JOHN ADAMS was born in the North Precinct of Braintree (now Quincy), Massachusetts, on 30 October 1735, the eldest son of John and Susanna (Boylston) Adams. He graduated from Harvard College in 1755 and for the next two years taught school and studied law under the direction of James Putnam in Worcester, Mass. He returned to Braintree to launch his law practice and married Abigail Smith of Weymouth on 25 October 1764. For several years the Adamses moved their household between Braintree and Boston as warranted by John’s successful law practice and the demands of the circuit court system. Adams and Josiah Quincy, Jr. defended the British soldiers charged in the Boston Massacre Trials, successfully winning acquittals for seven of the defendants and reduced sentences of manslaughter for the remaining two.
From 1774 to 1777, Adams served in the Continental Congress. He passionately urged independence for the colonies, and in 1776 the “Atlas of Independence” was appointed to the committee to draft a declaration of independence. His copy of Thomas Jefferson’s draft of the Declaration of Independence is the earliest known draft in existence.
Appointed by Congress a joint commissioner (with Benjamin Franklin and Arthur Lee) to France, John Adams sailed from Boston with his son John Quincy in February 1778. In the summer of 1779, father and son returned to Massachusetts where Adams was elected to represent Braintree at the convention to frame a state constitution. The Constitution of 1780, drafted by John Adams, is the oldest written constitution in the world still in effect.
Elected by Congress to negotiate treaties of peace and commerce with Great Britain, Adams returned to Europe in November 1779 accompanied by his two eldest sons, John Quincy and Charles. Additional commissions to negotiate a Dutch loan and a treaty of amity and commerce with the Netherlands and election as a joint commissioner (with Franklin, John Jay, Henry Laurens, and Thomas Jefferson) to treat for peace with Great Britain soon followed.
1782 was a banner year for John Adams—he secured recognition of the United States in the Netherlands, contracted the first of four loans from Amsterdam bankers to provide crucial financial aid for the United States, and signed a treaty of amity and commerce with the Netherlands. In September 1783, after nearly a year of negotiation, Adams and his fellow commissioners signed the Definitive Peace Treaty with Great Britain. From 1785 to 1788 John Adams served as the first American minister to the Court of St. James’s in London. After eight years abroad, in France, the Netherlands, and Great Britain, where Abigail had joined him in 1784, Adams returned to the United States.
Service abroad was quickly followed by elective office at home—eight years as vice-president under George Washington and, in 1796, president. The successful transfer of power was made on 4 March 1797. Adams’ presidency was fraught with difficulties: The Quasi War with France, the XYZ Affair, and the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798. American political parties were just taking shape, but Adams was not a party man. He maintained the same cabinet officers appointed by his predecessor and they continued to look to Washington and Federalist party leader Alexander Hamilton for direction instead of Adams, compounding his problems. Adams defied his cabinet, and much of the Federalist party, to conclude peace with France. Toward the end of Adams’ presidency the seat of government was transferred to Washington, D.C., and he and Abigail became the first presidential couple to live in the Executive Mansion, later called the White House.
After one term in office, Adams was succeeded as president by Thomas Jefferson. Party politics and a strong difference of opinion over national interests divided Adams and Jefferson and temporarily alienated these two men who had formed a close friendship in Europe in the 1780s. John Adams retired from public life to his farm in Quincy. He died on the fiftieth anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, 4 July 1826.
To read the correspondence of John and Abigial Adams, visit the Adams Electronic Archive. The published Adams Family Correspondence is available online at the Adams Papers Digital Editions. Papers of John Adams as well as his private diaries are also available at the Adams Papers Digital Edition. A timeline of John's life is viewable through the Adams Family Timeline.