[Abridged] Presidential Histories

02.) John Adams 1797-1801

April 05, 2020 Kenny Ryan Episode 2
[Abridged] Presidential Histories
02.) John Adams 1797-1801
[Abridged] Presidential Histories
02.) John Adams 1797-1801
Apr 05, 2020 Episode 2
Kenny Ryan

John Adams is the Devil's Advocate of the Founding Fathers. A revolutionary turned international diplomat turned President who was never afraid to stand alone if he was convinced that standing alone was the right thing to do.

From the Boston Massacre to the Continental Congresses to the Treaty of Paris and the Quasi War with France, we'll follow Adams as he charts the unique path of a man who refused to be carried by the tides of history, and instead sought to control them.

1. John Adams - David McCullough
2. John Quincy Adams - Harlow G Unger
3. Washington, A Life - Ron Chernow
4. Hamilton - Ron Chernow
5. Thomas Jefferson, The Art of Power - Jon Meacham
6. James Madison - Richard Brookhiser
7. The Last Founding Father, James Monroe and A Nation’s Call to Greatness - Harlow G Unger
8. The Presidents Fact Book - Roger Matuz

Support the show (https://www.patreon.com/AbridgedPresidentialHistories)

Show Notes Transcript

John Adams is the Devil's Advocate of the Founding Fathers. A revolutionary turned international diplomat turned President who was never afraid to stand alone if he was convinced that standing alone was the right thing to do.

From the Boston Massacre to the Continental Congresses to the Treaty of Paris and the Quasi War with France, we'll follow Adams as he charts the unique path of a man who refused to be carried by the tides of history, and instead sought to control them.

1. John Adams - David McCullough
2. John Quincy Adams - Harlow G Unger
3. Washington, A Life - Ron Chernow
4. Hamilton - Ron Chernow
5. Thomas Jefferson, The Art of Power - Jon Meacham
6. James Madison - Richard Brookhiser
7. The Last Founding Father, James Monroe and A Nation’s Call to Greatness - Harlow G Unger
8. The Presidents Fact Book - Roger Matuz

Support the show (https://www.patreon.com/AbridgedPresidentialHistories)

Writing about John Adams reminds me a lot of a research paper I read in business school.

The paper was about Devil’s advocates. Particularly, Devil’s advocates in collaborative situations. Devil’s advocates are, of course, people who challenge the group consensus with alternative ideas or reasons everybody else could be wrong. And the gist of the paper was that groups that had devil’s advocates outperformed groups that didn’t have devil’s advocates. But, if you polled the groups with Devil’s advocates and asked them, A.) Would you like to remove a member of your group, and B.) which member would you like to remove. They also overwhelmingly said, yes, we want to get rid of a member, and all fingers pointed to the Devil’s advocate.

I say all that to say this: John Adams is the Devil’s advocate of the founding fathers. He’ll never be afraid to stand alone on an issue, and he’ll often be right, which will make him very respected, and nearly friendless.

When all of Boston wants to hang the soldiers who fired into the crowd at the Boston Massacre, John Adams will say, ‘no, these men deserve a fair trial, and I’m the man whose going to give it to them.’

As a diplomat on the team negotiating an end to the revolutionary war, almost everyone is going to get sick with him when he insists the French be left out of peace negotiations with Britain, when in fact, the French were secretly plotting to hang the Americans out to dry. 

And as president of the United States, he’ll feel like he’s just about the only man in the country who doesn’t want to go to war with England over its attacks on American shipping, only for French actions to flip the script and put him an undeclared quasi-war with the French instead. And then, when everyone wants the quasi war to become an official war, he’ll wisely negotiate peace, which will make Jefferson’s purchase of the Louisiana territory possible just a few years later.

This isn’t to say Adams always gets it right. As president, he’ll also sign one of the most blatantly unconstitutional laws of all time – the Alien and Sedition Acts. And all this pushing against the grain will ultimately be the reason he’s America’s first one-term president.


John Adams was born on October 30, 1735, in the little town of Braintree, Massachusetts, less than 10 miles south of Boston harbor. Unlike the other early presidents, who were from the wealthy Virginia plantation class, Adams had thoroughly New England values. His frugality made him one of the only early presidents who wasn’t perpetually in debt and neither he nor his family ever owned slaves, something that set him apart from just about all the other early presidents. In fact, 10 of the country’s first 12 presidents owned at least one slave in their lives. The only two who didn’t were Adamses.

Adams’ life will basically pass through three distinct phases – the revolutionary phase, the international diplomat phase, and the national politician phase. And don’t worry, the revolutionary phase is coming quick.

Adams got his education at Harvard and then shocked his father by going into law instead of ministry. This might be your first hint that Adams loved to A.) buck expectations, and B.) he loved to prove he was smarter than everyone else and he loved public acknowledgement of it. When Adams was 29, he married Abigail Smith, one of the most impressive first ladies in American history. In an era when most women were allowed to play host and not much else, Abigail was a trusted advisor of Adams. He would turn to her for advice and insight throughout his life. 

Shortly after Adams and Abigail married, things start to get revolutionary! 

If you listened to the Washington episode, you may remember that, 10 to 20 years before the revolution, the American colonies were one theater in a global war called the 7-year’s war – a war that a young George Washington accidentally started by killing a French captain who was on a diplomatic mission in the American backwoods. In north America, the war pitted the British colonists against the French and their Indian allies – which is why it’s known here as the French and Indian war. The war was expensive and after it ended 1763, the British looked for opportunities to raise taxes to pay for the cost of stationing troops in the American colonies

The colonists are not going to want to pay those taxes.

John Adams was practicing law in Boston when the first tax hit in 1765, the Stamp tax. This basically put Adams at ground zero for the start of the revolution. 

The stamp tax was a tax on stamps that had to be applied to all paper for that paper to be used. Just like today you need to buy a stamp to mail a letter, this tax said you needed to buy a stamp to, well, do anything with paper. This tax fell disproportionately on newspapers and lawyers, which is not the best combo of people to upset if you don’t want to get a reaction.

Adams, who, remember, is a lawyer, jumped right into the fray with a series of scathing letters published in the press that tore into the quote-unquote unjust tax and argued it should be repealed. Adams practically coined the term “no taxation without representation” in arguing against the taxes rolled out by the crown. Adams was being crafty here. The colonists needed the troops to keep them safe, and troops cost money. Everyone new that. Adams argued that it wasn’t so much the tax that was the problem, but the fact that Americans had no say in the matter, which violated British law. I imagine Adams’ angle here might have been just to replace a tax on his legal papers with a tax on someone else instead. Then, when colonists started shirking those taxes and being arrested for not paying them, Adams pointed out that these colonists were being a denied a trial by jury of their peers, which also violated British law. So, what started as the crown trying to raise money to pay for the colonists’ defense turned into a growing awareness that the colonists were being treated as second-class citizens, which they were not ok with.

What Adams might not have foreseen is how the more passionate and less restrained members of the community would use his arguments to stir up the population against British representatives in the colonies, something that came to a head with an event we’re going to spend a bit of time on, the Boston Massacre. 

So, the Boston massacre goes like this, one night in 1770 – so five years after the stamp tax -  some colonists, I’m going to guess drunk colonists, but who knows, started taunting a lone British sentry. Eight additional redcoats came out to support the sentry, and few hundred more rowdy Bostonians came out to join the crowd. Before you knew it, you had a large mob of angry, rowdy colonists surrounding and yelling at the nine redcoats. Then the colonists started doing what all protestors through time have done – they started to throw things. They threw snowballs, ice, and rocks. The officer in charge of the British soldiers ordered his men not to fire but a gun went off anyway, probably on accident, and at the sound of that first shot, the spooked soldiers fired into the crowd, killing five. Revolutionary propagandists quickly spread the word so EVERYONE in the colonies knew that British soldiers had fired into a crowd of unarmed civilians, but the story doesn’t end there. The soldiers were arrested and put on trial in Boston. Someone had to be found to represent the soldiers, but who wants to commit career suicide by representing the murderous redcoats who killed five colonists? Well. John Adams did.

Believing that everyone deserves a defense in court – and maybe realizing this would be a grow his prestige and maybe being promised a seat in the legislature if he took the case – Adams put his heart into the trial and argued, quote, “Facts are stubborn things,” and the facts really did suggest the soldiers were acting in self defense. He also said, “It is more important that innocence be protected than it is that guilt be punished,” a sentiment I think is awesome. Adams made the case that the jury had to find the soldiers guilty beyond a reasonable doubt to deliver a guilty verdict. And, remember the captain ordering his men not to fire? Witnesses backed that up. And how about the crowd throwing rocks at the soldiers? Witnesses confirmed that, too. Could it be this was a terrible accident made by soldiers who thought their lives were in danger? Adams didn’t need to prove the soldiers were innocent, he just had to prove they weren’t monsters, and his articulate defense won acquittal for seven of the nine soldiers.

I have to say, I think John Adams defending these British Soldiers in court at a time when almost NOBODY else would is one of the greatest acts of morale courage by any American president.

And his integrity at this moment did end up helping his political career a good deal more than it hurt.

The next six years were a blur of revolutionary activity for Adams. Adams was elected to all three continental congresses, where he was a leader of the faction guiding the country toward independence. When other representatives wanted to send an olive branch petition to the British King to try and patch things over, Adams was in the back of the room whispering “this is never going to work” and gathering allies to push for revolution when, sure enough, it didn’t work. 

Adams was quick to nominate Washington to lead the continental army when fighting broke out. And then, when the question of whether the colonies should declare independence came up, he created a small committee to work on a declaration of independence, you know, just in case one was needed.

In fact, Adams did more than just create the committee – he sat on it. And he reportedly turned down the honor of writing the declaration of Independence because he wanted a Virginian to write it instead, to help motivate that colony to get into the war effort, so a young Thomas Jefferson was given the job. Adams and Benjamin Franklin, who was also supporting the revolution, basically served as Jefferson’s editors, polishing the document that Jefferson had written. And when it was done, what do you know, Adams had just convinced the convention to declare independence. It’s a good thing they had that declaration ready to go. 


All told, Adams served on 90 congressional committees and chaired 25 of them, including the committee managing the war effort. At the same time, he wrote an essay titled Thoughts on Government, which inspired new constitutions for nine of the newly-independent states and later influenced the writing of the United States constitution that we live under today.

These revolutionary years really might have been the most productive and most successful of Adams life.

Once Independence was declared, the revolutionary phase of Adams’ career was over. He’d showed the strength of his conviction by defending the British soldiers after the Boston Massacre, and he’d led the nation from subservience to revolution as perhaps the most prolific member of the continental congress.

Now, it was time for a new phase of Adams career – international diplomat. It’s during this phase that Adams’ growing habit of being undiplomatic would, well, how do you think it’s going to work out for him?

In the spring of 1778, Adams set sail for France, where he began a 10-year diplomatic career that would stretch beyond the end of the revolution and carry him to the courts of France, Great Britain, and the Netherlands. He’d briefly return to Massachussets to write a state constitution in the middle of all this, but he’ll mostly be oversees. And, at least initially, he’ll mostly be a failure.

When Adams first arrives in France, he’ll again find himself in the company of Benjamin Franklin, who had been successful advocating the American cause for some time now. Unlike Franklin, who knew how to flatter their French hosts, Adams seemed to only know how to ask for money and military aid. He was not the charmer Franklin was. In fact, he seemed to have no tact at all. Adams irked everyone so much that Congress ended up sending him on a mission to Netherlands basically to get him out of France.

In the Netherlands, Adams spent years fruitlessly trying to win financial support for the revolution. It wasn’t until news of military victories arrived that the money started to flow.

After this, Adams began to have more success. And no accomplishment was greater than the role he played in helping to negotiate the treaty of Paris to end the revolutionary war and secure American Independence in 1783.

To secure this treaty, Adams found himself working on a team that again included Benjamin Franklin, and it very soon became apparent that Adams was going to be the bad cop of the group. The other American diplomats – and indeed, explicit instructions from congress back home – said the American diplomats should work hand-in-hand with the French to negotiate the end of the war. Adams insisted the Americans should ignore the wants of their French allies and instead negotiate directly with the British to get the deal that was for America. He eventually got his way, and it was a good thing. Because the French were totally willing to negotiate a peace with Britain that set the United States’ western border at the Appalachian instead of the Mississippi river – this would have reduced the country’s original territory by roughly half. I think we can all be grateful Adams was being a stick in the mud during those crucial talks.

Before I move on from Adams the diplomat, I want to mention he was accompanied much of this time by his son, John Quincy Adams, who must have picked up a thing or two, because John Quincy would follow his father’s footsteps by becoming one of the nation’s greatest international diplomats, its eighth secretary of State and its sixth President. We haven’t heard the last of John Quincy Adams.

I also want to mention that John Adams was eventually joined in Europe by Thomas Jefferson, a new diplomat to France. The two intellectuals became the best of friends – for the moment. Hint hint, foreshadow foreshadow. 

In 1788, Adams closed the book on his years of international diplomacy and returned to his peaceful farming life outside Boston … just in time for the country’s first ever presidential election.

The time of Adams, the national political leader, is about to begin.

Ok, so, 1788 presidential elections worked a bit differently than they do now. Instead of bothering with a popular vote, everything was decided by the electoral college. Each elector was given two votes to cast for two different candidates. Whoever received the most votes became president and whoever received the second most became vice president. You didn’t have presidential tickets as you do today where presidents picked their running mate.

The assumption going into this thing was that everyone would split their votes for Washington and Adams, and that Washington would come out on top. Washington’s military record and Adams’ revolutionary record were simply too good to ignore, and one being from the north and the other from the south, it was thought that would unite the colonies. But … there was a chance the vote could result in a tie. Or even that Adams could win. This is the point when George Washington’s former military aide Alexander Hamilton got involved. Hamilton, who had just helped usher in the new constitution that introduced the presidency, probably sensed he’d have a better position in his old general’s administration than the stranger Adams’s, so he lobbied electors to defer some of their votes away from Adams. As a result, Washington won the presidency with 69 electoral votes, and Adams won the Vice Presidency 34. Remember how I said Adams could be pretty vain? He was so insulted by finishing so far behind Washington that he considered turning down the vice presidency before accepting. And when he later learned Hamilton was the reason why he had finished so far behind Washington, well, that’s not going to go too well. 

Ok, so, what did Adams do as vice president? Not really anything. The most notable episode of his Vice Presidency is when he suggested the president should be referred to as “His highness, the president of the united states, and protector of the rights of the same.” A ludicrous idea that earned him only mockery. 

The vice presidency was and is a mostly powerless position. Adams summed it up nicely by calling it, quote, “The most insignificant office that ever the invention of man contrived or his imagination conceived,” which, like, way to tell us how you really feel. And George Washington didn’t really consult Adams on anything, either. Didn’t even try to make him part of the team. So Washington’s eight years in office passed with Adams kind of just hanging out on the sideline while major events like the French revolution began overseas and domestic debates like the national bank began at home. Then, in 1796, Washington announced his retirement.

The path to the presidency was now open.

But, it was open for Adams’ old friend Thomas Jefferson, too. Remember how they’d once been best friends, writing the declaration of independence together, serving as diplomats together in Europe? Well, over the past 8 years, their political differences had driven them apart. Adams was a federalists – like Washington and Hamilton, though Washington never openly identified as one. The federalists believed in strong central governments, strong trade with Britain, keeping revolutionary France at arm’s length, investing in the nation’s industry, and they believed federal law trumped state’s law.

Jefferson was an anti-federalist. Anti-federalists believed in supporting revolutionary France, they wanted nothing to do with Britain, they supported agrarian economic interests over cities and industries, and state’s rights over federal rights. Basically, the opposite of everything the federalists believed in. As you’d expect with a name like anti-federalist.

But Jefferson wasn’t any ordinary anti federalist, he was like the arch duke of anti-federalists, and he was reaching out to all the other anti-federalists and building a new political party dedicated to undoing the Federalist agenda. I’ve seen, like, three different names for this party, so for the purpose of simplicity, I’ll refer to them now, and for the next half dozen episodes, as the Jeffersonian Republicans. 

So the election of 1796 would be the first election where two opposing ideologies were on the ballot. BUT you still didn’t have modern primaries, caucuses, party conventions, debates, or election days. The states were still using a variety of methods to pick electors – I think only a few used anything resembling a popular vote – and those electors still met at as an electoral college where they cast their two ballots on who should be president, with the top two vote getters becoming president and vice president. 

This was also an era when candidates didn’t actively campaign for the presidency – it was considered bad form to seek the office. A true American let others sing their praises, and tear down the other guy, and then ‘answered the nation’s call’ if they won. So Jefferson and Adams stayed home and stayed quiet while partisan papers and surrogates campaigned for them and against each other, and they didn’t pull many punches.

The race ended up being terribly close. The electoral college cast 71 votes for Adams and 68 for Jefferson. But remember what I said about how vice presidents were elected. For the first and only time in American history, the president and vice president would be from opposite parties, and it’s going to be every bit as dysfunctional as you might imagine.

And so, on March 4, 1797, a 61-year-old John Adams, the revolutionary leader turned international diplomat turned vice president, was sworn in as the United States of America’s second president, and he reported to the nation’s capital in Philadelphia – yup, Philadelphia – to assume the presidency.

So what did the United States and the world look like when Adams became president? Let’s take a quick look.

On March 4, 1797, the United States was composed of 16 states and had large swaths of constituted territory in what we today call the Midwest, but what back then was considered the northwest. The nation’s capital was in Philadelphia, which you may be wondering about if you heard the Washington episode, because we started Washington’s presidency in New York and then agreed to move the capital to Washington DC, but DC was still a swamp at this time – a literal swamp – and it would take time to get the basic necessities set up. Philadelphia served as an interim nation’s capital from 1790 to 1800. The nation still had British Canada across the border to the north, Spanish florida across the border to the south, and the Spanish Louisiana territory across the Mississippi river to the west.

Internationally, Europe had been at war for four years. France had overthrown its king back during Washington’s presidency and declared war on Britain and most of the other monarchies of Europe. Both France and the European Monarchies expected quick victories over each other in this war, but instead got a conflict that would last on and off for 20 years. By the time Adams became president, Britain had already been attacking American merchant vessels headed for French ports for some time, but France was about to get into the piracy game, too.

Which is going to be the backdrop for the three biggest dramas of the Adams presidency – the XYZ affair, the Quasi-war with France, and the Alien and Sedition acts. 

First up is the XYZ affair, which for some reason always seems more complicated to me than it really is. Basically, when Adams became president, he signaled he was going to follow Washington’s neutrality proclamation. This meant not get involved in the war between revolutionary France and the monarchies of Europe and trading with all factions freely. Well, revolutionary France was constantly changing out governments as more liberal factions overthrew governments that were no longer liberal enough, and as Adams was settling into the presidency, a new government came to power in France called the Directory that didn’t like American neutrality and started seizing American ships in an attempt to force the Americans to stop trading with France’s enemies – especially Great Britain.

So, in short, France is seizing American merchant ships, and the Americans want this to end.

So Adams sent diplomats to France to try to get them to stop. The French told the diplomats they’d only meet with them if the Americans paid enormous bribes - a $250,000 tribute to France’s foreign minister Talleyrand and a $12.8 million loan to the French government. This is not normal. This is incredibly insulting. The diplomats sent a note back to Adams explaining the impasse and in that note the ambassadors used code letters to denote the French ministers they were dealing with – X Y and Z.

What happens next is a bit ironic. Remember, Adams is a federalist, and federalists want to stay neutral. But a significant number of Congressmen were now Jeffersonian Republicans, and the Jeffersonian Republicans loved revolutionary France because it was a fellow republic. They thought the best of France, and they wanted to join France in its wars against Europe. Because these congressmen thought so highly of France, they assumed any delay in negotiations between Adams’ diplomats and the French was the fault of Adams’, not the fault of the French. And so, hearing that Adams had gotten a secret note from his diplomats, seeing that negotiations were going anywhere, and wanting to humiliate Adams, they demanded the diplomats’ reports be read aloud in Congress to prove Adams was up to no good.

When Adams said, ‘ok,’ The Jeffersonian Republicans, without reading the dispatches beforehand, took them out onto the floor of Congress and read them, for the first time, out loud for everyone to hear. It dawned on everyone as the dispatches were being read that the French were attempting to shake down the American ambassadors – Adams had done nothing wrong. I can only imagine the looks on the Jeffersonian Republicans’ faces as they realized the document they thought would be their smoking gun against Adams was in fact a smoking gun against France. And it changed the international dynamic between America and France overnight.

That’s the XYZ affair. An attempt by duplicitous French ministers to solicit massive bribes from the American diplomats in exchange for political access, and the fallout when the Jeffersonian Republicans read the letters aloud in congress in an attempt to humiliate Adams that totally backfired.

How much did it backfire for the Jeffersonian Republicans? Well, a whole damn lot. This will directly lead to the next two major events of the Adams’ presidency – the Quasi War with France and the Alien and Sedition Acts.

First up is the Quasi war. Americans were so incensed at the attempted French shake down and the continued capturing of American merchant ships by French privateers – which are basically state sponsored French pirates - that a war fever gripped the United States. Many in Congress and Adams’ cabinet now wanted him to declare war on France, which he refused to do, but he did support the development of a navy – earning him a reputation as the father of the nation’s navy - and he summoned an army and briefly brought Washington out of retirement to lead it. The army never ended up being needed, but the navy fought an undeclared war at sea against the French pirates to protect American merchants. When this young American Navy engaged the privateers, they performed very well, but they couldn’t be everywhere at once. The French still seized 2,000 American merchant vessels by the time the quasi war ended in 1800, when Napoleon seized power from the Directory in France and Adams ignored the calls for war from Federalist in Congress and went his own way again by dispatching another diplomatic mission to France that was this time received respectfully and signed a treaty to end the French piracy.

Adams would later write, “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.”

So that’s the Quasi war – which is basically the international fallout of the XYZ affair. The domestic fallout of the XYZ affair was something far different, and quite shameful. The Alien and Sedition Acts.

So remember how I was all gaga over Adams representing the British soldiers after the Boston massacre, and how noble and honorable that was? The Alien and Sedition Acts are basically going to overshadow all that goodwill and define the Adams presidency perhaps more than any other single issue.

The Jeffersonian Republicans had been humiliated by their handling of the XYZ affair, but they quickly regained their voice and resumed attacking Adams in the press. In response to this opposition during what was basically wartime, the Federalists in congress introduced and passed a series of laws known as the Alien and Sedition acts in 1798 – so this is just months after the XYZ affair came to light. These laws made it a crime to publish “false, scandalous, and malicious,” writing against the government or its officials, which, of course, like, in whose opinion, man? The laws also allowed the president to increase citizenship requirements and gave him greater deportation authority. These laws flew in the face of the constitution and were mainly used to jail Jeffersonian-republican journalists who criticized Adams’ administration.

As a former journalist myself, I’ll be brief here and just say that’s not ok.  

By all accounts, Adams wasn’t the father of these laws, he didn’t call for them, but he signed them, and he should have vetoed them on sight.

Despite, or perhaps because of the outcry over the alien and sedition acts, Adams would not win reelection in 1800. During the run-up to the election, Adams finally learned of Hamilton’s machinations way back during that first presidential election in 1788, when Hamilton had convinced electors to deny Adams some votes to make sure Adams didn’t accidentally beat Washington. When Adams found out about this, he exploded at Hamilton and most of his cabinet, who he’d actually kept on from the Washington Administration – something nobody does today - and who were basically more loyal to Hamilton than they were to Adams. Adams fired his cabinet and launched a political civil war on his own party. And so, right when he needed the federalist party united to help him win a presidential election, Adams threw a hand grenade in their midst instead, and it cost him a second term.

Thus ends the Adams presidency. The first one-term president in American history, and the first peaceful transition of power from one elected leader to an elected opponent who beat them in who knows how long. But that didn’t make it a friendly handover. Adams packed his bags and left town without attending Jefferson’s inauguration.

So how had America changed during the four years of the Adams administration? Territory-wise, not much. There were no new states and no new territory had been acquired. Technology-wise, the world’s first primitive Fire Hydrant is about to be deployed in Philadelphia, so that’s cool. Internationally, the wars of the French revolution are about to officially become the Napoleonic wars. Napoleon launched his successful coup to become first consul in 1799, and you can bet Thomas Jefferson, the next president, will be dealing with it.

Adams lived another 26 years after being voted out of office. He returned to his small farm outside Boston, where he and Abigail were content to tend to their farm and quietly watch their nation grow around them. Adams believed every administration deserved the peoples’ support, so even though he was followed by 28 years of Jeffersonian Republican rule, he was vocal when he agreed with their actions – such as Thomas Jefferson purchasing Louisiana – and silent when he disagreed. When the British burned down the White House during the war of 1812, Adams and Abigail were unphased, telling friends, and I’m paraphrasing, “If you think this is bad, you should have seen things during the revolution.” 

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this long retirement was the friendship Adams eventually resumed with his arch political rival, Thomas Jefferson. And I didn’t really get into it, but the elections between these guys were incredibly contentious – far worse and more personal than what we typically see today. Remember, Adams wouldn’t even stick around to attend Jefferson’s inauguration. So it was a huge swallowing of pride when, in 1812, a mutual friend encouraged Adams to write Jefferson a letter, which was warmly received, and just like that, Adams and Jefferson were friends again, engaging in a 14-year correspondence of letters.

Adams survived his wife Abigail, who died in 1818, and lived long enough to see his son John Quincy Adams elected President in 1824. On July 4, 1826, the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, John Adams died of old age. He was 90 years old. His last words were “Thomas Jefferson still survives,” but he was wrong. In a really weird coincidence, Jefferson had died just hours earlier that same day.

So what can we learn from John Adams? 

I think the first lesson is that brilliance only takes you so far. And Adams was brilliant. He helped guide the American colonies to revolution, he wrote a constitution for Massachusetts that most of the other colonies and the federal government would emulate, and he smartly kept America out of open war with Britain and then France when so many were clamoring for it. But he was also terribly vain. And Adams’ vanity destroyed most of his relationships with the other founding fathers. Nobody seemed to really like him or his self-importance or the odd details he got lost in, like suggesting a ridiculous title for the president in the first days of his vice presidency.

The best way to show the cost of this vanity is to compare Adams’ administration and political legacy to Jefferson’s administration and political legacy. 

Adams’ administration lacked any of the federalist party’s top minds because he drove away men like Hamilton. As a result, he lasted only one term and would go down as the first and last federalist president in American history.

Jefferson, on the other hand, was able to call two future presidents, James Madison and James Monroe, to serve his presidency and he had the very able Albert Gellatin leading his treasury. This collection of talent set the Jeffersonian Republicans up for 28 years of uninterrupted rule – including the presidency of John Adams’ own son John Quincy Adams, who switched parties in order to find political relevancy.

Politics, like many other careers, is largely influenced by who you know and the talent of the friends and colleagues you surround yourself with. Adams thought he could do it all alone. His presidency proved him wrong.


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The music in today’s podcast is a public domain recording of the United States Army Old Guard Fife and Drum Corps.

The primary biography for today’s episode was John Adams, by David McCullough.

In our next episode, we’ll look at the presidency of Thomas Jefferson. A man who wrote the declaration of independence, fathered one of the nation’s first political parties, and purchased Louisiana from France, but whose reputation takes a hit when you look closer at his embargo policies, his fierce partisan gamesmanship, and when you hear the story of a slave girl that was kept secret for nearly 200 years – Sally Hemmings. 

That’s next time, on Abridged Presidential Histories.