“He was born at Braintree (now Quincy), in Massachusetts, on the thirtieth of October, 1735, and was a direct lineal descendant, in the fourth generation, from Henry Adams, who fled from the persecutions in England during the reign of the first Charles. His maternal ancestor was John Alden, a passenger in the May-Flower, and thus the subject of our memoir inherited from both parental ancestors, the title of a Son of Liberty, which was subsequently given to him and others.*”
Life Sketch from “Lives of the Signers”
Character Sketch from Lives of the Signers of the Declaration of Independence, B.J. Lossing, the 1848 original.
O LOFTIER genius nor purer patriot wore the Senatorial robe during the struggle for Independence, than John Adams. His primary education was derived in a school at Braintree, and there he passed through a preparatory course of instruction for Harvard University, whence he graduated at the age of twenty years.
Having chosen the law as a profession, he entered upon the study of it with an eminent barrister in Worcester, by the name of Putnam. There he had the advantage of sound legal instruction, and through Mr. Putnam he became acquainted with many distinguished public men, among whom was Mr. Gridley, the Attorney-General. Their first interview awakened sentiments of mutual regard, and young Adams was allowed the free use of Mr. Gridley’s extensive library, a privilege of great value in those days. It was a rich treasure thrown open to him, and its value was soon apparent in the expansion of his general knowledge. He was admitted to the bar in 1758, and commenced practice in Braintree.
At an early period, young Adams’ mind was turned to the contemplation of the general politics of his country, and the atmosphere of liberal principles in which he had been born and nurtured, gave a patriotic bias to his judgment and feelings. He watched narrowly the movements of the British government toward the American colonies, and was ever out-spoken in his condemnation of its oppressive acts.
He was admitted as a barrister in 1761, and as his professional business increased, and his acquaintance among distinguished politicians extended, he became more publicly active, until in l765, when the Stamp Act had raised a perfect hurricane in America, he wrote and published his “Essay on the Canon and Feudal Law.” This production at once placed him high in the popular esteem; and the same year he was associated with James Otis and others, to demand, in the presence of the royal governor, that the courts should dispense with the use of stamped paper in the administration of justice.
In 1766 Mr. Adams married Abigail Smith, the amiable daughter of a pious clergyman of Braintree, and soon afterward he removed to Boston. There he was actively associated with Hancock, Otis, and others, in the various measures in favor of the liberties of the people, and was very energetic in endeavors to have the military removed from the town. Governor Bernard endeavored to bribe him to silence, at least, by offers of lucrative offices, but they were all rejected with disdain.
When, after the Boston Massacre, Captain Preston and his men were arraigned for murder, Mr. Adams was applied to, to act as counsel in their defence. Popular favor on one side, and the demands of justice and humanity on the other, were the horns of the dilemma between which Mr. Adams was placed by the application. But he was not long in choosing. He accepted the invitation-he defended the prisoners successfully-Captain Preston was acquitted, and, notwithstanding the tremendous excitement that existed against the soldiers, the patriotism of Mr. Adams was too far above suspicion to make this defence of the enemy a cause for withdrawing from him
the confidence which the people reposed in him. His friends applauded him for the act, and the people were satisfied, as was evident by their choosing him, that same year, a representative in the provincial Assembly.
Mr. Adams became very obnoxious to both Governors Bernard and Hutchinson. He was elected to a seat in the Executive council, but the latter erased his name. He was again elected when Governor Gage assumed authority, and he too erased his name. These things increased his popularity. Soon after the accession of Gage the Assembly at Salem adopted a proposition for a general Congress, and elected five delegates thereto in spite of the efforts of the governor to prevent it. John Adams was one of those delegates, and took his seat in the first Continental Congress, convened in Philadelphia on the fifth of September, 1774 He was again elected a delegate in 1775, and through his influence, George Washington of Virginia was elected Commander-in-Chief of all the forces of the United Colonies.
On the sixth of May, 1776, Mr. Adams introduced a motion in Congress “that the colonies should form governments independent of the Crown.” This motion was equivalent to a declaration of independence, and when, a month afterward, Richard Henry Lee introduced a motion more explicity to declare the colonies free and independent, Mr. Adams was one of its warmest advocates. He was appointed one of the committee to draft the Declaration of Independence, and he placed his signature to that document on the second of August, 1776.
After thc battle of Long Island he was appointed by Congress, with Dr. Franklin and Edward Rutledge, to meet Lord Howe in conference upon Staten Island, concerning the pacification of the colonies. According to his prediction, the mission failed. Notwithstanding his great labors in Congress he was appointed a member of the council of Massachusetts, while on a visit home, in 1776, the duties of which he faithfully fulfilled.
In 1777 Mr. Adams was appointed a special commissioner to the Court of France, whither Dr. Franklin had previously gone. Finding the subject of his mission fully attended to by Franklin, Adams returned home in 1779. He was immediately called to the duty of forming a Constitution for his native State. While in the discharge of his duty in convention, Congress appointed him a minister to Great Britain, to negotiate a treaty of peace and commerce with that government. He left Boston in the French frigate, La Sensible, in October, I777, and after a long passage, landed at Ferrol, in Spain, whence he journeyed by land to Paris. He found England indisposed for peace, if American Independence was to be the sine qua non, and was about to return home, when he received from Congress the appointment of commissioner to Holland, to negotiate a treaty of amity and commerce with the States General. The confidence of Congress in him was unlimited, and he was intrusted at one time, with the execution of no less than six missions, each of a different character. In 1781 he was associated with Franklin, Jay, and Laurens as a commissioner to conclude treaties of peace with the European powers.
In 1782 he assisted in negotiating a commercial treaty with Great Britain, and was the first of the American Commissioners who signed the definitive treaty of peace with that power. In 1784, Mr. Adams returned to Paris, and in January, 1785, he was appointed Minister for the United States at the Court of Great Britain. That post he honorably occupied until 1788, when he resigned the office and returned home.
While Mr. Adams was absent, the Federal Constitution was adopted, and it received his hearty approval. He was placed upon the ticket with Washington for Vice President, at the first election under the new Constitution, and was elected to that office. He was re-elected to the same office in 1792, and in 1796, he was chosen to succeed Washington in the Presidential Chair. In 1801 he retired from public life.
ln 1816 he was placed on the democratic ticket as presidential elector. In 1818 he lost his wife, with whom he had lived fifty-two years in uninterrupted conjugal felicity. In 1824 he was chosen a member of the convention of Massachusetts to revise the Constitution, and was chosen president of that body, which honor he declined on account of his great age. In 1825 he had the felicity of seeing his son elevated to the presidency of the United States. ln the spring of 1826 his physical powers rapidly declined, and on the fourth of July of that year, he expired, in the ninety-second year of his age. On the very same day, and at nearly the same hour, his fellow-committee-man in drawing up the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson, also died. lt was the fiftieth anniversary of that glorious act, and the coincidence made a deep impression upon the public mind. 1
Character Sketch from Lives of the Signers of the Declaration of Independence, Rev. Charles A. Goodrich, the 1829 original.
John Adams was born at Quincy, then part of the ancient town of Braintree, on the 19th day of October, old style, 1735. He was a descendant of the Puritans, his ancestors having early emigrated from England, and settled in Massachusetts. Discovering early a strong love of reading and of knowledge, proper care was taken by his father to provide for his education. His youthful studies were prosecuted in Braintree, under Mr. Marsh, a gentleman whose fortune it was to instruct several children, who in manhood were destined to act a conspicuous part in the scenes of the revolution.
He became a member of Harvard College, 1751, and was graduated in course in 1755: with what degree of reputation he left the university is not now precisely known; we only know that he was distinguished in a class of which the Dr. Hemmenway was a member, who bore honorable testimony to the openness and decision of his character, and to the strength and activity of his mind.
Having chosen the law for his profession, he commenced and prosecuted its studies under the direction of Samuel Putnam, a barrister of eminence at Worcester. By him he was introduced to the celebrated Jeremy Gridley, then attorney general of the province of Massachusetts Bay. At the first interview they became friends; Gridley at once proposed Mr. Adams for admission to the bar of Suffolk, and took him into special favor. Soon after his admission, Mr. Gridley led his young friend into a private chamber with an air of secrecy, and, pointing to a book case, said, “Sir, there is the secret of my eminence, and of which you may avail yourself as you please.” It was a pretty good collection of treatises of the civil law. In this place Mr. Adams spent his days and nights, until he had made himself master of the principles of the code.
From Early life, the bent of his mind was towards politics, a propensity which the state of the times, if it did not create, doubtless very much strengthened. While a resident at Worcester, he wrote a letter of which the following is an extract. The letter was dated October 12, 1755. “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; for, if we can remove the turbulent Gallicks, our people according to the exactest[sic] computations, will in another century become more numerous than England itself. Should this be the case, since we have, I may say, all the naval shores of the nation in our hands, it will be easy to obtain a mastery of the seas; and the united force of all Europe will not be able to subdue us. The only way to keep us from setting up for ourselves is to disunite us.
“Be not surprised that I am turned politician. This whole town is immersed in politics. The interests of nations and all the dira of war make the subject of every conversation. I sit and hear, and after having been led through a maze of sage observations, I sometimes retire, and lay things together, and form some reflections pleasing to myself. The produce of one of these reveries you have read.”
This prognostication of independence, and of so vast an increase of numbers, and of naval force, as might defy all Europe, is remarkable, especially as coming from so young a man, and so early in the history of the century. It is more remarkable that its author should have lived to see fulfilled to the letter, what would have seemed to others at the time, but the extravagance of youthful fancy. His early political feelings were thus strongly American, and from this ardent attachment to his native soil he never departed.
In 1758 he was admitted to the bar, and commenced business in Braintree. He is understood to have made his first considerable effort, or to have obtained his most signal success, at Plymouth, in a jury trial, and criminal cause. In 1765, Mr. Adams laid before the public his “Essay on the Canon and Feudal Law,” a work distinguished for its power and eloquence. The object of this work was to show, that our New-England ancestors, in consenting to excile themselves from their native land, were actuated mainly by the desire of delivering themselves from the power of the hierarchy, and from the monarchical, aristocratical, and political system of their continent; and to make this truth bear with effect on the politics of the times. Its tone is uncommonly bold and animated for that period. He calls on the people not only to defend, but to study and understand their rights and privileges; and urges earnestly the necessity of diffusing general knowledge.
In conclusion, He exclaims, “let the pulpit resound with the doctrines and sentiments of religious liberty. Let us hear the danger of thraldom[sic] to our consciences, from ignorance, extreme poverty and dependence, in short, from civil and political slavery. Let us see delineated before us, the true map of man — let us hear the dignity of his nature, and the noble rank he holds among the works of God! that consenting to slavery is a sacrilegious breach of trust, as offensive in the sight of God, as it is derogatory from our own honour, or interest, of happiness; and that God Almighty has promulgated from heaven, liberty, peace, and good will to man.
“Let the bar proclaim the laws, the rights, the generous plan of power delivered down from remote antiquity; inform the world of the mighty struggles and numberless sacrifices made by our ancestors in the defence of freedom. Let it be known that the British liberties are not the grants of princes of parliaments, but original rights, conditions of original contracts, coequal with prerogative, and coeval with government. That many of our rights are inherent and essential, agreed on as maxims and established as preliminaries even before a parliament existed. Let them search for the foundation of British laws and government in the frame of human nature, in the constitution of the intellectual and moral world. There let us see that truth, liberty, justice, and benevolence, are its everlasting basis; and if these could be removed, the superstructure is overthrown of course.
“Let the colleges join their harmony in the same delightful concert. Let every declamation turn upon the beauty of liberty and virtue, and the deformity, turpitude, and malignity of slavery and vice. Let the public disputations become researches into the grounds, nature, and ends of government, and the means of preserving the good and demolishing the evil. Let the dialogues and all the exercises become the instruments of impressing on the tender mind, and of spreading and distributing far and wide the ideas of right, and the sensations of freedom.”
In 1766, Mr. Adams removed his residence to Boston, still continuing his attendance on the neighboring circuits, and was often called to remote parts of the province.
In 1770 occurred, as has already been noticed, the “Boston massacre.” Mr. Adams was solicited by the British officers and soldiers to undertake their defence, on the indictment found against them, for their share in that tragical scene. This was a severe test of his professional firmness. He was well aware of the popular indignation against these prisoners, and he was at that time a representative of Boston in the general court, an office which depended entirely upon popular favour. But he knew that is was due to his profession, and to himself, to undertake their defence, and to hazard the consequences. “The trial was well managed. The captain was severed in his trial from the soldiers, who were tried first, and their defence rested in part upon the orders, real or supposed, given by the officer to his men to fire. This was in a good measure successful. On the trial of Capt. Preston, no such order to fire could be proved. The result was, as it should have been, an acquittal. It was a glorious thing that the counsel and jury had nerve sufficient to breast the torrent of public feeling. It showed Britain that she had not a mere mob to deal with, but resolute and determined men, who could restrain themselves. Such men are dangerous to arbitrary power.”
The event proved, that as he judged well for his own reputation, so he judged well for the interest and permanent fame of his country. The same year he was elected one of the representatives in the general assembly, and honor to which the people would not have called him, had he lost their confidence and affection.
In the year 1773, and 1774, he was chosen a counsellor by the members of the general court; but was rejected by Governor Hutchinson, in the former of these years, and by Governor Gage, in the latter.
In this latter year, he was appointed a member of the Continental Congress, from Massachusetts. “This appointment was made at Salem, where the general court had been convened by Governor Gage, in the last hour of the existence of a house of representatives, under the provincial charter. While engaged in this important business, the governor having been informed of what was passing, sent his secretary with a message, dissolving the general court. The secretary finding the door locked, directed the messenger to go in, and inform the speaker that the secretary was at the door, with a message from the governor. The messenger returned , and informed the secretary that the orders of the house were, that the doors should be kept fast; whereupon the secretary soon after read a proclamation, dissolving the general court, upon the stairs. Thus terminated, forever, the actual exercise of the political power of England in or over Massachusetts.”
On the meeting of congress in Philadelphia, 1774, Mr. Adams appeared and took his seat. To talents of the highest order, and most commanding eloquence, he added an honest devotion to the cause of his country, and a firmness of character, for which he was distinguish though life. Prior to that period he had, upon all occasions, stood forth openly in defence of the rights of his country, and in opposition to the injustice and encroachments of Great Britain. He boldly opposed them by his advice, his actions, and his eloquence; and, with other worthies, succeeded in spreading among the people a proper alarm for their liberties. Mr. Adams was placed upon the first and most important committees. During the first year, addresses were prepared to the king, to the people of England, of Ireland, Canada, and Jamaica. The name of Mr. Adams is found upon almost all those important committees. His firmness and eloquence in debate, soon gave him a standing among the highest in the august body.
The proceedings of this congress have already passed in review. Among the members, a variety of opinions seem to have prevailed, as to the probable issue of the contest, in which the country was engaged. On this subject, Mr. Adams, a few years before his death, expressed himself, in a letter to a friend, as follows: “When congress had finished their business, as they thought, in the autumn of 1774, I had with Mr. Henry, before we took leave of each other, some familiar conversation, in which I expressed a full conviction that our resolves, declaration of rights, enumeration of wrongs, petitions, remonstrances, and addresses, associations and non-importation agreements, however they might be viewed in America, and however necessary to cement the union of the colonies, would be but waste water in England. Mr. Henry said, they might make some impression amoung the people of England, but agreed with me, that they would be totally lost upon the government. I had but just received a short and hasty letter, written to me by Major Joseph Hawley, of Northampton, containing a few broken hints, as he called them, of what he thought was proper to be done, and concluding with these words, ‘after all, we must fight.’ This letter I read to Mr. Henry, who listened with great attention, and as soon as I had pronounced the words, ‘after all, we must fight,’ he raised his head, and, with an energy and vehemence that I can never forget, broke out with, ‘I am of that man’s mind.’ I put the letter into his hand, and when he had read it he returned it to me, with an equally solemn asseveration, that he agreed entirely in opinion with the writer.
“The other delegates from Virginia returned to their state in full confidence that all our grievances would be redressed. The last words that Mr. Richard Henry Lee said to me, when we parted, were, ‘we shall infallibly carry all our points. You will be completely relieved; all the offensive acts will be repealed; the army and fleet will be recalled, and Britain will give up her foolish project.’
“Washington only was in doubt. He never spoke in public. In private, he joined with those who advocated a non-exportation, as well as a non-importation agreement. With both, he thought we should prevail; without either, he thought it doubtful. Henry was clear in one opinion, Richard Henry Lee in an opposite opinion, and Washington doubted between the two.”
On the 15th day of June, the Continental Congress appointed General Washington Commander in Chief of the American armies. To Mr. Adams is ascribed the honour of having suggested and advocated the choice of this illustrious man. When first suggested by Mr. Adams, to a few of his confidential friends in Congress, the proposition was received with a marked disapprobation. Washington at this time, was almost a stranger to them; and, besides, to elevate a man who had never held a higher military rank than that of colonel, over officers of the highest grade in the militia, and those, too, already in the field, appeared not only irregular, but likely to produce much dissatisfaction among them, and the people at large. To Mr. Adams, however the greatest advantage appeared likely to result from the choice of Washington, whose character and peculiar fitness for the station he well understood. Samuel Adams, his distinguished colleague, coincided with him in these views, and through their instrumentality this felicitous choice was effected. When majority in congress had been secured, Mr. Adams introduced the subject of appointing a Commander in Chief of the armies, and having sketched the qualifications which should be found in the man to be elevated to so responsible a station, he concluded by nominating George Washington, of Virginia, to the office.
To Washington, himself, nothing could have been more unexpected. Until that moment he was ignorant of the intended nomination. The proposal was seconded by Samuel Adams, and the following day it received the unanimous approbation of Congress.
When Mr. Adams was first made a member of the Continental Congress, it was hinted that he, at that time, inclined to a separation of the colonies from England, and the establishment of an independent government. On his way to Philadelphia, he was warned, by several advisers, not to introduce a subject of so delicate a character, until the affairs of the country should wear a different aspect. Whether Mr. Adams needed this admonition or not, will not, in this place, be determined. But in 1776, the affairs of the colonies, it could no longer be questioned, demanded at least the candid discussion of the subject. On the 6th of May, of that last year, Mr. Adams offered in committee of the whole, a resolution that the colonies should form governments independent of the crown. On the 10th of May, this resolution was adopted, in the following shape: ” that it be recommended to all the colonies, which had not already established governments suited to the exigencies of their case, to adopt such governments as would, in the opinion of the representatives of the people, best conduce to the happiness and safety of their constituents in particular, and Americans in general.”
“This significant vote was soon followed by the direct proposition, which Richard Henry Lee had the honour to submit to congress, by resolution, on the 7th day of June. The published journal does not expressly state it, but there is no doubt that this resolution was in the same words, when originally submitted by Mr. Lee, as when finally passed. Having been discussed on Saturday the 8th, and Monday the 10th of June, this resolution was, on the last mentioned day, postponed for further consideration to the first day of July; and at the same time it was voted, that a committee be appointed to prepare a Declaration, to the effect of the resolution. This committee was elected by ballot on the following day, and consisted of Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Roger Sherman, and Robert R. Livingston.”
It is usual when committees are elected by ballot, that their members are arranged in order, according to the number of votes which each has received. Mr. Jefferson, therefore, probably received the highest, and Mr. Adams the next highest number of votes. The difference is said to have been but a single vote.
Mr. Jefferson and Mr. Adams, standing thus at the head of the committee, were requested by the other members, to act as a sub-committee to prepare the draft; and Mr. Jefferson drew up the paper. The original draft, as brought by him from his study, and submitted to the other members of the committee, with interlineations in the hand writing of Dr. Franklin, and others in that of Mr. Adams, was in Mr. Jefferson’s possession at the time of his death. The merit of this paper is Mr. Jefferson’s. Some changes were made in it, on the suggestion of other members of the committee, and others by Congress, while it was under discussion. But none of them altered the tone, the frame, the arrangement, or the general character of the instrument. As a composition the Declaration is Mr. Jefferson’s. It is the production of his mind, and the high honour of it belongs to him clearly and absolutely.
“While Mr. Jefferson was the author of the declaration itself, Mr. Adams was its great supporter on the floor of Congress. This was the unequivocal testimony of Mr. Jefferson. ‘John Adams,’ said he, on one occasion, ‘ was our Colossus on the floor; not graceful, not elegant, not always fluent in his public addresses, he yet came out with a power, both of thought and of expression, that moved us from our seats;’ and at another time, he said, ‘John Adams was the pillar of its support on the floor of Congress; its ablest advocate and defender against the multifarious assaults, which were made against it.'”
On the second day of July, the Resolution of Independence was adopted, and on the fourth, the Declaration itself was unanimously agreed to. Language can scarcely describe the transport of Mr. Adams at this time . He has best describe them himself, in a letter written the day following to his wife. “Yesterday,” says he, “the greatest question was decided that was ever debated in America; and greater, perhaps, never was or will be decided among men. A resolution was passed, without one dissenting colony, ‘ That these United States are, and of right ought to be free and independent states.’ The day passed. The 4th of July, 1776, will be a memorable epoch in the history of America. I am apt to believe it will be celebrated by succeeding generations as the great anniversary festival. It ought to be commemorated as the day of deliverance, by solemn acts of devotion to Almighty God. It ought to be solemnized with pomp, shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations, from one end of the continent to the other, from this time forward, forever. You will think me transported with enthusiasm, but I am not. I am well aware of the toil, and blood , and treasure, that it will cost to maintain this declaration, and support and defend these states; yet through all the gloom, I can see the rays of light and glory. I can see that the end is worth more than all the means; and that posterity will triumph, although you and I may rue, which I hope we shall not.”
About the time of the Declaration of Independence, occurred the disastrous battle of Flatbush on Long Island. The victory thus gained by the British, was considered by Lord Howe as a favourable moment for proposing to Congress an accommodation; and for this purpose, he requested an interview with some of the members. In the deliberations of Congress, Mr. Adams opposed this proposal, on the ground that no accommodation could thus be effected.
A committee, however, was appointed to wait on Lord Howe, consisting of himself, Dr. Franklin, and Mr. Rutledge. On being apprised of their intended interview, Lord Howe sent one of his principal officers as a hostage, but the commissioners taking him with them, fearlessly repaired to the British camp. On their arrival they were conducted through an army of twenty thousand men, drawn up for the purpose of show and impression. But the display was lost on the commissioners, who studiously avoided all signs of wonder or anxiety. As had been predicted by Mr. Adams, the interview terminated without any beneficial result. On being introduced, Lord Howe informed them that he could not treat with them as a committee of Congress, but only as private gentleman of influence in the colonies; to which Mr. Adams replied, “You may view me in any light you please, sir, except that of a British subject.”
During the remainder of the year 1776, and all 1777, Mr. Adams was deeply engaged in affairs of Congress. He served as a member of ninety different committees, and was chairman of twenty-five committees. From his multiform and severe labours he was relieved in December of the latter year, by the appointment of commissioner to France, in the place of Silas Deane.
In February, 1778, he embarked for that country on board of the frigate Boston. On his arrival in France, he found that Dr. Franklin, and Arthur Lee, who had been appointed commissioners the preceding year, and were then in France, had already concluded a treaty with the French government. Little business, therefore, of public nature was left him to do. In the summer of 1779, he returned to America.
About the time of his arrival, the people of Massachusetts were adopting measures for calling a convention to form a new state constitution. Of this convention he was elected a member, and was also a member of the committee appointed by the convention to report a plan for their consideration. A plan which he drew up was accepted, and was made the basis of the constitution of that state.
In August following, in consequence of an informal suggestion from the court of St. James, he received the appointment of minister plenipotentiary for negotiating a treaty of peace, and a treaty of commerce, with Great Britain. A salary of twenty-five hundred pounds sterling was voted him. In the month of October, he embarked on board the French ship La Sensible, and after a tedious voyage was landed at Ferrol, in Spain, whence he proceeded to Paris, where he arrived in the month of February. He there communicated with Dr. Franklin, who was at the time envoy of the United States at the court of France, and with the Count de Vergennes, the French Prime Minister. But the British government, it was found, were not disposed to peace, and the day seemed far distant when any negotiation could be opened with a hope of success. Mr. Adams, however, was so useful in various ways, that towards the close of the year, Congress honoured him by a vote of thanks, “for his industrious attention to the interest and honour of these United States abroad.”
In June, 1780, Congress being informed that Mr. Laurens, who had been appointed to negotiate a loan in Holland for the United States, had been taken prisoner by the English, forwarded a commission to Mr. Adams to proceed to Holland, for the above purpose. To this, soon after, was added the new appointment of commissioner to conclude a treaty of amity and commerce with the States General of Holland; and, at the same time, authority was given him to pledge the faith of the United States to the “armed neutrality” proposed by the Russian government.
Mr. Adams repaired with promptitude to Holland, and engaged with great zeal in the business of his commission. From this station he was suddenly summoned by the Count de Vergennes, to consult, at Paris, with regard to a project for a general peace, suggested by the courts of Vienna and St. Petersburgh.
This was one of the most anxious periods in the eventful life of Mr. Adams. France was, indeed, ready to fulfill her guaranty of independence to the United States; but it was the politic aim of the Count de Vergennes, to secure important advantages for his own country, in the settlement of American difficulties. Hence, no effort was spared to make Mr. Adams, in this important matter, the subordinate agent of the French cabinet. He, on the other hand, regarded solely the interests of the United States, and the instructions of Congress; and his obstinate independence, unshaken by the alternate threats and blandishments of the court of Versailles, occasioned an effort by the Count de Vergennes to obtain, through the French minister in Philadelphia, such a modification of the instructions to Mr. Adams, as should subject him to the direction of the Federal cabinet.
The effect of this artful and strenuous measure was, a determination on the part of Congress, that Mr. Adams should hold the most confidential intercourse with the French ministers; and should “undertake nothing in the negotiation of a peace, or truce, without their knowledge and concurrence.”
Under these humiliating restrictions, the independent and decisive spirit of Mr. Adams was severely tried. The imperial mediators proposed an armistice, but without any withdrawal of troops from America. Mr. Adams firmly opposed this stipulation; and the negotiation proceeded no farther at that time.
It was obviously, the policy of the French minister, not to facilitate the peace between Great Britain and the United States, without previously securing to France a large share in the fisheries; and at the same time so establishing the western boundary, as to sacrifice the interests of the United States to those of Spain.
Finding all attempts at negotiation unavailing, Mr. Adams returned to Holland.
Meantime, the apprehensions of congress being much excited by the insinuations of the French minister in Philadelphia, they added to the commission for forming a treaty with Great Britain, Dr. Franklin, then plenipotentiary at Paris; Mr. Jay, the minister at Madrid; Mr. Henry Laurens, who had recently been appointed special minister to France; and Mr. Jefferson. The whole were instructed to govern themselves by the advice and opinion of the ministers of the king of France. This unaccountable and dishonorable concession, in effect, made the Count de Vergennes minister plenipotentiary for the United States.
But the indefatigable exertions of Mr. Adams in Holland, had a most important bearing upon the proposed negotiations. By a laborious and striking exhibition of the situation and resources of the United States, he succeeded in so far influencing public opinion, as to obtain a loan of eight millions of guilders, on reasonable terms. This loan, effect in the autumn of 1782 was soon followed by a treaty of amity and commerce with Holland, recognizing the United States as independent and sovereign states.
The disposition towards peace, on the part of the English ministry, was wonderfully quickened by the favorable negotiation of this loan. During Lord Shelburne’s administration, the independence of the states was unconditionally acknowledged, and the first effectual steps were taken to put an end to the war.
During the negotiations that followed, the disposition of France again evinced itself, to cut off the United States from a share of the fisheries, and to transfer a portion of the American territory to Spain. The American commissioners, therefore, were not a little embarrassed by their instructions from Congress, to govern themselves by the opinion and advice of the French minister. But, as Mr. Adams had, on a former occasion, found it necessary to depart from instructions of a similar import; the other commissioners now joined with him, in the determination to secure the best interests of their country, regardless of the interference of the French minister, and of the inconsiderate restrictions imposed on them by Congress.
Accordingly, provisional articles were signed by them, on the 30th of November, 1782; and this measure was followed by an advantageous definitive treaty in September, 1783.
Near the commencement of the year 1785, congress resolved to send a minister plenipotentiary to represent the United States at the Court of St. James. to this responsible station, rendered peculiarly delicate by the fact that the United States had so recently and reluctantly been acknowledged as an independent nation, Mr. Adams was appointed. It was doubtful in what manner and with what spirit an American minister would be received by the British government. On leaving America, Mr. Jay, the then secretary of state, among other instructions, used the following language: “The manner of your reception at that court, and its temper, views and dispositions respecting American objects, are matters concerning which particular information might be no less useful than interesting. Your letters will, I am persuaded, remove all suspense on those points.”
In accordance with this direction, Mr. Adams subsequently forwarded to Mr. Jay the following interesting account of his presentation to the king.
“During my interview with the marquis of Carmarthen, he told me it was customary for every foreign minister, at his first presentation to the king, to make his majesty some compliments conformable to the spirit of his credentials; and when Sir Clement Cottrel Dormer, the master of ceremonies, came to inform me that he should accompany me to the secretary of state, and to court, he said that every foreign minister whom he had attended to the queen, had always mad an harangue to her majesty, and he understood, though he had not been present, that they always harangued the king. On Tuesday evening, the Baron de Lynden (Dutch ambassador) called upon me, and said he came from the Baron de Nolkin, (Swedish envoy,) and had been conversing upon the singular situation I was in, and they agreed in opinion that it was indispensable that I should make a speech, and that is should be as complimentary as possible. All this was parallel to the advice lately given by the Count de Vergennes to Mr. Jefferson. So that finding it was a custom established at both these great courts, that this court and the foreign ministers expect it, I thought I could not avoid it, although my first thought and inclination had been to deliver my credentials silently and retire. At one, on Wednesday the first of June, the master of ceremonies called at my house, and went with me to the secretary of state’s office, in Cleveland Row, where the marquis of Carmarthen received me, and introduced me to Mr. Frazier, his under secretary, who had been as his lordship said, uninterruptedly in that office through all the changes in administration for thirty years, having first been appointed by the earl of Holderness. After a short conversation upon the subject of importing my effects from Holland and France, free of duty, which Mr. Frazier himself introduced, Lord Carmarthen invited me to go with him in his coach to court. When we arrived in the antichamber[sic], the oeil-de-boeuf of St. James’s, the master of the ceremonies met me, and attended me, while the secretary of state went to take the commands of the king. While I stood in this place, where it seems all ministers stand on such occasions, always attended by the master of ceremonies, the room very full of courtiers, as well as the next room, which is the king’s bed chamber, you may well suppose, that I was the focus of all eyes.
“I was relieved, however, from the embarrassment of it by the Swedish and Dutch ministers, who came to me and entertained me in a very agreeable conversation during the whole time. Some other gentlemen whom I had seen before came to make their compliments too, until the marquis of Carmarthen returned, and desired me to go with him to his majesty: I went with his lordship through the levee room into the king’s closet; the door was shut, and I was left with his majesty and the secretary of state alone. I made the three reverences, one at the door, another about half way, and the third before the presence, according to the usage established at this and all the northern courts of Europe, and then addressed myself to his majesty in the following words:
“‘Sir, the United States have appointed me their minister plenipotentiary to your majesty, and have directed me to deliver to your majesty this letter, which contains the evidence of it. It is in obedience to their express commands, that I have the honour to assure your majesty of their unanimous disposition and desire to cultivate the most friendly and liberal intercourse between your majesty’s subjects and their citizens, and of their best wishes for your majesty’s health and happiness, and for that of your royal family.
“The appointment of a minister from the United States to your majesty’s court, will form an epoch in the history of England and America. I think myself more fortunate than all my fellow citizens, in having the distinguished honour to be the first to stand in your majesty’s royal presence in a diplomatic character; and I shall esteem myself the happiest of men, if I can be instrumental in recommending my country more and more to your majesty’s royal benevolence, and of restoring an entire esteem, confidence, and affection, or in better words, ‘ the old good nature, and the old good humour,’ between people who, though separated by an ocean, and under different governments, have the same language, a similar religion, and kindred blood. I beg your majesty’s permission to add, that although I have sometimes before been entrusted by my country, it was never, in my whole life, in a manner so agreeable to myself.’
“The king listened to every word I said, with dignity, it is true, but with an apparent emotion. Whether it was the nature of the interview, or whether it was my visible agitation, for I felt more than I did or could express, that touched him, I cannot say, but he was much affected, and answered me with more tremor than I had spoken with, and said:
“‘Sir, the circumstances of this audience are so extraordinary, the language you have now held is so extremely proper, and the feelings you have discovered so justly adapted to the occasion, that I must say, that I not only receive with pleasure the assurances of the friendly disposition of the people of the United States, but that I am very glad the choice has fallen upon you to be their minister. I wish you, sir, to believe, and that it may be understood in America, that I have done nothing in the late contest but what I thought myself indispensably bound to do, by the duty which I owed to my people. I will be very frank with you. I was the last to conform to the separation; but the separation having been made, and having become inevitable, I have always said, as I say now that I would be the first to meet the friendship of the United States, as an independent power. The moment I see such sentiments and language as yours prevail, and a disposition to give this country the preference, that moment I shall say, let the circumstances of language, religion, and blood, have their natural and full effect.’
“I dare not say that these were the king’s precise words, and it is even possible that I may have, in some particular, mistaken his meaning; for although this pronunciation is as distinct as I ever heard, he hesitated sometimes between his periods, and between the members of the same period. He was indeed, much affected, and I was not less so; and, therefore, I cannot be certain that I was so attentive, heard so clearly, and understood so perfectly, as to be confident of all his words or sense; this I do say, that the foregoing is his majesty’s meaning, as I then understood it, and his own words, as nearly as I can recollect.”
The year following, 1788, Mr. Adams requested permission to resign his office, which, being granted, after an absence of between eight and nine years, he returned to his native country. The new government was, at that time, about going into operation. In the autumn of 1788, he was elected vice president of the United States, a situation which he filled, with reputation for eight years.
On the retirement of General Washington from the presidency, in 1796, Mr. Adams was a candidate for that elevated station. At this time, two parties had been formed in the United States. At the head of one stood Mr. Hamilton and Mr. Adams, and at the head of the other stood Mr. Jefferson. After a close contest between these two parties, Mr. Adams was elected president, having received seventy-one of the electoral votes, and Mr. Jefferson sixty-eight. In March, 1797, these gentlemen entered upon their respective offices of president and vice president of the United States.
Of the administration of Mr. Adams we shall not, in this place, give a detailed account. Many circumstances conspired to render it unpopular. An unhappy dispute with France had arisen a little previously to his inauguration. In the management of this dispute, which had reference to aggressions by France upon American rights and commerce, the popularity of Mr. Adams was in no small degree affected, although the measures which he recommended for upholding the national character, were more moderate than congress, and a respectable portion of the people, thought the exigencies of the case required. Other circumstance, also conspired to diminish his popularity. Restraints were imposed upon the press, and authority vested in the president to order aliens to depart out of the United States, when he should judge the peace and safety of the country required. To these measures, acts were added for raising a standing army, and imposing a direct tax and internal duties. These, and other causes, combined to weaken the strength of the party to whom he owed his elevation, and to prevent his re-election. He was succeeded by Mr. Jefferson, in 1801.
On retiring from the presidency he removed to his former residence at Quincy, where, in quiet, he spent the remainder of his days. In 1820, he voted as elector of president and vice president; and, in the same year, at the advanced age of 85, he was a member of the convention of Massachusetts, assembled to revise the constitution of that commonwealth.
Mr. Adams retained the faculties of his mind, in remarkable perfection, to the end of his long life. His unabated love of reading and contemplation, added to an interesting circle of friendship and affection, were sources of felicity in declining years, which seldom fall to lot of any one.
“But,” to use the language of a distinguished eulogist [Daniel Webster], “he had other enjoyments. He saw around him that prosperity and general happiness, which had been the object of his public cares and labours. No man ever beheld more clearly, and for a longer time, the great and beneficial effects of the services rendered by himself to his country. That liberty, which he so early defended, that independence, of which he was so able an advocate and supporter, he saw, we trust, firmly and securely established. The population of the country thickened around him faster, and extended wider, than his own sanguine predictions had anticipated; and the wealth, respectability, and power of the nation, sprang up to a magnitude, which it is quite impossible he could have expected to witness, in his day. He lived, also, to behold those principles of civil freedom, which had been developed, established, and practically applied in America, attract attention, command respect, and awaken imitation, in other regions of the globe; and well might, and well did he exclaim, ‘where will the consequences of the American revolution end!’
“If any thing yet remains to fill this cup of happiness, let it be added, that he lived to see a great and intelligent people bestow the highest honour in their gift, where he had bestowed his own kindest parental affections, and lodged his fondest hopes.
“At length the day approached when this eminent patriot was to be summoned to another world; and, as if to render that day forever memorable in the annals of American history, it was the day on which the illustrious Jefferson was himself, also to terminate his distinguished earthly career. That day was the fiftieth anniversary of the Declaration of Independence.
“Until within a few days previous, Mr. Adams had exhibited no indications of rapid decline. The morning of the fourth of July, 1826, he was unable to rise from his bed. Neither to himself, or his friends, however, was his dissolution supposed to be so near. He was asked to suggest a toast, appropriate to the celebration of the day. His mind seemed to glance back to the hour in which, fifty years before, he had voted for the Declaration of Independence, and with the spirit with which he then raised his hand, he now exclaimed, ‘Independence forever.’ At four o’clock in the afternoon he expired. Mr. Jefferson had departed a few hours before him.”
We close this imperfect sketch of the life of this distinguished man in the language of one [John Quincy Adams] who, from the relation in which he stood to the subject of this memoir, must have felt, more than any other individual, the impressiveness of the event. “They, (Mr. Adams and Mr. Jefferson,) departed cheered by the benediction of their country, to whom they left the inheritance of their fame, and the memory of their bright example. If we turn our thoughts to the condition of their country, in the contrast of the first and last day of that half century, how resplendent and sublime is the transition from gloom to glory! Then, glancing through the same lapse of time, in the condition of the individuals, we see the first day marked with fulness[sic] of vigour of youth, in the pledge of their lives, their fortunes and their sacred honour, to the cause of freedom and of mankind. And on the last, extended on the bed of death, with but sense and sensibility left to breathe a last aspiration to heaven of blessing upon their country; may we not humbly hope, that to them, too, it was a pledge of transition from gloom to glory; and that while their mortal vestments were sinking into the clod of the valley, their emancipated spirits were ascending to the bosom of their God!” 2