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Transcribed by Sharon Elijah December 23, 2020
JOHN ADAMS, the second President of the United States, 1797 to 1801, was born in the present town of Quincy, then a portion of Braintree, Massachusetts, October 30, 1735. His father was a farmer of moderate means, a worthy and industrious man. He was a deacon in the church, and was very desirous of giving his son a collegiate education, hoping that he would become a minister of the gospel. But, as up to this time, the age of fourteen, he had been only a play-boy in the fields and forests, he had no taste for books, he chose farming. On being set to work, however, by his father out in the field, the very first day converted the boy into a lover a books.
Accordingly, at the age of sixteen he entered Harvard College, and graduated in 1755, at the age of twenty, highly esteemed for integrity, energy and ability. Thus, having no capital but his education, he started out into the stormy world at a time of great political excitement, as France and England were then engaged in their great seven-years struggle for the mastery over the New World. The fire of patriotism seized young Adams, and for a time he studied over the question whether he should take to the law, to politics or the army. He wrote a remarkable letter to a friend, making prophecies concerning the future greatness of this country which have since been more than fulfilled. For two years he taught school and studied law, wasting no odd moments, and at the early age of twenty-two years he opened a law office in his native town. His inherited powers of mind and untiring devotion to his profession caused him to rise rapidly in public esteem.
In October, 1764, Mr. Adams married Miss Abigail Smith, daughter of a clergyman at Weymouth and a lady of rare personal and intellectual endowments, who afterward contributed much to her husband’s celebrity.
Soon the oppression of the British in America reached its climax. The Boston merchants employed an attorney by the name of James Otis to argue the legality of oppressive tax law before the Superior Court. Adams heard the argument, and afterward wrote to a friend concerning the ability displayed, as follows: “Otis was a flame of fire. With a promptitude of classical allusion, a depth of research, a rapid summary of historical events and dates, a profusion of legal authorities and a prophetic glance into futurity, he hurried away all before him. American independence was then and there born. Every man of an immensely crowded audience appeared to me to go away, as I did, ready to take up arms.”
Soon Mr. Adams wrote an essay to be read before the literary club of his town, upon the state of affairs, which was so able as to attract public attention. It was published in American journals, republished in England, and was pronounced by the friends of the colonists there as “one of the very best productions ever seen from North America.”
The memorable Stamp Act was now issued, and Adams entered with all the ardor of his soul into political life in order to resist it. He drew up a series of resolutions remonstrating against the act, which were adopted at a public meeting of the citizens of Braintree, and which were subsequently adopted, word for word, by more than forty towns in the State. Popular commotion prevented the landing of the Stamp Act papers, and the English authorities then closed the courts. The town of Boston therefore appointed Jeremy Gridley, James Otis and John Adams to argue a petition before the Governor and council for the re-opening of the courts; and while the two first mentioned attorneys based their argument upon the distress caused to the people by the measure, Adams boldly claimed that the Stamp Act was a violation both of the English Constitution and the charter of the Provinces. It is said that this was the first direct denial of the unlimited right of Parliament over the colonies. Soon after this the Stamp Act was repealed.
Directly Mr. Adams was employed to defend Ansell Nickerson, who had killed an Englishman in the act of impressing him (Nickerson) into the King’s service, and his client was acquitted, the court thus establishing the principle that the infamous royal prerogative of impressment could have no existence in the colonial code. But in 1770 Messrs. Adams and Josiah Quincy defended a party of British soldiers who had been arrested for murder when they had been only obeying Governmental orders; and when reproached for thus apparently deserting the cause of popular liberty, Mr. Adams replied that he would a thousandfold rather live under the domination of the worst of England’s kings than that of a lawless mob. Next, after serving a term as a member of the Colonial Legislature from Boston, Mr. Adams, finding his health affected by too great labor, retired to his native home at Braintree.
The year 1774 soon arrived, with its famous Boston “Tea Party,” the first open act of rebellion. Adams was sent to the Congress at Philadelphia; and when the Attorney-General announced that Great Britain had “determined on her system, and that her power to execute it was irresistible,” Adams replied: “I know that Great Britain has determined on her system, and that very determination determines me on mine. You know that I have been constant in my opposition to her measures. The die is now cast. I have passed the Rubicon. Sink or swim, live or die, with my country, is my unalterable determination.” The rumor beginning to prevail at Philadelphia that the Congress had independence in view, Adams foresaw that it was too soon to declare it openly. He advised every one to remain quiet in that respect; and as soon as it became apparent that he himself was for independence, he was advised to hide himself, which he did.
The next year the great Revolutionary war opened in earnest, and Mrs. Adams, residing near Boston, kept her husband advised by letter of all events transpiring in her vicinity. The battle of Bunker Hill came on. Congress had to do something immediately. The first thing was to choose a commander-in-chief for the — we can’t say “army” — the fighting men of the colonies. The New England delegation was almost unanimous in favor of appointing General Ward, then at the head of the Massachusetts forces, but Mr. Adams urged the appointment of George Washington, then almost unknown outside of his own State. He was appointed without opposition. Mr. Adams offered the resolution, which was adopted, annulling all the royal authority in the colonies. Having thus prepared the way, a few weeks, viz., June 7, 1776, Richard Henry Lee, of Virginia, who a few months before had declared that the British Government would abandon its oppressive measurers, now offered the memorable resolution, seconded by Adams, “That these United States are, and of right ought to be, free and independent.” Jefferson, Adams, Franklin, Sherman and Livingston were then appointed a committee to draught a declaration of independence. Mr. Jefferson desired Mr. Adams to draw up the bold document, but the latter persuaded Mr. Jefferson to perform that responsible task. The Declaration drawn up, Mr. Adams became its foremost defender on the floor of Congress. It was signed by all the fifty-five members present, and the next day Mr. Adams wrote to his wife how great a deed was done, and how proud he was of it. Mr. Adams continued to be the leading man of Congress, and the leading advocate of American independence. Above all other Americans, he was considered by every one the principal shining mark for British vengeance. Thus circumstanced, he was appointed to the most dangerous task of crossing the ocean in winter, exposed to capture by the British, who knew of his mission, which was to visit Paris and solicit the co-operation of the French. Besides, to take himself away from the country of which he was the most prominent defender, at that critical time, was an act of the greatest self-sacrifice. Sure enough, while crossing the sea, he had two very narrow escapes from capture; and the transit was otherwise a stormy and eventful one. During the summer of 1779 he returned home, but was immediately dispatched back to France, to be in readiness there to negotiate terms of peace and commerce with Great Britain as soon as the latter power was ready for such business. But as Dr. Franklin was more popular than he at the court of France, Mr. Adams repaired to Holland, where he was far more successful as a diplomatist.
The treaty of peace between the United States and England was finally signed at Paris, January 21, 1783; and the re-action from so great excitement as Mr. Adams had so long been experiencing threw him into a dangerous fever. Before he fully recovered he was in London, whence he was dispatched again to Amsterdam to negotiate another loan. Compliance with this order undermined his physical constitution for life.
In 1785 Mr. Adams was appointed envoy to the court of St. James, to meet face to face the very kind who had regarded him as an arch traitor! Accordingly he repaired thither, where he did actually meet and converse with George III.! After a residence there for about three years, he obtained permission to return to America. While in London he wrote and published an able work, in three volumes, entitled: “A Defense of the American Constitution.”
The Articles of Confederation proving inefficient, as Adams had prophesied, a carefully draughted Constitution was adopted in 1789, when George Washington was elected President of the new nation, and Adams Vice-President. Congress met for a time in New York, but was removed to Philadelphia for ten years, until suitable buildings should be erected at the new capital in the District of Columbia. Mr. Adams then moved his family to Philadelphia. Toward the close of his term of office the French Revolution culminated, when Adams and Washington rather sympathized with England, and Jefferson with France. The Presidential election of 1796 resulted in giving Mr. Adams the first place by a small majority, and Mr. Jefferson the second place.
Mr. Adam’s administration was conscientious, patriotic and able. The period was a turbulent one, and even an archangel could not have reconciled the hostile parties. Partisanism with reference to England and France was bitter, and for four years Mr. Adams struggled through almost a constant tempest of assaults. In fact, he was not truly a popular man, and his chagrin at not receiving a re-election was so great that he did not even remain at Philadelphia to witness the inauguration of Mr. Jefferson, his successor. The friendly intimacy between these two men was interrupted for about thirteen years of their life. Adams finally made the first advances toward a restoration of their mutual friendship, which were gratefully accepted by Jefferson.
Mr. Adams was glad of his opportunity to retire to private life, where he could rest his mind and enjoy the comforts of home. By a thousand bitter experiences he found the path of public duty a thorny one. For twenty-six years his service of the public was as arduous, self-sacrificing and devoted as ever fell to the lot of man. In one important sense he was as much the “Father of his Country” as was Washington in another sense. During these long years of anxiety and toil, in which he was laying broad and deep, the foundations of the greatest nation the sun ever shone upon, he received from his impoverished country a meager support. The only privilege he carried with him into his retirement was that of franking his letters.
Although taking no active part in public affairs, both himself and his son, John Quincy, nobly supported the policy of Mr. Jefferson in resisting the encroachments of England, who persisted in searching American ships on the high seas and dragging from them any sailors that might be designated by any pert lieutenant as British subjects. Even for this noble support Mr. Adams was maligned by thousands of bitter enemies! On this occasion, for the first time since his retirement, he broke silence and drew up a very able paper, exposing the atrocity of the British pretensions.
Mr. Adams outlived nearly all his family. Though his physical frame began to give way many years before his death, his mental powers retained their strength and vigor to the last. In his ninetieth year he was gladdened by the popular elevation of his son to the Presidential office, the highest in the gift of the people. A few months more passed away and the 4th of July, 1826, arrived. The people, unaware of the near approach of the end of two great lives — that of Adams and Jefferson — were making unusual preparations for a national holiday. Mr. Adams lay upon his couch, listening to the ringing of bells, the waftures of martial music and the roar of cannon, with silent emotion. Only four days before, he had given for a public toast, “Independence forever”. About two o’clock in the afternoon he said, “And Jefferson still survives.” But he was mistaken by an hour or so; and in a few minutes he had breathed his last.
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