Women of Washington

Communicating America’s Founding Principles

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Young John Adams (Article 6)

By Judy Leithe

The beautiful countryside surrounding the Adams’ farmhouse, in Braintree, Massachusetts, held endless fascination for John Adams 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, 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, “Deacon” John, was a leader in their local church. He was aware of his son’s above-average intelligence and determined that John would attend religious studies at Harvard College in Boston. However, young John liked the prospect of remaining in Braintree, and informed his father: “I like farming very well, Sir.”

Nevertheless, at age 15, he was enrolled at Harvard, where 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 twenty, he wrote to a cousin: “Be not surprised that I am turned politician.”

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 heating up. By 1756, disputes over the strategically important Ohio River Valley turned into The French and Indian War. (The war was between French and English armies, but so named because the French had strong support from their Canadian native trading partners.) Interestingly, twenty-three-year-old George Washington wore the British uniform during this war, but would later famously defeat the British in the war for American independence.

At twenty-six, Adams had already begun practicing law in Boston. He knew Abigail Smith from childhood, as they were third cousins. Meeting again at a social gathering, Adams and seventeen-year-old Abigail found they had shared interests in classic literature, law, and politics. They also began a courtship which culminated in an enduring marriage, which only deepened throughout the tumultuous years of the Revolutionary War, and long periods of separation due to Adams’ years of diplomatic service to America’s founding.

Adams was brilliant in the courtroom as well as in the chambers of government. Like his fellow delegates to the Continental Congress, he travelled on horseback for days to meet in Philadelphia where they debated the future of their country. Ever the Patriot for the cause of freedom, he drafted Massachusetts’ 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. He and Benjamin Franklin negotiated the Treaty of Paris (1783) which ended the Revolutionary War with England, thus declaring the United States of America a sovereign nation.J

John Adams served as Vice President during George Washington’s two terms as U.S. President. He and Thomas Jefferson campaigned against each other to be the second U.S. President, with Adams winning the election. He and First Lady Abigail Adams were the first occupants of the newly completed White House in 1797. Their son, John Quincy Adams, served as Massachusetts’ Secretary of State; was elected as the sixth U.S. President; and later won seats as Massachusetts’ State Senator, and Congressman.