On July 4, 1776, the Continental Congress voted to accept the Declaration of Independence, citing many reasons the Colonies should separate from Great Britain. While many Americans know of the accomplishments of Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin and George Washington in securing our nation’s freedom, the achievements of John Adams – delegate, diplomat, vice president, and president – should not be overlooked.
Though Adams was a member of the committee charged with writing the Declaration, his commitment to the cause did not begin there. In 1765, for example, Adams spoke out against the Stamp Act, a tax implemented by the British Parliament without representation from the colonies. Railing against “taxation without representation,” Adams’ opposition to the Act was endorsed by more than forty towns and led to Parliament’s repeal of the tax.
His leadership in the colonies led him to be appointed to the Continental Congress as a representative of Massachusetts. Along with other delegates, he drafted the Declaration of Rights and Grievances in 1774, a document that laid the groundwork for the Declaration of Independence.
Adams also seconded Richard Henry Lee’s resolution for independence, which read “... these United Colonies are, and of a right ought to be, free and independent states.” Adams led the move for independence, according to Jefferson, “with a power of thought and expression that moved us from our seats.” In the followings days, Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence, but he was influenced by the great minds also serving on the committee, including Adams.
During the Revolutionary War, Adams was active as a diplomat. In France he and Franklin negotiated an alliance that helped win the war, and in Holland Adams secured a $2 million loan from the Dutch government that saved United States bankers from bankruptcy. His career as a diplomat crested in Paris, as John Jay, Franklin, and he negotiated a peace treaty with Britain which recognized the United States as an independent country.
Following independence, Adams’ diplomatic duties continued as ambassador to Great Britain. George III graciously accepted “the friendship of the United States as an independent power,” but Adams did not have the same luck when it came to more practical matters, such as opening trade between the two countries and guaranteeing the removal of the British troops from American soil. Unsuccessful in fulfilling these objectives, Adams bid the “old world” adieu.
By that time, Adams had gained recognition for his achievements and was elected the first vice president of the United States. As vice president, Adams was especially active in the Senate. He cast 29 tie-breaking votes, more than any other vice president in history. When the Senate voted on whether to keep the capital in New York, for example, the tie was broken by Adams’ “nay” vote. Consequently, the capital was moved to Philadelphia while a permanent capital was being built on the Potomac, now Washington, D.C.
When Washington decided to retire from the Presidency, Adams was the logical successor. Without campaigning, Adams won by the election by just three electoral votes over Thomas Jefferson, who, in the odd electoral procedures of the time, became Vice President.
Adams and his wife Abigail were the first to live in the White House, although they moved in before construction was complete. Lacking an actual laundry room, for example, Abigail hung the laundry in the East Room.
Adams’ greatest challenge as President was responding to the war between Britain and France which erupted in 1793. Knowing that a young country such as the United States could not afford war with Britain or France, Adams was determined to continue Washington’s policy of official neutrality.
But when France began attacking U.S. trade ships and French representatives demanded a bribe from Adams, many Americans began rallying for war against France.
Adams began a two-pronged strategy to avert war. Knowing warships were necessary to keep France at bay, Adams established the United States Navy – paid for with higher taxes – and launched numerous frigates to deter attacks. Simultaneously, Adams began negotiations with France in an effort to avert war.
Faced with losing a war or support at home from war-hungry constituents, Adams chose to sacrifice his political support. In 1800, an election year, the United States and France signed a peace treaty averting war.
Exacerbating matters was Adams’ support of the Alien and Sedition Acts, which gave law enforcement officials the right to arrest or fine anyone exhibiting “treasonable or secret leanings.” The Acts, almost certainly unconstitutional, seemed to stoke dissent rather than stifle it.
The Acts also had the effect of mobilizing opposition to Adams in the 1800 election. The unfortunate predicament of running against his own vice president (Jefferson), defending an unpopular peace treaty, and being blamed for the Alien and Sedition Acts was too much to overcome.
Adams lost his bid for re-election, and he left the White House an unhappy man. Sneaking out in the middle of the night, Adams did not wait to welcome newly-elected Thomas Jefferson to the White House. He retired to his farm in his hometown of Braintree, Massachusetts, near Boston.
By the time Jefferson and Adams had retired from public life, the two renewed their friendship, reminiscing about the old times of fighting for independence.
Adams died July 4, 1826. His last words are reported to have been, “Jefferson still lives.” Little did he know that his friend had died just hours before, both passing away on the fiftieth anniversary of Independence Day.
Dana Angello is a political science major at Sam Houston State University. She is vice president of the Political Science Junior Fellows.