John Adams was the fifth generation of Adams in America. His father was also John and his mother was Susan Boylston, daughter of Peter Boylston from the town of Brookline. John was born into a comfortable but not wealthy family in the town Braintree, Massachusetts, on October 19, 1735. He was the eldest son; his younger brothers were Peter, born in 1738, and Elihu in 1742. The old John Adams was a deacon of Braintree’s First Congregational Church and a selectman for the town of Braintree. The family sought to live by Puritan tenets and attended church regularly.
As the oldest son in the family John was expected to go to the best university his father could afford and that was Harvard College, where the sons of the most influential and affluent families got their education. His father wanted John to study in Harvard and enter the clergy as it was highly regarded in society.
Harvard, Stoughton and Massachusetts Halls in 1755.
JA’s formal education started at age six at Dalme Belche’s house across the street from his house. At eight he moved to Braintree’s Latin School headed by Joseph Cleverly where he was to be prepared for his entrance exams to Harvard. At fourteen his father hired Joseph Marsh who influenced and inspired John. With great discipline and determination he immersed himself in books and was ready to take the admission exams to Harvard in less than a year. He was accepted to Harvard College in 1751 at age fifteen, almost sixteen.
After attending Harvard Adams worked as a teacher for about one year. Realizing that it was not a suitable career for him he asked James Putman to take him as a law student. Once established in the legal profession he started a relationship with Abigail Smith who he called Miss Adorable. They married in the fall of 1764 when John was twenty eight and Abigail nineteen. The following year 1765, their first child, a daughter named after her mother Abigail was born, they called her Nabby. That year was a challenging year full of obstacles and opportunities. He took the risk of defending the 5 British soldiers involved in the killing of five innocent Americans in what is known as the Boston Massacre. It could have gone either way. As he argued that the soldiers deserved a fair trial, he gained the respect of his friends and the citizens of Boston. He won the case and the jury decided the soldiers shot in self defense. After the Boston Massacre Trials Adams became one of the most famous lawyers in Boston.
Adams was as busy as ever. In 1767 his first son was born, they named him John Quincy, who was to become the sixth president of the United States. The following year a daughter named Susana was born but she died when she was still a baby. In 1770 Abigail gave birth to a second son, Charles and in 1772 a son, Thomas Boylston. In 1777 they had Elizabeth who was a stillborn. In ten years the couple had six children. As his last child was born, John Adams was forty two years old.
Abigail Adams was responsible for the family and the business when John was on long trips. She is known for the letters she wrote to her husband who sought her advice on many political and personal issues. Abigail’s support for women’s rights was an intellectually advanced topic for her day, she was well read and played an important role as a first lady in her husband’s government.
Portrait of Abigail Adams
Politics offered Adams an intellectual challenge that the practice of law did not offer. Using his knowledge of historical law and his highly polished oratory skills he was elected to the city council. He spent countless hours in his office writing about a new wave of unconstitutional taxation by Britain such as the Stamp Act and Townshend Acts. John supported American independence from the beginning. He was elected to represent Massachusetts to the First and Second Continental Congress. He also served as an envoy to Europe to negotiate a peace agreement with France, signing the Treaty of Paris in 1783.
One of Adams’ most important legacies was the Massachusetts Constitution ratified in 1780. It served as a model for other states’ constitutions and the American Constitution as well as for the structure of government with all its balances and checks.
Fully immersed in politics and with no desire to go back to his law practice, Adams, representing the Federalist Party, decided to run for president. He lost by a narrow margin to George Washington and became Vice President serving from 1789 to 1792 and then again for the same administration from 1793 to 1796.
In 1796 he decided to go for another run at the presidency, this time he won by a narrow margin over Thomas Jefferson, who this time became his Vice President. During his time as president, John Adams remained quite independent of his cabinet often making decisions despite strong opposition from it. Adams worked for keeping American institutions independent and strong while developing an image of America as a country that held its own against a European power.
In 1800 he run again for the highest office against Thomas Jefferson but this time he lost by a narrow margin. Following his defeat he retired into private life.
John Adams died of old age on July 4th, 1826 when his son John Quincy was president. He got to live until the age 90 and spent his last days comfortably in his house in Quincy. JA was originally buried in Hancock Cemetery across from where his crypt currently lies at the United First Parish Church.