Adams, John

John Adams
John Adams

John Adams (October 30, 1735-July 4, 1826), first vice-president and second president of the United States, was a leader of the American Revolution, diplomat, and political theorist who did much to shape, explain and defend the United States Constitution. John and Abigail Adams, in their old age were called “grandparents of their country.” Adams was long overshadowed by Washington, Jefferson and Franklin. Scholars now recognize his vital role in the A Revolution and the creation of the new republic.

John was the first of three children born to Susanna Boylston and Deacon John Adams, a Braintree, Massachusetts farmer and shoemaker. Before Adams was born, the Deacon and his wife Susanna decided their first-born son would attend college. Deacon Adams hoped his son would enter the ministry. John, faltering at a poorly run Latin school, told his father he would rather farm. When his father transferred him to Joseph Marsh’s school, he improved, and at fifteen, passed Harvard’s entrance examination. At Harvard, he came to love learning and excelled in scholarship.

Adams had a life long relationship with First Parish, Braintree (now Quincy). He became a member on January 3, 1773. Late in life, he recalled that the church’s minister, Lemuel Briant (1722-1754), was a Unitarian. Briant’s theology was certainly Arminian, if not Unitarian, though he resisted the label. (Those called Arminians, after the 16th century Dutch theologian, Jacobus Arminius, upheld the role of free will in heeding the call to salvation.)

During much of his settlement, 1745-53, Briant was under fire for unsound doctrine. His 1749 sermon, “The Absurdity and Blasphemy of Depreciating Moral Virtue,” which though carefully worded to avoid offense, denied the Calvinistic doctrines of original sin, election, and salvation by arbitrary grace. Adams said controversy “broke out like the Eruption of a Volcano and blazed with portentous aspect for many years.” In 1753, a council of neighboring church officers met to hear complaints about Briant’s faults. John Adams’s uncle Ebenezer, among Briant’s accusers and Deacon Adams, a supporter, concluded that it would be best for the community to dismiss him. Nevertheless, the majority of the Braintree church defended Briant and retained him. Members praised, “the pains he takes to promote a free and impartial examination into all articles of our holy religion, so that all may judge, even of themselves, what is right.”

Owing to this controversy and others, Adams decided against the ministry. He thought a minister could only be happy and useful “if he reveres his own understanding more than the decrees of councils or the sentiments of fathers.” At church councils, however, Adams had witnessed “a spirit of dogmatism and bigotry in clergy and laity.” He realized he must either adopt such a spirit or “never get a parish, or getting it must soon leave it.”

While Adams was uncertain about his future, Thaddeus Maccarty, the Worcester minister offered Adams a teaching post in 1755, which he accepted. There were many liberals in the Worcester parish. Thirty years later, liberals would gather a new church, Second Parish, and call Unitarian Aaron Bancroft as their minister. Of Worcester churches in the 1750s Adams wrote, “I found that County hot with controversy” between liberal and more orthodox parties. Adams continued, “Mr. Maccarty though a Calvinist was not a bigot, but the Town was the scene of disputes all the time I lived there.”

A year later, remembering the acrimonious debates about the Braintree ministry and discovering, as he wrote to a friend, “a story about town that I am an Arminian,” Adams decided to study law, which seemed a less contentious profession than ministry. As an attorney, he would at least be free to think his own thoughts.

Adams read law with Worcester attorney Israel Putnam, 1756-58, and then returned home to practice law. When his father died in 1761, he inherited property and qualified for citizenship. After an extended courtship, in 1764 Adams married Abigail Smith, the Weymouth minister’s daughter. They had four children: Abigail Amelia, called Nabby by the family; John Quincy; Charles; and Thomas Boylston. Abigail was as widely read and as politically astute as her husband. Their hundreds of letters show she was her husband’s full political partner and confidante throughout their marriage.

John Adams
John Adams

As Adams’s legal reputation grew, he joined others opposing taxes parliament had levied on the American colonies to pay for the French and Indian War. In 1765, he published Dissertation on the Canon and Feudal Law, which took issue with the Stamp Tax. In it, he attributed the settlement of the continent to a providential design for enlightenment, liberty, and freedom. He praised the Puritans as opponents of tyranny and reformers whose church polity was consistent with the Bible. They wanted government to reflect “the dignity of human nature,” a phrase later used by William Ellery Channing.

Though he vigorously opposed policies of the Crown, Adams was even more opposed to mob rule. He courageously and successfully defended the eight British soldiers accused of murder in the aftermath of the 1770 riot known as the “Boston Massacre.” That same year he won the election to the Massachusetts General Court. In 1774, the General Court chose him to represent Massachusetts in the First Continental Congress. In his 1755 “Novanglus” essays Adams contended that Parliament had no authority to tax the colonies or pass laws regulating them.

Long afterward, Adams recalled that Jonathan Mayhew’s 1750 sermon, “Unlimited Submission and Non-Resistance to the Higher Powers,” influenced him at the time of the Revolution. Mayhew, pastor of the West Church, Boston friend of Adams’s childhood minister, was the first openly Arminian minister in New England. A strong supporter of freedom of thought and civil liberties, Mayhew left his mark, religiously and politically, on the Revolutionary generation.

At the Second Continental Congress in 1775, immediately following the outbreak of war, Adams nominated Washington as Continental Army general. Later, between 1775 and 1777 Adams labored mightily to equip Washington’s army and to find ships and men for a navy. His 1776 Plan of Treaties shaped foreign policy for years to come.

In 1775, Adams proposed a Declaration of Independence. He also suggested, in a move to secure Virginia’s allegiance to the revolutionary cause, that congress appoint Thomas Jefferson to write a draft. Adams served as one of the editors. A lifelong opponent of slavery Adams did not protest when congress cut Jefferson’s condemnation of slavery from the Declaration. Both believed the cause of independence was more important. In the following year, Adams published his Thoughts on Government, laying out his plan for a republican government with a bicameral assembly and independent executive and judiciary branches. He was pleased when most southern and mid-Atlantic states followed his design in writing their new State constitutions. At the Massachusetts Constitutional Convention, 1779-80, he was the principal author of the Commonwealth’s constitution, now the world’s oldest written constitution, which greatly influenced the United States Constitution.

Abigail Adams wrote her husband in 1776 urging him and his Continental Congress colleagues “to remember the ladies” as they made plans to govern the new nation. He answered playfully that men are “obliged to go fair and softly, and in practice you know we are subjects. We have only the name of masters, and rather than give up this, which would completely subject us to the despotism of the petticoat, I hope General Washington and all our brave heroes would fight.”

Congress sent Adams to France in 1778 to aid in negotiating an alliance. By the time he arrived, however, Franklin had finished negotiations. Congress again sent him to France again in late 1779, to lead the U.S. delegation in peace negotiations with Britain. Frustrated because Congress ignored his advice and unpopular in Paris for his direct, uncompromising speech, Adams, on his own initiative, went to the Netherlands where he negotiated loans for Washington’s impoverished army. These loans were vital to the Continental army. Back in Paris in 1782, his tough negotiating style was finally rewarded by a favorable peace agreement with Great Britain.

Abigail Adams traveled to France in 1784 to join her husband. Soon afterward, Congress appointed Adams first United States ambassador to Britain’s Court of St. James. In England from 1785-88, the Adamses regularly heard Unitarian Richard Price preach at Gravel Pit Chapel, Hackney. Adams enjoyed the English minister’s friendship. He was also acquainted with Joseph Priestley, Theophilus Lindsey, Thomas Belsham, and many other British Unitarians.

While in England Adams compiled his massive Defense of the Constitutions of Government of the United States of America, 1787. It was a popular and timely book, which coincided with the creation of the United States Constitution. Discourses on Davila, 1790, written in reaction to the French Revolution after returning home, was more controversial. In both books, his religious convictions informed his political thought. He argued against determinism, contended for virtue above arbitrary grace, and attributed more to human agency than to providence. In Davila and his other writings, Adams addressed the question of democratic leadership. His solution, the restraint of public passion by a natural aristocracy was often called anti-democratic. He feared hereditary monarchy might be less problematic than an elected presidency.

John Adams
John Adams

Returning home in 1788, his service ended, John and Abigail settled in on a Braintree farm formerly owned by Loyalists. Adams wanted to leave public service but after some consideration decided to accept the vice-presidency. Although vice-president of the first American federal administration, 1789-97, he was not included in Washington’s councils. However, in his daily role as the Senate’s presiding officer he loyally backed President Washington’s policies. These included Alexander Hamilton’s financial policy, termination of the French alliance, and rapprochement with Great Britain. When Washington declined to run for a third term in 1796, Adams, the Federalist candidate, narrowly defeated Jefferson, an old friend turned political opponent.

During Adams’s administration, the United States was in conflict with its former ally France. French privateers captured three hundred American ships, claiming the cargo to be British war material. In 1797, Adams attempted negotiation, but the French demanded bribes. He recalled the envoys and outfitted an effective navy. Adams knew, however, that the new republic was unprepared to fight a major war. He sacrificed his popularity within his party to settle the “quasi-war” with France by the Convention of 1800, which was secretly negotiated by his son John Quincy Adams. Adams later said, “I desire no other inscription over my gravestone than: ‘Here lies John Adams, who took upon himself the responsibility of peace with France in the year 1800.'”

Fearful of French espionage and revolutionary fervor, in 1798 the Federalist congress passed the infamous Alien and Sedition Acts. Although Adams did not propose these measures, he signed them, as did Vice President Jefferson who loathed them. The Alien Act extended the residency requirement for American citizenship from five to fourteen years, and let the chief executive expel dangerous foreigners. “False, scandalous, and malicious” writing and attempts to stir up opposition became crimes under the Sedition Act. The latter, though inconsistent with the First Amendment to the Constitution, Adams and the Federalists interpreted as a necessary war measure. Adams did not expel anyone and did not prosecute his political opponents, as vigorously as he might have. One of his last acts as president was to name John Marshall, an opponent of the Sedition Act, as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.

Owing to Adams’s unpopular war measures, Jefferson defeated Adams in his bid for reelection in 1800. In the early 1800s, however, his letters to Benjamin Rush claimed “a national fast recommended by me turned me out of office.” He felt unjustly suspected of “meddling with religion” and “charged with an hypocritical, Machiavellian, Jesuitical, Pharisaical attempt to promote a national establishment of Presbyterianism in America, whereas I would as soon establish the Episcopal Church, and almost as soon the Catholic Church.” He sold his property to his son, John Quincy Adams, who gladly allowed his parents to live in their old home, and retired on an annuity.

Adams always preferred Unitarian worship services. He wrote Aaron Bancroft in 1823, “The most afflictive circumstances that I have witnessed in the lot of humanity are the narrow views, the unsocial humour, the fastidious scorn and repulsive tempers of all denominations excepting one.” However, during long years of service to his country Adams could not always find a satisfactory Congregational Church and tried others. When the government was in Philadelphia, Adams took a Presbyterian pew rather than attend the congregation founded by Joseph Priestley’s admirers. Priestley supported the French Revolution, whose “Reign of Terror” disillusioned Adams. Moreover, he had religious differences with Priestley. He could never stomach Priestley’s penchant for speculation about the end of the world using Daniel and Revelation. He wrote Universalist Rush, “I have attended public worship in all countries and with all sects and believe them all much better than no religion, though I have not thought myself obliged to believe all I heard.”

Rush reconciled Adams and Jefferson in 1812. They corresponded about many topics, including philosophy and religion. These letters show Adams as a critical reader of Priestley, Goethe, Locke, and Hume as well as the classical Greek and Roman authors. He told Jefferson, “The Ten Commandments and the Sermon on the Mount contain my religion.”

In an 1813 letter to Jefferson, Adams said, “The human Understanding is a revelation from its Maker which can never be disputed or doubted . . .. No Prophecies, no Miracles are necessary to prove this celestial communication. This revelation has made it certain that two and one make three, and that one is not three, nor can three be one . . . Had you and I been forty days with Moses on Mount Sinai . . . and there told that one was three and three one, we might not have had courage to deny it, but we could not have believed.”

Adams also expressed Universalist sympathies, a naturalistic faith, and a tolerant religious spirit: “Now, my friend, can Prophecies, or miracles convince You, or Me, that infinite Benevolence, Wisdom and Power, created and preserves, for a time, innumerable millions to make them miserable, forever, for his own Glory? Wretch! What is his Glory? Is he ambitious? does he want promotion? Is he vain? tickled with Adulation? Exulting and tryumphing in his Power and the Sweetness of his Vengeance? Pardon me, my Maker, for these Aweful Questions. My answer to them is always ready: I believe in no such Things. My Adoration of the Author of the Universe is too profound and too sincere. The Love of God and his Creation; delight, Joy, Tryumph, Exaltation in my own existence, tho’ but an Atom, a molecule Organique, in the Universe, are my religion. Howl, Snarl, bite, Ye Calvinistick! Ye Athanasian Divines, if You will. Ye will say, I am no Christian: I say Ye are no Christians: and there the Account is ballanced. Yet I believe all the honest men among you, are Christians in my Sense of the Word.”

Adams also criticized predestination and expressed his belief in conscience. He said, “The fatalism of Mahometanism, Materialists, Pantheists and Calvinists, and Church of England Articles, appear to me to render all prayer futile and absurd.” He agreed with Jefferson that humanity had a “moral sense” as well as feeling. Emotion, however, may overcome reason unless it is restrained by society. Unable to “understand the Doctrine of the Perfectibility of the Human Mind,” he was, even so, cautiously optimistic about human nature. “I believe there is no individual totally depraved,” he wrote Jefferson in 1817. “The most abandoned scoundrel that ever existed, never yet Wholly extinguished his Conscience, and while Conscience remains there is some religion.”

Belief in immortality was another idea he shared with Jefferson. “If there was nothing beyond mortal life,” he wrote, “you might be ashamed of your Maker, and compare him to a little Girl amusing herself, her Brothers and Sisters by blowing Bubbles in Soap Sudds” In the last months of his life he wrote Jefferson concerning death, “I contemplate it without terror or dismay. If finite, which I cannot believe, and do not believe, there is an end of it all but I shall never know it, and why should I dread it, which I do not, if transit I shall ever be under the same constitution and administration of Government in the Universe, and I am not afraid to trust and confide in it.”

Adams’s son Charles, an alcoholic, his beloved daughter, Nabby, and then Abigail died before him. He lived to see his son John Quincy, inaugurated president in 1825. Adams died July 4th, 1826, several hours after Jefferson, on the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence.


A crypt beneath United First Parish Church (Unitarian), Quincy, is Adams final resting place. Income from land he donated to the town financed their current building, completed in 1828. As he stipulated, the congregation took granite from quarries on the donated land to build a temple for the public worship of God.


The John Adams Papers are at the Massachusetts Historical Society in Boston, Massachusetts. Adams’s grandson, Charles Francis Adams, edited the Works of John Adams, 10 vol. (1850-56, reprinted 1971). A more complete set of Adams materials is being assembled by the Adams papers project, L.H. Butterfield et al., eds., including Diary and Autobiography of John Adams, 4 vol. (1961); Adams Family Correspondence, 6 vol. (1963-93); Papers of John Adams, 8 vol. (1977- ). Many of Adams’s religious opinions are found in his correspondence with Jefferson and Rush. This is collected in Lester J. Cappon, ed., The Adams-Jefferson Letters, 2 vol. (1959, reprinted in 1 vol., 1988) and John A. Schutz and Douglass Adair, eds., The Spur of Fame: Dialogues of John Adams and Benjamin Rush, 1805-1813 (1966). Some of Adams’s writing is anthologized in Norman Cousins, ed., In God We Trust: The Religious Beliefs and Ideas of the American Founding Fathers (1958).

There are many biographies of Adams. Among the recent ones are Page Smith, John Adams, two vol., (1962-63); Peter Shaw, The Character of John Adams (1976); John Ferling, John Adams: A Life (1992); Joseph J. Ellis, Passionate Sage: The Character and Legacy of John Adams (1993); and David McCullough, John Adams (2001). The Adams family as a whole is studied in Paul C. Nagel, Descent from Glory: Four Generations of the John Adams Family (1999) and Francis Russell, Adams, An American Dynasty (2002). Information on Adams’s connection with the Unitarian church is contained William Churchill Edwards, First Parish Church (Unitarian) (The Church of the Presidents), Quincy Massachusetts and The Tombs of the Presidents (1957). The story of Lemuel Briant is traced in Samuel A. Eliot, Heralds of a Liberal Faith, vol. 1 (1910) and Conrad Wright, The Beginnings of Unitarianism in America (1955).

Article by Wesley Hromatko
Posted November 25, 2002