John Adair

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Date: 1936
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Biography
Length: 827 words
Content Level: (Level 4)
Lexile Measure: 1250L

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About this Person
Born: January 09, 1757 in Chester County, South Carolina, United States
Died: May 19, 1840 in Mercer County, Kentucky, United States
Nationality: American
Occupation: Congressperson (U.S. federal government)
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Adair, John (Jan. 9, 1757 - May 19, 1840), soldier and politician, was the son of a native-born Scotchman, Baron William Adair, who settled in the up-country of South Carolina. There, in Chester County, John was born in time to take part in the Revolutionary War, which devastated so thoroughly this part of the South. In the course of the struggle he was made prisoner and harshly treated. Following the inevitable course of the restless frontiersman, he migrated westward and settled in Mercer County, Ky., in 1786. In this restless and rapidly developing community he found a congenial atmosphere. In 1791 he enlisted in the enterprises against the Northwest Indians, conducted by Arthur St. Clair and James Wilkinson, and was made a major. From this time on until the Indians were definitely crushed by "Mad Anthony" Wayne he was much in evidence in fighting these scourges of Kentucky. In 1791, while in command of about a hundred men, he ran into a band of Indians near Fort St. Clair, led by the famous Miami chieftain Little Turtle, and was finally worsted in the engagement that took place. Despite this reverse he was recognized as a brave fighter and for his reward he was made a lieutenant-colonel the next year. Since a military record was the surest road to military preferment among vigorous frontiersmen, he was chosen as a representative from Mercer County in the legislature in 1793 and was frequently reëlected thereafter up to 1817, serving in all nine terms. He was the Speaker of the House from 1801 to 1803. His popularity at this time was attested by the fact that a county was laid off and named for him. In 1799 he served in the constitutional convention which made a second constitution for the state.

In 1805 Adair with other Kentuckians such as John Brown and Henry Clay became a willing listener to Aaron Burr on his trip through the state. To Adair, Burr was a patriotic advance agent of the Federal Government on his way to arouse the West to take part in the contemplated war with Spain for the purpose of seizing the Southwest. Correspondence with James Wilkinson confirmed him in this view (Humphrey Marshall, History of Kentucky, II, 430). When therefore Burr was apprehended in Frankfort in 1806,a persistent but ineffectual effort was made to indict Adair also. In the hysteria that followed, Adair's reputation temporarily suffered. In 1805 he had been elected to fill out the unexpired time of John Breckinridge, but when in November of 1806, in the midst of the Burr trouble, he was defeated for the full term of six years, he immediately resigned.

The mellowing effect of a half-dozen years and the glamour of another war were necessary to restore Adair to the full affections of his fellow Kentuckians. On the outbreak of the War of 1812 he immediately volunteered and in the battle of the Thames the following year he served as an aide to Gov. Shelby. He received the praise of his superior officer and was rewarded with a brigadier-generalship in the state militia. But his particular glory came out of the battle of New Orleans, not so much because he led 1,100 Kentucky riflemen in the main conflict, as because when the struggle was over he defended another group of Kentuckians who were involved in the battle, against the charges of cowardice made by Gen. Jackson. For two years afterwards he fought Jackson in a heated correspondence and made himself an outstanding hero with Kentuckians (James Parton, Life of Andrew Jackson, II, 383-91). The people now proceeded to give him almost every important honor within their gift. In 1820 he was elected governor over three of the strongest men in the state, William Logan, Joseph Desha, and Anthony Butler. He was aided not only by his general popularity but by the position he took in the bitter struggle between the relief and anti-relief parties which had grown up during the past two years. He knew little about banks and money, but he was sure of his love for the common man. For the next four years, as the leader of the relief party, he helped to drag his state to the brink of destruction; but his broad sympathy for the people also led him into a strong advocacy of higher education, prison reform, and the abolition of imprisonment for debt. From 1831 to 1833 he was a member of the House of Representatives. He made only one speech during the two sessions and it was so inaudible that no one knew what he was advocating. The reporter guessed it was in favor of mounting some federal troops. Adair's career was not characterized by sound statesmanship but his genuine sympathy with the common people and his military exploits made him long a favorite. In 1872 the State brought his remains from Mercer County to the Frankfort Cemetery and there erected a marker to his memory.


[The facts concerning the life of Adair are scattering. In Lewis and Richard H. Collins, Hist. of Ky. (1882), there is a short sketch of his life. Humphrey Marshall, in his Hist. of Ky. (1824), a biased work in many respects, gives the best account of the Burr episode. Other works concerning his life are Jas. Parton, Life of Andrew Jackson (1860), vol II, and W. E. Connelley and E. M. Coulter, Hist. of Ky., 2 vols. (1922).]

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Gale Document Number: GALE|BT2310019111