John Adams was born in the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1735. A Harvard-educated lawyer, he early became identified with the patriot cause; a delegate to the First and Second Continental Congresses, he led in the movement for independence.
During the Revolutionary War he served in France and Holland in diplomatic roles, and helped negotiate the treaty of peace. 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.
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.
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. From 1785 to 1788 he was minister to the Court of St. James's, returning to be elected Vice President under George Washington.
Adams' two terms as Vice President were frustrating experiences for a man of his vigor, intellect, and vanity. He complained to his wife Abigail, "My country has in its wisdom contrived for me the most insignificant office that ever the invention of man contrived or his imagination conceived." 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.
As President, Adams followed Washington's lead in making the presidency the example of republican values, and stressing civic virtue; he was never implicated in any scandal. Adams continued not just the Washington cabinet but all the major programs of the Washington Administration as well. Adams continued to strengthen the central government, in particular by expanding the navy and army. His economic programs were a continuation of those of Hamilton, who regularly consulted with key cabinet members, especially the powerful Secretary of the Treasury, Oliver Wolcott, Jr. Historians debate his decision to keep the Washington cabinet. Though they were very close to Hamilton, their retention ensured a smoother succession. He remained quite independent of his cabinet throughout his term, often making decisions despite strong opposition from it. It was out of this management style that he avoided war with France, despite a strong desire among his cabinet secretaries for war. The Quasi-War with France resulted in the disentanglement with European affairs that Washington had sought. It also, like other conflicts, had enormous psychological benefits, as America saw itself as holding its own against a European power.
When Adams became President, the war between the French and British was causing great difficulties for the United States on the high seas and intense partisanship among contending factions within the Nation. His administration focused on France, where the Directory, the ruling group, had refused to receive the American envoy and had suspended commercial relations. Adams sent three commissioners to France, but in the spring of 1798 word arrived that the French Foreign Minister Talleyrand and the Directory had refused to negotiate with them unless they would first pay a substantial bribe. Adams reported the insult to Congress, and the Senate printed the correspondence, in which the Frenchmen were referred to only as "X, Y, and Z."
He died on July 4, 1826. His final toast to the Fourth of July was "Independence Forever!" Late in the afternoon of the Fourth of July, just hours after Jefferson died at Monticello, Adams, unaware of that fact, is reported to have said, "Thomas Jefferson survives."