Study Guide

John Adams in Alien and Sedition Acts

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John Adams

If you think of the Founding Fathers as the Avengers, poor Adams is usually considered to be Hawkeye. Everyone remembers Thomas Jefferson and George Washington as having awesome Hulk and Iron Man-like abilities…but no one ever remembers just how good John Adams was with a bow and arrow.

Did we say bow and arrow? We mean the power of his brain.

He was also a lot more useful than poor Hawkeye ever was, and it's a shame his legacy gets forgotten in the much more famous names around him. So get ready to get your Adams-knowledge on.

Adams: the Origin Story

Descended from Puritan colonists in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, John Adams was born in what's now Quincy, Massachusetts. His father had four careers: shoemaker, farmer, Congressionalist deacon, and town councilman. It's likely he would have added firefighter, ballerina, and zookeeper in there if he could. (Source)

Adams got into Harvard on scholarship at sixteen, which is so impressive it gives us a nosebleed. He graduated at twenty, and studied law with a practicing lawyer. His dad wants him to be a minister, but Adams wasn't having it. He got his Master's at Harvard and passed the bar in 1758. Underachievement wasn't in his vocabulary, obviously. (Source)

Anybody Else Not Crazy About England?

Quick refresher: the Stamp Act of 1765 was a super-unpopular act by British Parliament that taxed every single piece of paper they used. It's one of the reasons normally cited for the Revolution…even though there was no Boston Paper Party.

Adams hated this thing (like everyone around him) and wrote, "Essay on the Canon and Feudal Law" to voice his opposition. The Boston Gazette published the essay as a four part series, and the very next year the Stamp Act was repealed. (Source)

This might sound like he was a partisan, but Adams was a man of principle. After the Boston Massacre, no American would defend the British soldiers who opened fire on the crowd. Adams believed everyone had a right to representation, and in 1770 signed on to defend these guys.

That's right: Adams, a revolutionary, a Founding Father, an architect of the country, defended the perpetrators of the Boston Massacre on principle. That's some intestinal fortitude right there.

Here's the crazy thing: he won the case. Six of the eight soldiers charged were acquitted, and the other two were convicted of manslaughter. Still, Adams got hit with the hammer of public opinion, and his law practice suffered. People probably didn't want to hire a lawyer with principles.

His personal reputation was apparently enhanced, because he was elected to the Massachusetts Assembly in 1774, and he nominated George Washington to be Commander in Chief of the Continental Army the next year. We all know how that turned out.

Adams was assigned to help out Jefferson with the Declaration of Independence, and later Adams served in the Continental Congress. Post-war, he spent ten years in Europe hammering out trade treaties. In short, this was a man who had a lot to do, and he did it pretty well. You don't get to be called a "Founding Father" for nothing, after all.


In 1789, Adams ran for president, in what was a much different kind of election than we have today.

For one thing, whoever got the second most votes served as Vice President, which is how Adams ended up being the nation's first VP. He served as such for both of Washington's terms, but didn't have much say over anything.

For another, each elector voted for two people, but didn't say which was the presidential vote and which was the vice presidential vote. Think about that the next time you look at a presidential ticket.

He won the presidency in 1796, and started his term the following year. The election was a squeaker, and it put Thomas Jefferson, now a political rival of Adams, in the VP slot. (Source)

The Quasi-War, which basically amounted to an undeclared Naval war with France, led to the diplomatic nightmare that was the XYZ Affair . In short, this was a mission designed to defuse tensions with France and managed to go so spectacularly awry, it ended up doing the exact opposite.

This in turn led Adams to the biggest blunder of his presidency: the Alien and Sedition Acts.

This string of mistakes and difficulties ended up costing Adams the presidency the following year. He lost in a squeaker to Thomas Jefferson, and retired to his family farm in Quincy.

Ending a Feud

In 1812, Adams and Jefferson buried the hatchet. They never again met face to face, but they exchanged a huge amount of letters until they died. Crazy thing? They died on the same day. It seems the feud wasn't totally gone, as Adams' last words were "Thomas Jefferson still survives." (Source)

He was wrong, though. Jefferson had died a little earlier that day.

Adams' son, John Quincy Adams, became the sixth president of the United States the year before John Adams died. In a bit of irony, Quincy was elected as a Democratic-Republican, also known as Jefferson's party. That's a cold bit of rebellion right there.

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