It must've been hard to be John Adams, a brilliant and moral man, who would have stood out above all others had he not been in the same arena with the likes of Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, George Washington, and his own cousin, Samuel Adams. Because he is so frequently overlooked in history, we will talk about him this month.
He died on July 4, 1826, the very day his aforemetioned friend, enemy, and brother in arms died, fifty years from the day they signed the Declaration of Independence.
John was one of only four "founding fathers" who did not own slaves, along with cousin Sam Adams, Alexander Hamilton, and Thomas Paine. While James Monroe owned scores of slaves, outspoken abolitionist Ben Franklin owned two slaves, and Patrick Henry apologized in a speech for owning slaves, John Adams never owned one. He believed as a Christian that a human being could not own another human being and once said that the Revolution would never be complete until the slaves were free.
He was the first Vice President of the United States, the second President, a Massachusetts delegate to the Continental Congress, and helped Jefferson draft the Declaration of Independence. He represented the United States in France and in Holland, where he almost single-handedly negotiated loans which the country desperately needed from bankers in Amsterdam. He always thought his legacy was the fact that during his Presidency, he resolved the Quasi-War crisis with France in 1798. He was the father of the sixth President, John Quincy Adams, and the husband of the erudite Abigail Adams.
He was born in what was known as the north precinct of Braintree, Massachusetts, in what is now called Quincy, Massachusetts, the direct descendent of Henry Adams, who emigrated to Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1638.
His father, who was also named John, was a farmer, a selectman, a lieutenant in the militia, and a deacon in the Congregational Church, which was for a time the state church of Massachusetts, and by all accounts, John spent his life trying to measure up to his father as well as to the Christian Puritan values which he openly embraced.
His father thought young John Adams would be a minister, and so he was 16 when he went to Harvard University. He graduated four years later and was, for a time, a teacher before he decided to enter the field of law and was admitted to the bar at the age of 23.
Just before his 29th birthday, John married his third cousin, Abigail Smith.
He first came to public attention when he stood up as opposing the Stamp Act of 1765, which was imposed by the King without so much as a howdy do from the colonists. He and other colonists were spurred to action, feeling that the Act violated the colonists' rights as Englishmen.
In 1770, after the Boston Massacre, John defended the eight soldiers charged with criminal charges in the deaths of five civilian colonists, among them Crispus Attucks. He knew that taking the job would likely hurt his reputation, but he agreed to defend them because no one else would. He won acquittal for six of them, and got the sentences reduced from murder to manslaughter for the two who fired into the crowd. It was an exhausting case, according to John's diary, for which he was paid a token retainer and nothing more.
Despite the blow to his reputation, he was elected to the legislature in 1770, even as he was still preparing for the trial.
John Adams also signed the Alien and Sedition Acts, which called for jailing those who spoke out against anything the President did or said, and Jefferson was actually the target, as his position was known to freely spoke out in opposition to Adams regarding the French Revolution.
Twenty-five people were arrested for violating the Sedition Act, which was the part of the Acts which made it against the law to print or speak out against the policies or actions of the President. Those people included Ben Franklin's grandson, Benjamin Franklin Bache, a prominent newspaper editor who died before being brought to trial, and Congressman Matthew Lyon, a newspaper printer and the only Congressman in history to have been elected to the position from jail.
Lyon was sentenced to four months in jail and a $1,000 fine as well as court costs, and while sitting in jail, won his bid for a seat in the Sixth Congress. Ironically, Lyon cast the tie-breaking vote which put Jefferson in Congress in 1800, which truly angered John Adams. Lyon's grandson, Hylan B. Lyon, would grow up to be a general in the Confederate Army.
Adams stopped speaking to Jefferson after the 1801 election in which Jefferson defeated him. Abigail Adams continued to write to Jefferson, attempting to heal the wound which separated the two. Abigail and Jefferson were quite fond of one another, and it troubled her deeply when the two friends ended their friendship.
They did not speak to one another until 1811, after intervention by Abigail, Dr. Benjamin Rush, who also signed the Declaration of Independence, and a neighbor of Jefferson's, who all assisted in repairing the famous and intimate friendship between the two men.
Fifteen years later, on July 4, 1826, Thomas Jefferson died in Virginia. Several hours later, at home in Quincy, John Adams lie dying. Because of the amount of time it took in those days for news to travel, he had no way to know that his friend was dead, Adams died, and his last words were, "Jefferson survives." He was, of course, mistaken.