Miller Center

American President

A Reference Resource

A Life in Brief

Before becoming President in 1797, John Adams built his reputation as a blunt-speaking man of independent mind. A fervent patriot and brilliant intellectual, Adams served as a delegate from Massachusetts to the Continental Congress between 1774 and 1777, as a diplomat in Europe from 1778 to 1788, and as vice president during the Washington administration.

Federalists versus Democratic-Republicans

The Federalists, led by Alexander Hamilton, supported a strong central government that favored industry, landowners, banking interests, merchants, and close ties with England. Opposed to them were the Democratic-Republicans, led by Thomas Jefferson, who advocated limited powers for the federal government. Adams's Federalist leanings and high visibility as vice president positioned him as the leading contender for President in 1796.

In the early days of the American electoral process, the candidate receiving the second-largest vote in the electoral college became vice president. This is how Thomas Jefferson, who opposed Adams in the election, came to serve as Adams's vice president in 1797. Adams won the election principally because he identified himself with Washington's administration and because he was able to win two electoral ballots from normally secure Jeffersonian states. In 1800, Adams faced a much tougher battle for reelection, as the differences between the Federalists and the Republicans intensified—by that time, the terms "Democratic-Republican" and "Republican" were used interchangeably.

The Adams presidency was characterized by continuing crises in foreign policy, which dramatically affected affairs at home. Suspicious of the French Revolution and its potential for terror and anarchy, Adams opposed close ties with France. Relations between America and France deteriorated to the brink of war, allowing Adams to justify his signing of the extremely controversial Alien and Sedition Acts. Drafted by Federalist lawmakers, these four laws were largely aimed at immigrants, who tended to become Republicans. Furious over Adams's foreign policy and his signing of the Alien and Sedition Acts, Republicans responded with the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions, which challenged the legitimacy of federal authority over the states.

Republicans were equally incensed by the heavy taxation necessary for Adams's military buildup; farmers in Pennsylvania staged Fries's Rebellion in protest. At the same time, Adams faced disunity in his own party due to conflict with Hamilton over the undeclared naval war with France. This rivalry with Hamilton and the Federalist Party cost Adams the 1800 election. He lost to Thomas Jefferson, who was backed by the united and far more organized Republicans.

A Personal Life Filled with Politics

John Adams sacrificed his family life for his political one, spending much of his time separated from his wife, Abigail Adams, and their children. John Quincy Adams, Adams's son, grew up to become the sixth President of the United States. Interestingly, he joined the opposition party, the Democratic-Republicans.

Often lonely and miserable, Abigail viewed her suffering as a patriotic sacrifice but was distraught that her husband was away during the birth of their children and the loss of their unborn baby in 1777. After his term as President, John Adams lived a quiet life with Abigail on the family farm in Quincy, Massachusetts. There, Adams wrote prolifically for the next twenty-six years, including a fascinating correspondence with his political adversary and friend, Thomas Jefferson. Interestingly, both men died on Independence Day in 1826.

Although Abigail Adams saw herself as first and foremost her husband's wife and helpmate, she was a gifted intellectual in her own right, leaving behind nearly 2,000 letters containing some of the most profoundly compelling commentary on the society and politics of her time. A firm advocate of patriotic motherhood, Abigail believed that women best served the Republic in their roles as educated and independently thinking wives and mothers. Although she did not openly advocate voting rights for women, she did fight for their legal right to divorce and to own property.

The American Political Landscape

Indeed, property was a requirement for political participation during Adams's time, and he fought to keep it that way, feeling that the "rich, the well-born, and the able" should represent the nation. But the western migration into frontier America—Kentucky and Tennessee were admitted to the Union in 1792 and 1796, respectively—weakened the property requirement for voting in the West. Everywhere except on the frontier, however, wealthy merchants and slave owners dominated office holding, and financial and kinship ties were crucial to political advancement.

Historians have difficulty assessing Adams's presidency. Adams was able to avoid war with France, arguing against Hamilton that war should be a last resort to diplomacy. In this argument, the President won the nation the respect of its most powerful adversaries. Although Adams was fiercely criticized for signing the Alien and Sedition Acts, he never advocated their passage nor personally implemented them, and he pardoned the instigators of Fries's Rebellion. Seen in this light, Adams's legacy is one of reason, virtuous leadership, compassion, and a cautious but vigorous foreign policy. At the same time, Adams's stubborn independence left him politically isolated. He alienated his own cabinet, and his elite republicanism stood in stark contrast to the more egalitarian Jeffersonian democracy that was poised to assume power in the new century.