Founding Fathers Friday: John Adams
by Derrick G. Jeter
John Adams probably would have had a moderately successful law practice in Braintree, Massachusetts and gained some local notoriety if it hadn’t been for the intervention of his cousin, Samuel. John was an ambitious man, but he was no rebel-rouser—that was Sam’s forte. But it wouldn’t take long for John to join Sam’s rebels.
It all began after March 5, 1770—the evening of the Boston Massacre, when British soldiers fired into a crowd killing five Bostonians. No attorney who valued his reputation and his practice would come to the defense of the soldiers. But Adams would. Arguing that “facts are stubborn things, and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictums of our passions, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence,” Adams was able to win an acquittal for all but two of the soldiers. The two found guilty (for manslaughter) were branded on their thumbs and released. Sam’s role in all of this was to keep the Boston mobs under control after the verdict. Sam probably saw in John’s integrity for justice good politics. And good politics it turned out to be.
Four years later, after the Boston Tea Party, Adams was elected as one of five delegates to the First Continental Congress, meeting in Philadelphia. A year later, Massachusetts sent him back to Philadelphia for the Second Continental Congress. In Congress Adams could really show his stuff on a national stage—his intellect and powers of persuasion. Pennsylvania delegate, Benjamin Rush said of Adams, “He saw the whole of a subject at a single glance, and by a happy union of the powers of reasoning and persuasion often succeeded in carrying measures which were at first sight of an unpopular nature.”
Such intellectual and verbal prowess, however, also had a down side. Besides being ambitious, Adams was also vain. He wasn’t much to look at, but he was a handful for anyone who wished to challenge him in debate—and he knew it. His vanity and ambition fed his arrogance. But Adams wasn’t stupid, politically speaking. He wouldn’t let his ambition and vanity get in the way of the ultimate goal. As the issue of independence was heating up in the early summer of 1776 he know that the delegates of the deep South, particularly South Carolina, thought he was dragging them into a treasonous act. If he was to win over South Carolina and other southern colonies he must remove himself and persuade a southerner to take the lead on independence. He was successful in persuading two southerners: Richard Henry Lee of Virginia presented the official resolution for independence and Thomas Jefferson of Virginia authored the Declaration explaining independence.
In 1822, Adams explained how he persuaded Jefferson to pen the Declaration:
The subcommittee met. Jefferson proposed to me to make the draft. I said, “I will not. You should do it.”
“Oh! no. Why will you not? You ought to do it,” [Jefferson said].
“I will not.”
“What can be your reasons?”
“Reason first, you are a Virginian, and a Virginian ought to appear at the head of this business. Reason second, I am obnoxious, suspected, and unpopular. You are very much otherwise. Reason third, you can write ten times better than I can.”
“Well,” said Jefferson, “if you are decided, I will do as well as I can.”
“Very well. When you have drawn it up, we will have a meeting.”
It must have stung Adams’s vanity to make such an admission, but he was not so vain as to risk losing a vote on independence just to get top billing.
With independence declared in Philadelphia, Adams was off to Paris to join fellow-signer, Benjamin Franklin in hopes of persuading the French to aid the American war for independence. Though Adams was the “Colossus of Independence” in America, he was a poor choice as a diplomate in France. His Puritan view of the world ran contrary to Louis XVI’s more extravagant court. The climate in France suited Adams, but not the political culture. In that regard, he was more suited to the Netherlands and their plain, straight-forward manner—though the climate almost killed him. While there, Adams secured a substantial loan from the Dutch, which established American credit.
After the war, Adams, Franklin, and John Jay negotiated a peace treaty with Great Britain, which was signed in Paris in 1783. Adams would serve as America’s first ambassador to the Court of St. James (England) before returning to Massachusetts and being elected as the United States first vice president in 1789, and then again in 1792. In 1796, Adams, as a Federalist, narrowly defeated his friend Thomas Jefferson, a Democratic-Republican, for the presidency. Unfortunately, their friendship became a casualty of their political rivalry.
Adams’s presidency was marked, and marred, by two events. First, the XYZ Affair, during which French agents demanded bribes from American negotiators to prevent hostilities from flaring up between these former allies. The affair outraged Americans, leading to the deterioration in Franco-American relations. Hostilities did flare into a quasi-war with some minor skirmishes in the Caribbean. The second incident was simply foolish and unConstitutional. As a result of anti-Franco sentiments running high in Congress and among the populous, Adams signed the Alien and Sedition Act, which cracked down on suspected French aliens and on basics freedoms. Those who criticized the government, whether individually or in newspapers, were subject to imprisonment if their speech was deemed seditious. The Federalist in Congress convinced Adams that the act would be good politics by muzzling Jefferson’s party. It turned out to be bad advice and bad politics. Adams and the Federalists was lost to Jefferson and the Democratic-Republicans in the 1800 presidential and congressional elections.
Embittered, Adams returned to Braintree and became a farmer. He did not speak with Jefferson for some twelve years, but in 1812 Benjamin Rush, a mutual friend of both, helped these two proud men reconcile. For the next fourteen years the sage of Braintree and sage of Monticello wrote each others long and moving letters.
And in one of the greatest ironies in history, both men died on the same day, within hours of each other. The date was July 4, 1826—fifty years to the day that both pledged “to each other [their] Lives, [their] Fortunes and [their] sacred Honor.”