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Communicating America’s Founding Principles

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John and Abigail Adams: The American Revolutionary Years 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 the 1638 migration of Pilgrims fleeing the harsh tyranny of the Church of England. The Adams family had worked the rocky 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.

Aware of his son’s above-average intelligence, and overriding John’s protest that, “I like farming very well, Sir,” the senior John Adams determined that his son would attend religious studies at Harvard College in Cambridge, Massachusetts. This institute of higher learning was under church sponsorship and was the first such school in the colonies. It began as a “frame house and a college yard.” However, the school took on prominence and a new name in 1639, when Puritan Minister John Harvard bequeathed half of his estate to the college, along with his extensive library of theological and classical literature which he brought from England.

At age 15, John enrolled at Harvard. There he soon exhibited a love for learning about religion, math, history, and classic literature. Outside the classroom, Adams was known to be friendly and communicative, although he cloistered himself away from schoolmates, preferring books as his companions. 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.”

In the colonies of the 1600s, early settlers needed to survive on their faith and their ability to adapt under harsh conditions using the few material goods they managed to bring from England.  Even though, by the early 1700s, cities like Philadelphia, New York and Boston had begun to flourish, relatively few people had the time or opportunity to pursue a formal education. While most colonists owned Bibles, access to classic literature and works of political philosophy was limited and expensive.

John Adams was nine years older than his third cousin, Abigail Smith.  Having grown up in different Massachusetts’ towns, they didn’t have much contact each other. While John was receiving a formal education, 15-year-old Abigail was 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 prized education and instilled in their children a love of reading. She and John were reintroduced when he attended a social event in her parents’ home in Weymouth. The 24-year-old Harvard law student was surprised and charmed when he and Abigail discovered their shared interests in classic literature, 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. By 1756, their disputes over the strategically important Ohio River Valley turned into open combat with the British.  The conflict was called the French and Indian War, so named because the French had strong support from their Canadian native trading partners. In order to gain control of the valuable Ohio territory, the British enlisted colonial troops from Virginia who, along with local native warriors, marched north to join in the British Army's combat.  Interestingly, during this war, 23-year-old Virginian, George Washington, was a British Lt. Colonel. Within ten years, Washington became the Commander-in-Chief of the American Revolutionary Army, and later famously defeated the British in the war for Colonial independence.

By age 24, Adams had begun practicing law in Boston. However, it took another four years before Adams felt his practice was well enough established so that he and Abigail could marry. Immediately after their wedding ceremony at the Smith home, the newlywed couple rode five and a half miles on horseback to Adams' inherited farm in Braintree, Massachusetts.  Adams’ work as a country lawyer caused him to travel throughout the region to meet with clients. Riding on horseback, through summer heat and winter storms, was the only real means of transportation, as there were few established roads. Once he was elected as one of fifty-six delegate to the First Continental Congress, it took days for Adams and other delegates to ride back and forth to Philadelphia to participate in lengthy deliberations about the future of their country and the need to declare independence from Britain.   

Between his law practice, his appointments to local and congressional duties, and later ambassadorships, caused extensive periods of separations for John and Abigail Adams.  There are over one thousand of their personal letters, which are preserved in the U.S. Library of Congress, that not only chronical the Adams' devotion to each other and their five children but, also serve as reliable historic documents of the colony's struggle for freedom from a tyrannical government.  They were eyewitnesses to revolution, war, international diplomacy, the birth of a new nation, and a presidency.  

Adams was brilliant in the courtroom as well as in the chambers of government. Ever the Patriot for the cause of freedom, he drafted the Massachusetts State Constitution, which served as the primary blueprint for the future U.S. 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 formally ended the Revolutionary War. The United States of America became a sovereign nation, and its Constitution was ratified 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 be the second U.S. President. Adams won the election and served one term as President (1797-1801).  He and the First Lady 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 bid for a second presidential term to Thomas Jefferson, John and Abigail Adams retired from public life and spent the next eighteen years living on their Braintree farm. Their relationship was one of love, friendship, and mutual respect. John Adams’ public service, both at home and abroad, had consumed much of his adult life. Along with maintaining a farm and raising a large family during the tumultuous years leading up to, and beyond, the Revolutionary War, it's clear from their correspondence that Abigail Adams’ service to her country included providing wise counsel to her husband’s political challenges throughout his career. Her passing, on October 28, 1818, preceded her husband’s death by eight years.

One of the remarkable events involving two of the larger-than-life Patriots in America’s struggle to be a free nation came when John Adams and Thomas Jefferson began corresponding after years of having a strained relationship. Aware that they were the only living Founding Fathers, Adams wrote to Jefferson on New Year’s Day of 1812, wishing him many happy years to come. Jefferson responded by saying he fondly recalled when they were fellow laborers in the same cause. Thus, began a fourteen-year rekindling of friendship between these two early U.S. Presidents, which came to a natural close upon their passing within hours of each other on July 4, 1812, the Fiftieth Anniversary of the adoption of the Declaration of Independence.