A brilliant political thinker and writer, John Adams stands as a giant figure in American history. He steered the 13 colonies toward independence from Great Britain and later served as the second president of the United States.
EARLY LIFE AND MARRIAGE
John Adams was born on his family’s farm in Braintree (now Quincy), Massachusetts, in 1735. He graduated from Harvard College in 1755. Adams began working as a teacher, but his true interests were the law, history, and politics. In 1758, Adams became a lawyer.
Adams married Abigail Smith in 1764. They had five children. During 54 years of marriage the couple wrote each other hundreds of letters. These letters were saved and can still be read today.
During the American Revolution (1775-1783), John was continually away from home serving his country. His wife ran their farm and raised their children.
START OF POLITICAL CAREER
Like many colonists in the 1760s, Adams opposed new British taxes. He wrote that the colonies had no representatives in Britain’s Parliament. The Americans could not vote on these new taxes. This denied the colonists their rights as British citizens.
Adams did not support the violence that was spreading throughout the colonies. In 1770, a frightened group of British soldiers fired into an angry mob in Boston, Massachusetts, killing five Americans. The event became known as the Boston Massacre. Adams defended the British soldiers in court.
Adams also served in the Massachusetts legislature. In 1774, he traveled as a delegate to the First Continental Congress—the colonial government—in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
GUIDING AMERICA TOWARD INDEPENDENCE
John Adams hoped the colonies would solve their problems with Great Britain peacefully. But when fighting began between American and British soldiers in April 1775, Adams began to believe a war for independence would be necessary.
As a delegate to the Second Continental Congress, Adams worked on the committee writing a Declaration of Independence. Thomas Jefferson penned most of the document, then Adams led the fight to pass it. Congress adopted the Declaration on July 4, 1776. Adams wrote to his wife that future generations would celebrate “with bells, bonfires, and illuminations, from one end of this continent to the other.”
ROLE DURING THE WAR
During the Revolution, Adams sailed to France twice to represent America in discussions with the French government. He also worked in The Netherlands to get much-needed funds for America’s war effort. In 1782, along with Benjamin Franklin and John Jay, Adams worked out a peace treaty with Great Britain. The final treaty was signed in September 1783. Great Britain recognized the independence of the new United States.
In 1789, George Washington became the first president under the new United States Constitution. Adams was chosen as vice president.
As vice president, Adams felt that he was unable to use many of his skills. He watched as Washington’s advisers divided into two political parties. The Federalist Party, led by Alexander Hamilton, wanted the national government to have strong control over the states. Thomas Jefferson and his followers, who formed the Democratic-Republican Party, wanted more power to be given to the states. Most of the time, Adams agreed with the Federalists.
After Washington had finished a second term as president, Adams was elected to succeed him in 1796. Thomas Jefferson became vice president.
As president, Adams struggled to keep the young nation out of a war that had broken out between Great Britain and France. Jefferson and his party supported France against England. Hamilton pushed for war against France. Adams created the Department of the Navy and expanded the Army in case of war, but he argued against fighting. This turned some Federalists against Adams.
Adams tried to silence Jefferson’s friends, who attacked the president in newspaper articles. Adams signed the Alien and Sedition Acts in 1798, but the acts limited the right of free speech. They were unpopular, which hurt the president’s popularity.
Some Federalists didn’t support Adams in the presidential election of 1800. He lost to Thomas Jefferson. Divided by politics, Adams and Jefferson ended their long friendship.
Hurt by his defeat, Adams returned to Massachusetts. His wife died in 1818. John Adams lived to see his son, John Quincy Adams, become the sixth president of the United States in 1825.
In 1812, Adams and Jefferson repaired their friendship and began writing letters to each other again. In a strange twist of history, both great patriots died on July 4, 1826, the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. John Adams was 90 when he died.