Flashback Friday: John Adams
I was having trouble figuring out who to feature this week on Flashback Friday, so I decided to let the calendar pick for me. The U.S. president with the birthday closest to today’s date would be featured, and low and behold John Adams was our winner, born October 30, 1735. In another weird coincidence, his wife Abigail Adams died on Ocotber 28, 1818 the day before this post, so it seemed meant to be.
John Adams is known for being the first vice president and second president of the United States. He served under George Washington from 1789-1797 then served as president from 1797-1801. John Adams has the dubious distinction of being the first president defeated in their bid for reelection, losing to Thomas Jefferson. He also holds another distinction, being the first president to be followed later by his son (John Quincy Adams who served from 1825-1829).
Adams was born in 1735 and was extremely well educated. He studied at Harvard, and went on to be very prominent in the independence movement. He had diplomatic roles abroad, and eventually joined Jefferson, among others, in drafting the declaration of independence. Adams was a Federalist (what could be likened somewhat to a conservative today, in the sense that they like decreased government intervention).
In the first presidential election, Adams finished second in the electoral college to George Washington. In a scenario very different from today, there were no nomination contests. Instead each candidate ran individually. It was widely accepted that Washington would likely be the first president. Since Adams finished second, he was given the job of vice president. He was quite unhappy and felt unfulfilled in the role. An extremely intelligent man, Adams felt his talents were more effective elsewhere. He once stated that “my country has in its wisdom contrived for me the most insignificant office that ever the invention of man contrived or his imagination conceived.” Needless to say, Adams had bigger goals in mind. Those included possibly chief justice of the supreme court, or president. As vice president, he exerted most of his authority as leader of the senate. He was very active and cast many tie breaking votes.
When Washington retired in 1797, it was no surprise that Adams sought to replace him. This was the first election where two candidates from competing parties faced off against one another. Adams was the Federalist candidate, while Jefferson ran for the Democratic-Republicans. Many felt Adams wasn’t the best suited to the job. He did not have the popularity, charisma or talent that Washington had. However, he was the best bet to keep Jefferson out of the white house, and therefore his party supported him. Interestingly, in early elections, the candidates themselves would not campaign. Instead the party would do it for them. At the close of the election, Adams narrowly won and Jefferson became vice president (since he finished second). This is something that seems absurd today. Can you imagine in 2008 Barack Obama winning the presidency and John McCain becoming his vice president, since he finished second. But obviously, the relationship between presidents and vice presidents in that era was strikingly different.
As president, Adams largely kept his nose clean and continued the trend that Washington had begun. His only major slip up became later known as the X,Y,Z Affair. The incident had to do with three commissioners sent to France. The country continued to be occupied with conflict both internationally and domestically. Adams also struggled with how to handle conflict on the seas, as the United States was greatly unprepared for any naval conflicts at the beginning of his term.
In 1800 he moved into the newly constructed presidential mansion (known today as the White House). Unfortuantely for Adams, he quickly was forced to move out again. He lost the presidential election to Jefferson and the Democratic-Republicans. Adams and the Federalist campaign failed for a couple of reasons. First, Washington had died in 1799 and the party lost its most prominent and beloved figure. Adams was unable to replace Washington and become the definitive voice of the Federalist party. Second, Adams was not helped by certain people within the Federalist party who wished to see his demise. One such individual was Alexander Hamilton, who had his own presidential aspirations and wished to see Adams out of the way. And lastly, Adams himself, while an extremely intelligent man, was no politician. He was unable to connect with people and instil any kind of confidence in them. Adams was the first of many presidents whose brain was bigger than their talent.
Adams left Washington D.C. after his loss, not even staying long enough to see his successor’s inauguration. He retired to private life quite depressed, but enjoyed spending his last years with his wife Abigail. He and Jefferson later became good friends, after years of working together in joint and competing causes. He died on July 4, 1826. It was fifty years to the day after the declaration of independence was adopted. It is reported that Adams’ last words had something to do with Jefferson and the fact he was still living. But unbeknownst to Adams, Jefferson died on the exact same day only a few hours earlier. At the time of his death, Adams’ son John Quincy Adams was president.
John Adams is largely remembered more for his work as a founding father of the United States than as president. While the history books always list president first, his greatest accomplishments came as a diplomat and scholar. He has much to be proud of, as he Washington and Jefferson (as well as many more) laid the groundwork for the country we see today. I don’t think they had any idea that they were in the process of creating one of, if not the, most important and powerful countries in the world.