Geographic Connection to Pennsylvania: Gettysburg, Philadelphia County
Namesake of Adams County, John Adams helped draft the Declaration of Independence and served as the second President of the United States.
Born in Massachusetts on October 30, 1735, President John Adams spent the majority of his life as one of the founding fathers of the United States of America and as a public servant. A Harvard graduate and lawyer, Adams wrote during his life, not only to further the revolution, but also in corresponding with his wife, Abigail. Adams served as a delegate to the First and Second Continental Congress, and in this capacity, he helped draft the Declaration of Independence. Adams served as a diplomat during the war and as vice president for both of George Washington’s terms before being elected as president in 1796. In 1800, Adams lost his reelection campaign to his political rival and friend Thomas Jefferson and retired from public life. Adams continued to write until his death on July 4, 1826.
John Adams was born in Quincy, Massachusetts, on October 30, 1735. Due to the considerable wealth of his mother’s family, Adams had the privilege of attending Harvard College, graduating in 1755. While at Harvard, Adams kept a diary in which he explored his personal writing style. On the subject of human nature, he wrote to himself, “If he has the Spirit of a Man, he will be ready to bite his own Flesh.” After establishing himself as a skilled and respected lawyer, he and Abigail Smith were married on October 25, 1764. The couple had five children together, including John Quincy Adams who, like his father, went on to become President of the United States. Abigail and John Adams were “intellectual equals,” as demonstrated by their constant correspondence when separated due to Adams’ career and national events.
As tensions between the American colonies and Great Britain heightened, Adams emerged as a true patriot and a revolutionary through his writings. In 1765, Adams published Braintree Instructions and Dissertation on the Canon and Feudal Law, both of which articulated the widespread discontent within the colonies. In 1770, Adams returned to the courtroom to successfully defend the British soldiers involved in the Boston Massacre. Afterwards, Adams wrote Novanglus (1774-1775), in which he argued that “two supreme and independent authorities cannot exist in the same state any more than two supreme beings in one universe; And, therefore, I contend, that our provincial legislatures are the only supreme authorities in our colonies.”
Along with his cousin Samuel, John Adams was selected to be a Massachusetts delegate to both the First and Second Continental Congresses, during which time he became an influential figure because of his effective oratory and convincing arguments for “the natural rights of humankind.” Adams, as he so often did, wrote Abigail to lift his spirits during this trying time, writing, “The Business I have had upon my Mind has been as great and important as can be entrusted to Man.” Adams, along with Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, was involved with the drafting of The Declaration of Independence, perhaps the most notable work to which Adams contributed. Upon hearing of the acceptance of the Declaration, Adams wrote to Abigail with confidence stating, “I have reasons to believe that no colony, which shall assume government under the people, will give it up.” Also in 1776, Adams published Thoughts on Government, in which he described his aspirations for a united, constitutional government and asserted that “these colonies, under such forms of government, and in such a union, would be unconquerable by all the monarchies of Europe.” This work heavily influenced several state constitutions, notably that of Massachusetts, to which Adams also contributed.
During the Revolutionary War, Adams served his nation as Ambassador to the Dutch Republic and was given the task of opening negotiations with Great Britain. Eventually, Adams, along with John Jay and again Benjamin Franklin, negotiated an end to the war; the Treaty of Paris was signed and America had won its independence. Adams’ experience as a diplomat was extended after the war’s end, serving as the first U.S. Ambassador to Great Britain from 1785 until 1788. While overseas, Adams also maintained close correspondence with Abigail, as well as Thomas Jefferson, particularly in regards to the debate over the Constitution. Although his position meant that Adams could not directly participate in the drafting or ratification of the Constitution in this crucial new debate, Adams did weigh in on the document by publishing Defense of the Constitutions of Government of the United States of America from London. In this lengthy work, Adams emphasized the superiority of constitutional democracies over monarchies, stating, “All nations, under all governments, must have parties; the great secret is to controul them: there are but two ways, either by a monarchy and standing army, or by a balance in the constitution.”
In 1788, Adams returned to the United States and was elected as its first vice president, a position he would hold for two terms under President George Washington. However, Adams did not find the position particularly appealing, writing to Abigail, “My country has in its wisdom contrived for me the most insignificant office that ever the invention of man contrived or his imagination conceived.” In 1796, Adams succeeded Washington and was elected the second President of the United States.
During this pivotal time in the nation’s history, Adams, a Federalist at the height of Federalist popularity, made it clear in his Inaugural Address that he saw himself as a public servant. Adams closed the address by pledging to “support the Constitution of the United States, [and] to lay myself under the most solemn obligations to support it to the utmost of my power.”
Adams’ approval of the Alien and Sedition Acts in 1798, which labeled the opposition press guilty of high crimes, was the low point in his campaign and a major political issue in 1800. Adams was the first President to reside in the White House, moving to Washington D.C. on November 1, 1800. Upon arriving, he finished a letter to Abigail by saying, “Before I end my letter, I pray Heaven to bestow the best of Blessings on this House and all that shall hereafter inhabit it. May none but honest and wise Men ever rule under this roof.”
Adams was defeated by his political rival Thomas Jefferson in his bid for reelection in 1800. Afterwards, Adams returned home to Abigail and his family in Quincy and retired from public life. However, Adams continued to be a prolific writer, defending his policies, beliefs, and service. Adams also attacked former political enemies for their political positions, yet wrote, “I forgive all my enemies and hope that they may find mercy in heaven.” Before his death on July 4, 1826, Adams’ last words were of his largest political rival, but personal friend, “Thomas Jefferson survives.” Ironically, Jefferson had actually died only a few hours prior to Adams on the same day.
John Adams’ Inaugural Address. Philadelphia, PA: Mar. 4, 1797.