Biography of John Adams, 2nd President of the United States

President John Adams

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John Adams (October 30, 1735–July 4, 1826) served as America's second president and was one of the founding fathers of the American republic. While his time as president was rife with opposition, he was able to keep the new country out of a war with France.

Fast Facts: John Adams

  • Known For: Founding father of the American Revolution and United States; second U.S. President, after George Washington
  • Born: October 30, 1735 in the Massachusetts Bay Colony
  • Parents: John and Susanna Boylston Adams
  • Died: July 4, 1826 in Quincy, Massachusetts
  • Education: Harvard College
  • Published Works: The Autobiography of John Adams
  • Spouse: Abigail Smith (m. October 25, 1764)
  • Children: Abigail, John Quincy (the sixth president), Charles, and Thomas Boylston

Early Life

John Adams was born on October 30, 1735, in the Massachusetts Bay Colony to John Adams and his wife Susanna Boylston. The Adams family had been in Massachusetts for five generations, and the elder John was a farmer who had been educated at Harvard and was a deacon at Braintree’s First Congregational Church and a selectman for the town of Braintree. The younger John was the oldest of three children: his brothers were named Peter Boylston and Elihu.

John's father taught his son to read before sending him to a local school run by their neighbor Mrs. Belcher. John next attended Joseph Cleverly's Latin school and then studied under Joseph Marsh before becoming a student at Harvard College in 1751 at the age of 15, graduating in four years. After leaving Harvard, Adams worked as a teacher but decided instead to take up the law. He trained under Judge James Putnam (1725–1789), another Harvard man, who would eventually serve as attorney general of Massachusetts. Adams was admitted to the Massachusetts bar in 1758.

Marriage and Family

On October 25, 1764, John Adams married Abigail Smith, the high-spirited daughter of a Brookline minister. She was nine years younger than Adams, loved reading, and built an abiding and tender relationship with her husband, evidenced by their surviving letters. Together they had six children, four of whom lived to adulthood: Abigail (called Nabby), John Quincy (the sixth president), Charles, and Thomas Boylston.

Career Before the Presidency

Two of Adams most influential cases were the successful defense of the British soldiers involved in the Boston Massacre (1770). He defended both the commanding officer, Captain Preston, winning a complete acquittal for him, and his eight soldiers, six of whom were acquitted. The remaining two were found guilty but were able to escape execution by "praying the benefit of clergy," a medieval loophole. Never a fan of the British—Adams took the case in the cause of justice—his experiences with the Boston Massacre trials would begin Adams' journey towards accepting that the colonies would need to separate from Britain. 

From 1770–1774, Adams served in the Massachusetts legislature and was then elected a member of the Continental Congress. He nominated George Washington to be Commander-in-Chief of the army and was part of the committee that worked to draft the Declaration of Independence.

Diplomatic Efforts

In 1778 during the early days of the war for independence, Adams served as a diplomat to France alongside Benjamin Franklin and Arthur Lee but found himself out of place. He returned to the U.S. and served in the Massachusetts Constitutional Convention before being sent to the Netherlands on another diplomatic mission negotiating trade agreements from 1780 to 1782. From there, he returned to France and with Franklin and John Jay created the Treaty of Paris (1783) officially ending the American Revolution. From 1785–1788 he was the first American minister to visit Great Britain. He later served as vice president to Washington, the nation's first president, from 1789 to 1797.

Election of 1796

As Washington's vice president, Adams was the next logical Federalist candidate for the presidency. He was opposed by Thomas Jefferson in a fierce campaign, causing a political rift between the old friends that lasted the rest of their lives. Adams was in favor of a strong national government and felt France was a greater concern to national security than Britain, while Jefferson felt the opposite. At that time, whoever received the most votes became president, and whoever came in second became Vice President. John Adams received 71 electoral votes and Jefferson 68.

France and the XYZ Affair

One of Adams' major accomplishments during his presidency was to keep America out of a war with France and normalize relations between the two countries. When he became president, relations were strained between the United States and France mainly because the French were conducting raids on American ships. In 1797, Adams sent three ministers to try to work things out. The French would not accept them and instead, French Minister Talleyrand sent three men to ask for $250,000 in order to resolve their differences.

This event became known as the XYZ Affair, causing a great public uproar in the United States against France. Adams acted quickly, sending another group of ministers to France to try to preserve the peace. This time they were able to meet and come to an agreement that allowed the U.S. to be protected on the seas in exchange for granting France special trading privileges.

During the ramp-up to a possible war, Congress passed the repressive Alien and Sedition Acts, which consisted of four measures designed to limit immigration and free speech. Adams used them to censor and repress criticisms against the government—specifically the Federalist Party.

Marbury vs. Madison

John Adams spent the last few months of his term in office in the new, unfinished mansion in Washington, D.C. that would eventually be called the White House. He did not attend Jefferson's inauguration and instead spent his last hours in office appointing numerous Federalist judges and other officeholders based on the Judiciary Act of 1801. These would be known as the "midnight appointments." Jefferson removed many of them, and the Supreme Court case Marbury vs. Madison (1803) ruled the Judiciary Act was unconstitutional, resulting in the right of judicial review.

Adams was unsuccessful in his bid for reelection, opposed not only by the Democratic-Republicans under Jefferson but also by Alexander Hamilton. A Federalist, Hamilton actively campaigned against Adams in hopes that vice presidential nominee Thomas Pinckney would win. However, Jefferson won the presidency and Adams retired from politics.

Death and Legacy

After losing the presidency, John Adams returned home to Quincy, Massachusetts. He spent his time learning, writing his autobiography, and corresponding with old friends. That included mending fences with Thomas Jefferson and beginning a vibrant letter friendship. He lived to see his son John Quincy Adams become president. He died at his home in Quincy on July 4, 1826, within a few hours of the death of Thomas Jefferson.

John Adams was an important figure throughout the revolution and the early years of the United States. He and Jefferson were the only two presidents who had been members of the founding fathers and signed the Declaration of Independence. The crisis with France dominated most of his time in office, as he was faced with opposition to actions he took concerning France from both parties. However, his perseverance allowed the fledgling United States to avoid war, giving it more time to build and grow.

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