John Adams Biography
John Adams, who served as president from March 4, 1797 until March 4, 1801, deliberately sacrificed the political capital that might have won him a second presidential term, by resisting public pressure to bring the country into a full-scale war with France, which he feared would be ruinous for the new and still weak United States.
Born in Braintree, Massachusetts (later subsumed into Quincy, Massachusetts) to a modest family that had immigrated in the first generation of Puritans, John Adams longed for distinction and achieved it. He received a sound education for the time and, although his father had wished him to become a clergyman, Adams ultimately settled on the practice of law.
John Adams, though an ardent American Patriot, took on the leadership of the legal defense of the menaced British soldiers who had killed Americans in the incident that became known as the Boston massacre. Thus he helped to supply the soldiers with the representation necessary to their receiving a fair trial. Although he was concerned that this action might become a political liability for him, it did not, despite some having condemned his role. Six of the soldiers were acquitted, the other two were convicted of murder and received the punishment of being branded on the thumb.
In the Continental Congress, it was Adams who played the greatest role in convincing the members of the Congress that the military struggle already underway should not aim merely at securing American rights within the British Empire, but should actually separate the thirteen colonies from Britain and make of them “Free and Independent States." It was Adams who insisted that Thomas Jefferson write the first draft of the Declaration of Independence. It was also he who had nominated George Washington to become Commanding General of America’s Continental Army.
Adams’s presidency was notable for the Alien and Sedition Acts, for increases in the size and capacity of the American military, and for a violent conflict with France which did not quite rise to the level of a full-scale war and was known as the Quasi War.
The Alien and Sedition Acts were four laws which, among other things, provided for the deportation of aliens considered dangerous and for the criminalizing of “false, scandalous and malicious ... writings against the government.” They were supported by the Federalist party, vehemently opposed by the Democratic-Republican party. Much of what the Acts contained was null or dormant within a few years, but the Alien Act was resorted to in the World War II imprisonment of the Japanese.
The Quasi War between the U.S. and France took place between 1798 and 1800 and was principally a matter of naval engagements. It was largely an outgrowth of war between France and Great Britain. Although there was a great deal of enthusiasm for a full-scale, declared war against France on the part of many Americans, Adams managed to keep the conflict manageable in scale until a combination of military successes and reduced French enthusiasm for the war brought hostilities to a close.
John and Abigail Adams had many descendants, a considerable number of whom achieved great distinction in public affairs and literature, a considerable number of whom were plagued by great troubles, including depression, alcoholism and suicide.
Although for many years, the profile of John Adams was not as high as that of other Founding Fathers, such as Washington, Jefferson, Hamilton. and Madison, in recent years he has benefited from a reappraisal that better recognizes his immense contribution to the country he loved.