The Life of John Adams

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The Philosopher President

Learned and thoughtful, John Adams was as much a political philosopher as he was a politician and the second President of the United States.

Adams was born in the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1735. When he was older he studied law at Harvard and eventually became involved in the independence movement in the 1770s. In 1775 and 76 Adams took part in both the First and Second Continental Congress.

John Adams and the American Revolution

During the American Revolution, Adams served in a diplomatic capacity, acting as the American representative in France and Holland. He also assisted in the peace negotiations following General Washington’s victory at Yorktown in 1781. From 1785 to 1788, Adams served as the American Minister to the Court of St. James, a post that effectively made him the first American ambassador to Great Britain.

In 1789, he returned to the United States, where he served as Vice President to George Washington. Adams was a man of great intellect and equally great vanity. As a result he found serving in a subordinate position to Washington difficult to deal with. “My country has in its wisdom contrived for me the most insignificant office that the invention of man has ever contrived.”

President John Adams

In 1797, Adams became the second President of the United States following Washington’s decision not to seek a third term in office. Adams’ presidency, like Washington’s, was marred by the ongoing Napoleonic War which was still in its early stages.

In 1798, relations between the United States and France soured when the French ruling body, the Directory, refused to grant an audience to the American diplomatic mission sent by President Adams, unless the American government agreed to pay a large bribe to the French Foreign Minister.

When this was reported to Congress by Adams, many of the representatives and senators were incensed that their country had been insulted in such a manner. As a result, the names of the three Frenchmen who had triggered the incident were not actually written down and only referred to as X, Y and Z.

X,Y,Z Fever swept the nation, thanks in part to the exhortations of Adams and others in his administration, and crowds cheered themselves hoarse whenever he appeared in public. Meanwhile, Congress had appropriated money to build three new frigates, as well as numerous support vessels and had authorized the raising of a provisional army. It seemed that war with France was on the horizon. In addition, Adams also passed the Alien and Sedition Acts, which were meant to stifle his Republican critics, as well as persuade foreign agents to leave the country.

John Adams and the Quasi-War Crisis

Adams did not call for a declaration of war against France, but despite this, a state of undeclared hostility existed between the two countries at sea. This did not last for very long, however, and France capitulated following a string of American naval victories in skirmishes with the French Navy.

Adams’ decision to send a peace envoy to France had political repercussions at home. In the election of 1800, Adams was attacked by Alexander Hamilton and his supporters for his decision to negotiate with the French in the Quasi-War Crisis and as a result he was voted out of office. However, Adams’s popularity was such that he only trailed a few votes behind his successor, Thomas Jefferson.

Following his defeat in the 1800 presidential election, Adams retired to Peacefield, his farm in Quincy, Massachutesetts. He maintained a long correspondence with Thomas Jefferson until the end of his life. John Adams died on July 4, 1826, the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence.

Works Cited

John Adams. The White House. The United States Government. Jan 28/09

The copyright of the article The Life of John Adams in Colonial America is owned by Terry Long. Permission to republish The Life of John Adams in print or online must be granted by the author in writing.
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