John Adams: A Life by John Ferling

John Adams smoked tobacco since he was eight. He received a Harvard education and after being a teacher for a short time, he became a lawyer. At one point, the wealthy John Hancock was put on trial for smuggling and John Adams represented him, succeeding in getting the charges dropped. He started courting his future wife Abigail when she was 15 and he was 25. He stopped seeing her, but they met again years later and married when he was 29 and she was 20.

Britain had a 173 million pound debt from the French and Indian War as well as three other wars fought on America’s behalf and passed the Stamp Act to help pay this debt. While the colonists benefited from the wars, they didn’t want to help pay for them and strongly opposed the Stamp Act.

John Adams wrote political essays against the Stamp Act, but he was also against his cousin Samuel Adams’ violent demonstrations. When the Stamp Act was repealed in 1766, John gained some reputation, being elected selectman in his hometown of Braintree. His cousin Sam Adams meanwhile, founded the Whig party which launched a propaganda campaign to try to convince people Britain wanted to take away the colonists’ freedom.

Adams referred to himself as short, thick, and fat, although he was likely average height. He often had red watery eyes, likely due to chronic allergies. He was pallid due to spending so much time indoors. He had a volcanic temper. He was cold to strangers, but warm with friends and he preferred solitude.

Due to protests against taxes, British soldiers were sent to Boston. Tension increased as the soldiers took part-time jobs away from the colonists and also dated their women. Several violent encounters erupted between soldiers and colonists. In 1770, soldiers killed five Bostonians in what was called the Boston Massacre. Adams defended the soldiers, despite not being on their side and the possibility rioters would go after him. Why? No one knows for sure, but he was given a seat in Boston’s legislature three months later, so perhaps Samuel Adams promised him political office. He won the trial and his reputation didn’t suffer either. In fact, Britain recalled their troops and did away with most of the taxes (except for one on tea).

John Adams decided he didn’t like politics and didn’t seek reelection. His law practice was booming. He covered a wide variety of cases from commercial transactions, criminal defense, property disputes, defamation of character cases, tax cases, divorce, and served as counsel for slaves who sought their freedom.

The East India Company, the largest Mercantile firm in the British Empire, was nearly bankrupt through mismanagement. If it failed, there would be a general economic collapse. To prevent this from happening, Parliament passed the Tea Act, giving the East India Company a monopoly on tea in the colonies and keeping the tea tax already in place. It actually made the price of tea lower by cutting out the middleman.

The fading independence movement was waiting for something to rebel against and latched onto this. They said this would lead to other taxes and that the monopoly would hurt American businesses. Boats bearing tea were not permitted to dock in New York and Philadelphia. South Carolina prevented the tea from being sold. In Boston, the rebels destroyed 1 million dollars worth of tea in today’s dollars at their “tea party”. Adams didn’t take part, but praised the event.

Parliament retaliated against Boston with the Coercive Acts. The port in Boston would be closed until the tea was paid for. Town meetings were restricted and the elected council would be replaced with a Crown-appointed one. The colonists responded with a trade embargo against Britain knowing it would likely lead to war. In 1775, the British attempted to suppress the rebellion by force and tried to seize the leaders of the rebels. 73 British and nearly 100 colonists died in Concord and Lexington.

Adams was a key player in the first two Continental Congresses. They raised an army against Britain with Washington as general. King George III declared them in a state of rebellion. The Earl of Dunmore, the governor of Virginia, offered to free all slaves who joined the British side. There were still some in Congress hoping to reconcile with Great Britain. Adams worked to change votes and on July 2, 1776, no state voted against independence. Congress made some changes to Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence which was ready by July 4th.

In his writings, Adams often expressed his wish to be a soldier, yet when the opportunity arose, he came up with excuses not to. He did however become the de facto Secretary of War, working from 4 AM to 10 PM on logistical problems, promotions, appointments, recruitment, and treatment and exchange of prisoners of war.

Abigail Adams became a talented farmer while John was away, which was often. She told him to “Remember the Ladies” as Congress discussed the rights of Americans since men were “Naturally Tyrannical” women must be protected from men’s “unlimited power”. However, John didn’t take her seriously. Like John, she was opposed to slavery. He didn’t talk about slavery politically, though, since slave holders had a lot of power and influence.

After leaving Congress, Adams spent a bit of time at home before leaving again as a diplomat to France, which had been providing supplies and soldiers to America. While in France, he lived under the same roof as fellow diplomat Benjamin Franklin, but grew to hate him. Adams was highly intelligent, but made a bad diplomat as small talk wasn’t his strong point. 

He returned to Braintree after a year and wrote the first draft of the Massachusetts Constitution of 1780. Congress then voted to make him minister plenipotentiary, to negotiate an end of the war with Great Britain. Once again, he set out for France and left Abigail behind, but brought his sons Charles, almost ten, and John Quincy, now twelve. He lived far away from Franklin this time. 

By 1780, the war was five years old with no end in sight, although Spain and France were now at war with Britain as well. There were a couple instances where the British could have won if they’d pressed their attack instead of delaying.

Adams felt France wasn’t doing enough to bring the war to a close and ended up going to The Netherlands to get their support. He didn’t have much success until the Americans and French got a stunning victory at Yorktown, capturing the army of Cornwallis. The Dutch then supported America with a much-needed loan. Britain was ready to talk peace by this point and Adams was one of the negotiators.

While John was away, Abigail flirted with congressman James Lovell via letters. John wrote to her less frequently and dissuaded her from joining him until peace was declared, then he asked her to come join him in Europe.

After the peace treaty was signed, he was named one of the diplomats to negotiate commerce with Britain in 1783. Abigail brought their daughter Nabby with her, leaving their two youngest sons in the care of a friend. Nearly 19, Nabby was brought along to keep her from marrying a suitor John didn’t like, although he changed his mind and said she could marry, but his letter didn’t reach them until after they’d gotten on the boat.

Adams returned to America in 1788 and wanted to be vice president. Some were worried he might get more votes than Washington, so Alexander Hamilton secretly took some of his votes away to ensure Washington would win. (In this book, Hamilton is presented as the power behind the throne, being Washington’s main advisor during his presidency and manipulating Adams through members of his cabinet during Adams’ presidency.) While Adams was vice president, Washington rarely sought his opinion, but he did cast the tie breaking vote in the Senate at least 31 times, often to strengthen the federal government.

When Adams became president, he bought some furniture off Washington who didn’t want to take it all with him. However, he declined to buy a couple horses Washington was trying to sell, thinking Washington was trying to swindle him. He was right. Washington confided to a friend that the horses were older than he had said they were. (So much for Washington not being able to tell a lie.) To add further insult, when Adams moved into the President’s House in Philadelphia, he found it hadn’t been cleaned and Washington’s servants had damaged some of the furniture in a drunken stupor.

When Adams took office, England and France were at war and both were seizing American ships. Washington remained neutral rather than entering the war and Adams did as well, although he prepared for war by creating an army, strengthening the navy, and giving a lot of pro-war speeches.

The XYZ affair happened in 1798. France refused to speak to US delegates and had even asked for bribes, an extension of a loan, and for Adams to apologize for allegedly making anti-French statements. The diplomats’ report was made public and many people called for war with France and feared France would invade America. Adams’ party, the Federalists, were anti-French and wanted war, while Vice President Jefferson’s party, the Democratic-Republicans, were pro-French and wanted peace.

Since immigrants tended to be Democratic-Republicans, the Federalist Congress and Adams passed the Alien and Sedition Acts. Immigrants now had to wait 14 years before becoming citizens with the right to vote. The president now had the power to deport aliens (although Adams never ended up deporting anybody). Also, the Sedition Act made it illegal for the press to conspire to thwart federal law or make false statements about federal officials, quashing free speech and dissent. It was passed in order to silence the anti-war critics in the opposing party. In a blow to free speech, 14 reporters were indicted for sedition, definitely one of the worst things Adams did.

The cold war with France was called the Quasi-War. Even though his political party wanted war and Adams spoke out in favor of war, he eventually chose peace. His own party was furious at him, writing angry editorials and even death threats. Alexander Hamilton was in favor of war so the US could take over Florida and Louisiana. Hamilton also wanted to become a famous general like Washington.

Towards the end of his term, Adams got rid of a couple of his cabinet members who were secretly working for Hamilton, and demobilized the army Hamilton was in charge of. He also pardoned three tax protestors who had been sentenced to death on charges of treason. The capital of the US was moved from Philadelphia to Federal City which people were calling Washington. 

Adams lost the election of 1800 to Jefferson, and learned the news of his alcoholic son Charles’ death right before the electors met. John had forced Charles into a legal career even though he wasn’t suited to it. His son Thomas also was unhappy being a lawyer and also became an alcoholic.

Adams was raised as a Calvinist and became a ecumenical Christian as a young adult, before finally becoming a Unitarian in his final years. He believed in a Supreme Creator and a non-eternal afterlife, but denounced institutional Christianity and rejected the notion of Jesus’ divinity. He believed Christianity was the cause of much pain and suffering, but he did like the teachings of Jesus.

He lived to see his son John Quincy elected president when he was 89. He outlived his much younger wife as well as his daughter who died of cancer. The longest-lived president before Reagan, Adams finally died on the same day as Thomas Jefferson, July 4, 1826, the fiftieth anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. He even rekindled his friendship with Jefferson, exchanging over a hundred letters with him during his long retirement.

I believe the best way to judge a president is comparing how many lives they saved versus how many died because of their actions. On the plus side, Adams saved an unknown number of lives by avoiding war with France (thousands maybe?) While silencing freedom of speech with the Sedition Act was bad, he at least doesn’t seem to be responsible for any deaths (unlike Washington who massacred Native Americans and was responsible for starting the French and Indian War). The fact Adams was opposed to slavery also makes him a better president than Washington. (Except for John and his son John Quincy, the first twelve presidents of the United States were all slave holders.)

Washington is generally ranked higher than Adams when you see lists of the best presidents, but this is largely due to the fact he has greater name recognition due to being the first. Unless this biography left something out, I think a good argument could be made for Adams being the better president of the two simply because he wasn’t responsible for any deaths. Adams was an angry person and didn’t treat his sons very well. He also nearly went to war with France, so I’m not saying he was a great person or that great of a president, but at least he didn’t kill anybody.

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