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John Adams
(1735 - 1826)


An extraordinary figure in United States history, John Adams was a constitutional attorney, a founding father, and the second President of the United States. He was a federalist and Son of Liberty, allegiances that were trumped only by his dedication to justice and the rule of law. Throughout his diverse political life, he made important contributions to the emerging nation that proved key to the formation of America’s political thought and government.

Portrait of John Adams.
Adams. John. 16" x 20". 2015. Collection of the artist. Montreal, Canada.

Historical Background

Adams began his university education at sixteen years old when he undertook an undergraduate degree at Harvard University. Upon graduation, he faced a dilemma: pressured by Protestant parents to become a minister, he was unsure how to reconcile clerical life with an investment in law and politics. Adams’ liberal values and call to revolutionary action conflicted with church conservatism. But in the same way, the enrichment from other people’s suffering conflicted with the altruistic service of God. He ultimately chose a political career over clerical life but kept one foot in Unitarianism.

Adams briefly taught in Worchester, MA, before returning to the challenge of university. He was driven to legal studies by determination for “distinction […] reputation, fame and fortune”(1), and he viewed attorneys as exemplars of justice and greatness. He obtained a Master’s degree from Harvard and was admitted to the bar in 1758. 

His diaries reveal a disciplined, self-admonishing student who diligently examined not only the law, but the performance of being an attorney. Eloquence was the most powerful and influential attribute of the lawyers he studied and he built upon this skill throughout his career.

Political Career

We are privileged to have intimate knowledge about Adams’ achievements, the development of his political thought, and the development of republicanism, revealed through the long paper trail he left behind. Thousands of letters to his wife Abigail Adams, and his friend, colleague, and rival Thomas Jefferson, tell us a great deal about his personal and professional life.

He also published several political treaties in local newspapers, and the text Novanglus; Or, a History of the Dispute With America, From Its Origin, In 1754, to the Present Time, among others. His ideology is further immortalized in our nationally governing ideology: he wrote the 1780 Massachusetts Constitution and its Declaration of Rights, both of which were models for the U.S. Federal Constitution and the Bill of Rights. He is considered as great a political philosopher as a politician. 

Adams held many important state and federal governmental positions before assuming the presidency, including seats in state General Courts and in the Senate. He was appointed ambassador to the Netherlands, where he founded the first foreign American embassy, sat as the head of the Board of War and Ordinance, and acted as the first American minister to the Court of St. James. He was elected Vice President to George Washington in 1789 and 1792, and became the second President in 1797.

Though he was a federalist, an objector of the Stamp Act, and a member of the Sons of Liberty, [Adams] stood for right to fair trial for all citizens.

Adams promoted the republic and federalism throughout his career and was a key figure in the radicalization of early American political thought(2). In addition to political radicalism, Adams’ social ideas stood out among his contemporaries. He and his wife Abigail opposed the ownership of slaves and use of slave labour and he countered notions of a purely natural aristocracy. Adams is also known for his representation of nine British Soldiers of the Boston Massacre who were charged with the murder of colonists, a case that demonstrated his allegiance to law and justice despite his support of revolutionary ideals. Though he was a federalist, an objector of the Stamp Act, and a member of the Sons of Liberty, he stood for right to fair trial for all citizens.

Known by some as an honorable and ambitious man, and to others as “vain, opinionated, unpredictable, and stubborn”(3), Adams remains a revolutionary leader of independence who left a legacy of radical social and political thought. 

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