John Adams: The least popular founding father

Published 8:46 pm Wednesday, July 11, 2007

John Adams was a remarkable man who contributed greatly to the founding of the nation. In fact, he was so concerned with getting it right, that he wound up becoming the least popular among the Founding Fathers.

Adams did not agree with democrats like Jefferson that human beings were naturally good and decent. On the contrary, he believed that people were basically selfish and only good because of necessity.

Adams also denied the democratic idea of equality. He pointed out that among all nations the people were “naturally divided into two sorts, the gentlemen and the simple men.” The gentlemen, being superior in abilities, education, and other advantages, were therefore qualified to rule.

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These views underlay Adams’ philosophy of government. Since human beings were greedy and selfish, it was necessary for society to keep them in check. The average person, he felt, could not be entrusted with power.

Adams believed in liberty and was opposed to tyranny, however, instead of a Jefferson-type democracy, Adams favored a republican government run by an aristocracy of talented man.

In 1764, Adams married Abigail Smith. She was an intelligent woman who could hold her own with her husband and whose letters are still a source of interesting information. The marriage was a happy one that lasted until Abigail’s death in 1818.

Adams served as a delegate from Massachusetts to the First Continental Congress in Philadelphia in 1774 and to the Second Continental Congress, which met in 1775. With brilliance and persistence, he argued for American independence from Britain. When the fighting broke out in 1775 that marked the beginning of the Revolutionary War, Adams proposed George Washington as the commander of American military forces.

Adams was a member of the committee that drafted the Declaration of Independence. Although the Declaration was written chiefly by Thomas Jefferson, Adams bore the burden of defending it on the floor of the Continental Congress. It was adopted on July 4, 1776.

In the first presidential election in the United States, in 1788, George Washington won all the electoral votes cast for president. Adams became vice president. Both men were re-elected in 1792.

In spite of his general agreement with Washington’s policies, Adams was impatient with his position when he found himself limited to the ceremonial job of presiding over the U.S. Senate. His frustration ended when he edged out Thomas Jefferson, leader of the Democratic-Republicans in the presidential election of 1796. According to the laws of the time, Jefferson thus became vice president. As a result, the new president and vice president belonged to opposing political parties.

John Adams was the first president to occupy the White House. He and Abigail moved in near the end of his term, in the fall of 1800. The President’s Palace, as it was then known, was still unfinished and littered with debris.

Adams’ one term as president was marked by troubles, both international and domestic. The foreign affairs crisis involved American neutrality at a time when Britain and France were at war. French attacks on American ships stirred up a warlike atmosphere in the United States. Adams sent a diplomatic mission to France to arrange a treaty. Despite immense pressure, including that of members of his own Federalist Party, President Adams persisted in his efforts for peace, which was finally achieved by the Convention of 1800. Adams said, “I desire no other inscription over my gravestone than: Here lies John Adams, who took upon himself the responsibility of the peace with France in the year 1800.”

President Adams’ unpopularity was intensified by the Alien and Sedition Acts. These acts were a direct result of the trouble with France. The country was divided into pro-French and pro-British groups. Adams’ Federalist Party was strongly anti-French. The opposition Democratic-Republican Party, led by Jefferson, was just as strongly anti-British.

The Alien Act gave the president the power to imprison or banish citizens of an enemy country in time of war. More serious was the Sedition Act, which was aimed at American opponents of the government. This act made it a crime to oppose the administration directly or indirectly. Even those who voiced criticism in print were made subject to harsh penalties. These acts were violently unpopular and in the election of 1800, Adams and his party suffered disastrous defeat.

Benjamin Franklin once described John Adams in these words: “He means well for his country, is always an honest man, often a wise one, but sometimes, in some things, absolutely out of his senses.”

After the inauguration of President Thomas Jefferson, Adams retired and eventually resumed his friendship and correspondence with Jefferson. On July 4, 1826, exactly fifty years to the day after the signing of the Declaration of Independence John Adams died at Quincy shortly after Thomas Jefferson had died at Monticello, Virginia. His last words are often quoted as “Thomas Jefferson survives.” Only the words “Thomas Jefferson” were intelligible however. Perhaps he was simply greeting his old colleague as they met in the next life.