John Adams second President of the United States

John Adams was the second President of the United States, serving from 1797 to 1801. He was a key figure in the early history of the United States and played a crucial role in the American Revolution. Before becoming president, Adams was a leading advocate for independence from Great Britain and played a significant role in drafting the Declaration of Independence, alongside Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin.

Adams was also a diplomat, serving as an envoy to France and the Netherlands during the Revolutionary War. He later became the first Vice President of the United States under George Washington.

As president, Adams faced challenges including tensions with France, the passage of the Alien and Sedition Acts, and strained relations with his own party, the Federalists. Despite these challenges, Adams is remembered for his integrity and commitment to the rule of law.

After his presidency, Adams retired to his farm in Massachusetts, where he spent his remaining years writing, corresponding with fellow founders like Thomas Jefferson, and reflecting on his legacy. He died on July 4, 1826, the same day as Thomas Jefferson and the 50th anniversary of the adoption of the Declaration of Independence.

John Adams American history

John Adams an influential figure in American history, served as the second President of the United States from 1797 to 1801. Prior to his presidency, Adams was deeply involved in the American Revolution, advocating for independence and defending British soldiers in the Boston Massacre trial, showcasing his commitment to principles of justice and fairness. His pivotal role in drafting the Declaration of Independence and his service as a diplomat in Europe during the formative years of the nation established him as a significant figure in the founding of the United States.

As the first Vice President under George Washington, Adams helped shape the role of the vice presidency and played a vital role in the early years of the federal government. Despite facing challenges such as tensions with France and criticism for his policies, Adams remained dedicated to preserving American neutrality amidst the turbulence of European conflicts. His presidency was marked by significant decisions, including signing the controversial Alien and Sedition Acts and strengthening the military in response to the undeclared naval war with France.

Following his presidency and a bitter electoral defeat to Thomas Jefferson in 1800, Adams retired to his home in Massachusetts. Despite their earlier political rivalry, Adams and Jefferson would reconcile and develop a lasting friendship through their correspondence, a testament to their mutual respect and dedication to the future of the nation. Adams’s legacy extended beyond his own presidency, as his son, John Quincy Adams, would later become the sixth President of the United States, solidifying the Adams family’s impact on American politics.

John Adams’s contributions to American governance and his unwavering commitment to the principles of liberty, justice, and independence continue to be celebrated by historians. His refusal to compromise his principles, even in the face of criticism, and his dedication to public service have left an indelible mark on the fabric of American democracy.

Early Life and Education

John Adams was born on October 30, 1735, in Braintree, Massachusetts, which is now part of Quincy. John Adams was the eldest of three sons born to John Adams Sr., a farmer and shoemaker, and Susanna Boylston Adams, a member of a prominent Massachusetts family. John Adams grew up in a modest household, but his parents valued education highly, which greatly influenced John Adams’s early development and future achievements. John Adams’s upbringing in a family that prioritized learning set the stage for his future success.

John Adams attended a local school where he received a basic education before enrolling in Harvard College at the age of sixteen. At Harvard, John Adams studied a broad range of subjects, including philosophy, Latin, and rhetoric. John Adams graduated in 1755 with a Bachelor of Arts degree and, after considering a career in the ministry, decided to study law. John Adams apprenticed under James Putnam, a prominent lawyer in Worcester, Massachusetts, and was admitted to the bar in 1758. John Adams’s educational journey at Harvard and his legal apprenticeship laid a strong foundation for his future career.

John Adams’s early career as a lawyer was marked by his dedication to the principles of justice and the rule of law. John Adams’s legal practice grew, and he became known for his articulate arguments and commitment to fairness, traits that would later define John Adams’s political career. John Adams’s dedication to these principles established him as a respected figure in both the legal and political arenas. John Adams’s influence and legacy as a Founding Father of the United States remain significant to this day.

College Education and Adulthood

At the age of sixteen, John Adams entered Harvard College in 1751, studying under the guidance of Joseph Mayhew. John Adams, as an adult, became a devoted scholar, immersing himself in the works of ancient writers such as Thucydides, Plato, Cicero, and Tacitus, reading them in their original languages.

Although his father had hoped John Adams would become a minister, John Adams graduated in 1755 with an A.B. degree and initially took up teaching in Worcester while contemplating his future. During these years, John Adams sought prestige and recognition, yearning for “Honour or Reputation” and more respect from his peers, aspiring to become “a great Man.”

Eventually, John Adams chose to pursue a career in law, writing to his father about the “noble and gallant achievements” he saw among lawyers compared to the “pretended sanctity of some absolute dunces” in the clergy. Despite his ambitions, John Adams had moments of self-doubt, questioning his “trumpery” and feeling he did not share in the “happiness of [his] fellow men.”

When the French and Indian War broke out in 1754, a nineteen-year-old John Adams felt a pang of guilt for being the first in his family not to serve as a militia officer. John Adams admitted, “I longed more ardently to be a Soldier than I ever did to be a Lawyer.”

Law Practice and Marriage

In 1756, John Adams began studying law under James Putnam, a leading lawyer in Worcester. By 1758, John Adams had earned an A.M. from Harvard, and in 1759, John Adams was admitted to the bar. John Adams developed an early habit of diary writing, documenting his thoughts and observations

. This included his impressions of James Otis Jr.’s 1761 challenge to the legality of British writs of assistance, which allowed British officials to search homes without notice or reason. Otis’s argument against these writs inspired John Adams to take up the cause of the American colonies.

In 1763, John Adams delved into political theory, writing seven essays for Boston newspapers under the pen name “Humphrey Ploughjogger,” where John Adams ridiculed the selfish thirst for power he saw among the Massachusetts colonial elite.

Although initially less well-known than his older cousin Samuel Adams, John Adams’s influence grew through his work as a constitutional lawyer, his historical analysis, and his commitment to republicanism. However, John Adams often found his own irascible nature a hindrance in his political career.

John Adams

John Adams
2nd President of the United States
In office: March 4, 1797 – March 4, 1801
Vice President: Thomas Jefferson
Preceded by: George Washington
Succeeded by: Thomas Jefferson
1st Vice President of the United States
In office: April 21, 1789 – March 4, 1797
President: George Washington
Preceded by: Office established
Succeeded by: Thomas Jefferson
1st United States Minister to Great Britain
In office: April 1, 1785 – February 20, 1788
Appointed by: Congress of the Confederation
Succeeded by: Thomas Pinckney
1st United States Minister to the Netherlands
In office: April 19, 1782 – March 30, 1788
Appointed by: Congress of the Confederation
Succeeded by: Charles W. F. Dumas (acting)
United States Envoy to France
In office: November 28, 1777 – March 8, 1779
Preceded by: Silas Deane
Succeeded by: Benjamin Franklin
Chairman of the Marine Committee
In office: October 13, 1775 – October 28, 1779
Preceded by: Office established
Succeeded by: Francis Lewis (Continental Board of Admiralty)
12th Chief Justice of the Massachusetts Superior Court of Judicature
In office: October 1775 – February 1777
Appointed by: Provincial Congress
Preceded by: Peter Oliver
Succeeded by: William Cushing
Delegate from Massachusetts to the Continental Congress
In office: September 5, 1774 – November 28, 1777
Preceded by: Office established
Succeeded by: Samuel Holten
Personal Details
Born: October 30, 1735 [O.S. October 19, 1735]
Braintree, Massachusetts Bay, British America (now Quincy)
Died: July 4, 1826 (aged 90)
Quincy, Massachusetts, U.S.
Resting Place: United First Parish Church
Political Party: Pro-Administration (before 1795), Federalist (1795–c. 1808), Democratic-Republican (from c. 1808)
Spouse: Abigail Smith (m. 1764; died 1818)
Children: 6, including Abigail, John Quincy, Charles, and Thomas
Parents: John Adams Sr., Susanna Boylston
Education: Harvard College (AB, AM)
Occupation: Politician, Lawyer

In the late 1750s, John Adams found himself smitten with Hannah Quincy, on the brink of proposing until friends intervened, disrupting the moment. However, fate had other plans, as in 1759, he crossed paths with 15-year-old Abigail Smith, his third cousin, introduced through his friend Richard Cranch, who courted Abigail’s older sister. Initially unimpressed, Adams described Abigail and her sisters as lacking in fondness, frankness, and candor.

Over time, John Adams grew fond of Abigail, and on October 25, 1764, they married, despite opposition from Abigail’s mother. Sharing a passion for literature, they engaged in honest exchanges of praise and critique. After inheriting a farm and house in 1761, following his father’s passing, the couple resided there until 1783.

John and Abigail welcomed six children into their lives: Abigail (known as “Nabby”) in 1765, John Quincy in 1767, Susanna in 1768, Charles in 1770, Thomas in 1772, and Elizabeth in 1777. Tragically, Susanna passed away at just one year old, while Elizabeth was stillborn. Despite the challenges, all three of Adams’s sons pursued law careers. Charles and Thomas faced struggles with alcoholism and passed away prematurely, while John Quincy thrived, eventually ascending to the presidency.

John Adams

Career before the Revolution

Opponent of Stamp Act

Further information: Stamp Act

Before the Revolution, John Adams emerged as a prominent figure, leading the charge against the Stamp Act. This act, imposed by the British Parliament without colonial consent, mandated a direct tax on stamped documents to cover Britain’s war expenses. Adams vehemently opposed the act, drafting the “Braintree Instructions” in 1765, defending colonial rights to be taxed by consent and tried by peers.

He also wrote under the pseudonym “Humphrey Plough jogger,” contributing articles to the Boston Gazette denouncing the act.

Despite tensions easing after the Stamp Act’s repeal in 1766, Adams remained active in Boston’s legal and political circles. Moving his family to Boston in 1768, he focused on his law practice, representing clients like John Hancock in high-profile cases.

With the passing of influential figures like Jeremiah Gridley and the mental decline of Otis, Adams emerged as Boston’s leading lawyer, navigating the turbulent times with resilience and conviction.

Representing the British: Boston Massacre

Tensions heightened with Britain’s enactment of the Townshend Acts in 1767, leading to increased mob violence and the dispatch of additional troops to the colonies. On March 5, 1770, a lone British sentry faced a mob, prompting eight soldiers to reinforce him. As the crowd grew, they were bombarded with snowballs, ice, and stones, culminating in the tragic Boston Massacre, where five civilians lost their lives.

Charged with murder, the soldiers faced trial, and despite reluctance from other attorneys, John Adams took up their defense, driven by his belief in the right to counsel and a fair trial. The trials were postponed allowing emotions to settle.

The trial of Captain Thomas Preston began on October 24 and ended in acquittal, as there was insufficient evidence to prove he had ordered the soldiers to fire. In December, Adams delivered his renowned argument on the inflexibility of facts, securing acquittals for six soldiers while two were convicted of manslaughter for firing directly into the crowd. Adams received a modest payment for his services.

During jury selection, Adams strategically utilized his right to challenge jurors, resulting in what some considered a biased jury. Despite facing weak prosecution, Adams’s defense was deemed brilliant, leading to speculation that his acceptance of the case was linked to future political prospects.

His law practice flourished, prompting a move to Braintree in 1771, though he maintained his Boston office. Disenchanted with Braintree’s rural setting, Adams relocated his family back to Boston in 1772, purchasing a house nearby.

As tensions escalated, Adams, previously conservative, began to advocate for stronger measures against British oppression. Events like the Crown assuming payment of colonial officials’ salaries and Governor Hutchinson’s speech warning against resistance fueled Adams’s shift towards independence.

He co-authored resolutions emphasizing the colonies’ exclusive allegiance to the King, paving the way for the threat of independence. The Boston Tea Party in 1773 further solidified colonial resistance, with Adams supporting the destruction of tea as a pivotal act of protest against British tyranny.

Continental Congress

Member of Continental Congress

56 figures stand or sit in a room. Five lay papers on a table.

As tensions between the American colonies and Britain escalated in the late 1700s, Samuel Adams spurred the convening of the First Continental Congress in 1774. This gathering was a response to the oppressive measures of the Intolerable Acts imposed by the British government, particularly targeting Massachusetts. Despite reservations expressed by his friend Jonathan Sewall, Attorney General, John Adams was chosen as one of Massachusetts’ delegates to the Congress.

Upon arriving in Philadelphia, Adams found himself thrust into the Grand Committee tasked with drafting a letter of grievances to King George III. The committee soon became divided between those advocating for more conciliatory measures and those pushing for more assertive actions. Despite initially aligning with conservative views, Adams critiqued fellow delegates who he felt were too accommodating to British interests.

Throughout the Congress, Adams sought to strike a balance between the differing factions, ultimately contributing to a compromise resolution. Despite facing personal challenges, including the burden of his absence on his wife Abigail, Adams remained committed to the cause.

With the outbreak of hostilities at Lexington and Concord, Adams grew increasingly convinced of the inevitability of American independence. Upon his return to Philadelphia for the Second Continental Congress, he played a crucial role in nominating George Washington as commander-in-chief of the Continental Army, signaling a united front against British oppression.

While publicly advocating for reconciliation, Adams privately acknowledged the likelihood of independence. He actively opposed peace initiatives, favoring more assertive measures against British tyranny. Despite facing setbacks, such as the publication of an intercepted private letter, Adams remained resolute in his commitment to American sovereignty.

Declining judicial appointments, Adams focused his efforts on shaping republican ideals, contributing significantly to the discourse with works like “Thoughts on Government.” As tensions continued to mount, Adams emerged as a steadfast advocate for American autonomy, dedicated to hastening the colonies’ separation from Great Britain.

John Adams


Throughout the initial months of 1776, Adams’s impatience with the sluggish pace of declaring independence grew more pronounced. At the Second Continental Congress in Philadelphia, he played a pivotal role in advancing a plan to commission armed ships for raids on enemy vessels.

Additionally, he spearheaded the drafting of the first regulations for the provisional navy. Adams also contributed to the drafting of the preamble to the Lee Resolution, alongside colleague Richard Henry Lee. Developing a close rapport with delegate Thomas Jefferson of Virginia, Adams advocated for independence, culminating in his seconding of the Lee Resolution on June 7, 1776, affirming the colonies as “free and independent states.”

Prior to the formal declaration of independence, Adams orchestrated the formation of a Committee of Five tasked with drafting the Declaration of Independence, selecting Jefferson to lead the endeavor. Despite Jefferson’s initial reservations, Adams convinced the committee to entrust Jefferson with the task, citing his own perceived unpopularity.

Although the specifics of the drafting process remain uncertain, Adams played a significant role alongside Jefferson. During the subsequent congressional debates, Adams emerged as a staunch advocate for the adoption of the Declaration, countering vigorous opposition. Jefferson later acknowledged Adams as instrumental in securing its passage.

Amidst his congressional duties, Adams undertook an unparalleled workload, serving on ninety committees and chairing twenty-five. In June 1776, he assumed leadership of the Board of War and Ordnance, overseeing military logistics and strategy. Revered as the foremost figure in Congress, Adams dedicated himself to the arduous task of managing the nascent American army. Despite financial struggles and exhaustion, exacerbated by the Battle of Long Island, Adams remained steadfast in his commitment to the cause.

Following negotiations with British Admiral Richard Howe at the Staten Island Peace Conference in September 1776, Adams returned to Braintree briefly before resuming his congressional duties in January 1777. Throughout his service, Adams’s unwavering determination and tireless efforts were instrumental in advancing the cause of American independence.

Diplomatic service

Main article: Diplomacy of John Adams

Commissioner to France

Amidst the tumultuous events of the Revolutionary War, Adams staunchly advocated for the necessity of independence in Congress, emphasizing its role in fostering crucial trade relationships. Recognizing the pivotal importance of securing a commercial treaty with France, he was appointed to a select committee tasked with preparing treaties to propose to foreign powers.

While Jefferson drafted the Declaration of Independence, Adams diligently worked on the Model Treaty, focusing on commercial agreements rather than formal recognition or military support. However, as America’s financial woes mounted and British forces scored victories, including the capture of Philadelphia, sentiments shifted towards the need for military assistance from France, especially after the decisive American victory at Saratoga.

In November 1777, Adams received the appointment as commissioner to France, replacing Silas Deane. With his unwavering integrity and youthful vigor seen as vital assets, Adams wasted no time in accepting the role. Leaving his wife Abigail in Massachusetts, he embarked on the journey accompanied by his 10-year-old son, John Quincy, recognizing the invaluable educational opportunity it presented. The voyage aboard the frigate Boston was fraught with peril, including encounters with British vessels and a fatal cannon malfunction.

Upon arrival in France in April 1778, Adams was informed of the recent alliance between France and the United States, although he found himself at odds with his fellow commissioners, Arthur Lee and Benjamin Franklin, due to differences in temperament and approach.

While in France, Adams played a less prominent public role but diligently managed the delegation’s financial affairs and records. Frustrated by what he perceived as French reluctance to fully commit to the American cause, Adams advocated for French naval support in North America, albeit with limited success.

His frustrations were compounded when Franklin was granted expanded powers by Congress, while Adams received no additional instructions. Feeling slighted, Adams decided to return to America with his son in March 1779, arriving back in Braintree later that year.

In late 1779, Adams assumed the crucial role of sole minister tasked with negotiating a commercial treaty with Britain and bringing an end to the war. Departing for France in November following his participation in the Massachusetts constitutional convention, Adams embarked on the journey accompanied by his sons John Quincy and Charles.

However, a mishap forced their ship to land in Ferrol, Spain, resulting in a lengthy overland journey to Paris. In the midst of constant disagreements between fellow commissioners Lee and Franklin, Adams emerged as the key mediator, often breaking ties in commission votes and significantly contributing to the negotiation process.

Unlike Franklin, Adams harbored a skeptical view of the Franco-American alliance, viewing it through a lens of French self-interest rather than genuine support for the American cause. Frustrated by what he perceived as France’s sluggish response and reluctance to provide substantial aid, Adams expressed his discontent with their cautious approach. Despite Vergennes’ summoning him to discuss Congress’ decision to devalue the dollar, Adams staunchly defended the move, citing various grievances and emphasizing the need for more tangible French support, particularly in terms of naval assistance.

Ambassador to the Dutch Republic

In March 1780, Adams found himself increasingly at odds with Vergennes, who insisted on dealing exclusively with Franklin and criticized Adams’ stance on various issues. Feeling marginalized and disillusioned by the lack of progress, Adams decided to leave France voluntarily, marking the end of his diplomatic tenure there.

Transitioning to his role as Ambassador to the Dutch Republic in mid-1780, Adams hoped to secure a Dutch loan to bolster American independence. However, his efforts were met with disappointment as the Dutch, fearing British reprisals and swayed by reports of American defeats, proved reluctant to engage with him.

Despite initial setbacks, Adams persisted in his diplomatic endeavors, leveraging popular sentiment and capitalizing on the growing pro-American sentiment in the Dutch Republic. Following a prolonged period of diplomatic maneuvering, Adams finally secured formal recognition of American independence from the States General in April 1782.

Subsequently, he successfully negotiated a substantial loan and a treaty of amity and commerce, further cementing diplomatic ties between the United States and the Netherlands. The house he acquired during his stay in the Netherlands became the first American embassy abroad, symbolizing the success of his diplomatic efforts in securing vital support for the fledgling nation.

Treaty of Paris

Following his successful negotiations for a loan with the Dutch, Adams resumed his role as American commissioner tasked with negotiating the Treaty of Paris to end the war. Despite disapproval from Vergennes and France’s minister to the United States, Adams collaborated with Franklin, Jay, Jefferson, and Laurens.

However, Laurens was later posted to the Dutch Republic after his imprisonment. Fishing rights off Newfoundland and Cape Breton Island emerged as critical yet challenging aspects of the negotiations. Adams staunchly advocated for generous fishing terms, prompting Vergennes to secretly inform the British of France’s reluctance to support such ambitious demands.

Overruling Franklin and wary of Vergennes, Adams and Jay opted to bypass French consultation and negotiate directly with the British. Adams strategically highlighted the comparative generosity of his proposed fishing terms, aiming to foster goodwill between Britain and the United States while exerting pressure on France. Despite Vergennes’ anger upon learning of the American duplicity,

he refrained from demanding renegotiation, surprised at the concessions secured by the Americans. Independent negotiations also allowed France to avoid complications with their Spanish allies over Gibraltar’s demands.

Ambassador to Great Britain

On September 3, 1783, the Treaty of Paris was signed, officially recognizing American independence. Following this diplomatic triumph, Adams assumed the role of the first American ambassador to Great Britain in 1785. His initial audience with King George III, meticulously recorded in a letter to Foreign Minister Jay, was characterized by mutual respect and cordiality. Adams pledged to restore friendship between the two nations, emphasizing their shared language, religion, and heritage. The King, acknowledging his previous resistance to American independence, expressed his admiration for Adams’ patriotism and honesty, affirming that an honest man would always prioritize loyalty to their own country.

Abigail joined Adams in London, where they faced hostility from the King’s courtiers. Seeking refuge, they often visited Richard Price, minister of Newington Green Unitarian Church and a prominent figure in the British debate over the Revolution. Despite the challenges, Adams maintained correspondence with his sons John Quincy and Charles, both students at Harvard. He advised John Quincy to balance his studies and cautioned Charles against neglecting his academic responsibilities.

During Jefferson’s visit to London in 1786, while serving as Minister to France, he and Adams explored the countryside together, immersing themselves in historical sites. Adams also reconnected with his old friend Jonathan Sewall, but they found their differences too profound to revive their friendship. Sewall critiqued Adams as lacking the essential traits of a courtier, despite his intellectual prowess and integrity.

Amidst his diplomatic duties, Adams found time to write his three-volume work, “A Defense of the Constitutions of Government of the United States of America.” This monumental work was a response to European criticisms of the American government systems he encountered during his time in Britain.

Adams’s tenure in Britain was marked by frustrations as both countries failed to fulfill their treaty obligations. The American states’ failure to repay debts owed to British merchants led to the British refusing to vacate forts in the northwest as agreed. Adams’s efforts to resolve the dispute proved fruitless, and he grappled with anxiety over the tumultuous events unfolding in the United States, such as Shays’ Rebellion.

Feeling overwhelmed, Adams requested relief from his duties and in 1788 bid farewell to George III, who pledged to honor the treaty once America fulfilled its obligations. Adams then traveled to The Hague to formally conclude his ambassadorship and secure refinancing from the Dutch, ensuring that the United States could meet its financial commitments.

Vice presidency (1789–1797)

Adams received a hero’s welcome upon his return to Massachusetts on June 17, 1788, after which he resumed his life as a farmer. However, the looming presidential election soon stirred political fervor. With George Washington expected to clinch the presidency, attention turned to selecting a vice president, with many advocating for a northerner. Although Adams remained silent on the matter publicly, he emerged as the primary contender for the position.

The nation’s first presidential election convened on February 4, 1789, as each state’s electors convened to cast their votes. Adams secured 34 electoral college votes, making him the second-highest vote-getter after Washington, who won unanimously with 69 votes. Despite his significant support, Adams was disheartened by Washington’s overwhelming victory, feeling slighted by the considerable disparity in votes. To prevent any chance of Adams accidentally ascending to the presidency and to ensure Washington’s decisive triumph, Alexander Hamilton persuaded at least 7 electors not to vote for Adams.

Adams officially assumed the role of vice president on April 21, 1789, although his term commenced on March 4 of the same year. However, due to delays, he arrived in New York after the inauguration, causing a delayed start to his vice presidency.

As vice president, Adams’s primary constitutional duty was to preside over the U.S. Senate and cast tie-breaking votes when necessary. Early in his tenure, he became embroiled in a Senate dispute over the official titles for the president and executive officers. While the House favored the simple title “George Washington, President of the United States,” the Senate engaged in lengthy debates over various titles. Adams advocated for grandiose titles like “Highness”

“Protector of Their Liberties” for the president, sparking opposition from anti-federalists who deemed such titles as monarchical and unconstitutional. Adams’s combative nature and stubbornness during these debates earned him ridicule and contempt from his colleagues, with Senator William Maclay famously likening him to “a monkey just put into breeches.” Ultimately, the Senate settled on the modest title of “Mr. President,” much to Adams’s chagrin. Privately, Adams acknowledged the rocky start to his vice presidency and recognized that perhaps his time abroad had disconnected him from the sentiments of the American people.

During his tenure as vice president, Adams aligned himself closely with the Washington administration and the emerging Federalist Party, supporting Washington’s policies despite opposition from anti-Federalist Republicans. He wielded significant influence in the Senate, casting 29 tie-breaking votes, a feat surpassed by only two other vice presidents in history. Notably, Adams opposed a bill proposed by Maclay that sought to require Senate consent for the removal of executive branch officials confirmed by the Senate.

In 1790, Adams played a pivotal role in the Senate’s decision regarding the relocation of the capital. Jefferson, Madison, and Hamilton brokered a deal to secure Republican support for Hamilton’s debt assumption plan in exchange for moving the capital temporarily from New York to Philadelphia and eventually to a permanent site on the Potomac River. Adams cast a tie-breaking vote against a motion to retain the capital in New York, thus contributing to the decision to move it elsewhere.

Despite his significant role in the Senate, Adams found the vice presidency somewhat unsatisfactory, lamenting its limited scope and activity. He humorously remarked that the office was “the most insignificant” ever devised by man, expressing his frustration with its perceived lack of importance. Although initially energetic and dedicated, Adams gradually accepted his marginal role in politics and rarely intervened in debates toward the end of his first term.

Adams’s relationship with Washington evolved over time, with Washington seeking his counsel more frequently toward the end of his administration. However, Adams harbored some resentment toward prominent figures like Franklin and Washington, feeling overshadowed by their prominence in historical narratives of the Revolution. Despite these sentiments, Adams easily won reelection in 1792, securing 77 votes compared to his strongest challenger George Clinton’s 50.

The onset of the French Revolution in July 1789 stirred mixed reactions among Republicans and Federalists. Initially cautiously optimistic, Adams soon denounced the revolutionaries as barbarous and tyrannical. As tensions escalated, Washington increasingly relied on Adams’s counsel, particularly after the resignation of distinguished cabinet members Hamilton and Jefferson.

In 1795, when John Jay returned from London with a peace treaty perceived as unfavorable to the United States, Adams urged Washington to sign it to avoid war. Washington’s decision sparked protests and accusations of surrendering American honor to a tyrannical monarchy, further dividing the nation. Adams foresaw the deep division the treaty’s ratification would cause, reflecting the growing political discord of the time.

Election of 1796

The 1796 presidential election marked the first time Americans witnessed a fiercely contested race for the nation’s highest office. Following George Washington’s decision not to seek a third term, the deep ideological divisions within his administration, particularly between Hamilton and Jefferson, led to the formation of the Federalist and Republican parties.


Unlike modern elections, where voters choose between candidates, the process in 1796 involved electors selected by the states who would then vote for the president. Seven states held popular elections to choose electors, while the remaining nine relied on their legislatures for the selection. Thomas Jefferson emerged as the clear favorite among Republicans, while John Adams led the Federalist ticket.

The campaign unfolded primarily through newspaper attacks, pamphlets, and political rallies, with only Aaron Burr actively engaging in campaigning among the four contenders. Adams notably distanced himself from what he called the “silly and wicked game” of electioneering, expressing a desire to stay out of the fray.

As the election drew near, tensions within the Federalist Party intensified, with Alexander Hamilton and his supporters expressing concerns about Adams’s temperament and independence. Hamilton, favoring Thomas Pinckney, sought to manipulate the outcome by diverting votes away from Adams. His efforts were thwarted when New England electors refused to support Pinckney upon learning of Hamilton’s scheme.

Adams’s victory was narrow, securing 71 electoral votes compared to Jefferson’s 68, who consequently became vice president. Pinckney and Burr trailed behind, with the remaining votes scattered among other candidates. Notably, this election marked the only instance in American history where a president and vice president were elected from opposing tickets. Throughout the campaign and afterward, Adams maintained a contentious relationship with Hamilton, frequently criticizing his character and morals.

Presidency (1797–1801)


Adams took the presidential oath on March 4, 1797, becoming the second president of the United States. Following in Washington’s footsteps, he sought to embody republican values and uphold civic virtue, maintaining a presidency free from scandal.Despite his official duties in the nation’s capital, Adams often retreated to his Massachusetts residence, Peacefield, where he found solace in the quietude of domestic life, preferring it to the bustle of political affairs.

Unlike many of his contemporaries, Adams eschewed political patronage and avoided catering to office-seekers.

There is ongoing debate among historians regarding Adams’s decision to retain Washington’s cabinet, which was largely aligned with the policies of Alexander Hamilton. Thomas Jefferson, a political rival, remarked that the “Hamiltonians who surround him” were almost as hostile to Adams as they were to him.

Despite recognizing Hamilton’s considerable influence, Adams believed that maintaining the existing cabinet would facilitate a smoother transition of power. While Adams largely upheld Hamilton’s economic programs, he demonstrated a level of independence from his cabinet by frequently making decisions against its advice. Unlike Washington, who regularly sought Hamilton’s counsel, Adams exhibited a dismissive attitude toward Hamilton’s policy suggestions shortly after taking office, indicating a willingness to chart his own course.

Failed peace commission and XYZ affair

Main article: XYZ Affair

Historian Joseph Ellis posits that Adams’s presidency was defined by a pivotal question rarely faced by his successors: whether to engage in war with France or pursue a path of peace. The political landscape was sharply divided, with the Federalists, led by Hamilton, staunchly favoring the British monarchy amidst the chaos of the French Revolution. Conversely, Jefferson and the Republicans ardently supported the French revolutionaries, seeing them as champions of republicanism. Tensions escalated when the French, feeling slighted by Adams’s electoral victory over Jefferson in 1796, began seizing American merchant ships trading with Britain, perceiving America as a British ally due to the Jay Treaty.

In response to mounting tensions, Adams addressed Congress on May , advocating for the reinforcement of defense capabilities in anticipation of potential conflict with France. While expressing his intention to dispatch a peace commission to France, Adams also called for military preparedness to counter any perceived threat from the French. This stance garnered support among Federalists but drew strong criticism from Republicans, who viewed Adams’s approach as aggressive and interpreted it as a veiled call to war against the French Republic.

Sentiments underwent a dramatic shift following the XYZ Affair, a diplomatic debacle that exposed French attempts to extort bribes from American envoys. Adams’s peace commission, composed of John Marshall, Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, and Elbridge Gerry, was met with disdain and demands for bribes from French agents, known as X, Y, and Z, sent by Foreign Minister Talleyrand. The failure of the mission, conveyed in a memorandum from Marshall in March, prompted Adams to seek congressional approval for bolstering the nation’s defenses. However, Adams’s efforts encountered resistance from Republicans in Congress, suspicious of his motives and demanding transparency regarding the failed peace mission.

Upon the release of documents detailing the XYZ Affair, public sentiment turned decisively against France, and Adams gained increased popular support. Despite calls for war against France, Adams exercised restraint, avoiding the incitement of violent impulses among the populace. Benjamin Franklin Bache, a vocal critic, blamed Adams’s perceived aggression for the diplomatic fiasco, while the general public, disillusioned by France’s actions, rallied behind Adams’s defensive measures.

Alien and Sedition Acts

Main article: Alien and Sedition Acts


In May, a French privateer captured a merchant vessel near New York Harbor, signaling the onset of the undeclared naval conflict known as the Quasi-War. Recognizing America’s inability to prevail in a full-scale war due to internal divisions and France’s dominance in Europe, Adams adopted a strategy focused on harassing French ships to deter assaults on American interests. Shortly after the New York incident, Congress established a separate Navy Department to address maritime threats.

Amid growing concerns about a potential French invasion, calls for military preparedness intensified, with Hamilton and other Federalists advocating for a significant expansion of the army. Despite reservations, particularly among Republicans, who viewed large standing armies as threats to liberty, Congress authorized a provisional army of soldiers in May. Subsequently, in July, Congress authorized the creation of twelve infantry regiments and six cavalry companies, a compromise between Adams’s more modest proposal and Hamilton’s ambitious plan.

John Adams

Fries’s Rebellion

Main article: Fries’s Rebellion

Federalist divisions and peace

In May, 1800, Adams’s frustrations with the Hamilton wing of the party erupted during a meeting with McHenry, a Hamilton loyalist who was universally regarded as an inept Secretary of War. Adams accused him of subservience to Hamilton and expressed his preference to serve as Jefferson’s vice president or minister at The Hague rather than be beholden to Hamilton for the presidency. McHenry offered to resign immediately, and Adams accepted. On May 10, he requested Pickering’s resignation, but Pickering refused and was promptly dismissed. Adams appointed John Marshall as Secretary of State and Samuel Dexter as Secretary of War.

In 1799, Napoleon seized power in the Coup of 18 Brumaire and declared the French Revolution over. This event bolstered Adams’s desire to disband the provisional army, especially with Washington’s passing. His efforts to end the army after the departures of McHenry and Pickering encountered little opposition, as Federalists joined with Republicans to vote for disbandment in mid-1800.

Napoleon, recognizing the futility of further conflict, signaled his willingness for amicable relations. Under the Convention of 1800, both sides agreed to return captured ships and permit the peaceful transfer of non-military goods to enemy nations. However, the Senate narrowly failed to ratify the treaty on January 23, 1801, falling short by four votes. Some Federalists, including Hamilton, advocated for ratification with reservations.

A revised proposal demanding that the Treaty of Alliance of 1778 be superseded and that France compensate for damages to American property was subsequently passed on February 3, 1801, by a vote of 22–9, and signed by Adams. The news of the peace treaty arrived after the election, too late to influence the results.

As president, Adams proudly steered clear of war but deeply divided his party in doing so. Historian Ron Chernow notes that the “threat of Jacobinism” was the one issue that united the Federalist Party, and Adams’s efforts to eliminate it inadvertently contributed to the party’s downfall.

Adams’s leadership in naval defense earned him the title of the “father of the American Navy.” In July 1798, he signed into law the Act for the relief of sick and disabled seamen, authorizing the establishment of a government-operated marine hospital service. Additionally, in 1800, he signed the legislation establishing the Library of Congress.

In early June 1800, Adams made his first official visit to the nation’s new capital. Despite its unfinished state, he found the public buildings further along in completion than expected. He moved into the nearly completed President’s Mansion (later known as the White House) on November 1, with Abigail joining him a few weeks later. Upon arrival, Adams expressed his hopes for the residence’s future occupants.

The Senate of the 7th Congress convened for the first time in the new Congress House (later known as the Capitol building) on November 17, 1800. On November 22, Adams delivered his fourth State of the Union Address to a joint session of Congress, marking the last time a president would personally deliver such a message for over a century.

Election of 1800

Main article: 1800 United States presidential election

Judicial appointments

Main article: List of federal judges appointed by John Adams

Post-presidency (1801–1826)

Certainly! Here’s the information broken down into shorter passages:

Retirement at Peacefield:
After his presidency, Adams retreated to his farm at Peacefield in Quincy, Massachusetts. There, he began work on an autobiography, although the project was eventually abandoned. Adams spent much of his time overseeing farm work, though he largely delegated manual labor to hired help. By 1801, Adams had amassed a considerable fortune through his frugal lifestyle and presidential salary. However, in 1803, a bank collapse threatened his financial stability.

Financial Crisis and Family Support:
The collapse of Bird, Savage & Bird, the bank holding Adams’s cash reserves, prompted his son John Quincy to intervene. John Quincy purchased Adams’s properties in Weymouth and Quincy, including Peacefield, to resolve the financial crisis. Despite this setback, Adams maintained his reclusive lifestyle, making little effort to contact others.

Political Stance and Public Silence:
Adams adopted a reserved stance on public matters during his retirement. He refrained from publicly criticizing Jefferson’s presidency, preferring to support administrations to the extent of justice. Even when faced with scandal, such as James Callender’s exposure of the Sally Hemings affair, Adams chose to remain silent.

Family Dynamics and Political Shifts:
John Quincy’s election to the Senate in 1803 marked a departure from party lines, as both father and son supported Jefferson’s Louisiana Purchase. However, the Adams family’s relationship with the Federalist Party strained further when John Quincy resigned from the Senate in 1808. Adams himself distanced from Federalist ranks, expressing his disillusionment with the party’s direction.

Return to Public Discourse:
Following Jefferson’s retirement in 1809, Adams became more vocal in public discourse. He engaged in a marathon of letters published in the Boston Patriot newspaper, refuting Alexander Hamilton’s earlier pamphlet. Despite initial hesitations, Adams felt compelled to defend his character and legacy against Hamilton’s accusations.

Endorsement of the War of 1812:
Adams supported the War of 1812 as a means to foster national unity amid rising sectional tensions. He endorsed James Madison’s reelection bid in 1812, viewing it as a continuation of the struggle for American independence.

Personal Tragedy:
Tragically, Adams’s daughter Abigail (“Nabby”) returned to her parents’ home following the failure of her marriage to William Stephens Smith. She succumbed to breast cancer in 1813, adding a somber note to the Adams family’s post-presidential years.

Last years and death Peace field – John Adams’s Home

In his final years, John Adams found solace at Peacefield, his beloved home in Quincy, Massachusetts. Tragically, Abigail passed away from typhoid fever on October 28, 1818, leaving Adams to navigate life without his cherished partner.

The year 1824 brought excitement to America, marked by a four-way presidential contest that included Adams’s son, John Quincy. Additionally, the renowned Marquis de Lafayette toured the country and paid a visit to Peacefield, which brought Adams great joy.

Adams expressed immense pride and delight upon his son’s election to the presidency, which was officially confirmed in February 1825 following a deadlock resolved in the House of Representatives. Reflecting on the presidency, Adams famously remarked that no one who had held the office would extend congratulations to a friend who obtained it.

Tragedy struck on July 4, 1826, the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, when Adams passed away from a heart attack at Peacefield around 6:20 pm. His final words included a poignant acknowledgment of his longtime friend and rival, Thomas Jefferson, stating, “Thomas Jefferson survives.” Unbeknownst to Adams, Jefferson had passed away several hours earlier. At the age of 90, Adams held the distinction of being the longest-lived U.S. president until Ronald Reagan surpassed him in 2001.

John and Abigail Adams’s final resting place is at the United First Parish Church in Quincy, where their crypt also contains the remains of John Quincy and Louisa Adams.

Political writings

During the First Continental Congress, John Adams shared his views on government. He acknowledged its importance but disagreed with radical ideas like those in Thomas Paine’s “Common Sense.”

While Paine advocated for a unicameral legislature and a weak executive, Adams believed such a system lacked stability. He favored checks and balances, a separation of powers, and a bicameral legislature.

Adams penned his ideas in “Thoughts on Government,” a pamphlet that became highly influential. He argued for a government that aimed for the happiness and virtue of the majority, emphasizing a republic ruled by laws, not individuals.

The pamphlet championed a balanced system:

  • A bicameral legislature to avoid the pitfalls of a single assembly.
  • A separation of powers between executive, judicial, and legislative branches.
  • A government with clearly defined, limited powers.

Adams also used “Thoughts on Government” to criticize opponents of independence. He felt their fears of a republican system hindered progress.

Massachusetts Constitution

After returning from his first mission to France in 1779, John Adams was elected to the Massachusetts Constitutional Convention to help establish a new constitution for Massachusetts. Alongside Samuel Adams and James Bowdoin, Adams served on a committee of three to draft the constitution, with most of the writing falling to him. The resulting Constitution of Massachusetts was approved in 1780. It was notable for being the first constitution written by a special committee and then ratified by the people. It introduced a bicameral legislature, a distinct executive with a qualified (two-thirds) veto, and an independent judicial branch with judges holding lifetime appointments based on good behavior.

The Constitution emphasized the “duty” of individuals to worship the “Supreme Being” freely according to their own conscience. It also established free public education for three years for all children, reflecting Adams’s strong belief in education as a pillar of the Enlightenment. He believed that people “in a State of Ignorance” were more easily enslaved, while those “enlightened with knowledge” could better protect their liberties.

Adams’s focus on political and governmental affairs often separated him from his family, which he addressed in 1780, stating, “I must study Politicks and War that my sons may have the liberty to study Mathematicks and Philosophy. My sons ought to study Geography, natural History, Naval Architecture, navigation, Commerce and Agriculture, in order to give their children a right to study Painting, Poetry, Musick, Architecture, Statuary, Tapestry, and Porcelaine.”

While in London, Adams learned about a planned convention to amend the Articles of Confederation. In January 1787, he published “A Defence of the Constitutions of Government of the United States,” refuting the views of Turgot and other European writers who criticized state government frameworks. He argued for a mixed government that balanced the interests of different social classes, suggesting that the “rich, the well-born, and the able” should be set apart in a senate to prevent them from dominating the lower house.

Historian Gordon S. Wood argued that Adams’s political philosophy had become outdated by the time the Federal Constitution was ratified, as American political thought had evolved to embrace popular sovereignty, with the citizenry as the sole possessors of power. However, some critics believed Wood ignored Adams’s unique definition of “republic” and his support for a constitution ratified by the people.

Adams believed in the separation of powers, writing, “Power must be opposed to power, and interest to interest.” This idea was later echoed by James Madison in Federalist No. 51, where he stated, “Ambition must be made to counteract ambition.” Adams felt that human nature drove people to further their own ambitions, and thus a single democratically elected house, if unchecked, could become tyrannical. It needed to be balanced by an upper house and a strong executive to defend the people’s liberties against potential aristocratic overreach.

When Adams first saw the new United States Constitution in late 1787, he expressed satisfaction but regretted that the president could not make appointments without Senate approval and noted the absence of a Bill of Rights.

Political philosophy and views


John Adams never owned a slave and declined to use slave labor on principle, stating:

“I have, through my whole life, held the practice of slavery in such abhorrence, that I have never owned a negro or any other slave, though I have lived for many years in times, when the practice was not disgraceful, when the best men in my vicinity thought it not inconsistent with their character, and when it has cost me thousands of dollars for the labor and subsistence of free men, which I might have saved by the purchase of negroes at times when they were very cheap.”

Before the American Revolution, Adams occasionally represented slaves in their legal suits for freedom. He generally tried to keep the issue of slavery out of national politics due to the anticipated backlash from the Southern states during a time when unity was essential for achieving independence. In 1777, Adams spoke against a bill to emancipate slaves in Massachusetts, arguing that the issue was too divisive and should be postponed.

He also opposed the use of black soldiers in the Revolutionary War due to Southern opposition. However, slavery was effectively abolished in Massachusetts around 1780, when it was implicitly forbidden in the Declaration of Rights that Adams included in the Massachusetts Constitution. His wife, Abigail Adams, was a vocal opponent of slavery.


John Adams expressed controversial and shifting views regarding monarchical and hereditary political institutions. At times, he supported these institutions, suggesting that “hereditary monarchy or aristocracy” were the “only institutions that can possibly preserve the laws and liberties of the people.”

However, he also called himself “a mortal and irreconcilable enemy to Monarchy,” which did not quell accusations from his critics that he was a monarchist. Historian Clinton Rossiter described Adams not as a monarchist but as a revolutionary conservative who sought to balance republicanism with the stability of monarchy to create “ordered liberty.” In his 1790 work “Discourses on Davila,” published in the Gazette of the United States, Adams warned of the dangers of unbridled democracy.

Despite scurrilous attacks suggesting that he planned to “crown himself king” and was grooming his son John Quincy as heir to the throne, Adams firmly denied any desire for an American monarchy. He believed that the real danger was an oligarchy of the wealthy and argued that the power of the wealthy needed to be channeled by institutions and checked by a strong executive.

Religious Views

John Adams was raised in the Congregational church, and he and his father were part of the Unitarian faction in Quincy. Unitarianism, which denied the Trinity and the divinity of Jesus Christ, was a new force in the colonies and opposed by the Calvinist faction. In 1825, the Unitarians split off as a separate denomination, which included John Adams.

Adams felt a deep pressure to live up to his Puritan heritage, which had profoundly shaped New England’s culture, laws, and traditions. Though strict Puritan practices were no longer in place by his time, Adams praised the Puritans as “bearers of freedom.” He recalled that his parents held any form of libertinism in contempt and warned against the consequences of debauchery.

According to biographer David McCullough, Adams was both a devout Christian and an independent thinker, seeing no conflict between the two. He believed that regular church service was beneficial to one’s moral sense. His beliefs synthesized Puritan, deist, and humanist concepts. Adams argued that Christianity had originally been revelatory but had been misinterpreted to serve superstition, fraud, and unscrupulous power.

While Adams shared some perspectives with deists and often used deistic terminology, he was not a deist. Unlike deists, who generally rejected supernatural activity and divine intervention, Adams believed in miracles, providence, and, to some extent, the Bible as revelation. In 1796, he denounced Thomas Paine’s deistic criticisms of Christianity in “The Age of Reason,” calling Christianity “the religion of wisdom, virtue, equity and humanity.”

Historian Gordon S. Wood noted that although both Jefferson and Adams denied the miracles of the Bible and the divinity of Christ, Adams retained a respect for the religiosity of people that Jefferson did not. In his later years, Adams embraced more mainstream Enlightenment religious ideals, criticizing institutional Christianity and established churches in Britain and France for causing suffering, but maintaining that religion was necessary for society.


Historical Reputation

Benjamin Franklin encapsulated the prevailing sentiment towards John Adams by saying, “He means well for his country, is always an honest man, often a wise one, but sometimes, and in some things, absolutely out of his senses.” Adams himself feared he would be forgotten and underappreciated by history, feelings that sometimes led to envy and verbal attacks on other Founders. Historian Edmund Morgan noted Adams’s vanity and jealousy but also acknowledged that “no man ever served his country more selflessly.”

Historian George C. Herring described Adams as the most independent-minded of the Founders. Although formally aligned with the Federalists, Adams often found himself at odds with both Federalists and Republicans, leading some to see him as a party unto himself. Known for his prickly nature and tenacity, Adams admitted to being combative, particularly during his presidency when he faced opposition. He once confessed, “[As President] I refused to suffer in silence. I sighed, sobbed, and groaned, and sometimes screeched and screamed.

And I must confess to my shame and sorrow that I sometimes swore.” His stubbornness, which he saw as a virtue, was epitomized by his statement, “Thanks to God that he gave me stubbornness when I know I am right.”

Adams’s resolve to maintain peace with France while upholding a posture of defense decreased his popularity and contributed to his defeat for re-election. However, historians generally praise him for avoiding an all-out war with France. Conversely, his signing of the Alien and Sedition Acts is widely condemned.

Historian John Ferling observed that Adams’s political philosophy became “out of step” with national trends as the country moved towards the Jeffersonian vision of liberty and a weak central government. Following his retirement, the rise of Jeffersonianism and Jacksonian democracy led to Adams being largely forgotten. In the 1840 presidential election, Whig candidate William Henry Harrison was falsely accused by Democrats of supporting John Adams. States’ rights advocates later criticized Adams, with Confederate supporter Edward A. Pollard accusing him of asserting the supremacy of “National” power over the states.

In the 21st century, Adams remains less well-known than many other Founders. Biographer David McCullough noted that “the problem with Adams is that most Americans know nothing about him,” and CNN’s Todd Leopold described him as “that guy who served a single term as president between Washington and Jefferson.

” Despite his long career in public service, Adams is often overshadowed. Biographer Gilbert Chinard described him as “staunch, honest, stubborn, and somewhat narrow,” while Page Smith lauded him for his fight against radicals. Ferling, in his 1992 biography, criticized Adams for his “pettiness, jealousy, and vanity” but also praised his willingness to acknowledge and strive to overcome his deficiencies.

In 2001, McCullough published a biography of Adams that praised his consistency and honesty while explaining away his more controversial actions. This book, along with Ferling’s biography, contributed to a resurgence in Adams’s reputation. The 2008 miniseries based on McCullough’s biography, featuring Paul Giamatti as Adams, further revived interest in his life and contributions.

In Memoriam

Adams is commemorated as the namesake of various counties, buildings, and other items, including the John Adams Building of the Library of Congress, an institution he helped establish. He is honored on the Memorial to the 56 Signers of the Declaration of Independence in Washington D.C. However, there is no individual monument dedicated to him in the city, although a family Adams Memorial was authorized in 2001. David McCullough has lamented this lack of recognition, arguing that it is “absolutely inexcusable” and long overdue.

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