Miller Center

American President

A Reference Resource

Life Before the Presidency

Born into a comfortable, but not wealthy, Massachusetts farming family on October 30, 1735, John Adams grew up in the tidy little world of New England village life. His father, a deacon in the Congregational Church, earned a living as a farmer and shoemaker in Braintree, roughly fifteen miles south of Boston. As a healthy young boy, John loved the outdoors, frequently skipping school to hunt and fish. He said later that he would have preferred a life as a farmer, but his father insisted that he receive a formal education. His father hoped that he might become a clergyman. John attended a dame school, a local school taught by a female teacher that was designed to teach the rudimentary skills of reading and writing, followed by a Latin school, a preparatory school for those who planned to attend college. He eventually excelled at his studies and entered Harvard College at age fifteen. He graduated in 1755. Young John, who had no interest in a ministerial career, taught in a Latin school in Worcester, Massachusetts, to earn the tuition fees to study law, and from 1756 to 1758, he studied law with a prominent local lawyer in Worcester.

Legal and Publishing Career

Adams launched his legal career in Boston in 1758. He faced several years of struggle in establishing his practice. He had only one client his first year and did not win his initial case before a jury until almost three years after opening his office. Thereafter, his practice grew. Once his practice started to flourish, he began to court Abigail Smith, the daughter of a Congregational minister in nearby Weymouth. They were married in 1764. Five children followed in the next eight years, although one, Susanna, died in infancy. By 1770, Adams was a highly successful lawyer with perhaps the largest caseload of any attorney in Boston, and he was chosen to defend the British soldiers who were charged in the Boston Massacre in March 1770. Through his able defense, none of the accused soldiers were sent to jail. During these years, he lived alternately in Boston and Quincy, an outgrowth of Braintree, where he had been reared. As success came, Adams wrote extensively, publishing numerous essays in Boston newspapers on social, legal, and political issues.

When the colonial protest against parliamentary policies erupted against the Stamp Act in 1765, Adams was initially reluctant to play a prominent role in the popular movement. With a young and growing family, he feared for his legal practice. In addition, he distrusted many of the radical leaders, including his cousin Samuel Adams. He not only believed the imperial leaders in London had simply blundered but also suspected that the colonial radicals had a hidden agenda, including American independence. Nevertheless, under pressure to act, he did assist the popular movement, writing anonymous newspaper essays and helping to churn out propaganda pieces. In time, as Britain continued its attempts to tax the colonies and to strip them of their autonomy, Adams gradually grew convinced that the radicals had been correct, and he became an open foe of ministerial policy.

In 1774, Adams went to Philadelphia as one of the four delegates from Massachusetts to the First Continental Congress. He was reelected to the Second Continental Congress, which convened in May 1775, just a few days after war with the mother country had erupted at Lexington and Concord. When Congress created the Continental army in June 1775, Adams nominated George Washington of Virginia to be its commander. Adams soon emerged as the leader of the faction in Congress that pushed to declare independence. In June 1776, Congress appointed Adams, together with Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin, among others, to prepare the Declaration of Independence. Adams served on more committees than any other congressman—ninety in all, of which he chaired twenty. He was the head of the Board of War and Ordinance, the congressional committee that oversaw the operations of the Continental army. He was also an important member of the committee that prepared the Model Treaty, which guided the envoys that Congress sent to France to secure foreign trade and military assistance.

Early in 1778, after nearly four years service in Congress, Adams was sent to France to help secure French aid. Subsequently, he was sent to The Hague to obtain a much needed loan and to open commerce. In 1781, together with Franklin, John Jay, and Henry Laurens, Adams was part of the commission of American diplomats that negotiated the Treaty of Paris, the pact that brought an end to the War of Independence. Adams returned home once during the war, a brief sojourn from July until November 1779, during which time he helped draft the Massachusetts Constitution of 1780.

Adams remained in Europe following the war. From 1784 to 1785, he served on a diplomatic mission whose goal was to arrange treaties of commerce with several European nations. In 1785, he became the first United States minister to England. During 1784, he had been joined by his wife, whom he had not seen for five years. She was accompanied to Europe by the Adams's daughter, "Nabby." Their sons, Charles, Thomas Boylston, and John Quincy, spent these years in the United States completing their schooling.

By the end of the American Revolution, John Adams had earned a solid reputation as a patriot who had served his country at considerable personal sacrifice. He was known as a brilliant and blunt-spoken man of independent mind. He additionally acquired a reputation for the essays he published during the 1770s and 1780s. His "Thoughts on Government" (1776) argued that the various functions of government—executive, judiciary, and legislative—must be separated in order to prevent tyranny. His Defence of the Constitutions of Government of the United States of America (1787) presented his thinking that the greatest dangers to any polity came from unbridled democracy and an unrestrained aristocracy capable of becoming an oligarchy. The antidote to these dangers was a strong executive. He spoke of this powerful executive as the "father and protector" of the nation and its ordinary citizens, for this person was the sole official with the independence to act in a disinterested manner. In 1790, he expanded on this theme in a series of essays for a Philadelphia newspaper that were ultimately known as "Discourses on Davila." Many contemporaries mistakenly believed that they advocated a hereditary monarchy for the United States.

Adams returned home from London in 1788 after a ten-year absence. He came back largely to secure an office in the new national government that had been created by the Constitution drafted by the Philadelphia Convention in 1787 and ratified the following summer. Knowing that George Washington would be the first President, Adams sought the vice presidency. He was elected to that position in 1789, receiving the second largest number of votes after Washington, who won the vote of every member of the electoral college. Adams was reelected vice president in 1792.

Heated conflict broke out early among Washington's cabinet members over the shape the new nation would take, as well as over divisive foreign policy issues. By late 1792, formal political parties had come into being. The Federalists, led by Alexander Hamilton, supported a strong central government that favored industry, banking interests, merchants, and close ties with England. Opposed to them were the Democratic-Republicans, led by Thomas Jefferson. Supported by landowners and much of the South, the Democratic-Republicans advocated limited powers for the federal government, personal liberty, and support for France. Adams was a Federalist.