President John Adams

John Adams – America’s 2nd President


The son of a Puritan Preacher, respected Lawyer, Revolutionary, Founding Father, and President of the United States. These would be the defining moments in the life of John Adams and yet, after 200 years, he would be a forgotten footnote to what transpired in the events that led up to the birth of a nation.

While several figures from that time would gain more historical legacy, it would be Adams’ steadfast diligence that would steer the country through those difficult years and ensure that America would be built on the solid foundation that it is today.

But his steadfastness would also be his undoing. This consistent trait of his would also be regarded as sheer stubbornness. Whilst his desire for honor, reputation, and more deference from his fellow peers would leave him with few friends or supporters. This would lead to him just serving one term as President and even cause the break-up of a political party.

Formative Years

His childhood years would be quickly molded by the puritanical environment he grew up in. His father was, among things, a Deacon at the Congregational Church as well as being a farmer, shoemaker (cordwainer).

He would serve as a lieutenant in the Massachusetts National Guard as well as being one of the Selectman (councilor) in the local community. His father would oversee the construction of schools and roads which made John very proud of him.

His early school years didn’t start very well, as a disliking for his schoolmaster prompted bouts of truancy and his longing simply to go home and be a farmer. But his father would have none of that and insisted he continue, even changing the schoolmaster to ensure this would happen.

By 16, he would attend Harvard College where he studied scholarly tracts written by history’s greats (Plato, Cicero, etc) and would graduate after 4 years.

His father assumed he would follow in his clerical footsteps and become a minister but John Adams had other ideas.

With his growing yearning to gain honor and a reputation for himself, he decided that becoming a lawyer would be his best path to take. Another 2 years at Harvard would see him gain graduate honors for Law and the following year, 1759, he was admitted to the Bar.

A Seed Is Planted

Due to his diligence in keeping diaries and writing down his impressions of events and men of the day, we have a unique record of exactly how he felt at the time and how his experiences forged him into what he was to become. In 1761, a big court case had just started in Boston and an eager young lawyer would be in the packed courtroom to witness the events.

James Otis Jr, one of the leading lawyers in the city, was representing a group of Bostonian businessmen who were appalled at the new draconian laws imposed by the British. The writs of assistance had been put into place to curtail the level of smuggling though their scope was too far-reaching. This left local citizens and local authorities with no choice but to obey.

Otis made a legal argument that was so awe-inspiring and well made it had a huge impact on Adams. As expected for the time, the case was lost by Otis but transcripts of his argument were published and would seed the early thoughts of independence. Even Adams realized this as he noted in his diary,

“Then and there the child Independence was born”.

His Legal Prowess Grows

It would be only 4 years later that Adams took a step further as it was his turn now to defend the rights of Americans against unjust rulings from the British.

This time it was the Stamp Act of 1765 which was a newly imposed taxation, created without any consultation with the American legislature, that was designed to help fund Britain’s war with France.

This was to be overseen not by the common law courts but by the British Vice-Admiralty courts that required no jury and were deeply despised by Americans.

His argument was founded on two points: as all free men and Englishmen, they deserved the right to be taxed only through consultation and have the right to be tried by a jury of one’s peers.

To raise more awareness for the issue, he would anonymously write articles for the newspapers that got printed on both sides of the Atlantic which were sharply critical of the situation.

The clamor for open insurrection was growing and his prominent cousin, Samuel Adams, implored him to join the effort. But though he was staunchly against it, he would not be part of an uprising.

To Protect The Innocent

As an example of his innate belief that everyone had the legal right to be proved innocent, he decided to legally represent a group of British soldiers who had been arrested after some of them had shot dead several protesters.

What would be known as ‘The Boston Massacre’ had left five civilians dead and 8 soldiers and their commanding officer on trial for murder. But due to the strength of Adams’ legal arguments, most of them would be acquitted. Just the two soldiers who fired the shots were convicted of manslaughter.

Both these cases only made his legal reputation greater and so his practice grew as well. His wife, Abigail, who he had married in 1764, and their young children moved into the center of Boston to join him there.

From Lawyer To Revolutionary

John Adams was still very loyal to the Crown and Great Britain. Although he regarded their actions and rulings as being wrong and misguided, he didn’t believe that any open insurrection would be beneficial to the colonies. A peaceful petition and dialogue with Britain was the best way forward.

But two instances in 1772-3 would finally change his stance on this. The Crown would take over the salaries for the Massachusetts Governor and his judges which removed any remaining impartiality from them and further emphasized their subservience to the British Crown.

The Tea Act of 1773 was passed, allowing British traders to sell the produce in the colonies and not pay any local taxes. This prompted the infamous event known as the ‘Boston Tea Party’ where a British ship (Dartmouth) was moored in Boston Harbor carrying 342 chests of tea worth 10,000 pounds (well over a million dollars in today’s money).

American merchants got onboard and threw the lot overboard. Owners of the ship tried to retain Adams though he approved of the action and agreed with their rebellious act. And so his involvement had begun.

Congress Sits

In 1774, the nation’s first Congress was assembled and in that year there was a lot of prevaricating and diverse opinions on how to act. One side felt loyal to the Crown while the other side wanted to sever all ties with the British. Adams would serve to be the mediator between the two factions and to assist in writing a Final Petition to King George III to voice their displeasure over the latest rounds of intolerable Acts.

After the first shots were fired between British and American forces in April 1775, Congress was convened for a second time and Adams would strategically nominate a Southerner for Commander In Chief of the Armed Forces – George Washington.

Founding Father To Diplomat

By 1776, Adams was getting impatient with the speed of independence being declared. To help push this along he selected a committee to draft a Declaration of Independence.

Among those involved would be Adams and Thomas Jefferson. This would be ratified by Congress on July 2nd, 1776. At this time, John Adams would be assigned as the head of the Board of War and Ordinance which made him a one-man War Department as he spent long hours overseeing all aspects of the war effort.

Adams knew that, for their Independence to gain traction, America needed international recognition and trade. With that in mind, he spent the next few years moving between France and the Netherlands to entreat them for any kind of support. This proved troublesome though eventually garnering military support from France (belatedly and with some help from Ben Franklin) and financial aid from the Dutch.

But these tasks of diplomacy for a foundling nation would become much easier after British forces were routed by joint American and French armies and surrendered in November 1777 at Yorktown.

After the dust settled and a war-ending treaty was eventually signed by both parties, Adams would be appointed as the Ambassador to Great Britain. Here he would meet with the King himself and enjoyed a cordial relationship with King George III as a mutual distrust of France made them allies of sorts. He would remain in this role for several years until domestic unrest caused by tit-for-tat issues between America and Britain as well as local objection to new taxes being levied against them, would bring him home.

Vice Presidency

By 1789, America was ready for its first presidential election. It would be no surprise that Washington would be thought of as their first but it was felt that, as balance, the VP would be chosen from the North, and Adams was their main choice. After the Electoral College votes were cast, Washington and Adams were duly sworn in as President and Vice President of the United States.

During Washington’s two terms, Adams would not play a very public role. It seemed his allegiance was to the Washington Administration and to what was to become the Federalist Party. President Washington largely ignored him. Towards the end of Washington’s term in Office, the domestic political scene had become fractious. Key cabinet members, Hamilton and Jefferson, had become so embittered in opposing views which brought about the formation of two political parties – Federalist and Republican – and both resigned their posts.

Skirmishes with British naval vessels ended up with a lopsided treaty being signed by Washington, at the behest of Adams, to prevent war.

When it was time for elections again, Washington intimated that he would not stand for a third term.

To The White House

After a bad-tempered and bitter election campaign, Adams would win the election but only by the narrowest margin from Jefferson who became Vice President. For the only time in history, the POTUS and VP would derive from opposing parties – this would be a deeply troubled term that would not survive another.

The main point of contention during his only term would be caused by the French Revolution. The political world would be divided along partisan sides as to whether America should support the new Republic or go to war against them as the confrontation between Britain and France raged on. Only when clear subterfuge (known as the XYZ Affair) was exposed, to show France’s deception, were those voices finally silenced.

But, in trying to thwart civil unrest by French immigrants, Adams would pass into law an act that would have deep repercussions for his longevity as President.

The Alien and Sedition Acts were regarded as draconian and unconstitutional by a couple of southern states and were deeply unpopular by all. Though, in reality, they were rarely used.

Relations between America and France reached a new low, as, by 1798, war broke out between the two nations that lasted until 1800. And so, Adams was again looking to form an army and a commander to lead it. Unlike before, this proved far more difficult as domestic politics prevented any “common cause” from being formulated. After much “horse-trading”, Washington returned as Commander with Hamilton as his Second. But, with the inauguration of Napoleon, the war would come to an end.

Back To The Farm

Another vicious and bitter election campaign would seal Adams’ fate as he would end up third on the ticket with Jefferson eventually winning. Adams would choose to quietly leave the White House and not attend Jefferson’s Inauguration. He would spend the remainder of his life back on his farm in peace and quiet.

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