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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 travelled to Cambridge to begin his first year at college.  He proved to be an eager student and excelled in his subjects on religion, math, history, and classic 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 [English] government for the colonies.  Therefore, after completing his studies, Adams was intending to establish himself in Boston. 

Abigail Smith was nine years younger than her third cousin, John.  HHHH   aving grown up in separate parts 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 education.  Consequently, 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, nine years his junior, 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 the European motives, warriors generally participated in these battles to collect booty and capture opposing warriors to use as slaves.  

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.  Immediately following their wedding, at the Smith home in Weymouth, the newlywed couple rode five and a half miles on horseback to Braintree, to the farm Adams had inherited from his family.  Along with being one the of the preeminent scholars of his day, John and Abigail had all of the duties of running a farm.  In addition, in order to maintain his law practice, Adams traveled on horseback through winter storms or summer heat to meet with clients throughout the region.   

 Adams became involved in local leadership and politics and was soon noted for his astute legal mind.  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 the dumping of British tea into the Boston Harbor.  However, Parliament also seized this opportunity to increase their coffers by extending the Coercive Acts’ taxes to all thirteen colonies.   

The Continental Congress had made multiple appeals to the Parliament for fair taxation and equal representation for the colonists.  Even though it took days for delegates to ride from their respective homes to reach Philadelphia in order to participate in the lengthy deliberations regarding the future of their country.   But the delegates were resolute.  After having Parliament ignore their petitions, it became clear that it was time to declare the independence from Great Britain.

It is notable that while Congress was in session in Philadelphia, the delegates had to secure board and room for themselves, as well as stables for their horses, at their own expense.  At the same time, their wives were left to run the family farms, sew clothing for the family, raise their children, and see to their education. 

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, still in use in the 21st century, which included fundamental principles used in the writing of the Declaration of Independence and the future United States Constitution.  During his adult lifetime, Adams also served as U.S. Diplomat and Commissioner in 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.  Twenty-four years later, their son John Quincy Adams would also serve one term as the sixth U.S. President (1825-1829).

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.  John Adams’ public service, both home and abroad, had consumed much of his adult life.  In his periods of absence during the tumultuous years of the revolution and international diplomacy, Abigail Adams maintained their farm and saw to the education of their five children.   

Over the course of their remarkable lives and marriage, John and Abigail Adams exchanged over one thousand letters, most of which have been preserved and are online at the Massachusetts Historical Society.  Their letters gave first-hand accounts of their family life, colonial revolts against British tyranny, and events during the Revolutionary War.  During Adams’ diplomatic voyages to England and France, he wrote about violent mid-Atlantic storms which broke ship masts and killed numerous sailors.    

The letters exchanged between John and Abigail Adams chronicled the events leading to, and beyond, the Revolutionary War.  Abigail’s letters also revealed the courage, strength and patriotism of colonial women.  One can also see that she provided wise counsel to her husband throughout his many political challenges.  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 break with the English monarchy.  However, having succeeded in establishing the United States, some 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 Founders, 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 these last two titans of American history passed away on July 4, 1826, the Fiftieth Anniversary of the adoption of the Declaration of Independence.  Daniel Webster gave the eulogy for his friend, John Adams.  His sentiments applied to all of the Founding Fathers saying they were, “Striking and extraordinary...” and “gifts from Providence to the United States…”

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