The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

November 20, 2018

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.

In London for nearly three years, Adams could take no direct part in the framing of the United States Constitution. However, because he was eager to secure the adoption of a national constitution that would reject the direct democracy advocated by Rousseau and the radicalism of Thomas Paine, Richard Price, the French financier Turgot, and other Europeans, Adams commenced writing a long, learned disquisition of government, Defense of the Constitutions of Government of the United States of America (1787–88). The first volume of this three-volume work was published while the Constitutional Convention was deliberating at Philadelphia in 1787. To date, Adams’s work is the most thorough examination of political institutions produced by an American writer.

Turgot had declared, in a letter to Richard Price in 1778, that the Americans should collect “all authority into one centre, the nation.” Adams argued for federal, as opposed to central, government and for elaborate devices to achieve political balance and stability. Turgot, Adams wrote, was blind to the truth that Liberty, practically speaking, is made up of particular and personal liberties. Turgot was ignorant of the great prerequisite for just government, which is the recognition of local rights, interests, and diversities. Adams’s huge treatise, buttressed by ancient and modern historical examples, was much discussed between 1787 and 1791.

Early in 1788, Adams returned from England to the new Republic, where soon he was elected the first vice president (an office for which he expressed contempt) of the United States. Alexander Hamilton fought Adams’s election, and his hostility caused Adams to receive only a plurality, not a majority, of the vote in the Electoral College. On the numerous occasions when, as presiding officer of the Senate, Adams voted to break a tie, he voted on the Federalist side. He was, however, no strict party man. Hamilton’s faction of the Federalists often endeavored to undermine Adams and at last succeeded to the ruin of their party in 1800. Sometimes Adams found the Anti-Federalists—Thomas Jefferson and his Republicans—less hostile than Hamilton and his followers.

While Adams presided over the Senate from 1789 to 1797, the French Revolution convulsed Europe. Vice President Adams exposed the political fallacies of the revolutionaries in his Discourses on Davila (1805). During George Washington’s first administration, marked hostility continued between Adams and Alexander Hamilton, secretary of the treasury. This rivalry grew fiercer still during Washington’s second administration, in which Adams remained vice president despite Hamilton’s attempt to exclude him from office. Against Adams’s candidacy for the presidency in 1796, Hamilton supported Thomas Pinckney. Nevertheless, Adams won and Thomas Jefferson was elected his vice president.

As president of the United States, Adams soon found himself in difficulties with both Jefferson’s Republicans and Hamilton’s Federalists, in particular over the question of relations with France. The Paris Directory treated America’s emissaries with contempt, and French military and naval action against the United States became a real threat. Adams’s preparations for defense, and his negotiations with France, were courageous and intelligent. But the Alien and Sedition Acts, with which Adams’s administration had been saddled by the extreme Federalists, made Adams unpopular. However, he succeeded in reorganizing the federal judiciary (appointing John Marshall, who had been in his cabinet, chief justice of the Supreme Court), and in other ways was an able political administrator.

Defeated by Thomas Jefferson in the presidential election of 1800, Adams retired to Quincy, Massachusetts, concluding more than thirty-five years of political leadership. Upon him in 1800—so he wrote to Jefferson near the end of his life—unpopularity had fallen “like the tower of Siloam.” Stoutly conservative in his convictions, he wrote to Josiah Quincy in 1811, “Should I let loose my imagination into futurity, I could imagine that I foresee changes and revolutions such as eye hath not seen nor ear heard. . . . I cannot see any better principle at present than to make as little innovation as possible; keep things going as well as we can in the present train.”

For intellectual power, no other president has surpassed Adams. His honesty and strength of character were acknowledged and praised by such opponents as Jefferson. In recent decades, biographers and historians have also recognized his great worth. Books about Adams that are worth mentioning include Gilbert Chinard’s Honest John Adams (1933); Zoltan Haraszti’s John Adams and the Prophets of Progress (1952); Anne Husted Burleigh’s John Adams (1969); Page Smith’s John Adams' (two volumes, 1962-63); Peter Shaw’s The Character of John Adams (1976); Stephen G. Kurtz’s The Presidency of John Adams (1957); and Manning J. Dauer’s The Adams Federalists (1953).

Further Reading
  • Brookhiser, Richard. America’s First Dynasty: The Adamses, 1735–1918. New York: Free Press, 2002.
  • Diggins, John Patrick. John Adams (The American Presidents Series). New York: Times Books, 2003.
  • McCullough, David. John Adams. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2001.
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