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 as portrayed in fiction:

  • 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.)
  • 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.

Appears in the following works: