John Adams (composer)

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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).

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John Adams


Moved to California

Debate Over Grand Pianola Music

Terrorist Event Inspired Opera

Selected compositions

Selected discography


The musical style known as minimalism has been ridiculed by some critics as going nowhere music or needle-stuck-in-the-groove music. Composers Philip Glass and Steve Reich have been criticized for writing what some consider repetitive and monotonous works devoid of either intellectual rigor or expression. John Adams, who could be considered a successor to Glass and Reich, has put minimalist music on a fresh pathone that has won both admirers and detractors.

Adams grew up in New England. His music study was encouraged by his parents, both of whom were amateur musicians. As a youth, he studied clarinet with Felix Viscuglia, a member of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. At home, all types of music were considered equally important. In the house where I grew up, we had Mozart and we had Benny Goodman on the record player, and I was not raised to think there was a difference between them, Adams told Nancy Malitz in the New York Times.

While at Harvard College, where he enrolled in 1965, Adams studied composition with Leon Kirchner, Roger Sessions, and Earl Kim, conducted the Bach Society Orchestra, and was substitute clarinetist for the Boston Symphony Orchestra and the Boston Opera Company. He also played clarinet for the American premiere of Austrian-born composer Arnold Schoenbergs opera Moses und Aro and in 1969 was the soloist at the world premiere of American composer Walter Pistons Clarinet Concerto at New York Citys famed Carnegie Hall. Adams was the first undergraduate in the history of Harvard University to be allowed to submit a musical composition in lieu of a prose work as his honors thesisa remarkable event particularly in light of the roster of distinguished composers who had earned degrees there.

Moved to California

Adams received his B.A. magna cum laude from Harvard and completed his M.A. there in 1971. Then, tired of the East Coast academic music scenewhich he considered outmoded and hostilehe moved to San Francisco, where he came under the influence of composers John Cage, Morton Feldman, Christian Wolff, and Robert Ashley, who, with the exception of Ashley, were not based in California but whose experimental, open techniques of composition appealed to Adams. Adamss works of the mid-1970s, including Grounding and Onyx, were composed largely for electronic media. Also in the mid-seventies, what has become known as minimalismmusic based on repeated and shifting rhythmic, melodic, and harmonic patterns

For the Record

Born February 15, 1947, in Worcester, MA; married Deborah OGrady; children: Emily, Sam. Education: Harvard University, B.A. (magna cum laude), 1969, M.A. in music composition, 1971.

Composer-in-residence, Marlboro Festival, 1970; member of composition faculty, San Francisco Conservatory, 1972-82; director and founder, 1978, of San Francisco Symphonys New and Unusual Music series; composer-inresidence, San Francisco Symphony, 1982-85.

Awards: Julius Stratton Prize, Friends of Switzerland, 1969; Guggenheim Foundation fellowship, 1982; Grammy Award, 1987, for Nixon in China.

Addresses: Home Berkeley, CA. Record company Elektra/Nonesuch, 75 Rockefeller Plaza, New York, NY 10019.

was coming into its own, with Californians Terry Riley and La Monte Young leading the way, followed by the younger, East Coast composers Steve Reich and Philip Glass. Adams, roughly ten years junior to Reich and Glass, developed his own broader, and more expressive, style of minimalism; earlier minimalists generally composed music for small groups, but Adams, beginning with 1980s Harmoniuma piece for huge chorus and orchestra set to texts by early 17th-century English poet John Donne and 19th-century American poet Emily Dickinsonwrote, and continues to write, primarily for large performing forces.

Adamss growing prominence was apparent in 1982, when Time contributor Michael Walsh wrote: The fastest-rising minimalist composerand potentially the most influential of allis John Adams.... The least minimal of the three [Glass, Reich, and Adams], Adams has forged a big, strong, personal style, expressed in complex forms that employ a more extensive use of dissonance than other minimalists.... His highly accessible music makes a bridge between the avantgarde and traditional concert-hall fare.

Debate Over Grand Pianola Music

Though he was rapidly becoming one of the most popular composers of his time, some thought that Adams went too far with Grand Pianola Music, composed in 1981 and 1982, and that by incorporating all kinds of music, serious and humorous, he had created a piece that bordered on the ridiculous. Others disagreed; Gregory Sandow defended the piece in the Village Voice, asserting, In Grand Pianola Music, [Adams] revels in sounds weve heard beforeand thats his greatest victory. Theres nothing wrong with recycling familiar music. Composers of the past did it a lot; they were writing in the style of their times.... A classical composer who wants to write music that sounds like anything the classical audience has heard before is all but forced to use styles of the past, which can only be responsibly done if something in your tone suggests you know youre doing it. Adams succeeds with triumphant exuberanceand so Grand Pianola Music has been damned as vulgar by people uneasy about the age they live in.

Two of Adamss later works, both operas, likewise fell under considerable scrutiny. 1987s Nixon in China is a dramatization of President Richard M. Nixons historic visit to Beijing in 1972. Although its creatorsAdams, director Peter Sellars, and librettist Alice Goodmanconsidered it a satire, Nixon in China met with objection from some reviewers, partly because they believed the characters mythic portrayal was unsuitable given their less-than-pristine reputations.

Terrorist Event Inspired Opera

More controversial, in 1991, was The Death of Klinghoffer, an operatic retelling of the 1985 hijacking by Palestinians of the Italian cruise ship Achille Lauro and subsequent assassination of a disabled Jewish passenger, Leon Klinghoffer. Some critics and operagoers were offended by what they considered a pro-Palestinian bias; others believed that the event dramatized was inappropriate for operatic treatment. Adams summed up the controversy in the New York Times Magazine: It is so clear that we havent taken sides, but that wont prevent people from leaping to judgment. I am sure that there will be people who think that having Palestinians sing music which is not ugly or aggressive, but which is expressive and sometimes personal and beautiful, is to glorify hideous facts. And I am sure there are some who feel that to portray this event at all is just further Zionist propaganda.

Despite disagreement among critics and the public about his work, Adamss star continues to rise; in November of 1991 his piece El Dorado was premiered by the San Francisco Symphony. Of his career, Adams was quoted as saying in Time, [Before,] I thought that if I wrote something that was attractive there must be something wrong with it. Now I feel there are a lot of people out there actually waiting for my next piece. Continued acclaim has proven the composers words prophetic.

Selected compositions

Chamber music

American Standard (for unspecified ensemble), 1973.

Grounding, 1975.

Onyx, 1976.

Phrygian Gates (for piano), 1977.

Shaker Loops (for string septet), 1978.

Orchestral music

Common Tones in Simple Time (for orchestra), 1979.

Harmonium (for large chorus and orchestra), 1980.

Grand Pianola Music (for small orchestra, two sopranos, and two pianos), 1981-82.

Harmonielehre (for large orchestra), 1984-85.

El Dorado (for orchestra), 1991.


Matter of Heart (film score), 1982.

Nixon in China (opera), 1987.

The Death of Klinghoffer (opera), 1991.

Selected discography

Shaker Loops, Philips.

Harmonium, ECM.

Grand Pianola Music, EMI/Angel.

Harmonielehre, Elektra/Nonesuch.

Nixon in China, Elektra/Nonesuch.

The Death of Klinghoffer, Elektra/Nonesuch, 1992.



Bakers Biographical Dictionary of Musicians, 7th edition, edited by Nicholas Slonimsky, Schirmer, 1984.

Marshall, Ingram D., The New Grove Dictionary of American Music, edited by H. Wiley Hitchcock and Stanley Sadie, Macmillan, 1986.


Esquire, December 1984.

New York Times Magazine, August 25, 1991.

Time, September 20, 1982.

Village Voice, January 29, 1985.

Additional information for this profile was obtained from liner notes by Allan Kozinn to Grand Pianola Music, EMI/Angel.

Joyce Harrison

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Adams, John

Excerpt from The Diary and Autobiography of John Adams

Reprinted in Major Problems in American Colonial History

Published in 1993

Edited by Karen Ordahl Kupperman

"The Difficulties that attend the study may discourage some, but they never discouraged me. . . ."

America was the first nation to provide free education to all citizens. The importance of an educated population dated to the earliest years of the colonial period. New England Puritans were the first to establish schools, but solely for the purpose of giving religious education and training ministers. (Puritans were a Protestant Christian group that observed strict moral and religious codes.) Adults and children were expected to be able to read the Bible and to understand the laws of the colony, which were based on the Bible.

For instance, in 1647 the Massachusetts Bay legislature passed a law stating that parents must educate their children. If they failed to do so, community leaders would assume the responsibility. Three years later a similar law was enacted in Connecticut. Boys and girls in rural communities were sent to "dame" schools where they were taught grammar by female members of the church. In towns, male teachers called masters headed schools that admitted only boys. Within fifty years New England had an exceptionally high literacy rate for the time—seventy percent of men and forty-five percent of women could read and write.

Education was given less priority in the other colonies during the seventeenth century, mainly because churches did not stress learning as a way to comprehend the will of God. Anglicans (followers of the Church of England) in the southern colonies, for instance, relied on ministers to guide them with sermons, worship services, and parish visits. Baptists and Quakers in the middle colonies, such as Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, and Delaware, saw little value in literacy, since they relied on individual inspiration rather than the Scriptures for an understanding of God. Nevertheless schools had been started throughout the colonies by 1700, and all were affiliated with a church. The first school in New York was established by the Dutch Reformed church (a branch of Puritanism based in the Netherlands), and in Philadelphia the first educational institution was founded by Quakers in 1689. Families living in rural areas or small towns—especially in the South—usually hired private tutors to teach their children.

By the early eighteenth century, however, schools were established with no church affiliation (connection). Colonists had become aware that learning was necessary to prepare for everyday life. For example, governments, businesses, and legal systems required literate officials and employees. Also many colonists saw education as a route to prosperity and moral improvement. In Maryland and South Carolina there was a movement to provide schooling for the poor, and throughout the colonies the wealthy were leaving money for schools in their wills.

This upsurge in learning had produced significant trends by 1760. Many people were pursuing teaching careers, which had previously been limited to ministers. The literacy rate increased dramatically. Nevertheless the education of women was still a low priority, since women could not participate in public life and therefore needed only to know how to read. The exceptions were daughters of wealthy families, who were taught social graces such as painting, singing, or playing musical instruments.

Higher education was also emphasized during the colonial period. In 1636 Harvard College opened its doors in Cambridge, Massachusetts, becoming the first institution of higher learning in the colonies. (Harvard was named for John Harvard, a Puritan minister who donated a large sum of money and his private library.) Courses in the classics and philosophy were offered in addition to religion, but men who wished to study law or medicine had to go to Europe. For half a century Harvard was the only college in America, and it served mainly to educate the sons of Puritans.

Finally, in 1693, the College of William and Mary (named for English monarchs William III and Mary II) was established in Williamsburg, Virginia, to train Anglican ministers and to provide a college for the sons of Virginia plantation owners. Within fifteen years William and Mary had added courses in law and medicine.

In the meantime, Harvard had been influenced by educational trends in Europe. The college expanded its curriculum (program of study) to include the liberal arts (grammar, rhetoric, logic, arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music) as well as science, philosophy, politics, and other subjects. Harvard also added another year of study at the freshman level, dropping the average age at entry to between fifteen or sixteen. The basic requirement for admission was a solid background in the Latin language.

Eventually some Harvard graduates became concerned that the college had strayed from Puritan teachings because fewer graduates were going into the ministry. In 1701 the group started a college to educate ministers in a traditional Puritan curriculum. For several years the school was moved among various locations in Connecticut. Finally in 1720 a permanent building was constructed in New Haven, Connecticut, and the college was named Yale College for Elihu Yale, who had contributed a large sum of money to the enterprise. Yet by 1760 Yale had also adopted European trends.

Colleges were established much later in the middle colonies. Unlike New England and the southern colonies, New York was populated by numerous religious groups, and no church had gained enough dominance to open an institution of higher learning. The Quakers still controlled Pennsylvania, but they had no interest in starting a divinity (religious) school because they did not have ordained ministers. Yet Presbyterians (a branch of Puritanism) were arriving in Pennsylvania in increasing numbers. At first their ministers attended Harvard, but they soon saw a need for their own college. In 1746 the Presbyterians founded the interdenominational (open to all religious groups) College of New Jersey at Elizabethtown. The school was moved to Princeton, New Jersey, in 1754 and was officially named Princeton College in the 1760s. In 1754 King's College (now Columbia University) was started in New York City as a nondenominational institution.

" . . . I said, this is certainly a tavern."

In 1680 New York colonists Jasper Danckaerts and Peter Sluyter paid a visit to Harvard. They expected to see an impressive institution, but instead they found that only ten students were enrolled and the college barely had enough funds to stay open. Danckaerts and Sluyter were also surprised that the students were heavy smokers and could not even speak Latin (which was supposed to be one of the basic requirements for admission to Harvard).

We started out to go to Cambridge, lying to the northeast of Boston, in order to see their college, and printing office. We reached Cambridge, about eight o'clock. It is not a large village, and the houses stand very much apart. The college building is the most conspicuous [noticeable] among them. We went to it, expecting to see something curious, as it is the only college, or would-be academy of the Protestants in all America, but we found ourselves mistaken. In approaching the house, we neither heard nor saw anything mentionable; but, going to the other side of the building, we heard noise enough in an upper room, to lead my comrade to suppose they were engaged in disputation [argument].

We entered, and went up stairs, when a person met us, and requested us to walk in, which we did. We found there, eight or ten young fellows, sitting around, smoking tobacco, with the smoke of which the rooms was so full, that you could hardly see; and the whole house smelled so strong of it, that when I was going up stairs, I said, this is certainly a tavern. We excused ourselves, that we could speak English only a little, but understood Dutch or French, which they did not. However, we spoke as well as we could. We inquired how many professors there were, and they replied not one, that there was no money to support one. We asked how many students there were. They said at first, thirty, and then came down to twenty; I afterwards understood there are probably not ten. They could hardly speak a word of Latin, so that my comrade could not converse with them. They took us to the library where there was nothing particular. We looked over it a little. They presented us with a glass of wine. This is all we ascertained [found out] there. The minister of the place goes there morning and evening to make prayer, and has charge over them. The students have tutors or masters.

Colbert, David, ed. Eyewitness to America. New York: Pantheon Books, 1997, pp. 37–38.

The first institution that abandoned religious requirements was the Academy of Philadelphia, founded in 1751 with the support of Benjamin Franklin (see Benjamin Franklin: A Biography in his Own Words). His goal was to provide a "useful" education, with courses in astronomy, arithmetic, accounting, and geometry, as well as English, history, botany, agriculture, mechanics, Greek, and Latin. In 1755 the academy was renamed the Academy and College of Philadelphia (now the University of Pennsylvania), and is now regarded as the basis for the public education system that was later adopted in the United States.

By the end of the colonial period six colleges had been established in America, all of them admitting only male students. With fewer men entering the ministry, the colleges were increasingly offering nonreligious courses of study. Yet there were still no professional schools, and young men who wanted to become doctors or lawyers had to earn their degrees in Europe. Those who could not afford a European education attended colonial colleges and then practiced for two or three years with a qualified professional. The autobiography of John Adams, a Harvard student and future president of the United States, gives the modern reader insight into the experiences of a young man who found himself in this situation.

John Adams (1735–1826) was born on a farm near Braintree, Massachusetts, the oldest of three sons of John Adams and Susannah Boylston Adams. Young John Adams grew up in a Puritan community, going to church twice on Sundays and working hard on the farm the rest of the week. His family valued education, so he learned to read at an early age. He began attending a dame school run by a neighbor, Mrs. Belcher, and he also excelled in arithmetic. But he lost interest in education once he had moved to a public school, where he studied Latin grammar under an uninspiring master. By the age of ten he was skipping school, and he spent his time playing at nearby beaches and bogs. When the elder John Adams found out he was furious. An uneducated man himself, he had placed great hopes in his son's studying for the ministry at nearby Harvard College and escaping the drudgery of the farm. The boy announced that he wanted to be a farmer and had no desire to go to college, but his father won out. Adams remained bored with school, so when he was fourteen his father agreed to let him study with a tutor named Mr. Marsh. Marsh taught him to love learning, and within a year he had passed the Harvard entrance exams.

Adams entered Harvard in 1751, two months before his sixteenth birthday. Life at the college was very strict. The ninety students got up each morning at five o'clock, attended chapel at six, and had breakfast at seven. Classes started at eight, then the afternoon was set aside for study until supper at six. Students had some free time until curfew, when they snuffed their candles, put out fires in fireplaces, and went to bed. In addition to following this rigid schedule, students were forbidden to tell a lie, drink alcohol, or play cards. They could not go skating without permission, and they were required to observe the Sabbath (Sunday), a day set aside for church services and religious contemplation. All violators were fined ten shillings (a sum of British money equal to about $1.20) for each offense. No one was allowed to leave the college grounds without a good reason and permission from his tutor.

Adams thrived at Harvard in spite of the rules. He enjoyed spending time in the library, where he discovered many new ideas. He had been studying for the ministry, but he soon had doubts about narrow Puritan beliefs and decided to become a teacher. After graduating in 1755, when he was almost twenty years old, Adams took a job as a schoolmaster at a grammar school in Worcester, Massachusetts. Within a year he realized he was interested in learning law, so he arranged to study with James Putnam, a prominent Worcester lawyer. For two years Adams lived with Putnam, teaching school during the day and working in Putnam's office at night. He copied deeds and wills, prepared briefs, discussed cases, and studied law. In 1758 Adams went to Boston, where he was introduced into the legal profession by the prominent lawyers Jeremiah Gridley and James Otis.

Things to Remember While Reading an Excerpt from The Diary and Autobiography of John Adams:

  • This excerpt from Adams's diary begins just after his arrival in Boston, when he met Gridley and Otis and other members of the legal profession. At this point Adams had not been admitted to the bar (an association of lawyers who are permitted to represent clients and try cases in court), and he was seeking advice about how to become a lawyer.
  • Adams felt out of place in Boston. As the son of a farmer, he was dazzled by the elite social world—the "Spacious and elegant" court room, the "gayest Company of Gentlemen and the finest Row of Ladies." On his first visit to the court house, he also found the assembled lawyers to be a "sour" group. During his time in Boston, Adams made contacts that enabled him to join the ranks of the elite and become one of the great leaders of the American Revolution (1775–83).
  • Keep in mind that there were no law schools in the colonies, and Adams had to obtain his legal education by studying with practicing lawyers. His diary gives the modern reader a glimpse into the process a young colonial American went through in order to enter the legal profession. One step was to submit to a review of his education and credentials. For instance, in the entry for October 26, Adams described his meeting with Mr. Prat. Prat questioned him extensively about such matters as his academic studies, his work with Putnam in Worcester, and the status of his legal studies. Notice that Adams did not like Prat, finding him "ill natured" in comparison to Gridley, who was "good natured."
  • Gridley gave Adams numerous tips and bits of advice. At one point he cautioned Adams not to practice law for profit, or "the Gain of it," but for the pursuit of law itself. He also told the aspiring attorney not to marry early because he would slow his progress ("obstruct your Improvement") and take on too many financial responsibilities ("involve you in Expence"). In addition, Gridley warned against socializing too much ("not to keep much company") because a lawyer must constantly apply himself to his work. Adams appears to have taken Gridley's last piece of advice. In his diary he showed that he was very conscientious; for example, he reminded himself to pay better attention to small details and become more organized. He was already acquiring the habits of a lawyer.
  • On the recommendation of Gridley, Adams was admitted to the bar and qualified to practice law. Adams was an outsider (he was "unknown" in Boston). He was certain that Samuel Quincy, another aspiring lawyer, would be admitted to the bar because he already knew everyone in the Boston legal community. At this point Adams was without a patron (sponsor), so he was sure his own request for admission would be turned down. At the last minute Gridley spoke up for him.

Excerpt from The Diary and Autobiography of John Adams

Tuesday [24 October]

Rode to Boston. Arrived about after 10. Went into the Court House, and sett down by Mr. Paine [Robert Treat Paine; a fellow student] att the Lawyers Table. I felt Shy, under Awe and concern, for Mr. Gridley, Mr. Prat, Mr. Otis, Mr. Kent, and Mr. Thatcher were all present and looked sour. I had no Acquaintance with any Body but Paine and Quincy [Samuel Quincy; a student also seeking admission to the bar] and they took but little Notice. However I attended Court Steadily all Day, and at night, went toConsort with Samll [Samuel] Quincy and Dr. Gardiner. There I saw the most Spacious and elegant Room, the gayest Company of Gentlemen and the finest Row of Ladies, that ever I saw. But the weather was so dull and I sodisordered that I could not make one half the observations that I wanted to make.

Wednesday [25 October]

Went in the morning to Mr. Gridleys, and asked the favour of his Advice what Steps to take for an Introduction to the Practice of Law in this County. He answered "get sworn" [admitted to the bar].

Ego [I; Adams]. But in order to that, sir, as I have no Patron, in this County.

G. [Gridley] I will recommend you to the Court. Mark the Day the Courtadjourns to in order to make up Judgments. Come to Town that Day, and in the mean Time I will speak to the Bar for the Bar must be consulted, because the Court always inquires, if it be with Consent of the Bar.


Consort: Conjunction or association


Disordered: Lack of order


Adjourns: Suspend until a later stated time


Rhetorick: The study or writing or speaking as a means of communication or persuasion

Common law

Common law: The body of law which is the basis for the United States legal system, except in Louisiana

Civil law

Civil law: The law of civil or private rights

Admiralty law

Admiralty law: Law relating to the sea

Natural law

Natural law: The law derived from nature


Sollicitor Lawyer who represents clients in lower courts


Scrivener: A professional or public copyist or writer

Then Mr. Gridley inquired what Method of Study I had pursued, what Latin Books I read, what Greek, what French. What I had read uponRhetorick. Then he took his Common Place Book [a guide to law] and gave me Ld. [Lord] Hales Advice to a Student of theCommon Law, and when I had read that, he gave me Ld. C[hief]J[ustice] Reeves Advice [to] his Nephew, in the Study of the common Law. Then He gave me a Letter from Dr. Dickins, Regius Professor of Law at the University of Cambridge, to him, pointing out a Method of Studying thecivil Law. Then he turned to a Letter He wrote himself to Judge Lightfoot, Judge of the Admiralty in Rhode Island, directing to a Method of Studying theAdmiralty Law. Then Mr. Gridley run a Comparison between the Business and studies of a Lawyer or Gentlemen of the Bar, in England, and that of one here. A Lawyer in this Country must study common Law and civil Law, andnatural Law, and Admiralty Law, and must do the duty of a Counsellor, a Lawyer, an Attorney, asollicitor, and even of ascrivener, so that the Difficulties of the Profession are much greater here than in England.

The Difficulties that attend the study may discourage some, but they never discouraged me. . . .

I have a few Pieces of Advice to give you Mr. Adams. One is to pursue the Study of the Law rather than the Gain of it. Pursue the Gain of it enough to keep out of theBriars, but give your main Attention to the study of it.

The next is, not to marry early. For an early Marriage will obstruct your Improvement, and in the next Place, twill involve you in Expence.

Another Thing is not to keep much Company. For this application of a Man who aims to be a lawyer must beincessant. His Attention to his Books must be constant, which is inconsistent with keeping much Company.

In the study of Law the common Law be sure deserves your first and last Attention, and He has conquered all the Difficulties of this Law, who is Master of theInstitutes. You must conquer the Institutes. The Road of Science is much easier, now, than it was when I sett out. I began with Co. Litt. and broke thro.

I asked his Advice about studying Greek. He answered it is a matter of meer Curiosity.-After this long and familiar Conversation we went to Court. Attended all Day and in the Evening I went to ask Mr. ThatchersConcurrence with the Bar. Drank Tea and spent the whole Evening, uponoriginal sin, act of disobedience


Briars: Debt


Incessant: Continuing without interuption


Institutes: Major areas of academic study


Concurrence: Cooperation or agreement or union in action

Orginal sin

Orginal sin: The sin that marks all human beings as a result of Adam's first

Origin of Evil, the Plan of the Universe, and at last, upon Law. . . .

Thursday [26 October]

Went in the morning to wait on Mr. Prat. He inquired if I had been sworn at Worcester? No. Have you a Letter from Mr. Putnam [James Putnam, the lawyer with whom Adams studied in Worcester] to the Court? No. It would have been most proper to have done one of them things first. When a young Gentleman goes from me into another County, I always write in his favour to the Court in that County, or if you had been sworn, there, you would have been intitled to be sworn here. But now, no Body in this County knows any Thing about you. So no Body can say any Thing in your favour, but by hearsay. I believe you have made a properProficiency in science, and that you will do very well from what I have heard, but that is only hearsay. [How different is this from Gridleys Treatment? Besides it is weak, for neither the Court nor the Bar will question theVeracity of Mr. Gridly and Mr. Prat, so that the only Uncertainty that can remain is whether Mr. Putnam was inEarnest, in the Account he gave of my Morals and Studies to them Gentleman, which cannot be removed by a Line from him, or by my being sworn at Worcester, or any other Way than by getting Mr. Putnam sworn.] After this, he asked me a few, short Questions about the Course of my studies which I answered, and then came off as full of Wrath as [I] was full of Gratitude when I left Gridley the morning before. Prat is infinitely harder of Access than Gridley. He is ill natured, and Gridley is good natured.-Attended Court all Day, and at night waited on Otis at his office where I conversed with him and he, with great Ease and familiarity, promised me to join the Bar in recommending me to the Court. . . .

Let me remarke here on important neglect of the last Week. I omittedminuting the Names of the Cases at Trial in my Ivory Book, and I omitted to keep Pen, Ink, and Paper at my Lodgings, in order to comitt to Writing, at Night, the Cases and Points of Law that were argued andadjudged in the Day.

Let me remember to mark in my Memorandum Book, the Names of the Cases, and the Terms and Points of Law that occur in each Case, to look these Terms and Points in the Books at Otis's, Prats or any other office, and to digest and write down the whole in the Evening at my Lodgings. This will bereaping some real Advantage, by my Attendance on the Courts, and, without this, the Observations that I may make will lie in total Confusion in my mind.

Friday, Saturday, Sunday, Monday [27-30 October]


Proficiency: Advancement in knowledge or skill


Veracity: Truthfulness


Earnest: Deep sincerity


Minuting Keeping track of


Adjudged: To pronounce judicially


Reaping: Obtaining


Idleness: Laziness


Gallanting: To pay court to ladies

All Spent in absoluteIdleness, or what is worse,gallanting the Girls.

Thursday [2 November]

Rode as far as Smelt Brook. Breakfasted, made my fire and amnow set down to Van Muyden [a book written by Van Muyden] inEarnest. His latin is easy, his deffinitions are pretty clear, and his Divisions of the subject, arejudicious.

Monday [6? November]

Went to Town. Went to Mr. Gridleys office, but he had notreturned to Town from Brookline [a town near Boston]. Went again.Not returned. Attended Court till after 12 and began to grow uneasyexpecting that Quincy would be sworn and I have no Patron, whenMr. Gridly made his Appearance, and on sight of me, whispered toMr. Prat, Dana, Kent, Thatcher &c. about me. Mr. Prat said no Bodyknew me. Yes, says Gridley, I have tried him, he is a very sensible Fellow.-At last He rose up and bowed to his right Hand and said "Mr.Quincy," when Quincy rose up, then bowed to me, "Mr. Adams,"when I walked out. "May it please your Honours, I have 2 youngGentlemen Mr. Q. and Mr. Adams to present for the Oath of anAttorney. Of Mr. Q it is sufficient for me to say he has lived 3 Yearswith Mr. Prat. Of Mr. Adams, as he is unknown to your Honours, It isnecessary to say that he has lived between 2 and 3 Years with Mr.Put[nam] of Worcester, has a good Character from him, and all others who know him, and that he was with me the other day severalHours, and I take it he is qualified to study the Law by his scholarshipand that he has made a very considerable, a very great Proficiencyin the Principles of the Law, and therefore that the Clients Interestmay be safely intrusted in his Hands. I therefore recommend himwith the Consent of the Bar to your Honors for the Oath." Then Mr.Prat said 2 or 3 Words and the Clerk was ordered to swear to us. Afterthe Oath Mr. Gridly took me by the Hand, wished me much Joy andrecommended me to the Bar. I shook Hands with the Bar, andreceived their Congratulations, and invited them over to Stones [apub] to drink some Punch. Where the most of usresorted, and hada very cheerful [Chat].


Judicious: Having, exercising, or characterized by sound judgment


Resorted: A place frequented by people for relaxation

What happened next . . .

Adams returned to the family farm in Braintree and set up his own law practice. In 1764 he married Abigail Smith. Adams moved on to a brilliant career as a lawyer, statesman, and revolutionary leader. He entered politics as an opponent of repressive British measures such as the Stamp Act, which led to the American Revolution (1775–1783). (The Stamp Act of 1765 was the first direct tax levied by Britain on the American colonies. It required that a stamp be placed on all documents, newspapers, commercial bills, and other published materials issued in the colonies. The revenues from the stamp tax would be used for defense. The act produced intense opposition.) In 1774 Adams was a delegate to the First Continental Congress (the newly formed legislature of the thirteen colonies). He was one of the principal drafters of the Declaration of Independence (a document that declared American independence from Britain; adopted July 4, 1776). The thirteen colonies then became known as the United States of America.

At the end, a difficult term as United States ambassador (official representative of a government) to France, Adams helped draw up the Treaty of Paris (1783), which ended the American Revolution. From 1789–1797 he served as vice president under George Washington, the first president of the new nation. Adams was elected the second United States president, serving one term (1797–1801). After leaving office he retired to Quincy, Massachusetts, where he wrote and received many letters. His most notable correspondence was with Thomas Jefferson, another revolutionary leader and third United States president. Adams died in Quincy at the age of ninety–one.

Did you know . . .

  • Abigail Adams was one of the most outstanding first ladies in American history. She was instrumental in the success of her husband as president and political leader. She was a productive letter writer, and her correspondence provides a rich source of information about life in colonial and revolutionary America.
  • Abigail and John Adams's son, John Quincy Adams, was the sixth president of the United States.
  • John Adams and Thomas Jefferson died on the same day—July 4, 1826—the fiftieth anniversary of American independence. Just before dying Adams reportedly said, "Thomas Jefferson survives." He was unaware that Jefferson had died only a few hours earlier at Monticello, in Virginia.
  • In 1721 John Adams's maternal grandfather, Zabdiel Boylston, was persuaded by amateur scientist Cotton Mather to administer the first smallpox inoculation (vaccination) in America. (Smallpox is a deadly viral disease; inoculation involves introducing a microorganism of the virus into the body to produce immunity.) Smallpox inoculation was unproven at the time, so the procedure was considered by some to be dangerous. Threats were even made against the lives of both Boylston and Mather. Boylston inoculated 240 persons, including his son and two of his slaves, and all but six survived.

For more information

Brill, Marlene Targ. Encyclopedia of Presidents: John Adams. Chicago: Children's Press, 1986.

Ellis, Joseph S. Passionate Sage: The Character and Legacy of John Adams. New York: Norton, 1994.

Ferling, John E. John Adams: A Life. New York: Henry Holt & Company, 1996.

John Adams. Available September 30, 1999.

Kupperman, Karen Ordahl, ed. Major Problems in American Colonial History. Lexington, Mass.: D. C. Heath, 1993, pp. 411–14.

Middleton, Richard. Colonial America: A History, 1585–1776. Second edition. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell Publishers, 1996, pp. 291–95.

Nagel, Paul C. Descent from Glory: Four Generations of the John Adams Family. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1999.

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John Adams

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

U.S. president, vice president, lawyer, writer

John Adams fought for American independence and liberties with extraordinary zeal and patriotism. A brilliant writer, lawyer, public speaker, and independent thinker, he conveyed his ideas with clarity and boldness. In his career as a lawyer and public servant, he was stubborn, fiery, extremely hardworking and hard-driving, and completely absorbed in whatever issue was at hand. The American people never viewed him as warmly as they did George Washington (1732–1799; served 1789–97; see entry in volume 2) and Thomas Jefferson (1743–1826; served 1801–9; see entry in volume 1), the nation's first and third presidents. However, those who knew him best wrote of his humor, generosity, honesty, affection for his family, and devotion to his religion.

"Honesty, sincerity, and openness, I esteem marks of a good mind."

Early in Adams's career, he developed a philosophy on which he based his approach to creating a new government for America. Adams believed that humans were motivated by self-interest and a deep desire to be noticed or gain a reputation. He assumed individuals would sacrifice the interests of others to promote their own self-interest. From his studies of many societies, he also concluded that the struggle between the rich and poor classes, or aristocracy and common people, was always present. To protect liberties for all, Adams argued for a balanced government that would not allow the aristocracy or the common people to gain too much power. He believed the key to this form of government was a legislature with two houses, one representing the common people and one the aristocracy. Further, he believed a strong executive, or president, with veto power over legislation needed to be elected by the people. Like George Washington, Adams was opposed to the development of political parties, which he believed worked for their own interests and not the common good. However, both Washington and Adams became known as Federalists, supporters of a strong central, or federal, government.

By the early 1770s, Adams was the finest lawyer in Massachusetts. He would go on to become the first U.S. vice president and the second U.S. president. Of his many accomplishments, he considered these his most important: writing the Massachusetts state constitution, influencing the structure of the U.S. government as created in the Constitution; his ten-year foreign diplomatic career, and during his presidency, keeping the United States from going to war with France.

Young John

John Adams was born on October 30, 1735, in Braintree (later called Quincy), Massachusetts. John's great-great-great-grandfather, Henry Adams of Somersetshire, England, arrived in Braintree in 1638 as part of the Puritan migration from England. Puritans were a religious group known as Dissenters who had separated from the Church of England in the 1500s. They were persecuted in England and began coming to America in 1628. The Puritans settled in present-day New England and established the Congregational Church.

John was born to John Adams, a deacon of the local Congregational church, and Susanna Boylston, the daughter of a prominent family from nearby Brookline. John's first fifteen years were spent roaming through beautiful hills and orchards, swimming in brooks and the Neponset River, playing ball, and going to community parties called frolics. He learned to read at home, then attended a school in the kitchen of a neighbor who taught a handful of children. Later, he attended a small local private school where he acquired a copy of Orations by Marcus Tullius Cicero (106–43 BCE), a proud possession of his youth.

A promising student at fifteen, Adams was admitted to Harvard College and became an avid reader. While at Harvard, he was told he had a talent for public speaking and would make a good lawyer. Adams's father had hoped his son would become a minister. Already showing his independence of thought, Adams decided to pursue law upon graduation.

Legal preparation

Choosing the legal profession meant Adams had to be trained in a practicing attorney's office and pay associated fees. To earn money, he began teaching at the age of twenty in a one-room schoolhouse in Worcester, about 60 miles from Braintree.

While in Worcester, Adams began keeping a journal, a practice he continued throughout his life. He wrote only to and for himself, describing the passing of each day, how well he carried out his duties, and how he wanted to improve. Some of his self-improvement resolutions were to read more, quit chewing tobacco, stop daydreaming so much, and quit acting conceited. In those early years, Adams worked out for himself what his values and approach to life would be. High on his list of valued traits were honesty, sincerity, openness, and respect for friendships. He also vowed to think for himself about all issues.

Soon, Adams was ready to move beyond his tiny classroom. He hoped to build a reputation as a fine lawyer in the larger world. In the summer of 1756, Adams contracted for law training with Worcester attorney James Putnam (1725–1789) for two years. He continued to teach in the day but at night read through Putnam's extensive law books.

After two years, Adams returned to Braintree to prepare for the required oral legal exams. In the fall of 1759, Adams passed his exams after being quizzed for several hours by Boston attorney Jeremiah Gridley (1702–1767). Adams was admitted to the legal profession on November 6, 1759. Soon, he started his legal practice.

Husband and father

On May 25, 1761, Adams's life took a sudden turn. His father died during an influenza epidemic. Adams inherited approximately one-third of his father's estate, including 40 acres of land and a house next to the house in which he grew up.

On October 25, 1764, Adams married nineteen-year-old Abigail Smith, daughter of William Smith (1707–1783), a pastor from Weymouth, Massachusetts, and Elizabeth Quincy (1721–1775). Adams had courted Abigail Adams (1744–1818; see entry in volume 1) for five years, riding over Penn's Hill to Weymouth, 5 miles from Braintree. Abigail loved books and poetry as much as John did, and she was widely read. Her father, Reverend Smith, was a Harvard graduate and had a personal library of two hundred books. John's marriage to Abigail, every bit his equal in intelligence and spirit, was the most important decision in his life. Abigail kept her husband centered and focused, and he would always cherish his family life above every other activity or duty to which the new nation soon called him. John and Abigail would correspond regularly during John's long absences from home, which were a necessary part of carrying out his government missions. She always addressed her letters "My Dearest Friend" and never failed to speak her mind on issues of the day.

The Adamses' first child, a daughter named Abigail and nicknamed Nabby, was bornon July 14,1765. Two yearsl ater, John Quincy was born. He would grow up to become the nation's sixth president. John and Abigail had three more children: Susanna (1768–1770), Charles (1770–1800), and Thomas Boylston (1772–1832). A sixth child died upon birth in 1777.

Stamp Act crisis

In 1765, Adams began working on an essay at the urging of Jeremiah Gridley, who recognized Adams's talent for writing. The essay was about his strong patriotism; he stated that Americans had established their right to freedoms by courageously settling the colonies, and he described how the hope for liberty had carried them through severe hardships for more than a century. It was not an attack on Britain but a call for Americans to begin to think for themselves and not rely on or always follow Britain's dictates.

Meanwhile, in May 1765, news reached the colonies that Britain's parliament had passed the Stamp Act. The colonists had no representation in Parliament—no say in the creation of this new law. Nevertheless, the Stamp Act required them to pay a tax on almost all types of written documents: newspapers, legal documents, diplomas, even playing cards. Each document had to have a stamp placed on it showing that the required tax had been paid. Americans were furious, and their anger escalated through the summer into fall. At the height of the crisis, Adams's essay, which later became known as "A Dissertation on the Canon and Feudal Law," was published without a title in the Boston Gazette. It was Adams's first published writing, and it was widely applauded.

Adams then wrote a set of resolutions protesting the Stamp Act as taxation without representation. Across Massachusetts, towns adopted his resolutions, which came to be known as the Braintree Instructions. Other colonies also vigorously opposed the tax. By the spring of 1766, when it was clear the tax could not be collected without force due to the widespread opposition among colonists, Parliament repealed, or withdrew, the stamp tax. Adams's writings injected him into Boston's political discussions of liberty. Gridley, attorney James Otis (1725–1783), and Adams's second cousin, Samuel Adams (1722–1803), were at the center of these spirited debates. They were the leaders of a growing resistance movement against British rule of the colonies.

A growing legal practice

While living in Braintree, Adams rode on horseback over all of Massachusetts, taking cases of every type—from murder to land transfers to horse thievery. By 1768, his practice had become so large that he moved his family to Boston where it was more convenient to conduct his practice close to other businesses and people.

Between 1768 and 1770, Adams handled three criminal cases that raised his reputation in the Boston community and aligned him with those resisting British rule. One involved a colonist's refusal to pay import taxes on wine brought to America. The second was a successful defense of an American seaman who killed a British naval lieutenant when faced with impressment. Impressment referred to the British navy's practice of seizing American sailors and forcing them into service on British ships. In the third and most important case, Adams defended eight British soldiers who had fired into an angry mob of about sixty colonists, killing eleven. Adams's defense showed that Americans always stand up for justice. Although the public was angered at Adams's defense of the British troops, American resistance leaders saw it as a smart move. It showed that the American rebels were not opposed to just any kind of authority; they opposed what they considered unjust, heavy-handed authority such as the British monarchy.

This brought them greater respect to a wider range of people in America and elsewhere.

By the early 1770s, Adams was the most famous—and considered the best—lawyer in Massachusetts. During 1772, his name appeared in over two hundred case records. Many of his clients were the state's most prominent citizens.

Adams became bolder in asserting his resistance to British rule of the colonies. He had moved from merely advocating protection of Americans' rights as British subjects to calling for an independent republic, a country run by the consent of the people. Adams was fully in favor of the Patriot cause, the movement for American independence. On December 16, 1773, when Patriots boarded British ships and dumped 342 chests of tea into Boston Harbor to protest a tax on tea (in what became known as the Boston Tea Party), Adams cheered.

Continental Congresses

Adams worked tirelessly between 1774 and 1776 to prepare the colonies for independence. Massachusetts sent him to both the First Continental Congress, in September 1774, and the Second Continental Congress, beginning on May 10, 1775. The First Continental Congress, a meeting of representatives from the colonies, was called in response to the many unpopular measures passed by the British parliament and directed at the colonies. Two Adamses—John and Samuel—took a firm stand against Britain by rejecting any hope of reconciling with Britain. They were disappointed that the delegates' only actions were to prohibit importation of British goods and to write letters expressing their grievances.

Adams returned home and in December 1774 began writing a series of essays published in Boston papers over the next five months. In these writings, Adams pushed the independence movement forward by insisting that Parliament had no power to legislate for the colonies.

The Second Continental Congress convened in Philadelphia on May 10, 1775, three weeks after the first shots of the American Revolution (1775–83) were fired at Lexington and Concord, Massachusetts. Over the next year, Adams, a Massachusetts delegate, made key contributions. He called for Congress to accept the Massachusetts militia as the Continental Army. He nominated Virginian George Washington to command the army. Further, he convinced Congress that a strong statement of independence must be issued to unite the colonies, gather support of Americans for independence, and show European countries that America could act on its own. Once delegates agreed to a declaration of independence, Adams agreed to serve on the committee to write the official declaration. He then turned the duty over to another Virginian, Thomas Jefferson.

After Jefferson had drafted the declaration, Adams defended it among the members of Congress on July 2, 3, and 4, 1776. He demanded unanimous support for the break with Britain, and Congress adopted the Declaration on July 4. Adams had played a crucial role in the declaration's approval.

Experiencing Philadelphia

While in Philadelphia, Adams was awed by everything the city had to offer and partook of all he could. Philadelphia had many printers, bookshops, coffeehouses, and taverns. Taverns were central meeting places where people could eat and drink and discuss the happenings of the day. Adams's favorite tavern was City Tavern on Second Street, where he often enjoyed dinner and Philadelphia beer.

Philadelphia was also a city of churches representing many denominations. Sunday was the only day congressional delegates had free, and Adams usually spent it at church. Always eager to learn more, Adams sometimes attended two or three services in one day. Adams was raised as a Puritan in the Congregational Church. However, he was interested in and openminded about new ideas, so he attended the church services of many different denominations—Anglican, Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian, Quaker, German Moravian, and Roman Catholic.

Public service

By the summer of 1776, Adams longed to go home, but the Revolution was raging. Congress appointed him head of the Board of War. Adams and four other congressional delegates were responsible for recruiting troops and supplying all men in the field with everything from rifles to soap. On November 27, 1777, Congress named Adams as a commissioner to France. Benjamin Franklin (1706–1790; see entry in volume 1) and Arthur Lee (1740–1792) were already representing the United States in France, and before Adams arrived, they secured French aid for fighting the Revolution.

Adams returned home briefly in August 1779 just as the Massachusetts constitutional convention began. Because of his constitutional expertise, the convention delegates simply handed the job of drafting the state constitution to Adams. The Massachusetts constitution became a model for other state constitutions and had a major influence on the U.S. Constitution written in 1787. Instead of a single-house legislature, Adams insisted on two houses and a strong governor to oversee legislative action.

Adams returned to Paris in February 1780, accompanied this time by two sons, John Quincy and Charles. Congress had assigned Adams to help Benjamin Franklin negotiate peace and trade treaties with Britain in Paris. Adams's direct, independent, and bold manner of negotiation, contrasting with Franklin's kindly spirit of compromise, won him no friends in France. Adams decided to leave Paris for Holland on July 27. After two years of effort, he successfully negotiated for Holland to recognize the United States as an independent nation and provide a loan of $1.4 million for America's war effort.

In the fall of 1782, Adams returned to Paris to help Franklin and fellow American statesman John Jay (1745–1829; see entry in volume 1) negotiate a peace treaty with Britain to end the American Revolution. On September 3, 1783, the United States and Britain signed the Treaty of Paris, ending the war. Looking out for his native New England, Adams made sure that the treaty allowed Americans to retain their fishing rights in North Atlantic waters.

Adams remained in France attempting to negotiate trade treaties with other European nations. He also secured another loan from Holland. Abigail and the entire family reunited in France in the summer of 1784 at Auteuil, a mansion outside of Paris where Adams had been living. Also in 1784, Congress sent Thomas Jefferson to Paris to replace Franklin as the French foreign minister. Jefferson spent a great deal of time with the Adams family and sealed a friendship that had been growing for some time.

Move to Britain

In 1785, Congress appointed Adams as the first U.S. foreign minister to Britain. Adams diligently tried to negotiate trade agreements with Britain, but seeing no prospect for success, he returned to the United States in 1788.

While in Britain, Adams had begun writing a three-volume set of books titled the Defence of the Constitutions of Government of the United States of America. The volumes were a study of ancient and modern governments and were intended to defend the superiority of governments such as the two-house legislature system Adams had introduced in Massachusetts. The first volume was published in 1787 around the same time that the U.S. Constitution was being crafted in Philadelphia.

Vice president

The U.S. Constitution went into effect March 4, 1789. George Washington was chosen as the first U.S. president, and John Adams was selected as his vice president. Washington and Adams were inaugurated in a grand celebration on April 30, 1789, at Federal Hall in New York City, the nation's temporary capital. Philadelphia would serve as the national capital from 1790 until 1800, when the government moved to its permanent location in the brand-new city of Washington, D.C.

Electors Vote for President

In 1789, the general population did not vote directly for presidential candidates. Instead, citizens called electors voted. Each state was allotted a certain number of electors; the number was based on the state's total number of representatives in the Senate and House of Representatives. How electors were chosen varied with each state. Some states allowed the public to vote directly for electors. In other states, legislatures chose the electors.

During the presidential election each elector cast two votes. The candidate with the most votes became president, and the second-place finisher became vice president. The nation's first presidential election was held early in 1789, with sixty-nine electors casting two votes each. George Washington was a unanimous choice for president, receiving sixty-nine votes. Adams came in second, receiving thirty-four of sixty-nine, with the rest of the votes going to other candidates.

Adams was somewhat unsure of what was expected of him as vice president and considered it rather insignificant regarding the few formal duties assigned. Adams concentrated on his main duty as vice president: as president of the Senate, he would cast the tie-breaking vote in case of a tie during Senate votes. In his eight years as vice president, he cast more tiebreaking votes than any other person who followed in the office. He faithfully supported President Washington's position in all of his votes.

During his years as vice president, Adams supported the financial plan proposed by Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton (1755–1804; see entry in volume 1). He also supported Washington's Neutrality Proclamation of 1793, which the president issued as hostilities between France and Britain were brewing once again. Britain and France were longtime bitter enemies. The proclamation announced that the United States would remain neutral—it would not support one country over the other. In 1794, Adams agreed with Washington's forceful suppression of the Whiskey Rebellion. Farmers resented Hamilton's steep tax on whiskey, first established in 1791, and by the summer of 1794 they had decided to hold demonstrations to protest the tax. President Washington personally led militiamen from several states to put down the protests in western Pennsylvania. On August 14, 1795, Adams agreed with the administration's stance on the controversial Jay Treaty, which appeared to ally the United States more closely with Britain. This treaty upset the French, who believed it conflicted with the Alliance of 1778, America's promise to aid France in any fight against Britain.

Bid for the presidency

By the fall of 1796, Washington had decided not to run for a third term as president. Adams had served as Washington's vice president for two full terms and was the presumed successor. During the last years of Washington's administration, two political groups, or parties, began to form: the Federalists and the Democratic-Republicans, formerly called simply the Republicans. The Democratic-Republicans of the 1790s were an entirely different party than the modern Republican Party, which was founded in the 1850s.

The Federalists favored a strong central, or federal, government and wanted the United States to increase its trade with Britain. The Federalists were pro-British and anti-French. They supported the policies of the Washington administration. Despite their distrust of political parties, both Washington and Adams thought like Federalists. The Democratic-Republicans favored powerful state governments and considered France a strong ally. The French had come to America's aid during the Revolution, and Democratic-Republicans insisted that the United States honor its pact with France, the Alliance of 1778. America had promised to support the French if Britain attacked them. The Democratic-Republicans were therefore pro-French and anti-British.

The Federalists supported Adams for president. The Democratic-Republicans supported Thomas Jefferson for president. Each party nominated two candidates. The second Federalist candidate was Thomas Pinckney (1750–1828) of South Carolina. The Democratic-Republicans' second candidate was Aaron Burr (1756–1836; see entry in volume 1) of New York.

The election results were closer than Adams anticipated. He won with seventy-one electoral votes, Jefferson came in second with sixty-eight, Pinckney received fifty-nine, and Burr got only thirty. This created a unique situation in U.S. history: The Constitution did not plan for political parties; it simply called for the first-place individual to be president. Whoever came in second would be vice president. Therefore, Adams, a Federalist, assumed the presidency, and Jefferson, a Democratic-Republican, became his vice president. Thus, two candidates from separate political parties served together in office.

Hostilities with France

One of the most significant issues during Adams's presidency involved hostilities with France. By 1797, the French believed that America was siding with Britain, in violation of the Alliance of 1778; the Jay Treaty was the chief source of France's ire. In retaliation, the French seized hundreds of American commercial ships, especially in the West Indies. The Federalists demanded war with France. Going against the wishes of his fellow Federalists, the independent-minded Adams sent three U.S. diplomats to Paris to negotiate an end to the harassment of American ships. The U.S. diplomats were met by three French diplomats who demanded that the Americans give them a bribe of $250,000 in order to speak to the French foreign minister. Refusing to tolerate this insulting treatment, the U.S. diplomats returned home immediately. The incident became known as the XYZ Affair. The letters X, Y, and Z stood for the three French diplomats, whom President Adams declined to identify when he reported the incident to Congress.

The United States revived its navy and also commissioned privately owned American ships in order to challenge the French. Hostilities increased. The Democratic-Republicans protested against American ships attacking the French, while Federalists continued to demand all-out war. Going directly against the Federalists' wishes, Adams decided to make one more attempt at peace in 1800. This time the diplomatic mission was successful. Adams was greatly relieved, because he knew the young nation could not afford to fight a war. Adams considered avoiding war with France his most important foreign policy success.

Alien and Sedition Acts

The Alien and Sedition Acts were another significant issue during Adams's presidency. The Federalist-dominated Congress passed this controversial legislation in 1798, taking advantage of anti-French sentiments that arose when France began attacking American merchant ships on the high seas. Three of the acts, the Alien Acts, made it much more difficult for immigrants to become U.S. citizens or even to settle in the United States. After gaining citizenship and the right to vote, most immigrants in the 1790s had tended to vote with the Democratic-Republicans. The Federalists knew this and wanted to put a stop to it.

The Sedition Act provided heavy fines and imprisonment for anyone writing, publishing, or speaking in a manner critical of the U.S. government or its officials. Under Federalist pressure, Adams signed the acts. He later called the signing the biggest mistake of his presidency. Ultimately, these laws backfired on the Federalists. To many U.S. citizens, the provisions of the acts seemed un-American; many of them began to side with the Democratic-Republicans.

The election of 1800 was another race between Adams and Thomas Jefferson, the Democratic-Republican candidate. This time, the top two vote recipients were Jefferson and the second Democratic-Republican candidate, Aaron Burr. However, Jefferson and Burr had tied, and Burr refused to concede the election. After thirty-six ballots, the House of Representatives broke the tie and elected Jefferson as the third president.

Bitter over his defeat, Adams left the presidential mansion early on March 4, 1801, Jefferson's inauguration day, and did not attend the celebration. A few weeks before that, Adams had nominated Virginian John Marshall (1755–1835; see entry in volume 2) as chief justice of the Supreme Court. On his last day in office, Adams rushed to appoint a considerable number of judges, who came to be known as the "midnight" judges. Adams's last-minute judicial appointments ensured the continuance of Federalist ideas, at least in the courts.


Adams lived twenty-five years after leaving the presidency. He and Abigail retired to Quincy, Massachusetts. Adams continued to add to his already massive writings. He wrote letters for various newspapers, defending his actions as a diplomat and as president. He was extremely proud of his diplomatic career and his efforts to keep the United States from going to war with France. His appointment of Marshall as chief justice of the Supreme Court significantly influenced interpretations of the U.S. Constitution at a time when Americans were still getting used to the Constitution. Besides discussing his past actions, Adams also wrote on current issues of the day, giving his always independent-minded opinions.

In 1812, Adams and Jefferson renewed their friendship. It had cooled in the 1790s because of their differing political viewpoints. However, between 1812 and their deaths, they kept up a steady stream of correspondence.

The death of Abigail in 1818 dealt Adams a severe blow, but he lived eight more years and saw their son John Quincy Adams inaugurated as the sixth president of the United States in March 1825. In one of the most remarkable occurrences in American history, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson both died on July 4, 1826, the fiftieth anniversary celebration of Independence Day.

For More Information


Brown, Ralph A. The Presidency of John Adams. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1975.

Ellis, Joseph J. Passionate Sage: The Character and Legacy of John Adams. New York: Norton, 1993.

Ferling, John E. Adams vs. Jefferson: The Tumultuous Election of 1800. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.

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

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

Web Sites

"John Adams." American President.org (accessed on August 10, 2005).

"John Adams." Colonial Hall. (accessed on August 10, 2005).

views updated

John Adams

Born October 1735
Braintree, Massachusetts
Died July 4, 1826
Quincy, Massachusetts

President and vice president of the United States, diplomat, lawyer, writer

John Adams was an enemy of British oppression who worked tirelessly for American independence. A man with a great mind, he wrote vivid diaries, letters, and essays; gave patriotic speeches; and negotiated effectively on behalf of his country. Although he could be a vain and stubborn politician, this passionate patriot was one of America's most important founding fathers.

Adams, one of three brothers, was born on his family's farm in Quincy (then known as Braintree), Massachusetts. His father, also named John, was a farmer and a church deacon who directed the affairs of his hometown for more than twenty years. Adams's mother, Susanna Boyleston Adams, came from a respected Brookline, Massachusetts, family. John Adams was very close to his mother. His biographer Page Smith wrote that "she brought a touch of [city worldliness] to the family. She had… an [unending supply] of [sayings about the right way to behave] which her son took to heart."

As a child, Adams loved spending time in the woods and fields that surrounded his Braintree home. "I spent my time as idle children do in making and sailing boats and ships upon the ponds and brooks, in making and flying kites, in driving hoops, playing marbles, playing quoits, wrestling, swimming, skating and above all in shooting, to which diversion I was addicted to a degree of Ardor which I know not that I ever felt for any other Business, Study, or Amusement," he would later write in his autobiography. This love for the outdoors once prompted a young Adams to tell his father of his plans to become a farmer. However, his parents had different ideas for the future of their son. The Adamses were firm believers in education, and decided that their son should attend Harvard and become a clergyman.

Graduates from Harvard, studies law, marries

After finishing his elementary studies, Adams attended what is now Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, just outside Boston, where he received excellent grades and graduated in 1755. After graduation, the nineteen-year-old young man moved to Worcester, Massachusetts, and began teaching grammar school, deciding against entering into the ministry. Once settled in his new position, Adams started to study law. In 1758 Adams completed his law studies, returned to his parents' home, and was admitted to the Boston bar. Over the next several years, Adams built up his law practice and more significantly began to involve himself in Revolutionary politics.

In 1764 Adams married bright, strong-willed Abigail Adams see entry, the daughter of a noted clergyman. In the first decade of their marriage, the couple had five children—Abigail (called "Nabby"), John Quincy, Susanna (who died at the age of thirteen months), Charles, and Thomas.

While Adams traveled around New England establishing his reputation as a lawyer, Abigail kept him posted about events at home. Through his wife's family he came to know many of the area's wealthiest and most powerful people. In an age when many men considered women of lesser value than men, Adams considered the well-informed Abigail his intellectual equal, and he listened to her informed views on public affairs.

Gains fame for defending liberty

In the 1760s American colonists became angry with England. The British governing body, called Parliament, in an

effort to raise money to pay off war debts, passed laws that required the colonists to pay high taxes and had adopted other measures the colonists thought unfair. Americans especially disliked the Stamp Act of 1765, which required them to buy a stamp to place on every printed document and other paper items they used. They protested by tearing down the house of the British-appointed governor in Boston, Thomas Hutchinson, setting fire to the tax office, and refusing to buy any British-made goods.

Joining the protest against the Stamp Act of 1765, Adams wrote several articles for the Boston Gazette that were also published in England. The colonists had never had any representatives in the British Parliament. Adams argued that it was wrong for Parliament to tax the colonies without the colonists having any say in the matter. "No taxation without representation" became the rallying cry. Adams's well-crafted writings made him New England's most popular defender of liberty in the press.

A formal statement that Adams wrote for his own town in protest of the Stamp Act was used as a model by other towns. Adams became a frequent contributor to the newspapers, speaking out against the perceived injustices carried out by the British Parliament. In time the British government gave in and removed all taxes they had placed on the colonists except the one on tea, which they kept to remind the colonists that England was still in charge.

Encourages rebellion but defends fair treatment for all

Representatives of the British government were fearful of angry colonial mobs that protested against proposed new taxes. They demanded that England send troops to Boston to help keep the peace. Their fears proved well founded in the winter of 1770, when the Boston Massacre took place (see Samuel Adams entry). In that event British soldiers fired upon a crowd of colonists (who may have provoked the British soldiers with their taunts), killing five colonial citizens who were shouting insults at them.

Despite the cries for revenge that came from many New Englanders, Adams insisted that the "redcoats" (British soldiers wore red uniforms) receive a fair trial. When criticized for defending the British soldiers, Adams responded that in a free country all men deserved the right to be defended against their accusers. Through the efforts of Adams and other colonial lawyers, eight of the soldiers and their commander were set free on the grounds of self-defense. Two were found guilty of manslaughter (killing of a human being without any bad intent). For punishment, they had their thumbs branded with a hot iron.

The Boston Tea Party

Colonial resistance to British policies finally boiled over in an incident known as the Boston Tea Party. On December 16, 1773, angry colonists boarded three British ships anchored in Boston harbor and threw their cargoes of tea into the water to protest the British tax on tea. Adams supported the incident, which many historians consider the event that led the colonists to break away from England and begin their own government. The British responded by closing the port of Boston and passing other measures the colonists called the Intolerable Acts. War came ever closer, and the thirteen colonies realized that to defend themselves effectively, they needed to unite under one central government.

First Continental Congress meets

In 1774 the First Continental Congress was called to discuss and solve the problems of the relations between America and Britain. The citizens of Massachusetts elected John Adams and Samuel Adams as their representatives. In the spring of 1774 delegates met to discuss what to do about the troubles with their mother country. They chose Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, as the site of the meeting because it was far away from where British soldiers were encamped in Boston.

John Adams was deeply committed to the idea of American independence, and devoted himself to the discussion. Adams told the delegates that they had to work together to prepare for a long war ahead. He helped draft a declaration to the king of England and a declaration of the rights of colonists. The members agreed to meet again in May 1775 if by then the king had not addressed their complaints.

Washington chosen to head army

The battle of Lexington and Concord began in April 1775 and, with this battle, the Revolutionary War had begun. The rebels pushed the redcoats back to Boston, trapping them there. Since the king was not responsive to their declaration of rights, the representatives met again in May 1775 in Philadelphia for the Second Continental Congress. During this convention they heard speeches on whether or not the colonies should officially go to war against Great Britain. Like the citizens of the colonies, the congress was deeply divided on the matter of war. New Englanders, who had experienced the worst of the British actions, spoke of the growing threat of the British army. Some southerners spoke in favor of remaining loyal to England. In his autobiography, Adams wrote that the battle at Lexington and Concord "changed the instruments of warfare from Penn to Sword."

In June 1775 the Continental Congress created the Continental army. Headquartered at Cambridge, Massachusetts, the army swelled to more than 16,000 soldiers. At the Second Continental Congress Adams rose and nominated George Washington see entry to serve as head of the new army. The tall, quiet man had served as a colonel in the Virginia militia, an army made up of citizens rather than professional soldiers. One reason Adams chose Washington was to draw the rich southern plantation owners into the struggle for independence. As a result of Adams's private talks with all the delegates, Washington was the choice of every one of them.

Nurtures move towards liberty

Adams kept a detailed diary of the events of revolutionary times that has proved to be a rich source of information for future generations. The patriotic Adams had respect for the British tradition of laws and freedom, but he believed that a war for American independence from England could not be avoided. Never one to leave anything to chance, he placed his own secretary on the staff of General Washington to keep himself informed of all that went on with the new Continental army.

Throughout 1776 Adams spoke, wrote, and plotted to persuade the Second Continental Congress to declare independence. Still, the delegates hesitated to make a final break from England. Adams became part of a committee chosen to draft a declaration proclaiming independence. His fellow committee members were Thomas Jefferson, a lawyer from Virginia who became the third president of the United States; Benjamin Franklin (see entries), American politician, scientist, inventor, and writer; Roger Sherman, a politician representing Connecticut; and Robert Livingston, a politician from New York. Adams persuaded Jefferson to be the chief writer, made some small changes in the document when it was finished, and helped to win its approval by the congress. In July 1776 the Declaration of Independence was issued. The Declaration set out in memorable fashion the colonists' grievances and those rights they felt had been trampled by the British Crown.

Suggests national celebration

On July 3, 1776, the eve of what is now celebrated as Independence Day, Adams wrote in a letter to his wife: "The most memorable Epoch [time period] in the History of America has begun… It ought to be solemnized [celebrated] with pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires and illuminations from one end of this continent to the other—from this time forward, for ever more."

With a new, independent United States now established (the name first appeared in the Declaration of Independence), Adams suggested that each state set up its own government. (Four years later he became the main author of the Massachusetts State Constitution.) He also helped organize the American army to make it ready for the coming battle with trained British soldiers, and argued that George Washington must have full authority as commander, answering only to Congress.

Serves his country as ambassador abroad

Adams served the new country in many ways as war broke out. He became the Chairman of the Board of War, a post now called the Secretary of Defense. At various times between 1777 and 1783, as the Revolutionary War raged, he was called upon to visit foreign countries to enlist their aid in the battle against Great Britain. He served as a commissioner to France, where he and Benjamin Franklin, also serving as an American ambassador abroad, convinced the French to fight alongside American soldiers in the war.

Adams served as wartime U.S. Minister to the Netherlands in 1780, where he secured a loan for his country. In 1783 Adams, Franklin, and John Jay see entry negotiated the Treaty of Paris, which officially ended the Revolutionary War.

In 1785 Adams went to England to serve as the first official representative of the newly independent United States. King George III see entrywished him well, but Adams's efforts to restore good business relations were blocked by many British officials, who resented the long and bitter conflict. In 1787 and 1788 he responded to foreign critics of his country by writing a three-volume Defense of the Constitution of the United States. In the book he argued that "there is danger from all men" who hold power, and that the most dangerous are those who wield the most power.

Becomes vice president

In 1789, after much debate, the U.S. Constitution was adopted, and for the first time in the history of the United States the various states chose electors to meet and select a president. At that time, each elector could cast two votes. They chose George Washington to serve as the first president of the United States. Adams became vice president because he received the second-largest number of votes. (Later the system was changed so that president and vice president were elected by two separate votes.)

Adams called the position of vice president, which he held for eight years, an "insignificant office." He sometimes resented playing second fiddle to Washington, but he supported the president in the belief that the duties of the offices of president and vice president should be carried out with great dignity. However, Adams opposed the attitudes of his Federalist colleagues who believed that the rich and well educated should have more influence than ordinary citizens (see box).

Elected president, has troubles with France

After Washington's second term as president ended, Adams was elected president of the United States in 1796. Thomas Jefferson was Adams's chief rival for the presidency. The election revealed one of the most significant philosophical and political divisions in American history—that between Federalists and Republicans (see box). Federalists believed in a strong central government that exercised financial and commercial powers. On the other hand, Republicans believed that individual states should exercise governmental power. Adams believed in a moderate Federalism, while Jefferson supported the Republican view of government. Adams defeated Jefferson, who became his vice president. The Adamses were the first presidential family to live in the new White House, moving in while the paint was still wet.

During his term as president, Adams helped the new government continue in an orderly manner, but his job was full of difficulties, both at home and abroad. His major challenge involved relations between the United States and France. During Adams's first term, the French, who were at war with Great Britain, grew angry with the United States. They believed the young nation had broken its agreement to serve as a French ally. They ordered that all American ships be captured and that American seamen found on British ships be treated as pirates.

In an incident called the "XYZ Affair" (1797–98), Adams sent three representatives to Paris to try to improve America's troubled relationship with the French. They were met there by three French agents whom the Americans referred to as "X, Y, and Z" in their official messages to Adams. The Americans returned home saying that the French foreign minister refused to deal with them unless they paid him $250,000 and agreed to loan France $10 million.

A threat of war

When Adams reported the French insult, the American people were furious and rallied around him. Congress authorized the building of new warships and the raising of an army against the French. At Adams's urging, a series of emergency measures, called the Alien and Sedition Acts, was passed to frighten foreign spies into leaving the country and to silence newspaper editors who opposed the war preparations.

Adams was pressured by members of the Republican Party, led by Jefferson. Republicans said it was wrong for the president to try to silence those who objected to his war policies. Adams also faced troubles from members of his own Federalist Party, who urged him to go forward at once with a war. Even without a formal declaration of war, in 1798 hostilities began at sea between America and France. But things soon cooled on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean, and a peace agreement was finally reached between the two countries.

Retires from public life

Alexander Hamilton see entry, a member of the Federalist Party like Adams, was furious at the president for sending a peace mission to France. But Adams was fiercely independent and sometimes decided issues on what he thought was good for the country rather than on what his party wanted. The Federalist Party was divided on the French question during the election of 1800, and Adams lost the election to the Republican, Jefferson, by just a few votes.

The defeated Adams, then sixty-six years old, returned to Quincy, Massachusetts, with his wife, Abigail. There he tended his farm, enjoyed his friends and family, and wrote his autobiography. The letters he exchanged with Jefferson during those years provide an excellent portrait of the early nineteenth century. Adams was deeply saddened by the loss of his wife to typhoid fever in 1818. But he took pride in witnessing his son, John Quincy Adams, take the oath of office as the sixth president of the United States in 1824.

On July 4, 1826, the fiftieth anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, ninety-year-old John Adams died at his home. Taking comfort in the idea that the new country was left in good hands, his last words were, "The country is safe. Thomas Jefferson survives." He did not know that the other American hero had died just a few hours earlier.

For More Information

Bowen, Catherine Drinker. John Adams and the American Revolution. Boston: Little, Brown, 1950.

Brill, Marlene Targ. John Adams: Second President of the United States. Chicago: Children's Press, 1986.

Butterfield, L. H., March Friedlaender, and Mary-Jo Klein, eds. The Book of Abigail and John: Selected Letters of the Adams Family, 1762–1784. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1975.

Peabody, James Bishop, ed. John Adams: A Biography in His Own Words. New York: Newsweek, 1973.

Lukes, Bonnie L. The Boston Massacre. San Diego: Lucent Books, 1998.

Sandak, Cass R. The John Adamses. New York: Crestwood, 1992.

Smith, Page. John Adams. New York: Doubleday, 1962.

Early American Political Parties

With a new constitution and a new national government in place by 1789, it was natural that citizens would organize political parties in order to express their views, and, of course, the parties often disagreed on how the new government should be run.

The Federalists

The group of colonists who had led the movement to create a constitution for the United States formed the Federalist Party. Its membership included people such as John Adams and Alexander Hamilton, a soldier, political leader, economist, and officer in the Continental army. The Federalist Party supported Hamilton's belief in a strong central government and a strong court system and was in favor of a financial system he developed, which was designed to strengthen the federal government and create a national bank.

Hamilton and most other Federalists wanted the country to be run by its wealthiest and best-educated citizens. Adams disagreed with this position of his fellow party members. The Federalists also believed that the United States should not become involved in international affairs—including wars. Adams disagreed. With the election of Republican Thomas Jefferson to the presidency in 1800, the Federalist party lost its popularity and power, never to regain it.

The Republicans

The chief opponents of the Federalist Party were first known as the anti-Federalists and later as the Republican Party. Thomas Jefferson led the Republican Party, whose members called themselves the party of the common man.

By 1820 the Republicans had broken into two separate groups: the National Republican Party, later called the Whig Party, and their opposition, called the Democratic Party. The two parties differed on such issues as the rights of the individual states, taxes on goods that came into and out of the country, and a national treasury system. The National Republicans were made up largely of people from the eastern part of America. The Democratic Party was made up mostly of people from southern and western America.

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Adams, John

2nd president, 1797–1801

Born: October 30, 1735

Died: July 4, 1826

Vice President: Thomas Jefferson

First Lady: Abigail Smith Adams

Children: Abigail, John Quincy, Susanna, Charles, and Thomas

John Adams was born on October 30, 1735, in Braintree, Massachusetts. He graduated from Harvard College in 1755, and became a lawyer. Adams signed the Declaration of Independence and served as a diplomat in France during the Revolutionary War. He was also a delegate to the First and Second Continental Congresses.

  • In November 1800, John Adams and his family became the first residents of the White House.
  • Adams did not attend the inauguration of his successor, Thomas Jefferson, because he was disappointed that he did not defeat Jefferson in the election.
  • Adams was directly descended from Pilgrims John and Priscilla Alden, who both arrived on the Mayflower in 1620.
  • Presidents Adams and Jefferson were the only presidents to sign the Declaration of Independence; they both died on its 50th anniversary, July 4, 1826.

Adams was the country's first vice president, a position he held for two terms under George Washington. Adams was elected president in 1797 and served one term that ended in 1801. By the time Adams ran for office, political parties had arisen in the new nation. Adams was a Federalist, one who believed in a strong central government run by educated, wealthy men. His chief rival, Thomas Jefferson, belonged to the anti-Federalist Republican party, a group that believed in less powerful government supported by landowners and common people. Adams won election by two electoral votes over Jefferson, who served as vice president according to the laws of the day. Adams's term in office was notable for the passage of the unpopular Alien and Sedition Acts, which made speaking out against the government a punishable offense. Many Americans believed these acts violated the freedom of speech, and the acts were repealed. Adams's reputation and the Federalist Party, however, were badly damaged by their association with these laws.

After his single term, Adams retired to his home in Massachusetts. Adams and Jefferson both died on July 4, 1826, only hours apart.

When Adams Was in Office

The battleships United States, Constitution, and Constellation were launched.
Congress established the Department of the Navy and the Marine Corps.
Explorers in Egypt discovered the Rosetta Stone, which allowed Egyptian hieroglyphics to be translated.
Napoleon seized power in France and ruled as a dictator.
The Library of Congress was established.
The nation's capital moved from Philadelphia to Washington, D.C.

Adams was married to Abigail Smith, and the couple had five children: Abigail, John Quincy, Susanna, Charles, and Thomas.

On Adams's Inauguration Day

When the short, 60-year-old Adams stepped to the podium on Inauguration Day, he was taking on the leadership of a young nation now torn by party disagreements. Troubles abroad caused by a war in Europe between France and Great Britain also threatened the new nation's neutrality. It was a big job for a man who was respected by many but admired by few.

John Adams's Inaugural Address

In the City of Philadelphia, Saturday, March 4, 1797

WHEN it was first perceived, in early times, that no middle course for America remained between unlimited submission to a foreign legislature and a total independence of its claims, men of reflection were less apprehensive of danger from the formidable power of fleets and armies they must determine to resist than from those contests and dissensions which would certainly arise concerning the forms of government to be instituted over the whole and over the parts of this extensive country. Relying, however, on the purity of their intentions, the justice of their cause, and the integrity and intelligence of the people, under an over-ruling Providence which had so signally protected this country from the first, the representatives of this nation, then consisting of little more than half its present number, not only broke to pieces the chains which were forging and the rod of iron that was lifted up, but frankly cut asunder the ties which had bound them, and launched into an ocean of uncertainty.

The zeal and ardor of the people during the Revolutionary war, supplying the place of government, commanded a degree of order sufficient at least for the temporary preservation of society. The Confederation which was early felt to be necessary was prepared from the models of the Batavian and Helvetic confederacies, the only examples which remain with any detail and precision in history, and certainly the only ones which the people at large had ever considered. But reflecting on the striking difference in so many particulars between this country and those where a courier may go from the seat of government to the frontier in a single day, it was then certainly foreseen by some who assisted in Congress at the formation of it that it could not be durable.

Negligence of its regulations, inattention to its recommendations, if not disobedience to its authority, not only in individuals but in States, soon appeared with their melancholy consequences—universal languor, jealousies and rivalries of States, decline of navigation and commerce, discouragement of necessary manufactures, universal fall in the value of lands and their produce, contempt of public and private faith, loss of consideration and credit with foreign nations, and at length in discontents, animosities, combinations, partial conventions, and insurrection, threatening some great national calamity.

In this dangerous crisis the people of America were not abandoned by their usual good sense, presence of mind, resolution, or integrity. Measures were pursued to concert a plan to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquillity, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty. The public disquisitions, discussions, and deliberations issued in the present happy Constitution of Government.

Employed in the service of my country abroad during the whole course of these transactions, I first saw the Constitution of the United States in a foreign country. Irritated by no literary altercation, animated by no public debate, heated by no party animosity, I read it with great satisfaction, as the result of good heads prompted by good hearts, as an experiment better adapted to the genius, character, situation, and relations of this nation and country than any which had ever been proposed or suggested. In its general principles and great outlines it was conformable to such a system of government as I had ever most esteemed, and in some States, my own native State in particular, had contributed to establish. Claiming a right of suffrage, in common with my fellow-citizens, in the adoption or rejection of a constitution which was to rule me and my posterity, as well as them and theirs, I did not hesitate to express my approbation of it on all occasions, in public and in private. It was not then, nor has been since, any objection to it in my mind that the Executive and Senate were not more permanent. Nor have I ever entertained a thought of promoting any alteration in it but such as the people themselves, in the course of their experience, should see and feel to be necessary or expedient, and by their representatives in Congress and the State legislatures, according to the Constitution itself, adopt and ordain.

Returning to the bosom of my country after a painful separation from it for ten years, I had the honor to be elected to a station under the new order of things, and I have repeatedly laid myself under the most serious obligations to support the Constitution. The operation of it has equaled the most sanguine expectations of its friends, and from an habitual attention to it, satisfaction in its administration, and delight in its effects upon the peace, order, prosperity, and happiness of the nation I have acquired an habitual attachment to it and veneration for it.

What other form of government, indeed, can so well deserve our esteem and love?

There may be little solidity in an ancient idea that congregations of men into cities and nations are the most pleasing objects in the sight of superior intelligences, but this is very certain, that to a benevolent human mind there can be no spectacle presented by any nation more pleasing, more noble, majestic, or august, than an assembly like that which has so often been seen in this and the other Chamber of Congress, of a Government in which the Executive authority, as well as that of all the branches of the Legislature, are exercised by citizens selected at regular periods by their neighbors to make and execute laws for the general good. Can anything essential, anything more than mere ornament and decoration, be added to this by robes and diamonds? 1 Can authority be more amiable and respectable when it descends from accidents or institutions established in remote antiquity than when it springs fresh from the hearts and judgments of an honest and enlightened people? For it is the people only that are represented. It is their power and majesty that is reflected, and only for their good, in every legitimate government, under whatever form it may appear. The existence of such a government as ours for any length of time is a full proof of a general dissemination of knowledge and virtue throughout the whole body of the people. And what object or consideration more pleasing than this can be presented to the human mind? If national pride is ever justifiable or excusable it is when it springs, not from power or riches, grandeur or glory, but from conviction of national innocence, information, and benevolence.

In the midst of these pleasing ideas we should be unfaithful to ourselves if we should ever lose sight of the danger to our liberties if anything partial or extraneous should infect the purity of our free, fair, virtuous, and independent elections. If an election is to be determined by a majority of a single vote, and that can be procured by a party through artifice or corruption, the Government may be the choice of a party for its own ends, not of the nation for the national good. If that solitary suffrage can be obtained by foreign nations by flattery or menaces, by fraud or violence, by terror, intrigue, or venality, the Government may not be the choice of the American people, but of foreign nations. It may be foreign nations who govern us, and not we, the people, who govern ourselves; and candid men will acknowledge that in such cases choice would have little advantage to boast of over lot or chance.

Such is the amiable and interesting system of government and such are some of the abuses to which it may be exposed which the people of America have exhibited to the admiration and anxiety of the wise and virtuous of all nations for eight years under the administration of a citizen who, by a long course of great actions, regulated by prudence, justice, temperance, and fortitude, conducting a people inspired with the same virtues and animated with the same ardent patriotism and love of liberty to independence and peace, to increasing wealth and unexampled prosperity, has merited the gratitude of his fellow-citizens, commanded the highest praises of foreign nations, and secured immortal glory with posterity.

In that retirement which is his voluntary choice 2 may he long live to enjoy the delicious recollection of his services, the gratitude of mankind, the happy fruits of them to himself and the world, which are daily increasing, and that splendid prospect of the future fortunes of this country which is opening from year to year. His name may be still a rampart, and the knowledge that he lives a bulwark, against all open or secret enemies of his country's peace. This example has been recommended to the imitation of his successors by both Houses of Congress and by the voice of the legislatures and the people throughout the nation.

On this subject it might become me better to be silent or to speak with diffidence; but as something may be expected, the occasion, I hope, will be admitted as an apology if I venture to say that if a preference, upon principle, of a free republican government, formed upon long and serious reflection, after a diligent and impartial inquiry after truth; if an attachment to the Constitution of the United States, and a conscientious determination to support it until it shall be altered by the judgments and wishes of the people, expressed in the mode prescribed in it; if a respectful attention to the constitutions of the individual States and a constant caution and delicacy toward the State governments; 3 if an equal and impartial regard to the rights, interest, honor, and happiness of all the States in the Union, without preference or regard to a northern or southern, an eastern or western, position, their various political opinions on unessential points or their personal attachments; if a love of virtuous men of all parties and denominations; if a love of science and letters and a wish to patronize every rational effort to encourage schools, colleges, universities, academies, and every institution for propagating knowledge, virtue, and religion among all classes of the people, not only for their benign influence on the happiness of life in all its stages and classes, and of society in all its forms, but as the only means of preserving our Constitution from its natural enemies, the spirit of sophistry, the spirit of party, the spirit of intrigue, the profligacy of corruption, and the pestilence of foreign influence, which is the angel of destruction to elective governments; if a love of equal laws, of justice, and humanity in the interior administration; if an inclination to improve agriculture, commerce, and manufacturers for necessity, convenience, and defense; if a spirit of equity and humanity toward the aboriginal nations of America 4, and a disposition to meliorate their condition by inclining them to be more friendly to us, and our citizens to be more friendly to them; if an inflexible determination to maintain peace and inviolable faith with all nations, and that system of neutrality and impartiality among the belligerent powers of Europe which has been adopted by this Government and so solemnly sanctioned by both Houses of Congress and applauded by the legislatures of the States and the public opinion, until it shall be otherwise ordained by Congress; if a personal esteem for the French nation, formed in a residence of seven years chiefly among them, and a sincere desire to preserve the friendship which has been so much for the honor and interest of both nations; if, while the conscious honor and integrity of the people of America and the internal sentiment of their own power and energies must be preserved, an earnest endeavor to investigate every just cause and remove every colorable pretense of complaint; if an intention to pursue by amicable negotiation a reparation for the injuries that have been committed on the commerce of our fellow-citizens by whatever nation, and if success can not be obtained, to lay the facts before the Legislature, that they may consider what further measures the honor and interest of the Government and its constituents demand; if a resolution to do justice as far as may depend upon me, at all times and to all nations, and maintain peace, friendship, and benevolence with all the world; if an unshaken confidence in the honor, spirit, and resources of the American people, on which I have so often hazarded my all and never been deceived; if elevated ideas of the high destinies of this country and of my own duties toward it, founded on a knowledge of the moral principles and intellectual improvements of the people deeply engraven on my mind in early life, and not obscured but exalted by experience and age; and, with humble reverence, I feel it to be my duty to add, if a veneration for the religion of a people who profess and call themselves Christians, and a fixed resolution to consider a decent respect for Christianity among the best recommendations for the public service, can enable me in any degree to comply with your wishes, it shall be my strenuous endeavor that this sagacious injunction of the two Houses shall not be without effect.

With this great example before me, with the sense and spirit, the faith and honor, the duty and interest, of the same American people pledged to support the Constitution of the United States, I entertain no doubt of its continuance in all its energy, and my mind is prepared without hesitation to lay myself under the most solemn obligations to support it to the utmost of my power.

And may that Being who is supreme over all, the Patron of Order, the Fountain of Justice, and the Protector in all ages of the world of virtuous liberty, continue His blessing upon this nation and its Government and give it all possible success and duration consistent with the ends of His providence.

Quotes to Note

  1. "Can anything essential..." Adams says that the "robes and diamonds" of a king add nothing to the American form of government and are unnecessary.
  2. "In that retirement..." Adams refers to George Washington, who decided to leave the presidency after two terms. This became a tradition for presidents until it became law under the 22nd Amendment to the Constitution in 1951.
  3. "if a respectful attention..." The disagreement over the rights of state governments would be a contributing factor to the Civil War more than 60 years later.
  4. "a spirit of equity and humanity..." "Aboriginal nations" are Native Americans, and that "spirit" to which Adams refers never existed.
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John Adams

John Adams was the first vice president of the United States (from 1789 to 1797) and the second president of the United States (from 1797 to 1801). During the American Revolution (1775–83), he served as one of the leading politicians in the first and second Continental Congresses. (See Continental Congress, First and Continental Congress, Second .) He was well regarded by his fellow politicians as a man of strong intellect.

Early life

Adams was born in Braintree (later called Quincy), Massachusetts , on October 30, 1735. His father, also named John Adams, was a farmer and leather goods maker who also served as a church deacon, town selectman, and lieutenant in the local militia. The elder Adams and his wife, Suzanne Boyleston, also had two other sons, Peter and Elihu.

Adams spent much of his youth outdoors in rural Braintree and planned to be a farmer when he grew up. Adams was educated by two private tutors and attended a public school called Dame School. In 1751, Adams's parents sent him to Harvard College to study to be a clergyman.

Among the twenty-eight initial students in his class, Adams eventually ranked in the top three.

After graduating from Harvard in 1755, the nineteen-year-old Adams moved to Worcester, Massachusetts, thirty miles west of Boston. There he started to teach grammar school. He lived in the house of James Putnam, a Harvard graduate and lawyer. Adams studied law under Putnam and in 1758 returned to his parents’ home in Boston to practice law.

In 1764 Adams married Abigail Smith, the daughter of a clergyman. She too was intelligent, and their marriage was marked by loyalty and friendship. Together they had five children: Abby, John Quincy, Susanna, Charles, and Thomas. Susanna died when she was just one.

Law and activism

In the 1760s, Adams continued to study law and slowly built his law practice. He also became involved in revolutionary politics. When the French and Indian War ended in 1763, victorious Great Britain had amassed great debts. To pay them, the British Parliament enacted a series of tax laws that became known in America as the Intolerable Acts. Many Americans began to feel it was unfair for Parliament, in which America had no elected representatives, to tax Americans.

After Parliament enacted the Sugar Act of 1764 and the Stamp Act of 1765, John Adams's cousin, statesman Samuel Adams (1722–1803), organized protests in Boston. John Adams attended meetings and emerged as an effective spokesman against Britain's imperial policies. In August 1765, he published the first in a series of four essays in the Boston Gazette newspaper. The essays, later published in Britain, described how colonists had emigrated to America to establish civil governments based on liberty and freedom.

In his law practice, Adams worked on a variety of cases, including divorce, wills, rape, and trespass. Adams defended John Hancock (1737–1793), who would be the first signer of the Declaration of Independence , against smuggling charges brought by British customs officials. In 1770, Adams defended Captain Thomas Preston, the British officer in charge at the Boston Massacre of March 5, 1770. That event happened when British soldiers fired upon a crowd of colonists, killing five of them. Adams received much criticism for defending Preston. Adams, however, believed every man deserved a fair trial, and Adams won the case.

American Revolution politics and diplomacy

In 1774, the First Continental Congress met in Philadelphia to seek solutions to America's problems with Great Britain. Adams was chosen to attend as a representative from Massachusetts. Not yet in favor of independence, Adams recommended a system of equal parliaments in America and Britain with common allegiance to the crown.

In April 1775, the Revolutionary War began with the Battle of Lexington and Concord . Adams served that May in the Second Continental Congress, where he supported future president George Washington (1732–1799; served 1789–97) to lead the Continental Army. By then, Adams believed independence was necessary. In February 1776, he gave Congress a pamphlet called “Thoughts on Government,” in which he proposed a system of governments for the colonies. Later that year, Adams seconded the motion in Congress that led to the adoption of the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776.

Adams served America during the war as a commissioner in France, seeking foreign aid for the American cause. Returning to Boston in 1779, Adams attended the state convention that prepared the Massachusetts state constitution, which Adams drafted. Along with Benjamin Franklin (1706–1790) and John Jay (1745–1829), Adams served as commissioner to negotiate peace with Great Britain and eventually signed the Treaty of Paris to end the war in 1783. From 1785 to 1788, Adams served as America's first minister to Great Britain, missing the action as America drafted a Constitution to form a new plan of government.

In the federal government

Adams returned to America in 1788 and was chosen to be the nation's first vice president. He served under President Washington throughout both of Washington's two terms, from 1789 to 1797. Writing to his wife, Abigail, Adams called the office of vice president insignificant.

Washington's decision to retire after two terms gave Adams a chance to seek the presidency. Adams was a member of the Federalist Party , which generally favored a strong federal government. Adams's chief opponent for the presidency was the leader of the Democratic-Republican Party , Thomas Jefferson . The Democratic-Republican Party, whose members also became known as Jeffersonian Republicans, generally favored a smaller role for the federal government but strong state governments.

Adams defeated Jefferson and took office as president in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania , on March 4, 1797. Jefferson became vice president because he received the second most electoral votes; this system eventually was changed by the Twelfth Amendment to the Constitution in 1804.

One of Adams's first decisions as president was one he eventually called one of his greatest mistakes: keeping Washington's cabinet instead of creating his own. The cabinet is the group of people who lead the major departments in the executive branch of government. In 1797, those positions included the attorney general, the secretary of state, the secretary of the treasury, and the secretary of war. Keeping Washington's cabinet was an error because they were very loyal to former attorney general Alexander Hamilton (1755–1804), the leader of the Federalist Party, with whom Adams had many problems throughout his presidency.

Foreign affairs

When Adams became president, America was being drawn into a naval war between Great Britain and France. The two European countries had been fighting since 1793 over issues related to commerce and imperial power. Amidst that conflict, Great Britain began capturing American merchant vessels and forcing the ships’ sailors into naval service for Great Britain.

America tried to end its problems with Great Britain by signing a treaty in 1795. France considered this to be a violation of France's own treaties with America. So France began to capture American merchant vessels carrying goods to Great Britain and to force American sailors into service for France.

Adams wanted to avoid war as much as possible. Many members of the Federalist Party, however, wanted America to align with Great Britain and fight France. Hamilton was among that group, and his desire for war with France contributed to his problems with Adams. Democratic-Republicans, including Vice President Jefferson, tended to favor France and to prefer that America stay out of the conflict if possible.

Early in March 1797, Adams proposed to send a Democratic-Republican, future president James Madison (1751–1836; served 1809–17), to negotiate the problems with France. Opposed to Madison, Adams's cabinet threatened to resign, so Adams dropped the idea. He instead sent a bipartisan commission to Paris, France, in July 1797. The commission consisted of South Carolina governor Charles Pinckney (1757–1824), Virginia politician John Marshall (1755–1835), and former U.S. representative Elbridge Gerry (1744–1814) of Massachusetts.

Anonymous French agents told the commission that negotiations could not begin without a monetary bribe from the Americans to help France in its war with Great Britain. The scandal led to a louder cry for war with France. Adams allowed American merchant vessels to arm themselves. Congress passed laws breaking all treaties with France and authorizing the seizure of French ships that endangered U.S. commerce. It also created the Department of the Navy in April 1798 and added the U.S. Marine Corps in July.

Domestic affairs

The conflict with France led to the passage of the Alien and Sedition Acts in 1798. These were four laws that increased the time for foreigners to become U.S. citizens, empowered the president to deport foreigners under certain conditions, and made it a crime to publish “false, scandalous, and malicious” things about the government. One newspaper at the time wrote, “It is Patriotism to write in favor of our government—it is sedition to write against it.”

Adams did not actively enforce the Alien Acts. His administration, however, used the Sedition Act to file criminal charges against many newspapers editors who favored the Democratic-Republican Party. Hamilton did not think Adams was doing enough to enforce these laws, which added to the problems between the two men.

The federal budget nearly doubled during Adams's administration. To raise money, Congress passed a tax law called the Window Tax in July 1798. When three Pennsylvanians were jailed in early 1799 for refusing to pay the tax, John Fries (1764–1825) led a rebellion to force federal marshals to release the prisoners. Adams ordered the rebellion to cease and sent federal troops to crush it. Fries and his supporters were sentenced to death for treason, but Adams pardoned them for their crimes. This increased his unpopularity with the Federalists.

A number of government offices were formed during the Adams administration, including the U.S. Public Health Service in 1798 and the Library of Congress in 1800. The Mississippi and Indiana territories were created in 1798 and 1800. Also in 1800, Adams became the first president to reside in the White House after the federal government relocated to Washington, D.C.

Peace with France and the campaign of 1800

Adams arranged his final diplomatic mission to France in February 1799. He sent Ambassador to the Netherlands William Murray (1760–1803), Chief Justice Oliver Ellsworth (1745–1807), and North Carolina governor William Davie (1756–1920) to negotiate for peace. In October 1800, they signed the Treaty of Mortefontaine, finally reaching peace with France.

News of the peace failed to reach America in time to help Adams win the presidential election of 1800. Division in the Federalist Party allowed Jefferson, the Democratic-Republican candidate, to emerge the victor. The Democratic-Republican Party also won control of Congress in the election.

In the wake of defeat, the Federalist-controlled Congress passed a judiciary act before the end of the term. It empowered Adams in his last months in office to appoint new judges—aligned with the Federalist Party—to federal courts.


At the age of 65 in March 1801, John Adams returned to his home and farm in Quincy, Massachusetts, where he spent the rest of his life. He wrote often to family and friends, and from 1802 to 1806 he worked on his autobiography. His wife, Abigail, died in 1818, which was a profound loss to Adams. In 1824, Adams had the paternal honor of seeing his son, John Quincy Adams (1767–1848; served 1825–29), elected as the sixth president of the United States.

Around 1811, Adams resumed his friendship with Thomas Jefferson. The two spent the remainder of their lives corresponding about politics, philosophy, theology, and personal matters. By historic coincidence, they both died on July 4, 1826, fifty years after the adoption of the Declaration of Independence.

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John Adams (1735–1826), was born in Braintree, Massachusetts. A graduate of Harvard College (1755), he became a lawyer. Adams served in the First and Second Continental Congresses (1774, 1775–1777), in diplomatic missions to France, the Netherlands, and Britain (1778–1788), and as the first vice president (1789–1797) and second president (1797–1801) of the United States. He married Abigail Smith of Weymouth, Massachusetts, in 1764, one of the singular women of the era. He died on 4 July 1826.

revolutionary politics

John Adams's political career began in earnest in 1765. In response to that year's Stamp Act, which required that the colonists pay a "stamp fee" for all legal documents (in addition to some other items), Adams penned a series of essays published later as the Dissertation on the Canon and Feudal Law (1768). Just as no man was born with the keys to heaven, so too, Adams argued in the Dissertation, was no man born in possession of the right to rule others on earth. Adams also made his first major appearances on the public stage in 1765. In the autumn of that year, he wrote several resolutions in response to the Stamp Act and presented them to his local town meeting. The Braintree Resolves, as they became known, soon spread throughout the colony. Not long thereafter, the leaders of Massachusetts's "patriot party" asked Adams to join the colony's other top lawyers in making their case to the governor. In early 1766 he also published a series of newspaper essays in defense of colonial rights, "From the Earl of Clarendon to William Pym."

The repeal of the Stamp Act in 1766 heartened Adams, but when Britain's Parliament the following year passed the Townshend Acts, which placed duties on glass, lead, paper, paint, and tea, Adams realized that the strife between the colonies and the mother country would not end anytime soon. He served as John Hancock's lead counsel in the Liberty trial of 1768, named after John Hancock's ship, the Liberty,

which British customs agents had seized. In 1770 Adams defended the British soldiers who stood accused of murder in the Boston Massacre trial. Not long after the soldiers were set free with a mild reprimand, Boston selected Adams as one of its representatives in the colony's assembly.

In the fall of 1774 Massachusetts sent Adams to the first Continental Congress, where he helped to draft the declaration of rights. Massachusetts included Adams in its delegation to the Second Congress, which convened in the spring of 1775 in the wake of the battles of Lexington and Concord. Adams thought the time had come to declare independence. For over a year he pushed, cajoled, and lobbied his colleagues, until events and changes in the membership of Congress conspired to give his side a victory. On 1 July 1776, Adams gave a great speech in defense of the resolution that "these colonies are and of right ought to be free and independent states." That speech clinched his status among his countrymen as the leader of the independence forces. Two of his peers dubbed him the "Atlas of Independence" for his efforts. The resolution carried on 2 July. Congress approved the public Declaration of Independence two days later.

war, foreign affairs, and constitutions

After the colonies declared independence, Adams remained one of the most active men in Congress, serving as chairman of many committees, including the congressional War Committee. From early in 1776 until the Battle of Saratoga in October 1777, that made Adams a one-man war department. For most of the decade following 1777, Adams served the United States in Europe. In 1778 Congress sent him to France to help negotiate an alliance with that nation. He arrived after the treaty was signed and returned home in the early summer of 1779. Later that year Adams returned to France with powers to negotiate a treaty to end the war with Britain. He remained in Europe until 1788, serving in the Netherlands and in Britain, in addition to France.

Adams's tenure in France is best remembered for its stormy nature. Most historians explain Adams's difficulties in Paris by highlighting his sensitivity to personal slights, along with his tempestuousness. The charge is not entirely unfair, but they seldom note that the British spy cell in the American legation stirred up a good deal of the trouble. To his credit, Adams saw quite clearly that American and French interests were only aligned against Britain, not in favor of a free and independent United States. France wanted to make the United States a dependent client state. Naturally, the French wished to replace Adams with someone more pliable. Frustrated in Paris, Adams went to the Netherlands in an effort to open a second diplomatic front that would lessen America's dependency upon France. Ultimately, he secured official recognition of the United States by the Dutch government and loans from the bankers in the Netherlands. In 1782 he returned to Paris to help John Jay and Benjamin Franklin negotiate a peace treaty with Britain. They secured land clear to the Mississippi and preserved the right to dry fish on the shores of Newfoundland. In 1785 Adams became the first American minister to Britain.

Adams's other preoccupation between 1776 and 1789 was the theory and practice of constitution writing. When he returned home in the summer of 1779, Massachusetts happened to be drafting its new state constitution, and Adams became its primary draftsman. The Massachusetts constitution was the first to be drafted by a special convention called by the people for that purpose and then ratified by the people. Adams heartily approved of that system of ratification. Massachusetts's constitution was also the first to feature two tripartite sets of checks and balances: among the legislative, executive, and judicial branches of government, and between the three branches of the legislature (a lower house, an upper house, and an executive with a qualified veto). Adams was also the best-known advocate of such political architecture in his era.

Since Adams's lifetime, his constitutional thought has been a matter of controversy. In early 1776 his influential pamphlet, Thoughts on Government, was printed. Partly written to correct what he considered to be the excessive democratism of Thomas Paine's Common Sense (1776), Adams's Thoughts on Government advocated the model of government he would enshrine in the Massachusetts constitution a few years later, featuring separations of power and checks and balances. The pamphlet, which was both popular and influential, laid the seeds of the controversy that was to engulf Adams's political thought.

Unlike most of his contemporaries, Adams defined the term "republic" according to its ends, rather than its means. In Thoughts on Government, Adams wrote that "there is no good government but what is republican" and "the very definition of a republic is 'an empire of laws and not of men.'"

He made similar statements in 1787 and 1788 in the three-volume Defence of the Constitutions of Government of the United States of America, his contribution to constitutional reform in America and Europe in the 1780s. Good republican governments could not be simple, representative democracies, he asserted, since a majority "may establish uniformity in religion; it may restrain trade; it may confine the personal liberty of all equally, and against the judgment of many, even of the best and wisest, without reasonable motives, use, or benefit." The way to prevent these dangers was by checking and balancing power. To ensure liberty under law, "orders of men, watching and balancing each other, are the only security; power must be opposed to power, and interest to interest." Many people mistook Adams's discussion of the defects of popular government for an argument against popular government.

the federalist era

Not long after his return from Europe, Adams became the first vice president elected under the new federal Constitution. He soon became a lightning rod for criticism from Thomas Jefferson's party. From his post as president of the Senate, Adams lectured his colleagues about the need for high-toned titles to attract capable men to government and to secure respect for American officials in European courts. Instead of carrying the issue, Adams became the butt of jokes about his own air of superiority and endured accusations that he secretly supported monarchy and aristocracy. That Adams criticized the French Revolution from the start only added fuel to the fire. Since the French called their new regime a republic, most Americans believed that the cause of the France was the cause of America.

In 1790 and 1791 Adams published a series of essays that are known to history as the "Discourses on Davila." The basic point of the "Discourses" was that political men were driven by the "passion for distinction" (or spectemer agendo)—the desire to be seen and loved by others. This passion led men to do both grand and unspeakable things. The only way to secure peace in society was to manage conflict; the attempt to escape it was futile. Thomas Jefferson, then serving as secretary of state, denounced Adams's ideas as "heresies." After publishing the "Discourses," Adams rode out the remainder of Washington's terms outside the limelight. He supported the Jay Treaty of 1795 with Britain because it was better than war, but he was not closely associated with it. Adams remained the man most likely to succeed Washington, and he did so in 1797. Unlike Washington, who was elected unanimously, Adams won the presidency by a mere three electoral votes.

Around the time Adams became president, France reacted to the Jay Treaty by attacking American ships on the high seas. Adams responded firmly. When French agents (code-named X, Y, and Z) demanded a bribe before the start of negotiations, Adams was furious, as were most Americans. The XYZ affair inflamed opinion against France, and Adams used American anger to rally his countrymen to oppose French depredations in the Quasi-War with France. A firm believer in the old adage that "if you wish peace, prepare for war," Adams used American resistance to France to bring about a settlement, which was negotiated in Paris. News of it arrived in America in the fall of 1800, too late to keep Adams from losing the presidential contest by eight electoral votes.

Caught in the middle of a struggle between Federalists and Republicans, Adams's presidency was a political disaster. He alienated the Republicans by warring with France and alienated the Federalists by making peace. He upset the Republicans by signing the Alien and Sedition Acts and angered the Federalists by pardoning John Fries after the rebellion he led had been stopped. Just before leaving office, President Adams appointed John Marshall, then serving as secretary of state, as the chief justice of the United States, and several lesser officials. These "midnight appointments" angered Thomas Jefferson, who viewed them as politically unfair and personally unkind.


In his last quarter century, Adams remained on or near his farm in Quincy, as his part of Braintree, Massachusetts, had been renamed. He watched with pride as his eldest son, John Quincy Adams, rose in the nation's political firmament. In addition to walking about town and working the land, Adams read and wrote a great deal. When Massachusetts called a convention to revise its constitution in 1820, the town of Quincy sent Adams. He hoped that the state was finally ready to get rid of its religious establishment, but to his chagrin, he could not convince the convention on that point.

Adams made some efforts to vindicate his reputation. He started and abandoned an autobiography a few times. When his erstwhile friend Mercy Otis Warren published a history of the American Revolution, Adams fired a barrage of letters at her, complaining that she had attacked his character and slighted his accomplishments. In 1810 and 1811 he published a series of essays in the Boston Patriot that defended his presidency against criticism by Federalists and suggested that many of them were not committed to the Union. In 1812 Adams resumed contact with Thomas Jefferson. Before they died, the aged patriarchs would exchange more than one hundred and fifty letters. These letters were Adams's final effort to explain his republican faith and to vindicate his reputation before the court of history. He wrote his final letter to Jefferson in April 1826, a few months before he died, only a few hours after Jefferson, on 4 July 1826.

See alsoBoston Massacre; Constitutionalism: State Constitution Making; Declaration of Independence; Election of 1796; Election of 1800; Presidency, The: John Adams; Quasi-War with France; Revolution: Diplomacy; Treaty of Paris; XYZ Affair .


Adams, John. The Works of John Adams, Second President of the United States, with a Life of the Author, Notes and Illustrations. Edited by Charles Francis Adams. 10 vols. Boston: Little, Brown, 1850–1856.

——. Diary and Autobiography of John Adams. 4 vols. Edited by L. H. Butterfield. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1961.

——. Legal Papers of John Adams. 3 vols. Edited by L. Kinvin Wroth and Hiller B. Zobel. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1965.

——. Papers of John Adams. 8 vols. Edited by Gregg Lint and Robert Taylor. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1977–1989.

Ellis, Joseph. Passionate Sage: The Character and Legacy of John Adams. New York: Norton, 1993.

Haraszti, Zoltán. John Adams and the Prophets of Progress. Cambridge, Mass.; Harvard University Press, 1952.

Howe, John, Jr. The Changing Political Thought of John Adams. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1986.

Hutson, James H. John Adams and the Diplomacy of the American Revolution. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1980.

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

Smith, Page. John Adams. 2 vols. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1962.

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

Richard Samuelson

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John Adams


The musical style known as minimalism has been ridiculed by some critics as "going nowhere music" or "needle-stuck-in-the-groove music." Composers Philip Glass and Steve Reich have been criticized for writing what some consider repetitive and monotonous works devoid of either intellectual rigor or expression. John Adams, who could be considered a successor to Glass and Reich, has put minimalist music on a fresh path—one that has won both admirers and detractors. Over time, without giving up the minimalist roots of his style, he has forged an expanded language suitable for large, ambitious works. By the early 2000s Adams was widely regarded as one of the greatest living American composers at work in the classical sphere.

Born in Worcester, Massachusetts, in 1947, Adams grew up in New England. His music study was encouraged by his parents, both of whom were amateur musicians. As a youth, he studied clarinet with Felix Viscuglia, a member of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. At home, all types of music were considered equally important. "In the house where I grew up, we had Mozart and we had Benny Goodman on the record player, and I was not raised to think there was a difference between them," Adams told Nancy Malitz in the New York Times.

While at Harvard University, where he enrolled in 1965, Adams studied composition with Leon Kirchner, Roger Sessions, and Earl Kim, conducted the Bach Society Orchestra, and was substitute clarinetist for the Boston Symphony Orchestra and the Boston Opera Company. He also played clarinet for the American premiere of Austrian-born composer Arnold Schoenberg's opera Moses und Aro, and in 1969 was the soloist at the world premiere of American composer Walter Piston's Clarinet Concerto at New York City's famed Carnegie Hall. Adams was the first undergraduate in the history of Harvard University to be allowed to submit a musical composition in lieu of a prose work as his honors thesis, a remarkable event particularly in light of the roster of distinguished composers who had earned degrees there.

Began Minimalist Experiments in San Francisco

Adams earned a bachelor of arts degree magna cum laude from Harvard, and completed a master of arts degree there in 1971. Then, tired of the East Coast academic music scene, which he considered outmoded and hostile, he moved to San Francisco, where he came under the influence of composers John Cage, Morton Feldman, Christian Wolff, and Robert Ashley. With the exception of Ashley they were not based in California, but their experimental, open techniques of composition appealed to Adams. Adams's works of the mid-1970s, including Grounding and Onyx, were composed largely for electronic media. Also in the mid-1970s, what has become known as "minimalism"—music based on repeated and shifting rhythmic, melodic, and harmonic patterns—was coming into its own, with Californians Terry Riley and La Monte Young leading the way, followed by the younger East Coast composers Steve Reich and Philip Glass. Adams, roughly ten years younger than Reich and Glass, developed his own broader and more expressive style of minimalism. Earlier minimalists generally composed music for small groups, but Adams's work began to diverge from that tradition. Beginning with 1980's Harmonium, a piece for huge chorus and orchestra set to texts by early seventeenth-century English poet John Donne and nineteenth-century American poet Emily Dickinson, he began to write primarily for large performing ensembles.

Adams's growing prominence was apparent in 1982, when Time contributor Michael Walsh wrote: "The fastest-rising minimalist composer—and potentially the most influential of all—is John Adams…. The least 'minimal' of the three [Glass, Reich, and Adams], Adams has forged a big, strong, personal style, expressed in complex forms that employ a more extensive use of dissonance than other minimalists…. His highly accessible music makes a bridge between the avant-garde and traditional concert-hall fare."

Incorporated Humor in Compositions

Though he was rapidly becoming one of the most popular classical composers of his time, some thought that Adams went too far with Grand Pianola Music, composed in 1981 and 1982, and that by incorporating all kinds of music, serious and humorous, he had created a piece that bordered on the ridiculous. Others disagreed; Gregory Sandow defended the piece in the Village Voice, asserting, "In Grand Pianola Music, [Adams] revels in sounds we've heard before—and that's his greatest victory. There's nothing wrong with recycling familiar music. Composers of the past did it a lot; they were writing in the style of their times." Sandow added that Grand Pianola Music "has been damned as vulgar by people uneasy about the age they live in."

Two of Adams's later works, both operas, likewise fell under considerable scrutiny. Nixon in China (1987) is a dramatization of President Richard M. Nixon's historic visit to Beijing in 1972. Although its creators—Adams, director Peter Sellars, and librettist Alice Goodman—considered it a satire, Nixon in China met with objection from some reviewers, partly because they believed the characters' mythic portrayal was unsuitable, given their less-than-pristine reputations.

Works Stirred Controversy

More controversial, in 1991, was The Death of Klinghoffer, an operatic retelling of the 1985 hijacking by Palestinians of the Italian cruise ship Achille Lauro and the subsequent assassination of a disabled Jewish passenger, Leon Klinghoffer. Some critics and operagoers were offended by what they considered a pro-Palestinian bias; others believed that the event dramatized was inappropriate for operatic treatment. Adams summed up the controversy in the New York Times Magazine: "It is so clear that we haven't taken sides, but that won't prevent people from leaping to judgment. I am sure that there will be people who think that having Palestinians sing music which is not ugly or aggressive, but which is expressive and sometimes personal and beautiful, is to glorify hideous facts. And I am sure there are some who feel that to portray this event at all is just further Zionist propaganda." The Death of Klinghoffer was revived in the early 2000s but once again encountered controversy in the wake of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.

Despite disagreement among critics and the public about his work, Adams's star continued to rise steadily over the 1990s. In November of 1991 his piece El Dorado was premiered by the San Francisco Symphony. Of his career, Adams was quoted as saying in Time, "[Before,] I thought that if I wrote something that was attractive there must be something wrong with it. Now I feel there are a lot of people out there actually waiting for my next piece."

For the Record …

Born on February 15, 1947, in Worcester, MA; married Deborah O'Grady; children: Emily, Sam. Education: Harvard University, B.A. (magna cum laude), 1969; M.A. in music composition, 1971.

Composer-in-residence, Marlboro Festival, 1970; member of composition faculty, San Francisco Conservatory, 1972–82; director and founder, 1978, of San Francisco Symphony's "New and Unusual Music" series; composer-in-residence, San Francisco Symphony, 1982–85; 10-CD Earbox career retrospective released, 1999; commissioned by New York Philharmonic Orchestra to compose On the Transmigration of Souls, 2002.

Awards: Friends of Switzerland, Julius Stratton Prize, 1969; Guggenheim Foundation fellowship, 1982; Grammy Award for Nixon in China, 1987; Grawemeyer Prize for Violin Concerto, 1995.

Addresses: Record company—Elektra/Nonesuch, 75 Rockefeller Plaza, New York, NY 10019.

Continued acclaim has proven the composer's words prophetic, and has allowed him the space to turn his attention to larger, more ambitious forms that have retained the essence of the minimalist language, such as its repeated notes, transparent textures, and large blocks of sound, while carving out new space for individual expression. Adams's Violin Concerto (1993) revived the concerto genre, with its dialogue between soloist and orchestra, and won Adams the prestigious and lucrative Grawemeyer Prize. He continued to write genre-bending works like Gnarly Buttons (1996, for clarinet and ensemble) and the orchestral Naive and Sentimental Music of 1997–98, but he also began to look once again toward the large-scale challenge of writing for the stage. I Was Looking at the Ceiling and Then I Saw the Sky, a semi-operatic work that Adams called a "songplay," served as something of a warm-up. Completed in 1995, the work was plotted around the Northridge, California, earthquake of 1994 and featured a variety of Los Angeles residents as characters.

In the midst of the general atmosphere of celebration surrounding the turn of the millennium, Adams wrote El Niño, an oratorio (a dramatic work intended for concert presentation) on the subject of the birth of Jesus. The original presentation of the work by the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra featured multimedia enhancements directed by Peter Sellars, with whom Adams had worked on Nixon in China and The Death of Klinghoffer. These included a silent film shown concurrently with the music, a trio of dancers, and choreography for the vocal soloists, opera stars Dawn Upshaw, Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, and Willard White. Though not a practicing Christian, Adams told David Gates of Newsweek that "in rereading the New Testament, I've been stunned by all the miracles there." Adams also felt that the work marked a compositional advance, telling Gates that "the 'major breakthrough' in this piece is just writing naturally for the voice."

Themes of Modern Life

World events influenced the next turn in Adams's career when he was commissioned by the New York Philharmonic Orchestra to write a commemorative work for performance on September 19, 2002, just over a year after the terrorist attacks that leveled New York's World Trade Center and killed several thousand of the city's residents. Adams responded with On the Transmigration of Souls, a meditative work for adult and children's choruses, orchestra, and taped sounds that was, in the general estimation of critics, a superb execution of a very difficult job. The work wove evocations of the event itself together with readings of the names of survivors and quotations from a Charles Ives orchestral work of nearly a century before, The Unanswered Question. "I've tried to create what I would call a meditative space for the listener to bring one's emotions and memories, as if you would go into a cathedral," Adams told David LaGesse of U.S. News & World Report.

In 2005 Adams, working once again with Peter Sellars as director, was putting the finishing touches on a major new opera, Doctor Atomic. Slated for its premiere in the fall of that year, it dealt with the career of J. Robert Oppenheimer, a leader in the creation of the original atomic bomb. The composer who had begun his career with the tiny musical gestures of minimalism was now tackling the largest themes of modern life in his music.

Selected discography

Shaker Loops, Philips.
Harmonium, ECM.
Grand Pianola Music, EMI/Angel.
Harmonielehre, Elektra/Nonesuch.
Nixon in China, Elektra/Nonesuch.
The Death of Klinghoffer, Elektra/Nonesuch, 1992.
Earbox (10-CD box set), Nonesuch, 1999.
On the Transmigration of Souls, Nonesuch, 2004.

Chamber music

American Standard (for unspecified ensemble), 1973.
Grounding, 1975.
Onyx, 1976.
Phrygian Gates (for piano), 1977.
Shaker Loops (for string septet), 1978.
John's Book of Alleged Dances, for string quartet, 1994.
Gnarly Buttons, for clarinet and ensemble, 1996.

Orchestral music

Common Tones in Simple Time (for orchestra), 1979.
Harmonium (for large chorus and orchestra), 1980.
Grand Pianola Music (for small orchestra, two sopranos, and two pianos), 1981–82.
Harmonielehre (for large orchestra), 1984–85.
El Dorado (for orchestra), 1991.
Chamber Symphony, 1992.
Violin Concerto, 1993.
Naive and Sentimental Music, 1997–98.


Matter of Heart (film score), 1982.
Nixon in China (opera), 1987.
The Death of Klinghoffer (opera), 1991.
I Was Looking at the Ceiling and Then I Saw the Sky, opera, 1995.
El Niño: A Nativity Oratorio, 1999–2000.
On the Transmigration of Souls, for chorus, children's chorus, orchestra, and tape.



Slominsky, Nicholas, editor, Baker's Biographical Dictionary of Musicians, 7th edition, Schirmer, 1984.

Hitchcock, H. Wiley, and Stanley Sadie, editors, The New Grove Dictionary of American Music, Macmillan, 1986.


America, May 19, 2003, p. 22.

Esquire, December 1984.

New Statesman, January 14, 2002, p. 40; October 7, 2002, p. 39.

Newsweek, January 22, 2001, p. 60.

New York Times Magazine, August 25, 1991.

Opera News, December 2001, p. 70; December 2002, p. 97; August 2005, p. 22.

Time, September 20, 1982.

U.S. News & World Report, July 8, 2002, p. 53.

Village Voice, January 29, 1985.


"John Adams," All Music Guide, (September 21, 2005).

Additional information for this profile was obtained from liner notes by Allan Kozinn to Grand Pianola Music, EMI/Angel.

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Born: Worcester, Massachusetts, 15 February 1947

Genre: Classical

John Adams's evocative scores and provocative projects helped make him one of the most prominent American composers of the final decades of the twentieth century. In 1991 a survey of major American orchestras by the American Symphony Orchestra League showed Adams to be the most frequently performed living American composer that year.

Adams grew up in the northeastern United States and earned bachelor's and master's degrees from Harvard University, where he studied conducting, played the clarinet, and composed. His prominent teachers included Leon Kirchner, David Del Tredici, and Roger Sessions. In 1971 he moved to San Francisco, California, to teach and conduct at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music (19721983) and to be composer-in-residence for the San Francisco Symphony (19781985). It was here that some of his most important worksincluding Shaker Loops (1978, 1983), Harmonium (19801981), Harmonielehre (19841985), and Grand Pianola Music (1982)were commissioned and performed.

Adams's music fit neatly with the minimalist style of composition that was shaking off the complexities of atonality in the 1970s and 1980s and gaining something of a popular following. Minimalism reduced the complexities of harmony and melody to their most basic form, repeating chord progressions and melodic fragments and simplifying the musical language. Adams's brand of undulating minimalism always seemed to have more going on, and his writing quickly evolved into a distinctive post-modernist blend of styles. Right from the first composition, his music had an expressive bent that seemed to want to develop beyond the repetitions of the minimalist style.

These expansive musical sensibilities were channeled into provocative projects, such as his widely debated first opera based on President Richard Nixon's historic trip to China, Nixon in China. The piece was startling when it premiered at the Houston Grand Opera in 1987. At a time when contemporary operaparticularly American contemporary operawas something of a rare undertaking, Adams and his A-list creative team of director Peter Sellars, librettist Alice Goodman, and choreographer Mark Morris tackled a contemporary subject and sparked a new genre of postmodernist music for the theater. A recording of the piece won a Grammy Award in 1989 for Best Contemporary Composition, and the original production was restaged at opera houses throughout Europe and America in the 1990s.

Though not as well known as a conductor, Adams has championed his own and other contemporary composers' work from the podium. From 19871990 he was "creative chair" of the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, serving as part of the orchestra's experimental creative leadership team, conducting four weeks of concerts, and overseeing the orchestra's contemporary music programs. He has also conducted the Cleveland Orchestra, Chicago Symphony, Philadelphia Orchestra, New York Philharmonic, San Francisco Symphony, Los Angeles Philharmonic, Concertgebouw, London Symphony, and BBC Orchestra, and has recorded his own music conducting the San Francisco Symphony.

Adams's second operaan even more controversial work than Nixon was The Death of Klinghoffer. The opera is built around the story of the 1984 hijacking of the Italian cruise ship Achille Lauro in the Mediterranean Sea by Palestinian terrorists, and the subsequent murder of a wheelchair-bound American tourist Leon Klinghoffer.

The opera debuted in March 1991 in Brussels, Belgium, as the Persian Gulf War was coming to a close, and the performances were picketed and condemned for the opera's subject matter. Klinghoffer employed the same creative team (Goodman/Sellars/Morris) as Nixon, but many of the reviews, both in Europe and at the American premiere in San Francisco later that year, were scathing, mostly because of the subject. A subsequent production planned by the Los Angeles Music Center Opera (one of the co-commissioners) was canceled, and the opera was not performed again during the next ten years, despite the fact that the score offers some of Adams's most lyrical and luminous music. A third stage piece, a "song" play, a kind of staged story set to music titled I Was Looking at the Ceiling and Then I Saw the Sky (1995), failed to generate the kind of intense interest of Adams's previous efforts.

If the 1980s established Adams as a major voice in American music, the 1990s secured his position. As his compositional style evolved beyond the simplified musical structures of minimalism and into a new take on the expressive qualities of Romanticism, Adams's eclectic style encompassed a wide range of twentieth-century idioms and references, from Russian-born American composer Igor Stravinsky to swing music. He produced a series of chamber and orchestral works, including Violin Concerto (1994), which was commissioned by an unusual partnership between the Minnesota Orchestra, the London Symphony, and the New York City Ballet. City Ballet director Peter Martins choreographed a dance to the work and it was presented during the 19941995 season. The Concerto won the 1995 Grawemeyer Award for Contemporary Music.

The Chamber Symphony (1993) is typical of Adams's wit: It sets up a musical duel between the rigorously intellectual style of serialism, in which each note is determined by strict formulas, and the inflated freneticism of cartoon soundtrack music. Adams also has a love of musical puzzles and odd titles, chosen sometimes just because he likes the sounds of the words, as witnessed in titles such as Slonimsky's Earbox (1996), Gnarly Buttons (1996), and Naïve and Sentimental Music (19971998).

Yet it was because of his ability to express deep sentiment that the New York Philharmonic chose Adams to write a work commemorating the September 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center. Adams's On the Transmigration of Souls opened the New York Philharmonic's 2002 season.

As the twenty-first century began, Adams emerged as one of the leading composers of the day, as close as anyone since the iconic quintessential American composer Aaron Copland to being considered a "national" American composer. His ability to synthesize musical styles and create music of freshness opened up a new vein of American music.


Stage: Nixon in China (19851987); The Death of Klinghoffer (19901991); I Was Looking at the Ceiling and Then I Saw the Sky (1995); El Niño Nativity Oratorio (19992000). Chamber: Grand Pianola Music (1982); Chamber Symphony (1992). Orchestra: Harmonium (19801981); Shaker Loops (1983); Harmonielehre (19841985); Fearful Symmetries (1988); Violin Concerto (1993).

douglas mclennan