Top 10 Things to Know About John Adams

All About the Second President

John Adams (October 30, 1735–July 4, 1826) was the second president of the United States. Although often eclipsed by Washington and Jefferson, Adams was a visionary who saw the importance of uniting Virginia, Massachusetts, and the rest of the colonies in a single cause. Here are 10 key and interesting facts to know about John Adams.

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Defended British Soldiers in the Boston Massacre Trial

John Adams, second President of the United States, (20th century). Adams, (1735-1826) was president from 1797 until 1801.
Print Collector/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

In 1770, Adams defended British soldiers accused of killing five colonists on Boston Green in what became known as the Boston Massacre. Even though he disagreed with British policies, he wanted to ensure the British soldiers got a fair trial.

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John Adams Nominated George Washington

Portrait of President George Washington
Portrait of President George Washington. Credit: Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division LC-USZ62-7585 DLC

John Adams realized the importance of unifying the North and South in the Revolutionary War. He selected George Washington as a leader of the Continental Army that both regions of the country would support.

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Part of Committee to Draft the Declaration of Independence

The Declaration Committee
The Declaration Committee. MPI / Stringer / Getty Images

Adams was an important figure in both the First and Second Continental Congresses in 1774 and 1775. He had been a staunch opponent of British policies before the American Revolution arguing against the Stamp Act and other actions. During the Second Continental Congress, he was chosen to be part of the committee to draft the Declaration of Independence, although he deferred to Thomas Jefferson to write the first draft.

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Wife Abigail Adams

Abigail and John Quincy Adams
Abigail and John Quincy Adams. Getty Images / Travel Images/UIG

John Adams wife, Abigail Adams, was an important figure throughout the foundation of the American republic. She was a devoted correspondent with her husband and also in later years with Thomas Jefferson. She was very learned as can be judged by her letters. Her impact of this first lady on her husband and the politics of the time should not be underestimated.

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Diplomat to France

Benjamin Franklin
Image of Benjamin Franklin.

Adams was sent to France in 1778 and later in 1782. During the second trip he helped create the Treaty of Paris with Benjamin Franklin and John Jay which ended the American Revolution.

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Elected President in 1796 with Opponent Thomas Jefferson as Vice President

First Four Presidents - George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison
First Four Presidents - George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison. Smith Collection/Gado / Getty Images

According to the Constitution, candidates for President and Vice President did not run by party but instead individually. Whoever received the most votes became president and whoever got the second most was elected vice president. Even though Thomas Pinckney was meant to be John Adams' Vice President, in the election of 1796 Thomas Jefferson came in second by only three votes to Adams. They served together for four years, the only time in America's history that political opponents served in the top two executive positions.

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XYZ Affair

John Adams - Second President of the United States
John Adams - Second President of the United States. Stpck Montage / Getty Images

While Adams was president, the French were regularly harassing American ships at sea. Adams attempted to stop this by sending ministers to France. However, they were turned aside and instead the French sent a note asking for a bribe of $250,000 to meet with them. Wishing to avoid war, Adams asked Congress for an increase in the military, but his opponents blocked him. Adams released the French letter asking for the bribe, replacing the French signatures with the letters XYZ. This caused the Democratic-Republicans to change their minds. Fearing a public outcry after the release of the letters would bring America closer to war, Adams tried one more time to meet with France, and they were able to preserve the peace.

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Alien and Sedition Acts

James Madison, Fourth President of the United States
James Madison, Fourth President of the United States. Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, LC-USZ62-13004

When war with France seemed a possibility, acts were passed to limit immigration and free speech. These were called the Alien and Sedition Acts. These acts were eventually used against opponents of the Federalists leading to arrests and censorship. Thomas Jefferson and James Madison wrote the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions in protest.

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Midnight Appointments

John Marshall, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court
John Marshall, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. Public Domain/Virginia Memory

While Adams was president, the Federalist Congress passed the Judiciary Act of 1801, increasing the number of federal judges that Adams could fill. Adams spent his last days filling the new jobs with Federalists, an action collectively known as the "midnight appointments." These would prove to be a point of contention for Thomas Jefferson who would remove many of them once he became president. They would also cause the landmark case Marbury v. Madison decided by John Marshall that established the process known as judicial review.

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John Adams and Thomas Jefferson Ended Life as Devoted Correspondents

Image of Thomas Jefferson by Charles Wilson Peale, 1791.
Thomas Jefferson, 1791. Credit: Library of Congress

John Adams and Thomas Jefferson had been fierce political opponents during the early years of the republic. Jefferson believed staunchly in protecting state's rights while John Adams was a devoted federalist. However, the pair reconciled in 1812. As Adams put it, "You and I ought not to die before we have explained ourselves to each other." They spent the rest of their lives writing fascinating letters to each other.

Sources and Further Reading

  • Capon, Lester J. (ed.) "The Adams–Jefferson Letters: The Complete Correspondence between Thomas Jefferson and Abigail and John Adams." Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1959.
  • John Adams' Biography. John Adams Historical Society. 
  • McCullough, David. "John Adams." New York: Simon & Schuster, 2001. 
  • Ferling, John. "John Adams: A Life." Oxford UK: Oxford University Press, 1992.
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Kelly, Martin. "Top 10 Things to Know About John Adams." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Kelly, Martin. (2023, April 5). Top 10 Things to Know About John Adams. Retrieved from Kelly, Martin. "Top 10 Things to Know About John Adams." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 2, 2023).