John Adams was born in Braintree (now Quincy), Massachusetts, on October 30, 1735, the first of three children born to John Adams and Susanna Boylston Adams. His father was a modest but successful farmer and local officeholder. After some initial reluctance, Adams entered Harvard and received his bachelor’s degree in 1755. For about a year he taught school in Worcester, Massachusetts.
By 1765 Adams had become known for his skills as a lawyer. After Great Britain passed the Stamp Act, which imposed taxes on printed materials in the American colonies that many viewed as unfair, he moved into the center of Massachusetts political life. He contributed an important series of essays to the Boston newspapers and prepared a series of anti-Stamp Act resolutions for the Braintree town meetings. These resolutions were copied widely throughout the province. In April 1768 Adams moved to Boston and eventually was elected the city’s representative to the Massachusetts legislature.
After the battles of Lexington and Concord in Massachusetts on April 17, 1775, began the Revolutionary War (1775–83), Adams returned to Congress. By February 1776 Adams was fully committed to American independence.
He was elected vice president in 1789 and served for two terms under President George Washington (1732–1799). Adams was unhappy in this post; he felt that he lacked the authority to accomplish much. In 1796, despite a strong challenge from Thomas Jefferson and the choice of his own Federalist Party (an early political party that supported a strong federal government) to run a candidate against him, Adams was elected as the second president of the United States.
Adams took office on March 4, 1797. From the beginning his presidency was a stormy one. His cabinet proved difficult to control, and many foreign policy problems arose. The French Revolution (1787–99) and fighting between England and France caused many Americans to take the sides of both those countries. Still others wanted the United States to remain neutral. Adams found himself caught in the middle.
Although anti-French feelings were running high, President Adams committed himself to a plan of peace with France. This decision enraged most of his opponents. The president’s attempts to keep peace made sense; America was still young and not fully established, and entering into an unnecessary war could have been a disaster. Many members of his own Federalist Party were opposed to him, however, and in the end Adams lost the next election to Jefferson by a narrow margin. He was so disappointed over his rejection by the American people that he refused to stay to welcome his successor into office.
John Adams spent the remainder of his life at home on his farm. He retained a lively interest in public affairs, particularly when they involved the rising career of his son, John Quincy Adams (1767–1848), who would also become president. Adams divided his time between overseeing his farm and writing letters about his personal experiences as well as more general issues of the day. He died at the age of ninety–one in Quincy, Massachusetts, just a few hours after Jefferson’s death, on July 4, 1826.