*This is a continuation of the series on the Founders I began last summer.
John Adams always seemed to me to be the outspoken voice for the cause for American Independence. If Thomas Jefferson was the soft-spoken and thoughtful voice, Adams was certainly the loud and emotive voice. Benjamin Rush, physician and founder in his own right, once remarked that Adams and Jefferson were the north and south poles of the Revolution respectively. I think Dr. Rush’s sentiment is accurate.
John Adams was born to John Adams, Sr. and Susanne Boylston Adams on October 30, 1735 in Braintree (modern Quincy), Massachusetts. He had a fairly normal New England Puritan upbringing His initial education began at age six at a Dame School for boys, and continued with a sound classical education at a Latin School under Joseph Cleverly and Joseph March, despite Adams’ own desire to become a farmer. At sixteen John Adams entered Harvard College in 1751, eventually earning a bachelor’s degree. After a few years of teaching school, and despite his father’s wishes that he become a Puritan minister, Adams determined to became a man of distinction and read the law, eventually becoming a lawyer. Although he eventually became a Unitarian, he retained some elements of his Puritan faith. He married Abigail Smith on October 25, 1764.
In 1770, tension between the British soldiers stationed in New England after the French and Indian War and the local colonists reached a climax. Add to that over five years of egregious taxes levied to pay for a war that the colonists largely fought, and you have a recipe for bad blood between the two parties. On March 5, 1770, a group of British soldiers fired into a group of Bostonians as the latter approached their garrison. I find that many of my students—and many Americans indeed—don’t realize that John Adams was the attorney who defended the British soldiers after the Boston Massacre. As you might imagine, his cousin and leader of the Sons of Liberty, Samuel Adams, and many other Boston patriots, were incensed over the issue. John Adams was faced with the unenviable task of defending the soldiers in an incident that left six Bostonians dead, which his cousin had spun as “The Boston Massacre.” His clients were acquitted, except for the two who had fired. His defense not only increased his business, but in a round-about way, his devotion to the stubborn nature of the facts, convinced his cousin Sam that he was indeed a man of integrity.
Adams had been a staunch opponent of the Stamp Act and of course the fact that the colonies had no representation in the British Parliament. He was well aware of the increasing disconnect between Britain and the colonies. The British East India Company, the juggernaut corporation of the Empire that fielded its own army and navy, was on the verge of bankruptcy in the early 1770s and to pay for it—you guessed it—the genius of the Parliament was to tax tea in the colonies. For the more patriotic groups like the Sons of Liberty, this was the straw that broke the camels back, and Sam Adams and the Sons of Liberty dressed up as Iroquois Indians, stole onto an East India ship moored in Boston Harbor, and proceeded to dump 342 chests of tea into the icy water (millions of dollars of adjusted loss for a company on the verge of floundering). This was actually one of several tea parties that took place in ports across the colonies, but the effect was the same—an angered mother country. Parliament passed the Coercive Acts that effectively shut down Boston. The following year, each of the colonies sent delegates to the first Continental Congress in 1774. The Adams boys were among the Massachusetts delegates, as their precious Boston was the epicenter of angst between the British and the colonists.
In 1775, Adams attempted to move the Congress further away from reconciliation with Britain, especially after Lexington and Concord. He passionately implored the Congress to support the militia, and eventually proposed the Continental Army, nominating then Colonel George Washington as Commander in Chief of such a force. In 1776, he served on the committee to draft the Declaration of Independence, along with Benjamin Franklin, and the author of the Declaration, Thomas Jefferson. He refused to write the document, telling Jefferson that Adams himself was obnoxious, and that Jefferson was a better writer and a Virginian, and that a Virginian had to at the head of the effort. On July 2, 1776, a draft was ready, and finalized on July 4, with member delegates signing as they could throughout the summer. In 1778, he joined Franklin in France to press the cause of America in that country. From 1779 to 1780 he continued his efforts in Europe, begrudgingly and often abrasively learning the language of diplomacy. After the Revolutionary War, Adams continued to serve as Minister to Britain.
One sacrifice of Adams that has always stood out to me is the colossal personal loss of time with his family. He was away from Abigail and his children for years. What more can be said of such commitment, and likewise the support of his family.
Adams, like his peers, recognized that America was on shaky ground—an economic depression in fact. The first order of business was to replace the Articles of Confederation with a Constitution more adaptable and malleable. When this was accomplished in 1787, it seemed as if the young republic could now move forward politically. Adams became vice-president to the newly elected George Washington, and also found himself in the leadership echelons of the new Federalist party. In 1796, Adams was elected president, inheriting many of the troubles of the previous administration, predominantly the tenuous balance of relations with Britain and France, and the potential war with the latter. Adams’ ever-increasing favor for a more highly centralized government along Federalist lines set him farther and farther apart from his old friend, vice president, and new political enemy, Thomas Jefferson, who was the leader of the Democratic Republicans.
Adams lost the election of 1800 after a nasty campaign. He and Jefferson both took shots at one another in the newspapers of the day. Be that as it may, Adams was happy to return to his farm, Peacefield, in Quincy, to enjoy retirement. In 1812, Jefferson and Adams were able to reconcile their differences, with much thanks to Dr. Benjamin Rush. Abigail died in 1818, but John Adams lived long enough to see his son John Quincy become president.
John Adams passed away on the fiftieth anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, on July 4, 1826. In a supreme irony, Thomas Jefferson died earlier on the same day. The north and south poles of the American Revolution left this life together: friends—enemies—and friends again.