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John Adams, the second president of the United States, was born on the 19th of October (old style), 1735, in that part of the town of Braintree (near Boston), Massachusetts, which has since been incorporated by the name of Quincy. He was the fourth in descent from Henry Adams, who fled from persecution in Devonshire, England, and settled in Massachusetts about the year 1630. Another of the ancestors of Mr. Adams was John Alden, one of the Pilgrim founders of the Plymouth colony in 1620. Receiving his early education in his native town, John Adams, in 1751, was admitted a member of Harvard College, at Cambridge, where he graduated in regular course four years afterward. On leaving college he went to Worcester, for the purpose of studying law, and at the same time to support himself, according to the usage at that time in New England, by teaching in the grammar-school of that town. He studied law with James Putnam, a barrister of eminence, by whom he was afterward introduced to the acquaintance of Jeremy Gridley, then attorney-general of the province, who proposed him to the court for admission to the bar of Suffolk County, in 1758, and gave him access to his library, which was then one of the best in America.
Mr. Adams commenced the practice of his profession in his native town, and by travelling the circuits with the court, became well known in that part of the country. In 1766, by the advice of Mr. Gridley, he removed to Boston, where he soon distinguished himself at the bar by his superior talents as counsel and advocate. At an earlier period of his life his thoughts had begun to turn on general politics, and the prospects of his country engaged his attention. Soon after leaving college he wrote a letter to a friend, dated at Worcester, October 12, 1755, which evinces so remarkable a foresight that it is fortunate it has been preserved. We make the following extracts: "Soon after the Reformation a few people came over into this new world for conscience' sake. Perhaps this apparently trivial incident may transfer the great seat of empire into America. It looks likely to me, if we can remove the turbulent Gallics, our people, according to the exactest computation, will, in another century, become more numerous than England herself. The only way to keep us from setting up for ourselves is to disunite us. Divide et impera. Keep us in distinct colonies, and then some great men in each colony, desiring the monarchy of the whole, will destroy each other's influence, and keep the country in equilibrio. Be not surprised that I am turned politician; the whole town is immersed in politics. I sit and hear, and, after being led through a maze of sage observations, I sometimes retire and, by laying things together, form some reflections pleasing to myself. The produce of one of these reveries you have read above." Mr. Webster observes: "It is remarkable that the author of this prognostication should live to see fulfilled to the letter what could have seemed to others, at the time, but the extravagance of youthful fancy. His earliest political feelings were thus strongly American, and from this ardent attachment to his native soil he never departed."
In 1764 he married Abigail Smith, daughter of Rev. William Smith, of Weymouth, and grand-daughter of Colonel Quincy, a lady of uncommon endowments and excellent education. He had previously imbibed a prejudice against the prevailing religious opinions of New England, and became attached to speculations hostile to those opinions. Nor were his views afterward changed. In his religious sentiments he accorded with Dr. Bancroft, a Unitarian minister of Worcester, of whose printed sermons he expressed his high approbation. In 1765 Mr. Adams published an essay on canon and feudal law, the object of which was to show the conspiracy between Church and State for the purpose of oppressing the people.
In 1770 he was chosen a representative from the town of Boston, in the Legislature of Massachusetts. The same year he was one of the counsel who defended Captain Preston and the British soldiers who fired at his order upon the inhabitants of Boston. Captain Preston was acquitted, and Mr. Adams lost no favor with his fellow-citizens by engaging in this trial. As a member of the Legislature he opposed the royal governor, Hutchinson, in his measures, and also wrote against the British Government in the newspapers. In 1774 he was elected a member of the Massachusetts Council, and negatived by Governor Gage. In this and the next year he wrote on the Whig side, the pamphlets called "Nov Anglus," in reply to essays, signed "Massachusitensis," in favor of the British Government, by Sewall, the attorney-general. The same year he was appointed a member of the Continental Congress, from Massachusetts, and in that body, which met at Philadelphia, he became one of the most efficient and able advocates of liberty. In the Congress which met in May, 1775, he again took his seat, having been reappointed as a delegate. In 1775 he seconded the nomination of Washington as commander-in-chief of the army, and in July, 1776, he was the adviser and great supporter of the Declaration of Independence. It was reported by a committee composed of Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Roger Sherman, and Robert R. Livingston. During the same year he, with Dr. Franklin and Edward Rutledge, was deputed to treat with Lord Howe for the pacification of the colonies. He declined at this time the offer of the office of Chief-Justice of the Supreme Court of Massachusetts.
In December, 1777, Mr. Adams was appointed a commissioner to the court of France; and with the exception of one short interval, during which he aided in the framing of the Massachusetts State Constitution, he spent the following eleven years in diplomatic services abroad. He arranged the treaties of the United States with most foreign nations during that time, was associated with Franklin and Jay in signing the treaty of peace with England, and was our first English minister.
The services of Mr. Adams in the cause of his country, at home and abroad, during the period to which we have referred, it is believed, were not excelled by those of any other of the patriots of the Revolution. In the language of one of his eulogists (Mr. J. E. Sprague, of Massachusetts), "Not a hundred men in the country could have been acquainted with any part of the labors of Mr. Adams--they appeared anonymously, or under assumed titles; they were concealed in the secret conclaves of Congress, or the more secret cabinets of princes. Such services are never known to the public; or, if known, only in history, when the actors of the day have passed from the stage, and the motives for longer concealment cease to exist. As we ascend the mount of history, and rise above the vapors of party prejudice, we shall all acknowledge that we owe our independence more to John Adams than to any other created being, and that he was the Great Leader of the American Revolution."
When permission was given him to return from Europe, the Continental Congress adopted the following resolution: "Resolved, That Congress entertain a high sense of the services which Mr. Adams has rendered to the United States, in the execution of the various important trusts which they have from time to time committed to him; and that the thanks of Congress be presented to him for the patriotism, perseverance, integrity, and diligence with which he has ably and faithfully served his country." Such was the testimonial of his country, expressed through the national councils, at the termination of his revolutionary and diplomatic career.
During the absence of Mr. Adams in Europe, the Constitution of the United States had been formed and adopted. He highly approved of its provisions, and on his return, when it was about to go into operation, he was selected by the friends of the Constitution to be placed on the ticket with Washington as a candidate for one of the two highest offices in the gift of the people. He was consequently elected vice-president, and on the assembling of the Senate he took his seat, as president of that body, at New York, in April, 1789. Having been re-elected to that office in 1792, he held it, and presided in the Senate with great dignity, during the entire period of the administration of Washington, whose confidence he enjoyed, and by whom he was consulted on important questions. In his valedictory address to the Senate he remarks: "It is a recollection of which nothing can ever deprive me, and it will be a source of comfort to me through the remainder of my life that, on the one hand, I have for eight years held the second situation under our Constitution, in perfect and uninterrupted harmony with the first, without envy in the one, or jealousy in the other, so, on the other hand, I have never had the smallest misunderstanding with any member of the Senate."
In 1790 Mr. Adams wrote his celebrated "Discourses on Davila;" they were anonymously published at first, in the Gazette of the United States, of Philadelphia, in a series of numbers; they may be considered as a sequel to his "Defence of the American Constitutions." He was a decided friend and patron of literature and the arts, and while in Europe, having obtained much information on the subject of public institutions, he contributed largely to the advancement of establishments in his native State for the encouragement of arts, sciences, and letters.
On the retirement of General Washington from the presidency of the United States, Mr. Adams was elected his successor, after a close and spirited contest with two rivals for that high office; Mr. Jefferson being supported by the Democratic or Republican party, while a portion of the Federal party preferred Mr. Thomas Pinckney, of South Carolina, who was placed on the ticket with Mr. Adams. The result was the election of Mr. Adams as president, and in March, 1797, he entered upon his duties in that office. He came to the presidency in a stormy time. In the language of Colonel Knapp, "the French revolution had just reached its highest point of settled delirium, after some of the paroxysms of its fury had passed away. The people of the United States took sides, some approving, others deprecating, the course pursued by France. Mr. Adams wished to preserve a neutrality, but found this quite impossible. A navy was raised with surprising promptitude, to prevent insolence and to chastise aggression. It had the desired effect, and France was taught that the Americans were friends in peace, but were not fearful of war when it could not be averted. When the historian shall come to this page of our history, he will do justice to the sagacity, to the spirit, and to the integrity of Mr Adams, and will find that he had more reasons, and good ones, for his conduct, than his friends or enemies ever gave him."
In his course of public policy, when war with France was expected, he was encouraged by addresses from all quarters, and by the approving voice of Washington. He, however, gave dissatisfaction to many of his own political party, in his final attempts to conciliate France, and in his removal of two members of his cabinet toward the close of his administration. Under these circumstances, notwithstanding Mr. Adams was the candidate of the Federal party for re-election as president, and received their faithful support, it is not strange that his opponents, with the advantage in their favor of the superior popularity of Mr. Jefferson, succeeded in defeating him. For this event, the correspondence of Mr. Adams shows that he was prepared, and he left the arduous duties of chief magistrate probably with less of disappointment than his enemies expected.
Immediately after Mr. Jefferson had succeeded to the presidency, in 1801, Mr. Adams retired to his estate at Quincy, in Massachusetts, and passed the remainder of his days in literary and scientific leisure, though occasionally addressing various communications to the public. He gave his support generally to the administration of Mr. Jefferson, and the friendship between these distinguished men was revived by a correspondence, and continued for several years previous to their death. When the disputes with Great Britain eventuated in war, Mr. Adams avowed his approbation of that measure, and in 1815 he saw the second treaty of peace concluded with that nation, by a commission of which his son was at the head, as he had been himself in that commission which formed the treaty of 1783.
In 1816 the Republican party in Massachusetts, which had once vehemently opposed him as president of the United States, paid him the compliment of placing his name at the head of their list of presidential electors. In 1820 he was chosen a member of the State Convention to revise the constitution of Massachusetts, which body unanimously solicited him to act as their president. This he declined on account of his age, but he was complimented by a vote of the convention acknowledging his great services, for a period of more than half a century, in the cause of his country and of mankind.
The last years of the long life of Mr. Adams were peaceful and tranquil. His mansion was always the abode of elegant hospitality, and he was occasionally enlivened by visits from his distinguished son, whom, in 1825, he had the singular felicity of seeing elevated to the office of President of the United States. At length, having lived to a good old age, he expired, surrounded by his affectionate relatives, on July 4, 1826, the fiftieth anniversary of that independence which he had done so much to achieve. A short time before his death, being asked to suggest a toast for the customary celebration, he replied, "I will give you--Independence forever." Mr. Jefferson died on the same day. A similar coincidence occurred five years afterward, in the death of President Monroe, July 4, 1831.
Mr. Adams was of middle stature and full person, and when elected president, was bald on the top of his head. His countenance beamed with intelligence, and moral as well as physical courage. His walk was firm and dignified to a late period of his life. His manner was slow and deliberate, unless he was excited, and when this happened he expressed himself with great energy. He was ever a man of purest morals, and is said to have been a firm believer in Christianity, not from habit and example, but from diligent investigation of its proofs.