John Adams

Second president of the United States

EARLY LIFE

The man who became known as the “Father of American Independence” was born a British subject in the colony of Massachusetts on October 30, 1735. The son of an educated farmer and leather craftsman, Adams grew up enjoying toy boats, marbles, kites, hunting, and reading. He graduated from Harvard University in 1755 before becoming a lawyer.

Adams practiced law in Boston for 12 years and served briefly in the state legislature, or government, of Massachusetts before becoming a delegate to the First and Second Continental Congresses, a group of representatives from the 13 colonies that would eventually become the United States.

AN AMERICAN AMBASSADOR

Adams, like other members of the Second Continental Congress, helped Thomas Jefferson write the Declaration of Independence in July 1776, which proclaimed that the 13 colonies were now independent states and no longer under British rule. An army was formed to oppose the British, it was Adams suggested that George Washington lead it.

Adams was overseas during much of the Revolutionary War, the fight for independence from Great Britain. He represented his new country to governments in Europe, hoping they would help the United States. During his stay in the Netherlands, he arranged for important loans to help fund the war effort. Later he helped negotiate the peace treaty that ended the war in 1781.

After the war, Adams served as the first U.S. ambassador, or representative, to Great Britain. He lived in Great Britain and worked with officials there to improve the relationship between the two countries.

THE FIRST VICE PRESIDENT

Adams returned to the United States in 1788, just after the Constitution of the United States had been drafted. This document created a strong federal government in the new country: two chambers of legislators (also called lawmakers), a federal court system, and a president and vice president to oversee everything. The Constitution still serves as the foundation for the United States government today.

Based on the Constitution’s directions, states chose representatives to elect a president. Washington won the vote, making him the first-ever president of the United States. Adams received the second most votes and became vice president. (Before presidents ran with a vice presidential partner like they do today, the Constitution originally called for all candidates to run separately and be considered for president. The runner-up, or second-place finisher, became vice president.)

Adams held the post for both of Washington’s terms, but he found the job boring. He observed: “My country has in its wisdom contrived for me the most insignificant office that ever the invention of man contrived or his imagination conceived.”

THE SECOND PRESIDENT

After eight years as president, Washington retired in 1797. Adams ran for president again. In 1796 Adams became the second president of the United States by only a three-vote margin over Thomas Jefferson, who became his vice president. Though they’d been good friends during the Revolutionary War, the two men fought during their administration over how to run the country.

FIGHTING WITH FRANCE

Adams devoted much of his presidency to avoiding war with France after fighting broke out in Europe over the bloody French Revolution, which lasted from 1789 to 1799. During the revolution, the French overthrew their monarchy and established a republic, similar to what the United States did during their own Revolutionary War.

During the American Revolutionary War, France supported U.S. independence and loaned the colonies money to fight the British. But after a revolution overthrew the French royalty, the United States refused to pay the debt, saying that the government they owed money to no longer existed. This angered France. France was also upset that the United States traded goods with Great Britain while France was at war with them. The country began attacking U.S. merchant ships. For two years, France and the United States waged what was called a “quasi-war” at sea. Though some government officials wanted a full-blown war with France, Adams used diplomacy, or peaceful negotiations, to reach an end to the fighting.

ADAMS VERSUS JEFFERSON—AGAIN

Not all of Adams decisions as president were admired. Congress pressured him into signing laws known as the Alien and Sedition Acts. These laws allowed the government to arrest and imprison newspaper editors and writers who disagreed with the government’s policies. These laws also made it possible to deport immigrants who spoke out against the government.

In 1800, Adams ran against Jefferson again for a second term as president. This time, Jefferson won. It was a mean campaign and added to the hard feelings between Adams and Jefferson. Adams did not attend Jefferson’s inauguration.

LASTING LEGACY

In 1801 Adams retired to his home in Massachusetts with his wife, Abigail. After their presidencies were over, Adams and Jefferson restored the friendship of their Revolutionary War days through letter writing. The two men were the only signers of the Declaration of Independence to become presidents. Curiously, they both died on the same day—July 4, 1826, the 50th anniversary of the approval of the Declaration of Independence. Adams’s final words were reportedly: “Thomas Jefferson still survives.” He did not know his friend had died only a short while earlier.

Adams—as the president who succeeded, or followed, George Washington—showed that the nation’s most important office could survive a change of leadership, which countries ruled by kings and queens sometimes did not. He helped his new country avoid war with France during his single term in office and he’s remembered today as the “Father of American Independence.” Adams was also one of the few Founding Fathers who did not own enslaved people. He believed the Revolution would never be complete until enslaved people were free.

From the Nat Geo Kids books Our Country's Presidents by Ann Bausum and Weird But True Know-It-All: U.S. Presidents by Brianna Dumont, revised for digital by Avery Hurt

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