Adams, John (2d President of the United States)

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.

Adams, John (2d President of the United States)

John Adams, 1735–1826, 2d President of the United States (1797–1801), b. Quincy (then in Braintree), Mass., grad. Harvard, 1755. John Adams and his wife, Abigail Adams, founded one of the most distinguished families of the United States; their son, John Quincy Adams, was also President.

Early Career

A plain-spoken, tough-minded lawyer, scrupulously honest and dauntingly erudite, but also sometimes quarrelsome and stubborn, Adams emerged into politics as an opponent of the Stamp Act and, after moving to Boston, was a central figure in the Revolutionary group opposing the British measures that were to lead to the American Revolution. Sent (1774) to the First Continental Congress, he distinguished himself, and in the Second Continental Congress he was a moderate but forceful revolutionary. He proposed George Washington as commander in chief of the Continental troops to bind Virginia more tightly to the cause for independence. He favored the Declaration of Independence, was a member of its drafting committee, and argued eloquently for the document.

Diplomatic Career

As a diplomat seeking foreign aid for the newly established nation, he had a thorny career. Appointed (1777) to succeed Silas Deane as a commissioner to France, he accomplished little before going home (1779) to become a major figure in the Massachusetts constitutional convention. He then returned (1779) to France, where he quarreled with Vergennes and was able to lend little assistance to Benjamin Franklin in his peace efforts. His attempts to negotiate a loan from the Netherlands were fruitless until 1782.

Adams was one of the negotiators who drew up the momentous Treaty of Paris (1783; see Paris, Treaty of) to end the American Revolution. After this service he obtained another Dutch loan and then was envoy (1785–88) to Great Britain, where he met with British coldness and unwillingness to discuss the problems growing out of the treaty. He asked for his own recall and ended a significant but generally discouraging diplomatic career.


In the United States once more, he was chosen Vice President and served throughout George Washington's administration (1789–97). Although he inclined to conservative policies, he functioned somewhat as a balance wheel in the partisan contest between Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson. In the 1796 election Adams was chosen to succeed Washington as President despite the surreptitious opposition of Hamilton.

The Adams administration was one of crisis and conflict, in which the President showed an honest and stubborn integrity, and though allied with Hamilton and the conservative property-respecting Federalists, he was not dominated by them in their struggle against the vigorously rising, more broadly democratic forces led by Jefferson. Though the Federalists were pro-British and strongly opposed to post-Revolutionary France, Adams by conciliation prevented the near war of 1798 (see XYZ Affair) from developing into a real war between France and the United States. Nor did the President wholeheartedly endorse the Alien and Sedition Acts (1798), aimed at the Anti-Federalists. He was, however, detested by his Jeffersonian enemies, and in the election of 1800 he and Hamilton were both overwhelmed by the tide of Jeffersonian democracy. By the end of his term, Adams had proved to be a generally unpopular president, deeply respected but not beloved.


After 1801 Adams lived in retirement at Quincy, issuing sober and highly respected political statements and writing and receiving many letters, notably those to and from Jefferson. Their famous correspondence was edited by Lester J. Cappon in The Adams-Jefferson Letters (1959). By remarkable coincidence he and Jefferson died on the same day, Independence Day, July 4, 1826.


A definitive edition of the voluminous writings of the Adams family (The Adams Papers) was begun with four volumes (1961) containing the diary and autobiography of John Adams. Until completion of the definitive edition, see Adams's Works (10 vol., ed. by J. Q. Adams and C. F. Adams, 1850–56, repr. 1969; Vol. I is a biography by C. F. Adams); The Selected Writings of John Adams and John Quincy Adams (ed. by A. Koch and W. Peden, 1946); abridged ed. of John and Abigail Adams' letters (ed. by M. A. Hogan and C. J. Taylor, 2007).

See also biographies by J. T. Morse (1884, repr. 1970), G. Chinard (1933, repr. 1964), P. Smith (2 vol., 1962), J. Ferling (1992), J. J. Ellis (1993), D. McCullough (2001), and J. Grant (2005); J. T. Adams, The Adams Family (1930); Z. Haraszti, John Adams and the Prophets of Progress (1952); M. J. Dauer, The Adams Federalists (1953, repr. 1968); S. G. Kurtz, The Presidency of John Adams (1957, repr. 1961); J. R. Howe, Jr., The Changing Political Thought of John Adams (1966); R. A. Brown, The Presidency of John Adams (1975); R. Brookhiser, America's First Dynasty: The Adamses, 1735–1918 (2002); G. Vidal, Inventing a Nation: Washington, Adams, Jefferson (2003); E. B. Gelles, Abigail and John: Portrait of a Marriage (2009); G. J. Barker-Benfield, Abigail and John Adams: The Americanization of Sensibility (2010); J. J. Ellis, First Family (2010).

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