' Skip To Content
John and Abigail Adams | Article

Biography: John Adams

John Adams was born on October 30, 1735, in Braintree, Massachusetts. His father, a farmer and deacon, hoped that Adams would enter the clergy, but his Harvard professors thought his propensity for debate more befitting of a lawyer.

Courtesy: Adams national Historical Park

An Enduring Partnership
His law practice was on its tentative first legs when he met Abigail Smith in 1761. They married on October 25, 1764. Daughter Abigail ("Nabby") was born in 1765, followed by John Quincy in 1767; Susanna in 1768, but died in 1770; Charles was born in 1770; and Thomas in 1772. A sixth child, Elizabeth, was stillborn in 1777.

Courtesy: Massachusetts Historical Society

Taking Up the Cause
In 1765 Adams took his first steps into public life. Politics absorbed him immediately: there was no mention of his firstborn in his diary, but the Stamp Act merited pages. Although not yet committed to independence, Adams' essays published in the 1760s intimated the strong stance he would soon adopt. As British treatment of the colonists worsened, he recognized that a war for independence was imminent. As early as the closing of the port of Boston in 1774, Adams linked his fate to that of America: "Swim or sink, live or die, survive or perish with my country was my unalterable determination."

Courtesy: Massachusetts Archives

His Place in History
Adams' defense of the British soldiers accused in the 1770 Boston Massacre displayed his willingness to disregard popular sentiment for principle. Although he believed that his law practice suffered as a result of the case, his patriotic credentials soon overrode any personal unpopularity. In 1774 the Massachusetts legislature sent Adams to the First Continental Congress in Philadelphia, beginning a separation from Abigail that would last nearly 10 years. He became the leader of those in Congress who favored a complete break from England. Originally, most delegates supported reconciliation, but those favoring independence triumphed after a 15-month struggle. Adams might have written the Declaration of Independence, but he claimed he was too busy with committee work, so the task fell to Virginian Thomas Jefferson. Adams craved recognition above all, and he privately believed that the document wouldn't be remembered, When Jefferson's work became celebrated every July 4, Adams felt robbed of his rightful adulation. His fear of being forgotten never abated.

Courtesy: Adams national Historical Park

Devoted to His Country
Despite his fears, Adams' service to his nation was never in question. His nomination of George Washignton to be commander of the Continental Army was crucial to the success of the war. As a diplomat in France and the Netherlands during the war, he negotiated alliances and loans that directly influenced America's victory over Great Britain. In 1783 he, together with Benjamin Franklin and John Jay, negotiated the Treaty of Paris, which ended the Revolutionary War. In 1779 Adams wrote the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, in which he laid out the three-branches of government that would form the basis for the U.S. Constitution. He was America's first minister to Great Britain after the war, and the country's first vice president under Washington.

Despite his many successes, Adams was not sure if he was popular enough to be elected president. He considered not running in the election of 1796, but the lure of public life remained strong. He admitted to Abigail that "...he did not know how he could live out of it."

A Divided Presidency
In the election of 1796 Adams, a Federalist won the presidency, narrowly defeating Jefferson, a Republican, who became his vice president. The political division would plague Adams' presidency. "Two parties existed in this country ... the one inclined to France and the other to England. It was my destiny to run the gauntlet between [them]," Adams said. But he cultivated no allies, only enemies on both sides. He alienated his cabinet and sought only Abigail's advice. Goaded by the opposition Republican Party press, he signed the Alien and Sedition Acts, which quashed civil liberties and sullied his record. His greatest triumph was the diplomatic resolution of the Quasi-War with France, which saved the new nation from another costly war. Adams reaped no political benefit from his success, instead suffering defeat at Jefferson's hands in the election of 1800.

Courtesy: Library of Congress

July 4, 1826
Retreating home at last to Quincy, Adams found contentment in retirement. He and Abigail reestablished the happy home of their early marriage. Surrounded by family, he farmed and wrote, eventually reviving his friendship with Jefferson. On July 4, 1826, the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, Adams died within hours of his lifelong friend while cannons and church bells rang out in celebration of the nation they founded.

Support Provided by: Learn More