The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

October 22, 2018

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Adams, John
Russell Kirk - 07/11/11
Lifespan: (1735–1826)

A member of the fourth generation of the Adams family, second president of the United States and major American author of political theory and political history, John Adams sought to preserve America’s heritage of English-ordered freedom. He was a powerful advocate of separation from Britain, but (when president) sternly opposed the French Revolution. His courage, honesty, and strength of intellect were more widely recognized by historians and biographers in the latter half of the twentieth century than in the nineteenth century. Some writers regard him as America’s most important conservative public man.

Born in Braintree, Massachusetts, where the family mansion still stands, Adams graduated from Harvard College in 1755. He taught for a time and thought of taking up ministry, but drawing back from the rigorous doctrines of Calvinism, he turned instead to law and was admitted to the Boston bar in 1758. In 1764, he married a young woman of high talents, Abigail Smith. In 1765, he published essays on canon and feudal law.

Parliament’s passing of the Sugar Act in 1764 and the Stamp Act in 1765 roused vehement opposition in Massachusetts. Although conservative by nature, Adams was drawn into the protest and condemned taxation without representation as unconstitutional. As a man of law, however, Adams opposed revolutionary violence and sought instead to obtain redress through resolutions of protest. And while he defended Patriots in the courts, he also defended Captain Preston, commander of British troops at the “Boston Massacre.”

The Tea Act of 1773 led to the Boston Tea Party that same year. Adams condemned the resulting Boston Port Act but, at the time, still opposed independence from Britain. In June, 1774, Massachusetts sent him as a delegate to the First Continental Congress. After the Congress adjourned, Adams served in the provincial congress of Massachusetts. Events moved rapidly in 1775 after the battle of Lexington. By July, Adams declared that Massachusetts and the other colonies must establish a new government, banding together indissolubly. He also offered advice to the several colonies applying to the Congress for counsel as to how they should govern themselves.

Opposed to the radical politics of Thomas Paine’s new book, Common Sense (1776), Adams published Thoughts on Government (early 1776), advocating the politics of prudence. By May 1776, Adams was recommending independence for America. Congress appointed him to the small committee that drew up the Declaration of Independence, and he was its ablest advocate on the floor. For a year after the Declaration was adopted, Adams was exhaustingly occupied as a member of important committees and boards, and in diplomacy.

In November 1777, Adams was named a commissioner to France. In Paris, he shared a house with Benjamin Franklin. When Franklin was appointed sole commissioner (France having meanwhile extended diplomatic recognition to the United States), Adams returned to America, landing in Boston on August 2, 1779. Back in Massachusetts, he did much to frame a constitution for his state.

Adams returned to France in December, on behalf of Congress, to negotiate an end to the war in America. He was engaged in complex diplomacy in France and the Netherlands (arranging a loan from the Netherlands to the United States) until February 1785, when he was appointed American envoy to Britain. There, he conducted negotiations to implement provisions of the peace treaty that had been signed in 1783.

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