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Historically Speaking

Historically Speaking: The Founding Father with the Loudest Voice

By Tom Morrow

John Adams was born in the British colony of Massachusetts on Oct. 30, 1735. He was a farmer and a somewhat successful lawyer, who later became an American statesman, diplomat, and a leading advocate of American independence from Great Britain. He was the second U.S. president.

Unlike his first cousin, Samuel Adams, who was a radical advocate for breaking away from Great Britain, John Adams was slow to embrace the idea of independence.  In the early days of the Revolution, John was uneasy about the radical views and actions of his cousin. John was a thinker and promoter of calm; Sam was a man of action who believed in meeting force with force.

Well-educated, John Adams was a political theorist who promoted republicanism, as well as a strong central government. He wrote prolifically about his often-seminal ideas, both in published works and in letters to his wife and key advise Abigail.

As a result of the Boston Massacre and anti-British feelings in Boston at a boiling point, he provided a principled, controversial, and successful legal defense of the six accused British soldiers who fired shots that killed several Bostonians. He decided to represent the soldiers because he believed in the right to counsel and the “protection of innocence”.

Adams came to prominence in the early stages of the American Revolution. A lawyer and public figure in Boston, as a delegate from Massachusetts to the Continental Congress, he played a leading role in persuading Congress to declare independence. Adams was opposed to slavery, and never owned a slave. During Congressional debates, he often was at odds with many of the delegates from the South at times with a very loud voice.

In 1776, John assisted Thomas Jefferson in drafting the Declaration of Independence and was its primary advocate in the Congress. Later, as a diplomat in Paris, he helped negotiate the peace treaty with Great Britain ending the American Revolution. He was responsible for obtaining vital governmental loans from Amsterdam bankers. The ultimate irony: John Adams was the first U.S. ambassador to Great Britain, whereas years earlier, he was on the British list to be hanged.

A political theorist and historian, Adams largely wrote the Massachusetts Constitution in 1780, which together with his earlier “Thoughts on Government,” influenced American political thought. One of Adams greatest roles was his judge of character: In 1775, he nominated George Washington to be commander-in-chief, and 25 years later nominated John Marshall to be Chief Justice of the United States.

Adams’ revolutionary credentials secured him two terms as George Washington’s vice president and his own election in 1796 as the second president. During his one term as president, he encountered ferocious attacks by the Jeffersonian Republicans, as well as the dominant faction in his own Federalist Party led by his bitter enemy Alexander Hamilton.

Adams was the first U.S. president to reside in the executive mansion that eventually became known as the White House.

He signed the controversial Alien and Sedition Acts, and built up the army and navy especially in the face of an undeclared naval war (called the “Quasi-War”) with France, (1798-1800). The major accomplishment of his presidency was his peaceful resolution of the conflict in the face of Hamilton’s opposition.

In 1800, Adams was defeated for re-election by Thomas Jefferson and retired to Massachusetts. He later resumed his friendship with Jefferson through years of exchanging letters. He and his wife had an accomplished family line of politicians, diplomats, and historians now referred to as the “Adams political family.” Their son, John Quincy Adams, was the sixth President of the United States.

Though somewhat forgotten after he left the presidency, John Adams’ achievements have received greater recognition in modern times. His contributions to the forming of our government were not initially as celebrated as those of other Founding Fathers. Ironically, Adams and Jefferson died within hours of one another on July 4, 1826, the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence signing.


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