Thomas Jefferson described John Adams as irritable and vain and a “bad calculator of the force and probable effect of the motives which govern men.” On the surface, he was in almost every conceivable way the antithesis of Jefferson, though the two would find common ground later in life. They were from different sections and backgrounds, a fact that lent to their often bitter feuds, and they often viewed human nature and the world through different lenses. But Jefferson liked Adams personally and said in the same letter that “he is so amiable that I pronounce you will love him, if you ever become acquainted with him.” Adams was one of the most quotable members of the Founding generation, rivaled only by Jefferson. At the same time, he was the most paranoid, egotistical, and backbiting member of the “Big Six.” Benjamin Franklin once called some of his ideas insane, saying of Adams that he was “always an honest man, often a wise one, but sometimes, and in some things, absolutely out of his senses.” Adams spent much of his time in politics engaged in personal battles and belittling those around him.
With the HBO mini-series John Adams based on the award-winning biography by David McCullough, Americans, it seems, have fallen in love with John Adams. They need a swift dose of reality. Adams was not a lovable man, and was in fact disliked by almost everyone in the Founding generation. He was a patriot, served in a number of important positions in the Continental Congress, and was vice president and president of the United States, but he was always regarded by his contemporaries as a second- ranker—something that deeply annoyed him.
John Adams was born on 30 October 1735 as a fourth generation American. His family settled in Massachusetts in 1636 and worked as independent farmers in the small community of Braintree for the next century. Adams’s father, John Adams, married into the prominent Boylston family, a move that widened the social connections and prosperity of the Adams family. Adams was graduated from Harvard College in 1755 and considered a career as a minister. Most families in Massachusetts were of Puritan stock, and his father was a Puritan deacon. A similar career would have suited his family and community, but Adams had some reservations about Calvinism and after a short time as a school teacher, he decided to pursue the law. He remarked this choice did not “dissolve the obligations of morality or of religion.”
His legal career proceeded slowly, but he took an active interest in town politics and legal affairs. Adams married Abigail Smith in 1764. Her father, the Reverend William Smith, was a slaveholder and a well respected man in the colony, and the marriage expanded Adams’s social circle among the Massachusetts elite. Abigail and John would have six children. Their oldest son, John Quincy, also became president of the United States, in one of the most precarious elections in American history.
Shortly after his marriage, Adams wrote a number of essays for the Boston Gazette, later published together as “A Dissertation on the Canon and Feudal Law,” attacking the newly passed Stamp Act. Adams declared the act illegal and favored resistance, though he did not support the Stamp Act riots or the violence that occurred against tax collectors. Adams was no extremist. As a lawyer, he defended the patriot John Hancock against charges of smuggling, but he also served as the defense attorney for British Captain Thomas Preston, the most important defendant in the “Boston Massacre” trial. Adams had Preston acquitted after he persuaded the jury that it could not be conclusively proven that Preston ordered his men to fire on the Boston mob. Adams knew that in defending Preston he was risking “a Popularity very general and very hardly earned,” but he believed it more important to prove that British soldiers could get a fair trial in a Massachusetts court. It also established him as a patriot who abjured violent protests.
Still, in contrast to Jefferson, Adams was ambitious, always conscious of his status in society, and concerned with what modern presidents call their “legacy.” Adams believed “a desire to be observed, considered, esteemed, praised, beloved, and admired by his fellows is one of the earliest, as well as the keenest dispositions discovered in the heart of man.”
It was certainly true of Adams. He was elected to the General Court of Massachusetts to represent Boston in 1771. Due to health concerns, he retired in 1772 and returned to farming, but the agrarian life did not suit him, and he was back in Boston within a year. He implicitly supported the Boston Tea Party in 1773—“the grandest event which has yet happened since the controversy with Britain opened”—and actively opposed the Coercive Acts of 1774. That same year, Massachusetts sent him as a delegate to the first Continental Congress. Privately, Adams wished for separation from the crown, but he took cautious steps with a Congress that had not arrived at that solution.
John Adams helped draft a declaration of rights and supported the non-importation of British goods. He returned home disgusted with the results of the first Congress, but firmly resolved to keep pushing for separation. His running debate in the press with Tory Daniel Leonard under the pseudonym “Novanglus” provided both an intellectual and influential outlet for his patriotic views. When he returned to the Second Continental Congress in May 1775, shots had already been fired at Lexington and Concord.
The Congress needed to appoint a commander of all American forces, and Adams, recognizing that the other states were suspicious of New England, nominated George Washington. Washington, he hoped, would act as a unifying figure for the Southern states. Adams seconded Richard Henry Lee’s call for independence from Great Britain on 7 June 1776 and served on the committee that drafted the Declaration of Independence. Jefferson was the primary author (Adams contributed little), but Adams was its greatest champion in the Congress.
Jefferson later wrote that Adams was “its ablest advocate and defender against the multifarious assaults it encountered.” Once independence was declared, Adams served on every important committee in the Congress and eventually was elected a commissioner to France. By the time he arrived, the other commissioners had already secured French recognition of the United States and had agreed to a treaty of amity and commerce. Adams had little to do, but he often felt slighted by the French ministry, was suspicious of the French people, and took a tainted view of French foreign policy. As president, he often took a pro-British line—he had been the United States ambassador to Great Britain from 1785 to 1788—but he actually disliked the British as well, though he did feel they had shown him more respect than the French had.
John Adams spent the war years overseas, not only in France, but as the American ambassador to the Netherlands. He helped negotiate the final peace treaty with the British, as well as a trade agreement with the Prussians, and became the first American minister under the Articles of Confederation to serve as ambassador to Great Britain. While in London, Adams wrote Defense of the Constitutions of the United States of America.
The three volume work was intended as a defense of American institutions against attacks levied by the Frenchman Turgot. Adams did not deny that American political institutions mirror those of Great Britain, including in most states a bicameral legislature. Adams, however, expanded on the necessity of an upper house by arguing that those of wealth and status should be separated from the lower house in order to prevent them from dominating the government. He also advanced that every people must have “somebody or something to represent the dignity of the state, the majesty of the people, call it what you will—a doge, an avoyer, an archon, a president, a consul, a syndic. . . . ” Certainly to his Republican enemies this seemed to indicate that Adams favored a monarchy. Adams did little to dispel the notion. When The Jeffersonian Republican John Taylor of Caroline wrote his Inquiry into the Principles and Policies of the United States attacking Adams on this and other points, Adams responded in true form: “Remember, democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself. There never was a democracy yet that did not commit suicide.” It appears that Adams was, in fact, a closet monarchist; Jefferson surely thought he was.
John Adams returned to the United States shortly after the Constitutional Convention. He finished second to Washington in the Electoral College in the 1788 election and thus became the first vice president of the United States, a position he called “the most insignificant office that ever the invention of man contrived or his imagination conceived.” He spent eight years in “this most insignificant office.”
According to the Constitution, the vice president is the presiding officer of the Senate. Adams took this to mean that he should also participate in the debates, which he did with relish, antagonizing the senators by what they took to be his prideful, boorish manner. Because Adams would frequently interrupt other speakers to deliver lengthy lectures on political history, Senators believed that to avoid interruption they had to defend every statement they made by citing historical sources. This maddening process suited Adams. He believed—as did many of the early senators— that the Senate was an aristocratic body composed of the best men in society. They needed to display their learning and privilege. Adams also believed that American officials needed lofty titles in order to instill respect from the American people. This translated into a humorous and lengthy debate over the proper title for the president.
Titles such as “his elective majesty,” “his mightiness,” “his high mightiness,” and others gave way to “His Highness the President of the United States and Protector of the Rights of the Same.” Fortunately, the idea was defeated in the House, but Adams did not go down without a fight. When the bill returned to the Senate for consideration, Adams believed this issue to be a “great constitutional question.” As a man who wore a sword to Senate sessions, Adams believed formality, titles, and executive deference had its place. If the United States developed into an elected monarchy, as Adams probably wanted at one point, senators would have a place of first rank in the government as a group of pseudo-courtiers.
Still, John Adams languished in his vice presidential purgatory. He was miserable and thought the office did not suit his stature, but he cast twenty deciding votes in the Senate, more than his successors, and generally supported Federalist legislation. His conversion to a general support for monarchy seemed to be complete when he wrote and published Discourses on Davila in 1791. Jefferson believed the essays were a veiled attack on the growth of a republican opposition to Federalist legislation, and showed a desire for the stability of hereditary monarchy. But if that were the case, Adams’s views were definitively of a kind where the monarch and the legislature might work in tandem while remaining separate institutions capable of checking each other’s power.
John Adams wrote Discourses out of a general fear for the escalating violence of the French Revolution. He thought the same spirit could infect Americans, and he implored them to arrest any sentiment that could be deemed contrary to the spirit of the American Revolution, an event Adams argued was nothing more than a conservative response to aggressive infringements upon life, liberty, and property. Adams believed a tyranny of one branch of government over the other would ultimately result in despotism. He wrote, “The executive and the legislative powers are natural rivals; and if each has not an effectual control over the other, the weaker will ever be the lamb in the paws of the wolf. The nation which will not adopt an equilibrium of power must adopt a despotism. There is no other alternative. Rivalries must be controlled, or they will throw all things into confusion; and there is nothing but despotism or a balance of power which can control them.”
The insecure president
Washington retired in 1796, and Adams was elected second president of the United States. His arch political rival, Thomas Jefferson, became vice president. But it has to be said that Adams got along no better with his Federalist allies than with his Republican enemies.
John Adams had a special disdain for Alexander Hamilton. He thought himself a superior man to Hamilton, but nevertheless sought Hamilton’s approbation. So far was Hamilton from giving it that he tried to have Charles Pinckney elected over Adams in 1796, a move that did not endear him to the second president. Hamilton rarely spoke or wrote to Adams and had minimal influence in the new administration, but Adams’s insecurity led him to believe that Hamilton, the former secretary of the treasury, conspired behind the scenes to reduce his authority and control the Cabinet and Congress. It is true the Cabinet and Congress solicited Hamilton’s opinion, but they rarely followed his advice.
The new administration proved to be an exercise in stroking Adams’s vanity. As president, Adams wanted to avoid war with France and England, and made solving that combustible international problem his top priority. Adams’s policy was erratic. At first he tried to conciliate Thomas Jefferson and the pro-French Republicans. When that failed he encouraged the belligerence of pro-British Federalists in the Quasi-War against France of 1798–1800. Then he switched back and pushed for a diplomatic solution to end the undeclared war. Meanwhile, Adams worried about an enemy within: the Jacobins who were infecting the country with the French Revolutionary creed though their Republican supporters, especially in the press. When the Federalist Congress passed the Alien and Sedition Acts, a series of laws intended to crush political opposition, Adams signed the legislation without reservation.
The Sedition Act was an egregious violation of the Constitution that had the ironic effect of only increasing the vitriolic attacks of Republican newspaper editors against Adams and the Federalists. The Alien Acts were aimed at cleansing the United States from dangerous foreign “subversives,” or those who voted Republican once they became citizens. The acts were extremely unpopular and ruined the electoral prospects of the Federalist Party. The presidential election of 1800 proved to be a humiliating embarrassment for Adams. Hamilton and other Federalists were convinced that Adams was unsuited for the job of president, and worked to defeat him. Adams finished third behind Jefferson and Aaron Burr. He wondered how a man of his stature could be so soundly defeated. In his mind, it had to be a conspiracy. He was out for revenge.
Believing that his cabinet betrayed him, John Adams forced them to resign in bitter, temperamental, ranting interviews. Adams then took aim at the incoming Jefferson administration. He conceived and supported the Judiciary Act, a bill that allowed for the appointment of several new judges on the federal circuit. This provided Adams the opportunity to place Federalist judges in positions to thwart republican reforms. He then appointed his secretary of state, John Marshall, as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, making the Court a Federalist bastion for three decades.
John Adams left the new executive mansion in the District of Columbia a bitter man. He did not welcome the new president and was not gracious in defeat. Shortly after he retired to his farm in Massachusetts he wrote, “No party, that ever existed, knew itself so little, or so vainly overrated its own influence and popularity, as ours. . . . A group of foreign liars, encouraged by a few ambitious native gentlemen, have discomfited the education, the talents, the virtues, and the property of the country. The reason is, we have no Americans in America. The federalists have been no more Americans than the anties.” He never again entered public life.
Perhaps the most interesting period of Adams’s life was his retirement. He had served his country well during the Revolution, had been an able diplomat, and had occupied a position in the executive branch for twelve years, but he became more thoughtful and less erratic in his later years. After Jefferson’s two terms as president, the Massachusetts farmer Adams and the Virginia planter Jefferson were reconciled and carried on an extensive correspondence that lasted until their deaths.
The historian Joseph Ellis views their correspondence as a purposeful exercise in history. It may have been so for John Adams, who wanted to establish a reputation for posterity, but it is unlikely that Jefferson viewed it as such. In the correspondence, Jefferson’s view of the past is consistent with what he wrote at the time, but Adams is clearly trying to repaint history in his own colors. But there was more to the correspondence than that.
They wrote to each other about history, the classics, religion, politics, and the fate of the union. Both feared for the future of American liberty. John Adams wrote in 1812 that “the Union is still to me an Object of as much Anxiety as ever Independence was.” A year later, he wrote to Jefferson that the Republic could be sustained only through “the general principles of Christianity [and] the general principles of English and American liberty.” These principles were as “eternal and immutable, as the Existence and Attributes of God . . . and . . . as unalterable as human Nature and our terrestrial, mundane system.”
Even in their newfound friendship, the two did not always agree. Jefferson wrote that there were but two views of government: “That every one takes his side in favor of the many, or the few, according to his constitution, and the circumstances in which he is placed.” During the Revolution they were united, Jefferson said, but they had split in the 1790s when Adams took the side of the few. Adams vehemently denied this in a series of reserved but passionate letters, but the evidence is overwhelming that Jefferson was far more democratic in his beliefs than was Adams.
In the final years leading to his death, Adams lamented that he would not be revered like Jefferson, Washington, or Hamilton. He assumed this was his fate and tried to come to peace with it. But nothing would please the old curmudgeon more than finding that posterity has come to admire him after all.
John Adams died on 4 July 1826, just a few hours after Jefferson. His last words were reportedly, “Jefferson still survives.” Adams would be the only member of the Founding generation to serve just one term as president, and the only one-term president in American history until his son, John Quincy Adams, accomplished the same unimpressive feat from 1825– 1829. He could rightly be called the father of the American navy—the first secretary of the navy, Benjamin Stoddart, was appointed during his administration and the navy was always one of his pet projects—but the blemishes on his political career are more prominent than the successes. Though he tried, he could never escape the notoriety of the Alien and Sedition Acts or the bungling diplomacy of the Quasi-War with France.
John Adams became the symbol of the New England Federalists, a group that became more sectional as Jeffersonian republicanism swept the United States almost unabated from 1800 to 1837. He was not a firm sectionalist, but he did believe the Northern vision of the United States was more in line with the true intentions of the Revolution. Adams thought that the republic could only survive with the guiding hand of an aristocracy— made up of those men with the “virtues and talents” to command votes—in a government of checks and balances. He argued that “the proposition, that the people are the best keepers of their own liberties, is not true; they are the worst conceivable; they are no keepers at all; they can neither judge, act, think, or will, as a political body.” That might be the ultimate irony of Adams’s life—the man who disparaged the people nevertheless yearned to be remembered, admired, and venerated by them.
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