands only to corrupt the foundations of the free republic that had given them asylum. During five weeks in June and July 1798, Congress extended the naturalization period to fourteen years, provided for the control of enemy aliens in a declared war, and gave the president for two years the power to deport any foreigner he suspected of being engaged in subversive activity.

Without being enforced, the Alien Acts intimidated a few foreigners but otherwise had slight consequences. Infinitely more serious was the Sedition Act, passed on 14 July. Since the beginning of party warfare under Washington, the Federalist and Republican newspapers had increased their levels of vituperation. Even after the XYZ revelations, Republican editors had continued the abusive attack on Adams, Hamilton, and their party as tools of England seeking to drag the United States into an unnecessary and destructive war against a loyal ally to whom gratitude for past aid was due. They asserted that the president had repeatedly deceived the people into supporting a war for commerce that would harm the farmers, who formed the heart of the country. How, they asked, could a party that in 1794 had sold the nation's soul to Britain in the shameful Jay's Treaty now appeal to national honor as an excuse for a war against France?

Such language, interspersed with personal vilification, was treason to many Federalists. When it proved impossible to define treason as words alone, they turned to the English common-law doctrine of seditious libel. After the bitterest debate of this heated session, a sedition act was passed by a narrow majority formed almost entirely of northern legislators. The act, to remain in force until the end of the current presidential term, included a provision for a fine of as much as $2,000 and imprisonment not exceeding two years for "writing, printing, uttering or publishing any false, scandalous and malicious writing" with unlawful intent against the president or Congress.

President Adams signed the Alien and Sedition Acts. His attitude toward them at the moment of signing went unrecorded. He had not recommended such measures to Congress, although some of his replies to the addresses had condemned foreign influences and the "thousand tongues of calumny" that threatened the country. Thus, he could be charged with having helped to create the climate in which the bills were written. In July 1798 he had not yet seen clearly his duty in this national crisis. He had set as his life's goal the achievement of fame, which in the eighteenth-century concept meant acting through disinterested public service to shape history in such a way as to win the approbation of future generations. He lost a great opportunity to increase that fame by not vetoing the most severe restrictions on freedom of expression ever passed by Congress.

The Retreat from War

Before Congress adjourned in July, President Adams also signed an act abrogating the 1778 treaties of alliance with France. To pay for the defense measures, Congress levied a direct property tax on houses and slaves and authorized the president to borrow in anticipation of these tax revenues. In this session Adams suffered an embarrassing personal defeat when the Senate refused to confirm his nomination of his son-in-law, Colonel William S. Smith, as adjutant general of the army. Smith's commendable record in the War of Independence had been clouded by his current reputation as a speculator and political opportunist. Even so, he might have been confirmed had not the Hamiltonians in the cabinet warned the senators of Smith's recent troubles.

Late in July 1798, President and Mrs. Adams left the oppressive heat of Philadelphia and headed for Quincy. Along the way he learned the full extent of his newfound popularity. Demonstrations of support repeatedly delayed their journey as town after town turned out to display for the president and First Lady the patriotism of its citizens. A popular new patriotic song, "Adams and Liberty," celebrated the president as the living symbol of the nation's determination to resist foreign intrigues against its liberty.

By the time they reached Quincy on 8 August, Abigail Adams had taken so seriously ill that for weeks she appeared near death. The president remained close to her bedside and conducted the business of his office by mail. His protracted absence from the capital gave the disloyal members of the cabinet a free hand but also afforded Adams time to reflect on the crisis with France. In September the British ambassador, Robert Liston, came to Quincy to offer an alliance against their common enemy. Adams expressed interest without making a commitment. He then learned from his son and from El-bridge Gerry, who had remained in France after the other commissioners had returned home, that the Directory did not desire war with the United States and was making conciliatory gestures. On 22 October he wrote to the secretary of war that "at present there is no more prospect of seeing a French army here, than there is in heaven."

Adams welcomed the softening of France's position. He knew that Hamilton no longer waited for French action to bring on a full-scale war; instead, the general now proposed that Great Britain and the United States join in stripping France's ally, Spain, of its American possessions. As additional reports of Talleyrand's peace overtures reached Quincy, it became apparent that the need for the enlarged army headed by Hamilton was rapidly vanishing. But in Trenton, New Jersey, where the federal capital was temporarily located to escape the yellow fever epidemic in Philadelphia, Hamilton and Pickering attempted to rally Federalists to support an enlargement of the conflict by maintaining that the news from France had been merely Talleyrand's scheme to deceive the United States into letting down its guard. Adams' friends urged him to return to the capital without delay.

Mrs. Adams had sufficiently recovered that the president could return to Philadelphia in late November.

In preparing his annual message to Congress, he solicited the opinion of the cabinet but rejected its judgment, on which Hamilton had exerted a strong influence, that the nation should continue to prepare for war without making any gesture of peace toward France. Instead, in the message of 8 December, Adams called for "vigorous preparations for war," especially the strengthening of the navy, as the way to avoid war: "An efficient preparation for war can alone insure peace. It is peace that we have uniformly and perseveringly cultivated, and harmony between us and France may be restored at her option." But it must be peace with honor. He would not send another minister to France without firm assurances that he would be well received.

In the next two months reports of France's peaceful intentions continued to reach the president. He received Washington's private endorsement of an honorable peace. In the middle of February he was handed solid evidence that France had repealed its decrees authorizing the seizure of American ships. This information came just as Congress empowered the president to raise an additional army of thirty thousand men. Meanwhile, the British navy so thoroughly enforced its government's policy of capturing American vessels trading with the French West Indies that doubts were raised as to which country was the more dangerous enemy.

Always in the background of the Franco-American crisis remained the unsettled points of contention with Great Britain. The former colonies had enjoyed friendlier relations with the mother country since Jay's Treaty, but irritations remained on questions of the impressment of American seamen, citizenship, and neutral rights in time of war. Republicans charged Federalists with sacrificing American interests out of favoritism for England with the same vigor that Federalists asserted the Republicans to be the advocates of French revolutionary radicalism.

When, in 1799, Adams turned over to the Royal Navy a mutineer who falsely claimed American citizenship, a Republican effort to censure the president failed in Congress. Preoccupied with the threat from France, Adams followed a middle-of-the-road policy that took advantage of Anglo-American friendship without subservience to British might. American privateers fitted out in English ports, the Royal Navy sometimes convoyed American merchantmen out of danger zones, and the ministry headed by William Pitt permitted the United States to purchase large quantities of naval and military equipment and supplies. At the same time, the ministry refused to recognize the right of neutral nations to trade with Britain's enemy. With a quarter century of diplomatic experience, Adams understood the limits of Great Britain's professed friendship in this struggle. He knew that a declared war with France would of necessity increase his country's dependence on English aid, with a resulting loss of American freedom of action.

On 18 February 1799, Adams notified the Senate that Talleyrand appeared willing to receive an envoy from the United States. Consequently, he nominated William Vans Murray, American minister at The Hague, to be minister plenipotentiary to France, with the provision that he not undertake the mission until the French government gave additional assurances of its readiness to enter serious negotiations. The High Federalists responded to this provisional nomination with shock and anger. Pickering was furious that he, the secretary of state, had not been consulted. Adams held out against strong pressure from several leading members of his party to withdraw the nomination, but he quickly accepted a compromise proposal by which two negotiators were joined with Murray. Refusing to add Hamiltonians, he named Chief Justice Oliver Ellsworth and Patrick Henry, and they, along with Murray, were confirmed by the Senate before Congress adjourned on 3 March. The president soon left for Quincy to rejoin his wife and to await the reaction of both France and his own countrymen to his "master stroke of policy," as Abigail Adams described her husband's nomination of a peace commission.

Adams had correctly interpreted the mood of the country. A declaration of war soon after the XYZ revelations might have rallied a majority of citizens to the flag. Now only the High Federalists wanted military action against France. The direct tax, the Alien and Sedition Acts, and the recruitment of soldiers proved more and more irritating in all sections. Before leaving the capital, Adams had issued a proclamation against a tax rebellion among the German communities of eastern Pennsylvania and ordered federal troops to assist the militia in restoring order and seizing the ringleaders. The rebellion was easily suppressed, with twenty-nine persons arrested and brought to trial. Of these, the major leader, John Fries, and his two principal subordinates were convicted of treason and sentenced to be hanged. Adams would eventually pardon this trio and recommend clemency for the others. Nonetheless, the Fries Rebellion publicized the burden of the "window tax," as the direct tax was popularly known because it was in part based on the number and size of the windows in a house. The suppression of this minor uprising by federal troops struck fear into the hearts of many at the prospect of an army led by Hamilton wiping out all opposition to the policies of the High Federalists.

Despite his tacit approval of the Alien and Sedition Acts, Adams only halfheartedly carried out his duty to enforce these measures. He signed a few alien warrants that were never executed, but he refused to give Pickering signed blank warrants to be used in the president's absence or to apply the acts against French consuls still on American soil. And he overruled Pickering's desire to deport Joseph Priestley, the English scientist and political radical, of whom the Adamses had been fond during their stay in England.

The Sedition Act was of more consequence to the Adams administration. By accepting it as a temporary war measure, the president appeared to side with those Federalist newspaper editors whose vitriolic language denounced in every issue the Republican papers as instruments of foreign subversion. Adams approved of at least two prosecutions of opposition editors, and he made no effort to halt the trials or to grant the petitions for pardon of the convicted. Particularly conspicuous was his rejection of the petition of several thousand Vermonters asking a pardon for Congressman Matthew Lyon, who had been convicted of sedition but reelected to Congress while in jail.

In keeping with his independence, Adams expressed a desire to charge some of the most outrageous Federalist editors with sedition. His main culpability lay in turning over enforcement of the Sedition Act to Pickering and permitting him to interpret the law as broadly as possible. Pickering's zeal resulted in at least fourteen indictments under the act in addition to three under common law. The secretary's attempt to wipe out criticism of the Federalist regime ensured that the Sedition Act would be a major issue in the next presidential election and actually increased the number of opposition newspapers. Criticism of the government could not be suppressed among a people who had fought for freedom of speech and press for a century before the First Amendment was written into the Constitution.

The Republican response to the Alien and Sedition Acts included the Kentucky Resolutions (drafted by Jefferson) and the Virginia Resolutions (drafted by Madison). Challenging the constitutionality of the Sedition Act, these resolutions implied the natural right of a state to nullify the enforcement of such an act within its boundaries. In reply the High Federalists raised the specter of disunion, and Hamilton expressed his willingness to march his army south to test Virginia's resistance. In the middle stood John Adams, increasingly more trusted by some Republicans than by the anti-French element in his own party.

Recovered from his defeat on the question of Hamilton's military rank, Adams by 1799 was using his power as commander in chief in the interests of peace. The provisional army, intended only as a temporary emergency measure, had not been brought into existence by the time its authorization expired in December 1798. The president was left with authority to increase the regular army, raise militia forces, and accept the services of voluntary military companies. While deliberately slowing the recruitment of enlisted men, Adams saw political advantage in appointing moderate men from both parties to be officers in an army that he never expected to take the field. High Federalists charged him with obstructing preparedness for war, while Republicans pointed to the slowly growing army as a threat to civil liberties. Once again Adams stood in the middle and attempted to draw others to him.

In Adams' mind the navy remained the first line of defense, but the army was now necessary only to exert diplomatic pressure on France. Following the president's orders, the navy since early in 1799 had been assisting Toussaint L'Ouverture in extending his control over St. Domingue (Hispaniola) after the slaves on that West Indian island had driven out most of their French masters and repelled a British invasion. The continued success of the Constellation, one of the recently completed frigates, against French naval vessels in the West Indies confirmed the president's faith in the "wooden walls" of the navy.

In October 1799, John Adams rode out of Quincy and headed back to Trenton, which was again the temporary capital. During the seven months the president had been away, the three cabinet members loyal to Hamilton would have welcomed the creation of a ministerial government to wrest power from the absent and, in their opinion, incompetent chief executive. But there was no constitutional way to turn the president into a figurehead. Adams knew it and rejected several pleas that he return to the seat of government. In August he had received the additional assurances he sought from France that the American envoys would be well received. Consequently, he ordered Pickering to prepare the instructions for the peace commission. The secretary reluctantly obeyed without ceasing his efforts to block the mission. A change in the French government appeared to strengthen Pickering's hand. Stoddert and Lee finally convinced the president that he must hasten to the capital to take personal charge of dispatching the commissioners.

When Adams reached Trenton, he found Hamilton there to join Pickering, McHenry, and Wolcott in demanding that he not send the peace mission. They argued that a treaty with France would bring retaliation from Great Britain and would stain America's national honor. But Adams stood his ground. On 16 October 1799, without advance notice to the cabinet, he ordered Ellsworth and William Richardson Davie to join Murray in Europe. The following March the three met in Paris and opened negotiations with the French government, now headed by First Consul Napoleon Bonaparte.

Adams' peaceful gestures had temporarily revived the popularity of the Federalist party and enabled it to make significant gains in the House and Senate elections of 1799. Then the dispatch of the commissioners irreparably split the party between the aggressive minority headed by Hamilton and the more politically obscure majority supporting Adams. The president's third annual message to Congress on 3 December struck hard at the program of the High Federalists. He called for a "just execution of the laws" to ensure that "individuals should be guarded from oppression," for peace with honor, and for economy in government without inordinate expenditures for defense. The death of Washington on 14 December further weakened the Hamiltonians, who had hoped to secure his endorsement of their military objectives. This great man's death, Hamilton wrote, had removed a "control" on the "perverseness and capriciousness" of the president.

Election of 1800

The presidential election of 1800 brought the Federalist split into the open. Adams wanted the second term for which he had been nominated by congressional caucus; thus, he appeared willing to endure the enemies in his party as long as he had a hope of reelection. That hope was considerably lessened on 1 May when the Republicans captured the New York legislature, which would cast the state's electoral vote. Adams then moved quickly. He confronted McHenry with the charge of disloyalty and accepted his resignation on 6 May. The following week Adams demanded Pickering's resignation and dismissed him when he refused to resign. John Marshall, a Virginia Federalist loyal to Adams, was immediately confirmed as secretary of state. Apparently fond of Wolcott despite his disloyalty, Adams permitted the secretary of the treasury to remain in office until the end of 1800. The president had refused to raise Hamilton to the top command of the army after Washington's death, and in May he gladly signed the congressional acts that provided for a drastic reduction in the army.

By now Hamilton was determined to end Adams' political career, regardless of the consequences to the Federalist party. He wrote, "If we must have an enemy at the head of Government, let it be one whom we can oppose, and for whom we are not responsible, who will not involve our party in the disgrace of his foolish and bad measures." He urged Pickering to gather as he left office any material in the archives that could be used against Adams. From Wolcott he also sought "the facts which denote unfitness in Mr. Adams."

In July, Hamilton abandoned his plans for military conquest and returned to his law practice. He advised his followers to manipulate the electoral votes in their states so that the Federalist vice presidential candidate, Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, would receive more votes than Adams and thus be elected president. His final stroke in this campaign marked the conclusion of his decline from brilliant statesman to bungling, vindictive politician. Against the advice of his closest supporters, he wrote and printed the Letter . . . Concerning the Public Conduct and Character of John Adams. Ostensibly prepared only for private circulation, the Letter somehow reached the press, and Hamilton then published it as a pamphlet. For nearly fifty pages, he reviewed the "great and intrinsic defects" in Adams that rendered him "unfit" for the presidency. The Letter had little apparent effect on the outcome of the election, and numerous replies from men of both parties applauded Adams' refusal to bend to the will of the former secretary.

The division among Federalists left Adams annoyed and discouraged but undaunted. In May 1800, after Congress had adjourned and Mrs. Adams had set out for Quincy, he traveled by a circuitous route to inspect the capital being built at Washington. The enthusiastic receptions he received along the way buoyed his spirits and led him to regard more highly his chance of reelection. As he journeyed from Philadelphia to Washington and then to Quincy, he defended his administration and himself with such vigor that one historian of his presidency has concluded that Adams was "the first presidential candidate in history to carry his appeal directly to the people." Then he spent the summer at home, conducting the nation's business by mail and addressing only those delegations that called on him at Quincy.

By 1 November he was in Washington, where he took up residence in the President's House, later known as the White House. In this unfinished but habitable building, he felt at once a sense of destiny as he prayed, "May none but honest and wise Men ever rule under this roof." Mrs. Adams joined him after two weeks and endeavored to preserve the dignity of the presidential household while living in a house with still damp plaster walls and lacking stairways, firewood, and bells to summon the inadequate number of servants. This remarkable woman, on whose strength her husband had constantly depended, would perhaps be pleased to know that posterity did not forget that the First Lady had hung her laundry to dry in the "great unfinished audience room"later the East Roomof the White House.

The president's fourth annual message to Congress on 22 November radiated pride in the results of his administration. The nation had a permanent seat of government, the provisional army had been disbanded, the victories of the navy had increased the self-esteem of Americans, a treaty of amity and commerce had been concluded with Prussia, negotiations were under way to settle the remaining issues with Great Britain, and a peaceful accommodation with France was expected. But this message proved to be his valedictory. By the second week in December, Adams knew that he would not have another term. News had arrived that South Carolina had deserted its favorite son, Pinckney, to choose electors favoring the Republicans. Although the electoral ballots would not be formally counted until February, the unofficial tally revealed the Republican victory.

The bitterness of defeat mingled with elation in the Adams household, for at about the same time as the news from South Carolina, Commissioner Davie arrived in Washington bearing the treaty concluded with France at the end of September. In the exalted language of diplomacy, this Convention of Môrtefontaine called for "a firm, inviolable, and universal peace, and a true and sincere Friendship between" the two nations. It provided for the restoration of commercial relations on the most-favored-nation principle and the ending of the Quasi-War. The president promptly submitted the treaty to the Senate, where the High Federalists delayed its ratification until 3 February. But the country as a whole, especially the merchants, welcomed peace. The necessary two-thirds vote for ratification was finally obtained when the Senate accepted reservations on the most objectionable points. Unhappy with the reservations, Adams nevertheless approved the ratification and ordered the navy to cease hostilities against French ships.

When the electoral votes were counted in the Senate on 11 February 1801, Adams had sixty-five, Pinckney sixty-four, and Burr and Jefferson seventy-three each. Despite the split of the Federalists, the Alien and Sedition Acts, the Fries Rebellion, the gall of the opposition press, and above all the heavy taxes for defense, the president had run remarkably strongly. A shift of a few hundred votes in the New York legislative election would have given a second term to the president from Massachusetts, who had received all of New England's electoral vote and had improved his vote of 1796 in Pennsylvania and North Carolina.

President Adams took no public part in the political crisis created by the inadvertent tie in the Republican electoral vote for Jefferson and Burr. When Burr, the vice presidential candidate, refused to step aside, the decision fell to the lame-duck House of Representatives, with its Federalist majority. In keeping with his view of his office, Adams let the House fulfill its constitutional responsibility without the influence of the chief executive.

Both the Adamses much preferred Jefferson to Burr. Mrs. Adams likely spoke her husband's mind when she wrote that "neither party can tolerate Burr." The Republican leadership counted on a presidential veto of any congressional bill that attempted to take advantage of the tie to thwart the Republican victory. Adams could hardly have failed to learn that Virginia and Pennsylvania threatened civil war if the Federalists used the deadlock to remain in power. Yet he refused to commit himself in his one recorded meeting with Jefferson. He feared not so much Jefferson, whose integrity he had come to respect while they had been together in France during the Revolution, as he feared the horde of radicals who, he believed, would come into office on Jefferson's coattails. Nonetheless, when the House finally ended the crisis on 17 February by selecting Jefferson, Adams was relieved that he could leave office with the nation intact.

Reform of the Judiciary

John Adams' last three months in office were largely taken up with the reform of the federal judiciary. The country had soon outgrown the judicial structure created in 1789. That system provided for a Supreme Court of six justices, regional circuit courts, and district courts, with a Supreme Court justice required to preside over each session of a circuit court. The result was a nearly impossible schedule of travel for the justices, and one might be called upon to hear an appeal of a case he had helped to decide at a lower level. Frequent petitions from the justices had brought only minor relief, and it had become difficult to get able lawyers to accept appointment to the highest court.

In his annual messages of 1799 and 1800, the president had recommended judicial reform, but Congress proved unable to agree on a bill until after the results of the presidential election were known. Then the Judiciary Act of 1801 moved rapidly through Congress and was signed by Adams on 13 February. It reduced the Supreme Court from six to five at the next vacancy and created six new circuit courts presided over by sixteen new circuit judges, thus relieving the Supreme Court justices of circuit duty. A related act in the last week of February provided for an additional district court with three judges for the District of Columbia.

While Congress debated the Judiciary Act, Adams hurried to appoint a new chief justice of the Supreme Court. After serving on the peace mission, Chief Justice Ellsworth had remained in Europe to recover his health, and his resignation had reached the president in December. Unless a replacement could be confirmed before the Judiciary Act became law, there would be no vacancy and one of the associate justices would have to become chief justice. By appointing a Federalist and thus keeping the Court at six, Adams could make it unlikely that the incoming Republican president would be able to place a member of his own party on the bench for many years.

The favorite of many Federalists, Associate Justice William Paterson, was too close to Hamilton to please Adams. Instead, he nominated, and the Senate confirmed, John Jay, the first chief justice, who had left the Court to be governor of New York. Not in the best of health and regarding the judicial system as seriously "defective," Jay declined. It then dawned on Adams that his secretary of state, John Marshall, possessed the ideal qualities of age, diligence, and legal talent. He appointed Marshall on 20 January. The Senate delayed his confirmation a week while supporters of Paterson sought to change the president's mind. In February 1801 the chief justice whom history would acknowledge as the nation's greatest presided over his first session of the Supreme Court.

Altogether in the last ten weeks of his term, Adams appointed more than two hundred new judges, clerks, marshals, attorneys, and justices of the peace. He filled nearly all of these positions with Federalists of various shades, but most were moderate men of considerable ability. Thus he made one last great effort to put into practice his view of the presidency. On Tuesday evening, 3 March 1801, he signed the final three commissions. At four the next morning he left for Quincy, not waiting to witness the inauguration of Jefferson. Grieving over the recent death of his wayward son Charles and believing his duty finished, he headed into a retirement that would last until 4 July 1826, when both he and Jefferson died on the fiftieth anniversary of the independence of the nation in whose creation they had played such a major part.


Coming between the administrations of two presidents of immortal fame, the presidency of John Adams has been difficult for historians to evaluate and for posterity to appreciate. He had neither Washington's ability to inspire reverence nor Jefferson's understanding of democratic ideas. In his own view, his greatest achievement had been to make peace with France, but modern research has emphasized that Talleyrand and Napoleon neither wanted nor expected a military encounter with the United States and, therefore, that a stronger settlement with France might have been possible. He also took great pride in his elevation of John Marshall to the Supreme Court; yet in 1801 he could not have foreseen the strength that Marshall would infuse into the federal judiciary for the next three decades.

The contribution of the Adams presidency lay not so much in its specific accomplishments as in its strengthening the office at a critical time when it might easily have veered off the course set by Washington. Adams' conception of a strong, independent president who mediated between contending interests enabled him to withstand the violent political passions of the time, which threatened to tear apart the young republic.

Adams' view of the office and his detestation of parties and factions rendered him incapable of bridging the constitutional separation of powers through party leadership. But had he tried, he could not have succeeded, for the Federalists were not a party in the modern sense. As Adams expressed it, his party was "composed of the most heterogeneous ingredients that ever were put together." Only such an independent president as Adams could have prevented the various Federalist factions from further splintering the party and possibly the nation itself during the four years after the retirement of Washington. No one can be entirely certain of Hamilton's intentions in this period, but the available evidence strongly suggests that any president following his lead would have provoked civil war. Or had Jefferson been elected in 1796, when he fell short by only three electoral votes, he could scarcely have convinced the northern states that he was not a tool of France. In this respect, Jefferson owed far more to Adams than he seems to have realized. As Joseph Charles has pointed out, the four years under Adams provided the correct balance of motivation and time for Jeffersonian democracy to develop as a political movement and for the Republicans to gain experience, clarify their principles, and perfect the organization with which they were to govern the nation for the next twenty-eight years.

When, seven years after leaving Washington, John Adams expressed approval of his son John Quincy Adams' switching parties from Federalist to Republican, he provided testimony to the success of his own administration.


The voluminous manuscripts of Adams and his family are being published in a modern edition that has not yet reached his presidential years. Those volumes already published are essential for the period before 1797. These include Robert J. Taylor, ed., Papers of John Adams, vols. 110 (Cambridge, Mass., 19771995); L. H. Butterfield, ed., Diary and Autobiography of John Adams, vols. 14 (Cambridge, Mass., 1961); and Butterfield, ed., Adams Family Correspondence, vols. 16 (Cambridge, Mass., 19631993). Still useful is Charles Francis Adams, ed., The Works of John Adams, 10 vols. (Boston, 18501856). James D. Richardson, ed., A Compilation of the Messages and Papers of the Presidents, vol. 1 (New York, 1897), is a convenient source of the communications between the president and Congress.

Page Smith, John Adams, 2 vols. (Garden City, N.Y., 1962), is the fullest biography. John Ferling, John Adams: A Life (Knoxville, Tenn., 1992), is a comprehensive one-volume biography. John R. Howe, Jr., The Changing Political Thought of John Adams (Princeton, N.J., 1966), gives a full account of Adams's political theories. Stephen G. Kurtz, The Presidency of John Adams: The Collapse of Federalism, 17951800 (Philadelphia, 1957), is a major study of the politics of the Adams presidency. Ralph Adams Brown, The Presidency of John Adams (Lawrence, Kans., 1975), is a favorable account of the Adams presidency. James Roger Sharp, American Politics in the Early Republic: The New Nation in Crisis (New Haven, Conn., 1993), argues that the Adams presidency suffered from flaws in the Constitution. Stanley M. Elkins and Eric L. McKitrick, The Age of Federalism (New York, 1993), discusses the conflicting views of Adams and his presidency. Joseph J. Ellis, Passionate Sage: The Character and Legacy of John Adams (New York, 1993), views Adams's thought from the perspective of the period after he left office.

Joseph Charles, The Origins of the American Party System: Three Essays (Williamsburg, Va., 1956), offers important insights into the origin of parties. Leonard D. White, The Federalists: A Study in Administrative History (New York, 1948), is a topical study of the administrative functions of the federal government under Washington and Adams. Manning J. Dauer, The Adams Federalists (Baltimore, 1953), contains useful statistical information on the Federalists. James Morton Smith, Freedom's Fetters: The Alien and Sedition Laws and American Civil Liberties (Ithaca, N.Y., 1956), is the major study of the Alien and Sedition Acts. Donald H. Stewart, The Opposition Press of the Federalist Period (Albany, N.Y., 1969), is a source book of newspaper attacks on the Federalists. Dan Sisson, The American Revolution of 1800 (New York, 1974), develops the relationship between the Adams presidency and Jeffersonian democracy.

George Athan Billias, Elbridge Gerry: Founding Father and Republican Statesman (New York, 1976), is a biography of Adams's major Republican friend. Gerard H. Clarfield, Timothy Pickering and American Diplomacy, 17951800 (Columbia, Mo., 1969), is a full study of Adams's secretary of state. Harold C. Syrett et al., eds., The Papers of Alexander Hamilton, vols. 2025 (New York, 19741977), provides a major documentary source for the Adams administration with important annotation. Jacob E. Cooke, Alexander Hamilton (New York, 1982), is an outstanding interpretive work. Broadus Mitchell, Alexander Hamilton, vol. 2 (New York, 1962), covers Hamilton's years in the federal government. Gilbert L. Lycan, Alexander Hamilton and American Foreign Policy: A Design for Greatness (Norman, Okla., 1970), provides an extensive treatment of Hamilton's influence on American foreign policy.

Marshall Smelser, The Congress Founds the Navy, 17871798 (South Bend, Ind., 1959), is a full study of the creation of the American navy. Bradford Perkins, The First Rapprochement: England and the United States, 17951805 (Philadelphia, 1955), describes the relations of the Adams administration with Great Britain. William Stinchcombe, The XYZ Affair (Westport, Conn., 1980), presents new research on this episode. Alexander DeConde, The Quasi-War: The Politics and Diplomacy of the Undeclared War with France, 17971801 (New York, 1966), is the major study of the undeclared war. Michael A. Palmer, Stoddert's War: Naval Operations During the Quasi-War with France, 17981801 (Columbia, S.C., 1987), describes the importance of the navy in Adams's view.

Leonard Baker, John Marshall: A Life in Law (New York, 1974), contains an extensive account of Marshall's part in the Adams administration. George Lee Haskins and Herbert A. Johnson, History of the Supreme Court of the United States, vol. 2, Foundations of Power: John Marshall, 18011815 (New York, 1981), offers an extensive treatment with bibliographical references of the restructuring of the federal judiciary under Adams.

Charles W. Akers, Abigail Adams: An American Woman (Boston, 1980), examines her role in the Adams presidency. Stewart Mitchell, ed., New Letters of Abigail Adams, 17881801 (Boston, 1947), contains letters of Abigail Adams to her sister that often detail political developments. Edith B. Gelles, Portia: The World of Abigail Adams (Bloomington, Ind., 1992), examines other recent biographies of Abigail Adams and attempts to place her in a female rather than a political culture.

Recent works include David McCullough, John Adams (New York, 2001), and Bernard A. Weisberger, America Afire: Jefferson, Adams, and the Revolutionary Election of 1800 (New York, 2000).

John Adams

views updated Jun 08 2018

John Adams

The second president of the United States, John Adams (1735-1826) played a major role in the colonial movement toward independence. He wrote the Massachusetts Constitution of 1780 and served as a diplomatic representative of Congress in the 1780s.

John Adams was born in Braintree (now Quincy), Mass. His father was a modest but successful farmer and local officeholder. After some initial reluctance, Adams entered Harvard and received his bachelor's degree in 1755. For about a year he taught school in Worcester. Though he gave some thought to entering the ministry, Adams was repelled by the theological acrimony resulting from the period of the Great Awakening and turned to the law. After studying under James Putnam, Adams was admitted to the Boston bar in 1758. While developing his legal practice, he participated in town affairs and contributed his first essays to the Boston newspapers. In 1764 he married Abigail Smith of Weymouth, who brought him wide social connections and was to share with sensitivity and enthusiasm in the full life that lay ahead.

Early Political Career

By 1765 Adams had achieved considerable distinction at the Boston bar. With the Stamp Act crisis he moved into the center of Massachusetts political life. He contributed an important series of essays, Dissertation on the Canon and Feudal Law, to the Boston Gazette and prepared a series of anti-Stamp Act resolutions for the Braintree town meeting, which were widely copied throughout the province.

In April 1768 Adams moved to Boston. He defended John Hancock against smuggling charges brought by British customs officials and acted as counsel for Capt. Thomas Preston, the officer in charge of British troops at the Boston Massacre. Adams undertook the Preston defense somewhat reluctantly, fearing its consequences for his own local popularity, but the need to provide Preston with a fair trial persuaded him to act—with no damage, in the end, to his own reputation or practice. Indeed, a few weeks later Adams was elected representative from Boston to the Massachusetts Legislature.

In the spring of 1771, largely for reasons of health, Adams returned to Braintree, where he divided his attention between farming and the law. Within a year, however, professional and political considerations drew him back to Boston. In 1773 he celebrated the Boston Tea Party as a dramatic challenge to British notions of parliamentary supremacy. The next year he was one of the representatives from Massachusetts to the First Continental Congress, where he took a leading role in developing the colonists' constitutional defense against the Coercive Acts and other British measures. Although Adams favored the various petitions Congress made to the King, Parliament, and the English people, as well as the scheme of nonimportation agreements, he nonetheless hoped for more vigorous measures. All the while, however, he had to guard against the suspicion held by many other delegates that the New Englanders were plotting independence. Upon his return to Massachusetts, Adams was chosen for the governor's council but was negatived. During the winter of 1774-1775 he carried on, under the pseudonym Novanglus, an extended debate with Daniel Leonard over the proper constitutional relations between the Colonies and Parliament. Adams's recommended solution at this point was a commonwealth system of empire, with a series of coequal parliaments joined by common allegiance to the Crown.

After the battles of Lexington and Concord, Adams returned to Congress, carrying the welcome instructions from the General Court for measures to establish American liberties on a permanent basis, secure from attack by Britain. He now believed that independence would probably be necessary. Congress, however, was not yet willing to agree, and Adams fumed while still more petitions were sent off to England. The best chance of promoting independence, he concluded, was through the device of instructing the various colonies to adopt new forms of government following the breakdown of their provincial regimes. Replying to petitions from several provinces seeking advice on their governments (petitions which Adams and others had solicited), he recommended that they adopt new governments modeled on their colonial regimes and framed by special conventions.

By February 1776 Adams was back in Congress. There he presented, first privately in response to the requests of several delegates and then publicly in a pamphlet entitled "Thoughts on Government," his specific proposals for the reconstruction of the provincial governments. Adams was at last fully committed to American independence. In May, Congress finally passed a resolution that, where no adequate governments existed, measures should be taken to provide for the "happiness and safety" of the people. For this resolution Adams wrote a preamble which in effect asserted the principle of independence. A month later he seconded Richard Henry Lee's resolution for the formal declaration of independence, the contracting of foreign treaties, and the construction of a continental confederation. A member of the committee appointed to bring in the formal statement, Adams contributed little to the content of the Declaration of Independence but served, as Thomas Jefferson later reported, as "the pillar of its support on the floor of the Congress." On another committee Adams drew up a model treaty that encouraged Congress to enter into commercial but not political alliances with European nations. Exhausted by his duties, he temporarily left Philadelphia in mid-October for Massachusetts. For the next year or so he continued to serve in Congress.

Diplomatic Career

On Nov. 28, 1777, Congress elected Adams commissioner to France, replacing Silas Deane, and in February Adams embarked from Boston for what was to prove an extended stay. Upon arrival, Adams found that France had already granted diplomatic recognition to the United States and contracted treaties of commerce and amity. With nothing specific to do, Adams spent the next year and a half trying to keep busy: attempting to secure badly needed loans for Congress, transmitting lengthy letters on European affairs, and learning with mixed fascination and repugnance about the ways of French court and national life.

When he learned that Benjamin Franklin, one of his fellow commissioners, had been appointed sole American plenipotentiary in France, Adams returned to Boston, where in the fall of 1779 he was elected from Braintree to the state constitutional convention. For the next few months he devoted his time to the convention, preparing what became the basic draft of the new Massachusetts constitution.

In the meantime Adams had been tapped by Congress for another diplomatic post, this time as commissioner to contract peace and then a commercial treaty with Great Britain. He embarked in mid-November and arrived in Paris on Feb. 9, 1780. Again he found his situation frustrating, largely because he had been instructed to make no significant moves without the prior approval of the Comte de Vergennes, the French foreign minister. Between Adams and Vergennes there quickly developed a mutual dislike— duplicated in Adams's relations with Franklin, a man more flexible and less demanding in his relations with the French foreign minister. In the face of all this, Adams spent considerable time writing his friends in Congress to complain of his difficult position. Having been further commissioned minister plenipotentiary to the United Provinces, Adams finally secured recognition by The Hague in the spring of 1782, and in October he signed the first of several desperately needed loans with a group of Dutch bankers.

He returned to Paris to negotiate the terms of peace with the British representatives. Adams and the other two American commissioners, Franklin and John Jay, ignored their instructions to make no agreement without first consulting Vergennes; they feared (correctly) that France wished to pressure the United States into peace arrangements inconsistent with national interest (for example, leaving certain coastal areas in British hands). The American commissioners concluded provisional articles of peace and sent the results home to Congress. These were duly signed as the definitive treaty of peace on Sept. 3, 1783.

The Dutch loans and the treaty of peace were the major products of the diplomatic phase of Adams's public career. Before returning permanently to the United States, however, he spent 3 frustrating years as American envoy to the Court of St. James in London, attempting without success to negotiate a commercial treaty and to clear up various diplomatic issues carried over from the Revolution. Rebuffed by British officials and unsupported by a weak Congress, Adams finally asked to resign. Formal letters of recall were sent in February 1788. During the last year and a half of his stay, he composed his three-volume Defense of the Constitutions of Government of the United States of America, an extended attempt to defend the American concept of balanced government against the criticisms of the French statesman A.R.J. Turgot.

The Presidency

With his return to Boston, Adams began the final stage of his public career. He was chosen vice president in 1789 under the new Federal constitution, a position he was to fill, again with considerable frustration because of its powerlessness, during both of Washington's administrations.

As the election of 1796 approached, the Jeffersonian Republicans began forming an opposition to the Federalists' financial program and seemingly pro-British foreign policy. The Republicans presented Jefferson as their presidential candidate. The Federalists split into two factions, with Adams as one candidate and Thomas Pinckney (backed by Alexander Hamilton) as the other. In spite of Hamilton's efforts, Adams ran well ahead of Pinckney and became the second president of the United States. Jefferson, a scant three electoral votes behind, became vice president.

Adams took office on March 4, 1797. From the first his presidency was a stormy one. His Cabinet, inherited from Washington and dominated by Hamilton's followers, proved increasingly difficult to control. Foreign policy problems, generated by the outbreak of war between revolutionary France and a counterrevolutionary coalition of European nations, created internal political crises of magnitude. The outbreak of revolution in France had tended to polarize political discussion in the United States as well as in Europe between "aristocratic" and "democratic" positions. More particularly, the war between England and France raised questions of whether the United States would maintain a strict neutrality—in fact impossible because of efforts by both England and France to control American trade—or align itself, at least sympathetically, with one of the countries. While most Americans professed the desire to remain neutral in the contest, the Jeffersonians were sympathetic with France and the Federalists with England. Adams found himself caught in the middle.

In 1797 French diplomats attempted to bribe the three-man commission sent by the United States to negotiate various points in dispute between the two nations. The immediate result was an outburst of anti-French sentiment, which the Hamiltonians worked hard to inflame. Adams became caught up in the furor as well, making numerous statements during the spring and summer of 1798 that fanned emotions even higher. Taking advantage of the situation, the Federalists in Congress, with Adams's tacit approval, developed a war program consisting of substantial increases in the American navy, a large provisional army, the Alien and Sedition Acts (aimed at controlling potential subversives within), and a system of tax measures to finance the entire program. The Federalist goals were two: to prepare for an expected war with France and to attack the Jeffersonian opposition.

For a while it seemed that the Federalist measures would carry the day. But during the late summer and fall of 1798 the prospect of peaceful accommodation with France increased, and public discontent with the Federalist war program (helped along by the cries of the Jeffersonians) broke through the surface. President Adams, at home in Massachusetts during much of this time, became convinced that war with France was not necessary and that the Federalist policies, if continued, were likely to result in serious internal disorder. Early in 1799 he committed himself to a plan of peaceful accommodation with France—a decision that enraged most of the Hamiltonians and left them sitting far out on a political limb, with a military establishment and no foreign invader to fight.

By 1800 the split between Adams and the Hamiltonian wing of the Federalist party was complete. Adams dismissed the main Hamiltonians from his Cabinet, and Hamilton openly opposed Adams for reelection. But the President's peace initiatives were both enlightened statesmanship and good politics. The young nation was unprepared for any major external war, and the possibility of serious internal conflict if the war program was continued seems to have been real. Moreover, as various individuals reported, by late 1799 France was prepared for an honorable accommodation with the United States, so there was no longer reason for conflict. Politically, Adams's peace decision made comparable sense. The Federalist split no doubt weakened his chances in 1800, but the Jeffersonians were already scoring heavily in their attacks on Federalist policies. Continued defense of such policies would almost certainly have led to political disaster. In the end Adams lost the election to Jefferson by a narrow margin.

Adams later described his peace decision as "the most splendid diamond in my crown," more important than his leadership in the revolutionary crisis, his constitutional writings, or his diplomatic service. He left the capital, however, bitterly disappointed over his rejection by the American people, so distressed that he even refused to remain for Jefferson's inaugural in 1801.

Adams spent the remainder of his life in political seclusion, though he retained a lively interest in public affairs, particularly when they involved the rising career of his son, John Quincy Adams. John Adams divided his time between overseeing his farm and carrying on an extended correspondence concerning both his personal experiences and issues of more general political and philosophical significance. He died at the age of 91, just a few hours after Jefferson's death, on July 4, 1826.

Further Reading

The most complete modern biography is Page Smith, John Adams (2 vols., 1962), although Smith does not differentiate clearly enough the central themes of Adams's career. Still useful is Gilbert Chinard, Honest John Adams (1933). For the early career of John Adams see Catherin Drinker Bowen, John Adams and the American Revolution (1950). Adams's election to the presidency is fully detailed in Arthur M. Schlesinger, ed., History of American Presidential Elections (4 vols., 1971). Manning J. Dauer, The Adams Federalists (1953), and Stephen G. Kurtz, The Presidency of John Adams: The Collapse of Federalism, 1795-1800 (1957), examine Adams's feud with Hamilton and the split within the Federalist party. For the political thought of Adams three studies are relevant: Correa M. Walsh, The Political Science of John Adams (1915); Edward Handler, America and Europe in the Political Thought of John Adams (1964); and John Howe, The Changing Political Thought of John Adams (1966). □

Adams, John (1735-1826)

views updated May 29 2018

John Adams (1735-1826)


Diplomat, vice president and president of the united states

Independent Will. Throughout a long career culminating in a term as president, John Adams valued independence above all else. He based his political philosophy on his understanding of history and human nature, not on public opinion. As president he considered it vital to remain independent of party politics and the other branches of government. That political independence allowed Adams to remain true to his principles and prevented war with France, but it damaged his political career.

Background. John Adams was born in Braintree (now Quincy), Massachusetts, on 30 October 1735. His father, John Adams, was a farmer and cordwainer (shoemaker), church deacon, militia officer, tax collector, and selectman. His mother, Susanna Boylston Adams, was from a prominent family of merchants and physicians. After graduating from Harvard College in 1755, Adams taught school in Worcester, Massachusetts, and studied law with James Putnam. He was admitted to the bar in Boston in 1758 and opened a law practice in Braintree. In 1764 Adams married Abigail Smith, the daughter of Rev. William and Elizabeth Quincy Smith of Weymouth. Mrs. Adams was an astute political observer and her husbands dearest friend. The Adamses had six children, including John Quincy Adams, who became the sixth president of the United States. Political events in the 1760s soon ended Adamss life as a small-town lawyer and satisfied his ambition for fame.

American Revolution. In 1765 Parliament imposed a stamp tax on the American colonists. Adams prepared Braintrees resolutions protesting the Stamp Act as an unconstitutional tax imposed without the consent of the colonists. Using his skills as a lawyer and political essayist, Adams played an increasingly important role as he and his fellow patriots moved from protecting their rights as Englishmen to establishing an independent republic. As a delegate to the Continental Congress, Adams worked tirelessly in 1775 and 1776 to prepare the American colonies for independence. He pushed Congress to adopt the army assembled in Massachusetts after the Battles of Lexington and Concord and appoint George Washington commander in chief of the Continental Army and to pass resolutions authorizing the states to set up independent governments. Although Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence in 1776, Jefferson admitted that Adams was our Colossus on the floor, leading the fight for its passage. From 1778 to 1788, with the exception of a brief return to the United States, during which he wrote the Massachusetts Constitution, Adams represented American diplomatic interests in Europe. In 1778 Congress appointed Adams commissioner to France to assist Benjamin Franklin and Arthur Lee in strengthening the American alliance with France. In 1782 Adams negotiated a treaty of recognition and secured the first in a series of loans from the Dutch government. Adams, Benjamin Franklin, and John Jay negotiated the peace treaty with Britain ending the Revolutionary War in 1783. Adams was minister to the Court of St. James from 1785 until he resigned in frustration in 1788. The British government, with little confidence in the future of the weak Confederation government, ignored the terms of the Peace of Paris and refused to negotiate a commercial treaty with the United States. Adams, however, returned to the United States in 1788 as a respected figure. A few months later he was elected vice president.

Political Philosophy. Adams developed his political philosophy from wide reading in English and European political thought and his observations on human nature and government. He believed that human beings were motivated by self-interest and a passion for distinction. He also believed that society was engaged in a constant class struggle between the rich and the poor, or the aristocracy and the democracy. In his Defence of the Constitutions of Government of the United States of America (1787), Adams warned of the danger of a single-house legislature advocated by the French philosopher Anne-Robert-Jacques Turgot and adopted under the Pennsylvania Constitution of 1776. Adams argued that the only way to protect liberty was to design a balanced government that would prevent either the aristocracy or the democracy from gaining too much power. The people should be represented in the lower house of the legislature, and the aristocracy should be represented in the upper house. The key to maintaining balanced government was a strong executive elected by the people with veto power over legislation. The executive must be independent from both branches of the legislature and from political parties in order to protect the interests of all the people. In Discourses on Davila (1805) Adams argued that the use of titles for members of the Senate would encourage the development of a natural, nonhereditary aristocracy to serve as a stabilizing force in American society. The alternative would be the establishment of hereditary aristocracy and hereditary monarchy. His political views often separated Adams from members of his own party, the opposing Republican Party, and public opinion.

Vice Presidency. Adamss critics ridiculed his support for presidential and vice-presidential titles and his practice of wearing a sword and wig to the Senate by calling him the Duke of Braintree and His Rotundity. He removed the sword and the wig, but the vice presidency (17891797) remained a frustrating and insignificant office. He attended only two or three cabinet meetings in eight years, concentrating instead on fulfilling his constitutional responsibility of presiding over the Senate. When called upon to break tie votes, which he did more than any of his successors, he loyally supported the Washington administration and Federalist policies. Adams upheld the presidents power to remove appointees without the consent of the Senate, supported the enforcement of American neutrality during the French Revolution, and defeated commercial discrimination against Britain. At the same time Adams had fundamental differences with Hamiltonian Federalists. Adams supported Hamilton on funding and the assumption of state debts because he thought those measures were necessary to establish a sound financial basis for the United States. He also approved of the National Bank as a depository of government funds. However, he did not approve of the speculative nature of federal securities or paper money designed to attract merchants, manufacturers, and speculators to support the national government out of self-interest. Adams felt that the federal government must remain independent and avoid favoring any special interests. As vice president, however, he considered it his duty to support administration policies.

Presidency. As president between 1797 and 1801 Adams held firm to the belief that he must remain free from party politics in order to rule in the best interests of the nation. Adams did not accept the developing two-party system, and his attempts at nonpartisanship led to vacillating policies and divisions within the Federalist Party. Secretary of State Timothy Pickering, Secretary of the Treasury Oliver Wolcott, and Secretary of War James McHenry took their orders not from President Adams but from former secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton. Sensitive to charges that he was ambitious and spiteful toward opponents, Adams was reluctant to remove cabinet members who were plotting against him. The belief that he must remain above party politics also prevented Adams from building sufficient support for his alternative to Hamiltonian Federalism either in Congress or the nation. On the occasions when he tried to assert his independence he often lacked the political influence to back up his actions. For example, soon after taking office, Adams informed Vice President Thomas Jefferson of his intention to nominate James Madison, a Republican, as special envoy to France, but when Secretary of the Treasury Wolcott threatened to resign over the appointment, Adams withdrew the offer. In May 1797 Adamss defense preparations against France called for a navy, national system of coastal defense, and a small increase of the regular army, especially in the military specialties of artillery and cavalry. Instead, High Federalists in Congress passed Hamiltons program for a larger regular army. When Adams offered command of the army to George Washington, he was also forced to accept Washingtons choice for second in command: Alexander Hamilton. Adams asserted his independence again in 1799 when he dispatched a peace mission to France. Unfortunately, he had not sufficiently established his independence from the unpopular policies of the High Federalists. A disappointed and defeated Adams left Washington, D.C., on the morning of Thomas Jeffersons inauguration.

Adamant to the End. John Adams had twenty-five years to contemplate his presidency and his place in history after he returned to Quincy, Massachusetts. Between 1809 and 1812 he published a series of letters in the Boston Patriot defending his record as diplomat and president. Adams also maintained his political independence, reluctantly endorsing the embargo as a temporary measure, supporting the War of 1812 but criticizing Jeffersons neglect of the navy, and opposing the Hartford Convention. He proudly observed the diplomatic and political career of his son, John Quincy Adams, whose duplication of his fathers political independence cost him a Senate seat and a second presidential term. The death of Mrs. Adams in 1818 was a severe blow, but the renewal of his friendship with Thomas Jefferson in 1812 and the more flattering assessments of his career in his later years were a source of comfort. Adams freely acknowledged his character flaws of vanity and ambition and the failures of his presidency, but he was also justifiably proud of his distinguished diplomatic career and his role in restoring peace with France. His appointment of John Marshall as chief justice of the United States in 1801 also had a significant impact on U.S. constitutional history. His political independence had, on many occasions, cost him popularity and the fame he desired, but Adams admitted that independence was essential to my existence. John Adams died on Independence Day, 4 July 1826, just hours after the death of Thomas Jefferson.


Manning J. Dauer, The Adams Federalists (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1953);

Peter Shaw, The Character of John Adams (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1976).

Adams, John

views updated May 14 2018

John Adams

Born: October 30, 1735
Braintree (now Quincy), Massachusetts
Died: July 4, 1826
Quincy, Massachusetts

American president, vice president, and politician

J ohn Adams, the second president of the United States and the first vice president, also helped in the early years of the republic as a lawyer, writer, congressman, and public speaker. As president, he kept the country at peace when many were calling for war with France. Adams later described his peace decision as "the most splendid diamond in my crown."

Early life and education

John Adams was born in Braintree (now Quincy), Massachusetts, on October 30, 1735, the first of three children born to John Adams and Susanna Boylston Adams. His father was a modest but successful farmer and local officeholder. After some initial reluctance, Adams entered Harvard and received his bachelor's degree in 1755. For about a year he taught school in Worcester, Massachusetts.

Although he gave some thought to entering the ministry, Adams decided to study law instead. While developing his legal practice, he participated in town affairs and contributed essays to Boston newspapers. In 1764 he married Abigail Smith of Wey-mouth, Massachusetts, who was to provide him with important support and assistance during the full life that lay ahead.

Early political career

By 1765 Adams had become known for his skills as a lawyer. After Great Britain passed the Stamp Act, which imposed taxes on printed materials in the American colonies that many viewed as unfair, he moved into the center of Massachusetts political life. He contributed an important series of essays to the Boston newspapers and prepared a series of anti-Stamp Act resolutions for the Braintree town meetings. These resolutions were copied widely throughout the province. In April 1768 Adams moved to Boston and eventually was elected the city's representative to the Massachusetts legislature.

In the spring of 1771, largely for reasons of health, Adams returned to Braintree, where he divided his attention between farming and law. Within a year, however, he was back in Boston. In 1774 he was one of the representatives from Massachusetts to the First Continental Congress. As a representative he helped write letters of protest to Great Britain. He also continued to write newspaper articles about the colonies and their disputes with Britain.

The war and colonial independence

After the battles of Lexington and Concord in Massachusetts on April 17, 1775, began the Revolutionary War (177583), Adams returned to Congress. At this time he believed that independence from Britain would probably be necessary for the American colonies. Congress, however, was not yet willing to agree, and Adams fumed while still more petitions were sent off to England. The best chance of promoting independence, he argued, was for the various colonies to adopt new forms of government. Many provinces sought his advice on setting up these new governments.

By February 1776 Adams was fully committed to American independence. In May, Congress passed a resolution stating that measures should be taken to provide for the "happiness and safety" of the people. Adams wrote the introduction that in effect spelled out the principle of independence. He contributed little to the actual content of the Declaration of Independence but served as "the pillar of its support on the floor of the Congress," according to Thomas Jefferson (17431826). On another committee Adams drew up a model treaty that encouraged Congress to enter into commercial alliances (business deals), but not political alliances, with European nations. Exhausted by his duties, he left Philadelphia in mid-October for Massachusetts. For the next year or so he traveled from Massachusetts to Philadelphia to serve in Congress.

Foreign assignments

In November 1777, Congress elected Adams commissioner to France, and in February he left Boston for what would prove to be an extended stay. Adams spent the next year and a half trying to secure badly needed loans for Congress. He sent numerous long letters to friends and family describing European affairs and observed the French court and national life. After coming home to Massachusetts, Adams was asked by Congress to return to Europe to help negotiate the terms of a peace agreement, which would mark the end of the American Revolution, and then to work on a commercial treaty with Great Britain. The treaty of peace was signed on September 3, 1783.

Before returning permanently to the United States, Adams spent three years as American minister to the Court of Saint James in London. He was unable to make much progress there because relations between the United States and Britain just after the American Revolution were so strained. He also did not have the full support of Congress. Adams eventually resigned and returned to Boston.

The presidency

Once back in Boston, Adams began the final stage of his political career. He was elected vice president in 1789 and served for two terms under President George Washington (17321799). Adams was unhappy in this post; he felt that he lacked the authority to accomplish much. In 1796, despite a strong challenge from Thomas Jefferson and the choice of his own Federalist Party (an early political party that supported a strong federal government) to run a candidate against him, Adams was elected as the second president of the United States.

Adams took office on March 4, 1797. From the beginning his presidency was a stormy one. His cabinet proved difficult to control, and many foreign policy problems arose. The French Revolution (178799) and fighting between England and France caused many Americans to take the sides of both those countries. Still others wanted the United States to remain neutral. Adams found himself caught in the middle.

Although anti-French feelings were running high, President Adams committed himself to a plan of peace with France. This decision enraged most of his opponents. The president's attempts to keep peace made sense; America was still young and not fully established, and entering into an unnecessary war could have been a disaster. Many members of his own Federalist Party were opposed to him, however, and in the end Adams lost the next election to Jefferson by a narrow margin. He was so disappointed over his rejection by the American people that he refused to stay to welcome his successor into office.

John Adams spent the remainder of his life at home on his farm. He retained a lively interest in public affairs, particularly when they involved the rising career of his son, John Quincy Adams (17671848), who would also become president. Adams divided his time between overseeing his farm and writing letters about his personal experiences as well as more general issues of the day. He died at the age of ninetyone in Quincy, Massachusetts, just a few hours after Jefferson's death, on July 4, 1826.

For More Information

Brookhiser, Richard. America's First Dynasty: The Adamses, 17351918. New York: Free Press, 2002.

Ferling, John E. John Adams: A Life. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1992.

McCullough, David G. John Adams. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2001.

Adams, John (1735-1826)

views updated Jun 27 2018

John Adams (1735-1826)


Lawyer and statesman

Background. John Adams was born on 19 October 1735, the first of three sons of John and Susanna Boylston Adams. His father was a shoemaker and farmer in Braintree, Massachusetts. Adams graduated from Harvard in 1755, taught school for a year, and then, in order to avoid family pressure to study for the ministry apprenticed himself to James Putnam, a prominent Worcester lawyer. For two years he did routine clerical work in Putnams office and bore the disadvantage of Putnams insociability, and neglect of me. However, Putnam had a good library, and Adams had enough free time for extensive reading of legal texts. At the end of his two-year apprenticeship, Adams sought admission to the Suffolk County bar.

Making the Grade. Admission to the bar in 1758 was not yet a formal procedurean application to the bar simply had to be endorsed by several members. Adams asked James Gridley and James Otis (then two of the most prominent lawyers in Boston) for such endorsements. Each questioned him extensively on the classics of Roman law and were sufficiently impressed so that Adams was admitted in November. Adams sought to model himself after these elite members of the bar and to distance himself from the common colonial lawyers, the pettifoggers and dirty dablers in the law, as he called them. In 1761, when he was invited to join a new bar association that intended to regulate the practice of law, he did so. The group proposed in 1763 to limit practice before the lower courts to sworn attorneys, but the proposal was not adopted. When a more stringent set of rules was proposed in 1766, Adams was again an enthusiastic supporter.

Civil Cases. Several of the legal cases Adams handled reflected his classical scholarship. In 1766 he represented a whaling-ship captain in a dispute about the ownership of a whale. Adamss client had harpooned a whale, and shortly thereafter men aboard another ship also harpooned it. The custom in the whaling trade was that if the first harpoons line was still attached to the boat when the second harpoon struck, the first boat was entitled to the whale. If the first boats harpoon line was not still attached when the second ship hit the whale, the second boat was entitled to it. Adams prepared an argument in which he traced the development of the rules about property rights in wild animals, going back to Roman law. Seventy-four witnesses testified. Unfortunately no one seems to have recorded whether or not Adams won the case. Another civil case he handled was a divorce in which Adams was able to convince the court to apply English ecclesiastical law. The result was an unusually large alimony judgment for his client.

Criminal Cases. Three criminal cases that Adams handled between 1768 and 1770 gave him great visibility in the community and connected him with the resistance leaders. In 1768 Adams represented John Hancock in admiralty court for a lengthy dispute with customs authorities about his ship, Liberty. The issue in that case was whether Hancock might forfeit his ship for failure to pay some import duties. While Adams quoted extensively from the classical authorities about how the differences between the common law and the admiralty rules were being used to his clients detriment, he was not successful. Later that same year Adams defended a sailor who, in resisting being impressed into the Royal Navy, killed a British officer. Adams was able to convince an admiralty court that the common-law notion of justifiable homicide was applicable. Adams also represented the British Army captain and the eight soldiers accused of killing five townspeople in the Boston Massacre.

Public Official. Adams represented Massachusetts in both Continental Congresses. When independence was declared and Massachusetts established its new government, Adams was named chief justice. His activities in Congress, however, prevented him from taking the seat. He served as one of Congresss three commissioners to France at various times between 1777 and 1783. He also represented the colonies in Spain and Holland during these years, and in 1783 he negotiated the peace treaty that ended the Revolutionary War. Adams attended the Massachusetts constitutional convention and was the principal draftsman of the states constitution (1780). In later years Adams served as ambassador to Britain (1785-1789) and as vice president (1789-1796) and president of the United States (1796-1800).


Daniel R. Coquilette, Justinian in Braintree, in Law in Colonial Massachusetts 1630-1800 (Boston: Colonial Society of Massachusetts, 1984);

Peter Shaw, American Patriots and the Rituals of Revolution (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1981).

Adams, John

views updated Jun 11 2018


John Adams achieved prominence on many levels—as jurist, statesman, and as the second president of the United States. Known for his sharp diplomatic skills, his flair for words, and his spirited activism, he was an instrumental figure in forging the fledgling nation that would become the United States of America.

Adams was born on October 30, 1735, in Braintree (now Quincy), Massachusetts, the son of a farmer. His parents encouraged him in his studies, and pushed him to enter Harvard College to study for the clergy. Upon graduation in 1755, the strong-willed Adams instead decided to teach and study law. He was admitted to the Boston bar in 1758 and established a prestigious legal practice. During the pre–Revolutionary War years, Adams spoke out strongly against many acts enforced by the British government, including the townshend acts, which unjustly taxed items such as glass and tea. He also joined the Sons of Liberty—a group of lawyers, merchants, and businessmen who, in 1765, banded together to oppose the stamp act.

From 1774 to 1778 Adams served as the Massachusetts representative to the continental congress. He entered the judiciary during this period and rendered decisions as chief justice of the Superior Court of Massachusetts from 1775 to 1777. In 1776, he signed the newly created Declaration of Independence.

"Fear is the foundation of most governments."
John Adams

After the war, Adams entered the field of foreign service, acting as commissioner to France in 1777. In 1783, Adams went to Paris with john jay and thomas jefferson to successfully negotiate the treaty of paris with Great Britain, which officially ended the Revolutionary War and established the United States as an

independent nation. In 1785, Adams became the first U.S. minister to Great Britain.

Adams returned to the United States in 1788 and began service to the new government with his election to the office of vice president of the United States. He was the first person to serve in this office and was reelected for a second term in 1792. In 1796, Adams was elected president of the United States. He was the second man to hold this position, following the retirement of the first president, george washington. During his term of office, Adams advocated naval strength; approved the alien and sedition acts of 1798 (1 Stat. 566, 570, 577, 596), which increased the restrictions concerning aliens and imposed harsh penalties on any person who attempted to obstruct the government system; averted war with France; and selected the eminent john marshall as chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. In 1800, Adams ran for the presidency for a second term but was defeated by Thomas Jefferson.

Adams's political and personal jurisprudence was characterized by intense nationalism; some consider him the most influential designer of the new nation's government and identity. A Federalist and a realist who spoke his mind without consideration for political fallout, Adams believed that unchecked power created abuse even in the best of democracies. To that end, he was the most significant advocate for the creation of a balance of powers through a tripartite government: a bicameral legislature, a strong executive, and an independent judiciary. He also authored the state constitution for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, which remains the oldest functioning written constitution in the world. Adams published a number of political treatises, including Thoughts on Government (1776) and Defense of the Constitutions of the United States of America Against the Attacks of Mr. Turgot (1787).

John Adams sought a written constitution based on unwritten natural law. He believed that the common law was the source of unalienable, indefeasible rights of men, the honor and dignity of human nature, the grandeur and glory of the public, and the universal happiness of individuals.

John Adams was also a devoted family man. His wife, Abigail, was a vivacious and witty first lady who openly commented on politics and issues of the day. There were five Adams children, including John Quincy, who served as the sixth president of the United States. John Adams died on July 4, 1826, in Braintree.

further readings

Allen, Brooke. 2002. "John Adams: Realist of the Revolution." The Hudson Review (spring) 55.

McCullough, David. 2001. John Adams. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Ryerson, Richard Alan, ed. 2001. John Adams and the Founding of the Republic. Boston: Massachusetts Historical Society.

Thompson, C. Bradley. 1998. John Adams and the Spirit of Liberty. Lawrence: Univ. Press of Kansas.

Adams, John

views updated May 21 2018

Adams, John (1735–1826), member of the Continental Congress, diplomat, vice president, and second president of the United States.John Adams never soldiered, but throughout his public life he repeatedly faced issues of war and peace.

In June 1775, at the beginning of the Revolutionary War, Adams nominated George Washington to command the Continental army, and in October and November 1775, as a member of the Continental Congress's Naval Committee, he was instrumental in creating the U.S. Navy and Marines. From June 1776 until November 1777, Adams chaired the Board of War and Ordnance, Congress's committee to oversee the Continental army and the conduct of the war. As a U.S. diplomat in Europe after 1778, Adams repeatedly implored France to make a greater military commitment. He emphasized the need for concerted action by Washington's army and the French Navy, a formula that eventually led to victory at the Battle of Yorktown.

Later, faced by the Undeclared Naval War with France (1798–1800) during his presidency, Adams sought to avoid hostilities, fearful that the fragile new nation might not endure another war. He took steps to strengthen the Union's defenses, but also dispatched to Paris the envoys who ultimately negotiated the accord that prevented war. His action split the Federalist Party and contributed to his defeat in the 1800 election. Reflecting on his public career in 1815, Adams said that his greatest achievement had been the preservation of peace during his presidency.


Page Smith , John Adams, 1962.
John Ferling , John Adams: A Life, 1988.

John Ferling

Adams, John

views updated Jun 27 2018

Adams, John (1735–1826) Second US president (1797–1801). Influenced by his radical cousin Samuel Adams, he helped draft the Declaration of Independence (1776) and the Treaty of Paris (1783) ending the American Revolution. Adams was George Washington's vice president (1789–97). His presidency was marked by conflict between the Federalist Party, led by Alexander Hamilton, and Thomas Jefferson's Democratic Republican Party. Adams' moderate stance enabled a negotiated settlement of the XYZ Affair (1797–98). He reluctantly endorsed the Alien and Sedition Acts (1798). Adams was succeeded by Thomas Jefferson.

John Adams

views updated May 23 2018

John Adams ★★½ 2008

Enjoyment rests on whether you can buy Giamatti as the titular founding father and second president of the U.S. Based on the best-selling bio by David McCullough, Adams is intelligent, impatient, irascible, resentful, and deeply devoted to both his country and his wife, the equally resourceful Abigail (Linney). Most of the familiar historical figures are present and accounted for—George Washington (Morse), Benjamin Franklin (Wilkinson), and Thomas Jefferson (Dillane)—as well as such events as the Continental Congress and the Declaration of Independence, but Adams isn't particularly likeable and you'll probably find out more than you could ever want to know. 560m/C DVD . Paul Giamatti, Laura Linney, David Morse, Tom Wilkinson, Stephen (Dillon) Dillane, Zeljko Ivanek, Danny Huston, Sarah Polley, Rufus Sewell, Justin Theroux; D: Tom Hooper; W: Kirk Ellis; C: Tak Fujimoto; M: Robert (Rob) Lane, Joseph Vitarelli. CABLE

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