On October 30, 1735,1 John Adams – Revolutionary leader, Declaration of Independence signer, creator and theorist of constitutions, leading diplomat, first vice president and second president of the United States—was born in Braintree, Massachusetts. His father was a farmer and maker of fine shoes who was also a deacon in the Congregational Church. Educated in the local public Latin school and then at a private academy, young John also grew up “[spending] my time … in making and sailing boats and Ships upon the Ponds and Brooks, in making and flying Kites, in driving hoops, playing marbles, playing Quoits, Wrestling, Swimming, Skaiting and above all in shooting, to which Diversion I was addicted.” By the time he entered Harvard College in 1751, he seemed destined to become a clergyman. Yet with the intellectual independence and self-confidence that marked his character, Adams privately developed some theological doubts; and when he graduated in 1755, he deferred a choice of profession to take a position teaching school.
A year in the town of Worcester instructing “a large number of little runtlings, just capable of lisping A.B.C.” convinced him that teaching was no more congenial than the ministry, and he turned at last to the study of the law. Admitted to the bar in 1758, Adams came home to Braintree to begin his practice with a depth of knowledge and enthusiasm that was soon matched by his courtroom skill. His reputation grew; and by the time his courtship of the brilliant and spirited Abigail Smith ended in 1764 in a marriage of true minds that sustained them both for more than half a century, John Adams had every reason to believe himself permanently settled in a contented life.
That very year, however, the British Parliament passed the Sugar Act to tax their American colonies following the French and Indian War, the North American part of a multinational conflict that had depleted Britain’s treasury. Surprised, the colonists objected: lacking representation in Parliament, they argued that they could not be taxed. Surprised, Parliament ignored them; and followed up in 1765 with the Stamp Act, a tax on the paper used in legal documents and printed materials. This time, the colonists were ready, and as organized and sometimes violent opposition flared, John Adams joined in by taking up his pen.
For the next decade, while most of Britain’s North American colonies clashed repeatedly with the British government over rights and principles, Adams published learned and boldly argumentative writings that helped shape the debate on a continental scale. Yet when tensions first turned lethal in the so-called “Boston Massacre” of March 5, 1770–as nervous British soldiers opened fire on an aggressively hostile crowd, killing five—it was Adams the independent thinker and masterly trial lawyer who took the soldiers’ case, successfully arguing that “facts are stubborn things, and whatever may be our wishes,…they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence” that the defendants were not guilty of murder. It was, Adams boasted, “one of the best Pieces of service I ever rendered my Country,” a triumph for the rule of law.
When eroding hopes for reconciliation took the form of a first Continental Congress in Philadelphia in 1774, it was only natural that Adams take his place among the Massachusetts delegates. When a second such Congress assembled the following year, after shots had been exchanged at Lexington and Concord, Adams was there also: urging that George Washington be made head of the new Continental Army; chairing dozens of committees; drafting legislation; serving on the committee to craft a Declaration of Independence and persuading Thomas Jefferson to be its principal author; and arguing so persuasively for independence that Jefferson is said to have dubbed him “our Colossus on the floor.”
With independence declared, the need to obtain European recognition and support for the fledgling nation became a task as urgent as military victory, and in 1778 Adams was among the first to be sent to secure it. He was accompanied by his eldest son, 11-year-old John Quincy, preparing for a memorable career of his own. For the first time, however, John Adams’s patriotic service was a source of unhappiness. The same qualities that had made him a brilliant trial lawyer and polemicist of revolution—his stubborn independence of mind, keen sense of the worth of his own abilities, and delight in learned argumentation—rendered him among the least diplomatic of men, isolating him both from his American colleagues and from the wily Europeans whose cooperation he needed. Benjamin Franklin, a fellow envoy, reached the limit of exasperation: Adams, he declared, “is always an honest Man and often a Wise One, but sometimes and in some things absolutely out of his Senses.”
Adams briefly returned to the United States in time to draft the 1780 Massachusetts state constitution–a task so gratifying that it rightly became one of his proudest achievements, and significantly influenced the 1787 national constitution’s design. Then he was sent back to Europe; where, despite obtaining recognition and loans from the Netherlands, helping craft the Treaty of Paris that ended the Revolution in 1783, and several years as U.S. minister to Great Britain with Abigail beside him at last, Adams felt frustrated, unappreciated, and in more than one sense entirely too far from home.
His wish to return came true in 1788. Yet by then, a new government had been framed for the United States, and Adams’s dreams of a quiet retirement with Abigail and their four living children were soon abandoned for a fresh opportunity to serve his country and repair what he regarded as a reputation unjustly obscured. On April 21, 1789, he became Vice President of the United States.
That Adams came to see his job for the next eight years as “the most insignificant Office that ever the Invention of Man contrived or his Imagination conceived” was not entirely his fault. President Washington, intent on building a durable role for the chief executive, focused on structuring his cabinet and relations with Congress and neglected the vice presidency. The Senate, meanwhile, decided that the vice president’s role should be limited to what the Constitution prescribed: Adams should preside over its debates, but not participate in them.
To a man of words and argument, such stifling was almost intolerable. Yet Adams’s solutions were self-inflicted wounds. First, he busied himself proposing titles for government officials that combined the royalist with the ridiculous (“His Elective Majesty” was one for the president; “His High Mightiness the President of the United States,” another). Then, he fell back on the comfort of erudition, writing a book of constitutional theory that he hoped would instruct his countrymen in the timeless wisdom of history– but that was misread instead as a defense of monarchy and aristocracy.
The presidency that Adams won narrowly in 1796 over his old friend Thomas Jefferson might have been his reward; instead, it, too, was something close to a disaster. Seeking to honor his predecessor, who like him was now identified with the Federalist Party, Adams retained Washington’s cabinet, unaware until far too late that its members were secretly taking direction from Alexander Hamilton rather than from himself. When smoldering relations with France flamed towards war, Adams acquiesced in the Alien and Sedition Acts, measures so repressive of civil liberties that they provoked a constitutional crisis and have remained a touchstone of incipient tyranny in national memory ever since. Most sadly for Adams himself, those acts overshadowed his admirable decision to halt the popular march to war when he saw the opportunity. In the end, his presidency’s greatest achievements came at its close, in his appointment of the peerless John Marshall as Chief Justice of the United States; and in his prompt and peaceful relinquishment of power after Jefferson defeated him in the election of 1800. As Adams the lawyer must have appreciated, that was a formative precedent indeed.
So John Adams retired at last to Quincy (the town that had absorbed Braintree), spending the final years of his life in the spacious home he called Peacefield. There he read and read and wrote and wrote, irrepressibly as always, commenting humorously and sometimes bitterly on humankind, trying to set the record straight about his place in history, quarreling with some old friends and reconciling with others whom politics had estranged. One reconciliation became his final years’ great consolation, as in 1812 he and Jefferson renewed their ancient friendship: “You and I, ought not to die,” wrote Adams, with typical disarming candor, “before We have explained ourselves to each other.” The result was as rich a correspondence as any in American history.
Abigail Adams died in October 1818. John Quincy Adams became president in 1825. John Adams, like Thomas Jefferson, died at home on July 4, 1826, exactly fifty years from the Declaration they had made. In the nation’s capital, Adams’s monument is the Adams Building of the Library of Congress, an institution that as president he had signed into law. It is a fitting tribute to a courageous and stubbornly principled man who steered a revolution, and then sought to secure it with the wisdom that knowledge brings.
- With the intention of more accurately reflecting a solar year, Britain and its colonies replaced the Julian (“Old Style”) Calendar with the Gregorian Calendar in 1752, adjusting all dates forward by eleven days. This is our present calendar. John Adams’s October 19 birth date therefore became the “New Style” date of October 30.(Return to text)
- Learn more about John Adams’s life and career through John Adams: A Resource Guide
- Adams’s online writings can be read through the links in American Founders: A Guide to Their Online Papers and Publications
- The Law Library of Congress has created a collection with original documents related to John Adams and the Boston Massacre Trial of 1770
- See Adams’s editorial changes to Jefferson’s “original Rough draft” of the Declaration of Independence, part of the exhibit Declaring Independence: Drafting the Documents; learn more in Declaration of Independence: Primary Documents in American History
- Use the resources of the digital collection A Century of Lawmaking for a New Nation to explore the documentary record of John Adams’s service in the Continental Congress. In particular, view the following:
- See the entry on Adams’s presidential inauguration in U.S. Presidential Inaugurations: A Resource Guide
- Explore Research Guides to other major events in American history in which Adams participated:
- Through the online exhibition Creating the United States explore the controversial Election of 1800:
- See the letters exchanged between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson that renewed their friendship in 1812 after years of political estrangement. These items are included in the Memory section of the online exhibition American Treasures of the Library of Congress:
- Search the Prints & Photographs Online Catalog on the phrases “Adams, John,–1735-1826” and “John Adams” for additional portraits of John Adams, photographs and documentation of the buildings that were his homes, and photographs of the John Adams Building at the Library of Congress
- To learn more about John and Abigail Adams’s son John Quincy Adams, see John Quincy Adams: A Resource Guide
- The Massachusetts Historical Society is home to an extensive collection of Adams Family ResourcesExternal