John Adams – lawyer and patriot

Continuing series on Signers of the Declaration of Independence

John was born on October 19, 1735, in Quincy aka Braintree, Massachusetts. His family was well to do and had already been in the colonies for some decades. He was descended from Puritan stock and obtained a decent private education under Mr. Marsh, teacher of several luminaries of the American Revolution. In 1751 he entered Harvard and appears to have been an adequate to indifferent student, graduating in 1755.

Upon graduation, he began to read law with Samuel Putnam of Worcester, Ma, and was then introduced to the eminent barrister Jeremy Gridley. Gridley took a liking to young John from the start, and took him under his wing, teaching him from several private texts on the law which he said were the source of his success.

Adams law office was successful, and he began to dabble in politics. He wrote a prescient letter:

October 12, 1755

Soon after the reformation, a few people came over into this new world for conscience sake: perhaps this apparently trivial incident may transfer the great seat of empire into America. It looks likely to me; for, if we can remove the turbulent Gallicks [French], our people according to the exactest[sic] computations, will in another century become more numerous than England itself. Should this be the case, since we have, I may say, all the naval shores of the nation in our hands, it will be easy to obtain a mastery of the seas; and the united force of all Europe will not be able to subdue us. The only way to keep us from setting up for ourselves is to disunite us.

John Adams, letter

Adams opinions were increasingly sought. He read legal opinions of James Otis on search and seizure, which inspired him to adopt the stance that a warrant from a magistrate should be required. During this period, he met the young and lovely Hannah Quincy, about his age. He fell in love, and after some months prepared to propose – but was interrupted. The chance never came again. A year or so later he met fifteen year old Abigail Smith, and though initially not impressed, was enchanted with her wit and spirit. (For a complete look at Abigail, see )

John and Abigail married October 25, 1764, and thus began one of the best-chronicled husband-wife relationships in colonial history. John was frequently away, and upward of 1000 of their letters are well preserved. They had six children, notably John Quincy Adams, who also became president of the United States. They also had their share of heartache, with two sons who became alcoholics.

John was seized by the idea that the Pilgrims and other immigrants to the colonial soil came to flee the tyranny of European temporal and ecclesiastical powers, to establish their own country, not subject to the rulers of Europe. He believed in freedom of worship, and the power of God. He exclaims, “Let the pulpit resound with the doctrines and sentiments of religious liberty. Let us hear the danger of thraldom[sic] to our consciences, from ignorance, extreme poverty and dependence, in short, from civil and political slavery. Let us see delineated before us, the true map of man — let us hear the dignity of his nature, and the noble rank he holds among the works of God! that consenting to slavery is a sacrilegious breach of trust, as offensive in the sight of God, as it is derogatory from our own honour, or interest, of happiness; and that God Almighty has promulgated from heaven, liberty, peace, and good will to man. “

John moved his family to Boston in 1768, and established a law practice there. He became a leader in the revolutionary movement with his articles opposing the Stamp Act, under the pen name of Humphrey Ploughjogger. These were collected and republished as A Dissertation on the Canon and Feudal Law, .

John drew criticism for defending the British in court in charges stemming from the so-called Boston Massacre, where redcoats fired on protesters, killing five. Adams previous writings on innocence until proof of guilt were sorely tested – no other lawyer in Boston would take the case, but John felt everyone was entitled to a fair trial and counsel. He won aquittal for all but two of the soldiers charged – those two had fired directly into the crowd, without specific provocation.

Some also criticized John for his lack of active participation in such mob actions as the Boston Tea Party – it put him at odds with the more activist Samuel Adams (see last week’s post). Though he did not participate, he applauded the Tea Party, writing in his diary that the dutied tea’s destruction was an “absolutely and indispensably” necessary action. (John Adams Diary, 17 Dec 1773).

John was attracted by the bustle of the city, and vacillated between living in Boston, and being in Braintree, the “vulgar, rural town” of his birth. In the end, the family took up residence in Braintree, owing to the unrest in Boston.

Adams was among those who sponsored a position of reform with the British, rather than outright revolution. He persisted in this position until 1772, when Parliament took over paying the salaries of the governor and other officials, and the governor published a tract proclaiming the absolute power of the Parliament over the colonies.

In 1774, John was appointed to the Continental Congress, where he served on the committee to draft a letter of protests to King George III concerning the Intolerable Acts, Parliament’s assertion of power over the colonies.

  • Boston Harbor is closed until all the Tea is paid for.
  • Great Britain takes control of Massachusetts government.
  • Colonist must quarter British Soliders.
  • British officials will be tried in Great Britain.
  • Gov Hutchinson is replaced by General Gage.

John was less than thrilled by the slow pace of reform and action in Congress. In a letter to Abigail, he writes, “I believe if it was moved and seconded that We should come to a Resolution that Three and two make five We should be entertained with Logick and Rhetorick, Law, History, Politicks and Mathematicks, concerning the Subject for two whole Days, and then We should pass the Resolution unanimously in the Affirmative.” Congress hasn’t changed much.

Joining the Second Continental Congress, John was at first tentative about independence, noting the deep divisions between Tory and revolutionary factions. At length he became convinced, publicly promoting reconciliation, but privately doubting whether it was possible. His conviction increased, and he became both the sponsor of George Washington as commander of the Continental Army and the one to second the motion for independence in the Congress.

John was a part of the committee to draft the Declaration of Independence. Jefferson thought Adams should write it, but John deferred it to Jefferson, saying that a Virginian ought to appear to be the author, that Jefferson was far more popular, and a better writer. The drafting process is uncertain since the committee left no notes at the time, but later accounts show that Adams had a significant role in the final document. Jefferson lacked Adams experience and eloquence in debate, and it was John Adams who led the charge for adoption of the document in the Congress.

John called for the formation of a strong navy, to counter British dominance in that area, and also became the head of the Board of War and Ordnance, responsible for the logistical support of the Continental Army. After the defeat in the Battle of Long Island, John was part of the delegation summoned by British General Howe to the Staten Island Peace talks. The talks failed, as Howe refused to consider the possibility of independence. In truth, Howe was more concerned with personal gain from the war than British advantage.

John signed the Declaration while laboring on the Model Treaty to enlist the aid of France in trade and commercial ventures. He traveled to the French court with Benjamin Franklin, not confident that America could win the war on her own, yet not trusting the French to be firm a firm ally. The new nation had to be careful not to offend French colonial interests. His efforts proved pivotal as the French navy assisted the Continental Army in the struggle at Yorktown.

John tried to gain recognition early for the new nation with the Dutch and the Russians. While procuring some assistance from the Dutch, he wasn’t successful in getting either power to declare for the Americans, fearing the might of the British navy.

As the victory at Yorktown sent shock waves through Europe, John was still abroad and was present with Franklin as the Treaty of Paris ending the war was signed. Adams was instrumental in gaining concessions from the British regarding fishing rights off Newfoundland for the new nation, to the consternation of the French, who had tried and failed to gain similar rights.  The French had designs upon the new nation, and attempted to lodge a complaint against Adams with the Continental Congress, when he insisted on complete independence in the treaty, not beholden to any nation. The attempt failed. On September 3, 1783, the treaty was signed and American independence was recognized.

In 1785, he became minister to Great Britain from the new nation of the United States of America. He served with distinction in this capacity, and then returned home in 1788. He was elected Vice President of the United States under the new constitution. He was re-elected in 1792, and in 1796 became president of the United States, defeating Thomas Jefferson. Adams was not a committed Federalist, and often felt marginalized as Vice President under Washington. He opposed Hamilton’s ideas regarding a national bank, and won the presidency by a narrow margin. With some of his policies becoming unpopular, the press had a field day – something which hasn’t stopped to this day – to the point where Thomas Jefferson, his opponent, felt compelled to step in and admonish the newspapers.

Gentlemen, you do not know that man— there is not upon earth a more perfectly honest man than John Adams. Concealment is no part of his character— of that, he is utterly incapable. It is not in his nature to meditate anything that he would not publish to the world. The measures of the general government are a fair subject for a difference of opinion— but do not found your opinions on the notion that there is the smallest spice of dishonesty, moral or political, in the character of John Adams, for I know him well, and I repeat— that a man more perfectly honest never issued from the hands of his Creator.” – Thomas Jefferson

L. Carroll Judson. A Biography of the Signers of the Declaration of Independence, and of Washington and Patrick Henry / With an appendix, containing the Constitution of the United States, and other documents (Kindle Locations 6465-6469).

His administration, however, became unpopular, and at the expiration of his term the democratic party triumphed, and he retired to Quincy, to once more enjoy the long lost comforts of retirement. Much has been written upon the causes that produced the political overthrow of Mr. Adams. To my mind, the solution is brief and plain. His cabinet was not of his own choosing— he was too independent to bend to party management— he opposed the humiliating demands of the then self-styled democratic France— he advocated, most earnestly, the augmentation of the navy of the United States, and recommended the law for suppressing the venality of the press. In the two first points, he was impolitic as the head of a party— in the two next, he did what all now acknowledge to be right— and in the last, he took the wrong method to correct one of the most alarming evils of that day— an evil that still hangs over our country like an incubus.

L. Carroll Judson. A Biography of the Signers of the Declaration of Independence, and of Washington and Patrick Henry / With an appendix, containing the Constitution of the United States, and other documents (Kindle Locations 6471-6477).

In retirement, John Adams kept his own counsel, not opposing or denouncing any of Jefferson’s moves as president – in fact, he and his son John Quincy crossed party lines to support Jefferson’s Louisiana Purchase. However, relations between Jefferson and Adams grew frosty during the period of 1801-1812. In the end, they reconciled. They resumed a lively correspondence of 158 letters that remain a chronicle of the founding fathers. However, Jefferson declined to engage in a political discussion, and so the letters remain silent on many topics that might fascinate historians.

In one of the oddest coincidences in history, Adams and Jefferson died on the same day, July 4, 1826. “But a few hours previous, the immortal spirit of the illustrious Jefferson had left its prison of clay, thrown off its mortal coil, and perhaps took its kindred in its flight, and they together “ascended in essence to an ecstatic meeting with the friends they had loved and lost, and whom they should still love and never lose,” there to enjoy, through the rolling ages of eternity, the blissful scenes of angelic purity— the smiles and favours of their Saviour and their God.

L. Carroll Judson. A Biography of the Signers of the Declaration of Independence, and of Washington and Patrick Henry / With an appendix, containing the Constitution of the United States, and other documents (Kindle Locations 6508-6511).

Mr. Adams was a plain man; low in stature, not graceful in his movements, and was sometimes abrupt and repulsive. His manners were rather austere and unbending in public, but in the social circle, with his relatives and friends, he was familiar, pleasing and entertaining. He was not partial to ceremonious etiquette, and was averse to pedantry. Plain strong common sense he practised and admired. He spoke his sentiments freely, and could never have been transformed into a technical politican, even had he enjoyed the magic advantages of modern schools. His open frankness was proverbial, and he often alluded to it as one of his failings.

L. Carroll Judson. A Biography of the Signers of the Declaration of Independence, and of Washington and Patrick Henry / With an appendix, containing the Constitution of the United States, and other documents (Kindle Locations 6516-6521).

Thus ends our series on the Signers of the Declaration of Independence. We have covered all 56 of them in reverse alphabetical order. Look for our next series on education in America.