Knowing the Presidents: John Adams

John Adams

Second president, 1797-1801

Personal Information

John Adams was many things: lawyer, diplomat, member of the Continental Congress, and one of the original signers of the Declaration of Independence.

Adams was born in Braintree, Massachusetts, in 1735. He proposed to Abigail Smith in 1762 and they married two years later. The couple had six children.

On November 6, 1758, Adams was sworn-in as a lawyer. Returning to Braintree, he opened his own practice.  Stemming from a poor performance in his very first case, the practice, in its first year (1759-1760), suffered. However, with training and time, John was able to refine his skills.

As a member of the Federalist Party, Adams decided to run for the presidency. He lost and became Vice-president to George Washington during both terms (1789-1792) (1793-1796). 

In 1796, he decided to run yet again for the presidency. He won the election and assumed the presidency at the age of 61.


In 1796, The United States, with a population of about 4.6 million, was comprised of sixteen states in the Union.

When George Washington was unwilling to serve a third term, Adams decided to run yet again for the presidency as the Federalist Party nominee—against Thomas Jefferson of the Republican Party.

The election of 1796 was the first of its kind. It launched the multi-party system, where people could vote for their party of choice.

Receiving seventy-one electoral votes, only three more votes than his opponent, Adams won the election and assumed the presidency at the age of 61.

The election of 1796 was the only one in which the elected president (Adams) and vice president (Jefferson) came from different parties.

Election debates focused on foreign policy—especially how closely to align with Great Britain and France; developing a strong central bank and monetary system; the role and size of the federal government; how to regulate land speculators and private investors; and the civil rights of immigrants.


John Adams was in the shadow of George Washington, and he knew it. He served one term as president.

The true test of his presidency came in the aftermath of the Jay Treaty, which Washington had signed. France felt slighted by the Jay Treaty, believing that it favored Great Britain. In response, France cut ties with America (diplomatic and trade).

Related to the Jay Treaty, the XYZ Affair involved confrontations with France in 1797 and 1798 which became known the “Quasi- War.” Much of Adams’ presidency was dedicated to dealing with international issues—but he was successful and ultimately avoided war with the Treaty of Montefontaine in 1800.

During the election of 1796, the Federalists quickly labeled Adams as a Francophile, giving him the perhaps unearned reputation of being more concerned with the international interests than with domestic affairs.

Adams at odds with his own Federalist Party and was often undermined by his own cabinet member, Alexander Hamilton. Adams’ characteristic aloofness and refusal to enter directly into political conflict probably cost him his reelection in 1800.

Major Acts

John Adams signed the unpopular Alien & Sedition Acts of 1798. These four pieces of legislation (Naturalization Act, Alien Friends Act of 1798, Alien Enemy Act of 1798, and Sedition Act of 1798)  made it harder for immigrants to become citizens as they increased residency from 5 to 14 years, and allowed those considered ‘dangerous’ to be imprisoned or deported from the US.

Adams voided former financial loans and rescinded political treaties negotiated with the French. Nevertheless, he managed to avoid a retaliatory war with France through diplomacy.

Adams was the first president to take up residence in the President’s House (the original name of the White House). In the last year of his term, Adams would move to Washington on November 1st, 1800, and lived there for about five months.


John Adams supported building a strong defense system and remains referred to as the “Father of the American Navy.”

Because Adams believed in the elite idea of Republicanism and didn’t trust public opinion, he was probably one of the most disliked presidents.

Adams was left to deal with a major international crisis of the nation related to relations with France; his best legacy is the fact that he avoided war with France.