Study Guide

John Adams in Declaration of Independence

By Thomas Jefferson

John Adams

John Adams is a huge name in early American history, and not just because there's more than one President John Adams, which gives the name an unfair advantage in history books. Like Thomas Jefferson, Adams (senior) was a major player during the building conflict leading up to the Declaration of Independence. He then served as both vice president and finally president… which is probably what he's most remembered for.

Although he was in many ways the opposite of Thomas Jefferson (in looks and personality), the two men shared ideas about the nature and purpose of government, which Adams wrote about years before the Declaration was written. A passionate, pious lawyer who loved to debate and didn't shy away from the theatrics of a courtroom or a congress, Adams was also on the Committee of Five with Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin to write the official Declaration of Independence.

Braintree to Boston Legal

Adams was the son of a respected farmer in Braintree, Massachusetts (now a suburb of Boston), and the second cousin of Samuel Adams (the Revolutionary War leader and inspiration for the beer company). He spent a few years as a teacher in Worcester after graduating from Harvard, but soon switched to law, and found that his passionate if sometimes socially inappropriate disposition was much more suited to the courtroom. *Insert the lawyer joke of your choice here. (Source)

He worked his way up to become one of the busiest lawyers in Boston, and married Abigail (Smith) Adams, who'd turn out to be a great presence and influence in his life.

Great Minds Think Alike

Adams' first public political statement was inspired by the passing of the Stamp Act in 1765. Adams wasn't convinced yet that the colonies should be independent, but he was definitely anti taxation without representation. He wrote a series of four essays published in the Boston Gazette between August and October of 1765, entitled "A Dissertation on the Canon and the Feudal Law [Nos. 1-4]." Not the most exhilarating name, to be sure, but hang in there.

Together, the essays discuss the importance of the government protecting liberty and freedom, and the failure of the older systems of tyranny (like feudalism) to do that protecting. In No. 3, Adams includes a pretty familiar-sounding idea:

Be it remembred [sic], however, that liberty must at all hazards be supported. We have a right to it, derived from our Maker. But if we had not, our fathers have earned, and bought it for us … but besides this they have a right, an indisputable, unalienable, indefeasible divine right to that most dreaded, and envied kind of knowledge, I mean of the characters and conduct of their rulers. Rulers are no more than attorneys, agents and trustees for the people; and if the cause, the interest and trust is insidiously betray'd, or wantonly trifled away, the people have a right to revoke the authority, that they themselves have deputed, and to constitute abler and better agents, attorneys and trustees. (Source)

To sum up: people have an inherent right to liberty, and if the government doesn't fulfill its duty to protect that right, then it should be replaced. Adams basically published the core idea of the most famous paragraph of the Declaration of Independence, a decade before that document was written. He also published a document known as the "Braintree Instructions", another response to the Stamp Act, in which he defends the idea of "no taxation without representation."

Take a peek:

We take it clearly therefore to be inconsistent [sic] with the Spirit of the Common Law and of the Essential Fundamentall [sic] principles of the British Constitution that we should be Subjected to any Tax imposed by the British Parliament because we are not Represented in that assembly in any sense…(Source)

Since his anger was pretty much just about the tax issue, after the Stamp Act was repealed in 1766 Adams focused on his law practice for several years. However, it's pretty clear that his political philosophy, fairly early on in his life, included some of the central ideas of the Declaration of Independence.

Inching Toward Independence

Adams got more involved with current political events in 1770, when he was the lawyer defending the British soldiers involved in the Boston Massacre (the ones who fired on the crowd).

Yes, you read that right. He was the one defending the British soldiers.

He argued that the mob had instigated the attack through their behavior. He must have done a pretty good job arguing, because most of the soldiers were fully acquitted. Even though the public wasn't happy, they didn't protest the decision, which shows you how well respected Adams was in Boston. (Source)

His defense of the soldiers, though, was more a reflection of his distaste for mob action and his duty as a lawyer than pro-British sentiment. He wasn't on board with what Parliament was trying to do. Through the early 1770s, Adams continued to discuss the importance of the preservation of liberty by the government. Finally he was elected as a Massachusetts delegate to the First Continental Congress in 1774, and again to the Second Continental Congress in 1775.

Returning to Philadelphia for the second congress, Adams' diary contains a list of things he wanted to accomplish, including, "Government to be assumed by every colony" and "Declaration of Independency." (Source)

Either Adams was psychic, or he'd finally joined the pro-independence train along with a lot of other colonial leaders. The psychic thing would be a lot more fun—and there's definitely a movie in there somewhere—but it's probably the second option.

Adams at War: Coming this July to a State House Near You

One of Adams' early moves in the Second Continental Congress was to push for George Washington to be the leader of the newly formed Continental Army, created to fight the British. There were still a number of people in Congress who were either against declaring independence or who were on the fence, but Adams by this point felt that it was the only course of action. (Source)

He eventually wrote the preamble to the Lee Resolution in June of 1776—the precursor to the Declaration of Independence—as well as being on the Committee of Five to draft and revise the Declaration itself.

Adams was made the head of the Board of War right after the Declaration was approved, but he actually spent much of the war in Europe, as did Benjamin Franklin. Adams was first sent to France as a diplomatic representative in 1778, then to the Netherlands to try and secure financial support, before joining Benjamin Franklin, John Jay, and Henry Laurens in London to negotiate the Treaty of Paris and the end of the Revolutionary War.

After the war, Adams stayed in Europe as a representative of the U.S., eventually becoming the first American minister to Great Britain in 1785 (Source). Those dinner parties must have been a little awkward. "Remember when you were part of our country, and then rebelled against us? Good times…"

President John Adams I

Adams finally returned to the U.S. in 1788 to become George Washington's Vice President, which he apparently thought was a total waste of a position. (Source)

By the time he was elected President in 1796, American relations with France had soured, and much of his presidency was focused on battling the French politically and on the seas…although he tried to make some peace with them toward the end of his term.

One of the major incidents related to the tension with France during this time was the "XYZ Affair" (1797-1798), when American diplomats were told they couldn't meet with the head of the French government without providing him a pretty hefty bribe. Shockingly, this news did not go over well in the U.S.

One of the results was the passing of the Alien and Sedition Acts in 1798, the first major anti-immigration legislation in U.S. history. The relationship between America and France was, shall we say, inconsistent for the first fifty years or so.

Adams lost the re-election campaign, although very closely, to Thomas Jefferson in 1800.

Best Frenemies

Speaking of Thomas Jefferson, one of the notable features of John Adams' life and career after 1775 is his sometimes tumultuous friendship with his presidential successor. They bonded during the Second Continental Congress, despite being opposites in demeanor and background: Adams was short, loud, middle-class, and passionate, while Jefferson was tall, wealthy, quiet, and eloquent.

They started to clash later, when the two political parties coalesced and began to duke it out. Adams was a Federalist (pro-central government), while Jefferson was a leading Democrat-Republican (pro-state power). Although their relationship took a dip during their presidencies, there was reconciliation after Jefferson left office. (Source)

The two corresponded for the rest of their lives as they retired to their respective farms, and they died within hours of each other on the same day. Legend has it that Adams' final words were "Thomas Jefferson survives." In fact Jefferson was already dead, but this was long before the age of telephones—and, even if there had been phones, the deathbed isn't really a polite time to correct someone, is it?

Conclusion: The American Adams

John Adams as president wasn't terribly popular, but as a lawyer, congressman, and diplomat he played a huge role in the formation of the United States and the creation of the Declaration of Independence. Not only was he a member of the Committee of Five to draft the document, but he'd also written about and supported many of the fundamental political ideas contained in the Declaration for the whole of his adult life.

Like many, he wasn't immediately drawn to the cause of independence, but came to the conclusion after years of dissatisfaction with the current government, and idealism about what that government could be in the future.

His son John Quincy Adams was also president in the early 19th century. That's right, the George Bushes weren't the first same-name father-son duo to both be presidents. The Adams family (not to be confused with the clan headed by Morticia and Gomez) was the first political dynasty in America.

Not too bad for a farmer's boy from Braintree.