Useful Notes: John Adams

Benjamin Franklin: Mr. Adams, I say you should write it!
To your legal mind and brilliance we defer.

John Adams: Is that so? Well, if I'm the one to do it,
They'll run their quill pens through it!
I'm obnoxious and disliked, you know that, sir!
—"But Mr. Adams", 1776

John Adams (October 30, 1735 — July 4, 1826) was a Founding Father and the 2nd President of the United States (1797-1801). Serving between George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, Adams was the only President from the Federalist Party. He was also the first to reside in the White House, which was completed in the last year of his presidency.

Coming from a wealthy and powerful family, Adams was one of the most intelligent American men of his time. A lifelong supporter of republicanism and a strong central government, he is considered one of the most important political theorists in early American history. His writings, notably his 1776 essay Thoughts on Government, were powerful arguments in favor of bicameral legislature and separation of powers. He also wrote the state constitution for his home state of Massachusetts. Passionately opposed to slavery, Adams correctly predicted that it was a threat to the country’s unity. However, Adams was also a stubborn and prideful man who did not get along very well with even his closest political allies, and his argumentative personality hindered his efforts as a leader. Adams and his wife, Abigail, were intellectual equals, and he often sought her advice on important issues. They founded a family who would continue to play a major role in national politics for generations; notably, their son, John Quincy Adams, would himself become President in 1825, one year before John Adams’ death.

He was a lawyer prior to his years as a statesman, and Adams quickly gained attention for being one of the leading opponents of British economic policies with the Thirteen Colonies. His cousin Samuel Adams was also a Founding Father, and he organized the Boston Tea Party in 1773. In 1770, Adams was the lawyer who defended the eight British troops involved in the infamous Boston Massacre. At the Second Continental Congress in 1776, Adams was one of the most vocal voices calling for independence from Great Britain. Thanks to his efforts, the Congress passed a Declaration of Independence which Adams helped his good friend Thomas Jefferson write. He was also the man who nominated George Washington to lead the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War. During the war and for some years after, Adams served his country as an ambassador to various European countries, where he won vital foreign support for the Americans.

In 1789, Adams became the first Vice President, serving under President Washington. Adams was rarely consulted for policy advice, and he notoriously called the vice presidency “the most insignificant office that ever the invention of man contrived or his imagination conceived.” Ironically, he also cast more tie-breaking votes in the Senate than any other Vice President. During his time as Vice President, Adams joined the New England-based Federalist Party, in spite of his sour relationship with party leader Alexander Hamilton. He also tried to create a formal name for the President, such as "His Majesty the President." Washington instead chose the modest "Mr. President," and enemies in Congress nicknamed the short and fat Adams "His Rotundity." In 1796, Adams ran as the Federalist nominee for the presidency, and he won a narrow victory. Due to a loophole in the election system at the time, his opponent, Thomas Jefferson of the Democratic-Republican Party, became his Vice President.

Keeping his predecessor’s Cabinet, Adams quickly was confronted with severe party divisions. Adams’ moderate faction was at odds with the more aggressive faction led by Hamilton, who often schemed with other members in an attempt to win control of the party. Additionally, Jefferson also worked behind the scenes to undermine Adams’ authority. Just after Adams entered office, American relations with France strained severely do to something called the XYZ Affair. Adams sent ambassadors to France for important negotiations, but the French court demanded that the Americans pay a huge sum of money just for the right to speak to the leaders. The American public was outraged, and things escalated to the point that the two countries soon found themselves in an undeclared naval war on the seas of the Atlantic. Known as the Quasi War, it was marked by Adams building up the military while simultaneously trying to negotiate with France an end to the conflict. An impressive Navy was built by the Adams administration, and Adams would become known as the “Father of the American Navy.” In 1800, the new leader of France, Napoleon Bonaparte, reached an agreement that ended the Quasi War, and Adams successfully managed to avoid an expansion of the conflict.

However, domestic policies proved to be Adams’ downfall. During the tense situation with France, Adams, at the advice of the Hamilton wing of the party, reluctantly signed a controversial series of bills known as the Alien and Sedition Acts. These acts gave the President the power to deport foreign-born residents deemed to be a threat and to arrest citizens who publicly criticize the federal government. While only ten people were ever arrested and these bills were going to expire by 1801, they were widely unpopular with the voting public. Additionally, Adams raised taxes in order to fund his military buildups, and this was seen as a pointless waste of public money after war was avoided. In eastern Pennsylvania, which went through an economic crisis due to the high taxes, farmers started to rebel, and Adams had to send the state militia to put down the riots. For many people, it looked like the aristocrat Adams was encroaching on the rights of the public and trying to create a dictatorship in the young country.

In the election of 1800, which had over-the-top negative campaign rhetoric so nasty that makes modern election campaigning sound positively polite and genteel, Adams lost to Vice President Jefferson, becoming the first incumbent to lose reelection. This was the first time in history an elected head of state lost reelection, and Adams remarkably chose to step down from office when his term ended rather than try to seize power with the military. In an attempt to limit Jefferson’s power upon the start of his presidency, Adams nominated a number of Federalists to federal judicial positions during his last few months in office. Critics labeled these last-minute nominations the "Midnight Judges." The most notable of these was his nomination of John Marshall as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. Under Marshall, the Supreme Court would expand its powers and establish its authority to determine the constitutionality of laws passed by Congress. When his term officially ended, a bitter Adams refused to attend Jefferson’s inauguration.

Adams also signed the Treaty of Tripoli with what was then Ottoman Libya. It allowed for peaceful trade relations between the two, but it's notable today because an article of the treaty states that "the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion," a source of much debate today (hopefully none of it here).

Adams lived a private life in Massachusetts after he left office. While his relationship with Jefferson effectively came to an end in 1800, Adams made up with his old friend around 1812 and the two resumed their correspondence. His later years were marked by personal tragedies, including the deaths of his daughter and his wife. However, he did live long enough to see his son John Quincy become President in 1825. Adams died on Independence Day the following year; coincidentally, the same day as Jefferson. Adams' last words were "Thomas Jefferson survives!" - actually, Jefferson died first. He was 90 when he died, and remained the longest-lived President until surpassed by Ronald Reagan in 2001. Gerald Ford currently holds the record, by the way.

Adams initially wasn't one of the more respected Founding Fathers, but his reputation steadily rose over time and, eventually, he was recognized as one of the men most responsible for the success of the American Revolution. He is probably most well known via 1776 (where he was played by William Daniels) and David McCullough's eponymous biography, filmed as a mini series by HBO in 2008, with the very appropriate Paul Giamatti in the role. Younger viewers may recognize him from the PBS educational animated series, Libertys Kids, voiced by Billy Crystal.

One of two Presidents whose son also became President, the other being George H.W. Bush. Both him and his son were the only two one-term presidents during America's early days.

Tropes related to John Adams:

  • Always Second Best: To his contemporaries Franklin, Jefferson and Washington. He was literally second-best to Washington, elected as Vice President in an electoral system that put the second-most vote-getter in as Vice President [note: this would change after the confusion of the 1800 election thanks to the 12th Amendment], and then as Second President overall.
  • Arch-Enemy: Adams' main rival was, ironically, inside his own party: Alexander Hamilton, who spent the majority of his career trying (ultimately unsuccessfully) to discredit Adams and the republicans. It was plain to see that Hamilton — who had the ear of his old CO, George Washington — was committed to starting war with France at any cost. But somehow, Adams was conned. Three secretaries, all Hamilton loyalists, took the blame for stalling peace negotiations with France. Ironically, only one lost his job, with the most hardcore Hamiltonians remaining in office. And, of course, Teflon Alexander emerged unscathed.
  • Beam Me Up, Scotty!: It was actually Sam Adams who knew that slavery would very likely cause a civil war "one hundred years hence" and tried to warn the other Founding Fathers that this would be the most likely result of slavery not being abolished immediately. (He was absolutely right.) The writers of 1776 had condensed the two men's roles in the Continental Congress, so John said it in the play. (It is an understandable mistake, as it was a small parenthetical in the Historical Note by the Authors section.)
  • Broken Pedestal: Meeting the esteemed author of Poor Richard's Almanac was a pretty disappointing day for John Adams. The preacher of frugality, temperance, discipline! Partying it up with the French, banging their women, and waking up hungover on a weekday! Of course, history is indebted to Ben Franklin's joie de vivre, but Adams never really forgave him.
  • Embarrassing Nickname: The ever-loving nickname bestowed upon him by his enemies in Congress, "His Rotundity".
  • Famous Last Words: He died on the fiftieth anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. The very last thing he said was "Thomas Jefferson still... survives." He was referring to Thomas Jefferson, who had in fact perished earlier that same day.
  • Happily Married: To Abigail Adams, essentially to the point of One True Love. Abigail was also John's intellectual equal, and they often discussed contemporary events and government in their many letters to each other. They also flirted passionately using allusions to Classical literature.
  • Hellhound: Adams kept a big, scary dog named "Satan" as a pet.
  • Heterosexual Life Partner: With Thomas Jefferson. They had a falling out after the election of 1800 but they became friends again by 1812.
  • Historical Downgrade: He played a crucial role in the push for independence, funding the The American Revolution, and the country's early diplomatic efforts, but he correctly predicted that he would be forgotten in comparison to figures like Franklin and Washington. A musical and biography-turned-miniseries have raised his profile in recent decades.
  • Karmic Jackpot: This happened to John Adams when he was approached to represent the British soldiers indicted in the Boston Massacre in court. Adams agreed considering no one else in the city was willing to help the accused have a fair trial for murder, but was concerned he would be sinking his reputation and political prospects for elected office considering his complaints about British colonial policy. Regardless, Adams kept to his duty for the higher ideal of justice and was able to get most of his defendants acquitted or have charges reduced. As it turns out, Adams was later elected without a problem and found he had gained credibility as a fair minded public figure on the matter of British-colonial relations. Furthermore, when the British cracked down on Boston with the Coercive Acts, which included arbitrarily removing defendants from Boston courts, Adams' able defense of the hated British troops was cited as proof that fair trials were possible in Boston.
  • Medal of Dishonor: For his herculean efforts to keep the U.S. out of war with France, he's remembered as the father of the American Navy. (Adams agreed to build frigates just to shut the Hamiltonians up.)
  • The Magnificent: The official title of the President was serious business for Adams, who during Washington's presidency favored several honorary and bombastic titles or surnames (not expecting that he would ever enter the office) but was overruled in favor of simplicity. The Senate eventually voted him the title of "His Rotundity" as a Take That.
  • Not Helping Your Case: Early in his Vice-Presidency, Adams established a reputation for Anglophilia. This was only semi-true, as Adams was indeed a fanboy of the British nobility, but too practical to try and implement such a system in the garrulous states. However, in advocating for a democracy, his arguments sometimes boiled down the 'nobles are dangerous because they're superior' routine. Or discoursing on the virtues of working-class Americans, but only mustering up a Backhanded Compliment each time. This would prove to be the Adams family curse.
  • Old Shame: He viewed his Vice Presidency as this.
    It is to be sure a Punishment to hear other Men talk five hours every day, and not be at Liberty to talk at all myself: especially as more than half I hear appears to me very young, inconsiderate and inexperienced.
  • Quote Mine: Some atheists, agnostics and humanists like to quote Adams as saying "This would be the best of all possible worlds, if there were no religion in it.", which was actually a sarcastic statement.
    "Twenty times in the course of my late reading have I been on the point of breaking out, 'This would be the best of all possible worlds, if there were no religion in it!!!' But in this exclamation I would have been as fanatical as Bryant or Cleverly. Without religion this world would be something not fit to be mentioned in polite company, I mean Hell."
  • Red Baron: Short and fat, Adams was known (affectionately?) as "his rotundity."
  • Red Oni, Blue Oni: The Red to Jefferson's Blue.
  • Satan: The name of one of his dogs while he was in the White House. Seriously.
  • Teeth-Clenched Teamwork: Though wildly popular with Dutch bankers, he could never make it in France; Ben Franklin was all the rage over there. Adams could not conceive that Franklin might be playing up his fame in order to win support abroad for the American Revolution.
  • Vitriolic Best Buds: With Thomas Jefferson.
  • We Used to Be Friends: A major falling out with Thomas Jefferson, the leader of the Republican faction. Jefferson took issue with Adams packing the courts with judges who ruled his way; Adams was sour in his first-term defeat, skipping town on Jefferson's inauguration day. In old age, both men reconciled - and, ironically, died on the same day: July 4, 1826 (fifty years after they signed the Declaration of Independence).
    • Adams' ironic last words allegedly were "Jefferson still lives!"

Adams in fiction