John Adams

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Date: 1936
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Biography
Length: 8,025 words
Lexile Measure: 1290L

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About this Person
Born: October 30, 1735 in Braintree, Massachusetts, United States
Died: July 04, 1826 in Quincy, Massachusetts, United States
Nationality: American
Occupation: President (Government)
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Adams, John (Oct. 19, 1735 - July 4, 1826), second president of the United States, was of the fourth generation from Henry Adams, the first of the family to emigrate to America. This Henry was of yeoman stock, copyholder of the manor of Barton St. David, Somerset County, England. He married (c. 1609) Edith, daughter of Henry Squire of Charlton Mackrell, Somerset County, and for three generations after he came to Mount Wollaston (Braintree), Mass., about 1636, his descendants remained in that town, a line of "virtuous, independent New England farmers" (Morse, p. 4), undistinguished beyond the place where they lived. In the third generation John Adams (1691-1760) married Susanna Boylston, of a family prominent in the medical history of Massachusetts, and their eldest son was John, born at Braintree. On graduating from Harvard College in 1755 he taught school at Worcester with thoughts of becoming a minister; but "frigid John Calvin" was not to his liking and he had growing doubt on some "disputed points" of doctrine. So he took up the study of law under James Putnam, in the conviction that "the study and practice of law . . . does not dissolve the obligations of morality or of religion" (Works, I, 32). He was presented for admission to the Boston bar, Nov. 6, 1758, by Jeremiah Gridley, a leader in the profession, and attorney general of the province. His law practice grew slowly; he took an interest in town matters; and he wrote for the newspapers on public affairs. He married, Oct. 25, 1764, Abigail, daughter of Rev. William and Elizabeth (Quincy) Smith, of Weymouth, a marriage which greatly widened his connections with prominent families of Massachusetts. In mind and character Mrs. Adams was a worthy partner throughout his career. In 1765 he contributed to the Boston Gazette a number of essays, "written at random, weekly, without any preconceived plan," which were published as "A Dissertation on the Canon and Feudal Law" (Ibid., IX, 332). The Stamp Act gave him his first real opportunity and the resolutions of protest he prepared for Braintree were followed throughout Massachusetts. This led to his association with Gridley and James Otis in presenting Boston's memorial against the closing of the courts and opened his long contest with the lieutenant-governor, Thomas Hutchinson. Adams disapproved of the Stamp Act riots, but opposed the act on legal grounds, arguing that it was invalid because the colonists had never consented to it. Early in 1768 he removed to Boston, occupying the "White House," Brattle Square, and was engaged to defend John Hancock, charged with smuggling; Corbet, on a question of impressment and manslaughter; and Capt. Preston, on a technical charge of murder. Such important cases connected him with the patriotic cause, and he declined an appointment as advocate general in the court of admiralty, rightly regarding it as a step to draw him from that association. His conduct was guided by law and he boasted that he had the only complete set of the British statutes-at-large in Boston, or even in the colonies.

Elected to the General Court as a representative of Boston he served a year and for reasons of health removed to Braintree in the spring of 1771, to pursue law and farming, but found it advisable again to take a house in Queen Street, Boston. Devoting himself to the law he soon occupied a leading place at the bar, but political events forced him into public life. The destruction of tea in Boston harbor he considered "the grandest event which has yet happened since the controversy with Britain opened" (Ibid., IX, 333), yet he was again opposed to mob outbreaks. The Boston Port Act he condemned, and because of his general attitude on the controversy with Great Britain, he was chosen, June 17, 1774, one of the delegates from Massachusetts to the first Congress of the colonies, known later as the Continental Congress. His position on measures to be taken had not become fixed, though he saw independence as a possibility, and dreaded it. Before reaching Philadelphia he learned that Massachusetts was regarded as inclined to be dictatorial and infected with independence. Recognizing that the Congress would not take an extreme position and restraining publicly his impatience while recording it in his private letters, he served as a member of the committee to prepare a petition to the King; on a second to draft a declaration of rights, in which he urged unsuccessfully a recognition of "natural rights," and wrote the fourth section on taxation, representation, and consent to the regulation of external commerce; he favored non-importation. With not a little disappointment at the outcome of the Congress, Adams returned to Massachusetts, sat in the provincial congress, was chosen to the council, and for some months, indeed until the battle of Lexington, as "Novanglus" carried on a controversy in the press with Daniel Leonard ("Massachusettensis") on the origin of the dispute with Great Britain. "The language is rather energetic than elegant," wrote the grandson of Adams, "and the feeling is more cherished than the rhetoric" (Ibid., I, 166).

In this interval he had opportunity to learn the disadvantages under which the province suffered from the want of an organized government, and in the second Congress, supported by instructions from the Massachusetts Assembly to concert measures for establishing American liberty on a permanent basis, secure from attack from Great Britain, he pointed out the probable necessity of forming a confederacy of separate states, each with its own government; but he found the Congress, while feeling the "spirit of war" more intimately than before, conservative and suspicious of New England, especially of Massachusetts. He opposed unsuccessfully another petition to the King, and served on committees to prepare an address to the people of Ireland, to draft instructions to Washington, for whose appointment to command he was largely responsible, to reply to Lord North's resolution of Feb. 20, 1775, and to consider equipping vessels to take enemy ships--the beginning of a navy. In July his policy had taken form: "We ought immediately to dissolve all Ministerial Tyrannies and Custom houses, set up Governments of our own like that of Connecticut in all the colonies, confederate together like an indissoluble Band for mutual defence, and open our Ports to all Nations immediately" (Warren-Adams Letters, I, 75). Encountering opposition, both in Congress and in his own delegation, he could not gain all he desired, and, accepted and feared by the conservatives as a leader for independence, he could only await the march of events which seemed to favor his propositions. His impatience became known through two intercepted letters, which proved for a time embarrassing without in the end reducing his influence. As colony after colony applied to Congress for advice on government Adams used the opening to advance his views, suggesting the adoption of a form as nearly resembling that which had existed as circumstances would permit, to be framed by colony conventions and submitted to the people if necessary. A governor, council, and representatives were familiar instruments and easily adaptable. In October he was appointed chief justice of the superior court of Massachusetts and accepted; but he never sat upon the bench and from pressure of occupation, Feb. 10, 1777, he resigned the office.

Early in December 1775 he obtained leave to return to Massachusetts, where he sat in the council and gained a knowledge of local opinion. He returned to Congress, Feb. 9, 1776. In that month appeared Paine's Common Sense, advocating a plan of government which Adams sought to counteract by his Thoughts on Government, originally prepared for the delegates of North Carolina, but published, at first anonymously, to meet a wider demand. In March he secured the adoption of recommendations to promote the production of flax, cotton, and wool, the establishing of societies for the improvement of agriculture, manufactures, and commerce, and for making steel and sail-cloth. By May Congress was persuaded to make a general recommendation, that where no adequate government had been established such a one should be adopted as in the opinion of the representatives of the people should "best conduce to the happiness and safety of their constituents in particular and America in general" (Works, I, 217). To this recommendation Adams prepared a preamble (Journals of the Continental Congress, IV, 357-58), which Duane called a "machine for the fabrication of independence," and which Adams thought was independence itself (Works, I, 18). The way was now open for the final act. Richard Henry Lee's motion for independence, foreign alliances, and a confederation was laid before Congress June 7 and seconded by Adams. Committees were provided for on June 11 to prepare a declaration of independence and a plan of treaties with foreign powers, and Adams was appointed on both. Of the plan of treaties, for trade and not alliance, he was the author, but not of the instructions to a negotiator under it. To the text of the declaration he contributed nothing of importance, but to him fell the severer task of defending it in its passage through Congress. "He was the pillar of its support on the floor of Congress," Jefferson wrote in 1813, "its ablest advocate and defender against the multifarious assaults it encountered" (The Writings of Thomas Jefferson, ed. by P. L. Ford, 1898, IX, 377-78). Stockton, of New Jersey, called him "the Atlas of American independence."

Meantime (June 13) he had been placed on the newly created Board of War, with engrossing duties; reported the (British) Articles of War, and rules for the navy; met Lord Howe at the Staten Island conference. He also drafted the credentials of the Commissioners to France and secured a committee to establish a military academy in the army. Worn down by continual application, anxious for the condition of his family, and wishing to confer with his constituents, he left Philadelphia Oct. 13, returning Feb. 1, 1777, when Congress was sitting in Baltimore. He served on a number of important committees--appeals, neutrality, Du Coudray, evacuation of Ticonderoga, Saratoga convention--and took part in the debates on currency, regulation of prices, French loan, foreign officers and confederation, trusted as a member free from the divisions which pervaded and hampered the Congress. Wearied by the disputes over promotions in the army, he expressed the hope to Greene that Congress would elect annually all the general officers, so that some great men should be obliged to serve their country in some other capacity, better adapted to their genius, a proposition cited against him many years after. The news of Burgoyne's surrender reached Congress Nov. 3, eight days after Adams had left that body never, as it proved, to return. He was not involved in the Conway cabal against Washington, but believed it wise to have a general ready, should any chance remove or incapacitate Washington.

On Nov. 21 Deane was recalled from France, and on the 28th Adams was elected commissioner to France. That did not prevent his reëlection on Dec. 4 to Congress. On Feb. 13, 1778, he embarked on the frigate Boston with his son, John Quincy Adams, then ten years old. After six weeks at sea they landed at Bordeaux, to learn that France had recognized the American States, entered into treaties of amity and commerce with them, and that war between France and Great Britain was regarded as inevitable. Adams reached Paris, Apr. 8, and took quarters in the same house with Franklin. He found the commissioners much divided by disputes which the recall of Deane had not ended, and sought to be neutral. "It is no part of my business to quarrel with anybody without cause; it is no part of my duty to differ with one party or another, let it give offence to whom it will" (Works, III, 139). He took upon himself to introduce orderly system in correspondence and accountability in money matters, lived simply, taking a somewhat exaggerated view of the expense of the other commissioners, and in May explained to Samuel Adams the need of an entirely new organization of the foreign mission of the States, framing a plan which would, if adopted, in all probability deprive him of office. Franklin agreed in his recommendations.

In the meantime a loan in France or Holland was considered necessary and Adams began the long series of letters on European affairs that form so large a part of his dispatches to Congress. In spite of the good resolutions he had brought with him to France, he conceived a jealousy--to ripen later--of French policy and its dangers to America, which colored his relations with that court, with his colleagues, and with their followers. Yet he confessed that the French ministry was reserved to all three of the commissioners and therefore could have no personal animus toward him. He became restive and distrustful of his associates. "There is no man here that I dare trust" (February 1779, Works, III, 188). Believing that common report belittled him, he belittled himself, and Deane's Address to the People of America (November 1778) roused him to fury; he wished to carry the matter to the French ministry, when he learned that Franklin had been appointed sole plenipotentiary, and that he himself had become a private citizen, his own suggestion having been adopted by Congress. Unwilling to remain in Europe without appointment, he embarked (Mar. 22, 1779), at Nantes on the Alliance, but was detained by the French government until the middle of June, that he might accompany the French minister to the United States in the Sensible. They arrived at Boston, Aug. 2, and seven days later he was chosen to represent Braintree in the convention called to frame a constitution for Massachusetts. The plan submitted to the convention was largely his, but he was called away before final action was taken. Congress, in response to an intimation from Gérard, the French minister, had spent much time on instructions for a minister to negotiate peace. On Sept. 25 both Adams and Jay were nominated, and on Sept. 26 both were also nominated to negotiate treaties with Spain; but on Sept. 27 Jay, believed to be not opposed to French plans, received the Spanish mission, and Adams, aided by a commendation of his conduct by Vergennes, the peace negotiation. Adams was also appointed to negotiate a commercial treaty with Great Britain and to represent the United States of America at the Court of St. James's.

Embarking on the Sensible, Nov. 13, with his two sons John and Charles, he landed at Ferrol Dec. 8, making the journey to Paris by land. He reached that city, Feb. 5, and the French ministry advised him, against his own judgment, to keep his mission secret for a time. Presented to the King, Mar. 7, Adams was again disappointed in not being publicly recognized. In his enforced inaction he wrote freely to Congress on European politics, contributed American news to the Mercure de France, and, at the instance of Vergennes, gave intelligence of American affairs direct to the minister. Neither Congress nor Adams had informed Franklin of the peace mission, and when Vergennes took exception to Adams's defense of a financial measure of Congress, deemed hostile to the interests of French holders of Continental paper, Adams found himself in a delicate situation, acting overzealously and independently of Franklin, and disavowed by Vergennes. He thought that Franklin had interfered with him instead of giving support, and his jealousy of French intentions increased. On his asking again that public announcement of his commission be made, Vergennes threatened to carry the question to Congress, thus strengthening Adams's suspicions of bad faith, since he knew that Vergennes could reach Congress through the French minister at Philadelphia and work against him. Adams gave to Vergennes his reasons for believing that Great Britain desired peace and added his conviction that greater naval and military exertions on the part of France would favor the Americans. So indiscreet a suggestion, made without instructions and on a matter clearly within Franklin's province, had the result that Vergennes ended all intercourse with Adams and sought to have his mission, at least in part, revoked. Without doubting his attachment to independence and the alliance, Vergennes thought a less unbending commissioner would be more promising in peace parleys.

Adams went to Holland (July 27) without the endorsement of the French court, to test the possibility of a loan for the States. A threat of war from Great Britain put an end to any hope of success; but he formed wide connections, wrote much on the situation of the Dutch, and gained useful knowledge of banking methods in that country. Congress had long been divided on foreign affairs and, while it endorsed the opinion of Vergennes on the inexpediency of communicating Adams's powers to Great Britain, refused to accede to the minister's wish that Adams be curbed and placed under the direction of France. On Dec. 29, 1780, it made Adams minister to the United Provinces in place of Laurens, and authorized him to join the newly formed league of armed neutrality. He could at that time hold out no hope of assistance in any shape from the Dutch republic, for he could not be recognized, French influence was against him, and his memorials were returned. Nor could the Americans expect any present advantage from the armed neutrality--a "sublime bubble" he termed it--however useful the principle of free ships making free goods might prove to a neutral America in the future.

Summoned to Paris by Vergennes in July 1781, he learned of a proposed peace or armistice with Great Britain through the mediation of Russia and Austria, and looked upon it as a clumsy trick. For Great Britain asked two preliminary and impossible conditions: that the United States should break with France, and that they should return to their obedience to their former ruler. Adams believed that the powers offering mediation should first acknowledge the independence of the States, or at least receive a minister plenipotentiary from them. Returning to Amsterdam in August, he received a new commission for peace (dated June 15, 1781), naming four associated commissioners; and later came a revocation (July 12) of his commission to treat with Great Britain on commerce. Welcoming the larger commission he regretted the revocation of his commercial powers as ill-judged, making it impossible in 1782 to take advantage of a liberal trade policy in the British ministry. The revocation had been moved in Congress by Madison and carried with only New England opposed. Adams was now laid low for weeks by a nervous fever and on recovery learned that Congress had, Aug. 16, commissioned him minister plenipotentiary to the United Provinces, with instructions to negotiate a treaty of alliance, but enjoining him on all occasions to confer in the most confidential manner with the French representative at The Hague. The peace commissioners were also directed ultimately to govern themselves by the advice and opinion of the French minister (Wharton, Diplomatic Correspondence, IV, 505). The measures in Congress and these instructions show how far Vergennes had succeeded in making the negotiations for peace subservient to French influence, and led Adams to consider resigning his mission. The surrender of Cornwallis and the arrogance of Great Britain turned the favor of the Dutch toward America, without, however, furthering a loan by the Dutch bankers. In October 1781, after months of effort, less than three hundred pounds had been subscribed and the bonds were held by not more than three persons. Encouraged by improved political conditions and with full sympathy of the French minister at The Hague, in January 1782 Adams demanded of the ministers of the republic and the deputies of the city a reply to his memorial of Apr. 19 asking for recognition. Three months later he was formally recognized, whereupon he submitted a plan of a treaty, which was signed in October, and made proposals for and secured the first loan.

While he was thus engaged, Great Britain had made at Paris advances toward peace, and, since June, Franklin and Jay had been in what they called the "skirmishing business" of their commission. Not until the end of September did the British representative, Oswald, show satisfactory powers to treat with the thirteen United States of America. Adams was then summoned to Paris. He arrived Oct. 26, and Jay, whose Spanish experience had made him suspicious of French designs, found him "a very agreeable coadjutor." Jay was willing and anxious to treat separately with Great Britain; Adams agreed with him; and Franklin, with some proper reluctance because of his closer ties with the French minister, accepted the decision. The articles of a treaty had been agreed upon before Adams's arrival, but his contributions to an agreement were essential. On the questions of boundaries, especially on the northeast, the claims of indemnity to the Loyalists and the fisheries, he prepared articles, and it was he who suggested that Congress recommend to the States to open their courts for the recovery of just debts, a suggestion welcomed by the British negotiators. Refusing to sign articles which did not meet his requirements as to the fisheries, he established, nevertheless, rights and liberties that were important for the new nation and essential to New England. On Nov. 30 the provisional articles were signed without the knowledge of the French court and in the event proved no hindrance to a general pacification or to the peace treaties of France or Spain. Not until August 1783 were the provisional articles ratified by Great Britain. Offered without change as a definite treaty, thus making any new concessions by the British ministry improbable, they were signed Sept. 3, 1783. Had a minister of the United States been then in London a fair agreement on a treaty of commerce might have been reached. Adams, with Jay and Franklin, had been appointed (May 1, 1783) to negotiate such a treaty, but a change of ministry prevented a favorable issue, and Adams, in England for his health, was obliged to return to Holland to negotiate a new loan, in which he was successful in spite of less favorable conditions. The return of Jay to America made a new commercial commission necessary and on May 7, 1784, Jefferson was added.

In the summer of 1784, Mrs. Adams and their daughter joining him, Adams took a house at Auteuil and on Feb. 24, 1785, he was appointed envoy to the Court of St. James's. He went to London in May, was received by the King, and had interviews with the Minister for Foreign Affairs on questions arising from the treaty--such as surrender of the Western posts, compensation for slaves and property, recovery of debts, and the treatment of refugees or Loyalists. The attitude of court and ministry discouraged advances, and the divided interests of the United States made it difficult for the British to have confidence in the execution of the treaty of 1783 or in the permanence of the confederation. The serious divisions in the States led Adams to study principles of government. Taking his text from a letter of Turgot to Dr. Price referring to the American States, he wrote in three volumes Defence of the Constitutions of the United States of America against the Attack of Mr. Turgot (1787). The first volume appeared in America while the convention for framing a constitution was assembling. Its timeliness gave it vogue; but it is chiefly remembered for the unjustifiable partisan interpretation given to it in later years as an attempt to favor a monarchy. Seeing no prospect of further success in England, Adams asked to resign and letters of recall were sent in February 1788. Congress thanked him for his "patriotism, perseverance, integrity, and diligence" (Works, I, 438).

Hardly had he landed in Massachusetts when he was elected to the Congress, but never took his seat in that dying body. In the new government under the Constitution Washington was unanimously chosen president, but the votes for vice-president were for political reasons scattered, and Adams, receiving 34 out of 69 votes, was chosen. Only after some years did Adams complain of the stratagem and of Hamilton's conduct of it. "My country has in its wisdom," he wrote to his wife, "contrived for me the most insignificant office that ever the invention of man contrived or his imagination conceived" (Ibid., I, 460). An eager debater, he was reduced to silence, and he could exert influence only through the casting vote in a Senate equally divided, a vote he had occasion to exercise more frequently than any of his successors in office--no less than twenty times--and though not a party man, always on the Federalist side. Thus he decided the president's power of removal from office, commercial reprisal on Great Britain, and the policy of neutrality; supported Washington's administration; and aided Hamilton's financial measures, winning to that extent the favor of the Secretary of the Treasury, who had not concealed a certain want of confidence in the Vice-President. Watching the progress of the French Revolution Adams could see only failure in the want of proper government and in Discourses on Davila, published in the United States Gazette in 1791, he drew lessons from the past history of France. Not only did Hamilton disapprove of these essays, as tending to weaken the government, but Jefferson saw in them a leaning to hereditary monarchy and aristocracy, and to counteract the effect endorsed Paine's Age of Reason. Unknown to his father, John Quincy Adams answered Paine and widened the separation between Jefferson and John Adams, to whom the authorship of the reply was generally ascribed. In the second election (1792) Adams received the Federalist vote, becoming again vice-president; and in the election of 1796 Hamilton once more intervened, intending to make Thomas Pinckney president and to keep Adams in the vice-presidency. The plan failed of its purpose, but it drew sufficient votes to mortify Adams and to make Jefferson vice-president. Unnecessary as the act was, it exasperated Adams beyond possible reconciliation with Hamilton and was an unfortunate beginning for Adams's administration, which seemed to encounter Hamilton's hostility at every turn.

No change of cabinet officers followed Adams's accession to the presidency, nor was there made any sweeping change in the minor offices. The election brought Adams nearer to Jefferson than to Hamilton, for Adams had shown a sensibility to the candor of Jefferson's friends during the contest, and had learned of personal sentiments of Jefferson toward him of a conciliatory nature. Indeed Jefferson had written a friendly letter to Adams (Dec. 28, 1796. Jefferson, Writings, VII, 94) which Madison, to whose discretion it was entrusted, never delivered, though he allowed its general terms to become known. Hamilton compared this approach to the lying down together of the lion and the lamb, and was skeptical of the result; but added that he trusted Adams's real good sense and integrity would be a sufficient shield against his possible vanity (Hamilton, Works, 1851, VI, 206).

Adams's inaugural speech gave pledges to maintain the policy of his predecessor, but seemed "temporizing" to the Federalists. Relations with the French republic demanded immediate attention. Jay's treaty and the recall of Monroe had so worked upon the French Directory that it refused to receive or even to permit his successor, Charles C. Pinckney, to remain on French territory. Sincerely desirous of renewed relations between the two countries, Adams called upon Jefferson the day before inauguration to offer him the mission. Jefferson declined, nor did he warm to the suggestion of Madison in his place. The President immediately after inauguration consulted Wolcott and found that to pursue his plan would mean a break in his cabinet and its reorganization. Later Hamilton made the same suggestion, naming Jefferson or Madison, Pinckney, and Cabot, and favored an extraordinary mission as necessary to learn what redress the French expected. In spite of this apparent harmony in plan the Republicans felt that the administration of Adams might turn against them, surrounded as he was by ministers who had been made by Hamilton and who looked to him and not to the President as the leader of the party and of Federalist policy. Jefferson thought the followers of Hamilton to be only a "little less hostile" to Adams than to himself; but it cannot be shown that the Jeffersonians excited Adams's suspicions against Hamilton, nor that they were to be held responsible for Pickering's dismissal, as the latter claimed. At the same time the Jefferson party became more and more antagonistic to Adams's administration and almost from its beginning opposed its measures and the man held responsible for them.

A special session of Congress was called for May 15, but before it assembled news came that the French Directory had declared pirates all Americans serving on British vessels. On Apr. 14 Adams framed questions for his cabinet on the situation with France, and on the 15th other questions on his message to be submitted to Congress (Gibbs, I, 501, 502). McHenry sent both lists to Hamilton who prepared replies (Steiner, Life and Correspondence of James McHenry, 1907, pp. 216, 213), which McHenry practically made his own (Ibid., p. 222). The cabinet was against war, and united in support of a new mission and measures of defense in case negotiation should fail. The message to Congress was firm and dignified, favoring peace and means of defense in militia and navy, and received general approbation. Adams wished one member of the mission to be taken from the opposition and suggested Gerry, but met with no support from his cabinet. The names first sent to Congress were Pinckney, Marshall, and Dana; when Dana declined to serve, Gerry was added. William Vans Murray was appointed minister to The Hague in place of John Quincy Adams, a measure later to prove important. The commission sailed for France, there not to be admitted to an audience with the Directory, and to be met by a demand of a bribe and loan, impossible conditions which led to the return of Marshall and Pinckney; Gerry remained. Wishing to be prepared for a failure of negotiation, the President, Jan. 24, 1798, asked his cabinet to advise on war, an embargo, or changed relations with European powers. McHenry, as before, sent the questions to Hamilton and his reply seems to have formed the opinion of Wolcott, Pickering, and McHenry (McHenry, p. 291), recommending a vigorous policy and also closer connections with Great Britain. The latter Adams could not accept. The first intimation of the situation in France reached the United States in March 1798; the failure of the mission was announced to Congress Mar. 19, and Gerry was directed to return but delayed. On June 21, after Marshall's arrival, Adams sent a message to Congress saying: "I will never send another minister to France, without assurances that he will be received, respected and honored, as the representative of a great, free, powerful and independent nation" (Adams, Works, IX, 159). The country was aroused.

Without declaring war, Congress declared the treaties with France null and void, increased the army, ordered the construction or purchase of new ships, and created a navy department. The President, having in mind a defensive system, favored a navy, but Congress, under the influence of Hamilton, planned a large provisional army in case of actual invasion (May 28), and, in imitation of British acts, passed the Alien (July 6) and Sedition (July 14) laws, of doubtful expedience or necessity. For the command of the provisional army only one person was considered. On July 2 the President nominated Washington, and the Senate confirmed the nomination on the following day. The Secretary of War went to Mount Vernon with the commission and arranged that the general officers should be such as were acceptable to Washington. Pickering urged Hamilton for the second place and, after some hesitation between Pinckney and Knox, Washington named the three in the following order, Hamilton, Pinckney, Knox, and the Senate so confirmed them. The President believed that by right Knox should come first and Pinckney second, and sought to rank them thus. On Washington's threat to resign, Adams yielded, but from that time he distrusted the two members of the cabinet--Pickering and McHenry--who were closest to Hamilton. By defeating the appointment of Adams's son-in-law, William S. Smith, to the army, Pickering did not fail to invite the displeasure of the President. While this difference continued--it was not settled till the end of September--addresses from all parts of the country poured in upon the President, and his replies, all of his own composition, kept the public feeling awakened to the dangers of the situation.

Gerry landed at Boston, Oct. 1, and made report of his mission to Adams, then at Quincy. Not only did he convince the President that he was without blame in remaining, but he brought intimation of a wish on Talleyrand's part to renew diplomatic intercourse. From Murray, at The Hague, was received about the same time a message to the same effect, which had been sent by Talleyrand to Pichon, the French representative in the Netherlands, and was intended for Murray's notice. Not yet willing to meet these indirect advances, the President asked Pickering to consult the cabinet on two points: whether it would be expedient for the President to recommend to the consideration of Congress a declaration of war against France; and whether any further proposals of negotiation could be made with safety, or with any advantage, in Europe or America. Might not the President say, in order to keep the channels of negotiation open, that he would nominate a minister to the French republic, ready to embark on proper assurances from that country? The President wished in his message to say that he was ready at all times to appoint or receive a minister to treat of the differences between France and the United States. The cabinet note, prepared in consultation with Hamilton, sought to shut off all possibility of a new mission. Adams modified his wish so as to read: "But to send another minister without more determinate assurances that he would be received, would be an act of humiliation to which the United States ought not to submit" (Ibid., IX, 130), and outlined in general terms the steps necessary to restore intercourse. The door was left open for a peaceful solution, but vigorous preparations for war were essential. Not satisfied with this outcome, Hamilton exerted his influence on Congress. By this time Adams was quite conscious of Hamilton's dominance in the party, cabinet, and Congress, and of his effort to bring about war with France, a large standing army, and an attack upon Spanish America. Without consulting any one, but acting wholly within his right, on Feb. 18, Adams sent to the Senate the nomination of W. Vans Murray, then minister to the Netherlands, to be minister to the French republic. The cabinet felt outraged. The Senate intended to reject the nomination and Sedgwick, of the committee reporting on it, took the unusual step of personally remonstrating with the President, a step he was unable to defend on correct principles. To meet some of the objections raised and before action was had on Murray, Adams proposed a peace commission of three members, not to depart on their mission without further instructions. This bold and unexpected act brought to his support the press of the country and neither Hamilton nor Congress could oppose it, however ardently the Federalists resented it. Adams realized that he could place little confidence in two of his cabinet--Pickering and McHenry--now completely under the influence of Hamilton, and for his own good he should have replaced them. Instead of this he said he counted upon their coöperation and to his cost permitted them to remain in office. By his long absence at Quincy he gave them full opportunity to work against his policy. Fries's rebellion in March was a local incident which in the event produced feeling against Adams; and the Alien and Sedition laws, for which he had no direct responsibility and which he refused to enforce as the Federalists wished, added to his unpopularity. To be prepared for probable concessions by France, in August he agreed with his cabinet on instructions to the commissioners, but in his absence the cabinet determined to suspend the mission until he could be personally consulted. They believed the restoration of the Bourbons at hand; Adams had no faith in such a prediction. Arriving, Oct. 10, at Trenton, to which place the government had retired because of the infection at Philadelphia, the President found there his cabinet, Ellsworth of the French mission, and Hamilton, and felt that a struggle for control was at hand. Knowing that France would receive the mission, he went over the instructions with his cabinet on the evening of the 15th, and the next day gave orders for the completion of the papers and for the departure of the mission by Nov. 1. Again he had surprised his advisers through an independent act by which they believed themselves to have been deceived and outraged. By so doing he antagonized Hamilton's influence, prevented a war with France, preserved the neutrality of the United States, and lost a renomination, which he did not then desire and for which he had laid no plans. Regarding him as a traitor to the party, the leaders sought means to win the election without him. At last convinced that he could no longer retain certain members of his cabinet bent upon thwarting his policy and plotting his exclusion, Adams had a stormy interview with McHenry, the least efficient member, who promptly resigned. A few days later, Pickering, the chief sinner in disloyalty to his chief, was given an opportunity to resign, but refused it and on May 12 was discharged from office. Wolcott, as much involved as his colleagues, was not suspected and remained, serving as an informer. In the appointment of John Marshall and Samuel Dexter the cabinet gained, but nothing could prevent the bitter war made upon Adams by the Federalist leaders, now implacably bent not only upon defeating but upon discrediting him to the limit of their power. The pardon of three men condemned to death for participation in the Pennsylvania "insurrection" increased the Federalist animus. Hamilton's illogical and ill-judged Letter concerning the Public Conduct and Character of John Adams displayed at large his own animosity and the division in the party. It was based upon information derived from Wolcott, had been first submitted for his revision, and appeared in the last week of October, too late to permit of reply before election. Adams, with no party behind him, received 65 to Jefferson's 73 votes, and Hamilton was obliged to admit that the body of the people of New England favored him. Hamilton's tactics had merely resulted in the election of Jefferson whom he disliked far more than Adams. Immediately after the election Wolcott sent in his resignation, to take effect at the close of the year; but he in no wise abated his intrigues against the President, to serve under whom, he said, would be "incompatible with honor and a suitable respect" to his own character (Wolcott to Pickering, Dec. 28, 1800, Gibbs, II, 461). He even obtained from the State Department material to enable Pickering to attack his chief. Adams never knew or suspected Wolcott's hostility, or treachery, and appointed him to a judgeship in the circuit court of the United States. Peace with France was concluded at Morfontaine, Sept. 30, 1800, and was, with the exception of one article, accepted by the Senate. One of the last acts of Congress reorganized the national judiciary system and created a large number of life appointments. The President made the appointments on grounds of public policy and by so doing incurred the increased enmity of Jefferson.

On the expiration of his term of office and after twenty-six years passed in public employment, in a great variety of important services, Adams retired to Quincy under a weight of odium which he could not accept as merited. The legislature of Massachusetts welcomed him, however, as did the town of Quincy. Never a strong partisan, he saw the Federalists lose their influence as a party and their opponents attain almost unquestioned power, and he was held to be the cause of the defeat of the one and the success of the other. After a quarter of a century of great and varied activity he was doomed to as long a period of almost complete isolation from public affairs. His active mind refused to rest, retaining an interest in public questions, which grew in strength as he sympathetically watched the career of his son, John Quincy Adams. At times he was aroused to take part in political discussions and corresponded freely with a few of his friends. The affair of the Chesapeake in June 1807 brought both the Adamses to the support of the administration in maintaining the rights of America, and from the elder a vigorous examination of The Inadmissible Principles of the King of England's Proclamation of Oct. 16, 1807, on the impressment of seamen from neutral vessels. The younger Adams's vote for the embargo proved that the son was no more of a partisan than the father, and led to a series of letters from the latter to the Boston Patriot, a newspaper recently established, in explanation and defense of his own past acts, diplomatic and executive. A part of his correspondence, which extended over a period of three years, was gathered into a volume, Correspondence of the late President Adams (1809). Loosely constructed and carelessly printed in the columns of a newspaper at a time when party feeling ran high, and without arrangement or fit explanation, the series did preserve, nevertheless, important documents; but it is marked by intemperate denunciation of Hamilton and others as unjust to them as to the writer. The appointment by Madison of John Quincy Adams, regarded by the Federalists as a Republican, to be minister of the United States at St. Petersburg seemed to John Adams almost a recognition of himself, who had been so harshly dealt with by the party in power. Through the agency of Benjamin Rush he renewed relations with Jefferson, and the letters which passed between these men whom political circumstances had so often placed in opposition have an extraordinary interest. Adams turned to the history of the past and wrote on the men and events of his day, with uncertain memory, but with much that is valuable for personal characters and historical fact. Though the death of Mrs. Adams, Oct. 28, 1818, deprived him of a loved companion and saddened his later years, he was made happier by the changing public attitude. In 1820 he attended the state constitutional convention and was received with honors. As the years passed he gained in general estimation; Quincy became a place of visit, with him as its leading character. He died, July 4, 1826, a few hours after Jefferson.

His grandson, Charles Francis Adams, has described John Adams as "not tall, scarcely exceeding middle height, but of a stout, well-knit frame, denoting vigor and long life, yet as he grew old, inclining more and more to corpulence. His head was large and round, with a wide forehead and expanded brows. His eye was mild and benignant, perhaps even humorous, when he was free from emotion, but when excited, it fully expressed the vehemence of the spirit that stirred within. His presence was grave and imposing, on serious occasions, but not unbending. He delighted in social conversation, in which he was sometimes tempted to what he called rhodomontade. . . . His anger, when thoroughly roused, was, for a time, extremely violent, but when it subsided, it left no trace of malevolence behind." In 1783, on learning of Adams's appointment on the peace commission, Jefferson wrote: "He has a sound head on substantial points and I think he has integrity. . . . His dislike of all parties and all men, by balancing his prejudices, may give the same fair play to his reason as would a general benevolence of temper" (Jefferson, Writings, ed. by Ford, III, 309-10). Four years later and after more than seven months of intimacy, he added: "He is vain, irritable, and a bad calculator of the force and probable effect of the motives which govern men. This is all the ill which can possibly be said of him. He is as disinterested as the being who made him; he is profound in his views and accurate in his judgment, except where knowledge of the world is necessary to form a judgment. He is so amiable, that I pronounce you will love him if ever you become acquainted with him. He would be, as he was, a great man in Congress" (The Writings of Thomas Jefferson, ed. by H. A. Washington, 1871, II, 107). Men most hostile to Adams have united in praise of his abilities, integrity, high intentions, and unquestioned patriotism. His diplomacy showed initiative clogged by influences he had himself aroused; his administration showed statesmanship and independence. His mind was stored with much learning, usable at will; though often intemperate and extravagant in language, he was cool in action. Of undoubted courage and ambition, careful of his independence and jealous of others, he stood much alone, and so largely lost the benefit of acting with others.

Of his published writings the following are the more important: 1. Essay on Canon and Feudal Law (London, 1768) appended to The True Sentiments of America; also to Collection of State Papers (The Hague, also London, 1782; reprinted at Philadelphia, 1783). 2. Thoughts on Government (Philadelphia, 1776; Boston, 1776 and 1788). 3. Mémoire ... leurs Hautes-Puissances les Seigneurs États-Généraux des Provinces-Unies des Pays-Bas (1781; also in English, Leyden, 1781). 4. A Collection of State Papers (The Hague, 1782; reprinted at London, 1782). 5. History of the Dispute with America, an abridgment of his replies to Leonard (written in 1774, published at London, 1784. Both series were not printed in full until 1819, as Novanglus and Massachusettensis. A Dutch edition of the History appeared at Amsterdam, 1782). 6. Letters (to Dr. Calkoen, privately printed, 1786; reprinted as Twenty-Six Letters, upon Interesting Subjects, in two editions, New York, 1789). 7. A Defence of the Constitutions of Government of the United States of America (the first volume, London, 1787, reprinted, Boston, New York and Phila., 1787; with Volumes II and III, London, 1787-88; again in two editions, London, 1794, one with title History of the Principal Republics of the World; Paris, 1792; Phila., 1797). 8. A Selection of the Patriotic Addresses to the President of the United States, together with the President's Answers, presented in the year 1798 (Boston, 1798). 9. Four Letters (John and Samuel Adams, Boston, 1802). 10. Discourses on Davila (Boston, 1805). 11. The Inadmissible Principles of the King of England's Proclamation (Boston, 1809). 12. Correspondence . . . concerning the British Doctrine of Impressment (Baltimore, 1809). 13. Correspondence of the late President Adams (originally published in the Boston Patriot, Boston, 1809). 14. Correspondence between the Hon. J. Adams and the late William Cunningham (Boston, 1823. This publication was a gross violation of decency, by the son of Cunningham, who sought favors of Adams and, when denied, printed in 1811 A Letter to a Great Character abusive of the former President and based upon the letters to the father). 15. Letters of John Adams, addressed to his Wife (1841, being Volumes III and IV, supplementing Letters of Abigail Adams, 1841; the two series republished as Familiar Letters of John Adams and his wife Abigail Adams, Boston, 1876). 16. Works, 10 vols. (1850-56). 17. "Letters to Mercy Warren," 5 Massachusetts Historical Society Collections, IV, 1878. 18. "Letters" in Bulletin of the New York Public Library, April 1906. 19. "Warren-Adams Letters," 2 vols., Massachusetts Historical Society Collections, LXXII, LXXIII (1917, 1925). 20. Correspondence of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, 1812-26, selected by Paul Wilstach (1925). 21. Statesman and Friend, letters to Dr. B. Waterhouse (1927).

FURTHER READINGS:

[Charles Francis Adams, Life, being vol. I of the Works; John T. Morse, Jr., John Adams (1885); John Wood, Hist. of the Administration of John Adams (1802, repub. 1846), and A Correct Statement of the various Sources from which the Hist. was compiled (1802), being a reply to James Cheetham's A Narrative of the Suppression by Col. Burr of the Hist. of the Administration of John Adams (1802); Geo. Gibbs, Memoirs of the Administration of Washington and Adams, 6 vols.; J. H. A. Doniol, Histoire de la Participation de la France ... l'Établissement des États Unis d'Amérique (1886-99); Correa M. Walsh, Political Science of John Adams (1915); C. Warren, John Adams and Am. Constitutions (1927). A catalogue of his library was printed by the Boston Public Library in 1917.]

 

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Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|BT2310019068