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John Adams


What do you think of a history written in letters? Some persons' histories are all written that way, and that is the way a great deal of John Adams's life was written. His wife was a fine letter writer, and so was he, and as they had to live apart for years, they kept writing to one another. These letters have been kept and published, and good ones they are. They tell us much about the stirring times of the Revolution that we would not know only for them. I shall have to give you some passages from these letters as I go on.

The name of Adams is a great one in American history. Sam Adams has been called the "Father of the Revolution."  He was a Boston man and a cousin of John Adams. It was he that set the people to throw the tea overboard; and when the British marched to Lexington they went there to catch him, but they didn't. They caught something a good deal worse. John Adams and his son John Quincy Adams both became Presidents of the United States. His grandson, Charles Francis Adams, was an able statesman. who was once minister to England and was once nominated for Vice-President; and his great-grandson, another Charles Francis Adams, is one of our leading railroad men. I do not know any other family in America which can show four generations of such able men.

John Adams was born in Braintree, Massachusetts, on October 19, 1735. This place is on the south shore of the great bay which is now known as Boston Harbor. His father had a small farm in the poor and rocky New England ground, where it took a good deal of hard digging and scratching to make a small living. While the little fellow was helping to chop wood, and clear away snow, and look after the horses and cows, and work in the fields, I doubt if any dream came to him that he would one time live in a great mansion and rule over a great nation. There is a thick cloud over the future, and it is often well that we cannot see through it.

The boy did his share of work ; but he had his share of fun, too ; for he was a healthy and wholesome little fellow. In the winter there were skating and sleighing, and in the summer there were fishing in the streams, and hunting in the woods, and plenty of boyish sports besides. He went to school in a little old school-house near his home, but he was fonder of play than he was of books. When he got old enough, his father asked him what he would rather do; go to college, or go to work; and what work he would like.

"I think I would rather try farming," said John.

Very well, you may go to work in the fields."

John did go to work next day, working from sunrise to sunset, as farmers did in those days and long after. That was real work; it was not half play, as he had been used to. He came home at night hungry, and thirsty, and tired, and dusty, and stiff as an old log.

"I think I would rather go to work among the books," he said, with his eyes on the ground, for he was ashamed to look his father in the face.

"Very well. This is what I want you to do; to go to college and get an education." And to Harvard College he went. He graduated in 1755, just as the French and Indian War began, and when Washington and Braddock were marching over the mountains to find the Indians waiting for them behind the trees.

The young college graduate did not know what to do any more than before. He tried school-teaching, but soon got tired of that. Then he had one notion to be a minister, and another to be a lawyer. He was restless and uneasy and often out of spirits. For a time he was eager to be a soldier and fight in the great war. But he did not care to carry a musket. He wanted to be a captain and to command "a company of foot, a troop of horse."

But he soon found that no captains were wanted, so he set himself to study the law. And he studied hard and long. He had got over playing with his books. In 1758 he began to practice law. He got plenty to do, but he did not make much money, for the people of Braintree were poor and could not pay large fees. Vet he became well known as an able lawyer and a man of strong mind and clear thoughts. He had a fine sounding voice, too, and people liked to hear him speak.

In 1764 he did one of the best things of his life ; he married Abigail Smith, the handsome young daughter of a clergyman of Weymouth. She was a woman in a hundred, bright, intelligent, refined, tender and loving. None of our Presidents had a better wife, and you may be sure she helped her husband greatly in the stormy times that followed. No one can write about John Adams without a very good word for his wife.

The stormy times soon began. The year after John Adams was married the British Stamp Act was passed. The king had determined to tax the Americans by making them buy stamps for their papers, and without giving them the chance to say a word about it. Then there was an uproar. 

No one would use a stamp or pay a penny of the tax. Adams was bitter against it. He made a great speech, telling what he thought about it. The people of America were ready to tax themselves and help the king with money, but they said that no Parliament across the seas should tax them against their will.

All the people were not on the patriot side. There were plenty of Tories, men who said the king must be right, whatever he did. But Adams had been a strong patriot from the beginning. He wrote and spoke his mind very plainly. There was nothing going on that he did not take a hand in. He wrote strong articles for the papers, and some of these were copied by the London papers and thought to be very good.

All this worried the British leaders, you may well think. They saw the sort of man that Adams was and tried to get him on their side. A good paying position was offered him, that of Advocate-General, but he would not take it, for he looked on it as a bribe to turn him away from his country.

One of the best and noblest things John Adams ever did was in 1770. He then showed that it was justice and not passion that ruled him. Have you ever read of the "Boston Massacre?" A party of soldiers were attacked by a mob, and they fired on them and some of the people were killed.

This made a terrible excitement. The Bostonians were so furious that the troops had to be taken out of the city. The soldiers who fired were arrested and tried for murder. What did John Adams, the great patriot, do? He became their lawyer and defended them before the court. He said it was the people and not the soldiers who were in fault.

And he won his case, too. All but two of the soldiers were set free. These two had killed men by their shots and they were sentenced to be branded in the hand. They were then set free like the others. It was a great victory for justice and for John Adams, and nobody thought the worse of him for it.

Four years now passed by and the trouble in the colonies kept getting worse. The tea that was sent to Boston was thrown overboard by the people, and it made things boil. After that more soldiers were sent to Boston and no vessels were let in or out of the harbor. That was done to punish the citizens. Business stopped, and it looked as if many of the people of Boston would starve.

By this time John Adams had become a great lawyer and had a large practice. But he set that aside in 1774, when the First Continental Congress met in Philadelphia and he was elected one of the members. He had never been out of New England before, but he rode boldly and bravely away. There he was to meet George Washington and Patrick Henry and other great and famous men. In all the work done by that Congress John Adams had a hand, and he was looked on as one of its best men.

Now began those interesting letters between him and his wife, which were kept up whenever they were apart. It was a sore trial for him to leave his home. One of his letters closes with, ''My babes are never out of my mind, nor absent from my heart." On the same day his wife wrote : 

"Five weeks have passed, and not one line have I received. I would rather give a dollar for a letter by the post, though the consequence should be that I ate but one meal a day these three weeks to come."

Those were not the days of rapid mails and cheap postage. Boston then seemed ten times as far from Philadelphia as it is to-day. It was a million times as far away, if we consider the speed of the telegraph.

The next year another Congress met, and it had new and strong work to do. The famous fight of Lexington and Concord had been fought, and the Yankee farmers, in their homespun clothes and with their old guns in their hands, were all around Boston, with the British fast inside.

Adams was in Philadelphia again. He could not help feeling worried about his family in Braintree. He wrote to his wife, "In case of real danger fly to the woods with our children."

Soon after there were fifteen thousand armed farmers about Boston, and she wrote about the troubles and confusion of the times :

"Soldiers coming in for a lodging, for breakfast, for supper, for drinks. Sometimes refugees from Boston, tired and fatigued, seek an asylum for a day, a night, a week. You can hardly imagine how we live. Yet  "To the houseless child of want Our doors are open still; And though our portions arc but scant,  We give them with good will.

"Hitherto I have been able to maintain a calmness and presence of mind. I hope I shall, let the exigency of the time be what it will."

A strong, earnest, kindly soul was that of Abigail Adams, as you would see abundantly, if I could quote more from her letters.

There were weak men in Congress, as there were strong ones, and John Adams grew angry when steps of a feeble kind were taken. He was for liberty, at any cost. It did his heart good when George Washington, the brave Virginian, came into Congress in his uniform, before setting out for Boston. It was he who had proposed Washington for commander-in-chief. And it made his heart bound with joy the next year when Richard Henry Lee, another Virginian, brought in a resolution " that these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, Free and Independent States."

John Adams could not be restrained. He sprang to his feet and warmly seconded the resolution. Congress thought that so great a resolution should be put in the best shape, so it chose five men as a committee to do this. Their names were John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, Roger Sherman and Robert R. Livingston.

Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence, and it was so good that only a few changes were made in it. On July 2, 1776, it was brought before Congress. Some members opposed it and spoke against it. John Adams upheld it in one of the greatest speeches that Congress heard. Jefferson said of the speaker and his speech:

"John Adams was the ablest advocate and champion of independence on the floor of the House. He was the colossus of that Congress. Not graceful, not eloquent, not always fluent in his public addresses, he yet came out with a power of thought and expression which moved his hearers from their seats."

The next day he wrote a famous letter to his wife. It has often been quoted, and it is well worth quoting again: Here is its celebrated passage:

"Yesterday the greatest question was decided which ever was debated in America; and a greater, perhaps, never was, nor will be, decided among men. The second day of July, 1776, will be the most memorable epoch in the history of America. I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated by succeeding generations as the great anniversary festival. It ought to be commemorated as the day of deliverance by solemn acts of devotion to Almighty God. It ought to be solemnized with pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations from one end of the continent to the other from this time forward, forevermore."

This is the kind of patriot John Adams was. His words have come true, but for the fourth, not the second, of July. The fourth was the day when the Declaration was signed, when Independence bell was rung, and when John Hancock, another Bostonian, who was President of Congress and wrote his name first, did it in that broad, bold hand, which he said "the king of England could read without spectacles."

Now we must go on faster. John Adams worked hard in that Congress. He was placed at the head of the War Department, which gave him plenty to do. He was chairman of very many committees. In 1777 he was selected to go to France and try and make a treaty with that country.

It was a dangerous journey he made across the ocean the next winter. The British said he was a ringleader among the rebels. If they had caught him it would have gone hard with him. They might have hung him or cut off his head.

But he went, in the frigate Boston, his oldest son, who was to be President after him, went with him. They had not been out a week before an English warship chased the Boston. Adams urged the crew to fight like heroes. They had better sink with their ship than go to a British prison. But the Boston escaped.

After that there was a fight with a British privateer. It was a hard battle. Cannon were roaring, and when they got close enough guns began to flash and crack. Captain Tucker saw his passenger on deck and asked him to go below to a safer place. But Adams had too much fight in him. Soon after the captain saw him with a musket in his hand, firing away like a common sailor.

"Why are you here, sir," cried the captain angrily. "I am commanded to carry you safely to Europe, and I will do it." And he picked up the little man in his arms as if he had 
been a child, and carried him below deck.

The privateer was captured, and the Boston kept on and got safely to France in March, 1778. But Adams got there too late for the business on which he had been sent, for Benjamin Franklin was there, and had already made the treaty.

After that John Adams spent many years in Europe. He did some good work there. One good piece of work was in April, 1782, when he got Holland to recognize the United States. For that he was made Minister to Holland. In November of that year he was one of the four men who made the treaty of peace with Great Britain.  He had been in the Revolution at its start and he was in it at the close.

A great honor came to him in 1784, when he was appointed the first United States Minister to Great Britain. He had been in London the year before, helping to make a treaty of commerce. Now be stood before George III, the king, as the representative of a new nation.

The king acted like a gentleman when they met, and said something which brought from the dauntless patriot the answer:

"I must tell Your Majesty that I love no country but my own."

"An honest man will never love any other," said the king, in a gracious tone.

Adams' great love for his country was shown in what he had said years before: "Sink or swim, survive or perish with my country, is my unalterable determination."

But Adams met many cold looks in the British capital, and was very glad to get home again in 1788. He had seen his last of Europe and seen all he wanted to of foreign lands. His wife, who had been with him, and was treated coldly by the British queen, was as glad as he to get back to the land of liberty and equal rights.

The next year a still greater honor came to John Adams, for he was selected to be the first Vice-President of the United States, as Washington was for the first President. For eight years he held this post of honor, and then, when Washington declined to serve any longer, John Adams was elected President in his place.  Thomas Jefferson, his associate in the Declaration, was made Vice-President.

Adams, as President, had many difficulties to meet, as Washington had before him. The worst of these was with France, which had just gone through its great Revolution. Its new rulers wanted to see Jefferson, whom they liked, made President, and were so angry when Adams was elected that they refused to receive the new Minister he sent them. This was a bitter insult. Then they passed a shameful decree against American commerce. It was hard for Adams, with his fiery temper, to bear all this, much as he wanted peace. It was worse when the French rulers tried to make the Americans pay them for peace. They wanted to be bribed, but Charles Pinckney, one of the envoys, cried out indignantly, " Millions for defence, but not one cent for tribute."

That was a good motto for Americans, and everybody repeated it. All over the country there was a cry for war. Adams had tried to keep peace with France, but this was more than he could stand. An army was called out, and Washington agreed to lead it. The navy was ordered to fight, and it did. It captured two French frigates and many smaller vessels. That was enough for the French. They backed down and a treaty of peace was made.

This made Adams very popular. But there were things done in his administration that made him unpopular, and when the time came for the next election he was defeated and Jefferson was elected. The old Federal party, to which Adams belonged, was going clown hill, and the new Democratic party, of which Jefferson was the head, was coming up. Adams was bitterly disappointed. He had been sure of a second term as President. He felt so sore that he would not wait at Washington to welcome the new President, which was a very unwise thing for him to do, and only served to make him more enemies.

That ended the public life of John Adams. He was never called into service again. For the rest of his life he remained at home, happy, no doubt, with his wife and family, his books and his writings. But it was hard for him to forgive his enemies; for under his greatness there was a littleness of vanity, self-conceit and obstinacy. He never could see any side but his own, and always thought himself to be right. And there were no soft, smooth ways in John Adams. He was always blunt and plain spoken, and often offended the smiling diplomats of Europe, who knew how to lie in a very courteous tone. Franklin was much better fitted to deal with them than Adams. He wrote about him, " Mr. Adams is always an honest man, often a wise one; but he is sometimes completely out of his senses."

But as he grew older he grew softer, and finally forgave them all. The bad feeling between him and Jefferson passed away, and they once more became friends. If he was not called to office again, he had the great satisfaction and pride of seeing his son President of the United States. Then, on July 4, 1826, he closed his eyes and passed away, on the same day that Jefferson died. His last words were, " Thomas Jefferson still lives. "He was mistaken. Jefferson had died a few hours before.

Source:  "The Lives of the Presidents and How They Reached the White House"   by Charles Morris, LL.D., 1903.

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