Adams, John

From Enlightenment and Revolution
Jump to navigation Jump to search

Adams, John (1735-1826): American Politician and Theorist, Second President of the United States.

John Adams was born in Braintree, Massachusetts in 1735 and died on July 4, 1826 in Quincy. He received a legal education from Harvard University, obtaining his license in 1756. Prior to becoming a revolutionary, he taught school. In 1764, he married Abigail Smith; among their children was Adams, John Quincy, the sixth President of the United States.

His penchant for justice, no matter how unpopular the cause, led him to represent British soldiers charged with crimes in connection with the Boston Massacre, several of whom were acquitted. As a consequence, many of his detractors considered him pro-Crown. In 1765, Adams published his Dissertation on the Canon and Feudal Law, which contradicted his alleged anti-patriotic views. In that widely circulated work, Adams interpreted the unique American experience as one devoid of the effects of European history and referred to the “exceptional” events that created the American character. That same year he also prepared his Instructions of the Town of Braintree for its representatives, which responded to the Stamp and other intolerable Acts. In it, Adams deplored the extension of the Admiralty Courts jurisdiction, especially since it did away with jury trial, and integral part of the common law courts and the Great Charter.

His Novanglus (1774) argued that provincial legislatures should be in control of legislation and developing laws for the colonies. He viewed Blackstone, William’s legal theory of virtual representation as anathema in legitimizing Britain’s parliamentary right to regulate colonial affairs. Adams saw British control as resembling slavery and apparently hoped for a union similar to the present-day Commonwealth.

During the revolutionary struggle, Adams wrote Thoughts on Government (1775). The work discussed a governmental structure that would unite the people. One approach was the introduction of a bicameral legislature along with mutual dependence between legislative and executive branches. Like Hamilton, Alexander he feared the masses. In 1792, Adams published his last works; The Defense and Discourse were not considered major political writings. While they incorporate the philosophy of many earlier legal scholars, Adams offered little that was new. Instead, his purpose was to bring to the fore the problems facing the new nation.

As second President of the United States, Adams followed George Washington in 1796. He lost the Presidency to Jefferson, Thomas in the bitterly contested election of 1800, though later in life he and his old rival Jefferson became friends and carried on an extensive correspondence.

Arthur K. Steinberg