gigatos | May 10, 2022
John Adams (b. Oct. 19jul.
Adams came from a Puritan home and learned the legal profession after studying at Harvard College. In Boston, during the early American Revolution, he came into contact with his cousin Samuel Adams and the Sons of Liberty. Initially loyal to the British Constitution, he grew increasingly close to the colonists striving to break away from the mother country. As a member of the Continental Congress from 1774 to 1778, he pushed for the independence of the Thirteen Colonies from the Kingdom of Great Britain. Together with Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin and others, he was involved in the conception of the Declaration of Independence of the United States.
Between two diplomatic missions to the Kingdom of France, Adams worked on the Massachusetts Constitution back home. He then conducted negotiations in Europe with the Kingdom of Great Britain, which resulted in the Peace of Paris in 1783. Adams then served as a representative for the young republic in various states, and from 1785 was America”s first ambassador to London.
In the first American presidential election in 1789, Adams became vice president under George Washington, finishing second in the Electoral College. In the 1792 election, he was able to defend this office against George Clinton. In the emerging First Party system, Adams was among the most important representatives of the Federalist Party. As its candidate, he narrowly defeated Thomas Jefferson of the Democratic-Republican Party in the 1796 presidential election. Adams” tenure was overshadowed by the quasi-war with Revolutionary France and the machinations of Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton against him. The most significant legislation of his presidency was the Alien and Sedition Acts. In a highly polarizing campaign, Adams lost to Jefferson in 1800. He then retired to private life and, shortly before the end of his life, saw his eldest son John Quincy Adams elected president in 1824.
Parental home and education
Adams was born in Braintree, now Quincy, on October 19, 1735, the oldest of three sons. He was descended from Henry Adams, who had emigrated to the Massachusetts Bay Colony about 1636. John Adams was part of the fourth generation of the Adams family to be born in the Thirteen Colonies. Adams”s father John (1691-1761) was a cobbler and farmer with no formal education who farmed just under 20 acres of land and served 14 terms as dean in the Congregationalist local church. In 1734 he married Susanna Boylston (1708-1797), who came from a Brookline medical family. Adams grew up in simple and domestically straitened circumstances. His father emphasized education and sent him to a Latin school after elementary school, and his mother taught each of her sons to read when they were five years old. The upbringing as a whole was characterized by Puritanism, with Adams looking to his father as a role model throughout his life. The parents gave Adams special encouragement as a firstborn and kept him from working on the farm.
In 1751, he attended Harvard College, where he studied Greek, Latin, logic, rhetoric, and physics. As a senior, he took moral philosophy and metaphysics. After graduation, he returned to Braintree in 1755, but did not enter a pastorate there, as his father had desired and it was the usual career path for Harvard graduates at the time. Adams may have been deterred by the attacks that liberal theologian Jonathan Mayhew was facing at the time. After a brief stint teaching Latin at a Grammar School in Worcester, he decided to apprentice with Worcester”s leading lawyer, James Putnam, in the summer of 1756. During this time, Adams began keeping a diary, which he continued until the end of his life.
For the next two years, Adams continued to work as a Latin teacher and trained in the law part-time. After being admitted to the bar in August 1758, Adams returned to Braintree, which was in Boston”s judicial district, to practice and make a name for himself. His patrons included James Otis Jr. and Jeremiah Gridley, while Robert Treat Paine emerged as his strongest competitor as a lawyer.
Beginning in 1759, Adams traveled regularly in Massachusetts, taking on a wide range of legal cases. In Braintree, Adams led a successful campaign against taverns for the temperance movement and obtained a restriction on three liquor licenses in the town. He followed with great interest in the winter of 1761 a case brought by Otis, who represented Boston merchants resisting searches of their warehouses and ships by customs officials of the Kingdom of Great Britain. Adams recognized that the outcome of this case had far-reaching consequences for the Crown”s authority in the Thirteen Colonies. He later saw Otis”s rousing speech against British despotism during this trial as the birth of American independence.
After his first successes in court, Adams was admitted to the Superior Court of Judicature. The biographer John E. Ferling cites as reasons for Adams” rise, in addition to a puritanically influenced performance orientation, a very good power of observation, by means of which he studied and in part imitated the behavior of contemporaries. Thus he oriented his writing style to Otis and the congregational preacher Peter Thacher.
In the spring and summer of 1763, seven essays by Adams appeared in the Boston Gazette under the pseudonym Humphrey Ploughjogger, mockingly commenting on local political disputes over the appointment of a representative for the Province of Massachusetts Bay in London. Other articles he published anonymously that year explored the question of how a government could control people”s harmful urges, especially when they were in positions of power. Adams advocates a balance of monarchy, aristocracy, and parliamentarism, aligning himself politically with the Whigs. In January 1765, Adams joined a study group of lawyers around Gridley that regularly discussed classics of legal literature. His speeches there gave rise to further newspaper articles.
Due to a variolation slightly later than planned, Adams married Abigail Smith on October 25, 1764. After his marriage, the couple moved into the Saltbox, located next door to his birthplace, which Adams had inherited from his father, who had died in 1761. The bride”s father was a minister and the Smith family as a whole was relatively wealthy, drawing income from two farms and owning four slaves. Thus, Abigail”s mother was opposed to the marriage because Adams was not, in her eyes, a suitable husband for her daughter. Adams and Abigail Smith, even then a strong-willed and well-read personality, had been introduced in 1759 and had been friends since 1761. The marriage, which was only dissolved by death, produced five children, including future President John Quincy Adams. Unusual for the time in the rural milieu of New England, they led an equal marriage, as was more common among the wealthy planters of the southern states.
Start of the American Revolution
When the British Parliament passed the Sugar Act in April 1764, some voices rose up against it in the Thirteen Colonies. One of the best treatises against this tariff act is considered to be that of James Otis, whose actions Adams later described as particularly formative for his thinking at the time. The Stamp Act that followed in 1765 was the first attempt by the Crown to tax the Thirteen Colonies directly. It led to violence in Boston after it became known and the burning of Governor Thomas Hutchinson”s house in August of the same year. Adams reacted with irritation and concern to these street protests led by the Sons of Liberty. Samuel Adams distinguished himself as the best-known opponent of the Stamp Tax Act outside the Assembly, where the Conservative Tories had lost their majority to the Country Party of merchants and farmers. This cousin of Adams united a wide variety of groups in a protest movement that gave rise to the Patriots and inspired Adams to become actively involved in the resistance.
Adams”s role in the fight against the Stamp Act in 1765 and 1766 remained minor and inconspicuous, probably so as not to risk the business success of his law practice, which had taken hold. For the landowners of his Braintree residence, Adams produced an instruction from their delegate to the Assembly, published in the Boston Gazette in October 1765, condemning the Stamp Act as unconstitutional and dangerous to security. In this text he raised for the first time the central demand, “No taxation without representation.” In a short time, this list of demands was adopted by 40 other cities. Adams attended regular meetings of the Sodalitas, where leading citizens of the city debated issues of law and order and their importance to a free society. This resulted in a series of four articles in the Boston Gazette, which Adams published again between late August and October 21, 1765, under the pseudonym Humphrey Ploughjogger and without a title.
Later they were published as A Dissertation on Canon and Feudal Law in London. This essay is considered one of Adams” most outstanding writings. In the series of articles, Adams developed several ideas that he referred to repeatedly during the American Revolution. The core thesis is that the ancestors of the American settlers were freedom-loving persecutors who designed a social order in the New World that was free of feudalism and canon law. As an example of London”s intention to enslave the inhabitants of the Thirteen Colonies, he cites plans by the Crown to install a Church of England bishop in America. Only a few sentences are devoted to the Stamp Act, which he judges to be less dangerous. In the dissertation, he cites the colonies” right to resist as a means of returning from contemporary decadence to the virtue of old New England.
With the enactment of the Stamp Act on November 1, 1765, the courts were closed for an extended period and Adams was unemployed for the time being. When the repeal of the Stamp Act was announced in May 1766, he was able to continue his law practice. Adams concluded from this event that the intense protest in the Thirteen Colonies against the Stamp Act had paid off and that the future prospects of the colonists had improved. Thus, in the Massachusetts General Court of 1766, in large numbers those who had supported the Stamp Act lost their seats, while opponents such as Thomas Cushing and Samuel Adams, for example, entered the Assembly. Adams experienced a major disappointment when, although he successfully ran for selectman, he was defeated in the election for Assembly delegate for Braintree by the pro-British Ebenezer Thayer. In January and February 1767, Adams published a series of five essays in the Boston Gazette defending the colonists” resistance to the Stamp Act, which had previously been criticized by his friend Jonathan Sewall.
When, after the Townshend Acts became known, merchant John Hancock”s ship was seized on suspicion of smuggling in 1768, Adams acted as his defense counsel in the ensuing trial, which was dropped in December 1768. The situation came to a further head with the subsequent harsh policies of the colonial minister to America, Wills Hill, 1st Marquess of Downshire, who, among other things, directed General Thomas Gage to order three regiments of the British Army to Boston. Aside from providing minor support in secret to the Sons of Liberty, Adams kept a low profile during this period. He therefore immediately declined an offer from Sewall to succeed him as attorney general of the Province of Massachusetts Bay.
The presence of the British Redcoats in Boston culminated in the Boston Massacre on March 5, 1770. At the trial of the soldiers, Adams acted as their defense counsel along with Josiah Quincy II. His motives for accepting this risky assignment, which put his reputation and personal safety on the line, are not fully understood to this day. In the selection of the jury, he skillfully exploited his rights as a defense attorney and, according to legal historian Hiller Zober, thus secured his later success already at this stage. After five days of trial, the commanding officer Thomas Preston was acquitted after the prosecution witnesses had contradicted themselves in cross-examination, an order to fire could not be proven and the defense witnesses had proven how confusing and threatening the situation had been for the Redcoats. In the subsequent trial of the soldiers in November 1770, Adams again succeeded in highlighting the threat to the soldiers at the time, as well as the first assaults on them from the crowd, using an early form of racial profiling on the dark-skinned victim Crispus Attuck. In the end, six of the defendants were acquitted and only two were sentenced to have a finger branded. Although Adams lost many of his clients after the trial, in the long run he gained reputation as a result.
Still in 1770, Adams had been overwhelmingly elected to the Assembly, where he joined the Whigs” caucus. He was now one of the most sought-after lawyers in the Province of Massachusetts Bay, with over 450 cases a year and clients such as Governors John Wentworth and Francis Bernard, 1st Baronet. His clients included slaves seeking their manumission who sought his advice. During the four sessions of the Assembly from 1770 to 1771, Adams participated in the vituperative campaign against Governor Hutchinson, for whom he had a deep dislike. Adams was convinced of the British Constitution and of the solvability of the conflict within this regulatory framework, which is why he did not yet share the demand for American independence. A collapse in early 1771 led Adams not to run for the Assembly again.
Adams retired from politics for the next nearly two years. In January and February 1773, he published a series of seven articles on London”s decision to pay governors himself, raising concerns that the measure in question threatened the independence of the courts. At the same time, in response to a request from the Assembly, he drafted, with Samuel Adams and Joseph Hawley, a replication of Governor Hutchinson”s demand that all of the Thirteen Colonies comply with Westminster”s absolute claim to power. As an alternative, they cited independence from the mother country.
According to the biographer Ferling, Adams, who until then had seen the colonies as a miniature version of England, finally came to the conclusion in 1773, according to his diary entries, that the mother country was a deeply corrupt, despotic and immoral nation. He contrasted this with an idealized self-image in the sense of American exceptionalism. Adams linked this to a cyclical understanding of history, according to which young nations were pure and virtuous and morally decayed in old age. The image of the decadent and corrupt mother country was central to Adams”s advocacy of independence. Other historians cite earlier, as well as later, events for Adams”s transformation into an American revolutionary, with the majority seeing 1765 as pivotal. His grandson Charles Francis Adams, Sr. characterized this transformation as very reluctant, while Howard Zinn, even more drastically, describes Adams as an aristocrat sympathetic to the Revolution who wanted to prevent it from going too far in the direction of democracy.
Adams was elected to the Governor”s Council in 1773 and 1774, but denied the appointment on both occasions by the governor. When Adams learned of the Boston Tea Party on December 17, 1773, he immediately recognized its epochal significance and endorsed the action as having no alternative. Following London”s Intolerable Acts, initially directed exclusively against Massachusetts, the colonies agreed to a joint convention. On June 17, 1774, the Assembly designated a four-member delegation to this First Continental Congress, electing Adams, James Bowdoin, Robert Treat Paine, and Samuel Adams.
On his way to Philadelphia in August 1774, Adams left New England for the first time. In the delegation, Thomas Cushing had replaced Bowdoin, who had dropped out on short notice. In the days leading up to the first convention, Adams first encountered George Washington and found that while there was consensus among the delegates about the rights due to Americans, just under half of them were very apprehensive about standing up to the Crown. This conservative faction, drawn primarily from the mid-Atlantic states, was grouped around Joseph Galloway, John Jay, James Duane, and William Livingston. Adams found the most reliable and courageous allies outside New England in the delegations of the Province of South Carolina and Colony of Virginia. In order to achieve consensus among the twelve participating colonies, Massachusetts, discredited for its radicalism, held back at the beginning of the Continental Congress. The convention, meeting in Carpenters Hall, established a 24-member Grand Committee, of which Adams was a member. This committee was charged with drafting a statement on the rights of America.
Adams did not distinguish himself as a faction leader, but he was able to broker compromise solutions in some controversial discussions. On October 14, 1774, as a result of the Grand Committee, the Assembly adopted the ten-article Declaration of Rights and Grievances. Adams”s contribution to this Declaration is evident in the preamble and the fourth article, which emphasizes the right of the colonies to legislate their own taxes as long as they are not represented in the British Parliament.
In December 1774 he was elected to the delegation to the Second Continental Congress by the Massachusetts Provincial Congress, which had replaced the Assembly dissolved by the Crown. After ten years, Adams was back on the Braintree City Council, where he saw to the establishment of three Minutemen companies. In response to the essays of Torys Massachusettensis, behind which was Daniel Leonard, a lawyer who strongly condemned the resolutions of the First Continental Congress, Adams responded as Novanglus in twelve letters published between January and April 1775. With these essays, he presented himself nationwide as the coming leader of the Continental Congress.
Adams, who had studied state theories intensively since 1773 and in particular the republic theory of James Harrington, developed a radical new basis for the autonomy of the colonies as Novanglus. These were to enter into a voluntary bond with the British crown as republics with a bicameral system and a multi-person executive. The Novanglus Letters attracted little attention at the time of their publication, but they substantially determined the conception of the Massachusetts Constitution four years later. Biographer John P. Diggins, in contrast to Richard Alan Ryerson, emphasizes the polemical character of the letters and the fact that of all the philosophers referenced, only John Locke knows of a right to revolution.
Prior to the publication of the last letter, the American War of Independence broke out on April 19, 1775. Adams observed a deep division within the population, which he estimated at one-third each of patriots, loyalists, and neutrals. It was clear to him that the relationship with England was irreversibly broken and that a long war lay ahead. At the Second Continental Congress beginning in May 1775, the Massachusetts delegation ended its self-imposed restraint because of the outbreak of war. Within the first month, two factions crystallized, one led by John Dickinson seeking a settlement with London, while the other led by Adams advocated continuing the war and independence. He developed extreme zeal for work during the next two years and sat on 90 committees, chairing 25. Because of the influence and general respect he had gained, he was elected by the Continental Congress to the most important commissions. Beginning in June 1776, Adams headed the important five-member Board of War, which organized the Continental Army”s conduct of the war down to the last detail and consisted of Roger Sherman, Benjamin Harrison V, James Wilson, as well as Edward Rutledge. Thus, this board was responsible for recruiting, supplies, arming, fortification, and filling officer positions, among other things. He followed with great concern the outbreak of a smallpox epidemic in Boston in July 1776 and hoped to protect the Continental Army from it with stricter sanitary regulations. In the judgment of some historians, Adams became the de facto Secretary of War by chairing the Board of War.
Although Adams later claimed to have been chiefly responsible for Washington”s appointment as Commanding General of the United States Army on June 15, 1775, historian Joseph J. Ellis sees this as an exaggeration of his own influence. In the fall of 1775, Adams persuaded the Continental Congress, on the occasion of a request from the New Hampshire Colony, to abandon the colonial jurisdictions and each form its own constitutions with appropriate bodies. He lobbied vigorously for the establishment of the United States Navy, which Congress passed on October 13, 1775, and was instrumental in drafting its board regulations. Adams later described his service on the Naval Committee, during which he met and came to appreciate Stephen Hopkins, as the most enjoyable of those years.
As late as early February 1776, the delegations from six colonies had orders not to agree to independence. The mood in the Continental Congress tipped toward independence only after the Proclamation of Rebellion by George III, which branded the colonists as traitors, became known on February 27 and, even more consequential, Thomas Paine”s pamphlet Common Sense had appeared in January. Adams welcomed the pamphlet but feared that its radical egalitarianism would be harmful to postcolonial state-building. Adams therefore published Thoughts on government, which he had first recorded for William Hooper when Hooper asked him for suggestions on redrafting the constitution of the Province of North Carolina. In it, he criticized Paine”s concept of popular sovereignty, which envisaged a unicameral system and significantly limited executive power, and stressed that social happiness did not arise from an unregulated popular will but from the rule of laws and institutions. These, he argues, are a protective mechanism against the destructive urges of human nature, of which Adams had a rather pessimistic view. He advocates a balance between the executive and legislative branches of government, which he argues should be guaranteed by a veto power for the head of state, annual elections, and a judiciary appointed for life. Of all Adam”s works, Thoughts on government became the most influential.
On May 10, 1776, Adams introduced a bill with Richard Henry Lee calling for the Thirteen Colonies to form new governments and, contrary to expectations, it passed unanimously. This was directed against the Assembly of the Province of Pennsylvania, where a majority still opposed independence and favored an understanding with Great Britain. On May 15, after three days of intense debate, the Continental Congress passed the Adams-drafted preamble to the May 10 bill, which empowered the colonies to complete self-government and required them to eliminate all Crown authority. For Adams, this resolution was tantamount to independence for the Thirteen Colonies. In Pennsylvania, this event caused an immediate shift in patriotic sentiment. On May 20, after the Pennsylvania Assembly, in Adams” presence, had given its delegation the green light to vote for independence by a popular vote of 4,000 citizens, the last of the still reluctant colonies buckled. On June 7, 1776, he seconded Lee in introducing the so-called Lee Resolution, which declared that the colonies were free and independent states, should be so according to natural law, and should together form a confederacy. When the Continental Congress was unable to reach agreement on this in debate, four days later Adams was appointed to the Committee of Five, along with Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, Robert R. Livingston, and Sherman, to draft a preamble to this resolution, later the Declaration of Independence. At the first committee meeting, Adams was offered to take the lead on the draft, which he declined due to his heavy workload, so Jefferson took on the task. He submitted a draft to Adams for consideration after two weeks, modeled on the Virginia Declaration of Rights, to which Adams made only minor stylistic changes. On June 28, the Committee of Five presented the draft to the Continental Congress. Three days later, the debate to resubmit the Lee Resolution took place, during which Adams addressed Dickinson”s objections to independence in a two-hour, unprepared speech. This speech was not only the most significant in the Continental Congress up to that time, but also the best in Adams”s political life. The next day, the delegation from the Province of New York, as well as Dickinson and Robert Morris as opponents of independence, stayed away from the vote, so the Lee resolution was unanimously adopted by the twelve colonies present. On July 3 and 4, the Continental Congress debated the Committee of Five”s Declaration of Independence and, after making editorial changes and shortening the text by a quarter, adopted it, deleting the passage outlawing the slave trade entirely.
Within the month of the Declaration of Independence, the Continental Congress began debating the future Constitution. In September 1776, General John Sullivan, who had been captured by the British at the Battle of Long Island, appeared before the Continental Congress and delivered an offer of negotiation from commanders and brothers Admiral Richard Howe, 1st Earl Howe and General William Howe, 5th Viscount Howe. Adams opposed talks with the enemy, fearing renewed polarization of the population. He was overruled and, along with Franklin and Rutledge, was ordered as an emissary to Staten Island, where they met the Howes on September 11. Since the latter accepted as a condition of peace only submission to the crown, in return for which they offered immunity from punishment for some of the rebels, the negotiations ended the same day. As late as September, Adams increased incentives for longer enlistment and, with Jefferson, pushed a bill through the Continental Congress that drastically increased penalties for service offenses. He also unsuccessfully proposed the establishment of a military academy. The unpleasant course of the war led him to reconsider his rejection of military alliances with European powers.
After a few weeks with family in Braintree, Adams returned to the Continental Congress in January 1777, which adjourned to Baltimore for a time due to the war effort and reconvened in Philadelphia beginning in February. Adams served on 26 committees, of which the Board of War was the most time-consuming and did not afford him an opportunity to become involved in the conception of the Articles of Confederation. He was optimistic about the future, believing that, given the inability of the British to bring about victory in the first two years of the war, defeat of the Continental Army in the third year was even less likely. Moreover, Adams was confident that soon the Kingdom of France or Spain would take advantage of the American War of Independence to draw the United Kingdom into a war in Europe. After the American defeat at the Battle of Brandywine, Adams fled Philadelphia via Lancaster to York with the Continental Congress to escape the approaching British army. When General Horatio Gates defeated the British Army at the Battle of Saratoga shortly thereafter, Adams immediately recognized it as the decisive turning point in the War for Independence.
In late November 1777, the Continental Congress elected Adams in absentia as America”s diplomat to the Kingdom of France. There he was to negotiate possible alliances and financial support with Franklin and Arthur Lee as delegates to the French court, replacing the previous American representative, Silas Deane. Adams was chosen because he had been one of the first delegates to the Continental Congress to develop ideas on the foreign policy of the Thirteen Colonies. For example, he had introduced the right to form foreign alliances into the Lee Declaration of June 1776. A model treaty for bilateral relations with the Kingdom of France, drafted by Adams as chairman of the Committee of Treaties, had been adopted by the Continental Congress in September 1776 and became the model for American intergovernmental agreements for the next 25 years. On his trip to Paris, Adams was accompanied by his ten-year-old son, John Quincy, with whom he embarked on the USS Boston on February 15, 1778. This was done in utmost secrecy at dawn and outside Boston Harbor out of concern for British spies. After only a short voyage, they pursued a British frigate, which they were only able to lose after three days. While bringing up the British merchant ship Martha, an enemy bullet narrowly missed Adams, hitting the mizzen mast behind him. They reached Bordeaux in late March and moved on to Paris.
Even before he disembarked, Adams learned that Lee, Franklin, and Deane had already concluded an alliance and trade treaty with Louis XVI at Versailles on February 6, thus completing his main task. Disappointed, Adams, who occupied the Hôtel de Valentinois with Franklin, took over the document and financial management of the American commission and learned French. His top priority was to win more French naval support in the War of Independence, since he, like Washington, saw naval power as a potentially war-deciding factor. For the time being, he was denied success in this cause, as France was planning an invasion of England at the time. Despite his classical republican ideals, he was impressed by the opulence of Parisian life in addition to its bustle, and met, among others, the philosopher Marie Jean Antoine Nicolas Caritat, Marquis de Condorcet, and the economist Anne Robert Jacques Turgot. Adams was officially presented to the king on May 8, 1778.
The most important contact for the American delegation was Charles Gravier, comte de Vergennes, who was adept at secret diplomacy and intrigue. De Vergennes met with great suspicion from Adams from the start, preferring the more gregarious and less determined Franklin as an interlocutor. Adams, initially a great admirer of Franklin, was increasingly critical of the latter”s careless handling of money and potential spies in his personal circle, as well as his lack of zeal for service. On September 14, 1778, the Continental Congress determined to dissolve the commission and appointed Franklin sole ambassador to the French court. Official notification reached Adams on February 12, 1779, and he experienced the recall without assignment to a new post or request to return as a severe humiliation and deep grievance. On April 22, he boarded the USS Alliance with his son at Nantes. Her departure was delayed, however, because she was to attack the west coast of England as part of an American-French expeditionary fleet commanded by Marie-Joseph Motier, Marquis de La Fayette, and John Paul Jones. To the chagrin of Adams, who for reasons of secrecy had not been informed of the background, he was unable to make the voyage home until June 17 aboard the Sensible, a French Navy frigate. On board was Anne César de la Luzerne, the new French ambassador to the United States.
Back in America, he reported to the Continental Congress on the substantive issues still to be resolved with Paris. Adams drew up a draft of the Massachusetts Constitution in just under six weeks, beginning in mid-September 1779. It was based on his Thoughts on Government and the Virginia Declaration of Rights and provided for a bicameral system of checks and balances. The judiciary was independent and empowered to subject the actions of the other two branches of government to standards review. A historical innovation was the state”s duty, formulated in the draft constitution, to ensure the education and cultural and scientific training of its citizens. For most of the later state constitutions, including those in the Mid-Atlantic and Southern states, Adams”s draft acted as a model, with the lifetime-appointed chief federal judges as the greatest achievement. At a banquet honoring the French ambassador at Harvard in August 1779, Adams suggested that the American Academy of Arts and Sciences be established in Boston as a counterpart to the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia, and this was implemented a year later. In October 1779, the Continental Congress unanimously appointed him envoy with authority to negotiate a peace treaty with the Kingdom of Great Britain. On the renewed passage to Europe, which began on the Sensible on November 15, he was accompanied by his two eldest sons and Francis Dana as official secretary.
Using the overland route due to a ship leakage from Ferrol, Adams did not reach Paris until February 9, 1780, where de Vergennes, fearful for his diplomatic decision-making autonomy and generally resentful, stalled him and insisted that Adams not publicize his authority to negotiate a peace treaty with London, even though his mission was an open secret. Therefore, for the time being, Adams engaged in press work for the American cause, publishing articles anonymously in the Mercure de France and in British newspapers. The relationship with de Vergennes deteriorated to such an extent by the summer of 1780 that the latter only accepted Franklin as an interlocutor from July 29. This had been triggered by a dispute over the devaluation of the U.S. dollar, probably deliberately initiated by de Vergennes as a pretext, and Adams” refusal to support exemptions for French merchants.
As early as July 27, 1780, Adams had set out with both sons for the Republic of the Seven United Provinces to negotiate a treaty of friendship and trade in place of Henry Laurens, who had been appointed by the British. To do this, he stayed less in the capital, The Hague, than in Amsterdam, where the real power lay. Many of the intellectuals there recognized parallels between the American War of Independence and their own fight for freedom in the Eighty Years” War, which is why they sympathized with the American Revolution, as did the majority of the Dutch. After not being received by officials for months, not least because the Republic of the Seven United Provinces depended on British protection of its sea trade routes, Adams addressed the States General directly in April 1781 in a letter soon to be published throughout Europe, contrary to diplomatic custom. In the summer, he sent his son Charles, who was in poor health, back to America, while Quincy left for the Russian Empire, where Dana had been appointed ambassador. The States General waited until the surrender of Charles Cornwallis, 1st Marquess Cornwallis at Yorktown in November 1781 was known before a binding treaty of commerce was concluded and America was diplomatically recognized by The Hague on April 19, 1782. Adams” official reception as ambassador by Governor William V took place three days later. In June he negotiated a loan of 5 million guilders with three Dutch banks and in October a commercial treaty with the Republic of the Seven United Provinces. Adams later described the success of his mission to the United Netherlands as his greatest political achievement.
In late October 1782, Adams returned to Paris to join Franklin and John Jay in negotiating a peace treaty with Great Britain. The Confederate Congress”s order to defer to de Vergennes and put the question of independence aside infuriated both Adams and Jay. Contrary to this instruction, and with Franklin”s agreement, they began negotiations with the Kingdom of Great Britain on October 30 without first consulting de Vergennes. In doing so, they insisted on London”s recognition of American independence in the text of the treaty. Other outstanding issues included compensation claims by escaped Loyalists, American private debts to British merchants, and, of particular importance to Adams, fishing rights in the Newfoundland Bank. The boundary dispute was quickly settled when Britain ceded to the United States the territory between Appalachia and the Mississippi River and granted America navigation rights on that river. At Adams”s insistence, the debt was not simply set off against the war damage suffered, as Franklin and Jay had suggested, but a passage for payment was inserted, which later proved impractical. After compensation for Loyalists was relegated to state jurisdiction in late November, fishing rights remained as the last outstanding issue that nearly derailed negotiations. When the British granted America not the “right” but the “freedom” to fish in the Newfoundland Bank as well, a preliminary treaty was concluded on November 30, 1782. Finally, on September 3, 1783, Adams, Franklin, and Jay, representing the United States, signed the final Peace of Paris.
During this period, Adams asked Abigail in vain to join him and Quincy, who had since returned from St. Petersburg. She was very afraid of crossing and leaving her home, and it was not until her father had died and she learned that Adams had been seriously ill in Paris in October 1783 that she traveled to Europe with her eldest daughter “Nabby” in June 1784. Adams, meanwhile, had taken up residence outside Paris at Auteuil to convalesce, where he took Abigail and “Nabby” immediately after their reunion in London on August 7, 1784. Jefferson, who succeeded Franklin as ambassador to France, was a regular guest at the Adams” home. A close friendship developed between him and Adams but also Abigail. Their diplomatic mission to conclude trade agreements with major European nations together with Franklin proved tough; they succeeded only with Prussia in July 1785.
In late April 1785, Adams learned of his appointment as America”s first ambassador to London. The following month, he moved to London with Abigail and “Nabby,” while Quincy returned to America to study at Harvard. On June 1, Adams introduced himself to King George III during a private audience at St James”s Palace. The meeting was enjoyable and marked by mutual respect. Adams rented a residence in Grosvenor Square, which subsequently became the American Embassy. Except for regular attendance at court ceremonies and a few contacts with British government officials, Adams was ignored by London society and became the victim of a smear campaign in the British press. Overall, anti-American sentiment in the Kingdom of Great Britain was similar to that during the War of Independence. He was unable to obtain assurances from either Prime Minister William Pitt the Younger or Foreign Secretary Francis Osborne, 5th Duke of Leeds to withdraw remaining troops from America, establish privileged trade relations, or pay compensation for slaves and property that British officers had removed from America.
In July 1785, the first conflict with the Barbary state occurred when two American ships were captured by Barbary corsairs in the Mediterranean and the crew enslaved. By order of the Confederate Congress, Adams paid a ransom to a messenger of the Sultan. In January 1787, Adams and Jefferson agreed to annual protection payments with Morocco. Parallel social unrest occurred in the American Confederacy, culminating in the Shays” Rebellion in western Massachusetts. Adams was concerned about this development and feared, first, that the European powers were playing the states off against each other and, second, that, as happened in Rhode Island and North Carolina, debtors with a legislative majority were paying off their creditors with worthless paper money and suspending jurisdiction. As he had predicted, central power responded by significantly strengthening its authority, which the Philadelphia Convention established in September 1787 by adopting the Constitution of the United States. As ambassador to London, Adams wrote the three-volume A defense of the constitutions of government of the United States of America. This voluminous monograph, published in 1787-1788, deals with political philosophy and is in large part a historically erudite rendition of his Thoughts on government of 1776. Adams examines different types of republics and identifies the Westminster system as the ideal form of government, following in the tradition of Cicero and successfully ridding America of the power of the aristocracy. He evaluates the demand for equality of all people as illusory, since individuals will always differ in reality with respect to their abilities, means, and motives. A defense of the constitutions of government of the United States of America was initially received favorably, but was seen by some critics in America as evidence that Adams was a monarchist. In March 1788, Adams left England with his wife and daughter and returned home, having asked Jay for his recall as ambassador over a year earlier.
On June 17, 1788, Adams arrived in Boston, where, after an absence of nearly nine years, he was triumphantly received by several thousand citizens as a hero of the Revolution and the diplomat who had achieved the Peace of Paris and the recognition of American independence. He was immediately considered the most promising candidate for the vice presidency under Washington, but did not openly seek that office as it was considered improper behavior in those days. As of January 1789, Washington signaled his approval of this constellation and firmly expected Adams to be elected. In the first presidential election of 1788-1789, the states designated 69 electors to the Electoral College, each of whom had two votes per ballot, with the runner-up automatically becoming vice president. John Adams was undisputedly considered second to Washington, however Alexander Hamilton schemed against him behind the scenes. He may have done so to strengthen his own position as a potential successor to Washington or to prevent a rival from emerging to his unanimously elected idol, who was revered as a folk hero in New England. On April 6, 1789, Adams, unaware of Hamilton”s covert operation, became vice president by 34 votes, a result that deeply wounded his pride. On April 13, 1789, accompanied by a military escort and a pageant, he left Braintree for what was then the capital, New York City, and took office here eight days later, assuming the presidency of the Senate.
Condemned to silence in the Senate and without the institutional framework to make speeches to the public, he quickly became disillusioned with the vice presidency. He stated that the position was “the most insignificant office” ever “conceived in the history of mankind.” With Washington”s cabinet, Adams had an uncomplicated relationship, although here the polarization between Secretary of State Jefferson, who had as his guiding vision a rural America of propertied planters, and Treasury Secretary Hamilton, who was oriented toward urban banking and money management, quickly became apparent. With Adams, no such regional imprint dominated; his basis of trust was formed by government institutions, which were more decisive for him than his origins. Even more than Hamilton”s establishment of the First Bank of the United States, the French Revolution divided the young republic. While the camp around Jefferson and Paine hailed it as an expression of the will of the people, Adams had warned against radical egalitarianism and absolute popular rule through a unicameral system even before that event in Thoughts on Government, which Edmund Burke echoed in Reflections on the Revolution in France in 1790. Earlier and more clearly than any other American politician, Adams foresaw that the Revolution would result in tyranny.
Initially, Adams was unsure of how to conduct himself in office and was intensely concerned with etiquette and protocol issues, for example, how to address Washington as Senate President when announcing his State of the Union Address. This, combined with his critical attitude toward the French Revolution, quickly earned him accusations by political opponents of having a majestic self-image and of having become a monarchist during his time as ambassador to London. Overall, this episode significantly damaged Adams”s reputation. In addition, Washington increasingly distanced himself from Adams, further diminishing the vice presidency. As late as the summer of 1789, the Senate was intensely debating a bill that provided that the president could dismiss cabinet members only with the Senate”s approval. When voted on, this bill was narrowly defeated, with Adams” vote as Senate president casting the deciding vote. In all, Adams cast the deciding vote in 31 votes in his role as vice president, a total that has not been matched at this level by any of his successors to date. Among them were landmark decisions such as the Residence Act, which clarified the capital question.
Beginning in April 1790, Adams published a series of articles in the Gazette of the United States that lasted over a year and was soon published as a book under the title Discourses on Davila. The core of the book was a translation of Enrico Caterino Davila”s historical treatise on the Huguenot Wars. In his commentaries, Adams argued, among other things, that republics were as immune to craving for prestige and worship of the rich and powerful as monarchies. A virtue that set republics apart had therefore never existed historically. Adams”s critics quickly seized on this text as supposed proof of his monarchist credentials. Since no one dared attack Washington as president, opposition to the Federalist Party visibly focused on Adams. Initially covert, Jefferson increasingly opposed Adams, in whom he saw a traitor to the ideas of the American Revolution, as he did in the leader of the Federalist Party, Hamilton. To this end, he circulated damaging rumors and hired journalists, as well as the poet Philip Freneau, to counterbalance the Federalist Gazette of the United States in the National Gazette. At this time, the public began to perceive Adams and Jefferson mostly as political archrivals. Like Washington and many others, he viewed the increasing factionalism with great despair, considering the emergence of political parties a great danger to the young republic.
In the 1792 election, the anti-Federalist Virginians led by Jefferson and James Madison cooperated with New York and Pennsylvania. In the process, they sought to prevent Adams” reelection as vice president by supporting New York Governor George Clinton. However, he defended his vice presidency by a vote of 77 to 50 against the anti-Federalist Clinton, this time supported by Hamilton.
With the outbreak of the Coalition Wars, anti-Federalists around Jefferson grew fearful that Adams might push Washington toward war with the First French Republic. Faced with the seizure of American ships by both France and the United Kingdom, Washington and Adams embarked on a course of strict neutrality that rendered the 1778 treaty of alliance with the Kingdom of France moot. To oppose this proclamation of neutrality, the First French Republic dispatched Edmond-Charles Genêt to America in April 1793. When the latter went over the heads of Washington, Adams, and Jefferson to address Congress and began recruiting privateers against the British in American ports, he himself lost the support of Republicans sympathetic to the French Revolution. The strong military response of Washington and Hamilton to the Whiskey Rebellion in 1794, which was directed against the taxation of one of the most important commodities of the day in western Pennsylvania, greatly pleased Adams; on the other hand, he was concerned that such uprisings might be repeated in a young republic that did not yet have a clear political identity. When the terms of the Jay Treaty with London, perceived by many as unsatisfactory, became known the following year, they caused nationwide outrage. Although Adams, like Washington, was far from satisfied with the agreement, he stood loyal to the president who signed the treaty in the summer of 1795. For one thing, he knew from his own experience the stubbornness of British negotiators; for another, he preferred a disadvantageous treaty to another war with the Kingdom of Great Britain. This affair haunted Adams into his presidency.
After Washington”s renunciation of a third term became known, the political climate intensified considerably and in places took the form of a scramble. Soon Adams and Jefferson crystallized as the main rivals, without either of them actively campaigning for the office themselves. Jefferson”s supporters, who called Adams “His Rotundity” because of his supposed monarchism, accused him first of rejecting the French Revolution and second of supporting the Jay Treaty and the military response to the Whiskey Rebellion. Thus, some Republicans wore Jacobin caps in the election campaign out of sympathy with the First French Republic. The 1796 election still provided for a single ballot in the Electoral College, with two votes each for president as well as vice president, and candidates had to be elected from two different states. Hamilton, as leader of the Federalists, asked the New England electors not to give away their second vote, but to split it between Adams and Thomas Pinckney, thus preventing Jefferson from being elected president in any event and, if possible, vice president as well. Furthermore, he thus hoped to help the outsider Pinckney to the presidency by surprise, whom he thought he could control more easily. Since some of the electors did not comply with his request, Adams won on December 7, 1796, with 71 votes, only narrowly over Jefferson (68 votes), who thus became the new vice president. Adams and his wife Abigail never forgave Hamilton, who always saw himself as Washington”s most suitable successor, for this interference in the Electoral College and had been enemies ever since. Moreover, Adams saw in Hamilton a proponent of a plutocracy and military adventures.
Unlike his first appearance as vice president before the Senate, Adams dispensed with pompous ceremonial when he was inaugurated as president on March 4, 1797. In the inaugural address to the 5th Congress of the United States, he addressed the American War of Independence and the oppression by the British Crown. He praised the reasonableness and righteousness of the people and emphasized his rejection of European feudalism. Adams, like many other presidents after him on this occasion, called for understanding between the parties. To the chagrin of Anglophile Federalists, he cited his admiration for the French nation, acquired through his sojourn there, and argued for a continuation of the peace course in foreign policy. John Adams”s cabinet showed little change from Washington”s, as Adams was anxious to preserve harmony among the Federalists. A few days later, he moved into the President”s House in Philadelphia and was shocked by its disastrous condition, especially since he had to pay rent for it. At first, like his predecessor in office, Adams was mainly occupied with responding to letters, mostly from veterans of the War for Independence, asking for a position in the administration.
The presidency began with a major mortgage of a personal nature: on the one hand, Vice President Jefferson, as the leading figure of the Republicans, was his political opponent; on the other, Hamilton, as leader of the Federalists actually Adams” natural ally, had been at enmity with him since the election of 1796. Both sought to prevent Adams” reelection as president. In addition, the three most important cabinet members, Timothy Pickering, Oliver Wolcott Jr. and James McHenry, were under Hamilton”s control. They belonged to the radical wing of the Federalists, the “High Federalists,” and were decidedly Francophobic. Thus, they worked against the president”s directives without resigning from their posts. To this day, it is not clear to what extent Adams was aware of his ministers” disloyalty. It is possible that his decision to retain them was due to his desire to ensure greater professionalism through personnel continuity in the staff and the public administration as a whole. Moreover, although Adams requested written opinions from the ministers on important issues, he ultimately decided on his own, having little confidence in their ability to analyze important issues impartially. Nevertheless, Adams is among the seven presidents of America who did not use their veto power once during their term in office. He signed all congressional bills sent to him.
Another difficulty for Adams” presidency and the federal government as a whole was political geography. America”s transportation infrastructure was rudimentary, and technological backwardness prevailed compared to Europe. For example, travel time from Virginia to New England was still weeks, as it had been in early colonial times; only three roads suitable for covered wagons existed nationwide; and most rivers, especially in the southern states, had no bridges. All this encouraged regionalism and made it difficult for a sense of national belonging to emerge. Also, most politicians identified more with their state than with the United States.
During the presidency, Adams experienced several blows in family life. In the early summer of 1798, he traveled to Quincy with Abigail, who became seriously ill there. When Adams returned to Philadelphia in November, he had to leave his still-unrecovered wife behind. The capital itself was suffering from a yellow fever epidemic that claimed 3000 lives. As a result, most of Philadelphia was evacuated and government business was temporarily transferred to Trenton. Until Abigail”s full recovery in November 1799 and her return to Philadelphia, Adams stayed in Quincy for extended periods of time on several occasions, including continuously from March to September 1799, and conducted his office from there. Because of the impending move of the capital to the swampland of Washington, D.C., and the primitive living conditions there, Adams became very concerned about his wife”s health. Immediately after the results of the 1800 presidential election were announced, Adams learned that his second oldest son, Charles, who suffered from alcohol problems, had died of cirrhosis of the liver on November 30.
In terms of foreign policy, Adams”s presidency began immediately with a crisis, as the French Directory, angered by the Jay Treaty, which they interpreted as an Anglo-American alliance, had refused to legitimize Pinckney as ambassador to Paris in November 1796 and expelled him from the country. Adams learned of this, as well as of France”s undeclared naval war against American merchant ships, only a few days after taking office. To resolve this conflict and seek compensation from Paris for captured merchant ships in the Caribbean, the president sent a delegation of Pinckney, John Marshall, and Elbridge Gerry to France, arriving in Paris in early October 1797. They later reported in coded messages their conversations with Foreign Minister Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord and three of his agents, who were named to the American public only as X, Y, and Z, which is why this incident became known as the XYZ Affair. The latter demanded not only an American loan of 22 million Dutch guilders and friendlier tones from Adam toward France to settle the dispute, but also a personal bribe for Talleyrand. The foreign minister threatened the delegation that any nation that refused support to the First French Republic would be considered hostile, in which case America would share the fate of the doomed Republic of Venice. When XYZ finally informed the American envoys that Talleyrand would report their uncooperative behavior to Adams, negotiations were broken off; Pinckney and Marshall left France.
Even before the president was informed of this éclat in March 1798, the confrontation with the First French Republic at sea had further escalated. Among other things, a French privateer had entered Charleston Harbor and sunk a British ship, while in the Caribbean more than 60 other privateers blocked American foreign trade. When the XYZ affair became known to the government, two ministers urged the president to ask Congress for a declaration of war. Adams considered war with France inevitable, but saw America as too ill-equipped for such an undertaking. Moreover, he was aware of domestic opposition to it by Republicans. When Adams informed Congress about the XYZ Affair on April 3, 1798, in a relatively restrained speech that emphasized the differences in principle between the American and French revolutions, it led to an outcry of indignation nationwide. The population showed solidarity with the president, who instantly became a national hero and was at the height of his popularity, raised militias and collected money for the construction of a navy. Generally, in the summer of 1798, the president was firmly expected to declare war on France, and even Abigail saw this as inevitable. For the first and only time during his term, Adams was popular and uncontroversial in the Federalist Party at this stage.
In this brief heyday of his presidency, Adams successfully pushed two federal bills through Congress: on April 30, 1798, the creation of the United States Department of the Navy, in the direction of which Benjamin Stoddert proved to be very successful and the only loyal cabinet member, and on July 9, the Act Further to Protect the Commerce of the United States, which authorized United States Navy ships to attack any French naval units that threatened American commerce. Republicans continued to view France as a sister republic and accused the administration of distorting the issue to provoke the Directory into a declaration of war. In their view, Adams intended the war to drive America into the arms of the British monarchy. Underlying the contrasting positions of Federalists and Republicans on this issue were also economic interests: while the New England Federalists had close business and trade ties with the Kingdom of Great Britain, planters in the southern states had traditionally been heavily indebted to London”s commercial banks.
A legislative initiative by Adams to allow merchant ships to be armed failed because of Jefferson”s opposition. The president was successful, however, when he first secured the completion in Congress of the USS United States and two additional frigates in 1797, and the full equipment and manning of these ships the following year, and was able to push through the expansion of the Naval Act of 1794 to a total of twelve warships. The USS Constitution and USS Constellation in particular achieved surprising successes, such as the victorious engagement against the L”Insurgente in February 1799. Adams” plan to raise a regular army of 25,000 men was toned down by Congress to 10,000. The American buildup and continued French aggression soon led to the conflict being commonly referred to as a quasi-war. In addition to opposition by the Republicans, a faction of hardliners against Adams now emerged within the Federalists, the so-called arch-Federalists, who called for a declaration of war on the First French Republic and an end to diplomacy. Prominent spokesmen for this group were Secretary of State Pickering, Senator George Cabot, and former Representative Fisher Ames. Among other things, they were bothered by Gerry”s holding out in Paris despite the XYZ affair so that he could continue the aborted negotiations if necessary. When the latter returned to America on October 1, 1798, to report to Adams, he faced great hostility from the Federalists. Because the president hesitated to part with Gerry and weighed his options for action until the winter of 1798-1799, this was increasingly interpreted by his own party as weakness in decision-making.
On February 18, 1799, Adams informed the Senate that he had appointed William Vans Murray as envoy to Paris to resume negotiations with France. This news, surprising even to Secretary of State Pickering, was greeted with indignation by the Federalists in particular; nevertheless, they did not seek a counter-resolution in the Senate. Ultimately, they agreed with Adams not to entrust Murray with the negotiation alone, but to have Patrick Henry and Chief Federal Judge Oliver Ellsworth assist him. Many contemporaries and later historians saw the lengthy decision-making process and its unexpected outcome as a sign that Adams had lost control. Other historians, such as Stephen G. Kurtz, contend that the president deliberately chose to wait longer. For one thing, Adams wanted to let the internal tensions caused by the John Fries Rebellion and the Alien and Sedition Acts settle down and observe the development of the United States Navy”s military clout. Second, in November 1799, the Directory was overthrown and replaced by the French Consulate. This soon signaled to Adams that an American legation was welcome. In the fall of 1800, emissaries Murray, Ellsworth, and William Richardson Davie, who had replaced the late Henry, reached France and negotiated the Treaty of Mortefontaine that same year, ending the quasi-war. Since news of this agreement did not reach America until after the presidential election of 1800, Adams could not benefit politically from it. Nevertheless, defining himself more as a statesman than a politician, he counted the Treaty of Mortefontaine, along with the peace treaty with the Kingdom of Great Britain and the loan by the United Netherlands, among the three great successes of his career.
A moral victory for America on a sideshow in the quasi-war turned out to be the French colony of Saint-Domingue. There, the Haitian Revolution led by Toussaint Louverture had led to the freeing of the slaves, which Adams, thinking along similar lines to Abraham Lincoln later on this issue, welcomed, and by 1796 had driven Spanish and British troops from the entire island of Hispaniola. Pickering and Adams saw Toussaint Louverture as an ally for America, and in June 1799, in response to his pledge in Congress to stop all privateering against American ships from Haiti, were able to obtain a lifting of the trade restrictions in place against France in the case of Saint-Domingues. In addition, Naval Officer John Barry was ordered to Haiti with a fleet to pay the respect of the American people with a flag parade to Toussaint Louverture. Jefferson, like most planters in the southern states, was appalled by this solidarity with “rebel Negroes” and later, as president, supported Napoleon Bonaparte in reinstating slavery in Santo Domingo.
In the summer of 1798, when Adams was at the height of his power and the quasi-war intensified, the Alien and Sedition Acts, which he had no part in drafting, were passed. The Sedition Act, in particular, became the most controversial decision and the most damaging to his presidential reputation, even in the judgment of many later historians. The Alien and Sedition Acts were directed primarily against political refugees from Europe, such as Royalists, Jacobins, and Irish Republicans, and consisted of four bills: The Naturalization Act extended the minimum period of residence for American citizenship from five to 14 years. The Alien Act allowed the president to expel aliens who, in his judgment, threatened security. The Alien Enemies Act gave the president authority in the event of war to deport or intern citizens of the enemy nation living in America. The Sedition Act, the most controversial of the four laws, made it a crime to publish false or scandalous writing that attacked the president or other branches of government. Less Adams himself than his wife Abigail, who had previously initiated campaigns against press attacks on her husband, was enthusiastic about the Alien and Sedition Acts. Adams ordered only two deportations during his tenure, but they never came to fruition. However, after an initial high-profile court case against Republican Matthew Lyon that resulted in several months in prison, twelve more Sedition Act convictions occurred. The trial of the journalist James T. Callender in 1800 was deliberately provoked by Jefferson, who financially supported this pamphleteer, in order to damage the president in the election campaign. After the Federalist electoral defeat in 1800, the two-year Alien and Sedition Acts expired again. Unlike the president, Republicans saw the Alien and Sedition Acts not as justifiable war laws affecting federal foreign relations, but as an unconstitutional restriction on free speech that was the responsibility of the states. In their view, it was intended to exploit fears of war and, as a first step, to erode liberties in order to transform the republic into a monarchy. Concealing their authorship, Jefferson and Madison drafted resolutions for Virginia and Kentucky, passed in 1799, declaring the right of states to repeal unconstitutional federal laws within their territories.
In view of the quasi-war and the rearmament deemed necessary, Adams and Congress agreed in the summer of 1798 to institute direct taxes. Soon the first reports of anti-government voices among the Pennsylvania Dutch in southeastern Pennsylvania, centered in Bucks County, reached the president. The house tax, which was based on the number and size of windows, met with particular opposition. Beginning in January 1799, violent attacks on federal tax assessors occurred, prompting the latter to dispatch U.S. marshals to the region. On March 7, as these prepared several captured tax resisters for removal to Philadelphia, they were surrounded at Bethlehem by a 150-man militia commanded by John Fries. The latter, invoking the 6th Amendment, demanded the surrender of the prisoners, which the marshals complied with in the face of superior force. Thereafter, the crowd immediately dispersed and when Fries was arrested a few days later, he was going about his work as an auctioneer. From this rather insignificant incident, Adams” opponents, but according to Diggins, later historians as well, fabricated a disproportionately significant event that contributed to the president”s deselection in 1800. While Republicans saw the John Fries Rebellion as a freedom struggle against oppression and dispossession of the rural population in the style of feudalist Europe, arch-Federalists interpreted it as a peasant uprising and the prelude to class struggle and civil war. One immediate consequence of the event was that the people of Pennsylvania, which had traditionally been a stronghold of the Federalists, in large part showed solidarity with John Fries and his companions. In addition to Irish-Americans, who traditionally leaned toward the Anglophobic Republicans, more and more German-Americans were now turning away from the Federalists. Second, as late as March 1799, Adams successfully pushed the Eventual Army Act through Congress, which allowed the Confederacy to act against any “French-inspired” uprising with troops, for which a provisional army was quickly raised. The cabinet was also able to convince Adams to charge Fries and others with treason. Starting in April, trials began in Philadelphia against 60 people involved in the rebellion. After the first trial against Fries fell through, the second was presided over by the stalwart Federalist Samuel Chase, so the outcome was predetermined and the death sentence was passed and set for May 23, 1800. Adams addressed a list of 14 questions to his cabinet prior to its execution to determine whether the John Fries Rebellion was merely a rebellion or actually an insurrection. Although the ministers answered him unanimously that in their opinion there was high treason here, the president decided otherwise in April 1800. He pardoned Fries and two others sentenced to death, as well as all others against whom lesser sentences had been pronounced.
When Washington died in December 1799, many Republicans feared that his successor as Commanding General of the United States Army, Hamilton, would use the Regular Army against them politically. Complicating matters further, Secretary of War McHenry was less loyal to Adams than to Hamilton. In the 1800 presidential election, Adams was without a chance. The pardon of John Fries and the legation of Murray to Paris had alienated him from his own party, while the Alien and Sedition Acts and the recruitment of a regular army with Hamilton as supreme commander had outraged Republicans. Some ministers, such as Secretary of the Treasury Wolcott, wanted to prevent Adams as president and replace him with Pinckney. Secretary of War McHenry encouraged Hamilton to leak to the press an analysis of Adams”s supposed presidential incompetence based on innuendo and rumors Hamilton had been spreading since 1796 to damage Adams”s reputation in the Federalist leadership circle. This text vilified Adams not only as a politician but also as a capricious and emotionally unstable character unworthy of Founding Father status. The campaign, which pitted the incumbent president and his vice president against each other for the first and so far only time in American history, was bitterly fought. While Jefferson was portrayed by his opponents as a godless Jacobin seeking a reign of terror, Adams was vilified as a conspiratorial monarchist who had intended to marry one of his sons to a daughter of George III in order to reunite the United Kingdom and America.
As in previous elections, the electors were chosen by the state assemblies. Because they scheduled their own election days, the Popular Vote lasted from April to October of 1800, which meant that the vote count was not completed until December. By the first week of December, the Federalists were leading and had been able to hold their strongholds in New England, while the Southern states had traditionally voted for the Republicans. Crucial to Adams” eventual defeat was the loss of New York and Pennsylvania to Jefferson, who was joined as a second candidate by Aaron Burr. In the end, Adams was at 65 Electoral College votes and Jefferson at 73. While the defeat in Pennsylvania was related to the John Fries Rebellion, the one in New York was due to Hamilton, who had used his patronage connections there to prevent Adams” reelection.
Pending the inauguration of Jefferson, whose election after a stalemate with Burr in the Electoral College had come only after 35 ballots in the Federalist-dominated House of Representatives, Adams reviewed Mortefontaine”s treaty terms and called on disloyal cabinet members to resign. He pushed a judiciary bill through Congress called the Midnight Judges Act, which created new courts. Adams was therefore accused of filling the judiciary with federalists at the last minute in order to obstruct the transfer of power. The fact that he appointed Marshall, an outspoken opponent of the Alien and Sedition Acts, as Chief Justice of the United States speaks against this. On March 4, 1801, he left the White House early in the morning without meeting his successor. This was not meant as an affront to Jefferson, as Adams had no hostile feelings toward Jefferson and had welcomed him to a dinner with Abigail just a few days earlier.
After the presidency
Adams retired to private life after his election defeat. He lived in Peacefield, a larger estate near his birthplace, which he had bought in 1787. Having few financial resources after a bad investment at the Bank of London, he lived off his landed property, as did many of his countrymen at the time. Due to advanced age, Adams did not continue his law practice and devoted himself to family life as well as the many visitors who came to Peacefield. Since he had hardly organized his papers and records throughout his life, he refrained from writing an autobiography because of the amount of work involved. Although no longer actively participating in political life, he continued to be heavily involved intellectually with political history. Like Arthur M. Schlesinger later, he saw its course as cyclical and predicted a “leapfrogging” of one party over the other for America about every twelve years. On November 10, 1818, after 54 years of marriage, Abigail died of a stroke, leaving a devastated Adams behind. Jefferson, with whom Adams had been in correspondence for six years at this point at the suggestion of mutual friend Benjamin Rush, sent him a condolence that moved him deeply. This correspondence, which reads like an endless argument in search of a unifying principle, continued until their deaths and covered a very wide range of topics besides politics, including religion, science, history, philosophy, archaeology, and much more. According to Diggins, this correspondence is one of the richest documents in American intellectual history.
In late 1820, Adams was a delegate to a convention to revise the Massachusetts Constitution. He lobbied there in vain for a constitutional amendment guaranteeing complete religious freedom, with a particular concern for equal rights for American Jews.Health increasingly limited as he approached 90, Adams flourished once again in late 1824, when he witnessed the successful presidential election of his son John Quincy against Andrew Jackson. Nonetheless, he held Jackson in high esteem, not least because of their shared dislike of bank entrepreneurs. Delighted, he accepted Jefferson”s congratulations on his son”s election as president and asked him to consider John Quincy as their common son and heir. On July 1, 1826, he fell into a coma and died three days later, as did Jefferson, on American Independence Day. On July 7, Adams was buried in Quincy in the presence of a crowd of 4000 people.
In 1826, John Quincy Adams donated the construction of the United First Parish Church in Quincy, the design of which was by noted architect Alexander Parris. Even before the church was dedicated in November 1828, the remains of John and Abigail Adams were interred in the crypt on April 1, 1828. In December 1852, John Quincy and his wife Louisa Catherine Adams found their final resting place here.
Adams”s philosophy of government was at odds with Jefferson”s views on many issues. This conflict defined the first party system that emerged after Washington”s presidency and set the tone for American political history. The free will of the people, which Jefferson and Paine revered as an ideal that would only be clouded, if not endangered, by any government, was not, for Adams, a guarantee of the preservation of natural human rights. He saw the state not only as a means of securing individual liberty but also as a means of ensuring the preservation of human rights. Adams was convinced of the importance of institutions, in which he had more confidence than in human nature, which is why he stated, “Laws are intended not to trust what men will do, but to guard against what they might do.” (“Laws are not intended to trust what men will do, but to guard against what they might do.”). These differing priorities explain why Jefferson celebrated the French Revolution even after its radicalization in 1793, while Adams emphasized that it had nothing in common with the spirit of 1776. These essential differences in philosophical understanding of the state led to opposing positions on the increasingly significant slavery issue in subsequent American history. The dualism culminated in the Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858 and, as a radical countermovement to Adamsian federalism, led to the American Civil War.
Through historical studies of the polis of ancient Greece to the Italian city republics of the Renaissance, Adams came to the conclusion that every government in human history, regardless of its form, had three universal components: the ruler (“the one”), the aristocracy (“the few”), and the people (“the many”). Accordingly, the freedom of a society was determined by the extent to which laws limited each of the three elements to its appropriate function, thus preventing the emergence of monarchical tyranny, aristocratic oligarchy, or anarchistic popular rule. Looking at the young republic, Adams saw the ruler realized in the supreme representative of the executive branch and defined the aristocracy, unusually for the time in America, not as a prominent feudal upper class but as a class with special political and economic ambition that controlled the upper houses, that is, the Senate. Among the many, Adams counted all eligible voters who were not among the few or so poor that they could not make independent decisions. The people were dominant in the lower houses, that is, the House of Representatives, and in the judiciary. According to Adams”s biographer Diggins, the lines of conflict that shaped the first party system can be assigned according to this pattern: Accordingly, Hamilton placed his emphasis on empowering the few, which amounted to a plutocracy, while Jefferson accentuated popular rule, ideally realized in a unicameral system. Adams, on the other hand, emphasized the importance of the One, which was indispensable to balance the interests of the aristocracy and the people. Anticipating the insights of modern sociology, he was aware that without a ruler, the organs of state would be feudally dominated, as the people tended to imitate the lifestyle and views of the elite and normatively orient themselves to them. Diggins sees Adams as overall the president in American history whose political philosophy most revolved around the question of how government action could prevent crisis-like conflicts between social classes. Similar to Otto von Bismarck”s later foreign policy of balance of power, Adams saw the need for a third power to mediate and resolve bipolar tensions.
Both John Adams and his wife Abigail strongly opposed slavery and later always employed free laborers to cultivate their estates. However, Adams – like Benjamin Franklin, another opponent of slavery – saw the enormous domestic political conflict potential of this issue: if the Declaration of Independence had contained a clear condemnation of slavery, the slaveholding Southern states would never have agreed to it. According to Heinrich August Winkler, Adams was “unwilling to let the Declaration of Independence fail because of the irreconcilable opposition on this issue.” Adams therefore never developed any political initiative to support abolitionism.
Although Adams grew up in a Puritan Congregationalist environment, he later described himself (like his wife) as a Unitarian and rejected the divinity of Jesus.
In the conventional understanding of history, Adams was one of the least understood of the Founding Fathers until the 1990s, standing in the shadow of Washington, Franklin, and Jefferson. In part, he has been caricatured as a pompous and self-important blowhard and loser who was the first president to be voted out of office and who led the Federalist Party to its demise. For the 20th century, Ferling cites three major biographers who wrote about Adams: Gilbert Chinard, Page Smith, and Peter Shaw. Chinard, who wrote his work shortly after World War I, viewed Adams as narrow-minded in some ways but considered him the most realistic American politician of his generation. He rated Adams” accomplishments, whom he compared to Georges Clemenceau, higher than Jefferson”s. Nearly 30 years later, during the height of the Cold War, Smith championed the second president as a taskmaster for contemporary America who had protected the young republic from radical Jacobins like Paine. Finally, Shaw focused his biography on Adams”s psychological motives for action. In doing so, he reduced him to a person who, driven by enormous ambition, fails to get a grip on his addiction to fame and ends up losing the respect of his social environment.
The negative image of Adams that prevailed for a long time is partly due to his extensive correspondence, including his diary, both of which have also been preserved voluminously in the case of Washington, Franklin and Jefferson, but which do not testify to such a personal and open nature in their communication. Another aspect in this context is Adams” bitterness after losing the presidency, which he gave free rein to in a great many letters. Ferling, in his biography of Adams published in 1992, sees another cause for Adams” weak reputation in his last significant works on state theory, as these were outside the direction that was to determine the political thinking of the next generations. Jürgen Heideking makes a similar judgment in the anthology The American Presidents: 44 Historical Portraits from George Washington to Barack Obama, first published in 1995: Adams was indeed one of the most gifted and morally upright men of the founding generation, but he had acted as an intellectual antithesis to the general drive for more equality and democracy. In addition, he had a polarizing effect through his personality, which clearly distinguished him from the “presidential” Washington. According to Heideking, Adams should be regarded as a great statesman, but this is due less to his presidency than to his life”s work as a whole.
In his biography of Adams, published in 1993, Joseph J. Ellis pointed out that in historical scholarship the study of Adams was experiencing a new beginning because of the exploration of his extensive correspondences. He sees Adams as the most misunderstood and misrecognized great man in American history. In the period between 1998 and 2007, there was hardly a president on whom so much specialized literature was published as on Adams, with particular mention of David McCullough”s 2001 biography, which won the Pulitzer Prize and became the basis for the miniseries John Adams – Freedom for America. This and the works of Richard Alan Ryerson, Bradley C. Thompson, Michael Burgan, Stuart A. Kallen, and Bonnie L. Lukes led to a reassessment of his presidency as it gradually began to emerge from the shadows of Washington and Jefferson. The reputational gains for Adams were not limited to the professional community but had already reached the public, Ellis judged as early as 2000, citing three reasons: The endless political scandals and widespread cynicism toward Washington actors in the present day made Adams stand out as a morally unquestionable statesman who was less concerned with personal power than with justice. In the controversies over the role of government that have dominated America”s recent history, he argues, Adams”s founding father”s conviction of the importance of strong government is more reasonable and easily integrated than Jefferson”s anti-establishment ethos. As a final aspect, Ellis cites the unpretentious sincerity of Adams”s letters and diary entries. On the one hand, this prevented him from being surrounded by a mythical aura for posterity like Franklin, Jefferson, and Washington; on the other hand, because of their honesty, these records represented the best window of opportunity to observe the personal motives for action of the Founding Fathers in an undisguised way. Moreover, because of the wealth of personal writings, his biography is the best documented for the years surrounding the American Declaration of Independence.
In American history, no presidential term has been so dominated by a single foreign policy conflict as Adams” was by the quasi-war with France. Adams lacked the means to resolve this problem, which had already arisen under Washington, during his term. On the one hand, Paris lacked the willingness and authority to bring about a settlement; on the other, the president lacked political support and backing in the court of public opinion. Adams had superior strategic insight and recognized as early as the spring of 1797 that both the pro-British faction around Hamilton and the pro-French Republicans would draw America into a foreign war if they prevailed. He subordinated his political survival to the national interest of keeping the United States out of a European conflict, which remained the isolationist course of U.S. foreign policy toward Europe until World War I. In order to be able to protect domestic shores in this context, Adams prioritized raising the United States Navy over recruiting a standing army, especially since he feared Hamilton as supreme commander here. Adams had no understanding of parties in the modern sense and sought cooperation with Vice President Jefferson after his election. However, the cooperation he sought was prevented from the outset by Madison on the one hand and by the Federalist leadership on the other, so that the consensus-oriented president isolated himself early in his term. While he never lost respect for Jefferson, a deeply felt enmity soon developed with Hamilton.
Although Adams did not pursue an ecclesiastical career, his Puritan upbringing guided his thoughts and actions. He deliberately sought out situations that exposed him to conflict between public and personal interest in order to demonstrate his moral integrity. A frequently recurring motif in the diary entries is Adam”s self-doubt and self-reproach, to what extent his ambitions were a sin and to what extent he had them under control.
The birthplace of John Adams, where he lived until his marriage and where several generations of the Adams family lived from 1720 until 1885, is now located in Adams National Historical Park. Peacefield, where Adams and his wife resided beginning in 1788, and the birthplace of John Quincy Adams are also located in this National Historical Park. The United First Parish Church, where John and John Quincy Adams are buried with their wives, has had National Historic Landmark status since 1970.
In all, seven counties are named after Adams. Jackson, New Hampshire, was initially named for Adams when it was founded in 1800; however, in 1829, the town”s name was changed to honor his successor, Jackson. One of the three Library of Congress buildings is the John Adams Building, built in 1939. Furthermore, he is the namesake of the volcano Mount Adams. In 2007, the series of presidential dollars started with the portraits of Washington, Adams, Jefferson and Madison.
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