John Adams

In office
March 4, 1797 – March 4, 1801
Vice President Thomas Jefferson
Preceded by George Washington
Succeeded by Thomas Jefferson

In office
April 21, 1789 – March 4, 1797
President George Washington
Preceded by None
Succeeded by Thomas Jefferson

Born October 30, 1735(1735-10-30)
Quincy, Massachusetts
Died July 4, 1826 (age 90)
Quincy, Massachusetts
Political party Federalist
Spouse(s) Abigail Smith Adams
Children Abigail Jr. (Nabby), John Quincy Adams, Susanna, Charles, Thomas
Alma mater Harvard College
Occupation Lawyer
Religion Unitarian
Signature John Adams Signature.png

John Adams (October 30,1735July 4, 1826) served as America's first Vice President (1789–1797) and as its second President (1797–1801). He was defeated for re-election in the "Revolution of 1800" by Thomas Jefferson. Adams was also the first President to reside in the newly built White House in Washington, which was completed in 1800.

Adams, a sponsor of the American Revolution in Massachusetts, was a driving force for independence in 1776; Jefferson called him the "Colossus of Independence". He represented the Continental Congress in Europe. He was a major negotiator of the eventual peace treaty with Great Britain, and chiefly responsible for obtaining the loans from the Amsterdam money market necessary for the conduct of the Revolution. His prestige secured his two elections as Washington's Vice President and his election to succeed him. As President, he was frustrated by battles inside his own Federalist party against a faction led by Alexander Hamilton, but he broke with them to avert a major conflict with France in 1798, during the Quasi-War crisis. He became the founder of an important family of politicians, diplomats and historians, and in recent years his reputation has improved.

Early life

John Adams birthplace, Quincy, Massachusetts

Birthplace of John Adams, Quincy.

John Adams was the oldest and one of the most of three brothers, born on October 30, 1735 (October 19, 1735 by the Old Style, Julian calendar), in Braintree, though in an area which became part of Quincy in 1792. His birthplace is now part of Adams National Historical Park. His father, a farmer, also named John (1690-1761), was a fourth-generation descendant of Henry Adams, who immigrated from Barton St David, Somerset, England, to Massachusetts Bay Colony in about 1636. His mother was Susanna Boylston Adams.[1]

Young Adams went to Harvard College at age sixteen (in 1751).[2] His father expected him to become a minister, but Adams had doubts. After graduating in 1755, he taught school for a few years in Worcester, allowing himself time to think about his career choice. After much reflection, he decided to become a lawyer, and studied law in the office of James Putnam, a prominent lawyer in Worcester. In 1758, he was admitted to the bar. From an early age, he developed the habit of writing descriptions of events and impressions of men. These litter his diary. He put the skill to good use as a lawyer, often recording cases he observed so that he could study and reflect upon them. His report of the 1761 argument of James Otis in the superior court of Massachusetts as to the legality of Writs of Assistance is a good example. Otis’s argument inspired Adams with zeal for the cause of the American colonies.[3]

In 1764, Adams married Abigail Smith (1744–1818), the daughter of a Congregational minister, at Weymouth. Their children were Abigail (1765-1813); future president John Quincy (1767-1848); Susanna (1768–1770); Charles (1770-1800); Thomas Boylston (1772-1832); and Elizabeth (1775) who died at birth.

Adams was not a popular leader like his second cousin, Samuel Adams; instead, his influence emerged through his work as a constitutional lawyer and his intense analysis of historical examples,[4] together with his thorough knowledge of the law and his dedication to the principles of republicanism. Adams often found his inborn contentiousness to be a restraint in his political career.

Adams wanted to secure approval from the people, and he saw his chance in the British/colonial conflict. He became well known for his essays and energetic resolutions against British taxation and regulation. In 1774 Massachusetts sent him to the Continental Congress. In 1775 war broke out between the colonies and Great Britain. Adams was one of the first few delegates to recognize that a compromise with the British was pointless. In 1776 he worked hard to break away from Britain by using a formal declaration of independence. On July 2, 1776 Congress voted for the resolution, "these colonies are and of right ought to be free and independent states." Two days later, they passed the Declaration of Independence.



Opponent of Stamp Act 1765

Adams first rose to prominence as an opponent of the Stamp Act of 1765. In that year, he drafted the instructions which were sent by the inhabitants of Braintree to its representatives in the Massachusetts legislature, and which served as a model for other towns to draw up instructions to their representatives. In August 1765, he anonymously contributed four notable articles to the Boston Gazette (republished in The London Chronicle in 1768 as True Sentiments of America and also known as A Dissertation on the Canon and Feudal Law). In the letter he suggested that there was a connection between the Protestant ideas that Adams' Puritan ancestors brought to New England and the ideas that suggested they resist the Stamp Act. In the former he explained that the opposition of the colonies to the Stamp Act was because the Stamp Act deprived the American colonists of two basic rights guaranteed to all Englishmen, and which all free men deserved: rights to be taxed only by consent and to be tried only by a jury of one's peers. The "Braintree Instructions" were a succinct and forthright defense of colonial rights and liberties, while the Dissertation was an essay in political education.

In December 1765, he delivered a speech before the governor and council in which he pronounced the Stamp Act invalid on the ground that Massachusetts, being without representation in Parliament, had not assented to it.[5]

Boston Massacre: 1770

In 1770, a street confrontation resulted in British soldiers killing five civilians in what became known as the Boston Massacre. The soldiers involved, who were arrested on criminal charges, had trouble finding legal counsel. Finally, they asked Adams to defend them. Although he feared it would hurt his reputation, he agreed. One of the soldiers, Captain Thomas Preston gave Adams a symbolic "single guinea" as a retaining fee,[6] the only fee he received in the case. Or, as stated in the biography of John Adams by David McCullough, Adams received nothing more than a retainer of eighteen guineas.[7]

Six of the soldiers were acquitted. Two who had fired directly into the crowd were charged with murder but were convicted only of manslaughter.

Despite his previous misgivings, Adams was elected to the Massachusetts General Court (the colonial legislature) in June of 1770, while still in preparation for the trial.[8]

Dispute concerning Parliament's authority

In 1772, Massachusetts Governor Thomas Hutchinson announced that he and his judges would no longer need their salaries paid by the Massachusetts legislature, because the Crown would henceforth assume payment drawn from customs revenues. Boston radicals protested and asked Adams to explain their objections. In "Two Replies of the Massachusetts House of Representatives to Governor Hutchinson" Adams argued that the colonists had never been under the sovereignty of Parliament. Their original charter was with the person of the king and their allegiance was only to him. If a workable line could not be drawn between parliamentary sovereignty and the total independence of the colonies, he continued, the colonies would have no other choice but to choose independence.

In Novanglus; or, A History of the Dispute with America, From Its Origin, in 1754, to the Present Time Adams attacked some essays by Daniel Leonard that defended Hutchinson's arguments for the absolute authority of Parliament over the colonies. In Novanglus Adams gave a point-by-point refutation of Leonard's essays, and then provided one of the most extensive and learned arguments made by the colonists against British imperial policy. It was a systematic attempt by Adams to describe the origins, nature, and jurisdiction of the unwritten British constitution. Adams used his wide knowledge of English and colonial legal history to show the provincial legislatures were fully sovereign over their own internal affairs, and that the colonies were connected to Great Britain only through the King.

Continental Congress

Massachusetts sent Adams to the first and second Continental Congresses in 1774 and from 1775 to 1778.[9] In June 1775, with a view of promoting the union of the colonies, he nominated George Washington of Virginia as commander-in-chief of the army then assembled around Boston. His influence in Congress was great, and almost from the beginning, he sought permanent separation from Britain. On October 5, 1775, Congress created the first of a series of committees to study naval matters.[10]

On May 15, 1776 the Continental Congress, in response to escalating hostilities which had climaxed a year prior at Lexington and Concord, urged that the states begin constructing their own constitutions.

Declaration independence

John Trumbull's famous painting depicts the five-man drafting committee presenting their work to the Congress. John Adams is standing in the center of the painting.

Today, the Declaration of Independence is remembered as the great revolutionary act, but Adams and most of his contemporaries saw the Declaration as a mere formality. The resolution to draft independent constitutions was, as Adams put it, "independence itself."[11]

Over the next decade, Americans from every state gathered and deliberated on new governing documents. As radical as it was to actually write constitutions (prior convention suggested that a society's form of government needn't be codified, nor should its organic law be written down in a single document), what was equally radical was the nature of American political thought as the summer of 1776 dawned.[12]

Thoughts on Government

At that time several Congressmen turned to Adams for advice about framing new governments. Adams tired of repeating the same thing, and published the pamphlet Thoughts on Government (1776), which was subsequently influential in the writing of many state constitutions. Many historians argue that Thoughts on Government should be read as an articulation of the classical theory of mixed government. Adams contended that social classes exist in every political society, and that a good government must accept that reality. For centuries, dating back to Aristotle, a mixed regime balancing monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy, or the monarch, nobles, and people was required to preserve order and liberty.[13]

Using the tools of Republicanism in the United States the patriots believed it was corrupt and nefarious aristocrats, in the English Parliament and stationed in America, who were guilty of the British assault on American liberty. Unlike others, Adams thought that the definition of a republic had to do with its ends, rather than its means. He wrote in Thoughts on Government, "there is no good government but what is republican. That the only valuable part of the British constitution is so; because the very definition of a republic is 'an empire of laws, and not of men.'" Thoughts on Government defended bicameralism, for "a single assembly is liable to all the vices, follies, and frailties of an individual."[14] He also suggested that the executive should be independent, as should the judiciary. Thoughts on Government' was enormously influential and was referenced as an authority in every state-constitution writing hall.

Declaration of Independence

On June 7, 1776, Adams seconded the resolution introduced by Richard Henry Lee that "these colonies are, and of a right ought to be, free and independent states," acting as champion of these resolutions before the Congress until their adoption on July 2, 1776.[15]

He was appointed on a committee with Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, Robert R. Livingston and Roger Sherman, to draft a Declaration of Independence. Although that document was largely drafted by Jefferson, Adams occupied the foremost place in the debate on its adoption. He deferred the writing to Jefferson believing it would be better received having been written by him. Adams believed Jefferson wrote profoundly better than any man in Congress, and he himself was "obnoxious and disliked." Many years later, Jefferson hailed Adams as, "The Colossus of that Congress—the great pillar of support to the Declaration of Independence, and its ablest advocate and champion on the floor of the House."[16] In 1777, Adams resigned his seat on the Massachusetts Superior Court to serve as the head of the Board of War and Ordinance, as well as many other important committees.[17]

John adams stamp

John Adams, as depicted on a two-cent American president postage stamp.

In Europe

Congress chose Adams to represent the fledgling union in Europe in 1777, and again in 1779. On the second trip, he was appointed as minister plenipotentiary charged with the mission of negotiating a treaty of peace and a treaty of commerce with Great Britain; he went to Europe in September 1779. The French government, however, did not approve of Adams’s appointment and subsequently, on the insistence of the French foreign minister, the Comte de Vergennes, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, John Jay and Henry Laurens were appointed to cooperate with Adams. In the event Jay, Adams and Franklin played the major part in the negotiations. Overruling Franklin, Jay and Adams decided not to consult with France; instead, they dealt directly with the British commissioners.[18]

Throughout the negotiations, Adams was especially determined that the right of the United States to the fisheries along the Atlantic coast should be recognized. The American negotiators were able to secure a favorable treaty, which gave Americans ownership of all lands east of the Mississippi, except Florida, which was transferred to Spain as its reward. The treaty was signed on November 30, 1782.

After these negotiations began, Adams had spent some time as the ambassador in the Netherlands, then the only other well-functioning Republic in the world. In July 1780, he had been authorized to execute the duties previously assigned to Laurens. With the aid of the Dutch patriot leader Joan van der Capellen tot den Pol, Adams secured the recognition of the United States as an independent government at The Hague on April 19, 1782.[19] During this visit, he also negotiated a loan of five million guilders. It was floated by Nicolaas van Staphorst and Wilhelm Willink.[20] In October 1782, a treaty of amity and commerce, the second such treaty between the United States and a foreign power (after the 1778 treaty with France). The house that Adams purchased during this stay in The Netherlands became the first American embassy on foreign soil anywhere in the world.

In 1785, John Adams was appointed the first American minister to the Court of St. James's (that is, ambassador to Great Britain). When he was presented to his former sovereign, George III, the King intimated that he was aware of Adams's lack of confidence in the French government. Adams admitted this, stating: "I must avow to your Majesty that I have no attachment but to my own country.”

Queen Elizabeth II of Great Britain referred to this episode in July 7, 1976 at the White House. She said, "John Adams, America's first Ambassador, said to my ancestor, King George III, that it was his desire to help with the restoration of "the old good nature and the old good humor between our peoples." That restoration has long been made, and the links of language, tradition, and personal contact have maintained it."[21]

Constitutional ideas

Massachusetts's new constitution, ratified in 1780 and written largely by Adams himself, structured its government most closely on his views of politics and society.[22] It was the first constitution written by a special committee and ratified by the people. It was also the first to feature a bicameral legislature, a clear and distinct executive with a partial (2/3) veto (although he was restrained by an executive council), and a distinct judicial branch.

While in London, Adams published a work entitled A Defence of the Constitutions of Government of the United States (1787)[2]. In it he repudiated the views of Turgot and other European writers as to the viciousness of the framework of state governments. Turgot argued that countries that lacked aristocracies needn't have bicameral legislatures. He thought that republican governments feature “all authorities into one center, that of the nation.”[23] In the book, Adams suggested that "the rich, the well-born and the able" should be set apart from other men in a senate--that would prevent them from dominating the lower house. Wood (2006) has maintained that Adams had become intellectually irrelevant by the time the Federal Constitution was ratified. By then, American political thought, transformed by more than a decade of vigorous and searching debate as well as shaping experiential pressures, had abandoned the classical conception of politics which understood government as a mirror of social estates. Americans' new conception of popular sovereignty now saw the people-at-large as the sole possessors of power in the realm. All agents of the government enjoyed mere portions of the people's power and only for a limited period of time. Adams had completely missed this concept and revealed his continued attachment to the older version of politics.[24] Yet Wood overlooks Adams' peculiar definition of the term "republic," and his support for a constitution ratified by the people.[25] He also underplays Adams' belief in checks and balances. "Power must be opposed to power, and interest to interest,” Adams wrote.[26] Adams did as much as anyone to put the idea of "checks and balances" on the intellectual map.

Adams never bought a slave and declined on principle to employ slave labor.[27] Abigail Adams opposed slavery and employed free blacks in preference to her father's two domestic slaves. He spoke out against a bill to emancipate slaves in Massachusetts, opposed use of black soldiers in the Revolution, and tried to keep the issue out of national politics.[28]

Vice Presidency


John Adams, portrait by John Trumbull.

While Washington was the unanimous choice for president, Adams came in second in the electoral college and became Vice President in the presidential election of 1789. He played a minor role in the politics of the early 1790s and was reelected in 1792. Washington never asked Adams for input on policy and legal issues.[29]

One of the best known Adams quotes concluded of the institution of the Vice Presidency: This is the most unimportant position human ever made.[30] His main task while in this office was presiding over Senate. Eventually most of the Vice Presidents after him were regarded as not powerful or significant member of Presidential administrations, in some exceptions (such as Martin Van Buren, Richard Nixon, Walter Mondale, George H. W. Bush, Al Gore or Dick Cheney, who were regarded as influental members of Presidential team).

In the first year of Washington's administration, Adams became deeply involved in a month-long Senate controversy over what the official title of the President would be, favoring grandiose titles such as "His Majesty the President" or "His High Mightiness" over the simple "President of the United States" that won the issue. The pomposity of Adams's stance, and his being overweight, led to the nickname "His Rotundity."

As president of the Senate, Adams cast 31 tie-breaking votes—a record that only John C. Calhoun came close to tying, with 28.[31] His votes protected the president's sole authority over the removal of appointees and influenced the location of the national capital. On at least one occasion, he persuaded senators to vote against legislation that he opposed, and he frequently lectured the Senate on procedural and policy matters. Adams's political views and his active role in the Senate made him a natural target for critics of the Washington administration. Toward the end of his first term, as a result of a threatened resolution that would have silenced him except for procedural and policy matters, he began to exercise more restraint. When the two political parties formed, he joined the Federalist Party, but never got on well with its dominant leader Alexander Hamilton. Because of Adams's seniority and the need for a northern president, he was elected as the Federalist nominee for president in 1796, over Thomas Jefferson, the leader of the opposition Democratic-Republican Party. His success was due to peace and prosperity; Washington and Hamilton had averted war with Britain by the Jay Treaty of 1795.[32]

Adams' two terms as Vice President were frustrating experiences for a man of his vigor, intellect, and vanity. He complained to his wife Abigail, "My country has in its wisdom contrived for me the most insignificant office that ever the invention of man contrived or his imagination conceived."

Election of 1796

During the presidential campaign of 1796 Adams was the presidential candidate of the Federalist Party and Thomas Pinckney, the Governor of South Carolina, his running mate. The federalists wanted Adams as their presidential candidate to crush Thomas Jefferson's bid. Most federalists would have preferred Hamilton to be a candidate. Although Hamilton and his followers supported Adams, they also held a grudge against him. They did consider him to be the lesser of the two evils. However, they thought Adams lacked the seriousness and popularity that had caused Washington to be successful, and also feared that Adams was too vain, opinionated, unpredictable, and stubborn to follow their directions. Adams' opponents were former Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson of Virginia, who was joined by Senator Aaron Burr of New York on the Democratic-Republican ticket.

As was customary, Adams stayed in his home town of Quincy rather than actively campaign for the Presidency. He wanted to stay out of what he called the silly and wicked game. His party, however, campaigned for him, while the Republicans campaigned for Jefferson.

It was expected that Adams would dominate the votes in New England, while Jefferson was expected to win in the Southern states. In the end, Adams won the election by a narrow margin of 71 electoral votes to 68 for Jefferson (who became the vice president).

Presidency: 1797-1801

Foreign Policy

When Adams entered office, he realized that he needed to protect Washington’s policy of staying out of the French and British war. Because the French helped secure American independence from Britain they had greater popularity with America. After the Jay treaty with Great Britain the French became angry and began seizing American merchant ships that were trading with the British. In order for Adams to avoid war he sent a commission to negotiate an understanding with France. In case the negotiation did not work Adams urged the Congress to augment the navy and army.

Domestic Policies

John Adams Presidential $1 Coin obverse

As President Adams followed Washington's lead in making the presidency the example of republican values and stressing civic virtue, he was never implicated in any scandal. Some historians consider his worst mistake to be keeping the old cabinet, which was controlled by Hamilton, instead of installing his own people, confirming Adams's own admission he was a poor politician because he "was unpractised in intrigues for power."[33] Yet, there are those historians who feel that Adams retention of Washington's cabinet was a statesman-like step to soothe worries about an orderly succession. As Adams himself explained, "I had then no particular object of any of them."[34] That would soon change. Adams's combative spirit did not always lend itself to presidential decorum, as Adams himself admitted in his old age: "[As president] I refused to suffer in silence. I sighed, sobbed, and groaned, and sometimes screeched and screamed. And I must confess to my shame and sorrow that I sometimes swore."[35]

Adams's four years as president (1797–1801) were marked by intense disputes over foreign policy. Britain and France were at war; Adams and the Federalists favored Britain, while Jefferson and the Democratic-Republicans favored France. An undeclared naval war between the U.S. and France, called the Quasi-War, broke out in 1798. The humiliation of the XYZ Affair, in which the French demanded huge bribes before any discussions could begin, led to serious threats of full-scale war with France and embarrassed the Jeffersonians, who were friends to France. The Federalists built up the army under George Washington and Alexander Hamilton, built warships, such as the USS Constitution, and raised taxes. They cracked down on political immigrants and domestic opponents with the Alien and Sedition Acts, which were signed by Adams in 1798.

These Acts were composed of four separate and distinct units:

These 4 acts were brought about to suppress Republican opposition. The Naturalization Act doubled the period required to naturalize the foreign born to American citizenship to 14 years. Since most immigrants voted republican they thought by initiating this act it would decrease the proportion of people who voted republican. The Alien Friends Act and the Alien Enemies Act allowed the president to deport any foreigner that he thought was dangerous to the country. The Sedition Act criminalized anyone who publicly criticized the federal government. Some of the punishments included 2-5 years in prison and fines of $2,000 to $5,000. Adams had not designed or promoted any of these acts but he did sign them into law because he had no problem punishing those who abused the government.

Those Acts, and the high-profile prosecution of a number of newspaper editors and one Congressman by the Federalists, became highly controversial. Some historians have noted that the Alien and Sedition Acts were relatively rarely enforced, as only 10 convictions under the Sedition Act have been identified and as Adams never signed a deportation order, and that the furor over the Alien and Sedition Acts was mainly stirred up by the Democratic-Republicans. However, other historians emphasize that the Acts were highly controversial from the outset, resulted in many aliens leaving the country voluntarily, and created an atmosphere where opposing the Federalists, even on the floor of Congress, could and did result in prosecution. The election of 1800 became a bitter and volatile battle, with each side expressing extraordinary fear of the other party and its policies.[36]

The deep division in the Federalist party came on the army issue. Adams was forced to name Washington as commander of the new army, and Washington demanded that Hamilton be given the second position. Adams reluctantly gave in. Major General Hamilton virtually took control of the War department. The rift between Adams and the High Federalists (as Adams's opponents were called) grew wider. The High Federalists refused to consult Adams over the key legislation of 1798; they changed the defense measures which he had called for, demanded that Hamilton control the army, and refused to recognize the necessity of giving key Democratic-Republicans (like Aaron Burr) senior positions in the army (which Adams wanted to do in order to gain some Democratic-Republican support). By building a large standing army the High Federalists raised popular alarms and played into the hands of the Democratic-Republicans. They also alienated Adams and his large personal following. They shortsightedly viewed the Federalist party as their own tool and ignored the need to pull together the entire nation in the face of war with France.[37]

For long stretches, Adams withdrew to his home in Massachusetts. In February 1799, Adams stunned the country by sending diplomat William Vans Murray on a peace mission to France. Napoleon, realizing the animosity of the United States was doing no good, signaled his readiness for friendly relations. The Treaty of Alliance of 1778 was superseded and the United States could now be free of foreign entanglements, as Washington advised in his own Farewell Letter. Adams avoided war, but deeply split his own party in the process. He brought in John Marshall as Secretary of State and demobilized the emergency army.[38]

Re-election campaign 1800

The death of Washington, in 1799, weakened the Federalists, as they lost the one man who symbolized and united the party. In the presidential election of 1800, Adams ran and lost the electoral vote narrowly. Among the causes of his defeat was distrust of him by "High Federalists" led by Hamilton, the popular disapproval of the Alien and Sedition Acts, the popularity of his opponent, Thomas Jefferson, and the effective politicking of Aaron Burr in New York State, where the legislature (which selected the electoral college) shifted from Federalist to Republican on the basis of a few wards in New York City controlled by Burr's machine.[39]

In the election of 1800 John Adams and his running mate, Charles Cotesworth Pinckney went against the Republican duo of Jefferson and Burr. Hamilton tried his hardest to sabotage Adams campaign in hopes of boosting Pinckney's chances of winning the presidency. In the end, Adams lost narrowly to Jefferson by 65 to 73 electoral votes.

Midnight Judges

As his term was expiring, Adams appointed a series of judges, called the "Midnight Judges" because most of them were formally appointed days before the presidential term expired. Most of the judges were eventually unseated when the Jeffersonians abolished their offices. But John Marshall remained, and his long tenure as Chief Justice of the United States represents the most lasting influence of the Federalists, as Marshall refashioned the Constitution into a nationalizing force and established the Judicial Branch as the equal of the Executive and Legislative branches.[40]

Major presidential actions


Inaugural Addresses

Administration and Cabinet

</tr> </tr> </tr>
The Adams Cabinet
Office Name Term
President John Adams1797–1801
Vice President Thomas Jefferson1797–1801
Secretary of State Timothy Pickering1797–1800
John Marshall1800–1801
Secretary of Treasury Oliver Wolcott1797–1801
Samuel Dexter1801
Secretary of War James McHenry1796–1800
Samuel Dexter1800–1801
Attorney General Charles Lee1797–1801
Postmaster General Joseph Habersham1797–1801
Secretary of the Navy Benjamin Stoddert1798–1801

Supreme Court appointments

Adams appointed the following Justices to the Supreme Court of the United States:

States admitted to the Union


Post Presidency


Portrait of an elderly John Adams by Gilbert Stuart (1823).

Following his 1800 defeat, Adams retired into private life. Depressed when he left office, he did not attend Jefferson's inauguration. He went back to farming in the Quincy area.

In 1812, Adams reconciled with Jefferson. Their mutual friend Benjamin Rush, who had been corresponding with both, encouraged Adams to reach out to Jefferson. Adams sent a brief note to Jefferson, which resulted in a resumption of their friendship, and initiated a correspondence which lasted the rest of their lives. Their letters are rich in insight into both the period and the minds of the two Presidents and revolutionary leaders. Their correspondence lasted fourteen years, and consisted of 158 letters.[41] It was in these years that they two men discussed "natural aristocracy." Jefferson said that "“The natural aristocracy I consider as the most precious gift of nature for the instruction, the trusts, and government of society. And indeed it would have been inconsistent in creation to have formed man for the social state, and not to have provided virtue and wisdom enough to manage the concerns of society. May we not even say that the form of government is best which provides most effectually for a pure selection of these natural aristoi into the offices of government?"[42] Adams wondered if it ever would be so clear who these people were, "Your distinction between natural and artificial aristocracy does not appear to me well founded. Birth and wealth are conferred on some men as imperiously by nature, as genius, strength, or beauty. . . . When aristocracies, are established by human laws and honour wealth and power are made hereditary by municipal laws and political institutions, then I acknowledge artificial aristocracy to commence."[43] It would always be true, Adams argued, that fate would bestow influence on some men for reasons other than true wisdom and virtue. That being the way of nature, he thought such "talents" were natural. A good government, therefore, had to account for that reality.

Sixteen months before his death, his son, John Quincy Adams, became the sixth President of the United States (1825–1829), the only son of a former President to hold the office until George W. Bush in 2001.

His daughter Abigail ("Nabby") was married to Congressman William Stephens Smith and died of cancer in 1816. His son Charles died as an alcoholic in 1800. His son Thomas and his family lived with Adams and Louisa Smith (Abigail's niece by her brother William) to the end of Adams's life.[44]


Graves of the Adams, Quincy, Massachusetts

Tombs of Presidents John Adams (distance) and John Quincy Adams (foreground) and their wives, in a family crypt beneath the United First Parish Church.

On July 4, 1826, the 50th anniversary of the adoption of the Declaration of Independence, Adams died at his home in Quincy. His last words are often quoted as "Thomas Jefferson survives." Only the words "Thomas Jefferson" were clearly intelligible among his last, however.[45] Adams was unaware that Jefferson, his great political rival — and later friend and correspondent — had died a few hours earlier on that same day.
Adams&#039; Burial Site 002

United First Parish Church

The fact that Adams and Jefferson, both of whom had been so instrumental in creating the Declaration of Independence, died on the fiftieth anniversary of the date of its publication, is one of the more remarkable coincidences in history.

His crypt lies at United First Parish Church (also known as the Church of the Presidents) in Quincy. Until his record was broken by Ronald Reagan in 2001, he was the nation's longest-living President (90 years, 247 days) maintaining that record for 175 years. The record is currently held by former President Gerald Ford, who served less than one term, and who died December 26, 2006 at 93 years, 165 days.

John Adams remains the longest-lived person ever elected to both of the highest offices in the United States.

Religious views

Adams was raised a Congregationalist, becoming a Unitarian at a time when most of the Congregational churches around Boston were turning to Unitarianism. Everett (1966) argues that Adams was not a deist, but he used deistic terms in his speeches and writing. He believed in the essential goodness of the creation, but did not believe in the divinity of Christ or that God intervened in the affairs of individuals. Although not anti-clerical, he advocated the separation of church and state. He also believed that regular church service was beneficial to man's moral sense. Everett concludes that "Adams strove for a religion based on a common sense sort of reasonableness" and maintained that religion must change and evolve toward perfection.[46]

Adams often railed against what he saw as overclaiming of authority by the Catholic church.[47]

In 1796, Adams denounced the deism of political opponent Thomas Paine, saying, "The Christian religion is, above all the religions that ever prevailed or existed in ancient or modern times, the religion of wisdom, virtue, equity and humanity, let the Blackguard Paine say what he will."[48]

The Unitarian Universalist Historical Society sheds some light on Adams’s religious beliefs.[49] They point out that Adams was clearly no atheist by quoting from his letter to Benjamin Rush, an early promoter of Universalist thought, “I have attended public worship in all countries and with all sects and believe them all much better than no religion, though I have not thought myself obliged to believe all I heard.” The Society also relates how Rush reconciled Adams to his former friend Thomas Jefferson in 1812, after many bitter political battles. This resulted in correspondence between Adams and Jefferson about many topics, including philosophy and religion. In one of these communications, Adams told Jefferson, "The Ten Commandments and the Sermon on the Mount contain my religion." In another letter, Adams reveals his sincere devotion to God, “My Adoration of the Author of the Universe is too profound and too sincere. The Love of God and his Creation; delight, Joy, Tryumph, Exaltation in my own existence, tho' but an Atom, a molecule Organique, in the Universe, are my religion.” He continues by revealing his Universalist sympathies, rejection of orthodox Christian dogma, and his personal belief that he was a true Christian for not accepting such dogma, “Howl, Snarl, bite, Ye Calvinistick! Ye Athanasian Divines, if You will. Ye will say, I am no Christian: I say Ye are no Christians: and there the Account is ballanced. Yet I believe all the honest men among you, are Christians in my Sense of the Word." The Society also demonstrates that Adams rejected orthodox Christian doctrines of the trinity, predestination, yet equated human understanding and the human conscience to “celestial communication” or personal revelation from God. It is also shown that Adams held a strong conviction in life after death or otherwise, as he explained, “you might be ashamed of your Maker.”


  1. ^ Ferling (1992) ch 1
  2. ^ MSN Encarta, John Adams
  3. ^ Ferling (1992) ch 2
  4. ^ Ferling (1992) p 117
  5. ^ Ferling (1992) pp 53-63
  6. ^ Chinard, John Adams, 58-60
  7. ^ McCullough, John Adams, pg. 66
  8. ^ {{cite web| title =John Adams, 1st Vice President (1789-1797)| publisher =United States Senate
  9. ^ In 1775 he was also appointed the chief judge of the Massachusetts Superior Court.
  10. ^ {{cite news|author = Steve Bansbach|title = Reservists Honor the Father of the Navy|publisher = Navy NewsStand| date = 2005-11-02
  11. ^ Ferling (1992) ch 8 p 146
  12. ^ Wood, The Radicalism of the American Revolution (1993)
  13. ^ Ferling (1992) pp 155-7, 213-5
  14. ^ Thoughts on Government, Works of John Adams, IV:195
  15. ^ Ferling (1992) ch 8. An 1813 letter by Adams, in which he said that one-third of the people supported the revolution, refers to the French revolution in the 1790s.[1]
  16. ^ Lipscomb & Bergh, eds. Writings of Thomas Jefferson (1903), vol 13, p xxiv
  17. ^ Marquis 1607-1896
  18. ^ Ferling (1992) ch 11-12
  19. ^ In February 1782 the Frisian states had been the first Dutch province to recognize the United States, while France had been the first European country to grant diplomatic recognition, in 1778).
  20. ^ Up till 1794 a total of eleven loans were granted in Amsterdam to the United States with a value of 29 million guilders.
  21. ^ See
  22. ^ Ronald M. Peters. The Massachusetts Constitution of 1780: A Social Compact (1978) p 13 says Adams was its "principal architect."
  23. ^ Turgot to Richard Price, March 22, 1778, in Works of John Adams, IV:279
  24. ^ Wood, Revolutionary Characters: What Made the Founders Different (2006) pp 173-202; see also Wood, The Radicalism of the American Revolution (1993).
  25. ^ Thompson,1999
  26. ^ Works of John Adams, IV:557
  27. ^ Littlefield, Daniel C. "John Jay, the Revolutionary Generation, and Slavery." New York History 2000 81(1): p 91-132. ISSN 0146-437X
  28. ^ Ferling (1992) pp 172-3
  29. ^ Ferling (1992) ch 15
  30. ^ "Wizje Stanów Zjednoczonych w Pismach Ojców Założycieli", Warsaw, 1976
  31. ^ Ferling (1992) p 311
  32. ^ Ferling (1992) pp 316-32
  33. ^ Ferling (1992) ch 16, p 333.
  34. ^ McCullough p 471
  35. ^ Ellis (1998) p 57
  36. ^ Ferling (1992) ch 17
  37. ^ Kurtz (1967) yyoaoaoaschwing! p 331
  38. ^ Ferling (1992) ch 18
  39. ^ Ferling (1992) ch 19; Ferling (2004)
  40. ^ Ferling (1992) p 409
  41. ^ Cappon (1988)
  42. ^ Cappon, ed., 387
  43. ^ Cappon, ed. 400
  44. ^ Ferling (1992) ch 20
  45. ^ Jefferson Still Survives. Retrieved on 2006-12-26.
  46. ^ Robert B. Everett, "The Mature Religious Thought of John Adams," Proceedings of the South Carolina Historical Association (1966), p 49-57; [ISSN 0361-6207].
  47. ^ See " A Dissertation on the Canon and Feudal Law", John Adams, 1765
  48. ^ The Works of John Adams (1854), vol III, p 421, diary entry for July 26, 1796.
  49. ^ Unitarian Universalist Historical Society Biography


  • Brown, Ralph A. The Presidency of John Adams. (1988). Political narrative.
  • Chinard, Gilbert. Honest John Adams. (1933). short life
  • Elkins, Stanley M. and Eric McKitrick, The Age of Federalism. (1993), highly detailed political interpretation of 1790s
  • Ellis, Joseph J. Passionate Sage: The Character and Legacy of John Adams (1993), interpretative essay by Pulitzer prize winning scholar.
  • Ferling, John. Adams vs. Jefferson: The Tumultuous Election of 1800. (2004), narrative history of the election .
  • Ferling, John. John Adams: A Life. (1992), full scale biography
  • Grant, James. John Adams: Party of One.(2005), short biography
  • Haraszti, Zoltan. John Adams and the Prophets of Progress. (1952). Adams's political comments on numerous authors
  • Knollenberg, Bernard. Growth of the American Revolution: 1766-1775,(2003). Online edition.
  • Kurtz, Stephen G. The Presidency of John Adams: The Collapse of Federalism, 1795-1800 (1957). Detailed political narrative.
  • McCullough, David. John Adams. (2002). Best-selling popular biography, stressing Adams's character and his marriage with Abigail over his ideas and constitutional thoughts. Winner of the 2002 Pulitzer Prize in Biography.
  • Miller, John C. The Federalist Era: 1789-1801. (1960). Thorough survey of politics in decade.
  • Ryerson, Richard Alan, ed. John Adams and the Founding of the Republic (2001). Essays by scholars: "John Adams and the Massachusetts Provincial Elite," by William Pencak; "Before Fame: Young John Adams and Thomas Jefferson," by John Ferling; "John Adams and the 'Bolder Plan,'" by Gregg L. Lint; "In the Shadow of Washington: John Adams as Vice President," by Jack D. Warren; "The Presidential Election of 1796," by Joanne B. Freeman; "The Disenchantment of a Radical Whig: John Adams Reckons with Free Speech," by Richard D. Brown; "'Splendid Misery': Abigail Adams as First Lady," by Edith B. Gelles; "John Adams and the Science of Politics," by C. Bradley Thompson; and "Presidents as Historians: John Adams and Thomas Jefferson," by Herbert Sloan.
  • Sharp, James. American Politics in the Early Republic: The New Nation in Crisis. (1995), detailed political narrative of 1790s.
  • Smith, Page. John Adams. (1962) 2 volume; full-scale biography, winner of the Bancroft Prize
  • Thompson, C. Bradley. John Adams and the Spirit of Liberty. (1998). Analysis of Adams's political thought; insists Adams was the greatest political thinker among the Founding Generation and anticipated many of the ideas in The Federalist.
  • White, Leonard D. The Federalists: A Study in Administrative History (1956), thorough analysis of the mechanics of government in 1790s
  • Gordon S. Wood. ‘’ Revolutionary Characters: What Made the Founders Different’’ (2006)

Primary sources

  • Adams, C.F. The Works of John Adams, with Life (10 vols., Boston, 1850-1856)
  • Butterfield, L. H. et al., eds., The Adams Papers (1961- ). Multivolume letterpress edition of all letters to and from major members of the Adams family, plus their diaries; still incomplete [3].
  • Cappon, Lester J. ed. The Adams-Jefferson Letters: The Complete Correspondence Between Thomas Jefferson and Abigail and John Adams (1988).
  • Carey, George W., ed. The Political Writings of John Adams. (2001). Compilation of extracts from Adams's major political writings.
  • Diggins, John P., ed. The Portable John Adams. (2004)
  • John A. Schutz and Douglass Adair, eds. Spur of Fame, The Dialogues of John Adams and Benjamin Rush, 1805–1813 (1966) ISBN 978-0-86597-287-2
  • C. Bradley Thompson, ed. Revolutionary Writings of John Adams, (2001) ISBN 978-0-86597-285-8
  • John Adams, Novanglus; or, A History of the Dispute with America (1774) online version
  • Brinkley, Alan, and Davis Dyer. The American Presidency. Boston: Houghton Mifflin company, 2004.

External links

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Political offices
New title Vice President of the United States
April 21, 1789¹ – March 4, 1797
Succeeded by
Thomas Jefferson
Preceded by
George Washington
President of the United States
March 4, 1797 – March 4, 1801
Party political offices
New title
First candidate
Federalist Party vice presidential candidate
1792² ³
Succeeded by
Thomas Pinckney³
Federalist Party presidential candidate
1796, 1800
Succeeded by
Charles Cotesworth Pinckney
Diplomatic posts
New title United States Minister to the Netherlands
1782 – 1788
Succeeded by
Charles W.F. Dumas
United States Minister to Great Britain
1785 – 1788
Succeeded by
Thomas Pinckney
Honorary titles
Preceded by
George Washington
Oldest U.S. President still living
December 14, 1799 – July 4, 1826
Succeeded by
James Madison
Notes & References
1. Adams' term as Vice President is sometimes listed as starting on either March 4 or April 6. March 4 is the official start of the first vice presidential term. April 6 is the date on which Congress counted the electoral votes and certified a Vice President. April 21 is the date on which Adams took the oath of office.
2. While Adams won the Vice Presidency in 1789 as well, he was not the candidate of the Federalist Party, which had not yet formed.
3. Technically, Adams was a presidential candidate in 1792 and Pinckney was a presidential candidate in 1796. Prior to the passage of the Twelfth Amendment in 1804, each presidential elector could cast two ballots; the highest vote-getter would become President and the runner-up would become Vice President. Thus, in 1792, with George Washington as the prohibitive favorite for President, the Federalist party fielded Adams as a presidential candidate, with the intention that he be elected to the Vice Presidency. Similarly, in 1796 and 1800, the Federalist party fielded two candidates, Adams and Thomas Pinckney in 1796 and Adams and Charles Cotesworth Pinckney in 1800, with the intention that Adams be elected President and Pinckney be elected Vice President.
NAME Adams, John
DATE OF BIRTH October 30 1735
PLACE OF BIRTH John Adams birthplace, Quincy
DATE OF DEATH July 4 1826

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