JOHN ADAMS | 1797-1801

Learned and thoughtful, John Adams was more a political philosopher than a politician. “People and nations are forged in the fires of adversity,” he said, doubtless thinking of his own as well as the American experience.

Adams was born in the Massachusetts Bay Colony on October 30, 1735. A Harvard-educated lawyer and a delegate to the First and Second Continental Congresses, he led in the movement for independence. During the Revolutionary War he served in diplomatic roles, and helped negotiate the treaty of peace. In 1788 he was elected vice president under George Washington.

Adams’s two terms as vice president were frustrating. He complained to his wife Abigail, “My country has in its wisdom contrived for me the most insignificant office that ever the invention of man contrived or his imagination conceived.”

When Adams became president, the war between the French and British was causing partisanship among factions within the nation. His administration focused on France, where the Directory, the ruling group, had refused to receive the American envoy and had suspended commercial relations. Adams sent commissioners to France, but the Directory refused to negotiate unless they were bribed. Adams reported the insult and the Senate printed the correspondence, in which the Frenchmen were referred to only as “X, Y, and Z. ” The nation broke out into what Thomas Jefferson called “the X. Y. Z. fever.” The populace cheered itself hoarse wherever the president appeared. The Federalists had never been so popular.

Hostilities began at sea. After several naval defeats, France agreed to receive an envoy with respect. Sending a peace mission to France turned the Hamiltonians against Adams. In the campaign of 1800, the Republicans were united and the Federalists divided. Still, Adams polled only a few less electoral votes than Jefferson, who became president.

Just before the election, Adams had written these words about his new residence, the White House:

“I pray Heaven to bestow the best of Blessings on this House and all that shall hereafter inhabit it. May none but honest and wise Men ever rule under this roof.”

Adams retired to his farm in Quincy. Here on July 4, 1826, he whispered his last words: “Thomas Jefferson survives.” But Jefferson had died at Monticello a few hours earlier.

Permission granted to re-post by The White House Historical Association