2nd President of the United States
Served: March 4, 1789 to March 3, 1797
Born: October 5, 1829 in Quincy, Massachusetts
Died: July 4, 1826 in Quincy, Massachusetts
Buried: United First Parish Church in Quincy, Massachusetts
I went to visit the Adam's, both father and son, during a trip to Boston in 1999. I took some students to see a Red Sox game. We, of course, saw many of the historical sites around Boston too (didn't see any statues for John). On the way home, I took a detour off I93 into Quincy. I followed the signs to the United First Parish Church. It was on a large avenue called Hancock Street (even John Hancock gets some recognition), easy enough to find. The students, with one exception, waited in the car listening to the radio while the two of us went inside. It was late in the day. The church was being renovated on the inside. One of the people who oversee the church gave us a personal tour which included taking us down into the crypt to the tombs.
You go down a narrow stone staircase to the right of the main entrance. This brings you into a narrow corridor which runs the width of the church. As you walk down the corridor, there is an entrance on the left that leads you into the room. There is a marble plaque outside of the entrance put up by the Daughters of the American Revolution. There are four granite sarcophaguses lined up side by side. On the far left is John Adams. Next to him is his wife Abigail. His son, John Quincy is next and at the far right is his wife Louisa. Both presidents had flags draped over their tombs. Adams flag has only 15 stars in it, just like when he was president.
In the summer of 2004, my wife Debbie and I took a trip through eastern Massachusetts visiting historical sites. One place we went to was Quincy. We took a tour of Adams' house. We saw the house he was born in and grew up in, but didn't get a chance to tour them. We also went back to the United First Parish Church and I visited Adam's again.
I have had a fascination for John Adams, ever since I saw the movie, "1776." Adams seemed like such an interesting person. Despite this, Adams is not as well known as other Revolutionary War leaders. The man to follow George Washington into the presidency would have a lot to live up to. Washington was a tough act to follow. John Adams was overshadowed by his predecessor (Washington) and his successor (Jefferson). The first won the American Revolution and the second wrote the Declaration of Independence. This is a shame, because John Adams did as much, if not more, than anyone else in helping us secure our Independence. Somehow, John is overlooked. There are no memorials or statues to him, unlike the other two. Eight states in the country have named counties after John Adams. This may seem like a lot until you put it into perspective. Washington has 31 counties and Jefferson has 26! Stephen Douglas, who lost the debates to Lincoln, has more with 9 counties. His home state of Massachusetts named a county after Ben Franklin, but not Adams. Would you believe in all of Boston, there is not one statue in honor of Adams. There is one for Sam Adams, Ben Franklin, Paul Revere, John F. Kennedy, Josiah Quincy and even General Joe Hooker (a Civil War general who lost the only battle he was in charge of). Nothing for John Adams.
It was Adam's drive and perseverance, aided by bull-headed stubbornness, which pushed through the idea of independence. However, this is often overlooked. Adams never thought he would be remembered, though it is not known if he actually believed that or not. All may not be hopeless, in 2001; President George W. Bush signed a law authorizing the creation of a memorial for John Adams, and his son John Quincy, to be built in Washington D.C. At the moment they are raising funds and looking for a site to place the memorial – you can visit their website and sign up.
Adams was born on a farm in the northern part of Braintree (Today its Quincy), the oldest of three boys to John and Susanna Boylston Adams. His father was a deacon in his Congregationalist church (that is the Puritan religion) and was descended from John and Priscilla Alden (Mayflower passengers.) His mother was a member of one of the colony's leading medical families, the Boylston’s of Brookline. In 1751, at age 16, he entered Harvard College. His father wanted him to be a minister but Adams had other plans. After graduating in 1755, he taught school for awhile before deciding to become a lawyer. He returned to Harvard and received a law degree. As a lawyer, he became inspired by James Otis on the cause of American liberty.
On October 25, 1764, Adams married Abigail Smith, his third cousin and the daughter of Rev. William Smith, a Congregational minister. They had six children, four who survived to adulthood: Abigail, John Quincy (future president), Charles and Thomas Boylston. One of things about Adams that struck me the most is how much he loved his wife Abigail. When he was in Congress in Philadelphia, they wrote to each other constantly.
On March 5, 1770, British soldiers fired on a mob in Boston killing five civilians in what became known as the Boston Massacre. The soldiers involved were arrested on criminal charges and needed representation. Adams, though he knew it would hurt his reputation, decided to defend the British soldiers. In their defense, Adams made his now famous quote regarding making decisions based on the evidence: "Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passion, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence." Six of the soldiers were acquitted. Two who had fired directly into the crowd were charged with murder but were convicted only of manslaughter.
Before the trials began, Adams was elected to the Massachusetts General Court (the colonial legislature) in June 1770. He continued to argue for the rights of the colonists under British law. In 1774, Adams was sent to represent Massachusetts at the First Continental Congress. He served through to the Second Continental Congress in 1776. His influence in Congress was great, and almost from the beginning, he sought permanent separation from Britain. He was instrumental in getting George Washington named as commander-in-chief of the Continental Army.
On June 7, 1776, Adams seconded the resolution of independence introduced by Richard Henry Lee which stated, "These colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent states," and championed the resolution until it was adopted by Congress on July 2, 1776. He was a member of the five-man committee, which included Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin, to write a declaration in support of the resolution. The committee in general, and Jefferson in particular, thought Adams should write the document, but Adams persuaded the committee to choose Jefferson and promised to consult with Jefferson personally. Many years later, Jefferson hailed Adams as “the pillar of (the Declaration's) support on the floor of Congress, its ablest advocate and defender against the multifarious assaults it encountered.”
During the first year of the Revolution, Adams served as the head of the Board of War and Ordnance, as well as serving on many other important committees. In this capacity, he became a “one man war department” working 18-hour days and mastering the details of raising, equipping and fielding an army under civilian control. He also authored the “Plan of Treaties,” laying out the Congress’ requirements for the crucial treaty with France. Twice he was sent to Europe, accompanied by his son John Quincy, to negotiate foreign support for the American cause. In a 1778 trip to France on board the 24-gun frigate USS Boston, Adams assisted during a naval engagement and helped capture a heavily-armed British merchant ship off the coast of Spain. During his second trip to France, he helped negotiate the Treaty of Paris which gave the United states its independence. Afterwards he served as an ambassador to the Netherlands.
After the war in 1785, John Adams was appointed the first American minister to the Court of St. James's (ambassador to Great Britain). While ambassador, he was presented to King George III, the man he fought so hard against before and during the war. In 1788, he returned to his home in Massachusetts.
Adams spent two terms as Washington's vice-president. He hated being vice president – once saying he should be address as his “Superfluous Excellency.” He referred to the vice presidency, "My country has in its wisdom contrived for me the most insignificant office that ever the invention of man contrived or his imagination conceived." He sat in the Senate but couldn’t say much and only could vote if there was a tie. He did cast a record setting 29 tie-breaking votes.
After Washington decided not to run for a third term in 1796, the country faced its first contested presidential election. Adams, Washington’s vice president and Federalist ran for president against his old friend Jefferson. At the time, presidential elections were decided in the Electoral College not by popular vote. Adams, who had the support of most of the northern states, defeated Jefferson 71 to 68 electoral votes (technically, since Jefferson came in second, he became vice president - the Constitution would be changed so this didn’t happen again.) Hamilton remained as Secretary of the Treasury so the political feud between Hamilton and Jefferson continued. Adams, who was opposed by Jefferson and disliked by Hamilton, was caught in the middle. He tried to stay above or at least between, Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton.
Adams was the most independent-minded of all the founders. He was a Federalist but disagreed with them as much as he did with Jeffersonian Democratic-Republicans. He did what he believed was in the best interest of the country not what was popular. Adams had problems from the start; he was principled but stubborn and non-political and said what he meant. Also, following the most popular man in the country was not easy. He kept Washington’s cabinet not making his own. This was good for transition but harder to control and he would later mostly ignore his cabinet. Of course, Hamilton whom he hated – and who hated him – was still in the cabinet.
Adams gained popularity during what became called the XYZ Affair. France was very angry with Jay's Treaty and started to seize American merchant ships at sea. Adams sent officials to France to avoid war. The French officials demanded a payment first (a bribe) - U.S. officials said no. America was outraged at French - "Millions for defense, but not one cent for tribute" - Adams is popular. A mini-war breaks out – called the Quasi-War (80 French ships are captured). A major war with France was likely – which the Federalist wanted. France did not want with America – had enough enemies. Adams, knew a war with France would make him more popular and they might get new territory like Florida – did not want a war either – America was still weak militarily. Adams saw a need to build a navy – so he ordered that 6 frigates to be built – including the USS Constitution. This became the start of the United States Navy. In 1800, France and America sign a treaty to avoid a major war (France’s new leader Napoleon did not want war with America so he could focus on conquering Europe – this later led to the possibility of the Louisiana Purchase.) Adams was relieved and very proud of the fact he avoided a major war. This didn’t make him popular with his own party – Hamilton and the Federalists.
The Federalists used the war crisis to pass the infamous Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798. They were laws that made it harder for immigrants – who tended to be pro-Jefferson – to become citizens (5 years to 14 years). It also became illegal to say anything bad against the government unless you could prove it - used to silence Democratic-Republican critics. They were very unpopular and Adams popularity dropped.
Adams ran for re-election in 1800, but lost to Jefferson. The friendship between the two became severely strained. He was however, the first president to live in the White House when it was finished in 1800, if for only four months. He was so upset at losing he refused to be part of the Inaugural ceremonies on March 4, but instead left for home. Adams was one of only three presidents not to attend the inauguration of his successor. He would live for another 25 years on his farm in Quincy. He rekindled his friendship with Jefferson through letters. Adams was in his 90's when the 50th Anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence was approaching. He, along with Jefferson and Charles Carroll, were the only signers still living. He was invited to join in the celebrations, but since he wasn't feeling well, he declined. On the 50th Anniversary, July 4th, 1826, Adams lay dying in bed. Late in the afternoon, his last words before he died were "Jefferson still survives". This wasn't true, Jefferson died earlier in the afternoon. Until very recently, Adams lived longer than any other president (Ronald Reagan just passed him by).
When Debbie and I visited Boston for a Red Sox game in 20__, we visited the John Adams' House. It was very interesting. If anyone is interested in reading an excellent biography on John Adams, pick up David McCullough's book; John Adams.
Adams has been portrayed in a number of movies. William Daniels portrayed him in one of my favorite, if somewhat inaccurate, movies 1776. Daniels portrayed John Adams is a number of documentaries. Paul Giamatti portrayed Adams in the 2008 HBO mini-series “John Adams.” John Adams was portrayed by actor Robert Ayres in 1959’s John Paul Jones.
Here are some webpages of interest: