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Communicating America’s Founding Principles

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JOHN AND ABIGAIL ADAMS: American Revolution Preserved in Letters

The beautiful countryside surrounding the Adams’ farmhouse in Braintree, Massachusetts, held endless fascination for John during his youth.  In his later journals, he wrote: “I spent my time as idle Children do in making and sailing boats and Ships upon the Ponds and Brooks, in making and flying Kites, in driving hoops, playing marbles, playing Quoits, Wrestling, Swimming, Skating, and above all, in shooting, to which Diversion I was addicted.”  In fact, he would bring his gun to school, so he could hunt game on his way home.

John’s great-great grandparents, and their nine children, arrived in Massachusetts in 1638.  They were among the continuing migration of English Puritans fleeing the harsh tyranny of the Church of England in order to protect their religious freedoms.  Like their Mayflower predecessors in 1620, they only had use of the few tools and personal items they managed to bring to the new world to establish their farming communities.  The Adams family had worked the rocky but rich farmland of Braintree for a century prior to John’s birth on October 30, 1735.  Along with being a farmer and a cobbler, John’s father was a deacon in their local church.    

While most colonists relied on the principles and life lessons found in their Bibles, it was also the primary source from which they taught their children to read.  John’s father saw how quickly his son learned his lessons and believed he should be formally educated.  Overriding young John’s protests, such as, “I like farming very well, Sir,” the senior John Adams made the decision that his son would attend religious studies at the new Harvard College.

In the early 1630s, the school began as a “frame house and a college yard.”  In 1639, the first college in the colonies was named Harvard College after John Harvard bequeathed half of his estate to the college, along with his extensive library of theological and classical literature which he had brought from England.      

At age 15, John traveled to Cambridge, Massachusetts to begin his first year of college.  He proved to be an eager student and excelled in religion, math, history, and classical literature.  Outside the classroom, Adams was known to be friendly and communicative, although most of his time was spent reading.  As he studied the governments of great civilizations, from ancient Greece to contemporary England, his interests turned to law and politics.  At age 20, he wrote to a friend: “Be not surprised that I am turned politician.”  The nearby city of Boston was the major center for trade, it was also the prominent seat of the English governance of the colonies.  Therefore, after completing his studies, Adams was intending to establish a law practice in Boston.      

Abigail Smith was born in 1744 and was nine years younger than her third cousin, John Adams.  HHHH   aving grown up in separate parts of Massachusetts, they had not had much contact with one another.  While John was receiving a formal education, 15-year-old Abigail was being homeschooled in the traditions passed down through the generations by her Pilgrim ancestors.  However, she was fortunate to have been the daughter of Reverend William and Elizabeth Quincy Smith, who like other Quakers, prized education and instilled in their children a love of reading.  While Abigail’s mother felt that young women needed to learn homemaking skills, Abigail regretted not being able to attend schools of higher learning.  Intent on educating herself, she sought access to her father’s and uncle’s libraries.  When she and her cousin John were reintroduced at a social event held by Abigail’s parents at their home in Weymouth, the Harvard law student was surprised and charmed when he discovered that he and Abigail shared interests in classic literature, the law, and politics.               

In 1755, as Adams was preparing to graduate from college, it became clear that the French and English governments’ competition for dominance of North America was escalating.  A year later, their disputes over the strategic region of the Ohio River territory turned into the French and Indian War, so named because the French sought support from their native Canadian trading partners.  However, it was known that the various native tribes in North America were often in fierce competition with each another.  Therefore, when colonial militiamen were enlisted by the British Army for the upcoming confrontation with the French, they also encouraged their native trading partners to join them.  Regardless of European motives, warriors generally participated in these battles to collect booty, take prized scalps, and enslave surviving enemy warriors.   

After graduation, Adams began practicing law in Boston.  However, it took another four years before he felt his practice was sufficiently established so that he and Abigail could marry. They were married at the Smith home in Weymouth and immediately following their wedding the newlywed couple rode five and a half miles on horseback to the Braintree farm Adams had inherited from his family.  Along with John being one of the preeminent scholars of his day, he and Abigail had all of the duties of running a farm.  In order to maintain his law practice, however, Adams had to ride on horseback, through winter storms or summer heat, to meet with clients throughout the region.

Abigail Adams gave birth to six children, four of whom lived to be adults.   Education, moral and civic, was of the highest importance in the Adams household.  In the case of their ten-year-old son, John Quincy, his father brought him to France on one of his diplomatic missions.  While there, the senior Adams made arrangements for his son to receive extensive training in European schools.  By the time young John returned to enroll in Harvard University, he was already fluent in seven languages.  Like his father, he also studied law and opened his law practice in Boston.  John Quincy would go on to hold diplomatic positions in Europe, serve as Secretary of State for President James Madison, and become the sixth President of the United States.  Prior to his death in 1818, John Quincy served in the U.S. Senate alongside the future sixteenth President, Abraham Lincoln.       

From the beginning of John and Abigail’s married life, Adams was not only noted for his astute legal mind but also became known for his political views and leadership abilities.  At age 35, he was elected to represent Massachusetts as one of the fifty-six colonial delegates to attend the First Continental Congress, which met in Philadelphia at Carpenter’s Hall on September 5, 1774.

The focus of the Congress was to address Parliament’s issuance of a new set of taxes, called the Coercive Acts, which were intended to punish the people of Massachusetts for dumping British tea into the Boston Harbor, better known as the Boston Tea Party of 1773.  However, Parliament also seized this opportunity to increase their coffers by extending the Coercive Acts’ taxation to all thirteen colonies.   

Each time Congress met in Philadelphia, it took days for the representatives to travel on horseback from their respective homes in order to participate in the lengthy deliberations regarding the future of their country.  While in Philadelphia, the unpaid delegates needed to secure their own board and room, as well as stables for their horses.  During these prolonged periods away from home, the delegates’ wives were left to run the family farms, sew clothing for the family, raise their children, and see to their education. 

After Parliament routinely ignored their petitions, it became clear that it was time to declare their independence from Great Britain.

John Adams was as brilliant in the courtroom as he was in the chambers of government.  Ever the Patriot for the cause of freedom, he drafted the Massachusetts State Constitution, which is still in use in the 21st century.  The principles Adams laid out in his constitution became integral in the writing of the future United States Constitution and Bill of Rights.  During his adult lifetime, Adams also served as U.S. Diplomat and Commissioner to France, Great Britain, and the Netherlands.   In 1783, Adams and Benjamin Franklin negotiated the Treaty of Paris, which ended the Revolutionary War with England and introduced the United States of America as a sovereign nation.  Yet there was still much deliberation among the colonies before the U.S. Constitution could be written and ratified into law, which took place on May 25, 1787.

John Adams served as Vice President during George Washington’s two terms as U.S. President (1789-1797).  After Washington left office, Adams and Thomas Jefferson ran a contentious campaign against each other to follow as the second U.S. President.  Adams won the election and served one term as President (1797-1801), and he and Abigail Adams were the first occupants of the newly completed White House. 

After losing his second presidential campaign to Thomas Jefferson, John, and Abigail Adams retired from public life to spend the next eighteen years living on their Braintree farm.  Their relationship was one of love, friendship, and mutual respect.     

Over the course of their remarkable lives and marriage, John and Abigail Adams exchanged over one thousand letters.  Their faithful correspondence was all the more remarkable when one realizes their letters had to be delivered by horseback couriers between Massachusetts and Philadelphia, and by trans-Atlantic ships during his years of Adams’ diplomatic service in England, France, and the Netherlands.  Most of their preserved letters are available online at the Massachusetts Historical Society and the National Archives.  On his many voyages to Europe, he wrote about violent mid-Atlantic storms which broke ship masts and killed numerous sailors.  Consequently, when Abigail agreed to join her husband in England, and travel across the North Atlantic Sea, unaccompanied by her husband, is evidence of her determination.       

Their letters chronicled the events leading to, and beyond, the Revolutionary War.  Abigail’s letters also revealed colonial women's courage, strength, and patriotism.  One can also see that she provided wise counsel to her husband throughout the many political challenges of their times.  Abigail passed away on October 28, 1818, preceding her husband’s death by eight years. 

Included in the many extraordinary events in the early days of this country’s history was the rekindling of friendship between two of the larger-than-life American Patriots, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson.  The Founders spent the previous decade devoting themselves to forging a separation from the English monarchy.  However, having succeeded in establishing the United States, even some of the founders found they had differing views on how to actually run this new form of government.  Such was the case when tensions between Adams and Jefferson mounted when they competed with each other during their two presidential campaigns.  Adams won the election and became the second U.S. President (1707-1801).  However, four years later when he ran for reelection, Adams was defeated by Jefferson, making Jefferson the third and fourth U.S. President (1801-1808).

Both men had retired, John and Abigail Adams to their farm in Braintree, and Thomas Jefferson to his home at Monticello.  In recognition of their past friendship and their unique positions as the last surviving members of the original Founding Fathers, Adams wrote a letter to Jefferson on New Year’s Eve of 1812.  Jefferson immediately responded to Adams, fondly recalling when they were fellow laborers in the cause for freedom.  Thus, began a fourteen-year rekindling of friendship between these two Patriots and early U.S. Presidents.

At age 90, John Adams was close to dying when he said triumphantly, “Thomas Jefferson still survives.”  However, it was later recorded that Jefferson, age 83, had passed away five hours before his friend John.  It is remarkable that the last two titans of American history passed away on July 4, 1826, the Fiftieth Anniversary of the adoption of the Declaration of Independence.  When Daniel Webster gave the eulogy to his friend, John Adams, he said that he, and his fellow Founding Fathers, were “Gifts from Providence to the United States.”

David McCullough, John Adams (Simon & Shuster, 2001)