America’s Second President: Who Was John Adams? | History Hit

America’s Second President: Who Was John Adams?

Shannon Callahan

27 Jun 2022
John Adams by Gilbert Stuart
Image Credit: Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

John Adams is an American Founding Father who served as a delegate at the First and Second Continental Congress. He was elected Vice President under George Washington before being elected as the second President of the United States.

His presidency was defined by a quasi-war with France. He was a determined Federalist, and his letters to Thomas Jefferson after they had both left office provide some of the greatest insight into early American political theory to date. His role in shaping the American Revolution and early American politics was monumental.

Here’s the story of John Adams, America’s second president.

Where was John Adams born?

John Adams was born in Massachusetts in 1735, and his family could trace their lineage to the first generation of Puritan settlers that arrived on the Mayflower voyage. In his youth, his father encouraged him to go into the ministry.

Adams attended Harvard and worked for a few years teaching before ultimately deciding to pursue law instead. He married Abigail Smith in 1764. She would become a confidante and political partner throughout his career. One of their children, John Quincy Adams, would also serve as an American President. 

Abigail Adams, 1766

Image Credit: Benjamin Blyth, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Was John Adams a patriot or loyalist?

A patriot, in 1765 Adams published an essay titled A Dissertation on the Canon and Feudal Law which opposed the Stamp Act passed by the British that same year. He argued that Parliament exposed themselves as corrupt by intruding in colonial affairs – specifically by requiring all publications and legal documents to bear a stamp. He continued to be a leader in Massachusetts, dissenting against future policies like the Townshend Acts. This would earn him a reputation that would lead to his involvement in the formation of a new country.

However, he did defend British soldiers who had fired into a crowd in the Boston Massacre of 1770 – arguing that they had been provoked and were defending themselves. Though this position lost him some favour, it showed to others his dedication to upholding legal rights and doing the right thing, even if it made him unpopular. He believed the soldiers deserved a fair trial, even if their actions were despicable in the public eye.

Because of his actions and strong moral compass, he was elected to the First Continental Congress in 1774, joining delegates from 12 of the 13 original colonies in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He and his cousin, Samuel Adams, were considered radical, as they completely opposed reconciliation with Britain. He argued that King George III and Parliament not only lacked the authority to tax the colonies, but they also had no right to legislate them in any way. 

The Boston Massacre, 1770

Image Credit: Paul Revere, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

What role did John Adams play in the Revolutionary War?

John Adams was responsible for nominating George Washington as the commander of the Continental Army. Further, he chose Thomas Jefferson as the man to draft the Declaration of Independence. He did this to ensure Virginia’s support in joining the revolution, which was uncertain, as both men represented the colony. 

Further, Adams wrote Thoughts on Government, which was distributed throughout the colonies to help draft state constitutions. In 1776, he also drafted the Plan of Treaties which would serve as the framework for securing France’s assistance in the war. He created the American navy and equipped the army as the head of the Board of War and Ordnance. He drafted the Massachusetts constitution in 1780, which was modelled again by other states. One aspect of this state constitution that would transfer to the US Constitution was the separation of powers. 

As the Revolutionary War waged on, John Adams joined Benjamin Franklin in Paris to negotiate peace between Britain and the United States. Adams was considered confrontational by other delegates, which made it difficult to negotiate with him; however, Franklin was more discrete, so together they were able to get the job done. Adams and his family would spend several more years in Europe, with Adams serving as a diplomat. They returned to the US in 1789 where Adams was promptly voted in as the first Vice President of the United States of America. 

Was John Adams a Federalist?

John Adams was a Federalist, meaning he favoured a strong national government as well as commercial and diplomatic harmony with Britain. The Federalist Party made a lasting impact on the early years of American politics by creating a national judicial system and formulating principles of foreign policy. It was one of the first two political parties in the US and was organized during George Washington’s first administration, founded on expanding national power over state power. It would eventually split into the Democratic and Whig parties.

After Washington served two terms without desiring to be elected for a third, Adams was then elected president of the United States in 1796. As the first president to live in the White House, Adams would serve only one term, losing his bid for re-election to Thomas Jefferson in 1800. 

Official presidential portrait of John Adams

Image Credit: John Trumbull, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Was John Adams a good president?

Adams’ presidency was marked by an unpopular quasi-war with France that hurt his presidency, even though it was a conflict inherited from George Washington. Washington had declared neutrality in conflicts between Britain and France, but in 1795 a treaty was signed with the British that was interpreted by the French as being hostile. France had been hoping for American support during their revolution as a sign of gratitude for France’s help during the American Revolution. Adams would attempt to negotiate peace with France, but French diplomats demanded bribes in exchange for a peaceful negotiation, which Adams’ administration refused. As a result, French ships began attacking American ports, and an undeclared war ensued in the seas.

As a Federalist, Adams was pro-war, so even though he knew the United States could not afford another war, it was part of his core political belief. However, he did seek a peaceful resolution on more than one occasion, recognizing the risks to trade and security, while wearing full military uniform to assert himself as Commander-in-Chief in public.

Others in the government remained friendly with France, including Thomas Jefferson, who were still grateful for France’s assistance in the Revolutionary War, and Adams was often undermined by his cabinet as a result. Alexander Hamilton in particular, who would succeed him, would speak out against him. During this time, Adams passed the Alien and Sedition Acts, which limited freedom of speech, an act that caused great public outcry. Though peace would come and the Acts would expire, it would occur only after Adams had been voted out of office. 

John Adams, c. 1816, by Samuel Morse

Image Credit: Samuel Finley Breese Morse, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

What did John Adams do after his presidency?

After serving as president, John Adams returned to Massachusetts with Abigail to live out the rest of his days, including seeing his son, John Quincy, become president as well. He took up correspondence with Thomas Jefferson, an old friend turned rival, to discuss political theory. These letters are a comprehensive look at the minds of two Founding Fathers on religion, philosophy, politics, and more.

Both men died on 4 July 1826, on the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, passing within hours of each other and leaving legacies as founders of American independence.  

Shannon Callahan