John Adams, the first of a long line of Adams men to rise to historical prominence, might be best remembered as one of the most influential voices of the American Revolution. His vocal opinions and eloquent writing, plus a solid background of legal and philosophical studies, made him a natural choice to assist drafting many of the documents of the Revolution, from the earliest letters of complaint to Crown officials to the Declaration of Independence and the Massachusetts Constitution. He and Thomas Jefferson could be understandably called the voices of the Revolution.
John Adams was born on October 30, 1735 at his family's farm in Braintree, Massachusetts, just south of Boston. Despite a long and distinguished public career that would take him across America and Europe, he never strayed far from his Braintree roots and returned whenever possible. Born to a rich mother and a Deacon father, Adams took to reading and writing at an early age. Throughout his life he would faithfully record his daily happenings in what eventually amounted to a more than four-volume autobiography.
Adams entered Harvard College as early as he could and after several years of debating what career to pursue, he became a teacher in nearby Worcester upon graduation. The life of a teacher, however, was not for him–but his new job did bring him into contact with some of the colony's intellectuals and led him to begin studying law. In 1758, he was admitted to the Suffolk County Bar, and began to distinguish himself as a fair, thoughtful lawyer. In fact, he amassed such a positive reputation that despite his patriotic feelings, the Crown governor later tried to appoint him Attorney General.
By the early 1760s, Boston was sinking into rebellion as the British Parliament began to pass taxes meant to pay for the French and Indian War. A series of measures like the Sugar Act, the Stamp Act and the Townshend Acts drew fire from the colonists, especially patriotic groups like the Sons of Liberty, creating an increasingly hostile environment in the Massachusetts port city. At the request of the legislators, Adams drafted complaints to the governor and began campaigning for the colony's "natural rights." In an decision that enraged the populace, Britain dispatched troops to keep the city peaceful–a move that backfired when troops opened fire in the Boston Massacre. Adams successfully defended the troops in a controversial murder trial. However, the colonies were certainly beginning to move slowly to war.
Adams found himself elected to serve at the First Continental Congress, where, again, he found himself serving as drafter of important documents–his earnest demeanor impressed his fellow delegates. No sooner had Adams returned to Braintree did he find himself called upon to return to the Second Continental Congress, where Adams nominated a delegate named George Washington to command a new Continental Army.
As the Revolution raged on in America, Adams left for Paris to meet Benjamin Franklin and draw up an alliance with France. When Adams arrived, Franklin had already completed the necessary work and Adams spent a frustrating year in Europe–with a brief trip to Amsterdam to arrange further assistance for the breakaway colonies–before returning to America to assist with the writing of Massachusetts' constitution.
That completed, Adams again left for Europe to negotiate the Treaty of Paris and end the Revolution. He next found himself the first ambassador to Britain, America's recently defeated enemy. Needless to say, it was a frustrating assignment. He spent much of his time writing and socializing with the American ambassador to France, Thomas Jefferson, with whom he had written the Declaration of Independence.
Adams returned to the U.S. for good and was elected vice president of the United States in March 1789. He served two terms in the job, which he called "the most insignificant office that ever the invention of man contrived." He enjoyed his time as president of the senate, and cast a score of tie-breaking votes to expand federal powers. Congress, and the political scene in general, was quickly breaking down into two main factions–the Federalists, Adams' party, which supported a strong government, and the Anti-federalists, which supported a weak government and strong state governments. The factions became an important part of the election of 1796, where Adams eked out a victory as president after George Washington announced that he would not seek a third term.
Adams entered the presidency with the country on the brink of war with France, which was still angered by Jay's Treaty. Adams' peace mission was initially rebuffed, only to be met with an offer of a meeting with French officials in exchange for a bribe. The publication of the offer in America, in what came to be known as the XYZ Affair, outraged Americans and pushed the country even closer to war. However, a last minute peace mission by Adams arrested the crisis without incident.
In July 1798, Adams signed the controversial Alien and Sedition Acts, which were meant to silence opposition to the Federalists but which were so unpopular (and unconstitutional) that they were largely responsible for the downfall of the Federalist Party.
Adams faced a bitter reelection fight after quarreling with his arch-rival, Federalist leader Alexander Hamilton, for most of his term. Hamilton threw his support to another Federalist and cost Adams the election, which went to Jefferson. Embittered, Adams left the new capital in Washington in a huff and retreated to his house in Braintree. There, as he mellowed, he began a wonderfully rich correspondence with Jefferson and a deep friendship developed. Adams lived long enough to see his eldest son, John Quincy Adams, be elected president in 1824.
Fittingly, both Adams and Jefferson died on July 4, 1826–the fiftieth anniversary of their Declaration of Independence.