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John Adams (1735–1826)

Biography | Timeline of His and Abigail’s LivesWords of Adams | Fascinating Facts About Him |
See also Abigail Adams

by Victoria Hurtado

john_adams1John Adams strongly supported independence from Britain, signed the Declaration of Independence, and negotiated the treaty ending the Revolutionary War. He later became the nation’s first vice president and second president.

John Adams was born on October 30, 1735 in Braintree, Massachusetts. He was the first of three children. The others were his brothers Peter and Elihu. His father, John Adams Sr., was a farmer and the local church deacon. The Adams were an old New England family dating back to the 17th century, but no one in the family had attended college. John’s mother, Susanna Boylston, came from a wealthy family of merchants and doctors.

As a young boy, John enjoyed the outdoors. He spent much of his childhood exploring the wilderness with his brothers and friends. The boys enjoyed ice skating, swimming, flying kites, and building toy sailboats. Although his parents encouraged his outdoor activities, they also stressed school work. John’s parents taught him and his brothers how to read and write. When John entered grade school, he was far ahead of his classmates.

His interest in learning, however, began to fade when he grew frustrated with his teacher. John told his father that he no longer wanted to go to school. He said he would follow in his father’s footsteps and become a farmer. Alarmed by his son’s decision, John Sr. decided to teach his son a lesson. If John wanted to be a farmer, he was going to have him do all the hard farmwork. For the first few days, young John enjoyed the work. But in time, the backbreaking work caused John to change his mind.

When John returned to school, he was in the same situation as before. He kept complaining about his teacher, saying that he was holding him back and not letting him perform to the best of his abilities. His father arranged for another tutor to work with him. John enjoyed his new teacher and began to succeed with his studies.

In 1751, Adams passed the entrance exams and was admitted to Harvard College. His father had to sell several acres of his farm to pay for John’s schooling. Adams studied many subjects—Latin, Greek, math, logic, and science.

Within four years, Adams graduated from Harvard. He started working as a schoolteacher, but in his free time, he began to study law under lawyer James Putnam. During his apprenticeship, Adams lived with Putnam. In 1759, he was admitted to the Massachusetts Bar.

He then returned to his hometown in Braintree and set up his own practice. In 1761, his father died of the flu. John inherited much of his father’s estate. That same year, John began courting Abigail Smith. Her father, William Smith, was a preacher in a nearby town.

Three years later, they married and set up their home in Braintree. Within six years, John and Abigail had five children.

In these years, the conflict between the colonies and Britain was growing worse. The British Parliament was imposing taxes on the colonies, and the colonies objected because they had no representatives in Parliament.

While others tried to organize boycotts of British goods or took to the streets to protest, Adams protested through his writings. He wrote letters to the Boston Gazette denouncing Britain’s policies, saying that it was illegal to tax the colonies.

In 1770, British troops opened fire on unarmed Americans in Boston. This event was known as the Boston Massacre. The British troops were put on trial for murder. Adams decided to serve as their attorney because he believed they deserved a fair trial. The men were found not guilty of murder. Adams lost much popularity over the trial.

Relations between Britain and the colonies continued to get worse. The colonists decided to organize politically against the British by forming the Continental Congress. Massachusetts picked Adams as a delegate.

As tensions mounted, more British soldiers arrived. The colonists armed themselves. And in 1775, the Revolutionary War broke out. 

john_adams2The Continental Congress named Adams to the committee to write the Declaration of Independence. But Adams let Thomas Jefferson do the writing, because he knew Jefferson was the better writer. Adams spent his time persuading delegates to vote for independence. On July 4, 1776, Congress adopted the Declaration of Independence.

Adams spent the first part of the war in Braintree. In 1779, he wrote the Constitution for the state of Massachusetts. This Constitution is still in effect today.

That same year, Congress sent Adams to Paris to negotiate the treaty to end the war. But the war was far from over, and Adams spent much time trying to get loans to pay for the costs of the war. The final treaty was not signed until 1783. Adams then remained in Europe negotiating trade treaties.

Abigail and John Adams had been separated for five years. In 1784, she finally sailed to London and they were together again. They lived there as Congress named Adams ambassador to Britain. They finally returned to the United States in 1788, the year Adams was elected the first vice president of the United States of America. Eight years later, he was elected the second U.S. president. When he ran for re-election, he was defeated by Thomas Jefferson. So in the year 1801, Adams officially retired from politics and retreated to Braintree with Abigail. He continued to devote much of his time to reading and writing.

His son, John Quincy Adams followed his father into politics and became the nation’s sixth president in 1825. Abigail did not live to see to son become president. She died at age 73 of typhoid fever.

On July 4, 1826, the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, John Adams died. His last words were: “Thomas Jefferson survives.” He did not know that Jefferson had died the same day, a few hours before him.

Biography | Timeline of His and Abigail’s LivesWords of Adams | Fascinating Facts About Him |
See also Abigail Adams

Timeline of John and Abigail Adams’ Lives


Oct. 30

John Adams is born in Braintree, Mass. (According to the calendar of the time, he was born on Oct. 19, but the old calendar was changed.)


Nov. 22

Abigail Smith is born in Weymouth, Mass. (According to the calendar of the time, she was born on Nov. 11, but the old calendar was changed.)


John enters Harvard College.


John becomes a teacher.


John starts studying law.


John become a lawyer.


John and Abigail first meet.


John’s father dies.


John and Abigail get married.


Parliament passes the Stamp Act.

Abigail Amelia Adams, their first child, is born.

John begins writing against the Stamp Act.


John is elected to office in Braintree.


John Quincy Adams is born.


Susanna Adams is born. She dies a year later.


Boston Massacre

John agrees to defend the soldiers.

Charles Adams is born.


Thomas Boylston Adams is born.


John is a delegate to the Continental Congress.


John publishes essays against British taxation.

Revolutionary War breaks out.

Second Continental Congress meets. John is a delegate.


Abigail writes a letter to John asking him to make sure Congress includes the rights of women in its laws.

John is named to the committee to write the Declaration of Independence, but he lets Jefferson write it.

July 4

Congress approves the Declaration of Independence.


John writes the Constitution of Massachusetts.

John goes to Europe as the U.S. diplomat. He lives in Paris and Amsterdam.


Adams, Benjamin Franklin, and John Jay sign the Treaty of Paris, ending the war.

John travels to London.


Abigail joins John in London.


Congress names John the first U.S. ambassador to Britain.


New U.S. Constitution is written.


John and Abigail return to the United States.


John Adams is sworn in as the first vice president of the United States.


The northern section of Braintree becomes the town of Quincy, where Abigail and John live.

Washington and Adams are re-elected.


John runs for president and defeats Thomas Jefferson.


The Adamses move into the newly finished White House, the first to occupy it.

Jefferson defeats Adams in his bid for re-election.


John Quincy Adams leaves his father’s party, the Federalists and joins the Democratic Republican Party, the party of Thomas Jefferson.


John begins exchanging letters with his rival Jefferson. They keep writing until they die.


John Quincy Adams begins serving as President James Monroe’s secretary of state.


Abigail Adams dies of typhoid fever.


After the election of 1824 is deadlocked, the House of Representatives votes to make John Quincy Adams president.


July 4

John Adams dies on the 50th anniversary of the adoption of the Declaration of Independence. His last words are “Thomas Jefferson survives.” He does not know that Jefferson had died hours before on the same day.

 Biography | Timeline of His and Abigail’s LivesWords of Adams | Fascinating Facts About Him |
See also Abigail Adams

Words of John Adams

No man is entirely free from weakness and imperfection in this life. Men of the most exalted genius and active minds are generally most perfect slaves to the love of fame.
—Diary (1756)

A pen is certainly an excellent instrument to fix a man’s attention and to inflame his ambition.
—Diary (1760)

I always consider the settlement of America with reverence and wonder, as the opening of a grand scene and design in providence, for the illumination of the ignorant and the emancipation of the slavish part of mankind all over the earth.
—Notes for “A Dissertation on the Canon and Feudal Law” (1765)

Liberty cannot be preserved without a general knowledge among the people . . . .
—“A Dissertation on the Canon and Feudal Law” (1765)

Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passions, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.
—Argument in defense of British soldiers in the Boston Massacre Trials (1770)

There is danger from all men. The only maxim of a free government ought to be to trust no man living with power to endanger the public liberty.
—Notes for a speech (1772)

A government of laws, and not of men.
—“Novanglus" papers (1774). Incorporated into the Massachusetts Constitution.

Liberty, once lost, is lost forever.
—Letter (1775)

Yesterday, the greatest question was decided which ever was debated in America, and a greater perhaps never was nor will be decided among men. A resolution was passed without one dissenting colony, “that these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent States.”
—Letter (July 3, 1776)

The happiness of society is the end of government.
—Letter (1776)

Fear is the foundation of most governments.
—Letter (1776)

When annual elections end, there slavery begins.
—Letter (1776)

The judicial power ought to be distinct from both the legislative and executive, and independent upon both, that so it may be a check upon both, as both should be checks upon that.
—Letter (1776)

Virtue is not always amiable.
—Diary (1779)

I must study politics and war that my sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy. My sons ought to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history, naval architecture, navigation, commerce, and agriculture, in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry, and porcelain.
—Letter (1780)

You will never be alone with a poet in your pocket.
—Letter (1781)

Children should be educated and instructed in the principles of freedom.
A Defence of the Constitutions of Government (1787)

Hunger and poverty may make men industrious, but laws only can make them good; for, if men were so of themselves, there would be no occasion for laws; but, as the case is far otherwise, they are absolutely necessary.
A Defence of the Constitutions of Government (1787)

A desire to be observed, considered, esteemed, praised, beloved, and admired by his fellows is one of the earliest, as well as the keenest dispositions discovered in the heart of man.
Discourses on Davila (1790)

My country has in its wisdom contrived for me the most insignificant office [vice president] that ever the invention of man contrived or his imagination conceived; and as I can do neither good nor evil, I must be borne away by others and meet the common fate.
—Letter (1793)

I pray Heaven to bestow the best of blessings on this house [the White House] and all that shall hereafter inhabit it. May none but honest and wise men ever rule under this roof.
—Letter (1800)

You and I ought not to die before we have explained ourselves to each other.
—Letter to Thomas Jefferson (1813)

The revolution was in the minds of the people, and this was effected from 1760–1775, in the course of fifteen years, before a drop of blood was shed at Lexington.
—Letter (1815)

No man who ever held the office of president would congratulate a friend on obtaining it.
—Letter (1825)

Thomas Jefferson survives.
—Last words (July 4, 1826)

Biography | Timeline of His and Abigail’s LivesWords of Adams | Fascinating Facts About Him |
See also Abigail Adams

Fascinating Facts About John Adams

         As a child Adams sometimes skipped school to do his favorite outdoor activities: hunting and fishing.

         Adams entered Harvard College at age 15.

         His father was a farmer and shoemaker in Braintree, Massachusetts. He was also a deacon in the Congregational Church and hoped that young John would grow up to be a minister. After graduating from Harvard, however, John became a schoolteacher to pay the fees necessary to get a legal education. His wife, Abigail, was the daughter of a Congregational minister.

         Adams defended the British redcoats on trial for the Boston Massacre, even though he himself would later support full independence from Britain. Through his efforts, the redcoats were all acquitted.

         After Adams was elected vice president, he wrote to his wife Abigail, “My country has in its wisdom contrived for me the most insignificant office that ever the invention of man contrived or his imagination conceived.”

         When Adams was elected president in 1797, Thomas Jefferson became his vice president. In America’s earliest presidential elections, the candidate receiving the second-largest number of votes in the electoral college became vice president. Jefferson and Adams came from two different political parties. Jefferson was a Democratic-Republican, Adams a Federalist.

         Many presidents have served only one full term in office. But Adams served one day shorter than they did. The year 1800 did not have a leap year (366 days). It was 365 days. The term of every other one term president had a leap year.

         John Adams’ son, John Quincy Adams, became the sixth president of the United States. John Q. Adams, however, joined the Democratic-Republicans and not the Federalists. The only other father-son presidents are George H.W. Bush and George Bush.

         John and Abigail exchanged more than 1,100 letters between 1762 and 1801. During much of that time, John was away from home on official business.

         Adams and Jefferson were bitter rivals throughout their careers. But a mutual friend, Benjamin Rush, urged both men to put aside their differences. Adams wrote Jefferson in 1812, and Jefferson responded with a warm letter. The two men continued exchanging letters until their deaths.

         John Adams died on July 4, 1826, the 50th anniversary of the adoption of the Declaration of Independence. His last words were “Thomas Jefferson survives.” Jefferson, however, had died on the same day hours before.

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